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Originally published Monday, May 31, 2010 at 9:11 AM

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Afghans to discuss peace at national conclave

Afghan insurgent groups Tuesday dismissed this week's national conference on how to lure fighters off the battlefield, saying the three-day meeting would merely draw government loyalists to rubber-stamp a program that cannot succeed.

Associated Press Writer

KABUL, Afghanistan —

Afghan insurgent groups Tuesday dismissed this week's national conference on how to lure fighters off the battlefield, saying the three-day meeting would merely draw government loyalists to rubber-stamp a program that cannot succeed.

About 1,600 Afghans will convene Wednesday in a giant tent at Kabul Polytechnic University to discuss how to reconcile with the fighters - even as the U.S. rushes in more troops to ramp up the war. President Hamid Karzai will use the conference to roll out his program to offer economic incentives to Taliban and other insurgent fighters willing to abandon the nearly nine-year war.

Lawmakers, provincial council members, tribal and religious leaders and representatives of civil society will participate. Notably absent from the "peace jirga" - jirga means "large assembly" in Pashto - will be official representatives of the Taliban, although some of the delegates may be insurgent sympathizers.

In a statement e-mailed to news organizations on the eve of the jirga, the Taliban said the conference did not represent the Afghan people and was aimed at "securing the interest of foreigners."

"All the participants of the jirga are persons affiliated with the invaders and their powerless stooge administration in one way or the other," the statement said. "They are on the payroll of the invaders and work for their interests."

Another major insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami, called the conference "a useless exercise" because "only handpicked people" were invited.

Hizb-i-Islami is smaller than the Taliban and the semiautonomous Haqqani group but fights in several provinces of eastern and northern Afghanistan. Leaders of the group, led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, have already sent a delegation to meet with Karzai last March and talked with lawmakers and other Afghans this month.

Despite the cool reception, Karzai is hoping the jirga will bolster him politically by endorsing his strategy of offering incentives to individual Taliban fighters and reaching out to the insurgent leadership, despite skepticism in Washington that the time is right for an overture to militant leaders.

Some members of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities fear Karzai may be too eager to sell out their interests in hopes of cutting a deal with the Taliban, who, like him, are Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group.

About 20 percent of the delegates will be women, a sector that suffered under Taliban rule and would have much to lose in a settlement that gives the insurgents a prominent political role in Afghan society.

"I have to tell you that this program with Karzai sounds like kind of a deal with the Taliban," said Fauzia Khofi, an ethnic Tajik lawmaker who survived an assassination attempt last March in her northern province of Badakhshan.

"Karzai perhaps wants the reintegration money just to help the Pashtuns in the south," she said. "For the peace process, they need to discuss with the other factions who fought against the Taliban," including ethnic Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras. Khofi will attend the jirga.

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Even among southern Pashtuns, where skepticism of the government and support for the militants run deep, there are doubts whether significant numbers of Taliban fighters will accept the deal, preferring instead to hold out until foreign troops are gone. President Barack Obama has pledged to begin pulling out U.S. troops in July 2011.

Nevertheless, the conference will provide an opportunity for representatives of Afghanistan's complex power structure to determine how to design a peace policy toward the Taliban without giving away the gains in human rights and rule of law achieved since the collapse of Taliban rule in the U.S.-led invasion of 2001.

"We know that there are concerns and reservations among various ethnic groups and other communities in Afghanistan about the reconciliation program," said NATO's top civilian official in Afghanistan, Mark Sedwill. "They want to ensure that all of the gains - the human rights achievements, both practically and in the constitution itself - are cemented and not put at risk by any process of reconciliation."

Progress on a political resolution is key to any U.S. exit strategy. Pakistan, Iran and other neighboring nations have a stake in any design of a post-conflict Afghanistan. Without a reconciliation strategy, NATO and its Afghan allies have few options other than to try for a decisive victory - requiring a bigger investment in lives, treasure and time than the international coalition is prepared to make.

The conference was set for early May but was delayed - first until after Karzai's visit to Washington and then for a few days to allow delegates from remote areas more time to reach the capital.

Centerpiece of the jirga is the government's draft reintegration program that would offer low and midlevel insurgents jobs, literacy and vocational training plus development aid for their villages if they give up the fight.

The Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Program would be supported by a $160 million trust fund financed by the U.S., Japan, Britain and others.

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