KABUL (Reuters) - At the bottom of a hill on the outskirts of the Afghan capital, billboards display pictures of past Afghan rulers with captions extolling how they resolved critical national issues at various times by holding “jirgas,” traditional gatherings of elders and notables.
Flyers addressing Taliban insurgents and their sympathizers, bear an ancient Afghan maxim: “If you insist on your might and I do the same, neither of us will exist. But if you listen to me and I do to you, both of us will survive.”
The homespun, softly-softly message is part of an effort by President Hamid Karzai to reach out to the Taliban at a time when the insurgency is at its strongest and before Obama’s pledge to start withdrawing troops in mid-2011.
Karzai, ruler of Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has called a jirga from June 2-5 to present proposals for how to start peace talks.
Delegates will debate and tinker with a draft that includes suggestions for the integration of Taliban foot soldiers into the army or police, the removal of some Taliban leaders from a U.N. blacklist and possibly seeking asylum for others in an Islamic country from where they can engage in talks.
The international community had given its full backing to Karzai’s bid to reach out to disaffected countrymen and the jirga offered an opportunity to advance that goal, NATO’s top diplomat in the country said.
“This is a big week for Afghanistan,” Mark Sedwill said, adding it was the first of a series of major political events including the Kabul conference in July and parliament election in September aimed at setting the direction for a political settlement of the conflict.
“The international community led by the United States has made clear we give complete support to Afghanistan to reach out to disaffected compatriots who are willing to re-enter the political mainstream. The jirga is a critical opportunity to advance that process,” he told a news conference jointly given with General Stanley McChrystal, the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.
Analysts and observers however are not optimistic the jirga will amount to much, saying the assembly rather give Karzai’s proposals a veneer of national acceptance.
“What we hope is that this process will help demonstrate Karzai as a true national leader,” said a senior Obama aide in Washington.
“This is really just the beginning of an important process and the Afghan government will be seeking some consensus on how to proceed,” added the official, who declined to be named. Washington does not want to be seen as interfering in what it says must be an Afghan-led process.
Although jirgas are largely a Pashtun affairs, tribal elders and notables from all of Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups across the country will attend.
They include Afghanistan’s Ulema religious council, members of civil societies and representatives of refugees living in Iran and Pakistan. Women will make up about 20 percent of the delegates and some 200 observers -- including foreign diplomats, will attend.
Noticeably absent, however, is the Taliban, but their influence will be unmissable.
Despite a stepped up insurgency now at its strongest since 2001, analysts believe the Taliban may not target the gathering because they will not want to be seen to be undermining a tradition.
The debate over peace proposals will be a protracted and heated one, but even if there is a consensus, the hard part will be convincing the guerrillas to join. They are likely to see overtures as the first sign of surrender rather than an invitation to talks.
Washington and its Western allies say they support any Afghan-led initiative to reach out to groups, provided they recognize the Afghan constitution and renounce violence and al Qaeda, blamed for the September 11 attacks on America.
They have pledged to provide tens of millions of dollars for finding jobs for the ordinary Taliban combatants, but some Western leaders have reservation about talks with their top and hardline leaderships.
Sedwill said the issue of reconciliation was complex and controversial but should be seen in the context of three decades of war in Afghanistan with shifting alliances and loyalties.
“Afghanistan is in year 31 of the conflict although we ourselves have been here for a shorter period. We must remember there are people in government who fought in the civil war, fought each other,” he said.
Additional reporting by Sue Pleming in Washington and Sanjeev Miglani in Kabul; Editing by David Fox