Rocky start for Karzai's Afghan peace bid
KABUL (Reuters) - 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 was being held -- one to within 60 meters (yards) -- followed by gunbattle that sputtered for hours.
Organizer Farooq Wardak, the Education Minister, told the jirga that three insurgents breached a security cordon by disguising themselves with the all-enveloping burqa worn by many women in Afghanistan,
Two gunmen were killed and one arrested, officials said.
Unpopular at home and some parts abroad because of widespread corruption in the country, 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."
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," he said.
The peace jirga, as the centuries-old gathering is known in Pashto, has drawn over 1,500 delegates, but noticeably absent are representatives of the insurgents -- although there are certainly be sympathizers 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 the 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.
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.
Wednesday was mostly taken up by procedural matters as the delegates divided into 28 sub-committees and appointed officers. They will collect ideas and feed them back to the jirga head, former President Burhanuddin Rabani, an opposition leader but appointed by Karzai.
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.
But delegates on Wednesday suggested they are likely too to discuss topics Karzai would rather they didn't, such as a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and giving the Taliban positions in government.
"One of the reasons why we today have war in Afghanistan is the presence of foreign forces," 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."
Abdulwahab (one name) 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."
(Writing by David Fox; additional reporting by Hamid Shalizi, Sanjeev Miglani and Jonathon Burch; Editing by Sanjeev Miglani)
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