The Afghan government turned to an ancient tradition to try to end a modern war today, launching a national peace assembly designed to create a road map for reconciling with the Taliban.
The insurgents' response was immediate and violent. They fired at least three rockets and sent three suicide bombers toward the massive meeting tent as Afghan President Hamid Karzai spoke inside.
The nearly 1,600 delegates were unhurt but the final rocket, which exploded about 250 feet from the tent, caused a few dozen of them to stand up and abruptly leave as Karzai finished speaking. Outside, a gunbattle broke out between Afghan security forces and insurgents, one dressed in a burqa and two dressed in women's clothes, police said. AK-47 rounds could be heard crackling for more than half an hour. American attack helicopters circled a nearby residential neighborhood, hunting for anyone contributing to the violence.
The insurgents failed to kill anyone other than themselves, and they failed to penetrate the massive security plan that used 12,000 security forces to secure the city. But the insurgents did succeed at dominating headlines about one of the Afghan government's most significant attempts to reduce the violence.
Assemblies, or "jirgas," have been used throughout Afghan history to solve conflicts, bringing together opposing sides and forcing each party to listen to their opponents' arguments.
But Karzai's government has described this event as a "consultative" jirga designed to create consensus for how the government should approach the "armed opposition." Those groups who attack the government and coalition forces were not extended invitations.
Thanks in part to that, Western officials have set aside initial skepticism and backed the effort as a "critical moment."
"We conduct military operations with an end to achieving peace. And I think peace in Afghanistan comes with Afghans being able to participate in the political process," Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the head of all coalition forces in Afghanistan, told reporters this week.
Karzai's government has prepared a draft plan to reintegrate low-level Taliban fighters into Afghan society and to reconcile with Taliban leaders, many of whom are living in Pakistan. The plan, called the "Afghan Peace and Reintegration Program," calls for massive district- and provincial-level mobilization to reach out to "upset brothers" and de-radicalize them through a 90-day "cooling-off" period.
It also proposes ways to earn the trust of high-level Taliban, including removing their leaders from a U.N. sanction list. The jirga is designed to finalize that draft plan and give Karzai a national consensus to implement it.
The United States has already begun its own low-level reintegration efforts, releasing some Taliban detainees back to communities whose leaders vouch for them. Commanders deployed through Afghanistan have the authority to hold such release ceremonies, though the majority of them have occurred from the Parwan Detention Facility, adjacent to the largest military base in the country. The facility has release about 200 detainees during 25 ceremonies.