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Afghan peace plan in trouble as Pakistani clerics balk at proposed meeting

ISLAMABAD — A portion of a peace plan intended to smooth the way for an exit from Afghanistan of U.S.-led military forces already is in trouble, before it has even gotten under way.

At issue is a conference between Pakistani and Afghan religious leaders scheduled for next month in Kabul, the Afghan capital, that was intended to provide religious support for efforts to resolve the war in Afghanistan. But the Pakistani clerics are refusing to participate unless the Taliban are included, something that would be impossible in Afghanistan. The Pakistanis also said they were unwilling to participate in any conference if it could be seen as an endorsement of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.

An emergency meeting Monday in Islamabad between Pakistani and Afghan delegations seemed to make no progress.

“How come people can talk to the Taliban all over the world but not in Kabul?” asked Tahir Ashrafi, chairman of the Pakistan Ulema Council, a leading organization of Pakistani clerics, who was seen as a possible leader of the Pakistani side of the conference. “We support peace talks. But if we are to discuss peace, then how can you leave out one of the parties to the war?”

The proposed conference was announced last month at a meeting in Great Britain between Karzai and Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari, hosted by British Prime Minister David Cameron.

With virtually no chance that the Taliban will be defeated on the battlefield, a peace deal with the insurgents is considered the most hopeful way of avoiding Afghanistan sinking into chaos as the American-led coalition force leaves next year. Washington is eagerly supporting the peace process.

At the British summit, the leaders of Pakistan and Afghanistan ambitiously pledged to aim for a peace deal with the Taliban within six months. The conference of mullahs had been considered a relatively easy part of the plan, giving Islamic sanction to the process.

The Taliban, a religious movement that believes it is fighting a “holy war,” have indicated they’re interested in peace negotiations, and their representatives held discussions in Qatar with U.S. officials last year as well as Germany, France and elsewhere. But there has been no meeting in Afghanistan, and it’s highly unlikely that the Taliban would attend a conference in Afghanistan anytime soon. The Taliban have not agreed to talk to the Karzai government, which it considers a “puppet” regime.

Ashrafi said that after 16 hours of talks with the Afghan side in Islamabad “nothing firm” was agreed upon.

In addition to the Pakistan Ulema Council, the three major religious political parties — Jamaat-e-Islami, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-Fazl and Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-S — were possible choices to go to Kabul, but they didn’t even show up at Monday’s meeting, Ashrafi said.

Liaqat Baloch, secretary-general of Jamaat-e-Islami, Pakistan’s most established Islamic political party, denounced the planned conference.

“This conference would be held under American pressure,” he said. “For 12 years, they’ve been killing people in Afghanistan and now they want us to come along and clean up their mess, sanctify it. We won’t.”

The Taliban have come out strongly against the idea of the conference, and they have been in direct contact with Pakistani clerics on the issue, Ashrafi said. In January, Mullah Mohammed Omar, the leader of the Taliban, issued a statement saying that any religious cleric attending would be “answerable to God,” an apparent threat.

Some reports have said that the Karzai government also hoped to seek a religious edict, or fatwa, against suicide bombing at the meeting — something that would be, at least implicitly, critical of the Taliban. That’s a deal breaker for one of the religious parties, Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-S.

“We won’t give any fatwa against the Taliban cause,” said Syed Ahmed Shah, a spokesman for Jamiat-e-Ulema Islam-S. “They just want to show the world that the Ulema is at this conference, just to use us for propaganda.”

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Shah is a McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent.

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