No jirga like a peace jirga

Kabul and Islamabad have taken an important step back from guiding the attempt at détente. Now it's up to the myriad others to take the nascent peace process forward.

In the feeding frenzy of deadline journalism, the first-ever Afghanistan-Pakistan 'peace jirga' quickly turned into a snack for the mass media. Insta-pundits and participants were asked to offer snap assessments of the four-day jamboree. Demanding instantaneous declarations on whether the jirga, held 9-12 August in Kabul, had been a failure or a success, media organisations sought to simplify the phenomenon, variously terming it a 'tribal assembly' or reducing it to the pronouncements by Hamid Karzai and Pervez Musharraf. But the jirga itself was much more than that.

Though termed a jirga because it was modelled on the tribal assemblies of the past, the 'peace jirga', like the Emergency Loya Jirga of 2002 and the Constitutional Loya Jirga of 2003, included not just tribal leaders, but also politicians, warlords and refugees recently returned to their homeland. The previous jirgas had seen the proactive, behind-the-scenes presence of the international community. During the peace jirga, however, there was a concerted effort to minimise international presence, and to emphasise the indigenous nature of the event. But the fact was that the idea of the peace jirga itself was first mooted in Washington, DC last year, following the separate meetings of presidents Musharraf and Karzai with George W Bush.

Backed by the US, and held at the initiative of the Kabul and Islamabad governments, the jirga departed from the traditional script by handing over some of the lead to non-government representatives. Parliamentarians, provincial-council members, tribal leaders, elders, civil-society activists as well as representatives of Islamabad and Kabul were brought together in the marathon four-day gathering. While a high degree of government involvement ensured that the jirga did not throw up completely unpleasant surprises, the format allowed the participants to debate issues without the pressures of government agendas, diplomatic niceties and the need to produce rhetorical results.

Perhaps the most important aspect of the meeting was that it was held at all, and allowed some 700 Afghans and Pakistanis to come together and openly exchange views. In the tense and fraught relationship between the two countries (and certainly between their capitals), such exchanges are exceptional. Of late, most of the traffic between the neighbours has been one way, with Afghans travelling to Pakistan – for refuge, for employment, for trade and even, Kabul would allege, for militant training. Here was a rare opportunity for opinion-makers from the two countries to discuss outstanding crossborder issues.

The intense involvement of Pakistan over the last two decades of Afghanistan's conflict has resulted in a constant blame game. Though much of Islamabad's involvement was fuelled by Western powers playing out the Cold War, Kabul would now like nothing more than to lay the blame for all conflict within its borders squarely on Pakistan. This would help to absolve the Afghan government of the pressure of admitting its failures regarding internal reconciliation and power sharing with disparate political groups. Islamabad, on the other hand, would like to point fingers at this very factor, insisting that the violence is bred wholly within the neighbour, and refusing to admit that the support and safe havens inside Pakistani territory energise the violence and complicate the politics of the insurgency, allowing for no easy solution.

Attempts over the last six years to produce some kind of détente have been largely confined to the two governments, and have yielded little – instead, exacerbating tensions as the political leadership engages in the ritual finger pointing. By now stepping away from full control of the attempted peace process, the two governments can be credited with at least the realisation that peace must include a people's engagement, as well as the task of addressing the issues of dissatisfied communities.

And people
The August peace jirga took cognisance of this realisation, and its eventual recommendations addressed the shortcomings of both the Pakistani and Afghan governments. A joint declaration described "terrorism" as a "common threat", and pledged that "the government and people of Afghanistan and Pakistan will not allow sanctuaries/training centres for terrorists in their respective countries." This is an oft repeated sentiment, of course, but a crucial difference here was the reference to "people". The sharing of the onus of responsibility with the citizenry was further spelled out in the recommendations of the subcommittees that were set up to look at various issues. These called for "utilising tribal influence and traditional means against terrorism", and stated that "whoever gives sanctuary to a terrorist or otherwise supports him should be identified by the concerned tribe to the government authorities."

The declaration and recommendations, if implemented with commitment, would indeed strengthen current attempts to rein in militant elements in the frontier. Islamabad and Kabul have varying and fluctuating degrees of control in these areas, and their best-intentioned plans for implementing order would make little headway without the support of the local inhabitants and the loose power structures of tribes and communities that form the de facto frontier government.

The downside of devolving the responsibility onto the 'people' is that it has the potential to divest the governments of responsibility. Two such 'local peace agreements' – in North Waziristan, and on a much smaller scale in Musa Qala District of Helmund in Afghanistan – have unravelled spectacularly, potentially leaving the areas even more unstable than before. The insecurity in North Waziristan has recently escalated to such an extent that there were few participants from the area at the peace jirga, an absence attributed to fears of retribution from those opposing the jirga, most notably the Taliban.

Participation, or lack thereof, was one of the main weaknesses of the jirga, and this eroded some of its achievements. Missing were not only some of the tribal and community leaders from the Pakistani border areas and senior members of Pakistan's opposition parties, but also anti-government insurgents in Afghanistan. Since the participation of Afghan delegates in the jirga mandated adherence to the Constitution and laying-down of arms, it automatically precluded any representation from those groups engaged in armed struggle. Despite the weaknesses in participation, the meet did underline the importance of engaging with these groups. The joint declaration resolved to constitute a jirgagai, or a smaller jirga of 25 representatives from each country, which would, among other things, work to expedite the ongoing process of dialogue for peace and reconciliation with the "opposition". When asked to spell out exactly what 'opposition' meant in this case, the jirga functionaries were coy about the specifics, but admitted it included those not reconciled with the government.

Regardless, the fact that the issue of reconciliation and militant sanctuaries appeared in the joint declaration represents a step forward for both governments, taken at the behest of the civil society in each country. Afghan Urban Development Minister Yousaf Pashtun told this writer that the jirga represented the two countries coming to "a more realistic approach on the issue". Likewise, Kabul's top official on the jirga, Parliamentary Affairs Minister Farooq Wardak, said the big achievement was that the two countries had adopted a common stand on the issue of 'terrorism' – a unified approach rather than that of two parties.

Much of the success or failure of the jirga will, of course, depend on the subsequent steps taken. The jirgagai is supposed to meet at regular intervals to oversee the implementation of the summit's decisions. The five new subcommittees also have an extensive list of their own recommendations, including: relaxing trade restrictions, expediting clearance of goods at border crossings, establishing relations between the universities of the two countries, deployment of Pakistani doctors in Afghanistan, technical training of Afghans, identifying special export zones in the border areas, exchange of parliamentary delegations, establishing a crossborder chamber of commerce, cultural and media exchanges, a joint committee to counter drug trafficking, and bilateral education and social-welfare projects in militancy-affected areas.

If even a portion of these initiatives is eventually implemented, the result would be a multilayered interaction between the people of both countries. This would herald a gradual deceleration of the extant mutual hostility. By operating a step away from the governments, the members of the jirga would face less of the jingoistic pressure under which politicians inevitably find themselves. Both their mandate and their achievements would be based on real progress on peace, rather than on the shrill hostility that politicians in power often utilise to secure popular appeal.

Only time will tell whether the jirga will actually prove to be a functional blueprint for use in other parts of Southasia, where people's engagement could be tapped to reduce hostility and lay the groundwork for solving longstanding problems. Otherwise, the Afghanistan-Pakistan peace jirga of August 2007 will remain nothing more than a four-day wonder.

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