The checkpoint at the entrance to the Loya Jirga complex in Kabul highlights the challenge facing President Hamid Karzai as his administration strives to reconcile with moderate Taliban elements. Security at the Jirga is perhaps heavier than at a major Western airport, with all vehicles and equipment being swabbed and checked for evidence of bomb-making residue. The government’s fear of a car bombing appears to be just as great as its desire to win insurgents back over to its side.
The three-day loya jirga, or grand council, which will mull Karzai’s reconciliation and reintegration plan, is scheduled to open June 2. Taliban representatives have not been explicitly invited to participate in the debates, said Najib Amin, a deputy on the meeting’s organizing committee. But, Amin added, the Taliban will have sympathizers among the participants who can represent the Islamic militants’ interests. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive].
The approximately 1,600 delegates to the National Consultative Peace Jirga will aim to “identify mechanisms based on which we can negotiate, identify categories of opposition with whom we can negotiate, mechanism on how to approach them, identify people who are not negotiable and what the government should do with them,” Amin said.
To keep the proceedings manageable, delegates will be divided into 28 groups. Technical facilitators have undergone training in order to keep debates efficient and orderly. At the end of the three days of discussions, it is hoped that the entire jirga will be able to produce a declaration of intent. However, distilling the decisions of the 28 groups into one common position promises to be difficult. Local Afghan media outlets in recent days have highlighted policy differences among the country’s top leaders, suggesting that the jirga could be contentious and have trouble harmonizing disparate views.
Regardless of the jirga’s outcome, its decisions and declarations will be non-binding on the government. The word “consultative” was added to the jirga’s official title after members of parliament criticized what they saw as an administration attempt to circumvent legislative authority. As a result, all jirga decisions will require the endorsement of either the cabinet or the legislature.
On the eve of the jirga, there remained the possibility that a significant number of MPs would boycott the event. Legislators had demanded that Karzai fill out his cabinet before the convocation of the jirga. Already, Abdullah Abdullah, the main opposition leader and unsuccessful presidential candidate in 2009, has announced he will stay away from the gathering, contending that it will not be adequately representative of the Afghan nation. “This jirga started with the government, and will end with the government,” Abdullah said during a news conference.
Since Karzai unveiled his plans during a donor conference in January, the reconciliation idea has faced skepticism from several Afghan constituencies. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Human rights activists have expressed concerns that Karzai was willing to make sacrifices on Afghanistan’s democratization in order to cut a deal with moderate Taliban elements. “Reconciliation should not be a reconciliation behind curtains, just a political reconciliation,” Nader Nadery, a commissioner on the Afghan Independent Human Rights Commission, told a gathering of civil society groups who have been working together to demand transitional justice.
An essential factor for securing a stable future for Afghanistan is an honest accounting of past actions during the country’s past 30-plus years of strife. Those who committed atrocities must be held accountable, Nadery has asserted, adding that the implementation of Karzai’s reconciliation plan could become an obstacle toward this end. In early May, some rights advocates organized their own “victims’” jirga, during which they questioned whether reconciliation without justice could bring peace.
Also skeptical about the reconciliation initiative are women’s advocacy groups. Amid intense lobbying in recent months, approximately 20 percent of the jirga’s delegates will be women. Originally, only 30 women had been slated to participate in the debates. While women will still be vastly underrepresented at the gathering in relation to their percentage of the population, observers view the expansion of female delegates as a significant development. How influential the female delegates will be in defending women’s rights remains to be seen. Some advocates worry that the small gains made in recent years in the sphere of women’s rights will be rolled back. [For background see EurasiaNet’s archive]. While reconciliation as a means of shortening, or even ending the war has been supported by most donor states publicly, many Westerners in Kabul express doubts in private. “The Karzai government’s plan does not seem like a political plan at all,” said a Western diplomat. “It resembles a project proposal.”
To many Western policymakers, the reconciliation route seems to be the best option among an array of unappetizing choices. Perhaps the top priority should be improving the Afghan government’s responsiveness to popular needs and concerns. But many international observers emphasize that bringing about such a transformation would take decades. “We can’t reconstruct Afghanistan’s power structure from scratch, so we have to co-opt the power brokers by making clear that their only future lies in becoming part of the solution,” NATO Senior Civilian Representative Mark Sedwill said recently. Sedwill added that an attempt to remake the power structure would require an international community presence in Afghanistan for perhaps the next 20 years.
Aunohita Mojumdar is an Indian freelance journalist based in Kabul. She has reported on the South Asian region for the past 19 years.