Taliban say they will not be attending Kabul peace talks

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The Independent Online

Taliban rebels have vowed to boycott a conference called by President Hamid Karzai to try to secure an end to fighting nearly a decade after the US-led invasion of Afghanistan.

Although the leaders of the Taliban and other insurgent groups have not been invited, organisers of the "peace jirga" – a grand gathering of delegates representing myriad interests – have said they will be welcome if they turn up.

The purpose of the "jirga" is to reach a consensus on how to cut a peace deal with the Taliban and other insurgent factions – without alienating any of the interest groups that make up Afghanistan's patchwork political community. But there is little optimism given the raw enmities nursed by some groups against others after more than 30 years of brutal fighting.

But as the delegates convene in the cavernous white tent pitched at the bottom of a hill behind Kabul's Polytechnic, the Taliban accused Mr Karzai of creating an illusion of national unity. "The foreign invading forces and their surrogates utilise this consultative jirga only as a propaganda stunt and wrongly (paint) it as a representative body of the Afghans," the rebels said.

They claimed that delegates are "affiliated with the invaders and their powerless stooge administration," and "the main cause of the current tragedy of Afghanistan".

Although well-known for their hyperbole, the rebels are not the only sceptics, finding allies in unlikely corners. Former presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, whose political authority rests in part on his credentials as an anti-Taliban fighter during the 1990s, is also boycotting Mr Karzai's peace "jirga" because "the agenda has been decided behind closed doors".

Dr Abdullah points at the fact that many of the 1,600 delegates – who include MPs, religious scholars, tribal leaders, prominent women and representatives from civil society, nomad communities and industry – had been invited to attend by provincial and district governors, who often owe their appointments directly to Mr Karzai.

The centerpiece of the gathering is the government's peace and reintegration programme, which sets out a plan to bring mid-and low-level fighters in from the cold.

But despite months of work, the plan provides almost no concrete detail on how the officials behind it will handle problems such as providing amnesty to rebels without alienating their victims, protecting ex-combatants from reprisal and ensuring that progress on women's rights is not eroded.

There are fears that the "peace jirga" will produce nothing more substantial than presidential claims that it has been a success. "Since the jirga had no specific goals, it could not bring peace and stability to the country," Dr Abdullah said yesterday.