WASHINGTON - Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, said yesterday that he would guarantee the safety of the Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar if Omar agreed to negotiate for a peaceful settlement of the worsening conflict in the country.
Omar, a fugitive with a $10 million American bounty on his head, has been in hiding since the Taliban were toppled from power in 2001 and is believed by Western intelligence agencies to be living somewhere in the region of Quetta in western Pakistan.
At a news conference in Kabul, the Afghan capital, Karzai coupled his offer of safe passage to Omar with a warning to the Western nations that support his government, saying that if they opposed an assurance of safety for Omar they would have to remove Karzai as president or withdraw their troops from Afghanistan.
Bush administration officials were skeptical yesterday of the proposal, but they did not reject it outright.
Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for the National Security Council, said Omar has yet to demonstrate "a willingness to negotiate."
"We're not seeing any indication from Mullah Omar that he is ready to renounce violence, break all ties to al-Qaida and support the Afghan government and Constitution," Johndroe said.
Karzai's offer added a new element to his appeal in recent months for the Taliban to open talks to end the seven years of fighting since the Taliban government was ousted by a U.S.-led coalition in 2001.
But he said there was a long way to go before a safety guarantee for Omar would become a practical issue.
"Right now, I have to hear it from the Taliban leadership, that they are willing to have peace in Afghanistan," he said, according to Reuters. "They must prove themselves."
Speaking of Omar, Karzai said, "If I hear from him that he is prepared to come to Afghanistan or negotiate for peace, I, as president of Afghanistan, will go to any length providing protection.
"If I say I want protection for Mullah Omar, the international community has two choices: Remove me, or leave if they disagree," he added.
Discussion of the possibility of talks with the Taliban, or at least with some of the factions of the insurgency, has quickened in recent months. The issue has been broached by President-elect Barack Obama, and by Gen. David H. Petraeus, who took over two weeks ago as head of the U.S. Central Command, which has responsibility for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Petraeus has said that one element of the counterinsurgency strategy he oversaw as the top U.S. commander in Iraq that might be applicable in Afghanistan is the outreach to what he has described as "reconcileables" among the insurgents, who have gained ground rapidly in the past year.