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Last Updated: Tuesday, 25 September 2007, 12:27 GMT 13:27 UK
What chance Afghan peace talks?
By Chris Morris
BBC News, Kabul

A man sells nuts in Afghanistan
Afghan people say they are fed up of the war

It's all quiet in Afghanistan's national stadium in Kabul. The grass is being watered, the pitch is being marked out for a football match, and a couple of workmen are carrying wooden scaffolding behind one of the goals.

But only a few years ago - at the turn of the century - this was where the Taleban held their public executions, hanging or stoning people to death in front of large crowds.

And the comparison between then and now is worth thinking about, at a time when there are suggestions that the Western-backed government here could be about to start talks with the Taleban.

President Hamid Karzai has always been keen to promote reconciliation. This still feels like a very early stage of negotiations, but the United Nations has now upped the ante by offering to mediate.

It could all come to nothing or - possibly - something significant could be starting to happen.

Feelers

"The government has left the door open," said President Karzai's spokesman, Hamayun Hamidzada. "We welcome any initiative, any effort, that will lead to peace."

An Afghan policeman stands guard at Darlaman Palace in Kabul
Kabul is still scarred by years of war

So the government is putting out feelers, trying to work out whether there is a genuine desire for contact among the central leadership of the Taleban.

It is useful to remember that Taleban has become a catch-all term used to describe quite diverse groups and tribes - local Afghans, groups backed by Pakistan, foreign radicals linked to al-Qaeda.

They won't all be welcome at the negotiating table.

"We have been in contact with the Taleban," Mr Hamidzada said, "with those who actually wanted to join the political process, or just come back as ordinary citizens."

But can there really be meaningful talks at the same time as military clashes are taking place every day in places like Kandahar and Helmand?

"What we're doing is opening the door of negotiation for those Taleban who are actually Afghan," he replied.

"But others, more radical, who are coming from outside - their intention is to destroy Afghanistan and we have to deal with them militarily."

'Free Afghanistan'

Finding out what the Taleban really think is not easy. We reached a Taleban spokesman, Qari Yousef Ahmadi, by phone somewhere in southern Afghanistan.

The burden of responsibility is on the Taleban to make their vision compatible, not on us
Hamayun Hamidzada,
Presidential spokesman

He told the BBC that the government should agree to the Taleban's demand that foreign troops leave the country, before serious negotiations begin. In other interviews he's phrased things slightly differently.

"We want a free independent Afghanistan," he said. "We want 100% Islamic law and no foreign interference. That is the inspiration behind our jihad [holy war]."

But there are tens of thousands of foreign troops in Afghanistan at the invitation of President Karzai's government. Many of them are fighting against the Taleban every day.

Still, senior officials at Nato and the UN say they are interested in the idea of formal discussions between the government and the Taleban, provided that the Afghan constitution is respected.

President Hamid Karzai
President Karzai says he is keen to promote reconciliation

As for the Americans, for a long time their mantra has been "no talks with terrorists". But it is a little more nuanced now.

The Deputy Secretary of State, John Negroponte, was a recent visitor to Kabul.

"We would think that this proposal for talks should be handled in such a way by the government of Afghanistan," he said, "that it does not in any way undermine or prejudice all the important political, social and economic accomplishments that have occurred in this country since 11 September 2001."

That seems to be a view shared by many vendors on Kabul's Music Street, a riot of noise in the heart of the city. There are CDs, DVDs, videos... Hollywood, Bollywood, you name it.

All of it was banned completely under the Taleban. So there are - understandably - mixed feelings about talking to the Taleban once again.

"They can't come back with the same system that they used to have, but talking is good because we're fed up with the war, with the fighting," said one man.

"They might try to ban music again, so I'm not sure I want them back. But we're all sons of the same soil," said another.

'Fingers in the pie'

So will anything significant actually happen?

At the moment, it is hard to tell. Some well-connected sources argue that it probably won't.

There are elements in Hamid Karzai's government - and in parliament - who do not want to talk to the Taleban at all. Sharing power in any sense would mean they would lose ground.

And then there are other foreign powers - who do not have military forces in the country - but who have their own interests in Kabul.

"Moscow is ruling here, India is ruling there, Tehran is ordering here. So now Afghanistan's [destiny] is not in our own hands."

Professor Wadir Safi of Kabul University points out that all Afghanistan's neighbours have got a finger in the pie, and wield influence somewhere in this complex political system.

Taleban fighters
The question now is - can the Taleban change?

But he is looking in particular at events in Pakistan.

"I think if Benazir Bhutto is coming to power there, they will be happy for these talks to happen as soon as possible," he argued.

In order to solve Pakistan's internal problems it will be in their interest "to talk to the Afghan government through the Taleban to finish this situation".

That could just be wishful thinking. Perhaps a few disaffected tribes could be persuaded to talk and to change sides.

And there are certainly officials in Kabul who think constant military pressure on the Taleban over the past six months could be pushing them towards compromise.

But one source in Pakistan, with close contacts in the Taleban, is not optimistic.

They will always talk at a local level, he argued, but there is little sign of change in the central command.

Long haul

Central Kabul is busy and bustling these days. People enjoy basic personal freedoms they never had under the Taleban.

And that begs a question - is the Afghan government's vision for Afghanistan really compatible with that of the Taleban anyway?

"The government's vision is the legitimate one for Afghanistan," said presidential spokesman Hamayun Hamidzada.

"The burden of responsibility is on the Taleban to make their vision compatible, not on us," he added.

"So you're asking them to change?" I ask.

"Of course. Change in the light of the constitution. Change for the Afghan people. Change for the sake of peace."

But there are some who won't change.

And even if a meaningful process of reconciliation does begin, the future of Afghanistan will probably be fought over as well as talked about for years to come.



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