The Afghan Peace Jirga (Part 1 of 2)

War and Peace

Deciding Afghanistan's Stability Everywhere but Afghanistan

The peace and stability of Afghanistan, the subject of numerous international, regional and national consultations, consistently shuts out the Afghan people themselves, and the recent peace jirga (June 2-4) hosted by Hamid Karzai was no exception. This calls into question the validity of the Obama administration’s approach, on more levels than one.


Many articles have been written about the recently held “peace jirga” convened by president Hamid Karzai in Afghanistan; at first glance, it appears indeed to be an impressive and most welcome accomplishment: around 1,500 delegates from all around Afghanistan gathering together to debate ways to bring about peace to the war-torn nation, including possible reintegration of certain Taliban elements within Afghan society (i.e., return to a peaceful life). While the deliberately very vague recommendations that the assembly produced appear at odds with such ambitions, and indeed a far cry from any substantive progress whatsoever, the outcome only confirms what many people expected, that the loya jirga itself is of little significance. Instead, all of the real negotiations took place beforehand, or will go on in July, when an international conference gathers in Kabul.

The absence of any Taliban representatives (who refuse to negotiate as long as foreign troops remain in Afghanistan, and instead launched an attack on the site of the peace jirga) and the decision by opposition leaders such as Abdullah Abdullah to boycott the event underscore how flawed it was, a showcase for the central government to reaffirm Karzai’s legitimacy. In doing so, argue Caroline Wadham and Colin Cookman of the Center for American Progress, the loya jirga merely served to compound one of the main obstacles on the road to stability and security, namely the “broader trends of Afghan governance in that almost all decision-making authority rests with presidential appointees rather than elected public representatives.”

Although initially opposed to Karzai’s reaching out to Taliban elements to “reintegrate” them, a proposal that steadily gained momentum after the London conference in January 2010, the United States salvaged their rapidly-deteriorating relationship with Karzai in May and tried to spin the jirga as an authentic expression of Afghan popular will – all the while limiting any potential offer Karzai could extend the Taliban. While many people viewed Karzai’s visit to Washington, and the lavish welcome he and his delegation received there from Secretary Clinton during a week of high-level meetings, as an attempt to patch up the relationship, it is also indicative of a larger, and perhaps more meaningful, trend. The loya jirga, this “Afghan moment” so to speak, was preceded by a flurry of diplomatic visits, of regional consultations, that underscore just how little the loya jirga matters when it comes to decision-making, how much the interests of outside countries weigh on Afghan policy more than any debate, given their ability to disrupt Afghan stability (what little there is) and governmental policies at will. Thus on March 10, 2010 Karzai met with president Ahmadinejad of Iran in Kabul (a meeting that had actual regional substance, and wasn’t only about snubbing the US), flew to Pakistan that same day, conducted a state visit to China (March 23-25), met with Manmohan Singh of India on April 25-26, stayed in Washington (May 9-14)… While in Islamabad, he was careful to reassure the Pakistanis (as noted by former Indian ambassador M. K. Bhadrukumar, keen observer of regional events but often misinterpreting them due to certain political biases) that they would not be side-tracked during any negotiations with the Taliban (one of Pakistan’s key demands of the US in this regard is to serve as exclusive mediator between the Taliban leadership and the US, to ensure that it retains a central role and thus an ability to influence events in Afghanistan): “India is a close friend of Afghanistan but Pakistan is a brother of Afghanistan. Pakistan is a twin brother. We are conjoined twins, there's no separation.”

Karzai’s preoccupation with ensuring a relatively untroubled peace jirga necessary to cement his legitimacy (to the eyes of whom outside certain members of the international community is not clear – certainly not the Afghan people), and the extreme vulnerability of the land-locked country to outside meddling, comes across explicitly in another statement made at that time: “Afghanistan does not want any proxy wars on its territory. It does not want a proxy war between India and Pakistan. It does not want a proxy war between Iran and the U.S. on Afghanistan.” The United States seems to be committing the same mistake as India and Pakistan (to differing degrees), by failing to consult with the Afghan people, to understand their needs, their wishes, their opinion: for all the criticism in US articles and papers of nearby powers, frequently viewed as hindrances to “solving Afghanistan” because they’re locked into regional power plays, Washington hasn’t done a better job of focusing on the country and its inhabitants.


At any rate, while the lackluster loya jirga generated an outpour of analyses highlighting the corruption eating away Karzai’s government, identifying it as a key problem, I couldn’t help but be struck by how easily the very things Kabul was being stigmatized for could either be applied to the US or could be traced back to American policies (or are at the very least amplified by them). For instance, the last paragraph of the Center for American Progress article I mentioned earlier states that “buying off some insurgents temporarily with promises of new development money is bound to fail yet again absent greater efforts to restore public trust in the Afghan government.” Yet the United States included as part of the large-scale offensive launched against Marja a practice that would appear to fly in the face of such recommendations, as Marines were given hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash every week to distribute in local villages, bypassing any Afghan institution whatsoever, and breeding corruption (this counterproductive; short-term approach led to situations where Taliban fighters, taking advantage of their ability to blend in – and to intimidate those who would know they weren’t local villagers – would mingle amongst the villagers, enter US compounds, and receive cash from the hands of Marines…).

Read part two of this analysis tomorrow...

Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai, Taliban, United States