For Karzai, Afghan peace meeting is key chance to regain political legitimacy

By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post staff writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; A08

KABUL -- Afghan President Hamid Karzai is to kick off a peace meeting here Wednesday, at which delegates from across this battle-scarred nation are expected to discuss a path to ending the war by bringing Taliban fighters into the mainstream.

The start of the much-anticipated meeting, called a jirga, comes after several delays and amid great skepticism about its agenda. As preparations were completed this week, many Afghans said their hopes for the jirga were low, while organizers played down its aims by emphasizing that it is just one step in a long process to pacify an insurgency still raging after almost nine years.

In any event, the 1,500-person gathering might end up being more about politics than peace. Karzai announced plans for the meeting six months ago when he was inaugurated after a fraud-riddled election, and he has struggled since for credibility. The jirga is a key moment for Karzai to try to unite a divided nation and regain legitimacy, Afghan and Western officials said this week -- or, if it goes badly, to lose even more of it.

"This jirga will only benefit the president," said Hanif Shah, a member of parliament from Khost province, who said he plans to attend. "The jirga is a political one. It is not a jirga for the peace process."

Officially, organizers say, the idea is to bring together representatives who span Afghan society -- including lawmakers, tribal leaders, civil society activists, clerics and entrepreneurs -- to define their enemies and craft ground rules for making peace with them. Those ideas would then be used to "enrich or drastically change" the government's draft plan for reintegrating foot soldiers and reconciling with Taliban leaders, said Waheed Omer, a Karzai spokesman.

Critics say that the government has micromanaged the design of what is supposed to be a community-based meeting and that the list of invited delegates is stacked with Karzai backers who are not representative of Afghanistan. They also say that the purpose is not clear and that talk of peacemaking means nothing if the Taliban is not onboard.

The main Taliban factions were not invited, and their leaders have repeatedly nixed the idea of negotiations. But the gathering, which will include tribal leaders from insurgent-plagued swaths of Afghanistan, is likely to contain Taliban sympathizers and confidants.

Various groups of lawmakers have threatened to boycott the event, and the main political opposition bloc, the National Front, has complained that its members were intentionally left off the list of invitees. "This sounds like a PR exercise to show that we are making an effort to achieve peace in this country," Abdullah Abdullah, the bloc's candidate in last year's presidential election, said at a news conference Tuesday. "This has started with the government and it will end with the government."

Despite the concerns, Western officials -- who generally do not back the idea of dealmaking with top Taliban leaders -- lined up this week to support the peace jirga. NATO officials characterized it as one in a series of landmark events this year, including an international conference in Kabul in July and parliamentary elections in the fall. Yet they suggested that might not mean it will deliver concrete results.

The jirga "is one of the most important political events that has happened in Afghanistan over the past few years," Mark Sedwill, NATO's senior civilian representative in Afghanistan, said this week. He added that "it's the beginning of the process, and the opportunity for the insurgents to join the process will come later."

A bigger question, Afghan and Western officials said, is how Karzai will deal with a topic that is not officially on the agenda but is almost certain to come up: the presence of international troops, which Taliban leaders and many ordinary Afghans disdain.

Shah, the member of parliament, said he expects Karzai to play the populist by condemning civilian casualties caused by the U.S.-led coalition, a hot-button issue. Others said he is likely to address those themes but assure the crowd that he made Afghans' opinions known during his recent trip to Washington.

"The logic of this jirga is not to bring immediate peace," said Mohammed Noor Akbari, a member of parliament from Daikundi province and a Karzai supporter. "Now we are proceeding to meet each other, and to exchange ideas, and find some way to deal with this problem which we have in Afghanistan."

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