Afghanistan's much-awaited national peace conference opened Wednesday with nearly 1,500 tribal elders, government officials, and civil society representatives divided on how best to approach the insurgency and convince militants to lay down their arms.
They have three days to reach consensus. At issue is whether there should be talks with the Taliban's leadership and whether the Afghan constitution should be revised to implement more Islamic laws.
President Hamid Karzai opened the three-day conference, known here as a jirga, by reaching out to insurgents. "My dear Taliban, you are welcome in your own soil," he told participants gathered under a massive, air-conditioned tent in the capital. "Do not hurt this country or kill yourselves."
The conference is one the largest gatherings of its kind in Afghanistan since 2001. But many Afghans doubt it will mark a significant step towards peace. Most delegates were handpicked by the Afghan government, leading to concern that the jirga isn't really representative or independent.
Delegates were divided into 28 working groups, which will spend the next two days attempting to come to a consensus and draft a proposal to the Afghan government. The government is not obligated to implement the jirga's recommendations.
While Mr. Karzai and other government officials made clear that the nature of the Afghan constitution or the Afghan government was not up for negotiation, some jirga delegates say a revised constitution could help convince insurgents to lay down their arms.
Debate over Islamic laws
"Right now the Taliban are fighting because of the presence of the foreigners, and because some Islamic rules they want are not being applied," says Maulavi Asadullah, a religious cleric from Kunar and jirga delegate. "But if we make some changes and introduce Islamic rules, we may be able to convince some of them."
Such changes may be opposed, however, by civil society and women's groups who worry that their rights could come under threat.
Also at issue is whether the peace strategy should be limited to peeling away rank and file insurgents and mid-level leaders or opening negotiations with the Taliban leadership. "We know this jirga won't solve the whole problem, but hopefully it will be a start," says jirga delegate Gul Alam, a tribal elder from Kunar province. "We have to make sure we don't talk about fundamentalist Taliban and moderate Taliban, we should just figure out a way to address the whole movement."
Other delegates say the believe only the rank and file should be targeted, through reintegration programs and efforts to strengthen Afghan governance. "We need to hasten administrative reforms and the judiciary system needs to be built," says Ismat Baluch, a delegate from Zabul province.
Insurgents reject jirga, but Hizb-i-Islami hints at peace deal
President Karzai's opening remarks came as the Taliban fired a series of rockets near the jirga's grounds. Three suicide bombers attempted to breach the conference's security but police killed two and captured one before they could enter, Afghan officials said. No jirga participants were harmed.
The Taliban, who were not invited to the event, reject its legitimacy. Hizb-i-Islami, another main insurgent faction, also dismissed the meeting because “the participants consist of persons who are state favorites.”
But in a sign that some insurgents may be willing to work with the government, Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar told the Monitor in an exclusive e-mail interview that his group has decided to open talks with the Afghan government and is ready for a peace deal.