KABUL – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Thursday he's willing to talk with the Taliban chief in a bid to bring peace to the country if the move has the backing of the United States and other international partners.
Karzai had previously offered to talk with Taliban leader Mullah Omar, but the Bush administration opposed such contacts. President Obama has said the U.S. must "open the door" to Taliban members who abandon violence.
Karzai's interview, which took place in the presidential palace, was his first since Obama announced a new strategy for Afghanistan, including sending 30,000 U.S. reinforcements to combat the growing Taliban insurgency. Obama said in his Tuesday address if all went well, the U.S. could begin withdrawing troops in July 2011.
The Afghan leader said he was not upset by the July 2011 date because it would give an "impetus and a boost" for Afghans to work toward taking control of their own nation. He also said it was time to offer peace to Taliban members and end the insurgency.
"We must talk to the Taliban as an Afghan necessity. The fight against terrorism and extremism cannot be won by fighting alone," Karzai said. "Personally, I would definitely talk to Mullah Omar. Whatever it takes to bring peace to Afghanistan, I, as the Afghan president, will do it."
But Karzai said the effort must have the full backing of the United States and its international partners. He said "sections of the international community" had undermined previous peace overtures by harassing former Taliban members "even though they had quit the insurgency."
He offered no examples.
Karzai offered to negotiate directly with Omar in November 2008, promising to provide security for the Taliban leader if he was "willing to come to Afghanistan or to negotiate for peace." The Taliban said at the time they would not enter into any negotiations as long as international forces were still in Afghanistan — a stance the group has held to since.
Omar disappeared after the collapse of the Taliban regime in November 2001 and has been rumored to be living in Pakistan, a charge the Pakistani government denies.
In Washington, a senior U.S. official declined to comment on the reported offer but noted the Obama administration wanted the Afghan government to pursue reconciliation.
"Obviously, being part of the reconciliation process requires recognizing the Afghan government, renouncing violence and becoming a part of the political process," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive. "We have not seen him (Mullah Omar) give any indication that he is willing to join a peaceful and democratic process."
In Brussels, Belgium, U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Richard Holbrooke, said reconciliation talks had been "on the backburner" but were now "moving to the frontburner.
"There's an open door for any people fighting with the Taliban to renounce al-Qaida, lay down their arms and are processed peacefully," Holbrooke said. "But let me be clear, this takes a little time. It has to be Afghan-led and it requires resources."
During the interview, Karzai appeared relaxed and confident, displaying an air of independence despite intense U.S. and international pressure to crack down on corruption and improve governance following this summer's contentious election that gave him a second term.
Karzai demanded the respect of Western leaders and defended the election, which U.N.-backed auditors said was tarnished by widespread fraud. He accused Western politicians and media of insulting him, his administration "and the Afghan people" by their repeated allegations of vote fraud.
He said the election was not fraudulent and any corruption that occurred was not the work of Afghans.
"The Afghan elections were the best under the circumstances," he said. "We had no security in the south of the country. European observers called for the elections to be canceled even before the votes were counted."
He said the prospect of a U.S. military drawdown caused him no alarm.
"For Afghans, it's good that we are facing a deadline. We must begin to stand on our own feet. Even if it is with our own meager means — whatever those means may be. And we must begin to defend our own country. And if we, the Afghan people, cannot defend our country, ourselves, against an aggressor from within or without, then no matter what the rest of the world does with us, it will not produce the desired results," he said.