Taliban attack Afghan peace conference as Karzai speaks

McClatchy NewspapersJune 2, 2010 

KABUL, Afghanistan — Standing before the country's power brokers and tribal elite Wednesday morning, Afghan President Hamid Karzai was about 10 minutes into his nationally televised appeal for peace when the Taliban responded with a rocket that slammed into a nearby hillside.

"Don't worry," Karzai coolly told the gathering before the attack escalated. "We've heard these kinds of things before."

Assailants with suicide vests, rockets and machine guns disrupted the opening ceremonies of a national peace assembly by attacking the cavernous meeting tent at Kabul’s Polytechnic University campus. Even with thousands of Afghan police and troops protecting the city, the attackers fought for more than 45 minutes.

Amid the gunfire and explosions, the 1,600 Afghan delegates to the three-day assembly carried on.

“The president was really brave,” said Shukria Barakzai, an independent lawmaker who's part of the gathering. “Usually when there is a threat or an attack he leaves the hall, and this time he said, ‘We don’t care if there are rockets or missiles.' "

The Taliban said the attack was meant as a message that the national gathering was a useless fig leaf for Karzai and the U.S.-led international military coalition that backs him.

Unfazed, the president reiterated his appeal for Taliban insurgents and their militant allies to lay down their weapons.

“Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here,” Karzai said in a direct appeal to the Taliban as the attack unfolded.

The rare gathering, known as a jirga, is meant to boost the president's nascent efforts to launch substantive peace talks with Afghan insurgents.

On the same university campus eight years ago this month, Karzai was tapped as the president of the first post-Taliban government during a grand assembly, or loya jirga.

By Friday, Karzai expects the specially selected assembly delegates to give him a national mandate for his plan to end the nearly nine-year-old war, which has caused the deaths of at least 10,000 Afghan civilians, thousands of Afghan soldiers and nearly 1,800 members of the international military coalition, more than 1,000 of them Americans.

"They cannot stop the jirga,” said Safiya Sidiqi, a lawmaker from eastern Afghanistan’s Nangarhar province. However, Sidiqi said there were already indications in the gathering of troubling fissures as Afghan warlords staked out hard-line positions against offering the Taliban any significant concessions.

Sidiqi said the divisions were a worrying sign that it would be difficult for the nation’s most powerful leaders to put aside their own rivalries to back Karzai’s push for peace.

“I think it smells bad,” she said. “It could be the beginning of some other crisis or problem for the government.”

Karzai has made it clear that he's willing to talk with any Taliban leaders who distance themselves from al Qaida, renounce violence and accept the country’s constitution.

The Afghan president already has started pursuing talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Taliban ally who's perhaps best known for his relationship with Pakistan and the CIA during the 1980s war against the Soviet occupation and for shelling Kabul neighborhoods during the civil war in the 1990s.

The Taliban attack on Wednesday's gathering, however, made it clear that plenty of fighters aren’t willing to give up yet.

After Karzai sped away from the event in an armored convoy, a second, more powerful explosion rattled the meeting tent as former Afghan president and parliamentary leader Sibghatullah Mojaddedi addressed the anxious assembly. Soon thereafter, the participants took an extended break while police brought the attack to an end.

Security forces converged on a house a mile or two from the heavily secured meeting tent where they battled at least two men with suicide vests, said Zemiri Bashary, a spokesman for the Interior Ministry.

Bashary said the men had used women’s burqas, all-enveloping outer garments, to sneak into the area and attack. Two men were killed and a third was arrested.

More than 12,000 security forces were deployed around Kabul for the jirga. Barakzai said the attackers' ability to get so close to the event was unnerving.

“It was a bit strange because it’s the heart of the city with all the tight security,” she said. “But the path is open and the members of the jirga are really committed to talk for peace, so, to be honest, it was the first time that I saw such a thing. People were really brave.”

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

(Shukoor is a McClatchy special correspondent.)

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