If you can't beat them, talk to them: Afghanistan's embattled government is now espousing this approach as it struggles to contain the Taliban insurgency and keep reconstruction from going completely off the rails.
With violence continuing to rise, Afghan leaders from President Hamid Karzai on down are placing an increasing emphasis on negotiations, seeming to diverge from the forceful approach employed by NATO and American troops in the country. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive].
On May 4, Afghan and Pakistani officials agreed to hold their first-ever joint Peace Jirga, a gathering that will bring together roughly 700 tribal elders, politicians, intellectuals and other civil society leaders to discuss ways to check the growth of Taliban militant action, and to promote regional stability. The conclave is scheduled to begin August 1 in Kabul.
Relations between Afghan and Pakistani leaders have long been frosty. Pakistan was a sponsor of the Taliban from the time of the radical Islamic movement's appearance in the mid-1990s up until its ouster from power in Kabul in late 2001 amid the US blitz. Bilateral tension has remained high in recent months, as Afghan leaders believe Pakistan is still sheltering and abetting Taliban militants. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Pakistan's decision to erect a frontier fence, ostensibly an effort to hinder the Taliban's cross-border movements, has also angered Afghanistan, which does not recognize the so-called Durand Line dividing the two states.
Given the mutual hostility, the fact that Afghan and Pakistani leaders have set a meeting date is significant. Yet, the jirga's agenda, rules and names of participants remain to be defined. These details are expected to be addressed during a meeting involving Afghan and Pakistani officials in Islamabad at the end of May.
Karzai first raised the idea of a peace jirga during a meeting last September with US President George W. Bush and Pakistani leader Gen. Pervez Musharraf. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Karzai's main aim is to build consensus among Pashtun tribal elders on both sides of the border in opposition to extremism. Karzai also wants to show the international community that the bulk of Pashtuns do not support the Talibanization of their homeland. Ultimately, if such consensus can be achieved, Afghanistan and Pakistan would be better positioned to address the underlying causes of Talibanization, in particular widespread poverty and the lack of opportunity.
While Afghan leaders have resisted until now to engage in a dialogue with the Taliban, Pakistani leaders have over the past few years pursued a policy of accommodation with Islamic militants in the country's tribal areas. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. The policy has a very mixed record of success, and Afghan and American officials believe Islamabad's lack of vigilance has enabled the Taliban to use the tribal areas as a safe-haven. [For background see the Eurasia Insight archive]. Pakistani officials deny the existence of safe havens.
The peace jirga will serve as a litmus test to measure the willingness of both countries to address issues fueling instability in the Pashtun borderlands. According to a joint statement issued after a bilateral meeting in Istanbul in late April, Karzai and Musharraf shared the belief that "extremism and terrorism are a common threat to both Pakistan and Afghanistan." In addition, they "agreed to deny sanctuary, training and financing to terrorists and to elements involved in subversive and anti-state activities in each other's country." The jirga will offer a concrete opportunity to turn those words into actions.
Observers say significant obstacles stand in the way of success. As an institution, such gatherings are perceived very differently in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Jirgas are a central feature of public life in Afghanistan, as the country's Constitution specifies that a Loya Jirga, or grand tribal council, is the supreme national decision-making body. In Pakistan, jirgas are viewed more as a social institution, encompassing mainly Pashtun, as well as a few Baluchi tribes. Such meetings have no tradition among other ethnic groups in Pakistan, and thus no political role at the national level. And although Pashtuns comprise about 20 percent of Pakistan's 160 million population, they tend to be on the margins of public discourse.
A major and still unresolved issue is the scope of the peace jirga's authority. In traditional Pashtun jirgas, both the parties to a conflict agree before the start of deliberations on limits of the jirga's power, as well as consent to abide by and implement the decisions taken. Such agreement, given the involvement of two sovereign states, could prove elusive.
Even though the odds seem low that a jirga can produce the desired results, Afghan leaders appear more convinced than ever that stability can come to Afghanistan only through dialogue. To underscore this point, members of the upper house of the Afghan parliament voiced a desire May 9 to open formal talks with Taliban representatives in an attempt to persuade the militants to abandon the insurgency.
Military efforts to defeat the Taliban of late have made few tangible battlefield gains, while serving to alienate significant numbers of Afghans. Incidents, such as the recent NATO air strike that left 21 civilians dead in Helmand Province, are helping the recruitment efforts of the Taliban, which aims to force the withdrawal of foreign troops from the country.
Abubakar Siddique covers Afghanistan and Pakistan for EurasiaNet.