KABUL, Afghanistan - Afghan President Hamid Karzai got a boost Friday from a national conference of tribal, religious, and civic leaders for his plans to approach the Taliban to talk peace. Karzai's more difficult challenge: convincing insurgent leaders and the Obama administration.
The United States supports overtures to lower-level militants but thinks talks with top leaders will go nowhere until NATO-led and Afghan forces are successful in weakening the Taliban and strengthening the Afghan government in Kandahar province and elsewhere in the south.
The Taliban insists that no talks are possible until foreign troops withdraw from the country - a step Karzai cannot afford with the insurgency raging. U.S. officials contend the Taliban leadership feels it has little reason to negotiate because it believes it is winning the war.
Karzai, who organized the conference, clearly got what he wanted from it: a mandate for his peace efforts and his government months after his victory in an election tainted by fraud.
Still, the three-day conference, or jirga, represented the first major public debate in Afghanistan on how to end nearly nine years of war amid widespread belief that the insurgency cannot be defeated militarily.
"The one significance of the jirga is that for the first time a collective and structured voice of Afghans for peace has been presented to the government and to the international community," said Nader Nadery, deputy chairman of Afghanistan's Independent Human Rights Commission.
About 1,500 delegates from across the country attended the jirga, held in a colossal tent on the grounds of a university in Kabul. While active extremist leaders were not invited, some former Taliban and their sympathizers came. Many of them remain in contact with Taliban foot soldiers - who till their farms by day and lay roadside bombs by night.
Nadery said it's these rank-and-file Taliban who could be pressed by their communities to embrace the peace process, particularly if backed by government incentives.
"It's significant for the Taliban to hear that Afghans from different walks of life . . . are tired of war, are calling on them to at least talk peace," Nadery said. "The pressure from the communities won't be immediate, but it could be the beginning."
As for the top leadership, the jirga's final resolution says insurgents who want to take part must cut their ties with foreign extremist groups - a clear reference to al-Qaeda.
To encourage the Taliban to come to the negotiating table, the resolution calls for extremists who join the peace process to be removed from a U.N. blacklist. The blacklist imposes travel and financial restrictions on 137 people associated with the Taliban.