Karzai, Musharraf try to reconcile at 'peace jirga'

Pakistani and Afghan leaders discussed security Sunday at a tribal meeting in Kabul.

The four-day "Peace Jirga" in Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, ended on a high note Sunday with the highly anticipated appearance of the Pakistani president.

President Pervez Musharraf's last-minute decision to attend the traditional meeting of tribal elders, as well as his acknowledgment that Islamist militants routinely cross the porous border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, was seen by many here as a sort of redemption for the experimental, US-backed effort to employ the traditional Pashtun tribal jirga as a means of brokering cooperation between the two countries.

But many experts say that improved relations will require a greater commitment to imposing security along their virtually lawless border, as well as a more comprehensive negotiating approach that would include more of the region's myriad political actors, including the Taliban.

President Musharraf's initial announcement last week that he would not attend the meeting was widely viewed in the region as a snub to Afghan President Hamid Karzai. The two leaders have often clashed as the Taliban's influence has increased over the past several years along Afghanistan's restive border with Pakistan.

But as the two South Asian presidents met in the Afghan presidential palace Sunday, attendees at the jirga agreed to a six-point agenda – including the formation of a committee charged with negotiating with the Taliban, or "Afghan opposition" as the Pakistani state media referred to them.

Musharraf's address to the jirga delegates stressed the need for a common understanding between Pakistan and Afghanistan, and criticized Afghan officials' tendency to accuse Pakistani intelligence services of supporting the Taliban.

But Musharraf's comments also reveal a gap with Mr. Karzai's approach to dealing with the militants. Whereas the Afghan government has sought to suppress the Taliban, Musharraf sees the Afghan militants as a political force with which to negotiate.

"Taliban are part of the Afghan society," Musharraf told the attendees Sunday. "Most of them may be ignorant and misguided, but all of them are not die-hard militants and fanatics who defy even the most fundamental values of our culture and our faith."

While they are viewed by many as allies of Al Qaeda who were complicitous in the 9/11 attacks, elements on the Pakistani side, including the armed forces, still consider the group an influential political entity that should be treated as such, says Barnett Rubin, an Afghanistan expert at the Center on International Cooperation at New York University.

The omission of Taliban leadership from the jirga prompted several important leaders from the Pakistani side to refuse their invitations. Maulana Fazlur Rahman, the leader of the Jamaat-e-Ulema-e-Islam, an Islamist party, and the leader of Pakistan's political opposition, backed out of the jirga, stating that it was meaningless without the presence of the Taliban. Tribal elders from the semiautonomous Waziristan region of Pakistan also declined to attend.

"If Taliban aren't considered a party, then whom should we talk to?" said Mamoor Khan, the chief of the Turi Khel tribe in North Waziristan, in the days before the jirga. "Disputes and problems are always settled among opponent groups."

The talks were aimed at defining the role Pashtun tribes in Pakistan and Afghanistan could play in mending bilateral ties, and, more important, in fighting Al Qaeda and Taliban in the region. The idea was conceived last September when President Bush hosted the two presidents for a Ramadan meal in Washington.

A declaration from the jirga also recognized the link between the narcotics trade and terrorism and pledged to jointly combat both. A smaller, 50-member jirga, whose members would be equally appointed by governments from each side, will be responsible for implementing the declarations and for monitoring progress.

The "Peace Jirga" is the first of its kind to arbitrate between representatives from the two different countries. It is a uniquely Pashtun political approach to resolving disputes by providing a public forum for hashing out differences and grievances between individuals or groups.

Whether Musharraf and Karzai, who have been at loggerheads since 2001, will be able to achieve much after this jirga is yet to be seen. Both are increasingly weak leaders who are losing control over regions within their countries.

"A more long-term and visionary policy by the US is necessary to move forward," says Ahmed Rashid, a Lahore-based Pakistani journalist and author of "Taliban." "A limited agenda of beating Al Qaeda just won't do it."

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