Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Much Talk But Little Substance at Afghan Assembly

Apart from a surprise admission that Pakistan has Taleban bases, long-awaited talks offer no solutions.
By Wahidullah Amani
The rhetoric was appropriately flowery, the protestations of brotherhood and mutual support predictable. But many see the “peace jirga” in Kabul as just another empty exercise in high-level diplomacy between Afghanistan and Pakistan, with little relevance to the very real problems at hand.

Critics say the jirga or assembly was flawed from the start, with delegates hand-picked to follow the line of whichever government selected them, so that apart from the Afghan and Pakistani presidents, none of the real actors in the conflict was even represented.

“We want to see a strong, peaceful, stable Afghanistan, which we see as in the rightful interests of Pakistan. It is painful for us to hear allegations that we are deliberately causing disturbances or violence in your country,” said Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf in his closing speech to the grand assembly of tribal elders in Kabul on August 12.

Painful or not, Musharraf went on to admit what many in Afghanistan have been saying for years – the growing insurgency on this side of the border has its roots in Pakistan.

“There is no doubt that Afghan militants are supported from Pakistan soil,” he told the 650 delegates attending the joint peace jirga, the first such gathering in the history of the two countries. “The problem you have in your region is because support is provided from our side.”

His statement went a long way towards proving the case made by Afghans who have been angered by Pakistani denials of involvement since the Taleban and their allies began ramping up their activities in Afghanistan about two years ago.

But it must have come as something of a shock to the 300 or so Pakistani delegates, who had been engaged in a war of words with their Afghan counterparts throughout the jirga, fiercely denying what their president then acknowledged so freely in his closing speech.

Musharraf dominated the proceedings, first with his conspicuous absence from the opening ceremony on August 9, then with his eleventh-hour appearance at the closing. From all accounts, he came under heavy pressure from US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and decided to leave his domestic problems to honour the promise to attend that he had made to Afghan president Hamed Karzai at a summit in the United States last year.

“So Musharraf came on the last day,” grumbled political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria. “He did not help, he just made more problems. He said that terrorists are supported from the Pakistani side, but for three days the Pakistani delegates were denying this. If he’d come on the first day and said this, then maybe they would have been able to speak freely.”

Karzai’s brief closing speech, coming after Musharraf’s, was a bit pale by comparison. He expressed optimism that the jirga would produce positive results, and thanked the Pakistani president for his remarks.

“[President Musharraf] has asked us for trust. And we will definitely give our brother and neighbour this trust,” said Karzai.

Some delegates expressed cautious optimism that the jirga would help to sort out the many problems that Afghanistan and Pakistan have experienced over the past several years.

“I am very happy – I think that this will work,” said Mohammad Daa Jaan, the head of Paktia provincial council who was attending as a delegate. “The decision of the jirga was that neither country will interfere in the other’s affairs. And they will fight against terrorism together. There will be a very good friendship between the two countries, and they will trust one another.”

Abdul-Rabb Rassul Sayyaf, one of the more controversial of the old-style Afghan jihadi commanders, and now a member of parliament, was also positive about the outcome.

“The jirga was very good, and I am very hopeful,” he told IWPR. “This is the first time there has been such a large gathering between these countries, and this in itself is very important. Both presidents promised to respect the jirga’s decisions, and I pray to God that they will be successful.”

The jirga ended with a joint declaration affirming a common determination to fight terrorism.

“The participants of this jirga unanimously declare they will wage an extended, tireless and persistent campaign against terrorism, and further pledge that the government and people of Afghanistan and Pakistan will not permit sanctuaries or training centres for terrorists in their countries,” it read.

One of the outcomes of the meeting was that smaller jirga, consisting of 25 delegates from each country, was set up to hold regular meetings and monitor the progress made in the war against terror.

Jirgas are a traditional Afghan form of gathering where elders or representatives meet with a view to solving common problems. This particular one was the brainchild of the Afghan president, and was strongly backed by the United States, which has been stepping up pressure on Pakistan to stop support for the Taleban and other insurgents who flow across the border to create havoc in Afghanistan.

Mahmud Khan Achekzai, head of the Pashtun National Party of Pakistan, was sceptical that the jirga would solve the very deep problems the two countries are facing.

“There are two things that are very bad for us and for the whole world: terrorism and opium,” he said. “And there are people in the governments of both countries who are supporting terrorists and drug traffickers. There are black sheep in Musharraf’s herd, and there are those in Karzai’s camp who are also supporting terrorists.

“Karzai and the general need to remove these black sheep. If they do not, the whole region will go down in flames.”

It is an open secret that Pakistan has been a haven for training camps and religious schools that prepare insurgents and suicide bombers for operations in Afghanistan. The Taleban have been operating openly in the city of Quetta for some time, and most observers have found the Pakistani government’s protestations of innocence more than a little disingenuous.

For its part, Afghanistan is now supplying well over 90 per cent of the world’s heroin, derived from its constantly increasing opium poppy crop. Analysts, observers and even the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime have pointed the finger at Karzai’s government, saying the booming drug trade would not be possible without high-level official involvement.

Analysts pointed out a number of flaws in the process of constituting the jirga. One major objection was that the assembly was not representative. The procedures by which the 650 delegates were appointed were not transparent, and many felt that the two governments hand-picked people who would toe their respective official lines.

“There were lots of people who boycotted the jirga,” said political analyst Daad Noorani. “The tribal leaders from Waziristan and religious leaders from Pakistan decided not to come. On the Afghan side, the Taleban were not represented, nor was anyone from Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s party.”

Hekmatyar, a former mujahedin commander who is now branded a terrorist by the United States government, is head of the Hezb-e-Islami faction.

He is also ethnic Pashtun. Many attribute the growing alienation of the Pashtun population to Hekmatyar’s exclusion from Afghanistan’s transitional government.

“In my opinion, the jirga will not have any positive result,” said Noorani. “It can do nothing for the future of Afghanistan and its people. We will wait for a few months, and then we will see.”

Oria agreed, saying, “There were no real representatives there. Both sides had members who were linked to their government. It would have been better if they’d sent shopkeepers instead of these people. You can say this was a jirga between two governments, but not between two peoples. This jirga cannot help bring peace and stability. It has no regional support, no international support, no support from the Islamic communities – and there will be no result.”

Kabul residents were divided in their reaction.

Ahmad Qais, 25, was openly optimistic. “Now peace will come,” he said. “I am sure that Pakistan will not interfere any more and the fighting will stop.”

But 40-year-old Akhtar Mohammad, who lost both legs fighting in the jihad against the Soviet Union, was not so easily convinced.

“It would only have been a real jirga if there’d been people from all sides,” he said. There were no Taleban, and no people from the Gulbuddin [Hekmatyar] side. This was just a game of chess between Karzai and Musharraf.”

All politics, they say, is local, and Mohammad Akram, a tailor in Kabul, condemned the gathering for his own personal reasons.

“I have had no work since the jirga began,” he complained. “My shop is near the jirga tent, and all the roads are closed. It just caused trouble. Women had to walk long distances because there was no transport.

“There’s been no result. We always hear the same things. I have no hope for this jirga.”

Wahidullah Amani is an IWPR reporter and trainer in Kabul.

More IWPR's Global Voices