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Afghan, Pakistani Tribal Leaders Launch 'Peace Jirga'

August 9, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Some 650 tribal leaders and other representatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan today opened an assembly in Kabul to boost security and seek an end to militancy undermining both governments.

Over the next three days, tribal leaders, government officials, and other influential representatives from Afghanistan and Pakistan will discuss a common strategy to confront support for Al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.

Officials from both countries said the main aim of their first joint council -- the "peace jirga," or assembly -- is to find paths to restoring peace in the region.

In his speech to the assembly today, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said that Afghanistan and Pakistan can defeat the Taliban and Al Qaeda threat if they work together.

"If the problem is from the Afghanistan side and [Afghanistan] has done something wrong, Afghanistan will accept the fact and seek ways to solve it. If the problem is [in Pakistan], we hope that the solutions are found there. If the problem is between tribes, the tribes will try to find ways to resolve the issue," Karzai said.

Notable Absence

Not present at the peace jirga is Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf, who pulled out of the assembly at the last moment to deal with reported security threats in his home country.

Despite Musharraf's absence, Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Sultan Ahmad Baheen told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that Kabul has high hopes for the gathering.

"We are optimistic about the results of the [jirga], but this is only a beginning. It is a good beginning and an important step," Baheen said.

Some others are less optimistic. Delegations from Pakistan's North and South Waziristan -- tribal areas where insurgents reportedly get much of their support -- have boycotted the peace jirga.

There is no Taliban representation at the jirga. Some critics have argued that without any voice for the Taliban or their supporters, the talks could prove ineffectual.

Afghan presidential spokesman Humayun Hamidzada countered that the Taliban "do not believe" in peaceful values. In remarks to Radio Free Afghanistan, he also downplayed the impact of the Waziristan delegations' absence at the peace jirga.

"We should not forget that a number of influential clan and religious leaders, as well as government officials, are participating. Their presence shows that we are able to have very good talks, and all issues will be addressed properly," Hamidzada said.

Feuding Neighbors

The peace jirga was first planned late last year during a meeting in Washington between the Afghan, Pakistani, and U.S. presidents. The idea was to put an end to cross-border violence while bringing together Afghanistan and Pakistan -- two neighbors often divided by political feuds.

Each country -- important U.S. allies -- has blamed the other for contributing to insurgency in the region.

Officials in Kabul have repeatedly accused Pakistan of giving safe haven to Taliban and Al-Qaeda fighters in order to keep Afghanistan weak.

Islamabad denies that allegation, and says the growing insurgency in Afghanistan is due to internal Afghan problems.

The peace jirga is seen by many people as an important step to dialogue and cooperation between the two countries.

The peace jirga is taking place in a traditional venue -- a huge tent -- amid tight security measures, with hundreds of police and soldiers stationed in the area.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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