KABUL // Tribal leaders and elders from across Afghanistan have formally approved a peace process aimed at stopping almost nine years of war. At the end of a traditional assembly, or jirga, yesterday, delegates called on all sides to halt fighting and drop any preconditions they have set for negotiations. The proposals they endorsed also included an end to air strikes in civilian areas, the release of prisoners held on false charges or the testimony of rivals and the establishment of some kind of peace commission.
But with the two main insurgent groups continuing to call for the withdrawal of foreign troops, huge doubts remain that the strategy will have any impact. In his closing remarks yesterday, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, appealed to the rebels to lay down their arms. "I want to call on the Taliban and Hizb-e-Islami to use this opportunity to join with us and join in the reconstruction of this country," he said.
"It has shown us a path. We will follow that path step by step and, God willing, we will reach the end." Jirgas such as the one that met in Kabul this week are historically convened to help solve issues of national importance. Around 1,500 delegates, including senior officials, tribal elders and religious leaders attended the three-day assembly. Although the outcome was largely a formality, it still represents the first clear attempt at establishing a peace process at a time when the war is spreading to new areas of the country.
The 200 points that were agreed upon included the preservation of the rights of women in any eventual deal, an end to unnecessary house searches by Afghan and foreign troops, and the need for insurgents to renounce violence and sever ties with al Qa'eda. But even as the jirga began to wind down, there was little optimism on the streets of Kabul that the war would soon come to an end. For some, the assembly always lacked legitimacy because of the absence of members of the insurgency and other political opponents of Mr Karzai.
"From the first day the jirga has not had any effect because all the members have links with the government or are working with the government," said Gran Hanifi, an engineering student from the southern province of Uruzgan. "Can you tell me anyone who is in the opposition and unhappy with the government who is now in the jirga?" The Taliban have denounced the gathering as a propaganda stunt and there are no signs that they might be willing to acquiesce to the recommendations of the delegates. In a statement released before the jirga they said they vowed to respond to its "unlawful decisions" by "continuing the Islamic jihad". During Mr Karzai's opening remarks on Wednesday, the movement backed up their words with actions, launching a rocket attack that injured one of the president's bodyguards. Two rebels were killed in the assault and a third was arrested.
Mohammed Ismail, a 62-year-old Kabul resident, criticised both the Taliban and the government. He likened the jirga to similar events during the Communist regime of Mohammad Najibullah, which he described as "useless because there was no honesty". "All those people who are sitting there in the jirga are high-ranking officials," he said. Violence has reached record levels this year. So far, more than 140 US troops have died, taking the total since the war began above the 1,000 mark.
Meanwhile, figures released by the ministry of interior show 173 Afghan civilians were killed between March 21 and April 21, a 33 per cent increase on the same period in 2009. Fighting has also notably spread to the north of the country and there have been a number of high-profile attacks in Kabul, despite the city being in an almost constant state of lockdown. Speaking in the capital yesterday, one man summed up the plight ordinary people now find themselves in. Musa Jan, from Maidan Wardak province, said: "The majority of Afghan people are workers. But when we are working with the Taliban the government will kill us and when we are working for the government the Taliban will kill us. We need security and peace."