KABUL, Afghanistan — Thousands of police have fanned out across Kabul as the Afghanistan capital prepares for Wednesday's opening of a national assembly that President Hamid Karzai hopes will give him a mandate to pursue talks with the Taliban.
While the three-day assembly isn't expected to produce any dramatic breakthroughs, Karzai and his Western allies are banking on the gathering, known as a jirga, to provide a psychological boost for the Afghan president as he prepares for a potentially pivotal summer.
"This is a big week for Afghanistan," said Mark Sedwill, the former British Ambassador to Afghanistan who now serves as the senior civilian representative for NATO in the country.
About 1,600 specially selected Afghan politicians, religious leaders, tribal elders and civic officials will gather Wednesday in a special air conditioned meeting tent for what's expected to be a charged debate over talks with Karzai's insurgent rivals.
Karzai is looking to the rare national gathering to give him a mandate to pursue peace talks with the Taliban and its leading militant allies more aggressively.
The leaders also will weigh evolving proposals to offer new incentives for Afghan insurgents to give up and return home.
Backed by $160 million in international funding, Afghan leaders plan to offer special training, literacy classes and jobs to Taliban and other Afghan insurgents who are willing to put down their guns.
The Afghans at the assembly will have their chance to weigh in on that proposal and the larger question of how to pursue political negotiations with Taliban leaders.
Sedwill and other Western leaders in Kabul see the assembly as part of a slowly evolving political process that will unfold over the rest of the year in parallel with the growing U.S. military campaign in southern Afghanistan.
Karzai launched the political clock with his relationship-mending visit to Washington last month, and this week's assembly will be followed by an international conference next month in Kabul and parliamentary elections this fall.
Karzai already has been pursuing talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Taliban ally 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.
On the eve of the gathering, the Taliban issued a statement taunting the participants and belittling the event.
"All the assembly participants are affiliated with the invaders and their powerless stooge administration," the Taliban said in the statement issued on Tuesday. "They are on the payroll of the invaders and work for their interests."
Skepticism about the event also came from Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai's rival in last year's presidential election, and from Afghan lawmakers.
Abdullah criticized the gathering as a hand picked group that was little more than a rubber stamp for Karzai.
"I call it the un-jirga jirga," said Daoud Sultanzoy, an Afghan lawmaker who said he had low expectations because the assembly isn't empowered like a traditional jirga to take action.
Afghan human rights leaders are also wary of the gathering amid lingering concerns that Karzai might offer the Taliban controversial concessions in peace talks.
"We are not that optimistic about the jirga," said Nader Nadery, a longtime human rights activist and member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
"Symbolically it may have some impact, but I personally am doubtful that any of these political initiatives will result in any incentives for the Taliban to take part in a reintegration process," he said.
MORE FROM MCCLATCHY
Follow Afghanistan developments at McClatchy's Checkpoint Kabul blog