Afghanistan has made progress encouraging insurgents to lay down their weapons, an official in charge of peace talks in the war-torn country said on Wednesday but that help from neighbour Pakistan remains crucial.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai has made reconciling with insurgents a priority of his second term and plans are afoot for a large assembly — or peace jirga — involving different factions of Afghan society, for late April or early May.
Mohammad Masoom Stanekzai is in charge of a plan to reintegrate low-level cadres of the insurgency into society and also leads preparations for the peace jirga. He said there were signs that some insurgents were responding positively to both policies.
“Some delegations are coming from different provinces, they are meeting with the leadership of the government and they are indicating their willingness to join this process and on that front there is a lot of contact ongoing,” Stanekzai told Reuters.
“The representatives of one of those groups have come to Kabul … all these are indications that the people of Afghanistan are tired of the war and they want to find a way out of this current situation.”
That was a reference to the militant group Hizb-e-Islami, which last month sent a delegation to Kabul for talks with government officials.
Stanekzai said a programme to encourage fighters to give up weapons in return for jobs, training and protection from other militants, was also gradually bearing fruit.
“There are people who are joining with laying down their weapons and with this reintegration process,” Stanekzai said. There were initial indications, he said, that insurgents in the provinces of Baghlan, Herat and Kunduz wanted to join the reintegration programme.
Washington has exerted pressure on Kabul to take greater responsibility for security in Afghanistan by setting a July 2011 deadline for U.S. troops to start withdrawing from the country, but has said it is premature to expect the Taliban to talk.
“This is a jirga of the Afghan people. We will not draw the line that who is the opposition or who is the insurgent on the other side,” Stanekzai said. Community leaders who attend could include Taliban sympathisers, he said.
There are three main insurgent factions in Afghanistan: the Taliban, loosely led by the Quetta Shura in Pakistan, Hizb-e-Islami, and the Haqqani network, which is thought to lead attacks in the east and southeast of Afghanistan.
None has formally agreed to attend the peace jirga and the Taliban has dismissed Kabul’s reintegration efforts.
Stanekzai said on an individual level he believed there was support for the peace jirga among the Taliban but “when it comes to the formal responses, it’s very difficult to find out who is their real spokesman.”
The insurgency in Afghanistan is at its deadliest since the war started in 2001, and critics have blamed the resurgence of groups like the Taliban on insufficient oversight of the war by Washington and NATO, and a weak Afghan government.
Stanekzai said Pakistan’s support was necessary to make reconciliation a success. If Pakistan’s recent arrest of Taliban commander Mullah Baradar was intended to prevent the spreading the insurgency in Afghanistan, he said, then he welcomed it.
“(But) if they are replaced with others who continue with the same kind of operation, and those who are willing to join the peace process … are then arrested, then it will not be welcome,” Stanekzai said.
The Afghan government has asked Islamabad to repatriate Baradar to his native Afghanistan. Last month, the former top U.N. envoy to Afghanistan said talks he was involved in with top Taliban leaders were scuppered by Baradar’s arrest.
“We are formally hearing from the officials from Pakistan, they are supportive of these initiatives, but at the same time we need to see a fundamental change in their policy to Afghanistan and both countries need to genuinely cooperate,” Stanekzai said.
(Editing by Ron Popeski)