Taliban Attacks Afghan Peace Jirga

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Al-Jazeera-English

Taliban Attacks Afghan Peace Jirga

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President Karza speaks at opening ceremony as explosions ring out in distance. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

Hamid
Karzai, the Afghan president, has opened a three-day peace conference
in the capital, Kabul, amidst rocket fire and at least one suicide
bombing.

Several rockets were launched at the tent housing the conference,
locally called a "jirga", during Karzai's opening speech on Wednesday.
Long bursts of gunfire were also heard nearby.

A
suicide bomber also blew himself up near the tent, according to Afghan
police. No casualties were reported, except for the bomber. The Taliban
has claimed responsibility for the attacks.

Zemeri Bashary, a spokesman for the interior ministry, said police
killed two other fighters, and captured a third, in a house near the
conference site.

Zabiullah Mujahid, a Taliban spokesman, said the attackers were dressed in Afghan army uniforms.

The Afghan president left the area in an armoured convoy after his speech.

Security was a major concern in the weeks leading up to the
conference: Extra police have been deployed throughout the capital, and
journalists reported long delays at checkpoints Wednesday morning.

The Taliban warned delegates to stay away in an audio recording
released last month, saying that "the punishment for participating in
the jirga is death".

"I think some Afghans... will say, if they can't even secure the
area around the gathering that they've talked about for months on end,
with the immense security preparations they have in place, what chance
do they have of trying to secure the rest of the country?" said Al
Jazeera's James Bays, reporting from Kabul.

Searching for consensus

Delegates hope to reach an agreement at the traditional assembly of
elders on how the government should hold dialogue with the Taliban.

Analysts say the delegates - which were selected by the government,
and include tribal leaders, politicians, and members of civil society -
are likely to reach a broad agreement on engaging the Taliban.

The plan calls for the government to offer jobs to low-level Taliban soldiers who agree to stop fighting.

In his opening address, Karzai criticised the Taliban for bringing suffering and oppression to Afghanistan.

"The Afghan nation is looking at you," he said, addressing the
delegates. "They await your decisions, your advice, so that you can
show the Afghan nation the way to reach peace, to rescue Afghanistan
from this suffering and pain."

Barack Obama, the US president, has called the conference "an
important milestone that America supports". European diplomats have
also hailed it as a "crucial step to demonstrate national consensus".

Staffan de Mistura, the head of the United Nations mission in
Afghanistan, said he was cautiously optimistic that participants in the
jirga would agree on a deal.

"I believe they're tired of fighting... the Afghans are tired of a
conflict that they will never win, that nobody else will ever win," he
said.

Scepticism

But critics of Karzai's government, and many outside analysts, are
sceptical that the conference will produce a detailed blueprint for
reconciliation with the Taliban.

Karzai's main rivals have been excluded from the conference and
representatives from the Taliban and groups like Hezb-i-Islami were not
invited.

Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's chief rival in last year's presidential
election, declined to attend the conference, saying the hand-picked
delegates do not represent Afghan public opinion.

Elders in several provinces, including Helmand and Khost, say the
most influential tribal leaders were rejected in favour of those loyal
to the government.

The Taliban is also dismissive of the event. In a statement sent to
news organisations on Tuesday, the group said the conference does not
represent the Afghan people, and is aimed at "securing the interest of
foreigners".

Human rights groups say the list of delegates is too male-dominated:
Only 20 per cent of the conference attendees will be women. The number
of women was increased after Hillary Clinton, the US secretary of
state, warned Karzai that women were being ignored.

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