Mullah Omar, headscarves and bizarre Afghan peace talks

Reuters News
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Posted: Jul 15, 2011 9:33 AM
Mullah Omar, headscarves and bizarre Afghan peace talks

By Jonathon Burch

KABUL (Reuters) - Afghanistan's complex and often confusing business of talks with the Taliban took a surprisingly dramatic turn this week when a female lawmaker told a news conference she had recently met the militant group's leader, Mullah Omar, who agreed to make peace.

Despite questions of credibility, the large turnout to Thursday's unusual event, which included representatives from Western embassies, highlights the somewhat desperate nature of peace talks as foreign powers look for an exit from the war.

Homa Sultani, a former rights activist and now an MP from Ghazni, a volatile province southwest of Kabul, said she had met the reclusive Omar some 150 km (90 miles) from the capital and that they had wept together after deliberating the country's plight.

Omar then sat down on Sultani's headscarf which she had placed on the floor in front of him, she said, before the one-eyed fugitive leader accepted her proposal to act as his lone mediator for peace.

"It wasn't that Mullah Omar had fallen in love with my eyes or my eyebrows, we seriously engaged in peace talks," Sultani told the news conference in Kabul on Thursday. Another male MP, Haji Abdul Basir, who was also at the news conference, had witnessed the meeting, Sultani said.

That Sultani's story would draw a packed audience from Kabul's local and international press corps along with low-profile Afghan delegates from Western embassies, shows just how little is really known about peace "talks" with the Taliban.

"Several embassies (inc Brits) sent people to today's bizarre presser with Mullah Omar's improbable mediators. Clutching at straws?" one Western journalist said on Twitter after the news conference.

UNREALISTIC HOPES

Reports about talks have intensified as the United States and its allies prepare to gradually withdraw from Afghanistan and as acceptance grows for the need for a negotiated settlement to a war that is fast approaching its tenth year.

But so little is known about these contacts that they have been open to widely different interpretations and have had all kinds of unrealistic hopes placed on them.

Late last year, the talks process itself bordered on farce when an apparent senior Taliban leader, who had been flown to Kabul for secret talks with the Afghan government, transpired to be an impostor, leaving Afghan and foreign officials red-faced.

A Taliban spokesman dismissed Sultani's meeting as fraud, saying it would take more than a woman's scarf to bring peace. The Taliban have publicly maintained they will not enter into any negotiations as long as foreign troops are in Afghanistan.

Karzai's office was not immediately available for comment.

At Thursday's conference, Sultani also produced a handwritten letter. On one side, she said, was an endorsement from Afghan President Hamid Karzai and on the other side was a signature from Mullah Omar.

The letter had been written in Dari although Mullah Omar's first language, like the vast majority of the Taliban, is Pashto. Despite the letter however, the Afghan government had pulled out of the agreement at the last minute, she added later.

Sultani said she didn't have to wear a burqa or even a veil during her meeting with Omar but said she had not been allowed to take photos or record the encounter. Women were required to cover from head to toe when the Taliban were in power.

"I can present Mullah Omar here to you if his safety and security can be assured," said Sultani as some journalists sniggered.

But ever the jovial crowd, the Afghan journalists in the room soon made clear what they thought of Sultani's story. Reporters jokingly embraced and congratulated each other that peace had finally come.

(Editing by Sugita Katyal)