September Issue 2007
Much Ado About Nothing
The recent joint Pak-Afghan Peace Jirga in Kabul was primarily aimed at pooling the efforts of the influential sections of society, mainly among the Pashtuns on both sides of the Durand Line, to check the spread of violence by weaning away their communities from militancy. But the four-day event appears to have had the opposite effect: there has been a significant increase in the number of attacks against the US-led coalition forces in Afghanistan, as well as on Pakistan’s armed forces operating in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA).
In Afghanistan, there have been a spate of suicide bombings, including one at the tightly secured gate for Nato forces at the Kabul international airport, kidnappings, ambushes and attacks against military convoys using improvised explosive devices (IEDs). The Taliban-led insurgency, in the words of even western analysts and observers, has spread from the traditional Taliban strongholds in south and southwestern Afghanistan to eastern, central and western provinces.
The Taliban have benefited from a spate of abductions of foreigners by securing the freedom of Taliban prisoners in exchange. The most recent abductions were those of two Germans — one of them was killed and the other is still in Taliban custody — and 23 South Korean evangelists sent by a Christian church to do humanitarian work and also some proselytizing. Two male hostages were killed in the initial days, and the rest were set free 42 days later in return for Korea’s decision to withdraw its 210 troops from Afghanistan and ban future visits of Christian missionaries to Afghanistan. Allegations of payment of ransom ranging from $2-20 million have also been made, largely by Afghan government functionaries, but both the Taliban and Korean officials have issued firm denials.
The US military commanders who, until recently, were unwilling to concede their growing predicament in Afghanistan, are now saying that it may not be possible to militarily defeat the Taliban. Nato commanders and European politicians were already stressing the need for focusing more on political initiatives backed by development inputs instead of military campaigns to pacify the insurgency-hit parts of Afghanistan. The aerial strikes by coalition warplanes have killed many civilians and contributed to the growing anger against the presence of foreign forces. Up to 80,000 people have been dislocated due to the fighting in the south, and human suffering is now widespread.
In the FATA in NWFP, the Pakistan army is facing unprecedented attacks. The peace treaties in North Waziristan and Mahsud tribal territory in South Waziristan have been unilaterally scrapped by the militants after accusing the government and the military of violating the terms of the two accords. Consequently, the military has sent reinforcements to these areas and set up new roadblocks and checkpoints. This infuriated the tribal militants, who started a violent campaign targeting the checkpoints and military convoys. As if taking a cue from the Afghan Taliban, they also started abducting soldiers after intercepting convoys driving through remote mountain valleys. More than 300 soldiers were abducted in South Waziristan’s Ladha area and the government was forced to seek the intervention of jirgas comprising tribal elders and ulema to secure their release. Until September 4, the jirga was still negotiating the release of the soldiers. The government released about 100 Mahsud tribesmen from the Manzai sub-tribe, in whose area the troops were seized, under the concept of collective responsibility, in response to the militants’ demand, but there were three more demands to be met before the other soldiers could be freed. These included the release of 19 militants detained by the government on various occasions, in and outside South Waziristan, an end to the deployment of fresh troops and military operations in the Mahsud tribal territory, and lastly, dismantling of the new roadside checkpoints set up by the military in apparent violation of the February 2005 peace accord concluded between the government and the militants’ commander, Baitullah Mahsud, at a place called Srarogha.
Another 19 soldiers taken hostage earlier were freed by the militants in South Waziristan on the request of the tribal jirga in the Mahsud area. But the militants subsequently expressed anger that the government didn’t release 10 of their men in keeping with the terms agreed upon with the jirga. One of the paramilitary soldiers, who happened to be a Shia, was beheaded and his body picked up later by the troops. This shows that some of the militants have strong sectarian views.
The militants in North Waziristan are also holding four paramilitary soldiers abducted from the adjoining tribal belt of Frontier Region Bakkakhel. One of the soldiers was killed during a scuffle that broke out at the time of the kidnapping bid. Leaflets distributed in Mir Ali, a town in North Waziristan, warned soldiers to leave the area, or their beheaded bodies would be sent back to their homes. The leaflets also warned of turning Mir Ali into another Fallujah, the Iraqi town where the militants held sway and offered strong resistance to US-led occupying forces.
A more ominous development was the abduction of 10 Frontier Corps (FC) troops, including an officer in Mohmand Agency, hitherto a peaceful tribal agency, but now becoming a dangerous place. Government officials and tribal elders would often cite Mohmand Agency as a haven of peace, despite being in proximity to the volatile Bajaur Agency and Afghanistan’s Kunar province, now a hotbed of the Taliban-led insurgency. But the seizure of the shrine and mosque of freedom-fighter Haji Sahib Turangzai there last month by the local Taliban came as a rude shock to everyone. Though the militants later gave up control of the shrine, they struck again on September 1 and took charge of security posts in the Kandaharo area of Mohmand Agency and captured 10 FC personnel.
More than three weeks after the peace jirga held in the Afghan capital from August 9-12, not much has happened in terms of implementing its decisions. The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan have yet to name their respective 25 members to the 50-member joint committee, or ‘mini jirga’ as it was referred to, for implementing the Kabul jirga’s decisions. There were some press reports that names of the jirga members had been finalised, but the Afghan and Pakistani lists have yet to be made public. No timeline has been given for naming the members of the committee or for completing its task. Perhaps the open-ended nature of the committee’s life and objectives is allowing the governments in the two neighbouring countries to take their time in selecting its members and granting powers to them to fulfil its objectives.
