KABUL, Afghanistan — The Taliban lost no time in delivering their assessment of the long-awaited National Consultative Peace Jirga, which opened this morning.
President Hamid Karzai had barely begun his welcoming speech to the 1,500 or so assembled delegates when a rocket hit near the large tent where the Jirga is being held, prompting jokes from the president and a nervous titter in the hall.
“Don’t worry,” said the president. "Nothing is going to happen. We are used to this. Even my 3-year-old son is used to it.”
But the first rocket was followed by several more, which got closer and closer to the tent. The impact could be clearly seen from the nearby Intercontinental Hotel, where the press had set up camp. The explosions were followed by barrages of automatic weapon fire, which terrified residents in the neighboring housing complexes and necessitated the rapid evacuation of the diplomatic corps, which had turned out in force for the Jirga.
Helicopters circled overhead, the contribution of the international forces to fighting off the assault. The Afghan National Security Forces — army, police and national directorate of security — were out in force, peppering the area with bullets. The attack continued for slightly more than two hours. No casualties among the delegates or the government forces were reported.
The Taliban have been firmly opposed to the Jirga, and have threatened violence against all who participate in it. Their condition for negotiations — that all foreign troops leave Afghan soil — has proved as unworkable as the demand of the other side — that they lay down their arms and accept the constitution in return for being welcomed back into Afghan society.
Karzai managed to finish his nearly hour-long talk, which was punctuated by calls to the opposition to come back to Afghanistan.
“I call on you, brother, friend, Talib jan! This is your soil, come!” he said. “Talib” is the singular form of Taliban; “jan” is a common term of endearment.
But he was stern when he spoke of Taliban crimes against the Afghan people, saying that those who killed teachers and tribal elders could never be forgiven.
“We can never talk to those people!” he stormed.
The speech was punctuated by frequent applause, especially when the president referred to Afghanistan’s rising status in the world community.
“Our flag has gone all over the world,” he said. “It is recognized everywhere.”
Karzai also won high marks from the delegates when he spoke of putting the foreigners in their place.
“[President Barack] Obama promised that by the 10 of Dalwa [Jan. 30, 2011] all the prisons in the country will be handed over to Afghans,” he said. “I told [the Americans]: ‘This is not your business.’”
But as soon as he announced the Jirga officially opened, Karzai was quickly bundled out of the tent along with his team.
The government sought to put the best possible face on the bold attacks that temporarily halted the gathering. Presidential spokesman Wahid Omar assured the press corps that the attacks would not disrupt the Jirga.
“The Jirga opened at 8:30, according to plan, and was opened by the president, which is normal procedure,” he said. “There was some movement to sabotage the Jirga, but, thanks be to God, we prevented any further activities.”
Omar would not confirm that rockets had been fired — he said only that an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) had been launched and had struck Bagh-e-Bala hill, in the area overlooking the Jirga tent.
Those at the Intercontinental Hotel clearly saw rockets landing quite close to the tent, and the sound of gunfire resounded in the area even as Omar was trying his best to downplay the attacks.
“The situation is normal,” he insisted. “Morale is great. The participants are not afraid of any type of sabotage.”
But the stories coming out of the Jirga were a bit different. Many of those inside the tent when the rockets landed tried to leave, in what one eyewitness called “ a near panic.”
The head of the Jirga organizational committee, Farooq Wardak called a 15-minute recess, but the meeting did not start again for over an hour.
All in all, it was not a propitious beginning for a gathering that was supposed to begin the healing process in Afghanistan’s 30 years of war.
The Taliban openly accepted responsibility for the attack, and said that their position on the Jirga was quite clear. "As long as there are foreigners in this country a Jirga means nothing," said Taliban spokesman Zabiullah Mojahed, speaking by phone from an undisclosed location. "It will just prolong the occupation."
This has been the crux of the problem, stopping any appreciable movement toward peace talks. The Taliban insist they will not sit down for negotiations until the foreign forces leave Afghanistan; foreign forces have so far refused to set a fixed timetable for withdrawal until the Taliban have been roundly defeated.
Karzai echoed these concerns in his speech.
“As long as you do not come and make peace, there is an excuse for the foreigners to be here,” he said. “We will not let them go.”
But Obama drew a line in the sand in his strategy statement at West Point last December, saying he would begin a drawdown in July 2011.
By day’s end, there were still many details of the attack that remained unclear, first and foremost how the Taliban got so close to the Jirga with so much lethal equipment.
The security forces have been deployed en masse; Interior Ministry spokesman Zmarai Bashiri said more than 12,000 troops were on the streets of Kabul.
They have been conducting regular sweeps, including house-to-house searches in the area around the Jirga tent.
The president’s spokesman said that there had been three insurgents operating from a house in a neighborhood close by the Polytechnic, where the Jirga is being held. Two had been killed, at least one when he detonated a suicide vest, said Omar. The third had been captured.
The Taliban claim they had four fighters on a hill overlooking the tent, armed with suicide vests, RPGs, and automatic weapons.
Once the gunfire stopped, the delegates went back to the tent.
A chairman for the gathering had been appointed in the morning — the former president of the mujaheddin government, Burhanuddin Rabbani. To many it seemed an odd choice: Rabbani heads Jamiat-e-Islami, the political faction most closely associated with the long fight against the Taliban.
At a press conference this afternoon, Rabbani bristled when questioned about his suitability for the post, saying that he had been one of the first to propose negotiations with the armed opposition.
“The nation needs peace and security,” he said.
The Jirga’s recommendations will have no legal force; the Jirga itself is not exactly a legal body according to constitutional norms, something that Rabbani acknowledged at his press conference. Instead, the Jirga will be empowered to make recommendations to the government.
The Taliban themselves were not invited to the gathering; Wahid Omar insisted that there was no contradiction in holding a Peace Jirga without the armed opposition.
“The government is also not invited,” he said. “This Jirga is for the people of Afghanistan.”
Karzai and his ministers left the hall following Karzai’s speech; they will have no official role in the Jirga until the results are announced on Day Three.
But this explanation was not convincing to many of those attending the Jirga. It certainly did not convince the Taliban.
“The delegates are not representative of the people of Afghanistan,” he said. “They are lackeys of the government.”
This has been a widely voice criticism, even among the loyal opposition. Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main rival in last year’s troubled presidential elections, also expressed doubt about the make-up of the Jirga, and said that his faction, the National Front, would not be in attendance.
Other national figures had also threatened a boycott; at least two parliamentary leaders had been leading different drives to shun the gathering, and Karzai’s own vice president, Karim Khalili, had stormed off to Behsud, an area plagued with violence between nomadic Kuchis and Hazara residents.
This morning the vice president was in the hall. But Mohammad Mohaqeq, leader of the Hazara-dominated Hezb-e-Wahdat political faction, decided to stay home, along with a few dozen of his supporters.
Wahid Omar said that, out of 1,600 invitees, “between 1,500 and 1,600 delegates attended.” There were not many empty seats in the hall, but the parliamentary defection could have some effect on the overall legitimacy of the Jirga.
“It was their own decision,” shrugged Omar, when asked about the absences. “They chose not to avail themselves of this important opportunity.”
But however grandiose the government rhetoric surrounding the event, the motivations of the delegates may have been very far from what Karzai had hoped for.
“This is just a trick,” grumbled Ghulam Mohammad Hotak, a tribal elder from Wardak who is also the commander of a government-sponsored security effort, the Afghan Public Protection Program (AP3). “There is no real Jirga, no real talks. Nothing is going to happen. I am just going to meet people.”
Abaceen Nasimi contributed to this report.