Karzai hoping to chart path for peace

KABUL, Afghanistan — Thousands of police have fanned out across Kabul as the Afghan capital prepares for today's opening of a national assembly that President Hamid Karzai hopes will give him a mandate to pursue talks with the Taliban.

While the three-day assembly isn't expected to produce any dramatic breakthroughs, Karzai and his Western allies are banking on the gathering, known as a jirga, to provide a psychological boost for the Afghan president as he prepares for a potentially pivotal summer.

"This is a big week for Afghanistan," said Mark Sedwill, the former British ambassador to Afghanistan who now serves as the senior civilian representative for NATO in the country.

About 1,600 specially selected Afghan politicians, religious leaders, tribal elders and civic officials will gather today in a special air-conditioned meeting tent for what's expected to be a charged debate over talks with Karzai's insurgent rivals.

Karzai is looking to the rare national gathering to give him a mandate to pursue peace talks with the Taliban and its leading militant allies more aggressively.

The leaders also will weigh evolving proposals to offer new incentives for Afghan insurgents to give up and return home.

Backed by $160 million in international funding, Afghan leaders plan to offer special training, literacy classes and jobs to Taliban and other Afghan insurgents who are willing to put down their guns.

The Afghans at the assembly will have their chance to weigh in on that proposal and the larger question of how to pursue political negotiations with Taliban leaders.

Sedwill and other Western leaders in Kabul see the assembly as part of a slowly evolving political process that will unfold over the rest of the year in parallel with the growing U.S. military campaign in southern Afghanistan.

Karzai launched the political clock with his relationship-mending visit to Washington last month, and this week's assembly will be followed by an international conference next month in Kabul and parliamentary elections this fall.