Off the blacklist and out of detention – these appear to be the concrete steps that have emerged from Afghanistan’s ‘peace jirga’, formally known as the National Consultative Peace Jirga, held from 2 to 4 June in Kabul. This jirga – not to be confused with a Loya Jirga, which is a constitutionally mandated process that is authorised to take decisions – can only advise the government. In fact, the word consultative was inserted into the title only after members of the Afghan Parliament protested that their role and authority was being challenged by the body. Eventually, several MPs boycotted anyway, though for a variety of reasons.
What the jirga did accomplish was to give the government a wider mandate for pursuing talks with the armed opposition, and to take a number of confidence-building steps in pursuit of this aim. The selection of candidates, using alphabetical lists and computer software (according to organisers), was challenged for being heavily weighted in favour of the government. But for Hamid Karzai’s administration, accused of increasing isolation and alienation from the population, any backing from a wider cross-section of Afghan citizens is a boost.
A 16-point consensus document emerged from the jirga, recommending taking the leaders of the armed insurgency off the UN sanctions list, and releasing those being held in detention without evidence. By happy coincidence, a team of UN officials reviewing the sanctions list rolled into town barely a week later, as part of an ongoing process of updating that exact list. This evaluation has been underway for the past 18 months, and earlier this year, in what was viewed as a sweetener, five former Taliban leaders who had surrendered and reconciled with the Kabul government were taken off the list – ahead of the London Conference in January that was meant to chart a new international approach in Afghanistan.
However, 137 Afghan citizens remain on the list, which is said to include some who were included accidentally and others who have either died or become completely inactive. The UN is thus expected to start weeding out names from this ‘soft end’ of the spectrum. Of course, the final decision lies with the UN Security Council, where Russia, for one, had earlier signalled opposition to the plan; though it has softened its stance since then, there is no clear signal as to how much ground it is willing to concede. The US too retains its ambivalence towards insurgent leaders whom it believes are outside the pale. The Taliban leader Mullah Omar is considered by many US officials as irreconcilable, as is the group led by Jalaluddin Haqqani. Over the past two years, concrete contacts with the insurgency have involved talks with the Hizb-e-Islami faction led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, which has been sending out feelers for a reconciliation based on a share of power. The overground branch of the Hizb-e-Islami is already represented in the government, where it has gained strength over the past year.
The other major decision taken by the consultative jirga was on the issue of the release of ‘those detained based on inaccurate information or unsubstantiated allegations’. While release of innocent people might seem like a simple matter, access to justice in Afghanistan today is undoubtedly dependent on gestures of goodwill. A process of reviewing detentions is already underway, and those detainees certified as not constituting a threat are being released on the basis of guarantees given by families and others. The difference now is likely to be in the political muscle behind the process, with the detainees’ releases going hand in hand with the proposed re-integration process, which seeks to reconcile foot-soldiers of the insurgent movement by providing them money, jobs and other perks.
Apart from the concrete outcomes of the jirga, of interest were the exact issues considered priorities by the 1600-odd participants. The most popular demands coming from the 28 committees included more curbs on international military forces, tackling corruption in government, freeing prisoners, taking insurgent leaders off the UN sanctions list, and how to deal with the roles of neighbouring countries. Meanwhile, the committees’ recommendations that did not make it into the resolution included a call for a ceasefire and the long-standing demand to bring the international forces under Kabul’s control. But although these were not included, they will still be sent to the government, and could prove useful tools in leveraging its clout with the international community. President Karzai could point to domestic hostility against the international community in order to wrest concessions, as he did with the electoral law.
Anti-foreigner rhetoric is increasingly dominating the speeches of President Karzai, who is laying the blame for corruption, violence and absence of rule of law on the international presence – something that a section of the international community interprets as his growing paranoia. The jirga resolutions were overshadowed almost immediately by another of President Karzai’s decisions, which is being attributed to this same insecurity: the abrupt resignations of two senior security officials, Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and the chief of the National Security Directorate, Amrullah Saleh. The resignations were ostensibly in response to the breach of security during the jirga, but are widely viewed as a result of pressure from President Karzai.
Both men were seen as unusually able administrators, especially by the international community, and Kabul has been rife with theories. The hand of Pakistan has been hinted at, with Saleh himself stating that he was seen as an obstacle to reconciliation, suggesting that his opposition to Pakistan and Pakistani-backed insurgents was being considered a hindrance in efforts to come to terms with them. The real reason is probably an amalgam of different impetuses – a combination of President Karzai’s longstanding distrust of two men not viewed as ‘palace loyalists’, an overture to the Taliban, cocking a snook at the international community, and perhaps reaping goodwill from the section of the Pakistan establishment that saw the two officials as obstacles. Many political observers feel that President Karzai is positioning himself for the eventuality of the departure of international troops, and consolidating his own position by making overtures to the increasingly powerful insurgent groups, while also surrounding himself with loyalists.
The departure of Atmar and Saleh has only added to the growing numbers of vacancies of ministerial berths, however. Six months since he took the oath for his third term as president, President Karzai has still not been able to fill his cabinet, with stiff opposition from a Parliament that is required to endorse the appointments. At the Kabul Conference, slated for 20 July, organisers are planning to lay out Afghanistan’s economic priorities. Yet even as the date looms, President Karzai’s cabinet still has 11 out of 24 berths filled by ‘acting’ ministers. In any other country, this would almost certainly indicate a crisis of monumental proportions. But in Afghanistan the show goes on – held together by that wonderful Southasian glue, the fact that there is no alternative.