South Asia

Karzai sets up council for peace talks with Taliban

Mr Karzai has long advocated dialogue with insurgents who renounce violence

Afghan President Hamid Karzai has formed a committee to seek peace talks with the Taliban, his office has said.

It follows the endorsement by tribal leaders in June of a plan to engage militants in a reconciliation process.

The Taliban, who were ousted from power in 2001, have been fighting to overthrow the US-backed government and expel foreign troops from Afghanistan.

The formation of the High Peace Council was "a significant step towards peace talks", Mr Karzai's office said.

But previous attempts to negotiate with the Taliban have failed, partly over their insistence that foreign troops leave the country first.

There are nearly 150,000 foreign troops currently deployed in Afghanistan. The US has recently been boosting its presence in the country by sending 30,000 extra troops.

The US has previously expressed its support for moves to bring Taliban fighters who renounce violence into the political process.

But fighting against the Taliban has intensified in recent months.

Gen David Petraeus, the commander of US and Nato forces in Afghanistan, recently said they had already succeeded in reversing the Taliban's momentum in some parts of Afghanistan.

But he said the campaign against the Taliban would get harder before it got easier, as foreign troops tried to clear remaining Taliban strongholds.

US President Barack Obama has set a date of July 2011 for beginning to reduce the numbers of US troops in Afghanistan, though the administration has suggested that any troop reduction after that date would be modest.

Mr Karzai's office said details of members of the High Peace Council, which could include former insurgents, would be announced after the Eid holiday marking the end of Ramadan next week.

Officials were meeting on Saturday to decide the composition of the body, it said.

The council is expected to be made up of about 50 people, include members of civil society, women, and figures from the opposition and government.

The BBC's Mark Dummett reports from the Afghan capital, Kabul, that there is also speculation that it will include contentious so-called warlords who fought the Taliban as part of the Northern Alliance, before the Taliban were toppled in 2001.

Our correspondent says most Afghans will be hoping that the council will be a success.

But without knowing the names of the council members or how they will operate, it is impossible to tell how effective the body will be, he adds.

Mr Karzai had already met former mujahideen - or Afghan Islamic fighters - and other officials to discuss the council last week, AFP news agency reported.

The "peace jirga" that endorsed the president's plans to negotiate with the Taliban in June also backed his proposals to offer an amnesty and reintegration incentives to low-level Taliban who accept the constitution.

It called on the authorities and international forces to guarantee the safety of former Taliban members, and release those being held in American and Afghan prisons.

But the Taliban issued a statement saying that the jirga did not represent the Afghan people and was aimed at securing the interest of foreigners.

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