Jirga to nowhere – by Rahimullah Yusufzai

Saturday, November 01, 2008

It was obvious from the beginning that the Pak-Afghan Joint Peace Jirga, which held its inaugural session with much fanfare in August 2007 in Kabul and its much-delayed sequel recently in Islamabad on October 27-28, stood little chance of resolving the long-standing conflicts in our region. Still the decision to hold the gathering had to be taken because US President George W Bush had backed the idea mooted by Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Pakistan’s refusal to attend would have exposed it to criticism for not going along with a proposal that could contribute toward building up their alliance against Islamic militants operating on both sides of the Durand Line border.

As it turned out, Pakistan wasn’t convinced of the efficacy of the idea. This was the reason, apart from other causes including the political upheaval in Pakistan following President General Pervez Musharraf’s arbitrary decision to sack Chief Justice Iftikhar Mohammad Chaudhry in March 2007, for Islamabad to drag its feet on hosting the second round of the peace jirga. Musharraf, as we all know, reluctantly flew to the Afghan capital to participate in the closing session of the Kabul jirga after receiving a phone call from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. It was another occasion for our then president to provide evidence that he took major decisions following phone calls from the high-ups in Washington. His presence at the jirga in Kabul no doubt made the event high-profile and important but using it as a forum to tackle militancy or opening peace talks with militants required conviction and a lot more than issuing high-sounding declarations and insincerely professing friendship to each other. The distrust that characterizes relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan wasn’t going to be overcome in a few joint sessions of speech-making and point-scoring.

Both the Kabul jirga, where about 700 Afghan and Pakistani politicians, lawmakers, tribal elders, government officials and members of the intelligentsia were in attendance, and the Islamabad mini-jirga or jirgagai as it was referred to in Pashto language, offered conditional peace talks to the armed opposition groups active in both countries. In August 2007 when the Kabul jirga was held, the security situation in Pakistan wasn’t that bad and, therefore, an offer of peace talks was made to the Afghan opposition groups only. Without naming the Taliban, the opponents of the Afghan government were invited to peace talks provided they gave up fighting and accepted Afghanistan’s new constitution, which guaranteed democratic system of government, independent judiciary and media and women’s rights. The Islamabad mini-jirga renewed that offer but this time the armed opposition groups in both Afghanistan and Pakistan were invited to peace talks. Despite sustained military operations against the militants, the security situation in Pakistan has deteriorated to such an extent that it is now being equated with Afghanistan, which has been at war since the Moscow-backed communist revolution in April 1978 and has been invaded during this period by two superpowers, the USSR and the US.

In a way, the Afghan government through its jirga politics has prevailed upon Islamabad to accept its point of view on two counts. One, it successfully argued that the militancy and violence in Afghanistan had links in Pakistan, particularly in the country’s Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA), and the challenge had to be tackled jointly. Two, it insisted and got Pakistan to accept the need for letting the 10-member committee comprising five Afghans and five Pakistanis to also hold peace talks with Pakistani militants. The decision to form the committee was taken at the Islamabad mini-jirga but the names of members would be kept secret for security reasons. Though this process appears impracticable, the fact that both governments agreed to allow Afghan jirga members to talk to Pakistani militants and Pakistanis on the peace committee to Afghan armed groups is significant. This was an acceptance of the reality that the conflict in Afghanistan and Pakistan transcended the Durand Line and needed to be tackled through joint efforts based on a holistic approach.

However, there are practical difficulties in putting into practice whatever was agreed at the Islamabad mini-jirga. It would not be easy finding the ten individuals from among the 50 Afghans and Pakistanis who attended the Islamabad event to undertake the task of establishing contacts with the armed opposition groups in the two countries and prevailing upon them to accept the conditional offer of peace and reconciliation talks. It has been suggested that the search for prominent individuals enjoying the trust of both the militants’ groups and the two governments shouldn’t be confined to the members of the jirga. Such a search has become even more difficult due to the refusal of certain Pakistani jirga members, including the pro-Taliban JUI-F leaders Maulana Fazlur Rahman and Maulana Mohammad Khan Sherani, to stay away from both the Kabul and the Islamabad peace jirgas.

