President Hamed Karzai flew in by helicopter the few kilometres from his palace to the site of the ‘Traditional Loya Jirga’. He said later in his speech that he had been impressed to see just how much Kabul had grown and developed. He arrived to give the opening speech of the jirga to the two thousand delegates representing most of the major (non-fighting) political players in Afghanistan. The speech was also aired to the nation via live TV broadcast. AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, tries to decipher the President’s message with a special focus on his effort to reconcile the contradiction between allowing US military bases on Afghan territory and keeping US forces in Afghanistan after 2014 on the one hand and maintaining national sovereignty on the other.
President Karzai said the jirga would deal with nothing but the strategic partnership agreement and peace talks, thereby denying rumours that he might use the jirga to change the Constitution to lengthen his term in office or allow him to run again. He also repeated many times that this was an ‘advisory jirga’ and the government needed the ‘people’s advice’ to allow them to make the right decisions about Afghanistan’s future. In other words, the jirga is not a decision-making body.
There was almost nothing new of substance in the speech and journalists, looking for news, have been struggling to report on the jirga in an interesting way. Possibly the only fresh line was a reference to Iran being a little more reasonable (aqlani) than the US in the dealings between the two countries.
The aim of the jirga appears not to be to deliver fresh policy, but to get political cover, so that the President can cite it as evidence that the people supported a deal with the Americans and that his government is not, to use Sighbutullah Mujadiddi’s term, watan frush, sellers out of the nation (more below).
Using repetition, homely similes and bonhomie, the President tried to hide the unpleasant fact at the heart of his policy: Allowing permanent US military bases – or ‘facilities’ as he described them – on Afghan territory will inevitably compromise national sovereignty. Yet the President repeatedly emphasised that he wanted both the strategic partnership and independence. The inherent tension in this came across in contradictions and convoluted messaging:
‘By the end of 2014, the transition of security responsibilities to Afghan forces will have been completed, and the foreign troops will be leaving, which is good and in the interest of Afghanistan… The US, Germany, UK, France and the UAE will be leaving this country… 48 or 45 countries present today, will all be leaving Afghanistan. In three years’ time, it will be us and our land. This is the destiny we face. The question is, once they have left, will Afghanistan have the stability, and the assistance it needs or will their departure mean forgetting us again, leaving us at the mercy of a new form of interference and to be trampled again. This is very important point for us to think on what we will do after 2014. Can we, ourselves, protect this land? We certainly can. Can we, ourselves defend this country? Undoubtedly we can! How can we do this? It is only through national unity. It is our duty to provide for a better life and security for future generations, and the question is with what means can we achieve this? With our own means? Surely, with our own means. Will we need more assistance? Absolutely! The question is under what conditions?’ (the full official translation of Karzai’s speech is here)
The President portrayed the strategic partnership as normal, something which many countries had with the US and which Afghanistan could have with many countries – in other words, the subtext went, it was no big deal. However, although he did not spell this out, the obvious conclusion from hearing this speech is the expectation that US forces – in some form – will still be here after 2014. Most likely, they will still be fighting insurgents, else why such preconditions for the deal as no more night raids, no more house searches and no taking of Afghan prisoners. These stated preconditions, along with the phasing out of institutions parallel to the Afghan government are, of course, not new.
The President said Afghanistan wanted sovereignty ‘by any means and we want it from today’ and the relationship had to be one between two independent countries. To shouts of Takbir! and Allahu Akbar!, he said Afghanistan was a lion:
‘Even if old, sick and feeble, a lion is still a lion! Other animals in the jungle are afraid of even a sick lion and stay away from him. We are lions, the United States should treat us as lions, and we want nothing less than that. We therefore are prepared to enter into a strategic agreement between a lion and America. A lion hates a stranger entering his home; a lion dislikes a stranger trespassing its space, a lion does not want his off-springs taken away at night. The lion (Afghanistan) does not allow parallel structures to operate, the lion is the king of his territory and he governs his own territory, The lion has nothing to do with others in the jungle. On our territory, Afghanistan’s status as lion should be recognized. Only then we are prepared to sign the strategic agreement with America. We will provide them military installations.’
The President carried on the analogy, saying the strategic partnership would be a good thing for Afghanistan. It would mean money, the training of soldiers and police and security for the home of the lion which ‘does not have leisure time to do all these things.’ The US, he said, should protect the lion’s surroundings, but not touch his house.’
The government, he said, needed the people’s advice on this, as well as on peace talks, post-Rabbani:
‘With whom do we make peace? Should we talk to the Taliban or to our brotherly neighbour, Pakistan or to whom? This is the issue that you as the representatives of the Afghan people can advise on. Indeed, it is in your authority to guide the Afghan government and leaders on how to proceed with the peace process. We need once again to review this process and decide how to move forward. Whatever be your advice and recommendation, we will take actions accordingly.’
The President was followed onto the podium by Sebghatullah Mujadiddi, chair of the loya jirga preparatory commission and now head of the jirga itself and one of the surviving jihadi leaders of the 1980s. His most memorable remarks were a fervent attack on Pakistan (which went down very well in the hall) and a defence of himself and the government against the charge that they were selling out the nation:
‘People criticise us as watan frush for signing the strategic partnership, but I should point out that those critics were children when we started fighting invaders and thank God, we passed our test’.*
In other words, the Mujadiddi family had fought not only the Soviet, but the British empires (although his claim that his family stood against the British is much disputed).** He also praised the institution of the jirga and cited the way the 1941 jirga had kept Afghanistan neutral in the Second World War. The British had not been allowed to send forces across Afghan territory to help the besieged Soviet Union or to arrest Indian patriots who had found refuge in Afghanistan. This neutrality had brought benefits, he said. The British learned that if they killed one Indian patriot guest living in Afghanistan, Afghans would respond by killing all of the British.*** He said the move also pleased Germany which allowed visiting Afghans to stay without having to apply for a visa for three months.
The jirga is now organising the break-up of the delegates into forty committees when President Karzai said they would be discussing issues such as how big an army does Afghanistan want and does it want a strong air force.
* There is, as far as I can see, no official translation of Mujadiddi’s speech. This was translated from the television and should be reasonably accurate.
** This point made to this author after the blog was initially posted was that the political prominence of the Mujaddidi family through the last 80 years started with the toppling of King Amanullah (1919-1929) and his replacement by the Musahiban dynasty (1930-1973). The overthrow of Amanullah is attributed by a majority Afghans to British intrigues. At the time, the then head of the Mujaddidi family, Nur al-Mashaikh, who was in exile in British India, shared with the British a deep animosity towards Amanullah.
*** This was not the only time I was reminded of arguments made by the Taleban when they were in power. As the Taleban used to do, Karzai praised the Afghan jihad as having brought blessings to the whole world. He said it had allowed the US to become the only superpower, facilitated German reunification and enabled Pakistan to acquire nuclear weapons.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020