Afghan Taliban guerrillas fired rockets at a peace conference convened by President Hamid Karzai, underscoring the obstacles his administration faces in reconciling with insurgents.
At least three guerrillas fired rockets from a construction site in western Kabul, the government said, several of which struck near the giant tent erected on the Kabul University campus for the three-day meeting of about 1,600 politicians, tribal elders and members of civil groups. Police killed two of the guerrillas, and arrested a third, Education Minister Farooq Wardak told reporters.
Karzai wants the meeting, locally known as a jirga, to endorse his aim of striking a peace deal with the Taliban insurgents who have fought an eight-year war against U.S.-led troops. A spokesman for the rebel movement, Zabihullah Mujahid, said by telephone that the attack was a sign they rejected any compromise with Karzai’s U.S.-backed government.
Interior Ministry Spokesman Zemaray Bashary said this week that 15,000 police would guard Kabul’s entry points, and authorities closed off roads for a kilometer (0.6 miles) around the meeting site to prevent an attack. Wardak, who organized the conference on Karzai’s behalf, gave no word on civilian or police casualties in the fighting.
Shortly after Wardak opened the conference, the first rocket exploded outside the tent as Karzai prepared to give his address. Some delegates ran out, while speakers appealed for calm. Explosions and distant gunfire continued as Karzai spoke.
The meeting was suspended for about an hour as Karzai and foreign diplomats left the venue.
Before the attack, political analysts including former diplomat Ahmad Saeedi said the meeting had few prospects of advancing real peacemaking.
While the Obama administration has voiced support for the strategy, it is banking on military offensives in southern Afghanistan to weaken the insurgency and let Karzai negotiate from a position of strength.
No insurgent representatives are participating in the meeting, and the jirga will be dominated by Karzai loyalists who have been invited in disproportionate numbers, said Waheed Mujda, a political researcher at the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, an independent think tank in the capital.
Lack of Legitimacy
Karzai’s chief rival in last year’s presidential race, the ethnic Tajik former foreign minister Abdullah Abdullah, declined to take part. The meeting’s impact also will be diluted because of a “lack of legitimacy” for Karzai, who has lost popularity over the government’s inability to provide security and public services, and over corruption and his fraud-tainted re-election last year, Mujda said.
Delegates invited to the jirga include lawmakers, clerics and provincial governors, said spokesman Gulagha Ahmadi in a telephone interview. Twenty percent are women.
The U.S.-led “international community is giving its full support to the government of Afghanistan, to the people of Afghanistan, as they take this event forward,” Mark Sedwill, NATO’s senior civilian representative to the country, said in a May 30 news conference in Kabul. The jirga represented a “critical opportunity to advance” Karzai’s bid to bring militants back to the “political mainstream,” he said.
“Peace in Afghanistan comes where Afghans are able to participate in the political process,” the commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan, General Stanley McChrystal, said at the conference.
The U.S. Senate late last month approved a $60 billion war-funding measure as the conflict in Afghanistan has surpassed the Iraq war in annual cost and number of troops.
The U.S. and its allies are aiming to reverse Taliban gains and train enough Afghan soldiers, police and civil servants to begin withdrawing troops in July 2011. President Barack Obama will conduct a review of progress in December.
The number of American troops in Afghanistan surpassed those in Iraq in May by about 94,000 to 92,000, according to the Defense Department. The troop buildup is one reason why Afghan war costs will top those in Iraq this year for the first time since the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003.
Talks in May between Karzai and Obama in Washington were aimed partly at mending fences over the Afghan government’s lack of progress in fighting corruption and improving public services.
On the streets of Kabul, while some support the jirga, others say Karzai should look closer to home if he wants to win people’s trust after eight years in power.
“If Karzai really wants peace, first he must remove corruption from his government,” said Ahmad Jawad Omari, a Kabul University student.