It was in the middle of a live radio interview, as we were discussing the basics of the peace jirga that had just kicked off, that the interviewer cut in: “It seems the jirga has been attacked. There was an explosion or shooting. Karzai has been taken away, maybe to hospital. It was probably the Taliban, no? So this must mean the end of any prospect for a peace deal.”
The end of any prospect for a peace deal – not quite. But that’s what you get when you talk up an event and try to make it take the place of a serious political process. So what does the attack mean for the prospects for peace? And do peace and the jirga have anything to do with each other to start with?
Today’s so-called ‘complex attack‘ near the jirga venue – a combination of armed suiciders and a volley of rockets – was of course intended as a message. It was aimed at disrupting the gathering, embarrassing the government and its backers, and underscoring the insurgent’s contempt for what they characterized as a “phoney jirga [meant] for consumption by American and world publics” – an opinion they incidentally seem to share with a large part of the Afghan population. The conclusion that should however not be drawn, at least not too hastily, is that continued insurgent attacks and scathing statements mean that there is no interest to talk, and that money and military means – both of which are unlikely to bring peace on their own – are the only options left.
There has been an interest, from the beginning, at all kinds of levels among the insurgent and the disgruntled, to explore what it would take to be able to stop fighting. An interest to talk is obviously not the same as an interest to strike a deal. To go that far you need to have some level of confidence that your interlocutors are serious, that they can deliver and that they intend to uphold their side of the bargain. So far the conclusion on “the other side” has consistently been that there has neither been the necessary interest, nor the coherence on the side of the Afghan government and the international actors to make it worth seriously investing in talks. There has been an interest among the internationals and the Afghan government to design strategies and programs and to plan for a position of strength, but there has been no real acknowledgement that peace talks require engagement, a willingness to explore and a readiness to try and build mutual confidence.
There has actually been no real international acknowledgement that the situation in Afghanistan requires peace talks. There is a reluctance to go that far, particularly on the side of the US, due to the connotations it has of ‘talking to terrorists’ and the moral vocabulary of good and evil that has been used to describe the conflict over the years. On the other end of the spectrum stand those who believe that messy deals have to be made and that those who threaten the status quo should be co-opted and their loyalties bought (“like we used to do in the old days”). Neither approach is very constructive.
It has been said before, many times in many ways, the situation Afghanistan needs a political settlement. This needs to involve regional powers, marginalized tribes and disgruntled political elites. It requires political reform within the government and a willingness among international forces to act with greater restraint. It cannot just be a gathering of the violent, the criminal and the powerful. It cannot be bought with money or orchestrated through programs. And it will not be achieved by a series of high-profile events, not even if you release multiple statements hailing the “important milestone” or “crucial step” towards this or that (in this casenational consensus and lasting and durable peace).
As to the jirga? It is still early, and you don’t want to totally write off something that has just begun, but all the signs are wrong. Read our earlier blogs (How serious is the peace jirga?; Whose opinions count?; Preparing the delegates; Who’s come to town?; The Big Karzai Show). Consider who took centre stage (Mojadedi and Rabbani – do we really have to continue to live in the past?). Picture who the diplomats mingled with on the front rows of the jirga tent.
Or as a friend of mine said, when I asked him if he was going to be there: “I am not participating in the jirga. It is not a peace jirga. It is a legitimizing-the-worsening-of-the-situation-jirga.”
Let’s see what happens tomorrow, as the delegates start discussing in their small groups. (On the agenda is the government’s “36-page plan”).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020