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Afghan president announces council for talks

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KABUL – Afghan President Hamid Karzai said Tuesday he had appointed members of a committee that will aim to talk peace with the Taliban, including warlords, ex-insurgent commanders and Muslim clerics.

Karzai has been pushing to open a dialogue with the Taliban leadership

“Today we will announce the list of the High Peace Council members,” Karzai said during a ceremony marking Afghanistan’s national literacy day.

His office released a list of 68 people hand-picked by Karzai to lead his efforts to broker a peace deal with Taliban and other insurgents fighting to topple his Western-backed administration.

The list included former president and warlord Burhanuddin Rabani, warlords Abdul Rab Rasoul Sayaf and Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq — all key figures in the resistance during the 1996-2001 Taliban rule over the country.

These commanders helped the United States and other Western allies topple the Taliban from power in late 2001.

The creation of the council was a key decision made in June at a “peace jirga” in Kabul attended by community, tribal, religious and political leaders from across the country.

Dozens of pro-government Islamic clerics, former government officials and tribal elders are also part of the new council, along with at least seven women, Karzai’s spokesman Waheed Omer said.

“This council is mandated to broker peace through negotiation and reconciliation” with the Taliban, Omer told reporters.

“The mandate given to the High Council for Peace is a big mandate. The government will respect their mandate,” he said.

Karzai has been pushing to open a dialogue with the Taliban leadership aimed at speeding an end to the war heading into its 10th year — but the Taliban have rejected talks unless NATO-led foreign forces withdraw from Afghanistan.

Officials have said the council would include former members of the Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, a militant group led by former prime minister and mujahedeen leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

Hekmatyar’s Hizb-i-Islami is currently in a tenuous alliance with the Taliban, although both sides remain suspicious of each other.

“There are sisters on the list, too,” Karzai said earlier Tuesday, without naming any of the women to be appointed.

But a rights watchdog characterised the members as “unlikely peacemakers” and noted women’s representation of just 11 percent.

“There are too many names here that Afghans will associate with war crimes, warlordism and corruption,” said Rachel Reid, Afghan analyst with New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

“This is a disappointing outcome for Afghan women and girls. Women are once again being short changed. The government had promised them more robust representation than this,” she said.

Omer said that one more woman would be added to bring the total to eight.

HRW has been vocal in opposing any erosion of women’s rights as a cost of opening a dialogue with the insurgents, who banned women from education, work or leaving their homes without male relatives during their brutal regime.

The United States and NATO have more than 150,000 troops in Afghanistan fighting the Taliban-led insurgency, most of them in the southern hotspots of Helmand and Kandahar provinces.

Karzai renewed his call Tuesday for the Taliban to stop fighting and join the peace process.

“Compatriots! Do not destroy your land for other’s interests. Do not kill your people for other’s interests, do not close down schools for other’s interests,” he said a speech at a Kabul high school, referring to insurgents.

Karzai has made indirect references to Pakistan and other neighbouring countries allegedly supporting the Taliban for long-term strategic interests. On occasions he has named Pakistan directly.

“Taliban and others, if they consider themselves from this country, and consider themselves Muslims and Afghans, must know every bullet they fire is a bullet at the heart of this land and at the interest of enemies of this land,” he said.

How Bush and Blair plotted in secret to stop Brown

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Patrick Hennessy and Andrew Alderson

Tony Blair attempted to prolong his time as prime minister after he was warned that George W Bush’s US administration had “grave doubts” about Gordon Brown’s suitability to follow him into No10, well placed sources have revealed.

Mr Blair was told that President Bush and those around him would have ‘big problems’ working with Mr Brown

The White House warnings, which were reiterated by other leading US-based figures, played a key role in Mr Blair’s attempt to cling on to power until at least 2008, and to groom David Miliband as his successor, The Sunday Telegraph has been told.

Mr Blair hatched his plot to stay on longer than planned after being told that President Bush and those around him would have “big problems” working with Mr Brown.

Senior officials in the US administration sounded the alert after a meeting between Mr Brown and Condoleezza Rice, Mr Bush’s secretary of state, in which Mr Brown “harangued” her over American policy on aid, development and Africa.

After the uncomfortable session, sources said she reported her misgivings to the White House, and they were sent on in turn to Mr Blair.

After taking the warnings on board, Mr Blair signalled his intention to stay on at No 10 until at least 2008, the year of the US election to choose a successor to Mr Bush.

However, he was forced to abandon this plan following a “coup” led by Mr Brown’s supporters. Mr Brown eventually became prime minister in June 2007 and pursued a foreign policy that was far more independent of America than Mr Blair’s had been.

The “understanding” between Mr Bush and Mr Blair was revealed to The Sunday Telegraph by well-placed Whitehall sources. However, the former prime minister’s spokesman last night denied that a “message” had been sent.

One source said: “This at last answers the question of why Tony Blair tried so hard to stay on: the Americans were far from happy about the imminent succession of Gordon Brown. They left him in no doubt about that.”

Mr Blair is to address this sequence of events in his keenly awaited memoir, A Journey, which will be published this week. However, ahead of publication, this newspaper has pieced together the central narrative of his final years in power.

The fact that Mr Blair acted on US warnings over his likely successor will dismay many in the Labour party who were deeply unhappy about Mr Blair’s readiness to back Mr Bush at all times, particularly over the decision to wage war with Iraq in 2003.

Following the meeting with Miss Rice, Mr Brown’s advisers were convinced that Mr Blair was starting to groom Mr Miliband, the then environment secretary, as his successor. They were particularly enraged when Mr Blair described Mr Miliband in an interview as “my Wayne Rooney”.

However, Mr Blair also played what Brown allies now see as a “double game”, warning the then chancellor that he needed to adopt a different attitude towards senior American politicians.

Mr Miliband, who failed to challenge Mr Brown for the top job in 2007, will this week step up his campaign to become Labour’s leader. He will tell a rally of 1,000 supporters in London tomorrow that under him the party would be a “living, breathing movement for change in every community”.

In the summer of 2006, Mr Blair’s trip to America was widely seen to be his US swansong. It included a meeting with Mr Bush in Washington. However, on his return his allies noticed a new-found determination to stay on at No 10. In the late summer he gave a notorious interview in which he denied any plan to leave office any time soon.

It was this, along with what was seen in Labour circles as an”unacceptable” refusal to condemn Israel for its attack on Lebanon, that sparked the coup that forced him to name his departure date.

A senior Labour source said: “After Condi Rice met Gordon for the first time she complained to the White House about the way he behaved. No 10 suddenly starting getting these messages from the White House that there were grave doubts about the desirability of Gordon taking over. It wasn’t just the White House either, it was other people based in the US, business leaders, people like that.”

Mr Blair is expected to use his book to launch a passionate justification of going to war with Iraq and to speak warmly of Mr Bush. He is likely also to spell out his regret that he did not move faster to reform public services in Britain, often in the face of opposition from Mr Brown.

As well as political disclosures, the Royal family is waiting with great interest to see what the former prime minister writes about his relationship with the Queen, Prince Philip, the Prince of Wales and the late Diana, Princess of Wales. The Sunday Telegraph disclosed three years ago that, according to friends, the Queen had been left “exasperated and frustrated” at the legacy of Tony Blair’s decade in power.

The monarch had become “deeply concerned” by many of New Labour’s policies, in particular what she saw as Downing Street’s lack of understanding of countryside issues, her closest confidants reported.

However, Royal sources said this weekend that the Queen and Mr Blair had always had a good working relationship at their weekly private audiences and that he was always “charming” towards her.