This is DAY TO DAY from NPR West. I'm Alex Chadwick.


And I'm Madeleine Brand.

In a few minutes, the one-year countdown to the Olympics in Beijing begins today. Can China clean up in time?

CHADWICK: First, there is disturbing news today from Pakistan, where President Pervez Musharraf today pulled out of an important conference that was supposed to take place tomorrow in Kabul, Afghanistan. The conference is going ahead but he won't be there.

This is known as a Loya jirga; it's a peace conference set to go forward with 650 delegates - these are tribal people supposed to get together to talk about settling their differences and trying to control the Taliban along the Afghanistan-Pakistan border. President Musharraf called Afghan president Hamid Karzai today to say he's not going to go because of, quote, "engagements in Islamabad." He will send his prime minister in his place.

Joining us is Ahmed Rashid. He's a journalist based in Lahore, Pakistan. Ahmed, tell us, why did this come about?

Mr. AHMED RASHID (Journalist): I think the major reason is that from the Pakistani side, most of the tribal elders from the tribal agencies, which are adjacent to the Afghan border, have refused to go. Some of them are too scared to go because they say that if they do go to Kabul, the Taliban in Pakistan will kill them.

And others have said that unless the Taliban are invited to this jirga, the jirga is going to be useless so they're not going. So the next result is being that, you know, roughly as far as we know, out of the approximate 350 Pakistanis who were supposed to be going, about 150 are not going. Now, if they're not going, there's no way this jirga is going to work out. So I think Musharraf is - was trying to avoid the - an embarrassing collapse.

CHADWICK: There's already some comment on the Associated Press that maybe President Musharraf means this as a slap at the United States because of these comments that have come out in the last week or so especially from Senator Obama, who's running for president, saying that, well, Pakistan's sovereignty might not matter so much if the U.S. thought it had a military chance to kill Osama Bin Laden.

Mr. RASHID: It must be said that the U.S. has not put much importance on this jirga. I mean, I don't think the United States, the State Department or the American embassy in Kabul have been saying, you know, that this is a do-or-die jirga. In fact, the Americans have been downplaying this jirga and the importance of this jirga because nobody was expecting it to deliver very much anyway, even if Musharraf had gone.

I think really the reason is that what's going to happen in the jirga now is that you're going to have speaker after speaker on the Afghan side condemning Pakistan, first of all, for not sending the full delegation, not sending the tribal elders. And to avoid that, the kind of embarrassing accusation, I think that is one of the major reasons why he postponed it.

The other major reason, of course, is there is this ongoing hostage crisis. Twenty-one South Koreans are being held hostage by the Taliban in Afghanistan. Some of the elements in the Afghan government have accused Pakistan's intelligence agencies of being behind the prolongation of the hostage crisis.

CHADWICK: You know, outsiders, Americans especially perhaps, but others as well, are saying to Pakistan, show us some indication that you really are going to get tough in these border regions, that you really are taking action to go after the Taliban. Here you've got an opportunity, a conference where you can go at least talk strongly about it. And Pakistan isn't really going.

Mr. RASHID: Well, I, you know, I quite agree with you. I mean, I think it is going to be, you know, it's going to look very bad internationally. It's going to give the Kabul government and President Karzai more fuel of with which to attack Musharraf and to show his kind of, you know, bad intentions. And certainly, you know, it's going to raise a lot of eyebrows in Washington as to what's going on.

Now, there is no doubt that there is a political crisis in Pakistan. He has a lot of pressure and he's facing a lot of problems. You know, Kabul is 45 minutes by plane. You know, you could go to Kabul after breakfast and be back in Islamabad by lunchtime. The fact that he's not even making that effort, even to go for two or three hours, I think certainly means he's wanting to avoid the embarrassment of a failed jirga.

CHADWICK: Ahmed Rashid is the author of the book "Taliban." He's an independent journalist joining us from Lahore, Pakistan. Ahmed, thank you again.

Mr. RASHID: Thank you.

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