Afghan Peace Talks Await A Karzai-Obama Confab

Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Independent Electoral Commission compound in Kabul on April 1, 2010.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai at the Independent Electoral Commission compound in Kabul on April 1, 2010. SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images

Afghanistan has postponed a massive national peace meeting until after Afghan President Hamid Karzai visits Washington next month for talks with President Obama. On the agenda will be Karzai's plans for reconciliation talks with the Taliban and other militants.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai is scheduled to visit Washington next month for meetings with President Obama and other administration officials. Karzai's plans for reconciliation talks with the Taliban and other militants will be on the agenda.

Prospects of negotiations with the Taliban -- and U.S. concerns about it -- prompted the Afghan government last week to suddenly announce it would postpone a massive national meeting to discuss reconciliation. The meeting will be put off for several weeks until Karzai wraps up his trip to Washington.

In Kabul, workers are making preparations for the national peace meeting, or jirga, in a huge tent that will hold at least 1,300 delegates. Next door, organizers are pondering what to do with tens of thousands of posters, flags and billboards advertising the jirga and its previous start date of May 2.

Delay Meant To Ease Concerns

No new date for the meeting has been announced. Ghulam Farooq Wardak, the Afghan government minister in charge of the jirga, says the government felt it was better to wait until Karzai visited Washington.

"Some circles in the international community had concerns about the outcome of the jirga. So the trip that Karzai is making to the United States will remove all the concerns, and the international community will, with one voice, support Afghanistan," Wardak says.

One concern was that Karzai would invite the Taliban and other militants to the jirga. But Afghan officials say that won't happen. Instead, the jirga is meant to see whether the hundreds of delegates from Afghanistan's political, religious and business communities, among others, can reach a consensus about whether militants should be brought back into the fold.

Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, says it's imperative that everyone agrees on the issue.

"We know there are concerns and reservations among various ethnic groups and other communities within Afghanistan about the reconciliation program. They're concerned to ensure that all of the gains of the past eight years are cemented and not put at risk by any kind of process of reconciliation," Sedwill says.

'Everyone Feeling Their Way In This Process'

Karzai had already delved into a reconciliation process, long before talk of a peace jirga. He has publicly stated several times that he would talk to senior Taliban figures, including its leader, Mullah Omar. Karzai has also met with various Taliban-allied groups, including associates of insurgent leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

British Army Maj. Gen. Richard Barrons, who heads up NATO's reintegration program, says the Western alliance is sometimes blindsided by the actions of the Afghan government.

"Well, this is Afghanistan. It would be hard to say we were genuinely surprised because we see that it's a very complex place. What I think we're clear about is that people aren't setting about to deceive us, but actually everyone is feeling their way in this process," Barrons says.

Wahid Omar, Karzai's spokesman, says that for now, any talks between the government and the insurgents are on hold.

"We are not concentrating on talks at the moment, on reaching out at anybody at the moment. I don't think anything is going to happen before the peace jirga," Omar says.

Questions Of Timing

There are many players, beyond the Afghan government, with a stake in the reconciliation process: the United States, its Western allies, as well as Afghanistan's neighbors, Iran, India and Pakistan. Barrons says all involved have an interest in the terms of any move toward reconciliation with the Taliban.

"Everyone is looking at the strength of their hand and wondering when is the best time to play it. And to some degree, no one is really in charge of this process because there are so many powerful actors," Barrons says. "Perhaps when the president goes to the United States in May, that would be an opportunity for people to talk about the U.S. view and compare it to the president's view."

The international community says it is strongly behind Karzai's reconciliation efforts. But American officials in Afghanistan wonder whether it would be better to wait until after a U.S.-led offensive against the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar, expected this summer. At that point, it's hoped the Taliban will be more willing to lay down its arms -- and come to the negotiating table. Copyright 2010 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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