The Peace Jirga

Karzai’s big confab isn’t likely to solve anything.

Just because “you don’t make peace with your friends” is now a platitude does not make the slogan any less true. The problem with Afghanistan’s National Consultative Peace Jirga, which began Wednesday and ends Friday, is that almost all the more than one thousand attendees are supporters of incumbent President Hamid Karzai or at least opponents of his Taliban adversaries—a condition that has severely vitiated its utility.

This isn’t necessarily Karzai’s fault. His Western backers discouraged him from engaging in genuine peace negotiations with Taliban leaders until coalition forces have had the opportunity to reverse the situation on the battlefield. U.S. policy makers in particular want to take advantage of the recent surge in NATO combat forces in Afghanistan—which should number about 150,000 by August—to shake Taliban commanders’ conviction that they will win the war. Washington hopes now lie in achieving some quick victories that will induce more Taliban to desert and encourage the movement’s leaders to defect or negotiate. At present, the only issue the main Taliban leadership loyal to Mullah Omar has expressed interest in discussing is how rapidly foreign forces will leave Afghanistan. They greeted the inauguration of the Peace Jirga yesterday with rocket attacks and suicide bombers.

The Jirga will probably endorse the broad outlines of Karzai’s two-level peace plan. Yet the terms he appears prepared to offer Taliban leaders to induce them to stop fighting—accept the legitimacy of the current Afghan constitution, and break ties with al-Qaeda—do not seem that appealing. In return for renouncing these core beliefs, Karzai’s administration would work with his foreign partners to remove the Taliban from international terrorist lists (which limits their foreign travel and financial assets) and allow some to reenter political life in Afghanistan, while the more controversial among them could live in secure exile in a third country (presumably in a Persian Gulf or European state rather than Pakistan, where they could easily cause more trouble). So far only the faction associated with perennial warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar has shown interest in discussing these terms, but his independent forces present a much smaller threat to Karzai’s regime than do the more ideologically committed Taliban field commanders.

Although NATO governments have been reassured by the delay in the commencement of any genuine political negotiations, it is unclear whether the current Jirga will even address the concerns of those relatively powerless Afghan groups—women, ethnic minorities, community activists—who fear the government and its foreign backers might sell out their interests in return for an end or substantial reduction in the insurgency. The Peace Jirga has the veneer of community participation, with twenty percent of the slots reserved for women, but many of its members are already influential members of Afghan society, such as tribal elders and politicians of national stature.

The more serious obstacle is the Taliban’s refusal to accept Afghanistan’s current constitution, which reflects many liberal-democratic principles that most Taliban leaders consider objectionable. Many women’s’ groups, for instance, oppose negotiating with the Taliban for fear of sacrificing schooling for girls and other rights. Coalition governments would refuse to accept any peace agreement that openly sacrificed their rights, but the constitution is sufficiently vague that the Afghan government might indicate that it would legally allow Taliban-dominated regions to impose their own preferences under the guise of respecting local autonomy.

Furthermore, the Taliban could follow the North Vietnamese example and pretend to endorse a peace settlement and democratic principles in order to secure a withdrawal of foreign troops. They then could resume their offensive against Afghan security forces that have yet to establish their military effectiveness knowing that Western publics would prevent their governments from sending their troops back. The Pakistani Taliban has employed this stratagem in the past, negotiating sham truces with the military in order to rest and regroup before resuming their attacks.

Or the Afghan Taliban could anticipate that NATO governments will withdraw their forces in a few years anyway, declaring victory and hoping the Afghan army can survive without their direct combat support—in the same way that the Soviet-imposed government in Kabul was able to retain control of key population centers for years, even after Moscow withdrew all its troops from Afghan territory.

Foreign and Afghan observers remain divided over whether it will possible to split the Taliban from al-Qaeda. The two groups both aim to drive Western troops out of Afghanistan so that they can depose Karzai and reestablish a strict Islamic government in which they enjoy a monopoly of political and religious power.

Beyond Afghanistan, however, the two extremist movements profess divergent foreign policies. Taliban representatives have stated that their political ambitions are confined to their country. The leaders of al-Qaeda, however, continue to state their war aims as replacing most Middle Eastern governments with more radical regimes and striking hard at extra-regional powers who support the existing governments or otherwise oppress Muslims (which in their calculation is a long list). A safe expectation is that if the Taliban return to power, they would not use force to prevent al-Qaeda from following in their wake and reestablishing base camps from which they would organize additional terrorist attacks. The evidence released following the confirmed death last month of Mustafa Abu al-Yazid, who was in charge of al-Qaeda operations in Afghanistan, shows how closely integrated the two groups are at the operational level, with al-Qaeda members embedded in most Taliban field operations.

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