In fact, the composition of the jirga would reflect, to a large extent, the intentions of the Afghan and Pakistan governments with regards to its importance and their own biases. If the committee is stuffed with government officials or loyalists, it would be a signal that this is just another official body tasked to defend and project the policies and interests of their respective countries. And if the committee is not sufficiently empowered, it could hardly be expected to shoulder the big responsibility with which it has been entrusted. After all, this committee is required to initiate talks with opposition groups in Afghanistan in the hope of pacifying those committed to overthrowing President Hamid Karzai’s government and forcing US and Nato forces to quit the country, oversee monitoring and implementation of decisions made in the Kabul jirga, and make arrangements for holding a similar peace jirga in Pakistan. A powerless ‘mini jirga’ would be unable to accomplish these tasks. As a consequence, it would gradually lose its focus and enthusiasm.
There is also some confusion with regard to the terms under which talks would be held with the Afghan opposition groups. In the view of Dr Abdullah, Afghanistan’s former foreign minister and co-chairman of the joint peace jirga along with Pakistan’s interior minister Aftab Sherpao, the 50-member committee would only talk to those armed groups that lay down arms and recognise the government led by President Karzai as being legitimate. This was contrary to the declaration of the jirga that called for a dialogue with opposition groups to bring peace to Afghanistan and placed no conditions on how to go about this task. No effort has been made to clarify or explain the issue. This would have to be clarified before the jirga starts its work because the opposition groups have already rejected the peace jirga and its decisions, and persuading them to reconsider their stand would require offering them incentives such as unconditional talks.
The Taliban and Hezb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar have made it clear they cannot talk to the Karzai regime until foreign occupying forces led by the US withdraw from Afghanistan. The decision to offer talks to the opposition groups was the most important and crucial recommendation of the jirga and was even described as some kind of a breakthrough to achieve national reconciliation in war-ravaged Afghanistan. Asking them to surrender their arms and accept the legitimacy of the Karzai government, which also means not to oppose the presence of the western forces, would be rejected straight away by the Taliban and Hekmatyar.
Dr Abdullah and other stalwarts of the Afghan government surely have a point while interpreting the peace jirga’s offer of talks with the opposition groups. The exact wording of the relevant recommendation of the jirga was as follows: “Expedite the ongoing process of dialogue for peace and reconciliation with the opposition.” Keeping in view the clear Taliban and Hekmatyar stance on the question of foreign forces in Afghanistan, the jirga would not have broken any new ground if it simply asked the resistance groups to reconcile with the Afghan government after accepting its legitimacy and putting down their arms. Therefore, the jirga, while backing the Afghan government’s ongoing process of dialogue and reconciliation with the opposition, called for expediting it without placing any conditions. The recommendation didn’t name the Taliban or any other group with which dialogue should be initiated, but instead it lumped together all of them by referring to the resistance groups as the opposition. Delegates and the international media interpreted the recommendation calling on the Afghan government to “expedite the ongoing process of dialogue for peace and reconciliation with the opposition” as meaning reconciliation chiefly with the Taliban.
The Karzai government in the post-peace jirga period has made no fresh move to offer talks with the Taliban and other opposition groups. Perhaps, it is waiting for the joint 50-member committee to start its work and contact the opposition groups to know their response to any offer of reconciliation talks. Meanwhile, a strong opposition front comprising former mujahideen, communists and royalists has taken shape in Afghanistan to challenge President Karzai and his pro-West allies. Karzai’s political opponents are not only demanding curtailment of presidential powers through constitutional amendments but also want talks with the Taliban and other opposition groups. One of the leading opposition figures and former Afghan president, Prof Burhanuddin Rabbani, said at a recent seminar in Peshawar that Afghanistan can never become peaceful without bringing the Taliban and Hekmatyar into the political mainstream and giving them a share in the government. Ironically, Rabbani, not so long ago, was one of the fiercest critics of the Taliban.
The Pakistan government on its part is too involved in shoring up support for an embattled President Musharraf to think of any other issue at the moment. Due to the government’s preoccupation with political wheeling and dealing, it can neither devote attention to the rapidly deteriorating security situation in the tribal areas and some of the settled districts of NWFP nor quickly implement the Kabul peace jirga’s recommendations. The peace process with India has also been put on hold. In fact, the uncertain political situation in the country is likely to impact badly on the law and order situation in the country and, at the same time, cause a host of other problems due to poor governance.
The peace jirga in Kabul may have been a good initiative that brought together, for the first time, Pashtuns from Afghanistan and Pakistan and enabled them to share their concern about the growing violence and intolerance in their societies. But at the end of the day, it amounted to little more than a talking shop or kind of a seminar that had to be held in view of a promise extracted by President Karzai from his Pakistani counterpart in the presence of President George W. Bush. The peace jirga is unlikely to achieve much in restoring peace in Afghanistan or the tribal areas of Pakistan because important stakeholders such as the Taliban were kept out of the event in Kabul. The jirga may have made amends by proposing peace talks with opposition groups but these negotiations will have to be unconditional to serve any useful purpose. Otherwise, the Kabul jirga will go down as an exercise in futility, and the next such event to be held in Pakistan will fail to generate any enthusiasm.
Rahimullah Yusufzai is a Peshawar-based senior journalist who covers events in the NWFP, FATA, Balochistan and Afghanistan. His work appears in the Pakistani and international media. He has also contributed chapters to books on the region.