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Afghan President Karzai Pushes for Talks With Taliban

As NATO forces push into the Taliban stronghold of Kandahar province - and President Barack Obama's administration gets ready to review its strategy after assessing the results - Afghan President Hamid Karzai is forming a council to pursue talks with the Taliban.

The U.S.-led coalition is now saying Afghanistan cannot be stabilized by military means alone. It's unclear if Karzai's council, however, will be inclusive enough to satisfy the Pashtun community in general and Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazara minorities in particular.

Although the Taliban flags are gone, the terror campaign continues in Afghanistan's southern Kandahar province, the traditional stronghold of the Taliban. NATO and Afghan forces came under attack in the early hours last week at a development project they are protecting.

The firefight lasted more than an hour, with the troops under fire from mortars and rocket-propelled grenades.

As NATO and Afghan forces try to make their presence felt in Kandahar, President Hamid Karzai is forming a High Council for Peace to pursue talks with the Taliban. The membership will be finalized sometime after the Muslim holy festival of Eid.

"We must begin to reexamine whether we are doing everything correctly, whether we are doing the right things and whether we are having the support of the Afghan people," said Karzai.

The idea for a peace council was formally approved by a traditional gathering, or jirga, attended by about 1,600 Afghan leaders and tribal elders in the capital, Kabul, in June. President Karzai is trying now to make the council as inclusive as possible - especially in view of Afghanistan's approaching parliamentary elections.

But Brian Katulis at the Center for American Progress remains pessimistic. "Given what I have seen this year on just tactical decisions made on the elections that would be held a week from Saturday, or how he has tried to deal with the corruption issues, I would be deeply concerned whether or not we have a partner in Kabul in these ventures."

Paul Pillar at Georgetown University also is not optimistic - because Uzbek, Tajik and Hazara minorities so far have opposed the talks. "Unfortunately the biggest barrier how it has worked so far is the ethnic business. The resentment by non-Pashtuns in doing anything nice to Pashtuns. And that will probably continue to be a problem no matter whom Karzai appoints to the body."

Taliban leaders, so far, have rejected the idea of reconciliation, until foreign troops have left the country. And Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who heads an opposition group known as the Hezb-i-Islami, dismissed the peace initiative as a government move to deceive the people.

Shuja Nawaz at the Atlantic Council, though, said Mr. Karzai's is trying hard and a lot will also depend on next week's elections. "If it (the election) is properly conducted, it will certainly give him much more credibility on the political scene so that when he speaks it will be with much more authority."

Nawaz said the timing of Mr. Karzai's reconciliation efforts has made them very critical. "Particularly in this phase, when within the next three or four months a review will be completed of the presence of coalition forces, and then by next summer some decision will have to be taken on the speed at which they will exit the military aspect of their intervention in Afghanistan."

Former Marine Officer Matthew Hoh has fought in Afghanistan and also has worked at the State Department. He agreed the elections are crucial, but said the U.S. should help Mr. Karzai in reaching out to the Taliban. "It should do everything it can to assist Karzai in reaching out to the elements of the Taliban that are reconcilable at local level, provincial level and national level."

Experts said Afghanistan is going through a very complex struggle for power among various segments of the society. And they said nothing can be achieved unless the United States throws its full support behind the reconciliation efforts, and Mr. Karzai fully demonstrates he genuinely wants to share power.