'Peace Jirga' in Afghanistan to Draw 700 Leaders On Thursday, some 700 Afghan and Pakistani tribal elders and local leaders will gather for an unprecedented meeting to try to close an ever-widening gap. But even before the agenda is ironed out, critics complain that the jirga will do little good.
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'Peace Jirga' in Afghanistan to Draw 700 Leaders

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'Peace Jirga' in Afghanistan to Draw 700 Leaders

'Peace Jirga' in Afghanistan to Draw 700 Leaders

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ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

And I'm Michele Norris.

Some 700 Afghan and Pakistani tribal elders and politicians are headed to Kabul. For the first time, the two countries are holding a traditional jirga or assembly to forge a cross border consensus against the Taliban. But even before it begins tomorrow, both sides are expressing doubt that the jirga can succeed. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was supposed to join his Afghan counterpart to open the conference, but he canceled at the last minute.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson reports from Kabul.

SORAYA SARHADDI NELSON: Inside this circus-sized tent, workers are hanging banners. One reads: God, give us the strength to lead our nations towards peace and brotherhood. Another says: terrorism is the common threat to Afghanistan and Pakistan. The remedy is a simple common strategy.

But there is nothing simple about what Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf are asking hundreds of tribal elders and local officials to do. They want the delegates from Afghanistan and Pakistan to come up with a grassroots solution to the Taliban and bring peace to their mutual war-ravaged border region.

Sardar Tariq Azizuddin, Pakistan's ambassador in Kabul.

Ambassador SARDAR TARIQ AZIZUDDIN (Pakistan's Ambassador to Kabul): The jirga has been found as a forum to address those problems and hopefully, we will find answers to deal with this menace, which bothers us, hurts us jointly.

SARHADDI NELSON: Everyone agrees that's no easy task, especially now that Musharraf is refusing to appear. The Pakistani foreign ministry says he was canceling due to other engagements. A more likely explanation is that Musharraf is protesting growing U.S. criticism of Pakistan's counterterrorism efforts.

Karzai accuses Musharraf of secretly harboring Taliban leaders and allowing their fighters to cross into Afghanistan. The West is also pressuring Musharraf to deal with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida, which is believed to be based there.

Musharraf, meanwhile, blames millions of Afghan refugees who still live in Pakistan, of supporting the Taliban. And he blames Karzai for failing to secure Afghanistan.

Adding to the jirga's hurdles is the absence of some influential leaders who are critics of their governments, like Ayub Rafili(ph), a wealthy landowner in Afghanistan's Kandahar province. Rafili claims he was struck from the invitation list after he blamed Karzai's government for his province's growing insecurity. We reached Rafili by phone, where he offered this assessment of the jirga.

Mr. AYUB RAFILI (Land Owner, Kandahar Province): I think (unintelligible) is a waste of time.

SARHADDI NELSON: Even delegates like Ettifelk Ahmanid(ph), who will attend are pessimistic. He's from Paktia, which is a volatile Afghan province bordering Pakistan. He says there's slim chance of a meaningful deal if all issues fueling tensions aren't put on the table. Ahmanid says that includes sensitive topics like the fifteen-hundred-mile Afghan-Pakistani border drawn by the British more than a century ago.

Mr. ETTIFELK AHMANID (Delegate, Paktia Province): (Through translator) It's our right to at least raise the issue. The question should be put to people on the other side of the border. Do they want to be part of Afghanistan, independent or part of Pakistan?

SARHADDI NELSON: Pakistani Ambassador Azizuddin says that subject is not out for discussion for the upcoming jirga. He adds that anything the jirga does produce will not be binding.

Ambassador AZIZUDDIN: First, we come to some conclusions and then express our willingness to follow those conclusions in our own respective ways, in our own respective territories, with complete respect for each other's sovereignty and territorial integrity.

SARHADDI NELSON: Kabul lawmaker Shinkai Kahim Karuhel(ph), who is not attending the conference, is more optimistic. She says securing Afghanistan from the Taliban is no longer just an Afghan concern, given the recent increase in Islamist violence in Pakistan.

Ms. SHINKAI KAHIM KARUHEL (Kabul Lawmaker): I think now Pervez Musharraf is also in a very critical situation. I think he should change some of his policy and strategy. People also wouldn't be happy about the same strategy which he always use that. He's not in the same position. That's why I'm a little bit hopeful.

SARHADDI NELSON: That hope may falter unless Musharraf changes his mind and comes to Kabul after all. The jirga continues through Sunday.

Soraya Sarhaddi Nelson, NPR News, Kabul.

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