Afghan “Peace Convoy” tries to coax Taliban rebels

KABUL – In a new effort to end the growing Taliban insurgency, a council of Afghan political and tribal leaders hopes to hold talks with elements of the Islamic group aimed at including them in the government.

The Taliban movement, led by the reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar, has repeatedly turned down peace offers by President Hamid Karzai, saying talks can be held only when foreign troops leave the country.

Made up of provincial governors, tribal chiefs and lawmakers representing four eastern provinces, the council, which calls itself the “Peace Convoy”, met with Karzai on Sunday and gained his approval for its peace quest, an official involved in the drive said on Monday.

The council was behind a meeting last year with tribal chiefs from border areas of neighboring Pakistan and the two nations’ leaders to discuss cooperation in fighting al Qaeda and Taliban insurgents operating in both countries.

That led to reduction of border infiltration by the Islamic militants and improvement of the uneasy ties between the two countries’ leaders.

In its new effort, the council initially will hold talks with local residents and Taliban field commanders in eastern and southern areas, where the al Qaeda-backed insurgents are most active.

More than 10,000 people, including hundreds of foreign troops, have been killed by violence in the past two years, largely in regions bordering Pakistan. It has been the bloodiest period since U.S.-led troops toppled the Taliban government in 2001.

“The aim (of the council) is national unity and holding talks with those Afghani Taliban who are upset with government,” said Noor Agha Zwak, spokesman for the governor of the strategic eastern province of Nangahar, Gul Agha Sherzai. Sherzai is leading the effort.

“The talks will be with those Taliban who have no links with al Qaeda and (will aim) to include them in the government,” the spokesman said.

He said the council would not be reaching out to Taliban leaders such as Omar and other guerrilla figures like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who runs a separate front.

Asked if the council’s effort to end the bloodshed could succeed without talking to such top insurgent leaders, Zwak said: “We believe so for if we can persuade the fighters (to try) reconciliation and give them a role in the government, then the leaders will have not much means to keep up the fight.”

Taliban officials could not be contacted immediately for comment, but the movement’s purported spokesmen in the past have ruled out talks unless foreign troops led by NATO and the U.S. military pull out of Afghanistan.

Some foreign commanders say the Afghan battle cannot be won militarily and some of the insurgents need to be brought into the political mainstream.

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