Peace Talks Begin in Kabul A peace conference between government and tribal leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan is getting underway in Kabul, Afghanistan, but Pakistan's beleaguered President Pervez Musharraf is a no-show. Afghan President Hamid Karzai opened the conference on Thursday, saying the two states should work together to smash a resurgent Taliban.
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Peace Talks Begin in Kabul

Hear NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson

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This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.


I'm Alex Chadwick.

Coming up, a no-no for lyrics in the top pop song this week.

First this.

BRAND: In Afghanistan and parts of Pakistan, the Taliban is getting stronger and stronger. This week in Kabul, some 700 tribal elders and officials from both countries are trying to come up with an agreement on how to deal with the Taliban. One problem: the leader of Pakistan, Pervez Musharraf, didn't show up today.

NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson joins us now. And Soraya, why is this meeting important if Pervez Musharraf isn't there?

SORAYA SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, the main purpose is to get these 700 people together - basically a grass roots approach - to try and figure out if there's a way to get rid of the Taliban without having to do military intervention. In other words, the feeling is that if you get the people on the ground to sort of all agree about rejecting the Taliban and not providing them safe haven, then perhaps this problem goes away.

BRAND: And today was the first day of this meeting; it's called the jirga. What happened?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, it's more that what didn't happen that was making the news initially. As you mentioned, President Musharraf did not show up. And he was considered key to this approach because certainly on the Afghan side the feeling is that the Pakistanis are not serious about addressing this issue, that somehow it's in their interest to have an unstable Afghanistan. And so the feeling is that this is really a last chance to come up with something concrete on the ground that can actually deal with the Taliban and perhaps put an end or at least reverse some of the things that the Afghan president Karzai was speaking about.

For example, 250,000 Afghan children not being able to go to school in the south because of the Taliban presence. A woman being nailed to the tree by the Taliban was another incident that he mentioned. And more importantly, the issue of the 22 Korean hostages at the moment, most of whom are women. President Karzai said that he didn't feel that any Afghan Taliban or Waziristan Taliban, in other words right on the other side of the border - these are tribes that are related to each other and even though they are on different sides of the border. And his - the implication there was that this is coming from somewhere else. And so the feeling is if on both sides of the border people reject the Taliban and don't provide them safe haven, that in fact there could be move towards peace here and move towards security.

BRAND: So it sounds like there are a lot of issues to discuss, and it sounds like President Musharraf would need to weigh in on these. What was the official and the unofficial reason for why he wasn't there?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, officially it was listed as pressing engagements that he - that kept him from coming, and this was reiterated today by the Pakistani prime minister. But unofficially, and certainly what made the news today, was the discussion that President Musharraf was having with his advisers about whether to declare a state of emergency in Pakistan to get insurgents under control. Basically that would eliminate democratic institutions; it would give the president the power to shut down parliament, to prevent free speech, and that sort of thing.

And so the feeling was maybe that's why he was not coming to Afghanistan today. But then there's a third issue, which is the fact that there's been a lot of growing U.S. criticism, both by Democratic presidential contenders, as well as by the administration, that perhaps Pakistan is not acting strongly enough when it comes to the Taliban and when it comes to Osama bin Laden's al-Qaida. And so the feeling was maybe Musharraf was sort of making a protest by not showing up.

BRAND: A protest to the United States?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Protest to the United States, yes.

BRAND: Which would win him support at home, right?

SARHADDI-NELSON: That was the idea. There's actually a fourth theory, but again, an unofficial version. Perhaps the president of Pakistan is concerned that if this jirga doesn't in fact come up with some sort of tangible result, that he would be blamed for that as well.

BRAND: And what do regular Afghans have to say about this jirga - this meeting?

SARHADDI-NELSON: Well, perhaps the most telling was the fact that the - that Celine Dion's theme to "Titanic" was playing on national television this morning while they were discussing the jirga and...

BRAND: How subtle.

SARHADDI-NELSON: I'm sure it was unintentional.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SARHADDI-NELSON: I'm sure it was unintentional. But because, in fact, they love that movie here but - I certainly can understand why. But the feeling was - it was great disappointment initially, and I'm not sure how much of that changed with the speeches that were delivered by the leaders who did come today. But the feeling is that there is nothing else to look forward to.

BRAND: Soraya, thank you.

SARHADDI-NELSON: You're welcome, Madeleine.

BRAND: That's NPR's Soraya Sarhaddi-Nelson in Kabul, Afghanistan.

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