Reporting from London — Afghan President Hamid Karzai has told world leaders that he intends to reach out to top echelons of the Taliban, and he called Thursday for an invigorated international peace effort with the militant Islamic group, starting with an initial meeting in a few weeks.
Karzai told a gathering of officials from about 70 countries and international groups -- assembled to discuss efforts to wind down the war -- that he is seeking the mediation of Saudi Arabia and the blessing of Pakistan to try to negotiate peace with the leaders of the militants that his government drove from power a little over eight years ago.
The idea did not receive a warm reception from the United States.
Karzai said he will convene a "grand peace jirga" of prominent Afghans in the next few weeks to debate and lend legitimacy to the peace effort.
"We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers who are not part of Al Qaeda or other terrorist networks [and] who accept the Afghan Constitution," Karzai told officials of about 70 countries and international groups.
However, the idea of making peace with an opponent that has killed well above 1,000 Western troops remains highly sensitive with Americans and other countries that have sent forces, and Karzai's initiative is a delicate issue with the Obama administration.
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, in her presentation to the conference, said the United States supports a new international effort at "reintegration" -- winning over lower-level fighters by offering financial and other incentives. But she pointedly said nothing about "reconciliation" -- peace talks with the insurgent leadership.
In a news conference, however, she registered no objection to the idea of Taliban leaders taking part in Karzai's planned jirga, as his aides say they expect.
"You don't make peace with your friends," she told reporters. "You have to be willing to engage with your enemies."
And although U.S. officials insist they are not pursuing peace with the leadership, privately some U.S. officials are open to deal-making, at least with Taliban leaders who are willing to meet several key conditions. These include renouncing violence, following the Afghan Constitution and, perhaps most important, agreeing not to help the Al Qaeda militants whose presence in Afghanistan started the long war.
Karzai has mentioned his interest in making a deal with the Taliban before, but he gave it new prominence in his agenda as he listed his plans for strengthening his battered country's security, government and economy. Some officials attending the meeting said the idea has found a new receptivity among leaders of countries involved in the international coalition in Afghan.
In his speech, Karzai called for the creation of a new peacemaking organization, to be called the National Council for Peace, Reconciliation and Reintegration. He said the jirga, a traditional Afghan public meeting, would be convened once the body was organized.
He said he hoped King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia would "kindly play a prominent role to guide and assist the peace process." And he said the Afghan government would ask all its neighbors, "particularly Pakistan," to support the peace effort.
Karzai has previously asked for peacemaking help from the Saudis, who may be logical intermediaries because, among other things, they were one of only three governments that recognized the Taliban government in the 1990s. And Pakistan's support for the idea could be crucial as well, in part because some parts of the Pakistani government have quietly supported and funded the Afghan Taliban for years.
Staff writer Laura King in Kabul, Afghanistan, contributed to this report.