KABUL // Former members of the Taliban regime do not believe an upcoming peace conference in Kabul will stem the violence here, warning instead that the US and its allies are yet to show they are serious about negotiating with the insurgency.
A grand assembly - or loya jirga - is due to be held in the Afghan capital soon, with elders and religious leaders from across the country invited to attend what is traditionally regarded as a key event in the nation's history. The government-sponsored meeting is being touted as an important step towards bringing an end to a war that continues to escalate nearly nine years after it began. Yet among senior officials of the old regime there is deep scepticism that the rebels are any closer to being persuaded to give up the fight.
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, who served as the Taliban's representative to the UN, said: "If the purpose of the jirga is to make a national consensus about reconciliation and reintegration in Afghanistan between the government and the armed opposition, first there needs to be a consensus and agreement between the government and foreign forces. "If there is no willingness of the foreign forces here in this country, even if there are hundreds of these kinds of jirgas, it will not give any results."
The date of the assembly has not yet been publicly finalised, although billboards advertising the event have appeared across Kabul. It is now expected to take place in late May as part of a growing campaign to show that efforts are being made to negotiate an end to the war. An international conference in London in January announced a renewed strategy to win over low-level insurgents with offers of land and jobs. At the same time, Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president, reiterated his desire for talks with "our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al Qa'eda, or other terrorist networks" and who accept the constitution.
Beneath the rhetoric, however, the former Taliban officials believe little has genuinely changed. "Now the atmosphere of confidence and trust is at zero. Totally at zero. Less than zero," Mr Mujahid said. As the Taliban's representative to the UN, he was in New York when the World Trade Center was attacked on September 11, 2001. He soon left for Pakistan and then split with the movement. He returned to Afghanistan in 2005 and has since tried to help with reconciliation.
Mr Mujahid warned that there was no hope of progress unless the international community took measures to prove it was serious about negotiations. These should include releasing prisoners, cancelling the rewards on offer for the capture or killing of insurgent leaders and officially recognising the Taliban as a legitimate political entity. He also called on the UN and US to scrap their blacklists of past and present Taliban members. In what was seen as a token gesture, earlier this year the UN removed just five names.
Mr Mujahid added that the rebels must make concessions of their own, which could include promises not to destroy schools and roads or kill scholars. "If the same policies of the foreign forces go on, I am not optimistic for peace and security in the country in the very near future," he said. Another ex-official echoed these doubts about the upcoming assembly. Ishaq Nizami was head of TV and radio under the Taliban before defecting and returning to Kabul in 2007.
An incredibly polite and softly spoken man, he believes the jirga should not be regarded as a significant event. "I am sure that no one will come. None of the popular elders will join the jirga. If they do, when they return [to their provinces], they will be killed," he said. Last month a rebel faction, Hizb-e-Islami, sent a delegation to meet the Afghan government. On the face of it, that move was a major breakthrough but the group's list of demands included a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign troops and the formation of a new interim government.
"In the field, the most powerful force is the Taliban, so the coming and going of Hizb-e-Islami is not the main point," Mr Nizami said. Loya jirgas are traditionally convened in Afghanistan to address issues crucial to the nation. In the aftermath of the US-led invasion, they were called to appoint Mr Karzai as transitional president and to approve the new constitution. A third former Taliban official, Haji Mohammed Musa Hotak, said the historical significance of such meetings showed the latest effort could help if those who attend are prepared to discuss the situation honestly. "The government wants the views of ordinary people and tribal elders about negotiations and peace talks with the Taliban. This is a step for peace, it's not a step to talk to the Taliban.
"If we don't have one Talib there, it's no problem," he said. Mr Hotak served as deputy planning minister in the old regime and is now an MP for Maidan Wardak province. He was among the men recently removed from the UN blacklist. But while saying he was happy if foreign troops are in Afghanistan to help with reconstruction, he was keen to stress that his support for them is far from unconditional.
"If I understand now that any country - I cannot tell you which one - wants to invade and occupy us, I will again start fighting and I am sure we will break them down," he said. @Email:firstname.lastname@example.org