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Taliban attacks rattle Afghan peace meeting

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

“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.