The South Asia Channel

Afghanistan’s fluffy peace jirga

Afghanistan’s fluffy peace jirga

On Friday, Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s peace jirga came to a close after three days of discussions to secure domestic and international support for his government’s efforts to reach out to Afghan insurgents. Following an inauspicious beginning, in which insurgents tried (and failed) to disrupt proceedings with rockets and suicide bombers, the jirga endorsed Karzai’s proposals to negotiate with insurgents, despite the fact that the plan the president presented to international donors during his most recent visit to Washington was not discussed in detail in the jirga sessions.

After all of the speeches, tweeting, and media coverage of the jirga, it is difficult to believe that Afghanistan is any closer to peace. The jirga itself was not a genuine attempt to engage Afghanistan’s stakeholders or to create a concrete peace plan. While reports indicate that the discussions were lively and unrestricted within the breakout sessions, the jirga was not sufficiently inclusive, thereby failing to create true national consensus or provide legitimacy to a peace plan. While the 1,600 delegates came from all over Afghanistan, the majority were reportedly handpicked by Karzai and his allies, with political rivals and civil society activists largely excluded from the process. Moreover, representatives of the main insurgent factions (Afghan Taliban, the Haqqani network and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami) were left out.

The jirga was instead primarily dominated by presidential appointees, former warlords and veterans of the anti-Soviet jihad period, many of whom are widely criticized for their abuses and corruption and whose actual value as representatives of their communities is questionable. The jirga’s chairman, Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani, was president of Afghanistan in the 1990s when warlords were battling the Taliban for control of the country; he is not perceived as a uniter or a trustworthy figure to reach out to the insurgency. The Taliban, towards whom the peace plan is supposed to be directed, dismissed the jirga as a "propaganda stunt" and a process to pander to foreign forces. They have instead demanded the removal of foreign forces as a precondition before any discussions can occur.

During the three days of the jirga, the delegates broke out into 28 committees to discuss peace with the insurgency, all of which fed into recommendations. According to the Afghanistan Analysts Network, the delegates were asked to look at three topics: 1) whether Afghanistan should negotiate with the Taliban; 2) the framework and mechanisms for negotiation with the opposition should be, and 3) how national unity can be strengthened. These committee recommendations were consolidated by the jirga’s organizers into a series of declarations, which have yet to be released in full. Beyond endorsing Karzai’s leadership on the issue, the delegates’ recommendations (gathered from tweets and other media reports) are the following:

  • Insurgents who join the peace process should be removed from the U.N. blacklist which imposes travel and financial restrictions on people associated with the Taliban.
  • Insurgents "who want to take part must cut their ties with foreign terrorist groups."
  • A high commission should be established to pursue peace efforts with the Taliban
  • Progress made in "areas of democracy and women’s rights should not be sacrificed" in negotiations with insurgent groups.
  • NATO troops "must continue to support Afghan army and ensure that Afghanistan does not become a battleground for regional players."
  • There should be greater investment in income opportunities and poverty reduction, and Islamic education programs should be increased for all
  • Government should guarantee the security of militants during peace talks and arrange for a better life for them afterwards.
  • National and international forces should stop their raids and arrests and ad hoc detentions.

And my two favorites:

  • The government should fight administration and moral corruption to secure the nation’s trust in government.
  • The government should bring peace and stop criminal acts.

These recommendations largely echo the details of the Karzai plan (except for the final two), which remains a fundamentally flawed framework for peace. The plan avoids tackling the political grievances that drive the insurgency, and instead moves from the premise that economic factors are the primary drivers for insurgent recruitment and that insurgents can be co-opted through financial incentives. This flies in the face of numerous assessments of the insurgency that indicate that fighters join the insurgency for more complex reasons than job opportunities. Many have joined due to their anger with the Afghan government, which they perceive as corrupt, illegitimate, and predatory. In addition, the plan utilizes the government figures perceived by the insurgency to be corrupt and abusive as the main interlocutors in the reintegration process. It also relies on weak community authorities to implement reintegration, lacks clarity on who is eligible for reintegration and ignores the organizational coherence of the insurgency itself.  

With just three brief days of meetings, an unrepresentative assembly, and only able to issue non-binding recommendations, the jirga gave little serious scrutiny to the Karzai plan, nor did it attempt to provide meaningful alternatives. The real objective instead was to enhance Karzai’s prestige before the international community and maintain their support. With no meaningful domestic checks on his policies, the process demonstrated again that the international community remains Karzai’s most important constituency, not the Afghan people. Karzai is relying on the fact that we aren’t paying too much attention to the details. Unless we start asking — and empowering a wider range of Afghan actors to ask for themselves — tougher questions about how to achieve a sustainable security in Afghanistan, it’s hard to see how this session’s ringing endorsements of peace will be borne out in actual changes in policy and practice.

Caroline Wadhams is Director for South Asia Security Studies at the Center for American Progress.