What Happened at the Afghan Peace Jirga?

Kabul, Afghanistan — Afghanistan’s National Consultative Peace Jirga, which ended its deliberations on Friday, was an exceptionally good show. It had drama, excitement, danger, a colorful cast of characters, and, best of all, a happy ending.

What is less certain is whether it will produce any clear, concrete results.

For three days more than 1,500 men and women from all over Afghanistan gathered in a huge tent located on the ground of Kabul’s Polytechnic University to discuss the wisdom and ways of negotiating with the Taliban. More than 140 million afghani (about $7 million) went into the planning and execution of the event.

The results were more than a little surprising from a group advertised in the media as a hand-picked pro-government lobby. The unwieldy assembly was divided for ease of discussion into 28 committees, each of which was given the same list of bullet points to discuss. The make-up of each unit was dictated by computer, according to jirga organizer Farooq Wardak.

In a county bitterly divided by ethnic, religious, and regional enmities, the committees produced a fairly consistent list of recommendations that will most likely give the Afghan President Hamid Karzai and his international backers a few sleepless nights.

What was clear from the committees’ reports is that Afghans are desperate for peace. That concern took them far beyond the mild if emotional overtures that Karzai has so far made to the armed opposition. There were few references to “reconciliation” — the term used as shorthand for bringing those Taliban who forswear violence and accept the Constitution back into the fold.

Instead, most of the committees called for substantive negotiations in a third country (Saudi Arabia figured prominently in most lists) where the opposing sides could sit down without preconditions to discuss the way forward.

So far any talks have been stymied by the Taliban demand that foreign forces leave Afghanistan before talks could take place; the international military, for its part, will not negotiate with anyone who is still fighting.

The committees found this illogical.

“It is those who are fighting you that you need to talk to,” said one committee head.

Many of the committees went so far as to recommend that any reasonable Taliban demands should be seriously considered, up to and including amending the Constitution to make it more palatable to the armed opposition. The Taliban have called for a stricter interpretation of Shariah law.

“The Constitution should be discussed,” said Obaidullah Obaid, head of Committee Number 4.

Judging by some of the committees’ recommendations, the Taliban would have felt right at home in the jirga. There were numerous calls to bring the media into line with Afghan culture, which means prohibiting programs that are deemed to be immoral, un-Islamic, or indicative of “cultural invasion.”

Over half of the committees called for an immediate ceasefire to pave the way for negotiations with the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, the other major Afghan group making up the armed insurgency.

The foreign forces took a pummeling from the various committee heads, almost all of whom called for a timetable for withdrawal and strict regulation of military activities. Night raids, house searches, bombardment of civilian areas, and offensive operations were cited as phenomena contributing to the alienation of the population and the growth of the insurgency.

The Afghan government also came in for its share of criticism: almost every committee mentioned corruption as a root cause of the insurgency, and called for its elimination.

“There will be no amnesty for corruption!” thundered Mawlawi Sediqullah, head of Committee Number 9. “We will publish a list of corrupt officials in the media!”

Corruption has been a sore point in relations between the Karzai government and his international backers, especially the United States. The Afghan president insists that the problem is being exaggerated, something that Farooq Wardak echoed in a press conference Friday afternoon.

“This generalization of corruption is a criminal act,” he said angrily. “It is being blown up through the media.”

Nevertheless, Afghanistan has been named the second most corrupt nation on earth by Transparency International,

A healthy percentage of committees called for the abolishment of the U.N. blacklist, which freezes assets and prohibits travel of those considered to be terrorists. In fact, many want the “terrorist” label abandoned altogether.

And the vast majority called for the release of Taliban prisoners who have not been convicted of crimes. Many detainees languish for years without even being charged; this has been a sore point with the Taliban for years.

In a expansive gesture, Karzai promised he would do just that.

“I will immediately release Taliban prisoners,” he said.

The jirga’s decisions are not binding; the gathering itself has no legal status under the Constitution. It is a consultative jirga, empowered only to make recommendations.

Another weakness of the event was the absence of the actual decision-making bodies at the table. No matter how eager the participants are to negotiate with the Taliban, the final decision will rest with the opposition. And the Taliban delivered a pretty straightforward indication of its willingness to compromise when it aimed five rockets ate the jirga tent on Wednesday morning.

The other major player is the international military, specifically the United States. Given the ongoing troop surge and the plans for a major operation in Kandahar over the next few months, a ceasefire may not be in the cards just at present.

The jirga ended with a declaration, which was considerably less radical than the suggestions advanced by the 28 committees. It limited itself to general calls for an end to bloodshed, a plea for good governance, including putting an end to corruption, and a demand that the international forces stop bombing civilians.

There was no mention of a ceasefire, and no calls for amending the Constitution. Instead, the declaration contained a paragraph stating “the efforts to achieve peace should not undermine the achievements of the past eight years” shorthand for a commitment to women’s rights, the status of minorities, elections, and other gains brought since the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

Karzai closed the jirga on an upbeat note.

“I am happy that after three days of talks we now have a message of peace,” he said. “This will give us a bright tomorrow.”

One of the more original suggestions advanced by the president was that the Afghan government use women to negotiate with the Taliban.

“We will send women to negotiate with Taliban wives and mothers,” he said.

He called on all of the armed opposition to respect the jirga and seize the chance for peace.

“This opportunity may not come again,” he warned.

The jirga recommended the creation of a standing Peace Committee. Karzai promised to take this into consideration, along with the other suggestions advanced by the gatherig.

“Now you have shown us the way, we will advance step by step,” he promised.

Concretely that means the compilation and issuance of a report on the jirga activities, which, according to Wardak, will be presented to the Kabul Conference in July.

The Kabul Conference is a follow-on to January’s London Conference, and will bring international leaders to Kabul to reassess Afghanistan’s progress towards stability and self-sufficiency.

Among the delegates, the post-conference mood was cautiously optimistic, but there were few illusions that all would be clear sailing ahead.

“What happened at the jirga was very good,” said Mohammad Asef, a delegate from Daimerdad district in Wardak province. “Everyone agreed we need peace. I was very hopeful.”

Then he paused and considered.

“But we will have to see what actually happens,” he said judiciously.

Haji Bahlul, from Greshk, in Helmand, was similarly restrained.

“We do not yet know what the results are,” he said. “I hope the government is honest. It looks good on paper, but let’s see how it goes.”

A woman’s rights activist from Kabul, who did not want to give her name, was more skeptical.

“It was just a game,” she laughed. “Nothing really happened in there.”