The thump of rockets and the rattle of gunfire punctuated President Hamid Karzai's speech opening a national conference where delegates were divided over whether to negotiate peace with Taliban leaders to end nearly nine years of war.
Taliban fighters wearing suicide vests fired at the tent holding some 1,500 dignitaries, lawmakers and civil society activists on Wednesday, triggering a battle with security forces that killed at least two militants. Three civilians, but no delegates, were wounded.
One rocket landed with a thud about 100 yards from the tent and kicked up smoke. Karzai brushed off the interruption, about 10 minutes into his address, and urged fighters from the Taliban and another major insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami, to lay down their arms.
"My dear Taliban, you are welcome in your own soil. Do not hurt this country, and don't destroy or kill yourselves," Karzai said, emphasizing that more fighting would only prevent the withdrawal of international forces from Afghanistan.
"Make peace with me and there will be no need for foreigners here," Karzai said in the nationally televised speech.
The attack underscored the Taliban's opposition to what they have dubbed as a "phony reconciliation process" stacked with Karzai's supporters. They insist they will not negotiate until all foreign troops leave the country.
The Obama administration supports overtures to rank-and-file insurgents, but is skeptical of a major political initiative with Taliban leaders until militant forces are weakened on the battlefield. NATO troops are preparing for a big offensive this summer in the Taliban heartland of Kandahar province.
No official militant representatives were invited to the three-day conference, although some delegates are insurgent sympathizers. Karzai's government said it organized the gathering, called a peace jirga, to gauge the mood of ordinary Afghans toward negotiations.
Government ministers, including former warlords Abdur Rasul Rayyaf and Vice President Gen. Mohammed Qasim Fahim, relaxed on couches and other plush chairs in the front row, while other delegates had less comfortable seating choices in the cavernous tent pitched on a university campus in Kabul.
Shrugging off attack
The delegates largely shrugged off Wednesday's attack. But some said it demonstrated the weakness of the government and its security forces in the face of an insurgency that has maintained momentum despite a buildup of U.S. troops.
After a lunch break, delegates broke into smaller groups to discuss issues such as whether the government should negotiate directly with Taliban leaders, and if so, which ones. The conference, or jirga, is due to end Friday with a communique endorsing the next steps forward.
In interviews outside the tent, delegates disagreed over whether the government should talk with Taliban founder Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Karzai has made repeated public pronouncements over the years inviting Omar for talks, but has predicated the offer on acceptance of the Afghan constitution and renouncing links with al-Qaida.
But Karzai has held talks with leaders of one Taliban-allied group, Hizb-i-Islami, who sent a delegation to Kabul last March.
"We have to have direct talks with the leaders or there will be no peace," said Kabul lawmaker Syed Hassain Alumi Balkhi.
Lal Mohammed, a delegate representing the estimated 1.2 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, said all Taliban prisoners should be freed from jail too.
"We need to create an atmosphere for talks, and unless we can offer them some guarantees, they won't talk peace," he said.
However, Gul Agha Pirzada, a delegate from northern Takhar province, wanted no mention of talks with Taliban leaders in the final communique.
"We want peace, but these leaders have killed innocent people and they are with al-Qaida and they are the ones who have killed innocent Afghans," he said.
Another issue under discussion is whether to press for the removal of militant leaders from a U.N. blacklist that freezes assets and bars overseas travel.
The blacklist includes 137 people associated with the Taliban and 258 with al-Qaida. Some former Taliban have already been removed including an ex-foreign minister, Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil.
Some delegates called for the withdrawal of bounties the U.S. is offering for the capture of senior Taliban leaders. Omar has a $5 million price on his head.
Government minister Farooq Wardak, who is chairing the jirga, denied the conference was designed to rubber-stamp the president's plans for reconciliation. He said the meeting was "to advise the government who we can talk to and who we cannot talk to."
While the United States has been reluctant to embrace talks with the Taliban leadership, Wardak maintained that Karzai has received a promise from the "very highest" level within the U.S. and British governments "that they will support the jirga."
Based on its outcome, Karzai will lay out his reconciliation program next month at a conference of donor countries to Afghanistan. The United States has already promised financial help for the program to lure Taliban foot soldiers to give up fighting.