KABUL (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai, hoping to launch a peace initiative this year, left for Saudi Arabia on Tuesday to seek help from its king to reach out to the Taliban.
Riyadh, one of only three capitals that recognized the Taliban while the Islamist militants were in power before their ouster in 2001, has said the group must deny sanctuary to al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden before it will act as a mediator.
Saudi Arabia has helped arrange contacts between Karzai’s government and Taliban representatives in the past and he called on the kingdom for help again at an international conference in London last week.
Casualties among Afghan civilians and foreign troops reached record levels last year as Afghan and international forces fought a resurgent Taliban. Western nations, who have more than 110,000 troops in Afghanistan, have said the war cannot be won militarily and talks will have to be held eventually.
Karzai is expected to hold talks with King Abdullah on “national reconciliation in Afghanistan and in the region” during his visit to Saudi Arabia, the presidential palace in Kabul said in a statement.
Karzai plans to summon a “loya jirga,” or grand council of elders and influential figures, in coming weeks as part of a high-profile push to reconcile with the Taliban and other insurgents.
His repeated peace overtures to the Taliban in recent years have so far resulted only in the surrender of some low-ranking militant fighters.
Taliban leaders have insisted all Western forces must withdraw from Afghanistan before they will agree to talks. On Sunday, Karzai rejected that precondition, saying the Taliban should help make peace first so that the troops can leave.
At last week’s conference, Karzai managed to secure pledges of hundreds of millions of dollars from donor nations for a fund to lure insurgent foot soldiers away from the insurgency.
Many regional experts say the latest initiative for talks is unlikely to yield fruit quickly because the Taliban do not see anything new in it and still hope to win a military victory.