OTTAWA - Clandestine talks meant to convince Afghan Taliban to lay down their arms are underway, but Kabul's outgoing ambassador to Canada says his government will not sacrifice democratic and human rights principles to achieve peace.
The meetings are a "policy position on the part of my government - and some of our international friends - to test different approaches in the aim of bringing peace and stability to Afghanistan," Omar Samad said in an interview with The Canadian Press, on his final day in Ottawa.
The talks involving intermediaries of the Karzai government and a motley collection of insurgent commanders are reportedly taking place in the United Arab Emirates. While the discussions have the tacit approval of U.S. officials, there is no American presence at the table in Dubai.
Samad conceded he was optimistic, but wanted to downplay expectations of a quick and easy settlement.
"We're still at the beginning of the process (and) I don't think we're anywhere near the end of political talks here," said Samad, who left Friday to become the Afghan ambassador in France.
With the help of former Taliban officials now in his government, President Hamid Karzai opened channels to the handful of disparate leaders who together make up the violent insurgency that NATO, including 2,850 Canadian soldiers, have been fighting for years.
One of those former hard-liners, Arsala Rahmani, described the talks as significant, but preliminary.
"The very important thing is this that we have to know what do Taliban (want) and how can we talk to them," Rahmani told The Canadian Press in an interview from Kabul.
Afghan government emissaries have reportedly approached Mullah Omar, the elusive spiritual head of the Taliban movement, as well as notorious commander Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
It is unclear whether Omar, the one-eyed cleric who headed the brutal Taliban regime that sheltered al-Qaida, sent representatives to the talks in the United Arab Emirates.
A spokesman for Hekmatyar told a Pakistani news agency last week that the infamous mujahedeen leader and former Afghan prime minister would not personally attend negotiations, but was watching their progress.
Described by the Asian media as the "Michael Corleone of Jihad," Hekmatyar is among the U.S. most wanted terrorists with a $25 million bounty on his head. His group claimed responsibility recently for an attack that claimed the lives of three American servicemen in northern Afghanistan.
Speculation is rampant in Afghan political circles that Karzai, who is up for re-election, is willing to forge a power-sharing deal with the black-turbaned warlord, whose artillery and militia unleashed a bloodbath on Kabul during the Afghan civil war of the early 1990s.
In addition to being a militia commander with alleged ties to the drug trade, Hekmatyar also heads the political movement Hezb-i-Islami, which counts a handful of MPs in the Afghan Parliament.
European Union officials are pushing hard behind the scenes, seeing a political settlement as NATO's way out of Afghanistan.
But the idea of cutting a deal with Hekmatyar is making even the most determined peace advocate blanch.
"Within Afghan society right now, there are different views and perceptions about how to go about political talks and to what extent do you embrace people who have - in some cases - committed crimes, flagrant crimes," said Samad.
The Taliban, who had previously refused to hold talks while foreign troops were in Afghanistan, have reportedly focused their demands on a timetable for the withdrawal of U.S. forces.
There are currently 47,000 U.S. troops and 33,000 NATO soldiers in the country, with the U.S. portion set to rise to 68,000 by the end of this year.
Samad said regardless of the proposals, the Afghan government is not prepared to sacrifice democratic principles, including human rights, the rights of women and an education system open to everyone.
Western countries have been showing increasing concern about the direction the Karzai government has taken, particularly its attempt to appease conservative clerics with a Shiite law that effectively legalizes rape within a marriage.
Rahmani, who was invited to the talks but chose to stay in Kabul to work on Karzai's re-election campaign, said much will depend on Saudi Arabia.
The oil-rich kingdom has been heavily involved in trying to broker a political settlement and has even been asked to grant political asylum to fugitive Taliban leaders who agree to give up the fight, Rahmani added.
He suggested removing the names of those leaders from UN, European and U.S. terrorist lists could lead to a cease fire and further negotiations.
Still, there is deep skepticism in the war-weary nation.
Khalid Faruqi, a Hezb-i-Islami MP from the Afghan province of Paktika, said as long as negotiations take place outside of Afghanistan there will no settlement and no peace.
"In near past, some other peace jirgas (meetings) were held in Pakistan, in Iran and at some other places, but we saw no result," Faruqi told a Canadian Press journalist in Kandahar.
He said neutral territory should be set aside in Afghanistan, similar to the Korean demilitarized zone, where negotiations can take place.
Another Hezbi-i-Islami MP, Abdul Jabar Shingarie, said he was asked to participate in the Dubai meeting, but declined because he believes two-sided negotiations are doomed to fail.
A strong third party - possibly the Saudis - need to be at the table to force compromises, he said.