Kabul: Delegates to an Afghan peace conference voiced strong support on Friday for unconditional negotiations between their government and the Taliban to try to end years of war.
Presenting the reports of working groups to 1,500 representatives from a cross-section of Afghan society, delegates one after another told the conference that talking with the insurgents was the best hope to end the violence.
But details of how to handle reconciliation with the Taliban were likely to be couched only in general terms, because of a diversity of opinion on a range of issues. The Taliban have dismissed the gathering as a "phony reconciliation process" and insist they will not negotiate until all foreign troops leave Afghanistan — a condition President Hamid Karzai could not accept.
"We should begin negotiations with all the opposition groups, without any conditions," delegate Amanullah Usmanzai said.
His comments reflected a common theme from the working groups` spokespeople. Many said a commission should be formed to further develop and implement the findings of the conference, known as a peace jirga. A final communiqué will be signed off later Friday.
Many representatives called for senior Taliban leaders to be removed from a UN blacklist that bans international travel and freezes their assets. Some said Afghan detainees held at US military prisons in Afghanistan and Cuba should be released if there is no evidence against them.
With violence running at record levels, Karzai wants to offer rank-and-file insurgents amnesties and other incentives to lay down their arms, and to hold talks with top Taliban leaders if they renounce al Qaeda and vow to uphold the Constitution.
While the goal of negotiations may be a long way off, winning the backing of the conference would politically bolster Karzai, who is increasingly unpopular because of corruption in his government and his fraud-marred re-election last year.
Washington supports overtures to lower-rung insurgents, but is sceptical of a major political initiative with Taliban leaders until militant forces are weakened on the battlefield. US-led NATO troops are preparing a big offensive this summer in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province that the Obama administration hopes can help turn the war around.
In two days of talks, the 1,500 provincial, religious, tribal and other leaders argued over whether Taliban`s top leadership should be welcomed to the negotiating table, and whether US bounties on the heads of Taliban leaders should be lifted. Some said the three-day jirga has been too short to achieve a meaningful outcome.
Delegate Noorzia Charkhi said her group agreed that talks should go ahead with the Taliban, but not if members had committed criminal acts. "We can negotiate anywhere that is acceptable to them," she said. "We can talk in Saudi Arabia or Turkey or inside Afghanistan."
The jirga also served as a platform to air grievances.
Several delegates said the jirga should demand that NATO forces in Afghanistan stop raiding innocent people`s houses and prevent airstrikes that kill civilians — a sore point for Afghans that US commanders say is their top priority.
Delegate Obeidullah Obaid said the jirga should set a deadline for foreign troops to leave Afghan cities and withdraw to border areas.
Even if Karzai wins broad support of jirga delegates for his peace plans, it would only be a tentative first step toward negotiating an end to the nearly nine-year conflict in Afghanistan, where violence shows no sign of easing despite a surge in US forces.