KABUL (Reuters)- Afghanistan’s political elite, at a meeting with President Hamid Karzai to discuss the future of peace talks with the Taliban, questioned whether the insurgents were able to seek a political settlement and blamed Pakistan for fomenting instability.
Karzai, who has long been a staunch advocate of trying to negotiate an end to the decade-long war in Afghanistan, hosted the meeting to discuss the future of talks after the assassination of the government’s top peace envoy.
Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani was killed last week by a suicide bomber who posed as a reconciliation envoy sent by the Taliban’s leadership council.
The meeting included legislative chairmen, cabinet ministers, former mujahideen commanders and his two vice-presidents, the statement from the Presidential Palace said.
The assembled Afghan elite took a swipe at neighboring Pakistan, according to the statement, saying it was clear the Taliban leadership was not independent enough to make its own decisions about how it conducted the war, and suggested talks with Islamabad instead.
“During our three-year efforts for peace, the Taliban has martyred our religious ulema (leaders), tribal elders, women, children, old and young,” Karzai’s office quoted the assembled “mujahideen leaders, national figures and politicians” as saying.
“By killing Rabbani, they showed they are not able to take decisions. Now, the question is (should we seek) peace with who, with which people?”
The statement did not say if anyone in the meeting disagreed with those sentiments, or detail Karzai’s response.
The death of Rabbani, the most prominent surviving leader of the ethnic Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance of fighters and politicians, had raised concerns that his assassination would not only scuttle the peace process but exacerbate ethnic rifts among Afghans fighting the Taliban.
Hundreds of Rabbani’s supporters protested in Kabul on Tuesday against his killing, chanting “death to Pakistan, death to the Taliban” and demanding the government scrap plans to hold dialogue with the insurgents.
Rabbani was chairman of the High Peace Council, formed by Karzai in October last year to reach out to the Taliban.
Although the Council was considered more an official endorsement of negotiations than a real body for discussions, contacts continued through other channels, often involving foreign countries with a stake in Afghanistan’s future.
Karzai announced in June that the United States had made contact with the Taliban but had yet to reach a stage where the government and insurgents were meeting.
Preliminary investigations into Rabbani’s killing, presented to Karzai by the country’s intelligence chiefs on Tuesday, said the attack was plotted outside Afghanistan and the Taliban’s powerful Quetta Shura may have been involved.
Many Afghans have long accused Pakistan and its main spy agency, the Directorate of Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) of backing insurgent groups to further Islamabad’s own interests. Pakistan denies this.
Top U.S. officials also accused Pakistan of supporting insurgent groups active in Afghanistan, after a 20-hour attack on diplomatic targets in the Afghan capital earlier this month.
The outgoing chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, testified before the Senate last week that the Taliban-linked Haqqani network believed to be behind the siege was a “veritable arm” of the ISI. Pakistan and the Taliban have strongly rejected his claim.
The elite that met with Karzai also complained that Afghanistan’s efforts to improve ties with Pakistan had not been reciprocated, the palace said.
“Pakistan did nothing to destroy terrorist strongholds, or avoid them training in its territory,” the statement quoted the group as saying.
“And now, if the Taliban is being used ... by the ISI, then Afghanistan has to talk with Pakistan and not the Taliban,” the statement quoted the group saying.
(Writing by Martin Petty; Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Raju Gopalakrishnan)
This replaces the Sept. 28 story headlined “Afghan president questions future of peace talks” which has been withdrawn