The long-anticipated and twice-delayed ‘consultative peace jirga’ is about to happen. Delegates from across Afghanistan have been arriving in Kabul and the press corps of the world is arriving to report on them. Journalists are here in such numbers that AAN is wondering if there will be more reporters than delegates. Diplomats are also excited about this ‘Afghan-government-owned process’ which they hope will demonstrate a national consensus for peace. Meanwhile, the expectation on the streets seems to be that the jirga will be a ‘drama,’ a show for the cameras. Senior AAN analyst, Kate Clark, has been looking at preparations for the jirga, due to start on Thursday, 2 June.
“I don’t know when is the exact date of the jirga, what we are going to do the day after tomorrow and if there is an appointed date for the end of the jirga,” was the honest admission of one delegate, a mawlawi, who had just arrived in Kabul. He did not know anything, he told AAN, that was important or informative about the events to come.
Until Thursday, when the jirga is due to begin, he and the other sixteen hundred delegates will attend what organisers are calling ‘orientation programs’ or ‘pre-sessions.’ Will these be a chance for government loyalists to be instructed on how to behave at the jirga or a real chance for discussion? And what exactly is to be discussed and decided at the jirga itself? Farooq Wardak, organiser of the jirga, minister for education and close confidant of the President says the government and nation has “homework” to do: to consult one another and come up with a framework to achieve sustainable peace and reconciliation with insurgents. What exactly this means and whether the delegates in their composition are really representative of the nation and of sufficient stature to thrash out a useful consensus is not yet clear.
In Kabul itself, a couple of vast advertising hoardings are trying to sell the jirga to the population. Canvassing opinion over the last few weeks in an, albeit, haphazard and unscientific manner, I have encountered various types of responses. Many people are baffled: “Actually, I don’t really know what it’s all about, Kate,” was the candid response of one MP, “Can you tell me anything?” Many are dismissive: they see the jirga as “drama,” a show put on by the government to appear to be doing something. Or they are suspicious that it is an unspecified part of the foreigners’ plot to ruin Afghanistan or a project to put yet more money in ‘pockets’ or has no hope of succeeding because the Taleban and the Karzais are working together to prolong the fighting and make yet more money. Occasionally, someone evinces a pious hope that the jirga might just usher in peace – as I am sure, do we all.
Those discussing peace will include governors, senators whose terms have ended, MPs, ‘district leaders’ and representatives from the higher ulema council, civil society, business, the Koochis, the disabled, refugees and women. A partial preliminary list seen by AAN indicated that many of the district representatives had been hand-picked by governors for their loyalty. Since then, the list has been fine-tuned – looked over and approved by the president, his two deputies and the head of the Peace Commission, Sebghatullah Mujaddedi, and there are accusations that critics who slipped through the net were being weeded out. But even though the delegates may not be representative of the nation, this will not be a completely rubber-stamping assembly. “Expect surprises,” one MP told AAN, “Karzai will not be getting it all his own way.” Inside the tent, particularly among the MPs and civil society and women’s activists, there will be critics of the government and of reconciliation, although whether they have the will and capacity to organise a coherent opposition is another matter.
Other sceptics are staying firmly outside. Not everyone who was invited is going. Several invitees told AAN they thought the jirga was a waste of their time and they had better things to do this week. Dr Abdullah, former foreign minister and the main challenger in last year’s presidential election, has been more exact in his criticisms: the jirga lacks legal basis, its participants are appointees and not all political parties have been invited, therefore he and figures linked to him are boycotting the meeting.
The jirga will be split into about forty working groups to discuss, “a possible peaceful solution.” Indications of the government’s thinking can be found in its “Afghan Peace and Reintegration Plan,” which was taken to Washington by the president and apparently approved there, but has yet to be released officially (the document has been seen and discussed by AAN, see earlier blog here). The Plan seems little more than an elaborate project proposal to spend $160 million of donors’ money on persuading low and middle level Taleban to stop fighting and ‘reintegrate’: it envisages setting up new organisational structures, co-ordinating ten ministries and other state bodies in the process and establishing training courses, conservation, agricultural and engineering corps, 90-day cooling off camps for fighters and options for de-radicalization and pycho-social counselling. It is a fantastically ambitious project, but one which Washington seems more comfortable with than talking about reconciliation, which would involve political negotiations and, possibly, deals with the Taleban.
This may be why the Plan barely touches on reconciliation. Although some journalists, who have also seen the seventeen page document, have cherry-picked it to such an extent as to suggest there are proper reconciliation proposals, the only mention in the document of how to achieve reconciliation is:
“At the strategic or political level efforts focus on the leadership of the insurgency. This is a complex and highly sensitive issue that needs a broad approach. The package for these levels may include: addressing the problem of sanctuaries, measures for outreach and removal from the UN sanction list, ensuring the severance of links with Al-Qaida, securing political accommodation, and potential exile to a third country.”
In the excitement over yet another event it is easy to lose track of the fact that the plan and the proposed mechanisms may not work at all. Reintegration proposals may be thought up and money spent, but given the cohesiveness of the Taleban movement and its self-confidence, it is difficult to imagine economic incentives winning over vast numbers of foot-soldiers or mid-level commanders, in the absence of some sort of political deal, be it overarching or provincial.
Despite all this, diplomats are excited about the jirga and keen to stress they support this “Afghan-owned” event. President Obama himself has called the jirga, “an important milestone that America supports.” A European diplomat expressed the widely held view among internationals when he said that the jirga, “along with the London conference [held in January], the Kabul conference [to be held in July] and the parliamentary elections [in September], is one of a string of events this year. It is a crucial step to demonstrate national consensus on how to move forward with peace, and a way to give Karzai the platform and the legitimacy to act.” I was almost convinced by the sincerity and conviction of the man and wondered if I had become jaded. However, I remember the energy, money and concentration with which Afghanistan’s international backers backed and supported the earlier ‘milestones,’ of the Bonn Accords – the jirgas, elections, and ‘disarmament’ of militias – regardless of whether the ballots were fair, the nation’s representatives listened to or the armed men actually disarmed. Ticking the Bonn Accord boxes produced a narrative of progress towards a democratic, post-conflict state, even as the seeds of war and a mafia economy were being sown.
So will the jirga be anything more than another sort of box-ticking? It will certainly be watched closely by the world’s press. Government officials dealing press accreditation say they have been inundated with requests to attend the jirga. One broadcaster alone had asked for twenty press IDs and even small newspapers from inconsequential countries want to be in Kabul to witness events in the tent. This is the sort of story that editors love, said one Kabul-based correspondent: “It’s an event, a long trailed event, which they were able to put in their diaries ages ago.”
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020