KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan’s insurgency can be brought to an end through “soft diplomacy” with the Taliban, if Western forces commit to a timetable to withdraw from the country, a veteran of past negotiations with the militants says.
Sayed Jalal, a former child prodigy famous across the country for brokering talks between Iran and the Taliban around a decade ago, plans to run for the presidency in August 20 elections on a promise of bringing peace through diplomacy.
Setting a timeframe for foreign troops to leave Afghan soil would allow him to convince the Taliban to lay down their arms and join the government he wants to lead, Jalal said.
The Saudi-based businessman has a track record of successful talks with the hardline Islamists, and his support for Sharia law in Afghanistan could give him credibility as a potential partner or intermediary with the Taliban.
In 1998, he negotiated with the Taliban for the release of a dozen Iranian hostages. The same year he also arranged a cease-fire and the exchange of more than 1,200 prisoners between the then opposition Northern Alliance and the ruling Taliban.
Jalal said his success as a mediator puts him in a strong position to win over militants, but only with an expiry date on the foreign military presence in Afghanistan.
“We do need the presence of the foreign forces for a period of between three to five years,” Jalal, a soft-spoken 40 year-old, who sports a trim salt-and-pepper beard, told Reuters.
“I would like to put a timetable for one reason: so that the international community can give us their best support for preparing our army. For if we leave it open, they are not going to work as fast as possible.”
Jalal, a mathematics prodigy who completed high school at eight before matriculating at Moscow University at the age of nine, runs construction, gas and oil businesses in Saudi Arabia.
The youngest of nearly 40 presidential candidates, he wants to see nationwide implementation of strict Sharia law reminiscent of Taliban-era rules, with public punishment for violators.
He took aim at President Hamid Karzai who has led Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and won the first direct vote in the country’s history, saying he has frustrated ordinary people and strengthened the Taliban by failing to implement Islamic law.
If there had been stronger punishments and better access to justice for ordinary Afghans, the country would not be so destabilised by corruption, drug cultivation and poverty, he said.
“By simply respecting law and implementing the law, Afghanistan can escape these problems,” he said.
Editing by Emma Graham-Harrison and Bill Tarrant
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