LONDON — Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened a key London conference today by saying his war-torn country is ready to reconcile with the Taliban — confirming a significant change in strategy by Kabul and the West to dissipate a nine-year conflict.
Mr. Karzai asked Afghans "to reach out to all our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers" who have not fought with Al Qaeda or other foreign terrorists — underscoring the underlying gravity of the current Afghan moment, with a confident Taliban and a West growing tired of a war that dates to the weeks following Sept. 11, 2001.
Whether a new Karzai-US-NATO buyout or "reintegration" of Taliban can be a game-changer in the war is doubted by several experts — though almost everyone admits it does introduce a new element to a status quo situation.
Karzai told delegates from 70 nations meeting at Lancaster House in central London that his government would "gradually be assuming responsibility" for its security in "two to three years" — though he also predicted ahead of the high-profile meeting of 70 nations that Afghan forces "will need help" for another 15 years.
Karzai, under intense outside pressure to bolster his Army and police, spoke minutes after British Prime Minister Gordon Brown announced the creation of an International Trust Fund to help finance a buyout aimed at rank-and-file Taliban and some low-level Taliban commanders.
Mr. Brown called this winter a "decisive" moment in Afghanistan’s history, and said the new Taliban fund provides "an economic alternative to those who have none" -- but added that for Taliban unwilling to "accept the conditions for reintegration, we have no choice but to pursue them militarily." Brown said the Afghan Army will number 134,000 by next October, and 170,000 in 2011, a year later.
Karzai announced the start of a formal peace and reconciliation council in Afghanistan -- to be followed this spring by a grand assembly or "peace jirga" to ratify and give political weight to the Taliban reconciliation move.
American envoy Richard Holbrooke, one of several key American officials publicly behind Karzai's plan, which is also known as "reintegration," told reporters on Wednesday that "The overwhelming majority of these people are not ideological supporters of Mullah Omar and Al Qaeda. Based on interviews with prisoners, returnees, experts, there must be at least 70 percent of these people who are not fighting for anything to do with those causes."
Afghan citizens and lobbyists on the sidelines of the London meeting were skeptical of Karzai's scheme.
Selay Ghaffar, a spokeswoman for "Women and Children of Afghanistan," a Kabul-based NGO, worried the Karzai's buyout plan would damaged the status of women.
"A year ago we were told the Taliban were the most brutal regime in the world — now we are talking about powersharing with them," Ms. Ghaffar said. "We are worried our rights will be bargained away. I want to know who decides what a moderate Taliban is?"
Janan Mosazai, a civil society activist and candidate for parliament in elections to be held next September, told reporters in London that the Taliban reconciliation and buyout plan was "unrealistic and unwise."
"The Taliban are not fighting for money, but for power. They want to depose the Afghan government, and to expel foreign troops — and I'm not sure Karzai's government has the popular legitimacy to settle this issue," he said.
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