Karzai attempts to start dialogue with Afghan jirga

A banner advertising the peace jirga is seen in Kabul, 31 May 2010 The three-day conference begins in Kabul on Wednesday

A group of school children, boys and girls smartly dressed in white shirts and red ties, stared wide-eyed at the array of missiles, mortars, cluster bombs and no less than 51 of the 53 types of mines used in Afghanistan at one time or another.

The museum visit was part history lesson, part practical instruction in how to avoid the dangerous munitions which litter Afghanistan after decades of conflict.

Fazel Karim Fazel, director of the centre (which is known as OMAR - the Organisation for Mine Clearance and Afghan Rehabilitation) said he was now teaching visiting children about a new threat - the roadside bombs, or IEDs, planted by insurgents.

"After 30 years of darkness, everyone in Afghanistan is eager for peace," he said. "Without peace there will be no development, no education.

"It's the 21st century. We have to educate our people in new technology and we need peace for that. And we have to have a dialogue among Afghans in order to have peace."

'Start a dialogue'

Wednesday's peace jirga (assembly) is President Hamid Karzai's attempt to start that dialogue.

When really significant decisions are to be made in Afghanistan, a jirga is held.

The country was founded after a loya - or grand - jirga, in 1747.

Afghan delegates register to attend the upcoming peace Jirga in Kabul on 30 May 2010 Some 1,600 delegates are expected to participate in the jirga

Mr Karzai himself came to office in 2002 after one was held following the arrival of international forces.

But the meeting which starts on Wednesday will not be a loya jirga capable of changing the constitution.

It is instead termed a "national consultative peace jirga".

"The jirga is the start of the process," said Mark Sedwill, Nato's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan.

"The intention is to create a national consensus to reach out to the insurgents."

Some 1,600 delegates - tribal elders, religious leaders, members of parliament and other notables - will arrive from all over the country.

The agenda - set by President Karzai - will focus on talks with the Taliban and incentives for getting them to put down their weapons.

'Real intention'

Mohammed Masoom Stanekzai, the man President Karzai has put in charge of national reconciliation, told me: "People will be going back to the villages with a message that the government and the international community genuinely want to see an end to the violence."

President Karzai's real intention may be to strengthen his hand both with the US - which had misgivings about talking to the "enemy" - and in relation to the Taliban themselves.

Start Quote

The participants of the jirga are state favourites. They have no power of decision. It is only a consultative jirga - without any participation of the Mujahideen”

End Quote Hizb-e-Islami Militant group

International officials certainly hope that the majority of the insurgents are ready to give up the fight given the right conditions.

"Many of them are exhausted. Many want to re-enter the political mainstream. Many want to go home to their families," said Ambassador Sedwill.

But if the jirga is a kind of peace conference, it is rather one sided. The insurgents' leaders are not there.

Hizb-e-Islami, a small militant group which has sometimes fought with the Taliban, said the jirga was of "no importance".

"The participants of the jirga are state favourites," said a statement released by the group.

"They have no power of decision. It is only a consultative jirga - without any participation of the Mujahideen."

The main demand of the militants is that international forces leave. The Taliban leadership will not enter any arrangements with the Afghan government unless that happens.

"This won't work unless they [the Afghan government] talk to the ones who are fighting," said Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the last Taliban foreign minister.

Struggle

A statement from the US embassy re-iterated American support for "an Afghan-led process of reconciliation and reintegration that seeks to bring back into society those who cease violence, break ties with al-Qaeda and affiliated groups, and live under the Afghan constitution".

In other words, the US will support reaching out to those Taliban who are no longer Taliban.

Three-quarters of the Taliban fight close to their homes, said Ambassador Sedwill, explaining Nato views that addressing "local grievances" (principally by providing jobs) would see many Taliban switch sides.

If that works, it would still leave the irreconcilables, the ideologues who will keep fighting.

The Afghan government is in a struggle with these hardline Taliban for the allegiance of the rest.

It is the reaction of these people - the farmers and villagers who have taken up arms against Nato - which will determine the ultimate success or failure of the peace jirga.

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