President Ashraf Ghani convened the four-day consultation, known as a loya jirga, in a large tent on a university campus. In his opening speech, he instructed the delegates to “define the limits and framework” of the peace process, and he urged them to take their time. “I want a stable peace,” he said. “I am not after a hasty and temporary peace deal.”
But the president’s statesmanlike appeal contrasted with the political bickering that has led up to the meeting, in large part due to the presidential election scheduled to take place in September.
Ghani is seeking reelection to a second five-year term, and some of his rivals — including the current government’s chief executive, Abdullah Abdullah — have criticized the gathering as a campaign gimmick or a useless exercise. Numerous ethnic political leaders and former president Hamid Karzai are also boycotting it.
Karzai issued a statement saying he feared the jirga could derail peace talks rather than abet them. He suggested that it be delayed until after a deal has been reached with the Taliban. Other critics blamed Ghani for botching the aborted meeting with Taliban officials in Qatar. The delegation list grew to more than 250, and the Taliban, objecting to the large size — eventually rejected it.
Ziaulhaq Amarkhail, an organizer of the jirga, told reporters Monday that the boycott by government figures and other politicians would have no “impact on the legitimacy of the gathering.”
But even the influential Islamic cleric who will chair the meeting, Abdul Rasool Sayyaf, was reportedly reluctant to accept Ghani’s request to lead it. After U.S. diplomats and military officials as well as Ghani visited his home this past week, Sayyaf agreed.
In his opening remarks, Sayyaf called on the Afghan people to unite and not allow the country to be divided along ethnic lines. “We are heading towards reconciliation, regardless of who wants it and who does not,” he said. “We will bring peace.”
The Taliban was invited to attend the meeting but refused. In a statement emailed to the media Monday, a spokesman for the insurgents, Zabiullah Mujahid, denounced the meeting as a conspiracy. “Do not participate in the enemy’s conspiracy under the name of jirga,” he said.
The tone of the opening day was jarring in other ways.
First, the delegates were shown a video depicting Taliban regime abuses from 1996 to 2001, including the dynamiting of two historic Buddha statues and the beating of citizens by religious enforcement squads. The video briefly shifted to scenes of dams and reconstruction carried out under Ghani’s government.
Then, as the president was speaking, a man rose and tried to interrupt him and was removed by security officials. The jirga is being held under extremely tight security, with schools and public offices closed and traffic movement restricted.
Among delegates, there was an emerging division of views, with people in conflicted rural areas stressing the urgent need for peace and others in urban areas worried about the high cost a settlement might have on social and personal freedoms.
Abdul Ahad Elbek, 39, is a delegate from Faryab, a western province where Taliban fighters have attacked repeatedly in recent years. He said he wished both sides could show “selflessness” in talks to end the war. “All Faryab people, in one voice, want peace,” he said.
But others, especially among the 900 female delegates at the jirga, expressed a strong desire for any peace to guarantee their rights and freedoms. One was Zahra Joya, 26, a delegate from Kabul. “Women should have unconditional freedom,” she said. “We should not be followed by the religious police.”
Sharif Hassan contributed to this story.