Sunday, March 15, 2009

Taliban leader Mullah Omar agrees to peace meeting

Christina Lamb | March 16

TALIBAN leader Mullah Omar has given his approval for talks aimed at ending the war in Afghanistan and has allowed his representatives to attend Saudi-sponsored peace negotiations.

"Mullah Omar has given the green light to talks," said one of the mediators, Abdullah Anas, a former friend of Osama bin Laden who used to fight in Afghanistan but now lives in London.

A source negotiating for the Afghan Government confirmed: "It's extremely sensitive but we have been in contact both with Mullah Omar's direct representatives and commanders from the front line."

The breakthrough emerged after President Barack Obama admitted that US-led forces were not winning the war in Afghanistan and called for negotiations with "moderate Taliban".

"A big, big step has happened," Mr Anas said yesterday. "For the first time, there is a language of ... peace on both sides."

His words were echoed by the brother of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, who has been attending talks on his behalf. "I have been meeting with Taliban for the last five days and I can tell you Obama's words have created enormous optimism," Qayum Karzai said. "There is no other way left but talks. All sides know more fighting is not the way."

But the Pentagon said last week it would not support a reconciliation effort with Mullah Omar. Geoff Morrell, the Pentagon press secretary, said such an initiative would ultimately be up to the Afghan Government, but he did not believe "anybody in this building would support the notion of reconciling with people with that kind of blood on their hands".

The Taliban leader sheltered al-Qa'ida and was ousted from power in Afghanistan in a US-led campaign in 2001.

US Defence Secretary Robert Gates also appeared to draw limits around a reconciliation process, when he said that "at a minimum" Washington must prevent Taliban insurgents from returning to power in Kabul.

Mr Obama suggested last week the US would consider talks with moderate elements of the Taliban, saying there might be opportunities in Afghanistan comparable with those exploited among Sunni tribes in Iraq, whom US forces have managed to recruit away from more radical al-Qa'ida fighters.

Mr Morrell said there was no inconsistency between Mr Gates and either Mr Obama or US Vice-President Joe Biden, who said in Brussels last week that reaching out to Taliban moderates was "worth exploring".

"We are fully supportive of any efforts undertaken by the Government of Afghanistan to try to reconcile with members of the Taliban who are willing to accept the democratic will of the people of Afghanistan, which has elected this Government," Mr Morrell said.

As Britain and the US have increased troop numbers in the past two years, security has worsened, leading many to doubt the wisdom of sending in more.

Although observers question why the Taliban would agree to talks when they appear to have the upper hand in the conflict, Mr Anas said its leaders knew they could not retake power without a bloodbath.

"Taliban are in a strong position now but that doesn't mean they can control the state," he said. "They are well aware that it's a different situation to 1996 when they swept to power because Afghans saw them as bringing peace."

Britain is also backing talks with the Taliban that could lead to their inclusion in the Afghan Government and is pushing for a "reconciliation tsar" to co-ordinate efforts. "Economic development and a workable reconciliation strategy are as crucial as boots on the ground when it comes to dismantling the insurgency," British Foreign Secretary David Miliband said.

The US at the weekend downplayed the latest audio recording by al-Qa'ida leader bin Laden, saying there was nothing new about the tape.

In the recording, broadcast by Al-Jazeera television, bin Laden accused moderate Arab leaders of being "complicit" with Israel and the West against Muslims.

Bin Laden called Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip a "holocaust" and lashed out at Arab governments that he said failed to stop the bloodshed.

Source: The Australian

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