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Karzai inaugurates 'High Peace Council' to negotiate with Taliban

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Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Thursday inaugurated the High Peace Council, charged with negotiating with the Taliban and other insurgents that have been attempting to destabilise the country since start of the US-led invasion nine years ago.


AFP - President Hamid Karzai on Thursday inaugurated a peace council charged with brokering an end to the war in Afghanistan, amid mounting reports of secret peace talks as the conflict entered a 10th year.

The High Peace Council is Karzai's brainchild for opening a dialogue with the Taliban and other insurgents who have been trying to bring down his government since the US-led invasion overthrew their regime in late 2001.

The Taliban has said publicly it will not enter into dialogue with the government until all 152,000 US-led foreign troops based in the country leave and on Thursday issued a statement saying its jihad was as strong as ever.

"Dear elders, today's meeting is the inaugural meeting of our High Peace Council," Karzai told the opening session at his heavily-fortified palace, renewing his repeated call on the Taliban to come to the table.

Although the president made no reference to the date, Thursday was the ninth anniversary of the United States launching operations against the Taliban for refusing to surrender Al-Qaeda leaders over the September 11 attacks.

Nine years later, the US military is losing record numbers of troops, record numbers of Afghan civilians are dying, the Taliban is more powerful than at any time since its ouster and the government increasingly discredited by graft.

Karzai has hand-picked 68 people to sit on the peace council, which was set up following a nationwide conference in June, to be joined by another two women after women activists pushed for greater representation.

Analysts warn, however, that the council is so heavily stacked with warlords and militia leaders it could be set up for failure.

"I wish you, respected members, success and I wish our hopes come true -- the hope for peace and stability in the country," said Karzai.

"To the opposition, be they the Taliban or anyone who wants to serve his country, we call on them to take the opportunity and respond to this effort and help bring peace to this country," he said.

Yet there is a fear among Afghans, particularly the urban elite who have prospered in the last nine years, that any power-sharing deal with the Taliban could bury some of the new-found freedoms, particularly for women.

"My biggest fear is if Afghanistan goes back to the dark period of Taliban," lawmaker and women's activist Fawzia Koofi told AFP.

"Perhaps Taliban will change. But for those who don't respect women as human beings, certainly I don't want any government to talk to them."

In a statement marking the war's anniversary, the Taliban claimed to control 75 percent of Afghanistan and said: "strongholds of jihad and resistance against the invading Americans and their allies are as strong as ever".

"The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan advises the confused American rulers: come to yourselves and have mercy on your people by immediately pulling out of Afghanistan," it said in English.

The US-based Open Society Foundations said Thursday that Afghan confidence in foreign troops was eroding due to "civilian casualties, wrongful and abusive detention operations, deteriorating security and a lack of accountability".

Although a US-led troop surge is said to be making tentative progress on the ground, there is increased acceptance that a negotiated settlement is vital.

US General David Petraeus, the NATO commander in Afghanistan who was credited with easing the quagmire in Iraq, has confirmed Taliban "overtures" to the Afghan government and foreign forces about quitting the fight.

The Washington Post reported that Mullah Mohammad Omar, the one-eyed Taliban leader believed to be hiding in Pakistan, has backed secret high-level talks with the Afghan government to negotiate an end to the war.

The new negotiations involve agreements to allow Taliban leaders positions in the Afghan government and the withdrawal of US and NATO forces according to an agreed timetable, the newspaper said.

The White House has backed the idea of Afghan reconciliation talks with the Taliban, but said the United States was not a party to reported contacts.

A British newspaper said the Afghan and US governments have recently made contact with the Haqqani network, one of the most feared groups in Afghanistan and target of a major increase in US drone strikes.

The Haqqani leadership is based in North Waziristan, in Pakistan's tribal northwest and is linked to an alleged terror plot against European cities.

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