KABUL — Traveling at their own expense, Afghan parliamentarians held preliminary peace talks over the weekend with members of an insurgent faction that's trying to overthrow the government, participants said Thursday.
"Security is getting worse and worse. The government is getting worse and worse. Corruption is getting worse and worse," said Sayed Jamal Fakori Beheshti, a member of parliament from Bamiyan province, explaining the decision by 10 members of parliament to participate in the talks Saturday and Sunday in the Maldive Islands in the Indian Ocean.
However, it isn't clear how many insurgent groups feel some incentive to compromise with the government of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, and how many think they can outlast the embattled Karzai and wait for U.S. troops to begin withdrawing next year, as President Barack Obama reiterated they will do in his State of the Union speech Wednesday night.
The discussions in the Maldives included four members of Pakistan-based Hezb-i-Islami — one of the smaller but oldest insurgent groups, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a former U.S. ally against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan who's been fighting one government or another in Kabul since 1979 — and a number of scholars and clerics with close ties to the Taliban.
Hekmatyar's son, Feroz, his son-in-law Jarir, Maulavi Momine, a cleric, and an Islamabad university professor named Wazin all attended the two-day meeting, Beheshti told McClatchy. None represented Hekmatyar as such, but all were in a position to receive and pass messages, he said.
The disclosure came as Britain held a 70-nation conference Thursday on Afghanistan at which major powers agreed to back Karzai's plan to woo low- and mid-level Taliban fighters and pursue "reconciliation" with high-level Taliban leaders who agree to abandon their insurgency.
Beheshti said the members of parliament — who traveled to the Maldives from every region of Afghanistan and included a member of the Jamiat, a leading party in what's often called the northern alliance, which fought the Taliban — agreed with the 13 other participants to a six-point agenda that could form the basis for negotiations if all the respective leaders were to agree.
"The purpose of the meeting was to open the way for a bigger Afghan conference in the future by inviting national players and political parties," he said.
It called for all parties to the conflict to:
- Make a serious attempt to "stop the war and instability and bring security to the country."
- Support a forthcoming parliamentary election.
- Discuss the future of the foreign troop presence.
- Discuss peace among Hezb-i-Islami, the Taliban and their long-standing rival, the Jamiat.
- Request the help of the world community and neighboring countries to help achieve peace.
- Help end production and trade in opium poppy.
They didn't discuss the Afghan government's three conditions for "reconciliation" with the insurgent forces: to lay down their arms, break all ties with al Qaida and accept the Afghan Constitution.
"This is for a future conversation. There wasn't any discussion at this meeting," said Haji Ubaidullah Achakzai, 32, a member of parliament from Spin Boldak, in the south of Taliban-dominated Kandahar province, who also attended.
Achakzai said it was time that Afghans traded their guns for pens and paper and that Hekmatyar's supporters "definitely" shared his perspective.
"That's why they came," he said. "I wish this meeting had been held eight years ago."
It wasn't clear whether the bottom-up initiative, which still lacks a formal name or an elected chairman, would gain the endorsement of the Afghan government, the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami, but the conferees divided into groups to lobby for support from the respective parties.
If they get it, participants in the initiative then will seek the backing of the United States and other foreign powers that have deployed troops and invested in reconstruction in Afghanistan.
This was the second time in less than a month that Afghanistan's long-dormant parliament has asserted its independence after the fraud-tainted August presidential elections, in which Karzai won a second five-year term. Earlier this month, parliament rejected 17 of the president's 24 Cabinet nominees, and later rejected 10 of the remaining 17.
Beheshti said the parliamentary participants in the meeting paid the $3,500 to fly and stay in the Maldives out of pocket in order to assure their independence. They didn't clear their plans with the Karzai government, but Al Jazeera television, which broke the story Wednesday, quoted the Afghan finance minister as saying that the government was aware of the talks.
The Maldives meeting was the third in a series of informal exchanges with Hezb-i-Islami and pro-Taliban Afghans over the past year, and Beheshti, who's attended all three, said he'd detected a change of mood among Hekmatyar and Taliban supporters.
"The atmosphere was good in this third conference," he said. Hekmatyar's allies and the pro-Taliban attendees previously had "lots of problems" in the informal discussions with respecting the Afghan Constitution — in particular its guarantees of women's rights — and accepting the presence of U.S. and other foreign troops.
However, Obama's decision to send at least 30,000 more troops and launch a government-wide drive to improve the Afghan economy and governance has made a difference. "It's not without effect," Beheshti said.
"They have pressure on them," he said of the Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami. "That's good."
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