Reuters | Wed Jun 2, 2010 | 2:19pm IST
Taliban suicide commandos attacked a huge gathering of Afghan leaders and notables on Wednesday as President Hamid Karzai launched an ambitious peace plan he hopes will persuade the insurgents to lay down their arms. Officials said three rockets fell short of a vast tent where the traditional jirga, or gathering, was being held. Afghan police clashed with three gunmen who breached a massive security cordon by disguising themselves with the all-enveloping burqa worn by many women in Afghanistan. "The situation is under control," Farooq Wardak, the chief organiser of the jirga, told delegates, but sporadic firing could still be heard hours after the initial attack. He said two gunmen had been killed and one arrested.
Unpopular at home after an election victory last year that was mired in controversy, Karzai called the jirga of tribal leaders, elders and other notables to forge national consensus for overtures to the Taliban. But minutes after he began unveiling his plans, the first rocket landed in an open field near the giant marquee in the west of the capital, Kabul. "Sit down, nothing will happen," Karzai, who has survived at least three assassination attempts, told nervous delegates as some stood to leave. "I have become used to this. Everyone is used to this." Karzai finished his speech and left in a convoy of armoured vehicles as helicopters hovered overhead. "This attack could also send a signal for the Kabul conference later this year," said Haroun Mir, a Kabul-based political analyst, referring to a meeting of foreign stakeholders in Afghanistan planned for July 20. "I don’t know how many Western delegates will take the risk to come to Kabul if such attacks can take place," he said.
The peace jirga, as the centuries-old gathering is known in Pashto, has drawn 1,300 delegates, but noticeably absent are representatives of the insurgents — although there will certainly be sympathisers present. With the insurgency at its most intense since their U.S.-led overthrow in 2001, the Taliban remain confident they can outlast the latest foreign invasion in Afghanistan’s long history of conflict. "Obviously, the jirga will provide yet another pretext for America to continue the war in Afghanistan, rather than bringing about peace in the country," the Taliban said in a statement on the eve of a gathering. On Wednesday, they claimed responsibility for the attack at the jirga’s opening.
SURGE IN U.S. FORCES
Their confidence comes despite a surge in U.S. forces that will push the size of the foreign military to around 150,000, with an offensive planned in coming weeks to tackle the Taliban in their southern heartland of Kandahar. After its rapid disengagement from Iraq, the United States is keen, too, to get out of Afghanistan. President Barack Obama has said he wants to start withdrawing troops from July 2011. Washington is also stressing an accompanying hearts-and-minds operation that it hopes will see better Afghan security and governance put in place. Corruption and incompetence by some officials have caused open friction with Karzai at times. As a result, some diplomats and analysts are paying lip service to the jirga’s noble aims while doubting its effectiveness. Competing interests from Pakistan, India, Iran and even Russia, further poison the atmosphere.
"This is a big week for Afghanistan," said Mark Sedwill, NATO’s top diplomat in the country. The man Karzai beat for the presidency last year, Abdullah Abdullah, dismissed the jirga out of hand, although he said he would not call for a boycott. "The outcome of the jirga will not take us anywhere towards peace, even not close to it," Abdullah said. The key points of Karzai’s plan call for an amnesty for rank-and-file Taliban who renounce the insurgency and agree to the constitution. To encourage them, they would be offered training and jobs on development projects in their home areas. He also wants the names of certain Taliban officials removed from a United Nations blacklist and for others to be allowed to seek sanctuary in a friendly Muslim country. This would allow him to seek a more direct approach to the leadership.