KYOTO--Although warring sides in the Afghan conflict stuck to their guns at an international conference here, their rare readiness to appear in public together could provide the spark that leads to dialogue and peace.
Representing the Taliban was Shaikh Din Mohammad, a member of the group's Political Council in charge of foreign affairs under overall commander Mullah Omar.
On the government side was Masoom Stanekzai, an adviser to President Hamid Karzai who also leads efforts to build peace and reconcile with the Taliban.
The venue was a conference on peace-building in Afghanistan, organized by Doshisha University’s Graduate School of Global Studies and held June 27.
"It is groundbreaking that the Taliban made its argument in a systematic manner," said Masanori Naito, a professor of Islamic studies who is also dean of the graduate school. "I believe the occasion served as an opportunity that could possibly lead to peace talks."
Mohammad, who held ministerial posts until the Taliban was routed from power in 2001, demanded early withdrawal of foreign troops from Afghanistan as a precondition for discussing a cease-fire.
He was referring to a strategic pact agreed to by Kabul and Washington to allow a continued U.S. troop presence beyond late 2014, when all security responsibilities are scheduled to be transferred to the Afghan side from the multinational forces.
"If America does not show honesty in its dealings and continues to resort to pretexts in order to prolong its occupation or deprive the people of Afghanistan of real independence under the name of strategic agreement, it will clearly indicate that America intentionally wants to create new hurdles in the way of finding a solution to the issue," Mohammad said.
Stanekzai, underscoring the significance of the transfer of security responsibilities, shot back that a full pullout of international forces could trigger a new civil war.
He was badly injured in the assassination last September of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani, who headed the High Peace Council of Afghanistan that is tasked with reaching a peace deal with the Taliban.
Stanekzai, secretary-general of the council, was meeting with Rabbani when a man disguised as a Taliban envoy blew himself up at Rabbani's home in Kabul.
After the assassination, the Afghan government announced the suspension of peace talks with the Taliban.
Although the Taliban had contacts with the U.S. government in Qatar to negotiate terms for cease-fire talks, it had refused to meet with representatives from the Karzai administration.
Stanekzai called for participation from all groups to move toward cease-fire talks in the war-torn land.
But Mohammad insisted that a pullout of foreign troops remains a key condition for the Taliban's cooperation.
Despite differences with the administration, Mohammad assessed his attendance at the Kyoto conference in a positive light, saying it allowed the Taliban to argue their position.
In a shift from the Taliban's past insistence of sticking to armed struggle, he also expressed his willingness to take part in the international conference on rebuilding Afghanistan in Tokyo on July 8 if he is invited.
Other participants at the university conference included Shaikh Abdulsalam Zaeef, former ambassador to Pakistan under the Taliban government and who subsequently left the Taliban, and Ghairat Baheer, chairman of Political Committee at Hezb Islami Afghanistan and a member of an anti-government group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
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Wataru Nakano, an Asahi Shimbun correspondent based in Islamabad, covered the conference in Kyoto.
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