February 23, 2009 / 3:40 PM / 10 years ago

"I'll talk to Taliban": Afghan presidential hopeful

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghan President Hamid Karzai lacks a coherent policy on holding peace talks with the Taliban, a former minister said on Monday, vowing to make the issue a top priority if he is elected to replace Karzai.

Former Afghan finance minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kabul February 23, 2009. Afghan President Hamid Karzai lacks a coherent policy on holding peace talks with the Taliban, Ahadi said on Monday, vowing to make the issue a top priority if he is elected to replace Karzai. REUTERS/Omar Sobhani (AFGHANISTAN)

Security in Afghanistan has worsened more than seven years after U.S.-led forces overthrew the Taliban and the solution for ending the conflict was to hold talks with the insurgents, said former finance minister Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi.

“I think that the government, in this regard, has not been open enough and has not articulated its strategy well. The president, at times, makes contradictory statements,” Ahadi said.

“If I win the election, I will be more than happy to talk to them (insurgents). As long as their demands are reasonable, we can hope to reach a political settlement,” he told Reuters in an interview in his refurbished two-storey house in Kabul.

Ahadi, who like most of the Taliban is an ethnic Pashtun, said he would press the radical Islamists to accept direct elections as a means to choose a government and set up a tolerant Islamic administration allowing women the right to work and vote.

Ahadi, a clean-shaven professor of economics and political science, is a close relative of one of the country’s two main spiritual leaders who hold great influence, especially in the south and east where the insurgency is most entrenched.

Ahadi, who lived and worked in the West for many years, leads Afghanistan’s oldest and largest nationalist Pashtun party.

“As a normal citizen, I don’t really have the means to reach them (insurgents). As they are armed opponents, it is not easy for me to just call them up and say ‘listen, let us have a discussion’,” Ahadi said.

“I am sure they must have some terms of their own. There is a basis for negotiation. I would be willing to accept some of their terms, but I need to know what terms they want,” he said.

The Taliban, who ruled Afghanistan from 1996 until their ouster in 2001, have rejected Karzai’s repeated calls for peace talks as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan.

KARZAI’S LEGITIMACY

Ahadi said Karzai, who is planning to run for re-election, must resign and a caretaker government be formed by May 21, the date set by the constitution for the presidential vote.

Ahadi, 58, quit his post as finance minister this month after four years in order to run in the election, which has been set for August 20 by the election commission appointed by Karzai.

The commission argued that the poll could not be held in May because it would have to be organized during the harsh Afghan winter, when remote areas are cut off by snow and many people would be disenfranchised.

Karzai, Afghanistan’s leader since the Taliban’s ouster and who won elections in 2004, said this month he was unsure whether his term in office legally ended in August and was working on ensuring his government’s legitimacy.

Ahadi has joined the growing chorus of opposition parties saying an interim government is the only answer because institutions in Afghanistan, like the election commission, were not truly independent.

“That is why they are asking for his departure before the election and I think there is truth in it. There is a great deal of abuse of power and using state institutions for personal ends,” Ahadi said.

“I think that it would be really good if we had a caretaker administration that is truly neutral so that the contenders could really contest in these elections in a transparent manner.”

Ahadi also said foreign troops, under NATO and the U.S. military’s command in Afghanistan, must exercise great caution to cut civilian casualties while hunting militants. Such casualties have sapped support for foreign forces and the government.

He said he hoped foreign troops would leave Afghanistan once the process of training and equipping the Western-reliant Afghan forces finishes in 2012.

Editing by Paul Tait

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