Push to negotiate with the Taliban will begin Monday

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — A major push to open negotiations with the Taliban on both sides of the Pakistan-Afghanistan border will begin Monday at a summit of leading political figures from the two countries, as the U.S.-backed governments in Kabul and Islamabad face a mounting threat from Islamic extremists.

Pakistani Taliban, based in the country's tribal border area with Afghanistan, have joined the battle in Afghanistan and also taken on Islamabad. Nevertheless, the assembly of 50 people, called a jirga, which will meet for two days in Islamabad with the backing of both governments, is likely to question the continued presence of American and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

Rustam Shah Mohmand, a participant and a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan, said it's impossible to deal with the Taliban while Western forces remain in Afghanistan. He also said that the Kabul and Islamabad governments must drop their insistence that they'll negotiate only with Taliban who've disarmed.

"You talk to people who have taken up arms and are battling you; you just can't be an escapist and say only those willing to lay down their arms," said Mohmand. "In the Afghanistan and tribal areas context, it is ridiculous. People don't lay down their arms in this culture."

The Bush administration is divided about the wisdom of trying to negotiate with the Taliban and also about the idea that more moderate Taliban can be drawn away from their extremist colleagues.

While some officials, particularly in the White House, think negotiations are a trap, Defense Secretary Bob Gates and some military officers have encouraged talks, and some military commanders in Afghanistan, led by the British, have said that they cannot defeat the Taliban on the battlefield.

"These problems are, in the ultimate analysis political problems," said Afrasiab Khattak, a delegate and the "peace envoy" of the administration in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province, which borders Afghanistan. "Political problems do not have military solutions."

Khattak, however, warned against a hasty retreat from Afghanistan.

"The Western countries cannot afford to withdraw just like that, because the war will go to them," he said. "The choice is either fight in Helmand or Paris, fight in Kandahar or New York."

This year has been the most violent in Afghanistan since the 2001 U.S. invasion toppled the Taliban regime. Signs that Western will may be collapsing have panicked many Afghans, who fear that the international community is about to abandon them once again, as it did after the Soviets withdrew from the country in 1989.

"It looks like NATO just wants to find a quick solution, so they can declare victory and leave Afghanistan," Haroun Mir, the deputy director of the Afghan Center for Research and Policy Studies in Kabul.

Mir said that the Taliban have been transformed from the nationalist zealots who seized power in Afghanistan in the mid-90s into global jihadists under the influence of al Qaida, and would use negotiations to buy time to re-group.

"They (Pakistani and Afghan governments) think that if they engage with the Taliban, they can isolate al Qaida. This is a big mistake," Mir said. "The new generation of Taliban makes no distinction between themselves and al Qaida."


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(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent.)