jirga to support a major operation in their southern province, the heartland of a Taliban insurgency.
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a meeting with tribal leaders Sunday in Kandahar. Karzai appealed to hundreds of tribal and religious leaders at the
Afghan President Hamid Karzai speaks at a meeting with tribal leaders Sunday in Kandahar. Karzai appealed to hundreds of tribal and religious leaders at the jirga to support a major operation in their southern province, the heartland of a Taliban insurgency. Massoud Hossaini/AP
Afghan President Hamid Karzai addressed a jirga — a gathering of several hundred tribal leaders — Sunday in Kandahar, trying to win support for a government and NATO operation there. He called on the leaders to stand with him even if it means sacrifices, and tried to address fears that a planned military operation could mean more civilian casualties.
Karzai played up his strong connection to Kandahar at the jirga. He was born on the outskirts of the city that later became the spiritual center of the Taliban insurgency. He is a member of the Pashtun ethnic group that makes up the majority in southern Afghanistan.
At the gathering, Karzai exchanged his trademark peaked cap for a traditional Pashtun-style turban, decked with red flowers. Most of the men who sat cross-legged on the carpets before him wore similar garb.
Before the president spoke, some men at the jirga were wary about supporting the operation, and they were suspicious of a government that, to many of them, typifies corruption.
One man, Haji Naik Mohammed, said bluntly that the president should start reforming his own government first. The elder said local officials in his district are involved in corruption, and if that doesn't change, "we can expect another 30 years of war."
But Haji Naik didn't seem to blame Karzai directly. In fact, he said his message to the president would be, "the Taliban is not your enemy, Mr. Karzai. Your own officials are your enemies."
When President Karzai spoke, his message seemed aimed at that very concern. He called repeatedly on Taliban members to reconcile with the government, and he promised to fight corruption among government officials, local power brokers and private security contractors.
Karzai called attention to Taliban violence against Afghan civilians by expressing his condolences to the families of some 56 people killed in a suicide attack on a wedding near Kandahar last week.
That attack was apparently aimed at a man who had recently joined an anti-Taliban militia. It drew such widespread condemnation from local people that the Taliban later denied involvement.
But while he called on the Taliban to stop the violence, Karzai focused much of his rhetoric on reconciliation. And he appeared to play down the likelihood of a violent military offensive.
At times during the 45-minute speech, he pounded the podium, insisting to the elders, "You are going to help us," and calling on them to stand up and show their support.
Many men did stand, although Karzai stressed that their backing would mean sacrifice.
Afterward, not everyone was convinced. Shah Mohammed, a farmer, says the problem is more complicated. "If you send someone to my district, you'll see cruelties everywhere," he said. "People who oppose the power structure are killed, and local government authorities are working with the Taliban to keep the people under their control."
Karzai's problem is typified by his own half-brother, Ahmed Wali Karzai, one of the most powerful figures in Kandahar. The younger Karzai has been repeatedly accused of corruption over the years — charges that he denies.
Wali Karzai told reporters after the speech that the president's denunciation of corruption was a good move. He added that the president had reassured the tribal leaders that the area was not going to be plunged into a violent military confrontation.
Gen. Stanley McChrystal, the top U.S. and NATO military commander in Afghanistan, accompanied President Karzai at the gathering, though he didn't speak to the elders.
Later, when asked whether he agreed with Karzai's seeming de-emphasis on a military victory against the Taliban, McChrystal said he believes that when the government attacks problems such as governance and corruption, the relevance of the Taliban is likely to fall significantly.
McChrystal and other top officials have also played down the military aspects of the Kandahar operation in recent weeks, preferring to call it an ongoing process that includes reconciliation and rebuilding, rather than an offensive or a campaign.