A PEACE JOURNEY TO KABUL

On 8 August, our Airbus landed at Kabul airport at 1:00 pm, after a thirty minutes flight from Peshawar. There were about 300 of us, who constituted the Pakistani component of the Afghan-Pakistan Peace Jirga, which was to be held in Kabul from the nine to the 12 of August.

I had returned to Kabul after thirty-five years. In 1972, Kabul was a pulsating cosmopolitan city; but these days it wore a decrepit look, as if accusing us of neglect. In some sense, Kabul is right. She deserved much better. At the same time there was a sense of anxiety and disquiet  I wondered, whether a similar fate awaited Kabul’s sister cities of Peshawar and Quetta, if the peace jirga failed?

In September 2006, Presidents Karzai and Musharraf had agreed to seek peace in Afghanistan and Pakistan by using the regions traditional tool for conflict resolution of a regional jirga. Comparison of this jirga was made with the first large jirga held in this area in the 18th century, which created the Afghan state under Ahmed Shah Abdali. Some thought that this congregation was even larger.

If Pakistan and Afghanistan were to have a common approach then there were three necessary conditions to fulfill. The Pakistani jirga was composed of three different regional groups representing Baluchistan, NWFP and the tribal areas. They also suffered from creeping Talibanization. They needed to be united on a common platform to deal with Afghan complaints against Pakistan for providing safe havens to the Taliban.

Secondly, the Pakistani jirga contained representatives from the opposition parties; how would the Pakistani Jirga leader obtain their consent on different policy issues since the opposition leaders were not too happy with the Musharraf government? It was necessary to gel them into a cohesive group. To their lasting credit, all the opposition leaders acted as the Pakistan team and we felt proud. No matter what our internal differences, when it came to defending the state all stood as one. There may be a lesson in all this for our leaders.

            Thirdly, how would we transcend Afghan reservations about Pakistani policy in counter insurgency matters? For the jirga’s success, it was essential to create trust with our Afghan counterparts, only then could we reach common ground.

What were the problems and concerns of the Afghans? It became evident that the dynamics of the current structure of Afghan political elite placed certain compulsions on the jirga. The ethnic balance of the state was itself an area of concern dividing the Afghans into groups. How was this to be transcended in the days to come?

Afghans repeatedly stressed that their identity was inclusive and every Pashtun, Tajik, Aimak, Uzbek and Hazara was an Afghan. Such a configuration may be all right for rhetoric but it could not rub out the Pashtun loss of influence in Kabul, which is a major cause for the continuance of insurgency itself.

Secondly, under what Pashtun nuance a jirga could be held with the Taliban, when the existing Kabul elite contained persons whom the Taliban held responsible for the use of violence against captives. Could this be balanced out by pointing to a similar action by the Taliban? The past has created personal vendetta between the combatants and its resolution is essential before peace has a chance. It is an enormous challenge standing in the path of the peace jirga, but which needs resolution.

Thirdly, how would we resolve sensitive issues with our Afghan comrades regarding involvement of third countries in conduct of sabotage in NWFP and Baluchistan as well as the support provided by the Afghans to disenchanted Bugtis, and who carried Afghan passports?

The political and institutional structure of Afghanistan is different from Pakistan. In the former, power is spread horizontally over a wide spectrum of traditional space covered by individuals and families. It is not a hierarchical structure like Pakistan, where a vertical hierarchy created under law conducts business.

The difference in societal structures in both countries is often the cause of problems. One of the chief one being that Afghanistan cannot quickly commit itself to a policy, unless the vast horizontal structure is consulted. Once such consultation has occurred they provide the government with the commitment of all the Afghan society.  On the other hand, a narrow vertical hierarchy makes the decisions in Pakistan. This is an elitist approach and thus lacks societal support because of a narrow support base. In Pakistan, it is easy to make decisions but they lack societal commitment.

By holding this jirga, Mr. Karzai has succeeded in carrying out a coup. I say so for very good reasons. Firstly, it would have been difficult for Mr. Karzai either to ask for the retention of foreign forces in Afghanistan or to ask for their departure. In choosing either course, he would have faced problems with either the Taliban or the U.S authorities. However, the jirga did not have such inhibitions and could discuss these matters openly as this was likely to be raised in future negotiations.

If Karzai asked for the continued presence of foreign forces, the Taliban and other nationalist forces would target him as a traitor, who like their ancestors, resist the presence of foreigners in their land. Secondly, if Karzai asked this stabilization force to leave, he would be left without protection and thus weaken his negotiating position. Without the presence of a security umbrella, Afghanistan will revert to war and disintegrate into chaos again. This must never be allowed to happen. The price is too high.

Mr. Karzai may have gotten out of this problem by transferring it to the peace jirga. The jirga would not have to grapple with Karzai’s dilemma and could thus be a point for negotiation with the Taliban.

One of the solution suggested and discussed in the jirga as a way out of this impasse is the provision of a joint Muslim stabilizing force composed of Malaysians and Indonesians under a UN mandate. 

This solution has its ramifications. The U.S is the sole world power with the capacity to ensure peace. Multilateralism has its own dynamics and weaknesses; it may have succeeded in Timor, but can it succeed in Afghanistan? To me this is doubtful unless there is general U.S support for such a concept.

A formula could be worked out, where the Taliban declare their readiness to a cease-fire followed by the start of formal talks leading to an election under international supervision. Multilateralism may succeed when such an agreement is in place. However, what cannot be condoned is to permit the return of chaos and upheaval in Afghanistan. These factors were discussed and argued in the jirgas five committees.

At times, the discussions were acrimonious and heated. One was gladdened to watch untutored tribesmen and Baluch defending Pakistan. I think we underestimate and wrongly distrust our civil society and the opposition politicians. They stood as a rock against anything harmful to Pakistan but open to reasonable Afghan suggestions. The Afghans on the other hand were articulate and urbane. To their credit, they always supported a better argument.

            Such an attitude was present in public conduct too. For example Mujadidi, a former President of Afghanistan and a respected religious leader, seemed to have lost reason and began criticism of Pakistani policies in his Friday prayer sermon on the 10 August. Suddenly, all Pakistanis got up from the congregation and publicly rebuked Mujadidi and refused to say their prayers. The Afghans in the congregations who were in large numbers requested the Pakistanis not to leave the prayer meeting. The matter was resolved once it was agreed that Siaf would lead the prayers. Later, Mujadidi offered an unconditional public apology for his hurtful behavior.

The committee meetings were lengthy and jirga members spent long hours in negotiating how to tackle various problems. For example, the final meeting of the executive committee of the peace jirga began negotiating the joint declaration at 5:00 p.m on the 11 August and reached agreement at 4:00 am on the 12 August, after intense but friendly negotiations.

One of the reasons for the success of the jirga was the excellent personal rapport between the head of the Peace Jirga, Aftab Sherpao of Pakistan and his Afghan counterpart Dr. Abdullah Abdullah. Both did their nations proud. The joint declaration was unanimously approved by the whole jirga on 12 August.

The main importance of the joint jirga lies in it being the basis of a political strategy for fighting the war against terrorism in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Until now, there was only a military strategy. The next newsletter, to appear shortly will discuss the details contained in the joint declaration and the issues involved.

The gigantic task of organizing this mammoth jirga providing it security and then being flexible when reason demanded, speak volumes of our Afghan hosts goodwill. Their enormous hospitality and friendship has left a deep and abiding impression on the Pakistani jirga members. There was not a dry eye, when our plane took off for Peshawar on the evening of 12 August after participating in what may turn out to be a historic occasion.

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