KABUL, (Reuters) – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said on Sunday he would guarantee security for Taliban leader Mullah Mohammad Omar if he ever wanted to negotiate and said Western allies should remove him or leave if they disagreed with that.
With the Taliban insurgency spreading seven years after the hardline Islamists were forced from power, the possibility of talks with more moderate Taliban leaders is increasingly being considered, both in Afghanistan and among its allies.
The Afghan government says it is willing to talk to anyone who recognises the constitution.
A tentative first step towards talks was taken in September when a group of pro-government Afghan officials and former Taliban officials met in Saudi Arabia for discussions on how to end the conflict. But the Taliban have rejected any suggestion of talks as long as foreign troops remain. Karzai, who visited the United States and Britain last week, said that Taliban condition was unacceptable.
However, Karzai said he would guarantee the safety of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Omar if he ever wanted to talk peace. “If I hear from him that he is willing to come to Afghanistan or to negotiate for peace … I, as the president of Afghanistan, will go to any length providing protection,” Karzai said. “If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices: remove me or leave if they disagree,” he said.
But Karzai said there was a way to go before a security guarantee for Mullah Omar was even an issue. He was still waiting for the Taliban to prove that they wanted peace.
“We are not in that stage yet. Right now, I have to hear it from the Taliban leadership, that they are willing to have peace in Afghanistan. They must prove themselves,” he said.
Mullah Omar carries a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head. As with Osama bin Laden and other al Qaeda leaders, Omar is believed to be in hiding somewhere along the Afghan-Pakistani border.
Violence in Afghanistan has surged over the past two years, raising the doubts about prospects for the country and its Western-backed government.
About 70,000 foreign troops, about half of them American, are struggling against the Taliban, whose influence, and attacks, are spreading through the countryside in the south, east and west.
U.S. President-elect Barack Obama has also suggested he was open to talks with more moderate Taliban leaders to explore whether a strategy used in Iraq of talking to enemies, that is credited with helping turn around the situation there, would work in Afghanistan.