KABUL, (Reuters) – Afghan tribal elders hold more talks on Thursday seeking a political settlement of a nine-year war, but hopes of progress slipped further after Taliban commandos attacked the peace gathering with rockets and gunfire.
President Hamid Karzai, who launched the traditional jirga as the rockets fell nearby, is hoping to secure national support for his plans to seek reconciliation with the Taliban ahead of a planned U.S. military withdrawal from 2011.
But even if he won the backing of 1,500 delegates drawn from around the battle-scarred nation, it would amount to little more than symbolic support, since the Taliban have vowed to press on with their campaign — is at its most intense since 2001 — until all foreign troops leave.
“The jirga is itself mostly for show. They have these things every few years, and they don’t change anything,” said Joshua Foust, a U.S.-based independent analyst focused on Afghanistan and Central Asia.
“Historically the jirga is a tool for leaders to establish consensus — it’s not magical, and there’s nothing secretly Afghan about jirgas that allow problem solving any more than a normal set of negotiations.”
The delegates, a fifth of whom are meant to be women, are gathered in a giant tent in Kabul Polytechnic University in the west of the capital where, over large amounts of Afghan tea, they will discuss the way forward to break the impoverished nation’s cycle of violence.
On Wednesday, the meeting which continued despite the Taliban attack, divided into 28 smaller groups to debate Karzai’s peace proposals and report back to former president Burnhanuddin Rabani, the appointed jirga chairman.
The proposals include reintegration of Taliban foot soldiers to society through jobs and cash incentives, and reconciliation with the senior figures, offering them asylum in a Muslim country and striking their names off a U.N. blacklist.
The thorny issue of a timetable for withdrawal of foreign forces from the country may also come up, delegates said, even though Karzai is known to be opposed to any such debate at this stage.
“One of the reasons why we today have war in Afghanistan is the presence of foreign forces,” said Najibullah Mujahid, 42, an ethnic Tajik officer from the north and a former army officer. “The way they treat people, the way they arrest people, conduct operations… ignore our culture, traditions and Islamic values… if we cannot address these concerns, talk about these issues and find ways, then this jirga will have no fruit.”
U.S. President Barack Obama has said he wants to start withdrawing troops from July 2011, and an operation is expected over the next few weeks to tackle the Taliban in their southern stronghold of Kandahar. But state institutions such as the Afghan army and police remain weak at a time when the Taliban insurgency is at its most intense since their overthrow in 2001 by U.S.-led coalition forces.
Wednesday’s attack, in which three insurgents breached a security cordon by disguising themselves with the all-enveloping burqa worn by women, was preceded by a series of bold raids, mainly directed at foreign forces, including the military bases of Bagram, north of the capital, and in Kandahar.
“The jirga is a high-profile gathering of so many people, it’s an attractive target,” said analyst Foust.
Two gunmen were killed and one arrested in the attack, an official said.
Karzai, speaking directly to the Taliban, urged them to stop fighting and help rebuild the country. “My dear Taliban brothers, you are welcome in your land, don’t harm it. We are both from this soil, we will live in peace as brothers and let us build it.”
The Taliban have dismissed the jirga as an American-inspired attempt to retain a U.S. presence in the country.