Panel has ideas for Afghan peace

KABUL, Afghanistan — Releasing Taliban figures detained at Guantanamo Bay and scratching scores of others off the U.N. sanctions list would jump-start peace talks aimed at ending the 9-year-old war, members of Afghanistan's new peace council said Tuesday.

The council members, who hold their first business meeting today, said goodwill gestures from the U.S. and international community could spur reconciliation talks — perhaps at a neutral location in Saudi Arabia, Turkmenistan, Egypt or Turkey.

The momentum for a political solution has been slowly building in Afghanistan as public support for the war has waned in the West. The renewed push for peace comes as the last of 30,000 U.S. reinforcements have arrived in Afghanistan, pushing deeper into areas long held by insurgents.

Many top military and diplomatic leaders have publicly supported peace efforts, though they remain skeptical that insurgents are ready to lay down their arms, embrace the Afghan constitution and sever ties with al-Qaida and other terrorist networks.

Ethnic minorities and women, who were repressed under the Taliban, have expressed concerns about what any deal with the militants would bring. Most members of the Taliban are Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan. The minority Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras are not likely to sit quietly on the sidelines if Afghan President Hamid Karzai, a Pashtun, makes a deal with insurgents.

But Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, said all parties including the Taliban know there is no military solution to the conflict. He predicted the next several months will be particularly violent because both the Taliban and international forces will be applying maximum pressure on each other to position themselves for possible negotiation.

In hopes of finding a peaceful resolution, Karzai recently set up the 68-member council to guide formal talks with the armed opposition.

Karzai said this week that his government has been talking with the Taliban "countryman to countryman" for "quite some time." He characterized the talks as unofficial personal contacts — not official contact with the Taliban leadership.