The Taliban on Tuesday dismissed this week's national peace conference in Afghanistan even before it had begun, threatening death to the 1,600 delegates in cassette messages distributed by the insurgent leadership.
The three-day meeting, which begins Wednesday in a giant tent at Kabul Polytechnic University, will discuss how to reconcile with the fighters — even as the U.S. rushes in more troops to ramp up the nearly 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.
On the eve of the conference, the Taliban said in a statement to news organizations that the jirga does not represent the Afghan people and was aimed at "securing the interest of foreigners."
It said the participants "are on the payroll of the invaders and work for their interests."
'Punishment for participating'
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."
Information about the cassette was provided to The Associated Press by a Taliban member whose information has proven reliable over many years.
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.
One of the delegates told the AP that he took the Taliban threat seriously, though he still planned to attend. He refused to allow his name to be published, explaining that "if they know that I am attending there will be a suicide bomber outside my door."
Nevertheless, 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 skepticism in Washington that the time is right for an overture to militant leaders.
"This is a positive first step because everybody realizes war is not the solution. We have to have a political solution," said Hamid Gailani, a prominent lawmaker from southern Afghanistan. "If there is no sound understanding and cooperation between the Afghan government and the coalition forces, then God save us all."
Some members of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities also 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 group that also suffered under Taliban rule.
Fear of unity between warlords, Taliban
Malalai Joya, who was expelled from parliament after a blistering verbal attack on warlords who dominate Afghanistan's legislature, said she feared the jirga would lead to an eventual unity between warlords and Taliban.
"They insult us with this word 'peace,'" she said. "They want only to make unity with these bloody criminal warlords and with the Taliban and the terrorist Gulbuddin Hekmatyar."
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 U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay. Kuchi 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.
"Our country is sick. This jirga is a kind of prescription but I fear this prescription can't fix our country," Rocketi said.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and ex-Guantanamo inmate, said he doubted any peace plan that calls for paying Taliban fighters to quit the war will succeed.
"Mostly they are fighting for their freedom," said Zaeef, who is not a delegate. "The people who are fighting are fighting for ideological reasons. They want the foreigners to leave their country."
He acknowledged the U.S. had the right to demand that Afghanistan not be used to launch terror attacks like the Sept. 11 strikes in the United States. Other issues should be left to Afghans, he said.
"If the issue with the United States is women's rights, then why are they good with Saudi Arabia," he said. "If the issue is with democracy, then why are they good with Saudi Arabia and with Qatar," referring to U.S.-backed Arab kingdoms.
On the battlefield, a NATO service member was killed Monday by a bomb in southern Afghanistan, the alliance said without identifying the nationality. U.S. helicopters flew about 200 Afghan troops into a remote northeastern district overrun by the Taliban and recaptured the main town Tuesday without firing a shot, military officials said.
The operation occurred in the Barg-e-Matal district of Nuristan province and was expected to last several days, U.S. officers familiar with the operation said.