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.
U.S. Wary of Negotiating With Taliban Leaders"My dear Taliban jan," Karzai said in his opening speech, using a word bestowing respect. "We are brothers. Let's free ourselves from killing each other and build this country. We will listen to your advice on how to build this country."
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.
"I will not return to the insurgency. I will live a peaceful life and support my government to the extent possible," reads the pledge that each detainee must sign before release. "If I make any attempt to return to the insurgency, then this process will turn in a bad direction and everybody in this room will be responsible," a reference to the group of elders who receive the detainee from coalition forces.
But the United States is still clearly wary of extending reconciliation efforts to high-level Taliban. Military commanders believe before the Taliban can be invited to the table, the Army and Marines need to bring security to the parts of the country where insurgents are able to intimidate or even kill members of the local population. Only then, they argue, can local governments offer assurances to mid-level fighters that they can safely turn in their weapons. And only then, the commanders argue, will high-level leaders feel they are losing the momentum and decide they are willing to talk.
"Much of what we are doing in terms protecting the population and creating [secure] areas is to give the environment in which someone who wants to leave the insurgency can do so with a reasonable expectation that they can survive departing a very coercive insurgency and then they can have a future ahead," McChrystal said.
That argument is ridiculed by Taliban allies, who also criticize the approach the Karzai government has taken to the peace jirga. In the culture of Pashtuns, the ethnic group that makes up most of the Taliban and the least secure areas of Afghanistan, these critics argue that fighting and talking peace at the same time won't work.
The more American troops arrive in Kandahar, the historic heartland of the Taliban, the more the Taliban is convinced "the Americans don't want peace," says Abdul Salam Zaeef, who was the Taliban ambassador to Pakistan on Sept. 11, 2001. "They are not ready to come to peace. They are trying to use their force... to occupy."
Zaeef and other leaders of the former Taliban government, which was removed from power by the United States after 9/11, argue that today's Taliban insurgents don't trust the Karzai government. Zaeef says the United States should speak directly with the Taliban leadership and cut out the Afghans.
Taliban Attacks Dominate First Day of Afghan Peace Jirga
Beginning by reintegrating with low-level fighters "is like, if we have a problem with American administration, we are calling to talk with some American soldier. This is not the diplomatic way," says Zaeef, who declined an invitation to join the jirga. "Karzai came with the American with their support. The Taliban they are not planning to talk with Hamid Karzai and to resolve the problem with him because the problem is above Karzai."
Critics argue that the jirga's outcome is preordained because the main political opposition group is not attending. Karzai government officials disagree, saying many delegates are critical of the president. But they acknowledge that the delegates will not be allowed to come to certain conclusions that are "off the table": removal of foreign forces, rewriting of the Afghan constitution, and calling for a new election.
Those are the exact conditions that some of the insurgent groups have demanded. But Karzai's government is unwilling to allow them to be considered, in part because of Western pressure and in part because senior officials believe insurgents will want to take away some of the democratic institutions of which they are most proud.
"That stage has passed where different groups can say what they want," Masoom Stanakzai, the author of the draft reintegration plan, said in an interview. "People don't want to go back. They want to look forward. If we want to achieve the peace, if we want to preserve and secure those achievements, we have to look forward."
The jirga's delegates will be split up into 28 committees. Organizers hope by Thursday each committee can agree on a document that supports or slightly changes Stanakzai's peace draft. Then, each committee chair will present his or her document to a leadership committee, which will have to agree on a single document to be presented to Karzai on Friday. It is a fast process that may be delayed, delegates warned.
But as some of them exited the tent with a group of reporters today, the attacks overshadowed everything else.
"Unfortunately they show the weakness of the government, weakness of the security agencies," said Abdul Sattar Khawasi, the deputy speaker of the Afghan parliament. "With all those preparations and all those arrangements, they couldn't stop such an attack."