By JASON STRAZIUSO, Associated Press Writer 1 hour, 21 minutes ago
KABUL, Afghanistan - Pakistani President Gen. Pervez Musharraf pulled out Wednesday from a council of hundreds of Pakistani and Afghan tribal leaders aimed at reining in militant violence.
Pakistan's Foreign Office said Musharraf was canceling his trip to Kabul because of "engagements" in Islamabad. Pakistani political analyst Talat Masood said, however, that Musharraf probably was responding to recent U.S. criticism of Pakistan's counterterrorism efforts, which has included suggestions that the U.S. could carry out unilateral military strikes against al-Qaida in Pakistan.
"He is trying to convey a strong message to the United States. There have been a lot of statements coming out of Washington about violating Pakistan's sovereignty and so on," Masood said.
A U.S. State Department official said the Bush administration was surprised and dismayed by Musharraf's snub, particularly after Karzai repeatedly expressed satisfaction about the meeting during a joint appearance with President Bush on Monday.
State Department Spokesman Sean McCormack said it was unclear if Musharraf could be persuaded to reconsider.
"We'll see if President Musharraf is able to attend any portion of the meeting," McCormack said.
The four-day "peace jirga," due to start Thursday, already is being boycotted by delegates from Pakistan's restive South and North Waziristan regions amid fear of Taliban reprisals.
The absence of Musharraf, Pakistan's army chief and most powerful figure, could further undermine its effectiveness.
Pakistan's Foreign Office said that Musharraf had phoned Afghan President Hamid Karzai to say he couldn't attend because of "engagements" in Islamabad, and that Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz would take his place.
The idea of the jirga emerged from a September 2006 meeting in Washington of President Bush, Karzai and Musharraf that focused on ways to combat rising border violence.
The Taliban, ousted by U.S.-led forces in late 2001, have stepped up attacks in the past two years. The violence has killed thousands, raising fears for Afghanistan's fledgling democracy. U.S. military and Afghan officials say Taliban militants enjoy a safe haven in Pakistani border regions, particularly Waziristan, where Washington also fears al-Qaida is regrouping.
The 650 delegates — 350 from Afghanistan, and about 300 from Pakistan — will meet in an oversized tent in Kabul that was used for the 2004 loya jirga that created Afghanistan's post-Taliban constitution. The delegates' main focus will be security and terrorism, but they will also talk about economic development and fighting drugs.
Taliban representatives are not involved.
Mohammed Mohaqeq, the No. 2 official for Afghanistan at the jirga, was still optimistic about its prospects because it showed the two governments were cooperating.
"From the Afghanistan side, all the people who hold power are participating," he said.
Masood said, however, that Musharraf's cancellation revealed tensions between the neighbors.
"It shows that the chemistry between Karzai and him (Musharraf) is so poor that he wants to back out at the last minute," he said. "Why call him just hours before the jirga? I don't see why he could not go to Kabul for a few hours."
Critics also say those who have real control over the violence are Taliban and their supporters in the tribal belt and that talks that do not include them could prove to be futile.
"This is only a display, which cannot produce the true views of the Afghan people," Abdul Ghafoor Haideri, secretary-general of Pakistan's pro-Taliban Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam party, which runs the government in Pakistan's North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan, and is also boycotting.
Afghanistan's delegates, including tribal leaders, lawmakers, businessmen and clerics, were decided on by a 20-member commission approved by Karzai. Pakistan's government selected its delegations, including senior officials, tribal leaders and journalists.
One Pakistani delegate, who will not be attending but requested anonymity because he was not authorized to speak about it to media, said that in all about 100 of Pakistan's 350 delegates are boycotting, including all of the more than 60 Waziristan representatives.
One elder from South Waziristan, who didn't want to be identified, said he and others would not attend because of threats from Taliban and because of the turmoil on their own doorstep.
"Pakistan government wants us to go to Kabul, but local Taliban don't want us to do it," he said. "We cannot offend these Taliban because they will kill us if we don't obey them."