Taliban threatens Afghan delegates
The Taliban dismissed a national peace conference in Afghanistan even before it had begun on Wednesday, threatening death to the 1,600 delegates in cassette messages distributed by the insurgent leadership.
The three-day meeting in a giant tent at Kabul Polytechnic University will discuss how to reconcile with the fighters - even as the US rushes in more troops to ramp up the near nine-year war. But the meeting could also open fissures in a society deeply divided after decades of conflict.
President Hamid Karzai will use the conference, known as a "peace jirga", to seek endorsement of his plan to offer economic incentives to Taliban and other insurgent fighters willing to leave the battlefield.
The Taliban said in a statement to news organisations that the jirga does not represent the Afghan people and is aimed at "securing the interest of foreigners". It said the participants "are on the payroll of the invaders and work for their interests".
To reinforce the message, a cassette recording was circulated last week by courier within the Taliban's underground government, in which the chairman of the Taliban council, Mullah Abdul Ghani, warned that "the punishment for participating in the jirga is death".
Another major insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami led by ex-prime minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, called the conference "a useless exercise" because "only hand-picked people" were invited.
Nevertheless, Mr Karzai is hoping the jirga will bolster him politically by supporting his strategy of offering incentives to individual Taliban fighters and reaching out to the insurgent leadership, despite scepticism in Washington over an overture to militant leaders.
Some members of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities also fear Mr 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.
Although active members of the Taliban will not attend, some delegates once played key roles in the Islamist movement and doubtless maintain contacts with the militants. They include Naeem Kuchi, a former Taliban commander who spent more than two years in US custody at Guantanamo Bay. He was among the Taliban commanders who led a massacre of ethnic Hazaras in Bamiyan province, site of the ancient statues of Buddha that were destroyed during Taliban rule.
Another prominent ex-Taliban delegate is Mullah Abdul Salam Rocketi, a former Taliban corps commander for eastern Afghanistan. He expressed disappointment that the insurgents would not attend.