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Taliban attacks rattle Afghan peace meeting

Taliban militants rained down rockets on Hamid Karzai's peace conference.

A NATO helicopter flies over the tent housing the ongoing peace jirga in Kabul June 2, 2010, following a rocket attack. (Omar Sobhani/Reuters)

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.