Taliban to be invited into peace talks if they lay down guns

No reconciliation with those who remain loyal to al-Qa'ida, or refuse to accept equality of women under Afghan constitution
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The Independent Online

A controversial plan to "buy off" moderate Taliban elements and open talks with the organisation's leadership was endorsed last night by a landmark international conference in London on the future of Afghanistan.

Foreign ministers from 60 countries agreed to launch a £86m “trust fund” to boost peace, reconciliation and re-integration in Afghanistan. The decision represents a significant change of strategy, notably by Washington, towards engaging the Taliban with a view to a negotiated political settlement. Britain will contribute about £3m.

Although the ministers denied trying to “bribe” the Taliban forces their troops are fighting, the money will fund jobs, housing and agricultural projects to lure rank and file fighters for whom payments offered by the Taliban offer the best economic hope.

Hamid Karzai, the Afghan President, also made clear that Taliban representatives would be invited to a peace council this spring, the first for eight years. The “loya jirga”, expected in April, will be followed by another international conference in Kabul.

He told yesterday’s gathering at Lancaster House: "We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al-Qa’ida, or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution.” He said they “will be persuaded by all peaceful means to return to Afghanistan and lay down their arms and become part of the Afghan community once again.”

Gordon Brown, who opened the conference, said: “The first thing is to strengthen the Afghan forces, then to weaken the Taliban by dividing them.” He argued that the Taliban could be “easily divided,” saying the trust fund would help "provide an economic alternative to those who have none".

He stressed: “There is no reconciliation with the al-Qa’ida element who believe that violent extremism and the murder of people is an expression of a perverted view of Islam.”

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, who co-chaired the conference, acknowledged a landmark change in the international community’s approach. He told a press conference: “The political space in Afghanistan must be extended to include significant numbers that have previously been excluded….Grievances need to be pursued by politics, not violence.” He added: “Today, there is a viable and clear goal for bringing this conflict to an end – one in which military force is deployed in order to support a clear political strategy.”

He insisted the new fund would not simply “rent back those insurgents who are currently paid $10, $20 or $30 a day” by the Taliban. It would offer a long-term security for Afghan communities and ensure people settled their differences in the political system.

Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, told journalists: “You have to be willing to engage with your enemies if you expect to create a situation that ends an insurgency or so marginalises the remaining insurgents that it doesn't pose a threat to the stability and security of the people.”

Bernard Kouchner, the French Foreign Minister, said: “You can’t say ‘no’ to talks. Is it possible to refuse? At the end of a war, what happens usually is either a victory or talks.”

Wooing the Taliban into the political process in Afghanistan is also controversial because of its previous treatment of women, who are guaranteed equal rights under the Afghan constitution. Arzo Qanih, a women’s rights campaigner who addressed the conference, said: “Women’s rights and status must not be bargained away in efforts to reconcile competing factions. We have fought too long and too hard to improve the status of women – rights that were completely eroded in the past. Compromising our rights will not bring peace.”

President Karzai and Mr Miliband sought to allay the fears of human rights groups by promising that Taliban members who returned to the political system would have to respect the constitution.

British ministers admit privately that the fund is a sensitive issue. But parents of some of the 251 British servicemen who died in Afghanistan endorsed the move last night.

Hazel Hunt, whose son Richard was the 200th British soldier to die in the country. said: "As unpalatable as it may be to talk to the people who have been shooting at you, it's a fact of life that at some point you are going to have to talk to them to reintegrate them."

She added: "Ideally, knowing what has happened in the last three years, it should have happened sooner rather than later. Maybe we could have saved 200 soldiers' lives. But that's looking back with hindsight. It's better to get around to it than not to do it at all."

Ian Sadler, the father of Trooper Jack Sadler, who was killed in 2007, said “It's all been tried before and they should have been doing this ages ago.I understand the general public outcry to this because it will look as through you are paying the enemy to shoot British soldiers but that's not the case."

Tony Philippson, the father of Captain James Philippson, who was killed in 2006, said: "It's years too late but thank God they are trying.”Describing the situation in Afghanistan as "effectively a civil war", he added: "We've interfered in something we shouldn't have done.”