KABUL, Afghanistan - The Taliban on Tuesday dismissed this week's national peace conference in Afghanistan even before it had begun, distributing cassette messages that threaten death to the 1,600 delegates.
The three-day meeting, set to begin Wednesday in a giant tent at Kabul Polytechnic University, is to discuss how to persuade the insurgents to reconcile with the government. But the meeting could also widen fissures in a society deeply divided after decades of conflict.
President Hamid Karzai is to use the peace conference, known as a "jirga," to seek endorsement of his plan to offer economic incentives to Taliban and other insurgent fighters who are willing to leave the battlefield.
On the eve of the conference, the Taliban said in a statement to news organizations that the jirga did 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."
To reinforce the message, a cassette recording was circulated last week by courier in which the chairman of the Taliban council, Mullah Abdul Ghani, warned that "the punishment for participating in the jirga is death."
Another major insurgent group, Hizb-i-Islami, led by former Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, called the conference "a useless exercise" because "only handpicked people" were invited.
One of the delegates said 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 extremist leaders.
"This is a positive first step because everybody realizes war is not the solution," said Hamid Gailani, a prominent lawmaker from southern Afghanistan. "We have to have a political solution."
Some female activists as well as members of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities fear Karzai may be eager to sell out their interests in hopes of cutting a deal with the Taliban.
The insurgents, like Karzai, are Pashtuns, the country's largest ethnic group. And about 20 percent of the delegates will be women, a group that also suffered under Taliban rule.
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 extremists.
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.
Abdul Salam Zaeef, a former Taliban ambassador to Pakistan and another former Guantanamo inmate, said he doubted any peace plan that calls for paying Taliban fighters to quit the war would succeed.
"Mostly they are fighting for their freedom," said Zaeef, who is not a delegate.
He acknowledged the United States had the right to demand that Afghanistan not be used to launch terror attacks like the Sept. 11 strikes in the United States. But 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.