U.S. ambassador appeals to Taliban to make peace

Friday, December 3, 2004

KABUL, Afghanistan -- The top U.S. official in Afghanistan called on the Taliban to give up their three-year insurgency, pledging Thursday that most who surrender will be left in peace if they acknowledge the authority of President-elect Hamid Karzai.

An estimated 100-150 Taliban leaders, including former head Mullah Omar, commanders of the insurgency and those associated with al-Qaida are ineligible for the offer.

U.S. Ambassador to Afghanistan Zalmay Khalilzad said he was working with Karzai's government on a reconciliation plan that could be expanded to include Afghans exiled by earlier conflicts.

Young Afghans, in particular, should surrender to village elders or U.S. troops as an "interim step" toward reintegration, he said.

"There's no need to fight, to stay in the mountains. Afghanistan has entered a new stage," Khalilzad told reporters in the capital, Kabul. "It's time for this to end."

Previous offers of amnesty have drawn strong opposition from the armed factions who helped the United States drive out the Taliban in 2001, but could see their influence diluted in Karzai's new government.

Officials say many members of the Pashtun-dominated militia have contacted them seeking assurances they will not be thrown into prison if they return to their villages. There even has been speculation that moderate, Taliban-linked figures could resurface in the Cabinet, which is expected to be announced shortly after Karzai's inauguration next week.

Winning over more former Taliban could broaden the government's base and allow it to focus on what Karzai says are more pressing priorities -- tackling the country's booming narcotics trade while resuscitating the economy.

However, violence has continued since Karzai won a majority in the Oct. 9 presidential election, with aid workers and civilians as well as U.S. and Afghan soldiers among the victims.

Lt. Gen. Eric Olson, the operational commander of American forces here, said Tuesday that no more than six fighters in two villages had taken up the military's version of the "truce" so far.

"We're offering them the opportunity to come to us, essentially swear allegiance to the central government and then what we guarantee we won't do is run an operation against them or take them prisoner," he said in an interview.

"We're promoting that in anticipation that once a few start to come over, it may be contagious," he said.

Olson said a priority for American leaders was how to gradually hand over control of more of the country to the Afghan government. The United States is pouring billions of dollars into training a new national army and rebuilding infrastructure and ministries.

But he also said he didn't expect his 18,000-strong force hunting militants in the south and east of the country to shrink for at least another year.

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