Neighbors back Afghan peace overtures to Taliban

ISTANBUL Tue Jan 26, 2010 7:01pm EST

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (C), Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (L) and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari attend a dinner in Istanbul, January 24, 2010. REUTERS/Osman Orsal

Turkey's President Abdullah Gul (C), Afghanistan's President Hamid Karzai (L) and Pakistan's President Asif Ali Zardari attend a dinner in Istanbul, January 24, 2010.

Credit: Reuters/Osman Orsal

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ISTANBUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's neighbors gave their backing on Tuesday to plans to reconcile with Taliban insurgents two days ahead of an international conference to set a framework for handing security over to Afghan forces.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai said late on Monday he would renew a call for removing Taliban leaders from a U.N. terrorist list. Senior U.S. army chiefs have held out the possibility of eventual talks with the Taliban leadership to end a war now into its ninth year.

Ministers and officials from Iran, Pakistan, Russia, China, Tajikistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates were meeting in Istanbul to a agree a common position before the London conference on Thursday.

"We reaffirm our strong commitment to the sovereignty, independence, territorial integrity and national unity of Afghanistan," they said in a statement.

"We support, therefore, the Afghan national process of reconciliation and reintegration in accordance with the constitution of Afghanistan in a way that is Afghan-led and Afghan-driven," the statement said.

The backing of Pakistan and Iran is significant as they both have been accused by U.S. officials of covertly arming the Taliban and undermining peace.

"I think the Pakistan government is in a completely different position than when I first went to Pakistan three years ago," British Foreign Minister David Miliband told reporters in Istanbul.

"We've moved from a finger-pointing blame game toward security cooperation."

Miliband said Pakistan's military was also on board.

COMING FROM THE COLD?

Low-level talks with the Taliban have been going on behind the scenes for years, analysts say, but there can be little progress while the insurgents believe they are winning the war.

Washington is sending an extra 30,000 troops to Afghanistan to persuade the Taliban that a military victory is not possible and force the hardline Islamists to negotiate in earnest.

Underlining the need for peace, a suicide car bomb near a U.S. base in Kabul on Tuesday wounded six Afghan civilians. The Taliban have launched hundreds of suicide attacks in the last three years in order to convince Afghans that their government and its Western backers cannot bring security.

Karzai is expected to present the 60 countries at the London conference with details of his plans to reach out to the Taliban. Karzai's plan "has the very strong support of the international community," Miliband said.

Karzai has said he will repeat in London his previously unsuccessful calls for Taliban leaders to be taken off a U.N. terrorist sanctions list and said he believed it would be better received this time round. That might also persuade Taliban leaders they could safely make peace.

While top U.S. generals appeared to be open to the possibility of eventual talks with the Taliban leadership to end the war, Britain's Miliband ruled out taking Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar off the U.N. list.

"Mullah Omar has done terrible atrocities and is on the ... sanctions list for good reason and has shown no absolutely no indication that he wants to engage or come into the political system," he said.

Mullah Omar refused to give up al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden after the September 11 attacks on the United States, leading to the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.

President Barack Obama plans to begin drawing down U.S. troops in Afghanistan by the end of 2011, which means strengthening Afghan forces, and he intends to ask Congress for another $14.2 billion to train them over the next two years.

Setting a timetable for Afghanistan to take over security in the place of U.S. and NATO troops will oblige the Afghan government to move more quickly to build up its forces and put more effort into making peace with the Taliban.

The Taliban have demanded a full withdrawal of foreign troops before there can be any peace negotiations, but a timetable at least might go some way to meet their demands and one allied insurgent group welcomed the idea.

"We do not see a hindrance to the negotiations provided a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces is set," Wali Ullah, a spokesman for Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a veteran guerrilla commander who leads the major Hezb-i-Islami group, told Reuters.

"With Mr Karzai and (other) Afghans we have no problems."

Western countries want the Taliban to break with al Qaeda as a precondition for talks.

(Writing by Jon Hemming; Editing by Sonya Hepinstall)

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