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Delegates to Karzai's peace jirga enjoyed a good show, but what did they achieve?
KABUL, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s National Consultative Peace Jirga, which ended its deliberations on Friday, was an exceptionally good show. It had drama, excitement, danger, a colorful cast of characters, and, best of all, a happy ending.
What is less certain is whether it will produce any clear, concrete results.
For three days more than 1,500 men and women from all over Afghanistan gathered in a huge tent located on the ground of Kabul’s Polytechnic University to discuss the wisdom and ways of negotiating with the Taliban. More than 140 million afghani (about $7 million) went into the planning and execution of the event.
The results were more than a little surprising from a group advertised in the media as a hand-picked pro-government lobby. The unwieldy assembly was divided for ease of discussion into 28 committees, each of which was given the same list of bullet points to discuss. The make-up of each unit was dictated by computer, according to jirga organizer Farooq Wardak.
In a county bitterly divided by ethnic, religious, and regional enmities, the committees produced a fairly consistent list of recommendations that will most likely give the Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his international backers a few sleepless nights.
What was clear from the committees’ reports is that Afghans are desperate for peace. That concern took them far beyond the mild if emotional overtures that Karzai has so far made to the armed opposition. There were few references to “reconciliation” — the term used as shorthand for bringing those Taliban who forswear violence and accept the Constitution back into the fold.
Instead, most of the committees called for substantive negotiations in a third country (Saudi Arabia figured prominently in most lists) where the opposing sides could sit down without preconditions to discuss the way forward.
So far any talks have been stymied by the Taliban demand that foreign forces leave Afghanistan before talks could take place; the international military, for its part, will not negotiate with anyone who is still fighting.
The committees found this illogical.
“It is those who are fighting you that you need to talk to,” said one committee head.
Many of the committees went so far as to recommend that any reasonable Taliban demands should be seriously considered, up to and including amending the Constitution to make it more palatable to the armed opposition. The Taliban have called for a stricter interpretation of Shariah law.
“The Constitution should be discussed,” said Obaidullah Obaid, head of Committee Number 4.
Judging by some of the committees’ recommendations, the Taliban would have felt right at home in the jirga. There were numerous calls to bring the media into line with Afghan culture, which means prohibiting programs that are deemed to be immoral, un-Islamic, or indicative of “cultural invasion.”
Over half of the committees called for an immediate ceasefire to pave the way for negotiations with the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, the other major Afghan group making up the armed insurgency.
The foreign forces took a pummeling from the various committee heads, almost all of whom called for a timetable for withdrawal and strict regulation of military activities. Night raids, house searches, bombardment of civilian areas, and offensive operations were cited as phenomena contributing to the alienation of the population and the growth of the insurgency.
The Afghan government also came in for its share of criticism: almost every committee mentioned corruption as a root cause of the insurgency, and called for its elimination.
“There will be no amnesty for corruption!” thundered Mawlawi Sediqullah, head of Committee Number 9. “We will publish a list of corrupt officials in the media!”
Corruption has been a sore point in relations between the Karzai government and his international backers, especially the United States. The Afghan president insists that the problem is being exaggerated, something that Farooq Wardak echoed in a press conference Friday afternoon.