Kabul conference goes on despite disruption
KABUL — Critics of Afghan President Hamid Karzai had dismissed the peace conference that opened in Kabul on Wednesday as a public-relations stunt.
But if the three-day assembly was meant as a message, the one that emerged from its opening hours strayed from the script. A series of explosions and the sounds of a nearby gunbattle largely served to underscore the growing sweep of the very insurgency the conference is meant to end — and the apparent lack of interest by insurgents in making peace.
The attacks, which briefly interrupted a speech in which Karzai alternately pleaded with and condemned the Taliban and other militant groups, appeared to do little harm. Afghan security forces shot and killed two male attackers dressed in burqas and arrested a third, government officials said. One of the men managed to fire a rocket-propelled grenade toward the massive tents where the conference was being held, but no one was hurt, the officials said.
The Taliban claimed credit for attacking the conference, known as a jirga, but said their men were dressed in stolen Afghan army uniforms, not burqas, The Associated Press reported, quoting a Taliban spokesman. There were conflicting reports as to whether one of the attackers detonated a suicide vest.
“Unfortunately, there was an attempt to disrupt the jirga, but it was not disrupted,” said Wahid Omar, a Karzai spokesman. “The jirga is continuing.”
Still, questions remained about the aim of the three-day conference and how it would lead to an approach different from previous efforts to reach out both to leadership of the Taliban and other groups and to their lower-level foot soldiers.
Burhanudin Rabbani, a professor elected Wednesday to chair the jirga, acknowledged the central concern underpinning the peace effort: the view that the Taliban leadership largely believes they are winning and have little reason to lay down their arms.
“The opposition is not ready to negotiate yet. They are not ready to sit at the table with us,” he said. “But we have to try. We have to find a way.”
Rabbani and other officials cast the jirga as only the beginning of a long and difficult process, meant to take a sounding of the views of villagers from across the country. Ideally, they said, the roughly 1,700 delegates who’d made the trip to Kabul would offer fresh ideas about how — and with whom — to negotiate.
But it was also unclear what the government might be able to offer the Taliban, which has called for changes to the Afghan constitution, the withdrawal of western troops, and the removal of Taliban leaders from international wanted lists.
Pressed over concerns that the government might barter women’s rights in exchange for a peace settlement, Farouk Wardak, the minister of education and a chief organizer of the jirga, said the entirety of the Afghan constitution would be respected in any future peace deal. Nor, he said, would the government grant immunity to anyone connected to international terror networks.
Instead, officials fell back on trying to differentiate between hard-line insurgent leaders and ordinary Afghans who joined the insurgency for economic reasons.
In his speech, Karzai castigated insurgents who kill teachers and scholars but pleaded with lower-level fighters, addressing them as “Talib Jan,” or “dear Talib.”
“The nation of Afghanistan is waiting for you, so we can find a way to make peace and rescue the country,” he said.
At one point, Karzai presented himself as caught between the Taliban, which refuses to stop fighting until international troops leave Afghanistan, and an international community that refuses to leave Afghanistan until the Taliban stops fighting.
“So what can I do?” he said. “We want peace, but at the same time, we want to maintain our friendship with the rest of the world so we can go toward a bright future.”
While acknowledging tension with the U.S. and other foreign countries, which have criticized his government as weak and corrupt, Karzai said the relationship had improved recently and praised U.S. Gen. Stanley McChrystal, who was in attendance, for working hard to reduce Afghan civilian casualties.
Karzai was barely 10 minutes into his address when what appeared to be a mortar or rocket exploded in a park a few hundred yards from the site of the jirga. The explosion was clearly audible inside the tent and Karzai paused briefly, urging calm and asking delegates to remain in their seats.
As Karzai concluded his remarks and left in a convoy of sport utility vehicles, gunfire erupted from a neighborhood near the Kabul Polytechnic University, where the jirga was being held. The gunfire continued sporadically for about 10 minutes, and another explosion kicked up a cloud of dust just outside the tent complex.
The attacks were a fresh reminder of the Taliban’s ability to strike within Kabul. Some 12,000 Afghan security personnel were deployed to protect the jirga, but officials said the attackers had been hidden in a nearby house.
NATO helicopters circled the city after the attacks. Western troops were also standing by, but the Afghan government did not request their help, according to a NATO spokesman, British Navy Lt. Cmdr. Iain Baxter.
Critics and a number of international observers have portrayed the jirga as a meeting of a hand-picked Karzai supporters who poorly represent the country and are unlikely to accomplish anything.
During a news conference on Tuesday, Karzai rival Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in last year’s disputed presidential elections, called the jirga a “PR exercise” and blamed government corruption for fueling support for the insurgency.
“If we’re losing people because of the failure of the government, how is it we hope the government can bring people in from the other side?” he said.
Omar, the Karzai spokesman, dismissed the criticisms, saying the delegates represented a wide range of opinions.
“The aim of the jirga is not negotiation,” he said. “This is a jirga for the people of Afghanistan to advise the government how to proceed.”
Stars and Stripes reporter Dianna Cahn contributed to this report.