Afghan peace jirga to start later than expected

KABUL (Reuters) - A traditional gathering of Afghan elders and notables to discuss prospects for peace will start later than expected to allow more time for delegates to travel to the capital and register, officials said on Sunday.

The gathering, known as a “jirga”, was originally expected to start on May 29. It will now formally run from June 2-4.

Afghan President Hamid Karzai called the jirga to present proposals for peace talks with elements of the Taliban, who are waging a punishing insurgency against the government and the 100,000-plus foreign troops supporting it.

“The delegates will arrive in Kabul on May 29 and we need at least three days to work on registration and orientation programmes,” Najeeb Amin, one of the organisers, told Reuters.

Although the Taliban themselves are not invited, there are likely to be Taliban sympathisers among the thousands of tribal and district chiefs who will attend.

They are expected to divide into groups, forging consensus and in some cases ending old feuds while debating Karzai’s proposals, before presenting him with a response that could provide the basis of starting formal peace talks with some Taliban elements.

The West is wary of Karzai’s overtures to the Taliban and sees no place for its leadership or those with links to al Qaeda in Afghanistan’s future, but also wants out of becoming further bogged down in a costly war.

After Karzai’s visit to Washington last week, he said the West has begun to realise the need to reach out to Taliban militants who denounce violence and accept the Afghan constitution.

The government has also been in talks with a separate insurgent group, led by former guerrilla commander, Gulbudin Hekmatyar, whose militia fighters fought against the Soviet occupation in the country in 1979.

(Reporting by Hamid Shalizi; Editing by David Fox and Maria Golovnina)

For more Reuters coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan, see: here