In an effort to find a political solution to the war, the Afghan government on Tuesday set up a 70-member peace council, formalizing efforts already under way to reconcile with top Taliban leaders and lure insurgent foot soldiers off the battlefield.
A political resolution to the nine-year war is a key to any US exit strategy in Afghanistan. Still, leaders of ethnic minorities, including some named to the peace council, remain concerned that negotiating with the Taliban will open a path for the hardline fundamentalist group to regain power.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has long said that he will talk to insurgents who renounce violence, sever ties to terrorists and embrace the Afghan Constitution. Publicly, the Taliban have responded, saying they won’t negotiate until foreign troops leave the country, yet there are many indications that backdoor discussions have occurred.
Waheed Omar, spokesman for Karzai, said the new High Council for Peace will guide future contacts with Taliban leaders who have reached out directly or through back channels to the highest levels of the government.
“In the past there have been no negotiations between the Afghan government and the Taliban — only some contacts and some signs from both sides,” Omar said, declining to elaborate.
“With the announcement of the peace council, I don’t think it will be wise to have back channels,” he said. “The council will be the sole body to take care of peace talks and the government of Afghanistan will respect its mandate and will not try to create back channels.”
Omar denied that US President Barack Obama’s stated goal of beginning to withdraw US forces from Afghanistan next July, if conditions allow, spurred the Afghan government to set up the council or reach out to the Taliban.
“For the people of Afghanistan, peace is a need and we want to pursue it in any case,” Omar said. “It has no relation with any other announcement. It has no relation with withdrawal or with the presence of international forces here in Afghanistan.”
US Department of State spokesman P.J. Crowley in Washington said the Afghan government pledged to set up the peace council earlier this year at international conferences in both London and Kabul.
The council includes jihadi leaders, about a half-dozen former Taliban, former members of the communist regime, at least six women and leaders from civil, religious and ethnic groups from across the nation. Two members have not yet been named.
Rachel Reid, an analyst for Human Rights Watch, expressed concern about the makeup of the group.
“Many of these men are unlikely peacemakers,” she said. “There are too many names here that Afghans will associate with war crimes, warlordism and corruption. This is a disappointing outcome for Afghan women and girls. Women are once again being shortchanged.”
Arsala Rahmani, a member of the new council and deputy education minister under the Taliban regime, said the council’s large size makes it unwieldy and it could amount to window-dressing with little substance.
“It’s another commission to spend money so foreigners and government can look like they are doing something,” he said.