Afghanistan's National Consultative Peace Jirga

  • photo courtesy of isafmedia
    May 27, 2010

    On June 2, Afghan president Hamid Karzai will convene a three-day national jirga—a traditional Pashtun mechanism for resolving disputes, familiar to ethnic groups across Afghanistan—to discuss prospects for negotiations and reconciliation with the Taliban. The National Consultative Peace Jirga had been scheduled for early May but was postponed to May 29 so that Karzai could travel to Washington to build U.S. support for his negotiating strategy. It was delayed a second time for what Afghan officials described as logistical reasons, but critics have suggested that planning was complicated by a separate dispute between Karzai and some members of parliament over his failure to nominate a full cabinet. The international community declared its support for Afghan-led peace efforts back in January at the London Conference on Afghanistan, where Karzai announced his intention to host a follow-on conference in Kabul this summer, but Karzai’s desire to negotiate with top-level Taliban has not been universally welcomed. A key reason for offering a public forum for Afghans to voice their concerns and expectations about reconciliation, therefore, is to build a domestic and international consensus for a negotiating framework that will feed into the Kabul Conference set to take place July 20.

    Q1: Who will participate?


    A1: Some 1,600 Afghans from across the government and civil society have been invited to attend, including national, provincial, and district officials, plus legislators, members of the judiciary, businessmen, civil society activists, and tribal and religious leaders. Some critics have complained that the invitation list is heavy with Karzai supporters—for example, that the district officials who were invited are mostly pro-government. Women’s participation has been guaranteed, but the effect of their presence is likely to be limited. In addition, invitations have been sent out to about 200 members of the international community, including diplomats and international organizations.


    There are contradictory reports with respect to Taliban participation. While some organizers have said the Taliban will not be represented, others have indicated that individuals with ties to the Taliban will be allowed to participate—which is a diplomatic way of saying that the Taliban will be represented, just not officially. Similarly, the insurgent group Hizb-e-Islami, which recently presented a peace plan to the Karzai government, is likely to send some representatives.


    Planning for the Peace Jirga is being led by an organizing committee headed by one of Karzai’s most trusted cabinet members, Minister of Education Ghulam Farooq Wardak, a former UN official who is well respected in the international community.


    Q2: What are the main points of contention?


    A2: With such a variety of groups (some mutually antagonistic) all under the same tent, jirga proceedings promise to be lively at the very least.


    The main topic will likely be the most contentious: reconciliation between the Afghan government and insurgent leaders. While reintegration of low- and mid-level Taliban has received widespread support from Afghans and internationals alike, reconciliation efforts have been a source of intense opposition by women’s rights groups, ethnic minorities, and other who were victims of government abuse under Taliban rule.


    The issue of women’s rights in Afghanistan did receive considerable attention during President Karzai’s recent trip to Washington. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, for example, soothed fears regarding women’s rights, saying that the United States would not abandon women in any compromise with the Taliban. Yet the decision to support women’s rights ultimately needs to come from the Afghans.


    Another point of contention is the blanket amnesty granted in 2007 to perpetrators of war crimes committed over the past 30 years. This amnesty applies to many former warlords who now hold top government jobs in Afghanistan and also covers militant factions who continue to wage war against the government. But victims’ advocates already complain bitterly that the amnesty has made it impossible to bring those guilty of mass atrocities to justice, and they can be expected to oppose it during jirga proceedings.

    Q3: Does the Obama administration support the Peace Jirga?


    A3: More or less. After a week of intensive talks between U.S. and Afghan officials, little has changed in the U.S. position on reconciliation, except that President Obama now publicly and explicitly supports the upcoming Peace Jirga, where he had been reluctant to offer such explicit support previously. Though there is agreement on all sides that a negotiated settlement with the Taliban is inevitable, differences over when peace talks should take place and with whom have yet to be resolved. And while the Obama administration supports the reintegration of low- and mid-level Taliban fighters into their communities, it has been reluctant to endorse reconciliation efforts with the top Taliban leadership until coalition forces can reverse their momentum on the battlefield.


    Karzai and the United States also diverge when it comes to talks with Mullah Mohammad Omar. Last December, Karzai publicly declared his willingness to reach out to the Taliban leader, but the United States considers him a fugitive and insists he be excluded from both the peace talks and any future political dispensation in Afghanistan.


    Q4: Have the insurgents shown any interest in reconciliation?


    A4: Some have, but the Peace Jirga is not the forum where any real discussions will take place. Instead, some insurgents have made overtures in the lead-up to the jirga, and actual negotiations would take place later in the year.


    It was recently reported that Mullah Omar’s deputy, Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, had held talks with the Kabul government and UN representatives. According to the UN’s former chief in Kabul, Kai Eide, these talks abruptly ended when Baradar was arrested by Pakistani authorities. Mullah Omar officially denies those reports, but there have been other hints in the media that people close to him believe he’d talk if foreign forces vacated Afghanistan. The CSIS Post-Conflict Reconstruction Project’s own interviews with people close to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan suggest that some Taliban leaders are more flexible than their public statements might suggest.


    In March, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar sent a delegation of his Hizb-e-Islami group to Kabul to present a 15-point peace plan to Karzai, calling for the withdrawal of foreign forces by mid-2010, elections in six months, and a review of the Afghan constitution. Hizb-i-Islami members have said publicly that those demands were meant as a starting point for negotiations and were not set in stone. In mid-May, the government of Maldives claimed that representatives of Hizb-e-Islami and the Afghan government were meeting in that country for talks, although both sides denied it publicly.


    Hekmatyar has positioned himself as someone who might mediate between the Afghan government and the Taliban, but recent armed conflict between his forces and local Taliban groups in Northern Afghanistan have raised doubts about his ability to influence Taliban leadership. In any event, a peace deal with his group alone will not be sufficient to end the overall conflict, as many believe his military impact on the ground in Afghanistan is limited.


    Q5: Is the Peace Jirga likely to succeed?


    A5: If the goal is to provide a forum through which a variety of views may be expressed without violence and intimidation, then success is likely. If the goal is to get national buy-in on a reintegration proposal and a framework for the reconciliation process, then success is still likely, but only in broad terms. The devil is in the details of any plans that emerge in the days and months following the jirga. Will the government of Afghanistan have adequate funding and institutional capacity to follow through on its promises to former combatants? Will victims of war crimes feel that their demands for justice have not been sacrificed in favor of the country’s desire for peace? These are the hard questions that the Peace Jirga will not answer—those answers will come slowly.

    Robert D. Lamb is a senior fellow with the Post-Conflict Reconstruction (PCR) Project at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. Mehlaqa Samdani is an adjunct fellow with the PCR Project, and Justine Fleischner is a research assistant with the PCR Project.


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