In spring of this year US troops in South East Afghanistan introduced a local peace initiative. It should have been a model for the whole country. Instead, it has ground to a halt, which highlights the huge challenge for the much vaunted reconciliation process. Nangarhar journalist Naqib Ahmad Atal, writing for Afghanistan Today, describes where it went wrong.
About ten months ago, American soldiers convened a meeting of 500 delegates from the whole of South East Afghanistan. This gathering in the king’s palace in Jalalabad, was called a “Jirga for peace and development”. Among the guests in Karzai Hall were the Governors of the Provinces of Kunar, Laghman, Nuristan and Nangarhar, as well as influential Mullahs and tribal elders. The number of representatives from each province was decided beforehand according to the size of the population.
It should have been a pilot project. The beginning of a local peace process, which – if successful – would have been copied in other parts of the country. But ten months later, no-one wants to know any more about it. Nothing much remains of this pilot project – apart from allegations of corruption and a good deal of frustration.
This is what happened. At the meeting in Karzai Hall, the elders were given the task of making contact with Taliban fighters in their villages and communities, in order to persuade them to lay down their arms. They were also supposed to invite representatives of the elders on the Pakistani side of the border to meetings about the reconciliation process. By using the term ‘Jirga’, or assembly, the initiative was consciously organised in the Pashtun tradition of conflict resolution. The delegates put on a positive face to the media. But since then, disillusionment has set in.
“This peace process is like one of these reconstruction projects, where much money changes hands, but no results are achieved”, says Haji Shir Afzal Musleh, one of the representatives of the Jirga. The initiative should have been a good idea, he says. But the result was a travesty of the Jirga tradition. Noone can point out an example of any fruitful talks that took place, says Musleh, and adds: “I did not expect to be given money for it, but some people earned lots of money.”
Around 70 of the 500 delegates of the Jirga were given a salary of 200 dollars each month for three or four months. The money was paid to representatives who were appointed to the executive committee and some working groups, says the cleric Maulawi Abdul Aziz Khirkhwa, who himself was one of the recipients.
These payments have clearly provoked envy. Several Jirga members speak of much higher amounts and accuse the Governor of having earned huge sums from the peace initiative. But they have no evidence and Governor Gul Agha Shirzai denies the accusations. Spokesman Ahmad Zia Abdulzai confirms that the Coalition Forces gave financial support to the peace initiative, but he does not want to give any information about the actual amount. The same goes for the spokesperson of ISAF’s eastern regional command. No comment. Not even if it helped mitigate the corruption allegations.
Meanwhile, it is clear that the Jirga has not achieved any tangible results. “The participants were former Mujahideen leaders, who in the past fought against the Taliban and participated in their downfall. They will not speak to the Taliban, and will only talk among themselves and with their own people”, says Haji Sakhi Jan, a tribal elder from Nangarhar province. He sees a further weakness: the Jirga is not seen as being independent, because it acts solely on behalf of the government and international troops, says Sakhi Jan. Moreover, he adds, it is dangerous to travel in the region, in which the Taliban is active, so members rely on the protection of the security forces.
Still, Haji Ruzi, a tribal elder from Kunar province, had a few telephone conversations with insurgents and discussed the government’s peace initiatives with them. “But they refused to participate in any negotiations, until international troops had withdrawn”, says Ruzi. He subsequently met representatives of the Pashtun tribes in Pakistan, who also told him that the Taliban are not interested in talks, because they are advancing militarily.
Meanwhile, the Jirga office, which was specifically opened for this initiative, is now shut. The Governor’s spokesman, Abdulzai, has the following explanation: the regional reconciliation initiative was adjourned, after the Afghan Government established a national peace council in Kabul in September. ISAF prefers not to comment on the results of the Jirga.
Naqib Ahmad Atal is editor-in-chief of the provincial government newspaper in Nangarhar, Wolesi Hindara, and spokesman for the provincial council. He has been working with various local radio stations, websites and publications, as well as with the public broadcaster, RTA. This blog was originally posted here on the website of Afghanistan Today, which is well worth following.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020