KABUL // The ongoing peace council in the Afghan capital, Kabul, is only the latest in a series of meetings aimed at bringing a negotiated end to the nine-year war. As the bloodshed has increased and the Taliban grown in strength, so support for talks with the rebels has gathered momentum at home and abroad.
The problem is that despite a clear shift in approach, some who have witnessed the process firsthand fear that a solution to the conflict remains elusive. Before this week's council, or "jirga", began on Wednesday a summit was held in the Maldives between Afghans affiliated with the insurgency, MPs and former mujahideen commanders, among others. Touted as a move towards striking a deal with the two main rebel groups, it did not impress everyone who attended.
"I thought there would be a delegation from Hizb-e-Islami and the Taliban, but in truth no official delegation came," said Golalai Safi, an MP from the northern province of Balkh. "Personally, I did not see any achievement." Last month's two-day summit in the Maldives was the second of its kind this year, following an earlier meeting there in January. In both cases, there was a notable reluctance on all sides to endorse the discussions publicly and it now seems likely that those reservations were shared privately as well.
While the government in Kabul said it was not involved, the Taliban were outright hostile to any suggestion that they had sent representatives. Instead, the movement recently issued a statement accusing the media of reporting "baseless rumours". It continued, "The essential solution of the Afghan issue lies in unconditional and immediate withdrawal of the foreign forces from the country, whereas such impractical talks which are only a waste of time, will never serve the purpose".
In many ways, the statement went to the root of the problem that plagues any chance of a negotiated settlement. What the Taliban demand and what they are being offered still appear to be poles apart, which is why they have also denounced the jirga. Ms Safi said the Afghan government needed to make some concessions to break the deadlock. These should include the scrapping of any blacklists and the release of rebel prisoners, as long as they are not allowed to rejoin the insurgency. But certain subjects must be kept beyond discussion, she added.
"We should not take away our human rights, especially for women. If the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami are against women working and their first step is to say they should stay at home, I do not agree," she said. Like many Afghans, she believes today's violence can be traced back to late 2001, when the international community set the political climate for occupied Afghanistan. While the Taliban and the leader of Hizb-e-Islami, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, were isolated and ignored, members of the Northern Alliance were armed, financed and given key official positions by the US and its allies.
Speaking on the eve of this week's council, Ms Safi said it would suffer from the same mistake if, as happened, Burhanuddin Rabbani was appointed the jirga's head. "Peace must come, but when and how I don't know," she said. Another MP who attended the recent Maldives talks called for clear concessions to be made to the rebels in an effort to win them over. Gulbadshah Majidi was hopeful that an agreement to stop the bloodshed could eventually be reached with the militant wing of Hizb-e-Islami, which sent representatives to meet with the Afghan government in Kabul during March. A number of old party colleagues of Mr Hekmatyar also already hold down political posts here.
However, the MP from Paktia province claimed the Taliban are too close to Pakistan and do "not have enough independence". He also warned that rebel leaders who opted to lay down their weapons must be ready to face legal proceedings, alongside anyone else accused of human rights abuses in the last few decades. "I support Hekmatyar joining the government because I want to prevent any more crimes he might commit and prepare the ground to put him on trial. But I do not support him joining the government for anything else. For this same reason, I support the Taliban joining as well," Mr Majidi said.
Insurgents launched a rocket attack against this week's peace council just as the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai, gave his opening address. Although the bloodshed that resulted was minimal, it was another high-profile incident that again demonstrated how ambitious the rebels have become. If the conference finishes later today, as expected, delegates may have agreed a clear way forward in the reconciliation process, which could include some of the concessions the MPs want. Whether it will have any real impact on the Taliban, though, is another question.
"The current agenda of this jirga is not an effective programme for our situation," said Mr Majidi, earlier in the week "But one thing that is important is that each step towards peace we will support." @Email:email@example.com