KABUL, Afghanistan — Choking back tears and showing signs of stress, Afghan President Hamid Karzai made an emotional appeal for unity Tuesday before unveiling a peacemaking commission that includes longtime Taliban rivals, former warlords and suspected drug barons.
Human rights activists immediately denounced the 70-member group, which also includes a handful of former Taliban officials, as unreliable negotiators.
"Many of these men are unlikely peacemakers," said Rachel Reid, an analyst for Human Rights Watch. "There are too many names here that Afghans will associate with war crimes, warlordism and corruption."
Karzai's new peace push comes as the U.S.-led international military coalition is stepping up its campaign to cripple the Taliban insurgency in its southern Afghanistan strongholds.
In recent weeks, Karzai has been buffeted by problems and under growing strains.
- Federal officials in the U.S. reportedly are investigating his brother Mahmoud's business dealings.
- Afghanistan's recent parliamentary election was marred by violence and fraud.
- The Taliban-led insurgency remains a formidable force throughout the country.
>li> The latest book by Washington Post associate editor Bob Woodward reports that Western leaders suspect that Karzai suffers from manic depression.
The stress was evident Tuesday when Karzai broke down as he discussed the future for his 4-year-old son, Mirwais, during a nationally televised address meant to promote literacy.
In his speech, Karzai said he was afraid that his son would be forced to live in exile, as he was forced to do during the Taliban era.
"I don't want Mirwais to flee the country," Karzai said as his voice cracked and he struggled to maintain his composure. "I want Mirwais to be an Afghan."
"I am so afraid that, God forbid, Mirwais will choose to become a foreigner and leave the country," Karzai said as his eyes watered.
"Wake up and see what's happening in our country," Karzai appealed to the audience.
After delivering the address, Karzai's office released the names of the special committee charged with broaching talks with the Taliban.
The most notorious is Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayyaf, who's been implicated in the deaths of thousands of civilians, and could become the next speaker of the Parliament.
The members also include Sher Mohammad Akhundzada, whom Karzai fired as the governor of southern Afghanistan's Helmand Province after nine tons of opium and heroin were found in his basement in 2005. He accused British troops of planting the drugs.
Among the former Taliban members is Maulvi Qalauddin, an Islamic cleric who was deputy minister in charge of the movement's morals police, the Office for the Prevention of Vice and Promotion of Virtue.
In that post, he oversaw the ban on television, the closure of girls' schools and the flogging of women who failed to cover themselves in the body-enclosing burqa.
Despite assurances that women would be well represented in the group, only a half dozen women were selected.
"Oh my God, we are going backwards," said Nargis Nehan, director of Equality for Peace and Democracy, an Afghan advocacy group. "We are expecting them to be part of the peace process, when they are part of the problem."
However, Karzai allies and some Western officials defended the inclusion of the figures as essential to the effort to win the support of diverse Afghan leaders whose support will be critical to any attempt to broker a peace deal with the Taliban.
"There is no way you are going to do this without having a broad range of individuals from an Afghan community and that may include some unsavory characters," said one Western official who said he wasn't granted permission to publicly discuss the issue.
"The high peace council is a vehicle for reconciliation and, as long as it fulfills that function, it can be imperfect," he said. "Reconciliation processes in the middle of insurgencies are almost by definition going to be messy."
Hawa Alam Nuristani, one of the few female lawmakers in parliament tapped to be on the commission, said she would do all she could to ensure that women's rights were protected in any talks.
"The women members of this council will absolutely defend women's rights," she said.
(McClatchy special correspondent Hashim Shukoor contributed to this article.)
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY