Tue 18 Nov, 2008 10:01 am
U.S.-Afghan rift builds around Karzai's overture to Taliban
By Saeed Shah | McClatchy Newspapers
ISLAMABAD, Pakistan " Afghanistan's Taliban insurgents rejected an offer of talks from Kabul Monday and threatened for the first time to strike a target in the West, suggesting many years of violent conflict to come.
The U.S. also shot down the Afghan government proposal and said it wouldn't support such an initiative " worsening the strain in U.S.-Afghan relations.
The major beneficiary of the dispute appears to be the Taliban, which said it wouldn't come to the negotiating table until all foreign troops left Afghanistan, as it vowed in a videotape to strike in Paris unless coalition member France withdraws its forces.
Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who launched the peace move, offered to hold direct negotiations with the leader of the Taliban, Mullah Mohammad Omar and to guarantee him safe passage. Karzai Sunday challenged the U.S.-led international coalition to "remove me, or leave if they disagree."
In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack slapped down the idea Monday. "One can't imagine the circumstances where you have the senior leadership of the Taliban " that there would be any safe passage with respect to U.S. forces. Certainly, it's hard to imagine those circumstances standing here right now," McCormack said.
There have been no reported sightings of Omar, a close associate of al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, since the U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
But Omar's brother and deputy leader of the Taliban, Mullah Brother, scorned the proposal Monday.
"As long as foreign occupiers remain in Afghanistan, we aren't ready for talks because they hold the power and talks won't bear fruit. . . The problems in Afghanistan are because of them," Brother told the Reuters news agency, by satellite telephone from an undisclosed location.
"We are safe in Afghanistan and we have no need for Hamid Karzai's offer of safety," he added. Despite his assertion, most intelligence suggests that top Taliban leadership are based in and around the southwestern Pakistani city of Quetta.
U.S. authorities have put a $10 million bounty on Omar's head. When Omar's Taliban militia ruled Afghanistan, from 1996 until they were toppled in the U.S. invasion, they provided a sanctuary to bin Laden and other top al Qaida leaders.
Karzai faces a presidential election next year, where he will have to defend a record of declining security in Afghanistan. A Western military official who shuttles between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and couldn't be named because of the sensitivity of the subject, said Karzai's offer may really have been aimed at lesser Taliban figures.
"There is thought put into these statements. It's to see if anyone nibbles at this," the official said. "To those Taliban who are becoming war-weary, it may plant the seed of dissension."
The Taliban has portrayed itself as a nationalist movement, distinct from al Qaida's ideology of international jihad. So a video aired on al Arabiya television, a channel based in Dubai, in which the Taliban threatened to take the fight to Paris, marked a radical departure for the group. The Taliban have no known capability to strike in the West but its closeness to al Qaida could, in theory, allow it to subcontract a terrorist attack to bin Laden's group.
During the past three years, the Taliban has staged a comeback in southern and eastern Afghanistan and tested Western resolve. French forces had only just moved out into a frontline role in August from their relatively safe position in Kabul when a Taliban ambush killed 10 of their soldiers.
"We have killed 10 French soldiers today as a message to the French so that they rectify their mistakes and withdraw from Afghanistan, and if they don't they will hear our response in Paris," said Mullah Farouq, identified as the commander of the unit that attacked the French troops, on the undated video.
Such was the trauma in France from the August assault that French President Nicolas Sarkozy immediately flew to Afghanistan. There are suggestions that the Taliban had picked on the French in the video because they perceived France's commitment to the war to be weak. There are about 2,600 French troops in Afghanistan, and they are among nearly 71,000 international soldiers.
Pierre Conesa, the director general of European Company for Strategic Intelligence, an independent Paris-based research group, said that the deaths were the "most significant slaughter in recent French history".
"Afghanistan is a country where you have to talk with everybody, because you will never have a central power, if you want to implement peace. Taliban are a force, so you have to take them into account."
"You have to solve the problem with discussion because we will not be able to win the war in Afghanistan."
(Shah is a McClatchy special correspondent)