KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai on Wednesday again urged the Taliban to join peace negotiations and pleaded with them to stop attacking schools in the war-torn country,
The Afghan government and its international partners have in recent weeks been avidly pursuing peace talks with the Taliban, but it is still unclear whether the insurgents are willing to engage in such a process.
"We are not afraid of guns and bombs," Karzai said in an emotional speech marking the first day of school after Afghan New Year holidays. "But don't burn the schools of your sons. Don't burn the schools of your daughters."
As he has done more insistently in recent weeks, Karzai addressed the Taliban directly, in Dari and in Pashto, the mother-tongue of the Taliban.
"The school you're burning -- it's your school," said the Afghan leader. "Don't destroy the future of this poor suffering nation that finally has some opportunities. Don't destroy it."
School campuses and their employees have been targeted by the Taliban, which has repeatedly threatened to attack anyone working with international troops or the Afghan government, deemed by rebels as an illegitimate client state.
"Come and be happy in your country. It's your house. It's your homeland," Karzai said in his speech at Amani High School in Kabul. "It's free. Come and take part in elections. Nominate your name for the presidency or for the parliament. Like anyone, you can win and get votes."
Many members of the insurgency boycotted elections last summer, but American and Afghan officials are holding out hope that a multinational reconciliation process is in the offing, with the goal being to draw the Taliban into peace negotiations. It is unclear, however, whether the Taliban are willing to engage in such a process, where such talks would take place, or who would represent the amorphous movement.
Karzai described education as a common good that even the Taliban should embrace, and he offered the examples of Japan and India, countries that struggled with poverty and conflict in the past, invested heavily in education, and now exert a powerful influence in the world.
The Taliban decimated secular education during their five year rule, converting most schools into religious madrassas and banning female education.
According to the CIA World Factbook, less than one-third of Afghans are literate. School enrollment has dramatically increased since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, but the Afghan government estimates 4 out of 10 school-aged children do not regularly attend school.