Up to 1,600 leaders from across Afghanistan will gather in the Afgfhan capital today, seeking a national consensus on how to end nearly nine years of war.
But in a major setback for President Karzai and his US and coalition backers, Opposition Leader Abdullah Abdullah said he would not be attending.
Britain’s Guardian newspaper reported that Abdullah, who came second in the recent internationally criticised elections, said the event was simply a ‘PR exercise.’
And crucially, the Taliban have not even been invited.
The three-day event, branded a “peace jirga” held in a huge air-conditioned tent, will be the third such conference uniting Afghanistan’s complex mix of ethnic, tribal, religious, geographic and gender interests since the Taliban were toppled in 2001.
Protected against possible attack by 12,000 security forces personnel, the delegates in Kabul will be invited to come up with ideas on ending the insurgency, advising Karzai on how to pursue peace and with whom.
“The goal of the jirga is to seek ways for a lasting peace in Afghanistan,” said Mohammad Zahir Faiz-zada, who heads the delegation at the jirga from the relatively peaceful western province of Herat.
Taliban not invited
But critics have warned that the outcome is likely to prove limited. While Taliban leaders have not been formally invited, organisers say they will not be turned away if they show up.
The militia, who are waging an almost nine-year insurgency against the Western-backed government and an estimated 130,000 US-led foreign troops, issued a statement on the eve of the jirga condemning the event.
“The foreign invading forces and their surrogates utilise this consultative jirga only as a propaganda stunt and wrongly (paint) it as a representative body of the Afghans,” the group said.
It castigated delegates as “affiliated with the invaders and their powerless stooge administration,” and called them “the main cause of the current tragedy of Afghanistan”.
Abdullah Abdullah, who was Karzai’s main opponent in last year’s presidential election and is setting up a party called the Hope and Change Coalition, said he would not attend the assembly as “the agenda has been decided behind closed doors”.
Few of his political allies who planned to attend were optimistic about the outcome, he told reporters.
Jirga is a ‘milestone’, says West
Karzai’s Western allies, led by the United States, have expressed support for the jirga as a milestone in Afghanistan’s political maturity.
With Western public appetite waning for a war that has killed almost 1,800 foreign troops and shows no sign of abating, they would like to see progress before an international conference set for late July in Kabul.
“It is important for the Afghan and Western audiences that there is something taking place,” said Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union’s ambassador to Afghanistan.
“Successful negotiations by the time of the Kabul conference are unlikely, but a properly consulted and actionable plan for negotiations before then would be a good result.”
Foreign troop numbers to peak in August
The number of US and NATO troops will peak at 150,000 by August as part of a strategy designed to reverse Taliban momentum and boost government authority in southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces.
US President Barack Obama has said he wants to start drawing down troops from mid-2011.
Karzai’s spokesman Waheed Omar said all preparations had been completed and participants had undergone two days of orientation ahead of the inauguration.
The jirga will open with a recitation from the Koran and a speech by Karzai setting out his vision for what he hopes the meeting will achieve – a national consensus that will give legitimacy to his plans for ending the war.
After the election of a chairman and two deputies, the delegates, who include 300 women, will be divided into 28 groups, each of which will have a spokesman who will present their ideas to the general forum.
The jirga is expected to end on Friday with a declaration on what steps should be taken to end the insurgency, what groups should be included in the process and how they should be approached.
Karzai supports a reconciliation process, bankrolled by the international community, that aims to find jobs for men who fight for the Taliban because they need the money, rather than for ideological reasons.
The US embassy in Kabul said it supported “reconciliation and reintegration that seeks to bring back into society those who cease violence, break ties with Al-Qaeda… and live under the Afghan constitution”.
The role of Afghanistan’s neighbours – particularly Iran and Pakistan – is considered important to the success of any peace talks.
Commentator Waheed Mujda, a former official in the Taliban’s 1996-2001 administration, said the issue of troop withdrawal would not be raised at the jirga.