London meet gives impetus to push for Taliban talks

By Bronwen Roberts

LONDON, (AFP) - A major international conference in London boosted a push for negotiations to end a gruelling Taliban insurgency as it emerged that militants had already met a UN envoy to explore peace talks.

Thursday's meeting of nearly 70 countries backed an Afghan government drive to tempt fighters out of the insurgency with jobs and other incentives -- a plan for which President Hamid Karzai won 140 million dollars of funding.

Taliban: Still the gun talks

The Taliban released a statement dismissing the initiative as "futile" but a UN official revealed that "active members of the insurgency" had met the UN envoy to Afghanistan this month — at their request — to discuss peace talks.

UN Special Representative Kai Eide met the men in Dubai, reportedly on January 8, and details were shared with the Afghan government, the official said on condition of anonymity. "It was an approach made by the Taliban to the United Nations about the possibility of beginning peace talks with the Afghan government."

The "UN hopes that the Afghan government will capitalise on this opportunity," the official said. Former members of the 1996-2001 Taliban regime, men who had not taken up arms against the new government, also met Afghan officials in 2008 in Saudi Arabia, officials said at the time. A diplomat said militants from the faction of ex-prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar were also believed to be in secret discussions with the government.

Karzai told the London conference that he would call "peace jirga" — a traditional meeting of Afghan elders. The Taliban were invited, a spokesman said. This will build on work by a peace and reconciliation programme that Karzai launched in 2005 and claims to have persuaded hundreds of militants to "surrender".

With the insurgency causing record death tolls among civilians and international troops last year, efforts for a negotiated settlement to the conflicts were welcomed by conference participants. "We expect a lot of the foot soldiers on the battlefield will be leaving the Taliban because many of them have wanted to leave, many of them are tired of fighting," US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said.

"We believe the tide has turned against them," she said. British Foreign Secretary David Miliband on Thursday rejected criticism that the newly launched Peace and Reintegration Trust Fund would merely "rent back" men being paid by Taliban to carry out attacks.

"That fund will help the employment, the infrastructure and the organisation of a serious drive for political engagement that will offer long-term security," he said.

The meeting acknowledged that although military efforts would still be needed against a hardcore element of the insurgency, they should intensify the training of Afghan security forces.

It agreed however that Afghanistan should take increasing control of its own security from the end of this year, with Afghan security forces starting to take charge of provinces "by late 2010/early 2011".

Western powers like the United States hope the pledges will allow them to cut troop levels in Afghanistan although Karzai said his country would need help for up to 15 years. There was scepticism among Afghans about the usefulness of offering militants incentives to leave the battlefield.

"The Taliban are not fighting for money, they are fighting for power, they are fighting to depose the government," said civil society activist Janan Mosazai at the London meeting. Afghan journalist Barry Salaam, also in London, said the push would not reach the hardcore of the Taliban who were the real threat.

"Some can be bought but that doesn't mean anything in terms of weakening the Taliban ideology."Afghans were "not happy with compromising with the Taliban," Nooralhaq Nasimi, from an Afghan refugee education programme, said at a demonstration outside Thursday's talks. "They have a very bad memory from the Taliban period," she told AFP.

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