KABUL, Afghanistan -- President Hamid Karzai had a suggestion Thursday for Mullah Mohammed Omar, the fugitive leader of the Taliban movement: Run for president if you want.
The Afghan leader, speaking at a news conference, urged the Taliban chief to embark on negotiations with his government and take part in the political process. He said Omar and his “comrades” could set up a political party and that Omar himself could become a candidate for office if he wished.
“If people vote for him, he can take the leadership,” Karzai declared. Afghanistan’s next presidential elections are scheduled in 2014.
Karzai also said that Omar could visit Afghanistan “anywhere he wants,” but added,“He should put the gun down.” Renouncing violence is a condition for Taliban who wish to join government “reintegration” programs intended to draw fighters away from the battlefield.
In inviting Omar to run for office, it was not clear whether the Afghan president was speaking rhetorically -- as he once did when, angry at his Western allies, he threatened to join the Taliban. Omar, the self-styled Commander of the Faithful, has been on the run since the Taliban movement was driven from power in the U.S.-led invasion of 2001. He is believed, like most of the Taliban leadership, to have taken shelter in Pakistan and still has an American bounty on his head.
NATO’s International Security Assistance Force declined to comment on Karzai’s remarks, saying they were an Afghan government matter. Western officials support starting talks with the Taliban, but say the process has to be “Afghan-led,” and the Taliban so far have publicly rejected talks with Karzai’s government.
The Taliban leadership often derides Karzai as a “puppet,” but he used similar language to describe insurgents who answer to outside groups like Al Qaeda.
“They are the puppets, working for those who don’t want Afghan progress and prosperity,” he said.
-- Laura King and Aimal Yaqubi