The Pakistani delegation at the Islamabad jirgagai was packed with ruling politicians and government functionaries, not to mention pro-establishment tribal elders. Sindh and Punjab were given token representation and it was understandable that most of the Pakistani delegates were Pashtuns and belonged to the NWFP and FATA, the militancy-hit hot-spots in Pakistan. Due to political changes resulting from the February 18 general elections, Islamabad dumped its former jirga chairman Aftab Sherpao, who as the federal interior minister led the Pakistani delegation to the Kabul peace jirga in August 2007, and replaced him with the governor of NWFP, Owais Ahmad Ghani. Politics was clearly the motivating factor in selecting the Pakistan delegation instead of picking delegates having experience and influence in the areas suffering from violence. Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party head Mahmood Khan Achakzai and his deputy Abdur Rahim Mandokhel weren’t invited but his party still had some representation at the Islamabad mini-jirga. The ANP was also represented, though its leader Asfandyar Wali Khan who left the country after surviving a suicide bombing in his village in Charsadda didn’t attend.

The Afghan delegation too had nobody who could speak for the opposition groups. All delegates were selected by the government and most of them were members of parliament and representatives of Afghanistan’s different ethnic groups. Unlike Pakistan, the Afghans kept faith in their jirga chairman, former foreign minister Dr Abdullah, even though he currently doesn’t hold any government position.

As expected, the Mulla Omar-led Afghan Taliban rejected the jirga’s conditional offer of talks and so did former Afghan mujahideen leader Gulbaddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami. The two had also turned the offer made by the Kabul jirga in 2007. Taliban termed the jirgas a creation of the US and challenged their representative character. They pointed out that there was no representation for Taliban and other opposition figures in the jirgas and those attending were largely pro-US politicians. Taliban reiterated their demand for withdrawal of the US-led foreign forces from Afghanistan before they could consider talks with the Afghan government. That talks with the Afghan government too were unlikely was made obvious when Taliban described President Karzai as a puppet of the US. The only difference between Taliban and Hekmatyar’s stance was that the latter wanted a timetable of withdrawal of all foreign forces before entering into peace talks with other parties to the conflict. This is only a technical hitch because there is a strong belief, and rightly so, among Taliban and Hekmatyar fighters that the Karzai regime may not last long after the pullout of US-led coalition forces.

As every party to the conflict has put forth conditions before holding any kind of peace and reconciliation talks, the Pak-Afghan jirga’s offer of negotiations to the militants is a non-starter. Taliban aren’t going to lay down arms as demanded by the Afghan and Pakistan governments. The US and its allies would not pullout troops from Afghanistan as demanded by Taliban. In fact, the US has neatly divided Taliban into ‘reconcilable’ and ‘irreconcilable’ factions and is willing to do business with the reconcilable elements among them. Taliban see it as plot to create divisions in their ranks through tempting offers of money and positions in the government.

On the other hand, the regular statements by western politicians and military commanders that the war in Afghanistan was unwinnable is already whetting Taliban appetite and contributing to hardening of their stance. Smelling victory, Taliban would become more demanding while bargaining with their opponents.

Besides, the Pak-Afghan jirga process is one of the many peace initiatives that are presently being pursued. It would be better to pool resources and focus on just one such process that is credible and has better chances of success. There has been much talk about the peace initiative by Saudi Arabia even though it hasn’t even taken off. The Saudis have made it clear they would launch such a move once all parties to the conflict, particularly the Afghan combatants, agree to let them make an effort. The difficult part would be to bring Taliban on board and convince them to part ways with Al Qaeda. They would not agree to this proposition easily after having sacrificed everything, even their government and lives, for protecting their Saudi guest, Osama bin Laden. (The News)

The writer is resident editor of The News in Peshawar. Email: rahimyusufzai@yahoo.com