By DEB RIECHMANN, Associated Press
KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The son of a former Afghan peace council chairman killed by a suicide bomber was elected Saturday to succeed his father as head of the group tasked with reaching out to the Taliban to find a political resolution to the decade-long war.
It is hoped that having a new leader after seven months with no one at the helm will give impetus to the group, which has been in the background of insurgent talks with the U.S., Afghan and other world leaders. News of Salahuddin Rabbani's election comes as officials in Kabul are meeting with leaders of another militant group, Hizb-i-Islami, in an effort to bring an end to more than ten years of fighting.
Part of the U.S.-led coalition's exit strategy is to gradually transfer security responsibility to Afghan forces. Another tack is to pull the Taliban and other militant factions into political discussions with the Afghan government.
The 70-plus members of the Afghan High Peace Council chose Rabbani, an ethnic Tajik and former ambassador to Turkey, to lead the group in an open election, according to a statement released by Karzai's office. Rabbani is the son of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani who was killed Sept. 20, 2011 in his home by a suicide bomber posing as a peace emissary from the Taliban.
"I believe that bringing peace and stability to our country will only be possible through peace," Rabbani said in the statement.
"The peace process can be successful only if Afghans are in the lead," he said. "Otherwise, we cannot achieve things, and we cannot gain the trust of the nation."
Rabbani also said that continued fighting has resulted in the long presence of foreign forces on Afghan soil.
"If we have peace in our country, there will be no reason for the foreign forces to stay," he said.
Rabbani's election comes as a delegation Hizb-i-Islami is in Kabul for reconciliation talks.
A five-member delegation from the group has been meeting with members of the High Peace Council and will meet in coming days with President Hamid Karzai and both of his vice presidents, a spokesman for the president said Saturday.
"They have come to Kabul with a list of demands, but this is just the beginning of discussions, and we cannot reach a conclusion about the talks at this time," said the spokesman, Aimal Faizi.
Hizb-i-Islami is a radical Islamist militia that controls territory in Afghanistan's northeast and launches attacks from Pakistan against U.S. forces. Its leader, powerful warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, is a former Afghan prime minister and one-time U.S. ally who is now listed as a terrorist by Washington.
Hekmatyar is a bitter rival of Mullah Omar, the leader of the Taliban, even though both are fighting international troops. A third major faction operating in Afghanistan is run by the notorious Haqqani network, which has conducted lethal attacks against U.S. and NATO troops.
The first official Hizb-i-Islami delegation held talks with the Afghan government in February 2010 and presented a 15-point peace plan, according to the group's European representative, Qaribur Rahman Saeed. The group did not receive a positive or negative response from the government to the plan.
Then, in December 2011, at the request of the U.S., a Hizb-i-Islami delegation went to Kabul and met with American, Afghan, NATO and military coalition officials and had a working meeting with Karzai, Saeed said. He described the current discussions as "a kind of working meeting to chalk out the future strategy."
Recently, Saeed said that Hizb-i-Islami had suspended talks with the Afghan government because they had produced nothing practical. However, Ghairat Baheer, head of the delegation in Kabul and Hekmatyar's son-in-law, has denied that talks were ever terminated.
The Taliban announced in March that they were suspending talks with the U.S. Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mujahid accused the U.S. of failing to follow through on its promises, making new demands and falsely claiming that the militant group had entered into multilateral negotiations.
Mujahid said they had agreed to discuss only two issues with the Americans: the establishment of the militant group's political office in Qatar and a prisoner exchange. The Taliban are seeking the release of five top Taliban leaders from the U.S. military prison at Guantanamo Bay.
The Taliban said the Americans initially agreed to take practical steps on these issues, but then "turned their backs on their promises" and came up with new conditions for the talks.
The White House has said that the U.S. continues to support an Afghan-led process toward reconciliation and that U.S. terms for participation in that process by the Taliban have not changed.
Associated Press Writer Rahim Faiez contributed to this report.