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The attacks were another blow to the jirga, which was billed as an attempt to gain national consensus on how to approach peace talks with insurgents, but had already met skepticism and even boycotts from some Afghan leaders.
It was the third such conference since 2001, when the US launched Operation Enduring Freedom and ousted the Taliban. The Taliban had publicly rejected this latest jirga and last month announced it would launch a new offensive against foreign and Afghan troops, diplomats, and government workers.
The Washington Post reports that the first rocket attack struck near the jirga site as Afghan President Hamid Karzai gave his opening address. A gunfight then ensued as police attacked suspected suicide bombers the government said were attempting to detonate explosives near the tent where the assembly was held, and a second rocket was later launched.
There were no reported casualties among the approximately 1,600 delegates who attended the jirga, but police said they had shot and killed two suspected suicide bombers and taken a third into custody. At least two of the suspected bombers were wearing burqas to conceal their explosives, according to government officials.
The Afghan Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack. Agence France-Presse reports that a Taliban spokesman claimed the group had sent four suicide bombers to target the assembly, and said they were shooting rockets into the tent from the roof of a nearby building. As The New York Times reports, the attacks marked a major failure of the security effort for the meeting. Police had blocked off access to the assembly area for a week before the meeting. According to the Times, the Taliban established a safe house inside the perimeter from which they launched their attacks.
Even as Taliban attacked the assembly, Mr. Karzai called on the insurgents to give up their arms:
In Mr. Karzai’s speech to the jirga, he called the Taliban “brothers” and “dear Talibs,” and he described their flight to Pakistan and their fighting as a reaction to injustices done by local Afghans who had “disturbed them “ and by foreign troops.
“To those Taliban compelled to flee by the government’s and foreign troops’ mistakes, they are welcome and can come and join us,” Mr. Karzai said.
Not welcome, he noted, were those connected to Al Qaeda and those who have harmed innocent Afghans.
Karzai said continued fighting would only prevent the withdrawal of foreign forces, according to the Associated Press. "Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here. As long as you are not talking to us, not making peace with us, we will not let the foreigners leave," Karzai said.
At the sound of a rocket explosion, Karzai reportedly said: "Don't worry. We've heard this kind of thing before."
But The Christian Science Monitor reports that many were skeptical that the jirga would change the situation in Afghanistan, in part because it is not legally binding and its delegates do not include any of the insurgents the government wants to persuade to stop fighting.
Even with limited goals, many Afghans question the timing and legitimacy of the three-day event that starts Wednesday. The gathering does not meet delegate requirements for a loya jirga, or grand council, that would have a fuller representation and thus authority under the Constitution. Instead, aside from some high-profile figures such as parliamentarians and civil society leaders, the guests have been selected by the government.
"To have peace in a country you have to involve all different bodies of the nation," says Fawzia Kofi, a leading female member of parliament (MP). "The people who are hand-picked are not enough. You need people in the international community and the people who are actually fighting."
The attacks came a day after Al Qaeda's top commander in Afghanistan, Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, was reported killed from a May 22 drone strike in neighboring Pakistan's tribal area. And on Sunday, Coalition and Afghan forces reportedly killed one of the top two Taliban commanders in Kandahar, where NATO is set to launch a major offensive this summer.