Kabul, Afghanistan – Would-be Taliban suicide bombers staged a jarring attack Wednesday morning on a closely watched national peace conference as President Hamid Karzai opened the gathering with an appeal to the nation’s leaders to embrace new steps in seeking peace with Afghan insurgents.
A trio of assailants using machine guns and rocket propelled grenades fired on the cavernous air conditioned tent on the outskirts of Kabul as Karzai was speaking to nearly 1,600 delegates from across the country, said presidential spokesman Waheed Omar.
No participants were injured in the assault as the rockets landed in open areas nearby.
“I am sure you all agree with me that we all are used to bombings and explosions,” Karzai coolly told the gathering as the first rockets hit nearby.
The attack continued after Karzai finished his 40-minute address and police converged on a house several hundred yards from the tent where three insurgents were hiding, Omar said.
Two of the attackers had suicide vests. Police arrested one of the attackers, said Omar.
The Taliban took credit for the attack and said it was designed to send a message that the national gathering was nothing more than a useless fig leaf for Karzai and the U.S.-led international military coalition.
A third rocket hit about 100 yards from the gathering as Karzai and high powered international observers left the event in an armored convoy.
Omar said the attackers had hidden in a house near the event, but had failed in their attempt to derail the gathering, known as a jirga.
“There was an attempt to disrupt the jirga, but it failed,” said Omar. “The jirga is going well.”
In his address, Karzai laid out his hopes of securing backing from the group to ramp up talks with the Taliban and their insurgent allies.
While the three-day assembly isn’t expected to produce any dramatic breakthroughs, Karzai and his Western allies are banking on the gathering to provide a psychological boost for the Afghan president as he prepares for a potentially pivotal summer.
“This is a big week for Afghanistan,” said Mark Sedwill, the former British Ambassador to Afghanistan who now serves as the senior civilian representative for NATO in the country.
About 1,600 specially selected Afghan politicians, religious leaders, tribal elders and civic officials will gather Wednesday in a special air conditioned meeting tent for what’s expected to be a charged debate over talks with Karzai’s insurgent rivals.
Karzai is looking to the rare national gathering to give him a mandate to pursue peace talks with the Taliban and its leading militant allies more aggressively.
The leaders also will weigh evolving proposals to offer new incentives for Afghan insurgents to give up and return home.
Backed by $160 million in international funding, Afghan leaders plan to offer special training, literacy classes and jobs to Taliban and other Afghan insurgents who are willing to put down their guns.
The Afghans at the assembly will have their chance to weigh in on that proposal and the larger question of how to pursue political negotiations with Taliban leaders.
Sedwill and other Western leaders in Kabul see the assembly as part of a slowly evolving political process that will unfold over the rest of the year in parallel with the growing U.S. military campaign in southern Afghanistan.
Karzai launched the political clock with his relationship-mending visit to Washington last month, and this week’s assembly will be followed by an international conference next month in Kabul and parliamentary elections this fall.
Karzai already has been pursuing talks with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Taliban ally perhaps best known for his relationship with Pakistan and the CIA during the 1980s war against the Soviet occupation and for shelling Kabul neighborhoods during the civil war in the 1990s.
On the eve of the gathering, the Taliban issued a statement taunting the participants and belittling the event.
“All the assembly participants are affiliated with the invaders and their powerless stooge administration,” the Taliban said in the statement issued on Tuesday. “They are on the payroll of the invaders and work for their interests.”
Skepticism about the event also came from Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s rival in last year’s presidential election, and from Afghan lawmakers.
Abdullah criticized the gathering as a hand picked group that was little more than a rubber stamp for Karzai.
“I call it the un-jirga jirga,” said Daoud Sultanzoy, an Afghan lawmaker who said he had low expectations because the assembly isn’t empowered like a traditional jirga to take action.
Afghan human rights leaders are also wary of the gathering amid lingering concerns that Karzai might offer the Taliban controversial concessions in peace talks.
“We are not that optimistic about the jirga,” said Nader Nadery, a longtime human rights activist and member of the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission.
“Symbolically it may have some impact, but I personally am doubtful that any of these political initiatives will result in any incentives for the Taliban to take part in a reintegration process,” he said.