Afghan jirga to call for peace with Taliban

US supports Afghan tribal elders’ talks to Taliban

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Hundreds of Afghan tribal elders and notables were set to make a formal call for peace with the Taliban on Friday, the final day of a traditional assembly that they said was a last chance to end a nine-year war.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the "peace jirga" to win national support for a peace plan consisting of offering an amnesty, cash and job incentives to Taliban foot soldiers while arranging asylum for top figures in a second country.

The participants, chosen to reflect Afghan tribes, politics and geography, had reached a broad consensus that there was no alternative to seeking peace with the Taliban since neither U.S.-led NATO forces nor the weak Afghan army could guarantee security to Afghans, organizers of the jirga said.

"The committees have finished their discussions and hopefully will be unified and later in the day a resolution on it will be announced for approval," Gul Agha Ahmadi, a spokesman for the jirga, said.

"If we fail to open a window for peace through this jirga we will never be able to open the gate for peace in the future," said Qiamuddin Kashaf, acting head of the Ulema Council of Afghanistan and a deputy chairman of the jirga.

"The delegates are determined to make this jirga a success, this is our common voice that we won't leave here failed," he told reporters Thursday.

The aim of the jirga is to formulate a plan for President Karzai to approach militant leaders, including who and how, for negotiations that could lead to an end to the near nine-year conflict.

Karzai referred in his opening speech to his "Taliban brothers" and implored them to stop destroying their homeland.

The jirga was a key part of his re-election platform last year, although Karzai has said that he will not talk to Taliban leaders who are affiliated with Al-Qaeda or who do not renounce violence.

If we fail to open a window for peace through this jirga we will never be able to open the gate for peace in the future

Qiamuddin Kashaf, acting head of the Ulema Council of Afghanistan

Western Support

His Western backers, particularly the United States and NATO, have expressed support for the jirga as a milestone in Afghanistan's political maturity after the overthrow of the Taliban regime in a 2001 U.S.-led invasion.

The escalating insurgency is concentrated in the southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar, where international forces are building up with the aim of squeezing the militants into neutrality by year-end.

The Taliban have said they will not open negotiations until all foreign forces leave Afghanistan.

There are 130,000 troops under U.S. and NATO command leading the battle against the insurgents, with another 20,2D0 due to be deployed by August, most to Kandahar, main theatre of operations.

The Taliban were not invited to the jirga though organizers said they would not be refused if they did turn up.

But the insurgents launched an attack on the opening session of the jirga on Wednesday, with a suicide squad firing rockets near the jirga tent until two of them were shot dead and one taken into custody, authorities said.

The delegates spent Thursday broken into 28 groups discussing whom Karzai should approach for peace talks and how.

Each group is set to present its proposals Friday, organisers said, after which they will be consolidated into a declaration representing a consensus.

Diplomats have said that such a broadly-supported agreement would add legitimacy to Karzai's leadership, as his popularity with the Afghan public is low and his government is regarded as corrupt and inept.

The U.N. special representative to Afghanistan, Staffan de Mistura, told the BBC that "the only solution is a political one" and that the "rules of the game" for reaching peace "will come from the peace jirga."

"This is the year to make it or break it," he said.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said Thursday Washington wants to be kept "fully informed" about Karzai's efforts to reintegrate the Taliban.

"There is no military solution to most conflicts. This is not unique in that regard," Clinton told reporters

"There have to be political decisions that go along with military actions. And we have told President Karzai most recently on his visit that we understand that. And we support his efforts," she said.

Clinton recalled the U.S. position, which is cautiously favorable to reintegrating Taliban fighters who renounce Al-Qaeda, abandon violence, and commit to live by the laws of Afghanistan.

"We've been very clear in our approach that we think that there is basis for reintegrating Taliban fighters back into society," she said.

But she added: "This is painstaking work to try to identify those with whom there may be the opportunity for some political reconciliation, and others for whom there is no prospect."

President Barack Obama has said he wants to start drawing down troops from mid-2011, while the new British government is keen to get out "as soon as possible."

There have to be political decisions that go along with military actions. And we have told President Karzai most recently on his visit that we understand that. And we support his efforts

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton