Suicide bombers try to disrupt start of Afghan peace meeting

Taliban suicide bombers launch an assault at a peace conference in Afghanistan. Mandy Clark reports.
By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 2, 2010; 10:11 AM

KABUL-- A meeting of Afghan officials hoping to forge a plan to negotiate a truce with the Taliban got off to an ominous start Wednesday, as militants launched a spate of attacks and engaged in a lengthy gun battle with security forces nearby.

The outbreak of violence during the first day of the meeting, known as a peace jirga, raised fresh questions about the Afghan government's ability to reach a truce with the Taliban and other armed groups. The Taliban claimed responsibility for Wednesday's attacks and had previously denounced the three-day session as a ploy by foreign occupiers.

The first blast, from an apparent mortar or rocket, thundered as President Hamid Karzai laid out his vision for reconciliation during opening remarks. In a speech by turns jovial and defiant, Karzai extended an olive branch to the Taliban.

"They are not the enemy," Karzai said. "They are the sons of this land."

He warned, however, that those who continue attacking civilians would not be forgiven.

Karzai, seemingly unfazed by the first blast, urged the 1,500 or so in attendance to remain seated in the large white tent where the meeting was taking place. As his speech was ending, a gunfight broke out near the large white tent where the attendees were gathered.

Karzai and the foreign dignitaries at the event, including U.S. Ambassador Karl W. Eikenberry and Gen. Stanley McCrystal, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, were quickly whisked away in a long convoy of SUVs.

Afghan officials later said three would-be suicide bombers wearing burqas -- the enveloping head-to-toe garment worn by some women in Afghanistan -- had taken positions in a building near the gathering. A few minutes after Karzai's speech, a mortar landed a few yards away from the tent.

Two of the burqa-clad suicide bombers were fatally shot and a third was taken into custody, said Waheed Omer, a spokesman for Karzai. They did not detonate their explosives.

"These attempts failed," Omer told reporters after Karzai's speech. "The jirga has not been disrupted."

There were no reports of civilian casualties.

Karzai's government organized the gathering of national and provincial government officials and other leaders to solicit input about how the government should broach negotiating a truce with the Taliban. The representatives will provide non-binding advice to the government.

The timing of the gathering, which was originally scheduled for April, coincides with stepped-up military operations in Kandahar, a southern province that the Taliban views as its spiritual heartland.

Critics, including many members of parliament who boycotted the jirga, have described the process as a political gambit by Karzai to create the appearance of a national consensus for a preconceived plan.

The government wants to get the Taliban to renounce violence, agree to abide by the constitution and join the political process. The Taliban, however, sees Karzai's government as an extension of a foreign occupying force.

Safia Seddiqi, a member of parliament from Jalalabad, in eastern Afghanistan, said the jirga would likely be a failure.

"While we have violence at the national gathering, it's very difficult to talk about reconciliation," she said. "It means they are not ready to talk."

Fauzia Kofi, a lawmaker from Badakhshan, in northeastern Afghanistan, said most members of parliament decided not to attend because they see the gathering as a political stunt. She said the government is engaged in a battle with extremists who are unwilling to negotiate.

"That war needs to be won," said Kofi, who was among the parliamentarians who decided not to attend the jirga.

But Staffan de Mistura, the top U.N. envoy in Afghanistan, said the gathering could be the first step in a long and difficult process to reach an armistice. "There is sufficient will by everyone to understand that this cannot be won militarily by anyone," de Mistura said. "It's going to be hard, tense and slow."

The attacks did not come as a surprise, de Mistura said. He called them symbolic of the "hot negotiation" phase of the process, during which both sides will continue to use force to show their strength. "One side and the other are still using the power they have."

The U.N. envoy said the Afghan delegates inside the tent reacted with aplomb when the blasts began. "Their reaction was one of defiance: 'we are not going to be intimidated.' "

U.S. officials have been skeptical about the government's reconciliation plans, but they backed the decision to convene the jirga.

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