By Jon Hemming and Myra MacDonald
LONDON (Reuters) – The Afghan government on Thursday invited the Taliban to a peace council of elders, the strongest signal yet that Kabul and its Western allies are looking for a way out of the eight-year war in Afghanistan.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai also told a 60-nation conference in London that he wanted Saudi Arabia — a trusted interlocutor with the Taliban leadership — to help bring peace.
“We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al Qaeda, or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution,” he said.
The United States and its allies would not be involved in the jirga and have said they want to leave it up to the Afghans to seek reconciliation.
At the same time, U.S. President Barack Obama is sending in 30,000 more troops to weaken the insurgency and convince the Taliban to accept a peace deal, which crucially would require them to sever ties with al Qaeda.
“The solution to a war is always to talk to your enemies, unless one party triumphs,” French Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner said. “That is not the case here.”
The war, originally launched to deny al Qaeda militants a haven under the Taliban after the September 11, 2001, attacks, has entered its ninth year with public support in the United States and its NATO allies waning as casualties rise.
A flawed election, widespread corruption and questions about Karzai’s performance have also fueled criticism of the mission.
With economies still fragile after the financial crisis, governments are keen to find a way to end the war.
An Afghan government spokesman said the Taliban would be asked to take part in the peace council, or loya jirga, expected to be held early this year.
“We wish them to come,” spokesman Hamid Elmi told Reuters.
The Taliban have so far shown no willingness in public to enter talks, though some analysts say they are tired of the fighting and realize they are no better placed than the United States and its allies to win the war by military means alone.
“They are tired of fighting. Despite a lot of the bravado they don’t have the capacity to take the country,” a UN diplomat said. “So in the long run they need a route out themselves.”
Western governments have stressed there could be no compromise with those who harbored links with al Qaeda.
“To those insurgents who refuse to accept the conditions for reintegration we have no choice but to pursue them militarily,” British Prime Minister Gordon Brown said.
But the West’s attitude to involving at least some elements of the Afghan Taliban, once demonized over their human rights record and treatment of women before they were ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, appears to be softening.
“I guess the whole issue here, which is still not clear, is where the upper line should be. To whom to talk and to whom not,” Estonian Foreign Minister Urmas Paet said.
PROMINENT ROLE FOR SAUDI ARABIA
Karzai called on Saudi Arabia, which has hosted talks between the Afghan government and Taliban representatives in the past, to help bring peace to Afghanistan.
In response, Saudi Arabia said it would take part in peace efforts only if the Taliban denied sanctuary to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and cut ties with militant networks.
“Unless the Taliban give up the issue of sanctuary, I don’t think the negotiations with them will be possible or feasible to achieve anything,” Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal told reporters in London.
Karzai also said Afghanistan needed the support of its neighbors, particularly Pakistan, to secure peace. Washington says Afghan Taliban chief Mullah Muhammed Omar and other leaders are based in Pakistan — a charge Islamabad denies.
Pakistan, one of only three countries to recognize the Taliban government before it was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion in 2001, is seen as well placed to mediate in any talks.
Western governments hope to start pulling troops out in 2011.
“By the middle of next year, we have to turn the tide in the fight against the insurgency,” Britain’s Brown told the conference.
There was no immediate reaction from the Taliban. But before the conference, it dismissed an Afghan government plan aimed at persuading fighters to lay down their arms in return for cash as a “trick” and said the only solution to the war would be the withdrawal of foreign troops.
More than 110,000 foreign troops are in Afghanistan, including some 70,000 Americans, fighting a resurgent Taliban who have managed to spread their attacks out of strongholds in the south and east into previously peaceful areas.