A meeting of Afghan officials hoping to forge a plan to negotiate a truce with the Taliban got off to an ominous start Wednesday, as militants launched a spate of attacks and engaged in a lengthy gun battle with security forces nearby.
The outbreak of violence during the first day of the meeting, known as peace jirga, raised fresh questions about the Afghan government’s ability to reach a truce with the Taliban and other armed groups.
The first blast, from an apparent mortar or rocket, thundered as President Hamid Karzai laid out his vision for reconciliation during opening remarks. In his speech by turns jovial and defiant, Karzai extended an olive branch to the Taliban. “They are not the enemy,” Karzai said. “They are the sons of this land.” (Washington Post) He warned, however, that those who continue attacking civilians would not be forgiven. In his speech, Mr. Karzai said years of violence and infighting had caused widespread suffering that had driven many ordinary Afghans to join the Taliban and another major insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami, out of fear. He appealed to them to renounce extremism. “There are thousands of Taliban and Hizb-i-Islami, they are not the enemies of this soil,” Karzai said. (The Globe & Mail) He said continuing fighting would only prevent the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan. “Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here. As long as you are not talking to us, not making peace with us, we will not let the foreigners leave,” Karzai said. (The Globe & Mail)
Karzai, seemingly unfazed by the first blast, urged the 1,600 or so in attendance to remain seated in the large white tent where the meeting was taking place. “Don’t worry. We’ve heard this kind of thing before,” he told the delegates present. (The Globe & Mail) Karzai, who has survived at least three assassination attempts, told nervous delegates who were starting to leave, “Sit down, nothing will happen… I have become used to this. Everyone is used to this.” (Reuters) Shrugging off the attack, Karzai said, “Some are trying to fire rockets. Everyone is used to it; even my three-year-old son is used to it.” (New York Times)
As his speech was ending, a gunfight broke out near the tent. Krazai and the foreign dignitaries at the event, including U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, were quickly whisked away in a long convoy of SUVs.
Afghan officials later said three would-be suicide bombers wearing burqas – the enveloping head-to-toe garment worn by some women in Afghanistan – had taken positions in a building near the gathering. A few minutes after Karzai’s speech, a mortar landed a few yards away from the tent.
Two of the burqa-clad suicide bombers were fatally shot and a third was taken into custody, said Whaeed Omar, a spokesman for Karzai. They did not detonate their explosives. “These attempts failed,” Omer told reporters after Karzai’s speech. “The jirga has not been disrupted.” (Washington Post) Abdul Gaffar Saidzada, chief of criminal investigation for Kabul police, said three police were wounded in the fighting. There were no reports of civilian casualties or injuries.
A spokesman for NATO’s International Security Assistance Force said the Taliban attack was handled completely by Afghan authorities. “It was a quick response by our security forces,” added Mr. Omar. (New York Times)
Karzai’s government organized the gathering of national and provincial government officials and other leaders to solicit input about how the government should broach negotiating a truce with the Taliban. The representatives will provide non-binding advice to the government. The timing of the gathering, which was originally scheduled for April, coincides with stepped-up military operations in Kandahar, a southern province that the Taliban views as its spiritual heartland. Karzai hopes the gathering will fortify him politically by endorsing his strategy of offering incentives to individual Taliban fighters and reaching out to the insurgent leadership, despite skepticism in Washington about whether the time is right for an overture to militant leaders. But the attack underscored the weak grip of Karzai’s government in the face of the Taliban insurgency, which has grown in strength despite record numbers of U.S. forces in the country.
Critics, including many members of parliament who boycotted the jirga, have described the process as a political gambit by Karzai to create the appearance of a national consensus for a preconceived plan. The government wants to get the Taliban to renounce violence, agree to abide by the constitution and join the political process. The Taliban, however, sees Karzai’s government as an extension of a foreign occupying force.
The Taliban claimed responsibility for Wednesday’s attacks and had previously denounced the three-day session as a ploy by foreign occupiers. The Taliban had earlier threatened to kill anyone who took part, claimed responsibility for the attack in a phone call to The Associated Press, saying they intended to sabotage the three-day conference. 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 the gathering. (Reuters)
The audacity of the attack was hardly a surprise as the Taliban are increasingly staging bold raids on high profile targets such as one on the main airbase at Bagram two weeks ago. “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” (Reuters)
A prominent civil society activist was skeptical the conference could help bring peace. Delegates include individuals with links to militants but not active members of the Taliban and other insurgent groups. “I’m not very hopeful that we will come up with a workable mechanism to go for peace. The reason is we don’t have the opposition with us. It’s obvious from their attacks,” said Sima Samar, the head of the Afghan Human Rights Commission. (The Globe & Mail)
Safia Seddiqi, a member of parliament from Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, said the jirga would likely be a failure. “While we have violence at the national gathering, it’s very difficult to talk about reconciliation,” she said. “It means they are not ready to talk” (Washington Post)
Fauzia Kofi, a lawmaker from Badakhshan, in northeastern Afghanistan, said most members of parliament decided not to attend because they see the gathering as a political stunt. She said the government is engaged in battle with extremists who are unwilling to negotiate. “That war needs to be won,” said Kofi, who was among the parliamentarians who decided not to attend the jirga. (Washington Post)
“This is a mistake, all the warlords were there in the front row,” said Mir Joyenda, an independent member of Parliament from Kabul. “There is no change that will come to Afghanistan,” he said, reflecting widespread disgust with the continued prominent role of former warlords in the government. (New York Times)
“It’s dangerous to raise people’s expectations with this fake and artificial exercise, it’s a workshop, not a jirga,” said a leading member of Parliament, who spoke on the condition of anonymity. (New York Times)
But Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, said the gathering could be the first step in a long and difficult process to reach an armistice. “There is sufficient will by everyone to understand that this cannot be won militarily by anyone,” de Mistura said. “It’s going to be hard, tense and slow.” The attacks did not come as a surprise, de Mistura said. He called them symbolic of the “hot negotiation” phase of the process, during which both sides will continue to use force to show their strength. “One side and the other are still using the power they have.” The U.N. envoy said the Afghan delegates inside the tent reacted with composure when the blasts began. “Their reaction was one of defiance: ‘we are not going to be intimidated.’” (Washington Post)
U.S. officials have been skeptical about the government’s reconciliation plans, but they backed the decision to convene the jirga. The Obama administration supports overtures to rank-and-file insurgents but has been skeptical of a major political initiative with insurgent leaders, believing that they should wait until accelerated military operations have weakened the Taliban on the battlefield. U.S. officials believe the Taliban leadership feels it has little reason to negotiate because it believes it is winning the war.
The Taliban’s 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. Washington is also stressing an accompanying hearts-and-minds operation that it hopes will see better Afghan security and governance put in place.
Delegates on Wednesday suggested they are likely to discuss topics at the jirga that Karzai would rather they didn’t, such as a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and giving the Taliban positions in the government. “One of the reasons why we today have war in Afghanistan is the presence of foreign troops,” said Najibullah Mujahid, 42, an ethnic Tajik 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.” (Reuters)
Abdulwahab, a Pashtun from the south and an adviser on religious affairs to governor of Kandahar, said the government should listen to what the Taliban wanted. “If they want roles in the government, then their eligible people must be given positions in the government. If they want the expulsion of the troops, then a way should be sought for that too.” (Reuters)