RICHMOND, Va. – President Hamid Karzai said Sunday that a few hundred Taliban fighters have reconciled with the government and suggested militant leader Mullah Omar should "get in touch" if he wanted to talk peace.
In the context of escalating violence, including homicide attacks, the remarks by Karzai in an interview with The Associated Press were seen as a significant softening of the government's previous policy of not negotiating with top leaders of the hard-line militia.
Despite the spike in bloodshed, the U.S.-backed leader said the Taliban's resistance was fading although he expected homicide attacks to continue in Afghanistan "for a long time."
Karzai said a booming drug trade presented a greater threat to Afghanistan than terrorism and endangered its future.
Omar has been in hiding since U.S.-led forces ousted his fundamentalist Islamic regime four years ago for hosting Usama bin Laden in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks.
The Taliban leader has a $10 million U.S. bounty on his head and is believed to be leading holdouts in a rebellion that left about 1,600 people dead last year, the most since 2001.
Karzai, 48, who won a five-year term as the war-battered nation's first democratically elected leader in 2004, invited all Afghans, "Taliban or non-Taliban," to help rebuild the country, and said that includes Omar.
"If he wants to come, he should get in touch with us," the president said, indicating he was open to the possibility of talks with the reclusive militia leader despite his most-wanted status.
"We would see what he has to say, of course," Karzai said. "But I don't think he will come. He has so much on his hands against Afghanistan. We don't even know as to where he is hiding. He has to first give us an account as to what he's done."
Karzai, who appeared upbeat during the interview at his heavily guarded palace in the snowy capital, Kabul, said hundreds of Taliban members who are "not associated with terrorism" already have participated in a government reconciliation program.
He said the hunt for Omar and bin Laden, who are believed hiding in rugged mountains on the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, would continue. "I am sure we will find them one day."
The president said terrorism has been "relegated to little more than a nuisance" when compared with the scourge of drugs facing the country.
Afghanistan is the world's biggest producer of illegal narcotics, yielding enough opium to make about 450 tons of heroin last year — sparking warnings the country is fast becoming a "narco-state."
The problem has criminalized the economy, tainted the country's image, hindered the development of strong government institutions and undermined young people's lives, Karzai said. He claimed criminal gangs, including some from Europe, threaten to kill farmers if they don't turn to cultivating poppies.
"We have reports of the mafia, from the rest of the world, coming and actively encouraging drugs in Afghanistan," Karzai said. "They are not only from Russia, they are in Europe, they are in Afghanistan, they are in the neighbors of Afghanistan, they are everywhere."
He said some senior Afghan officials were involved in the illegal trade, but he rejected criticism that he has not been tough enough in dealing with them. "We have not been given any evidence so far against anyone," Karzai said.
Karzai said the Taliban resistance to his government was fading, but he expected more suicide attacks, which he viewed as a sign of the "desperation" of anti-government forces. The past four months has seen a spate of about 20 homicide bombings, once a comparative rarity in Afghanistan.
"We will have this for a long time," Karzai said. "We are ready to face them. We will be after them wherever we find them."
Karzai dismissed suggestions by some Afghan officials that the bombing spree showed local militants were adopting tactics used in Iraq. He said it wasn't clear who was behind them and claimed some of the attackers had been duped into killing themselves.
"Quite a few might be people tricked into blowing themselves up, or people who are blown up from a distance," he said. "We have clear indications that some of the bombs were not suicide bombs." He declined to elaborate.
Separately, Karzai said NATO-led troops taking over security in southern Afghanistan must not use aggressive tactics, including air strikes or searches of people's homes, without government permission.
NATO is expanding its operations from the country's relatively stable north and west into the volatile south, where Taliban-led militants are active — a move that will allow the United States to reduce its troop presence in the region.
"We do not want bombing of our villages. We do not want searches of our homes," Karzai said. "We don't want our civilians harassed anymore."
Despite his staunch alliance with Washington, Karzai often has been critical of the muscular tactics of the 20,000-strong U.S.-led coalition forces in hunting down Taliban and Al Qaeda militants in the country's south and east.