KABUL, (AFP) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai Friday used his traditional message marking the Eid Muslim holiday to call on the leader of the Taliban to stop fighting and join peace talks to end Afghanistan’s long war.
Karzai also called on his Western backers, the United States and NATO allies which now have 150,000 troops in the country, to focus on insurgent sanctuaries over the border in Pakistan rather than fighting in Afghan villages.
“We hope Mullah Mohammad Omar Akhund joins the peace process, gives up fratricide, gives up bombings and blasts, stops causing casualties to Afghanistan’s children, women and men,” he said, using Omar’s religious title.
Karzai was speaking at the presidential palace at a traditional post-prayers gathering of government ministers and officials to mark the first day of the Eid holiday that follows the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan.
Karzai last week announced that he had set up a council to pursue peace talks with the Taliban, who have been waging an insurgency in Afghanistan for almost nine years.
He is expected to announce the membership line-up after the three-day Eid holiday.
The formation of the High Peace Council was “a significant step towards peace talks,” Karzai’s office said at the time.
It was one of the most significant steps Karzai has taken in his oft-stated efforts to open a dialogue with the Taliban leadership aimed at speeding an end to the war heading into its 10th year.
Karzai’s plan to create the council was approved in June at a “peace jirga” in Kabul attended by community, tribal, religious and political leaders from across the country.
The council was mooted as a negotiating body, to be made up of around 50 representatives of a broad section of Afghan society, to talk peace with the Taliban.
Officials have said it would include former members of the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, a minor but vicious militant group led by former prime minister and mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami is currently in a tenuous alliance with the Taliban, although both sides remain suspicious of each other.
Hekmatyar’s power has waned over the years and he commands far fewer fighters than the Taliban. Nevertheless, the group is active across part of Afghanistan’s northern and eastern provinces.
The Taliban have repeatedly spurned peace overtures, deriding Karzai’s government as a puppet of the United States and saying they will not talk peace until all foreign forces have left the country.
The United States and NATO have 150,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, most of them in the southern hotspots of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.
Karzai renewed his call on the multi-national force to shift focus to militant hideouts on the Pakistani side of the border.
“We expect the NATO forces must know the war on terrorism is not in Afghanistan’s villages,” he said.
Karzai has been increasingly critical of the US military strategy in Afghanistan in recent months, particularly in the case of civilian casualties, which are an emotional touchpaper for Afghans and earn him political capital.
Like many Afghans Karzai believes that the Taliban, other militant groups and their Al-Qaeda backers are operating from Pakistan and that the “war on terror” must be shifted to “enemy bases outside Afghanistan.”
The leadership of the Taliban is believed to be based in Pakistan’s mountainous tribal regions bordering Afghanistan, from where they plan and fund attacks on Afghan targets.
While Afghan leaders have in recent weeks begun to blame the Pakistani authorities for inaction against the militant leadership on its soil, Karzai took the opportunity to express his sympathies for flood victims.
He called on Afghan households to donate “as much as they can to help the brotherly people of Pakistan where we spent 30 years as refugees”.
Meanwhile thousands of Afghans protested across the country after an evangelical pastor in the United States said he planned to burn copies of the Koran to mark the anniversary of the September 9, 2001 attacks on the New York and Washington.
Following Eid prayers, worshippers spilled out of mosques in the northern cities of Mazar-i-Sharif and Fayzabad, as well as in small towns in the centre and west of the country, authorities said.
Officials in northeastern Badakhshan province said reports that one demonstrator had been shot dead were inaccurate, but eight people, including four police officers, had been injured as protestors threw stones at a small NATO outpost.