ISLAMABAD (Reuters) – Pakistani and Afghan political and ethnic Pashtun tribal leaders meet in Islamabad on Monday to try to agree on ways to tackle rising militant violence including the possibility of opening talks with the Taliban.
The meeting, dubbed a Pakistan-Afghanistan “Jirgagai,” or mini-jirga, is a follow-up to a grand assembly in Kabul last year in which delegates called for talks with Taliban militants to end bloodshed in both countries.
A jirga is a consultative system the proudly independent Pashtuns have used for more than 1,000 years to settle affairs of the nation or rally behind a cause.
Around 50 political leaders, Pashtun elders and Muslim clerics from both countries will meet on Monday and Tuesday to ponder growing violence by al Qaeda and the Taliban militants on both sides of their disputed border.
“The two main objectives of the jirgagai are to expedite the ongoing dialogue process with the opposition and monitor implementation of decisions of the (Kabul) jirga,” said Pakistani foreign ministry spokesman Mohammad Sadiq.
But critics say the mini-jirga will be little more than a talking shop without the participation of representatives of the Taliban.
Violence in Afghanistan has surged over the past two years, raising doubts about prospects for the country and its Western-backed government seven years after the Taliban were forced from power.
At the same time, violence has increased in Pakistan.
The security forces have launched offensives in the northwest and the militants have responded with suicide bombs. The violence has unnerved investors and exacerbated an economic crisis.
Ties between the important U.S. allies have been severely strained over Afghan complaints Pakistan has not done enough to stop Taliban from infiltrating from sanctuaries in Pakistan’s northwestern Pashtun lands along the border.
The two sides pledged at their grand assembly in Kabul that their governments and people “would not allow sanctuaries or training centers for terrorists in their respective countries.”
“WHAT’S THE POINT IN TALKING?”
The Afghan government has taken a first step toward opening talks with the Taliban with a meeting in Saudi Arabia last month between a group of pro-government Afghan officials and former Taliban officials.
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta said last week his government was at the start of a dialogue process, but it would only negotiate with those who lay down arms.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said this month the United States would be prepared to reconcile with the Taliban, but not with al Qaeda, if the Afghan government pursued talks.
Pakistan has said it was also ready to hold talks with the militants if they shunned violence.
Some analysts say the revival of jirga would help cement ties between the uneasy neighbors but the governments should open dialogue with the militants without conditions.
“When you are talking about peace then you have to talk to those responsible for the peace being shattered,” said Ayaz Wazir a former Pakistani ambassador to Afghanistan.
“If you say you will talk only if they lay down arms then what’s the point in talking? The trouble is, they are not laying down their arms and you have to talk to them to convince them to lay down arms.”
Pashtuns live on both sides of the border and many of them sympathize with the Taliban, most of whom are also Pashtun.
Analysts say winning over the Pashtun tribes is essential for ending violence in both Afghanistan and Pakistan.