By Ray Fleming AFGHANISTAN'S Peace Jirga in Kabul started off in a bizarre fashion; as President Karsai spoke to the 1'600 delegates about the need to open talks with the Taliban, the sound of a Taliban rocket passing overhead was clearly heard. The Conference ended with Karsai's claim that “The path is clear, the path shown and chosen by you” for entering into such talks; UN Secretary General Ban ki Moon said the jirga had taken a significant step forward.

It is difficult to judge whether the decision to “establish a framework for negotiations with those dissatisfied with the government” has any real meaning or is just another move by Karsai to keep himself at the centre of events. The tribal and religious leaders who attended were hand-pickled by Karsai and may not be representative of all opinion. Opposition leaders like Abdullah Abdullah, who contested the presidential election last year, were not present. Furthermore, the Taliban has said frequently that it will not enter into negotiations with the government until all foreign forces have left the country.

Once again it is difficult to relate what President Karsai is doing to what the United States and NATO are planning. A major military operation in and near Kandahar is due shortly with the objective of driving the Taliban out of an area in which it has a considerable presence. And always there is the worry that a deal with Taliban would result in the loss of the gains of the past eight years.