While the press makes it sound like a deal with Hekmatyar is just around the corner now that a 15-point plan has been presented, and while the Taliban continue to deny their involvement in any kind of talks and continue to adapt to the twin pressures of military operations in Afghanistan and high-level arrests in Pakistan, preparations for the Peace Jirga in Kabul continue. The timing is right, the agenda is relevant and the consultative nature of the gathering is necessary. But as usual with these kinds of high-profile events the question is: how serious is it going to be?
And this is not the first time that I ask myself this question. There have been at least two earlier peace jirgas that I have followed closely: the Joint (Afghanistan-Pakistan) Peace Jirga in Kabul in August 2007 and the provincial peace jirga in Uruzgan in 2008 (and there have been similar peace jirgas in some of the other provinces). And although formats and objectives differed slightly, there are important parallels that are worth looking at.
Traditionally a jirga is a meeting where all relevant stakeholders are present or represented and where an issue is discussed, ideally until an agreement is reached. There is no fixed agenda, no single convener or facilitator, and no scheduled closing session. The resolution of a jirga is supposed to be binding, but not everybody follows social norms and with the erosion of tribal authority and the fragmentation of communities, enforcement has often become difficult. The government-organized jirgas and shuras are different. They are usually a combination of a conference and a workshop (which is now a word in the Afghan language: warkshap) with speeches by all the dignitaries present, followed by discussions in break-out groups, presentations to the plenary session and a final statement. Resolution are not binding and are usually a declaration in support of a government policy. The format helps control what could otherwise be a rather unruly and unpredictable process, but it also threatens to remove the soul of the meeting by not providing sufficient space for the participants to be heard and to feel that they have helped shape the outcome.
The Joint Peace Jirga in 2007 had a difficult run-up, as relations between Afghanistan and Pakistan were tense and cooperation was reluctant, but in the end neither side wanted to be blamed for sabotaging the effort and the meeting did take place. The four-day gathering was attended by the top leadership of both sides, the discussions energized the participants – many of whom had been skeptical about the whole affair – controversy was largely avoided and the meeting ended on a high note with agreements for a follow-up jirga process. But although committees were appointed and some meetings took place, the initiative ultimately petered out.
The peace jirga in Uruzgan was organized on instigation of the governor and took place in three stages: an initial meeting of 50 elders, who then compiled lists of 500 elders for the second meeting, which then culminated in a final meeting of around 1500 participants. The objective of the jirgas was to embolden the population to declare support for the government and to take responsibility for security in their own areas. Although a shy young man was presented as a reconciled fighter at one of the gatherings, there was no specific attempt to reach out to disaffected groups and there was no specific attention for the reasons why fighters chose to take up arms (although some, quite brave, speakers did hint at this). The peace jirga had from the beginning been inspired by the idea that such a gathering in itself would somehow change the realities in the province – an idea that was actively pushed by IDLG in its early days as part of a strategy for all insurgency-affected provinces. But the jirga had not been part of a larger process and was not followed by anything substantial in terms of outreach or improved governance. And the meeting itself had not really been meant as a platform to express grievances or to explore why communities had not been in a position to protect themselves. It was mainly a top-down opportunity for the population to pledge its allegiance.
There had also been more practical concerns, most prominently with regard to the invitee list: whether the list would be tribally balanced, whether the invited elders would be seen as credible representatives of the people and to what extent the gathering would be biased towards the prevailing imbalance of power. All of this was watched closely to see whether it was worth the risk of attending and taking the jirga seriously by speaking up. It didn’t help that there was a strong suspicion that the whole exercise was at least partly aimed at satisfying the leadership in Kabul, impressing the foreigners and gaining access to poorly monitored funds.
What was interesting in both instances was that, despite the justified misgivings with regard to the objectives and the agenda and the processes of selection and invitation, both gatherings gained a momentum of their own once they were convened. This was mainly because the issues, whether they are meant to be discussed seriously or not, are close to people’s hearts. And because many participants feel a sense of responsibility once they have taken the trouble to turn up. So the jirgas themselves felt less meaningless than feared. However, the government representatives paid little attention to what was said and in the larger scheme of things it achieved very little. A gathering like that can be a rallying point, but you still need leadership, commitment and a sense of direction.
It would be an incredible waste of political capital and opportunity if the current Peace Jirga followed the same trajectory.
The upcoming Peace Jirga is to take place on 2 May in the Loya Jirga tent and will involve around 1,270 participants. The aim is to consult the population, in all its diversity, and to agree on a framework for dialogue and reconciliation. Its relevance will be shaped by who is invited, what is discussed and most importantly what happens afterwards.
Currently the invitation list includes (1) Kabul government representation consisting of the Cabinet, the Supreme Court leadership and the minister-advisers, which may be a very large delegation given the large number of advisers Karzai has appointed over the years; (2) the elected bodies with around 440 delegates, including the full National Assembly, 57 representatives from the provincial councils, and the senators whose term finished in 2009; (3) around 155 representatives from the ulema council; (4) the 34 provincial governors and 364 district leaders (the number seems to suggest that these are the district governors, although some reports have indicated that there would be some kind of selection); and (5) civil society, consisting of representatives of social and cultural associations (30), prominent women (20), businessmen (30); as well as representatives of refugees in Iran and Pakistan (30) and kuchis representatives (30).
The jirga is not meant as a dialogue between the government, the population and the insurgency, as illustrated by the invitee list. It is also not a constitutionally-mandated Loya Jirga, as the Parliament has made very clear, which means it has no decision-making authority. It is meant as a platform for the government to consult the population on what a possible reconciliation process should look like. This should allow for some interesting and potentially volatile discussions. Although there is a broad consensus among the various political and ethnic and tribal groups that the conflict can ultimately only be solved politically and through dialogue, this is a largely abstract opinion which lies mainly in the realm of morality. In the practical realm, which is shaped by power struggles and marginalization, there is great concern and very little trust.
Some of the issues that are most likely to come up include: the role of the government (and the abusive networks that have been accommodated by it) in feeding the insurgency and whether this will change; the behaviour of international forces and whether this will change; the fact that the current system rewards those who have perpetrated war crimes, human rights abuses, acts of extortion and corruption, etc. and whether this will change; what a settlement will mean in practical terms for ethnic and tribal relations and what the guarantees are that it will not be hijacked or misused; and whether the rights and protection of the vulnerable – women, children, minorities, non-militarised political groups – will be sacrificed. People will want guarantees that a possible settlement will not be a gathering of all thezalem (oppressors) and all the fased (corrupt), as opposed to only some of them, and that those newly empowered will not turn against them – particularly after the internationals have stopped paying attention.
And finally the issue of past crimes will come up and how to deal with the perpetrators from all sides. An Amnesty Bill will not make that go away, nor will the continued conviction among internationals that the issue is too hot to handle.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020