KABUL Afghan tribal elders and religious leaders agreed Friday to make peace with the Taliban, handing President Hamid Karzai a mandate to open negotiations with the insurgents who are fighting foreign forces and his government.
Karzai had called the "peace jirga" to win national support for his plan to offer an amnesty, cash and job incentives to Taliban foot soldiers while arranging asylum for top figures in a second country and getting their names struck off a U.N. and U.S. blacklist.
"Now the path is clear, the path that has been shown and chosen by you, we will go on that step-by-step and this path will Inshallah, take us to our destination," he told the delegates gathered in a tent under heavy security.
He urged the Taliban, who have virtually fought tens of thousands of U.S.-led NATO forces and the Afghan army to a bloody stalemate, to stop fighting.
U.N. Secretary-General Ban ki-Moon welcomed the decisions of the three-day jirga, saying it was a significant step toward reaching out to all Afghans to promote peace and stability.
"The United Nations supports these national efforts to end conflict in Afghanistan, and remains fully committed to working with the Afghan authorities as they strive for a peaceful life," he said in a statement.
But there were few signs that the Taliban, who have dismissed the jirga as a phoney American-inspired show to perpetuate their involvement in the country, were ready to respond to the peace offer.
WITHDRAW FOREIGN FORCES OR NO TALKS
The Taliban want the withdrawal of all foreign forces from the country before any negotiations can begin. The insurgency is at its most intense since their ouster in 2001 and analysts say there is little reason for them to sue for peace.
Wednesday the militants attacked the opening of the jirga with rockets and gunfire just as Karzai was speaking inside a giant marquee in the west of the capital. Friday, the president took a helicopter to the tent site to address the closing session.
The outcome of the conference was largely preordained, as the government had handpicked the delegates and broadly set the parameters of the discussion.
The Taliban and other insurgent factions were not invited while the opposition boycotted the meeting saying it didn't represent the full spectrum of Afghan politics.
Critics say the results of the jirga are more symbolic than practical, given the disdain with which the Taliban who control large parts of the country have treated the tribal assembly. Some saw it a show of national unity to wring more money out international donors ahead of a conference in July in Kabul.
The 1,600 delegates, chosen to represent Afghan tribes, politics and geography, approved a set of proposals including an appeal to the warring sides to declare a ceasefire immediately.
"We must initiate peace effort with full force," said Qiyamuddin Kashaf, deputy chairman of the jirga reading out from the resolutions approved at the grand assembly.
The jirga called for the establishment of a high commission to pursue peace efforts with the Taliban.
But the gathering also said the gains made since the ouster of the hardline Islamists in the areas of democracy and women's rights should not be sacrificed in any opening toward them. NATO troops must continue to support Afghan army and ensure that Afghanistan does not become a battleground for regional players.
Afghanistan's direct neighbors including Pakistan and Iran and near neighbors such as India and China are all seen as battling for influence ahead of a planned U.S. military withdrawal set to begin from mid-2011.
Washington backs Karzai's plan for trying to reintegrate Taliban foot soldiers back to the mainstream but is wary of any overtures to senior Taliban figures, some of whom, including supreme leader Mullah Omar, are on its most wanted list.
It would rather that the Taliban were put under pressure on the battlefield before reaching out to senior figures.
An operation against them in their southern stronghold of Kandahar is expected in the next few weeks which military officials say may force them to reconsider their opposition to making peace.