Peace Jirga hangs in balance of Karzai-Obama visit

KABUL, Afghanistan — As Afghan President Hamid Karzai goes off to Washington for what promises to be a cordial meeting with his U.S. counterpart, he will be closely watched by his countrymen, who are expecting him to bring home major American concessions.

The main topic of conversation at the Karzai-Obama summit is more than likely to be reconciliation with the Taliban, the subject of a large Peace Jirga to be held in Kabul later this month. While many have posited that the Afghan president is looking for direction from Washington, others argue that he will hold the Jirga like an unsheathed sword over the heads of his foreign backers.

“If Karzai comes home from Washington empty-handed, he can very easily turn the Jirga against the Americans,” said Wahid Mojda, a political analyst and longtime government insider. “This will make things much more difficult for the United States.”

Popular sentiment is already running against the foreign troops, as civilian casualties soar and the U.S. Marines plan their largest-ever offensive in Kandahar this summer. Coping with a major anti-American campaign by the Afghan government would certainly complicate the counterinsurgency strategy (COIN) advocated by Gen. Stanley McChrystal, commander of U.S. and NATO forces in Afghanistan.

McChrystal emphasizes winning the trust of the local population as a central tenet of COIN. That will be difficult if Karzai is fanning the flames of popular discontent.

“We are hearing that the United States will pledge to channel $4 billion through the Afghan government for reconstruction and for equipping the Afghan security forces,” continued Mojda. “It should be a good trip.”

Washington certainly appears to be rolling out the red carpet, which should soothe the Afghan presidents’ wounded feelings, so obviously on display over the past month.

Tough talk from U.S. President Barack Obama at a lightening-quick midnight meeting in March provoked a war of words that had many of the Kabul political elite wondering about the Afghan president’s mental stability.

Obama criticized the Afghan president for not doing enough to tackle corruption, and characterized his government as weak and ineffective. Karzai then erupted in several public forums, accusing the international community of perpetrating fraud in last August’s presidential elections (from which Karzai emerged victorious), and even, at one point, threatening to join the Taliban.

“The Americans have realized that it is not in their best interests to act this way with Karzai,” said Mojda. “They became softer, more conciliatory.”

That is all to the good. Afghans like to see their leaders given the royal treatment when abroad, and a warm welcome in Washington will at least temporarily raise the president’s ratings at home. But soon enough the grumbling will begin: Karzai is no more than an American puppet; he went to Washington to receive his marching orders; Afghanistan’s fate is being decided by foreigners and infidels.

The Peace Jirga is already suffering from the aura surrounding the trip: according to Sen. Mohammad Afzal Ahmadzai, a member of Afghanistan’s upper house of parliament, the timing of Karzai’s Washington visit has made Afghans suspicious.

The Jirga was originally planned for May 2-4; it was postponed to accommodate Karzai’s travel schedule.

“The Jirga has lost its authority because of the delay,” said the senator. “Afghans think that everything will be decided in Washington. But Afghans do not respect prescriptions from abroad.”

The organizers of the Jirga deny that there was a direct relationship between the Washington visit and the timing of the Jirga.

“It is just propaganda [to say that Karzai is going to Washington to get his orders],” said Gul Agha Ahmadi, spokesperson for the Jirga Organizational Committee. “The event was delayed for technical reasons.”

More important than the date of the Jirga is the prospect for a significant step toward peace. Afghanistan has been at war for more than 30 years; the U.S., too, seems to be feeling fatigue as the conflict stretches on. It has been conventional wisdom for years that a military solution is not possible; this suggests that negotiations with the armed opposition will be necessary.

But as the leaders of Afghanistan and the U.S. sit down to work out a road map for the “peace with honor” that they both insist they want, the people of Afghanistan are far from a consensus on how far they are prepared to go to achieve that goal.

The National Consultative Peace Jirga, now scheduled for May 29 in Kabul, will bring together 1,500 representatives from Afghan government and civil society, women’s groups, tribal elders, business people and other groups. Conspicuously absent will be the Taliban and other armed opposition factions: they have not been invited to the table, although presumably they will be the major topic of conversation.

“The main purpose of the Jirga is to bring representatives of the Afghan people together to define who the armed opposition are and why they are fighting,” said Jirga spokesman Ahmadi.

Hopes for a successful Jirga are quite high; but in Afghanistan this is coupled with extremely low expectations.

“This is a good opportunity for Afghans to take control,” said Shukria Barakzai, a parliamentarian who has been quite active in the preparations for the event. “This Jirga will transfer part of the responsibility for peace to the Afghan people.”

But when asked whether she thought the Jirga would be successful, her response was quite simple.

“Of course not,” she said.

The problem, she added, was the country’s leaders — remnants of the Northern Alliance who sit in the parliament, the cabinet and other halls of power, and who are not eager to see their influence dissipated by bringing the Taliban and the government closer together.

“Our leaders are caught in their old mentality and ideas,” said Barakzai. “They are afraid that the Jirga might decrease their authority. They control 70 percent of all the positions in the government.”

The Karzai administration has been quite open about its desire for peace talks with the Taliban, but the Afghan government is far from a monolithic body. Karzai’s two vice presidents — Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Abdul Karim Khalili — are both part of the group commonly referred to as “warlords,” and many members of the cabinet are also connected to the Northern Alliance, the loose affiliation of commanders who helped the U.S. topple the Taliban in 2001. Embraced by the Americans while roundly rejected by the population, these figures in the power elite can still torpedo any peace agreement that may be designed in Washington.

Another bone of contention at the Washington talks is likely to be Operation Omid — the major offensive planned for Kandahar this summer. Billed as the decisive battle of the war, Omid is not popular with Afghans — something that Karzai sought to capitalize on last month at a shura, or council, in the south. He assured tribal elders in Kandahar that the operation would not happen if they did not support it. Despite heated assertions that the elders were, in fact, opposed to Omid, plans are proceeding apace. The only thing that has changed is the language — Omid is no longer an “operation” — it is a “process.”

The presence of McChrystal on the visit signals that the operation will most likely be discussed; what is less clear is whether Karzai can, in fact, stop the speeding train of Omid before it reaches Kandahar.

But given sensitivities over past friction, the emphasis in Washington is likely to be on areas of common interest, rather than on divisions.

“Karzai and Obama should face each other and think of what unites them,” said Barakzai. “They have a shared enemy, and they should have a shared success.”