JoAnna Nathan, the International Crisis Group's resident expert
in Kabul, tells RFE/RL correspondent Ron Synovitz that official
Pakistan never appears to have taken the assembly as seriously as its
counterpart across the border.
RFE/RL: Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf was meant to lead Pakistan's delegation at the Afghan-Pakistan "Joint Peace Jirga," but he has pulled out of the gathering, sending Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz instead. What does Musharraf's absence bode for the event?
JoAnna Nathan: We've really got to see what it means -- whether this was a snub or whether this is about domestic events going on in Pakistan, which could well overtake whatever the jirga does produce. I don't think the Pakistanis ever took this as seriously as the Afghans did. It keeps on having been pushed off for a long time now because of the apparent reluctance on the Pakistani side to tie themselves down to it. Overall, I have to say I have never held out great hope for what it could produce. So I'm not sure whether having Musharraf there or not would have a dramatic effect either way.
RFE/RL: Tribal leaders from North Waziristan also are not attending the "Joint Peace Jirga" in Kabul. They have complained that there are no Taliban representatives there. They've also demanded that Pakistani military forces abandon checkpoints in the tribal region of North Waziristan as a precondition of attending. What impact do you think all of this will have on the outcome of the jirga?
Nathan: The jirga is a traditional conflict-resolution mechanism here in the tribal areas of Afghanistan and Pakistan. They are largely Pashtun areas and Pashtun mechanisms. What this [jirga] is, actually, is a gathering of 700 people -- several hundred from each side of the border -- from provincial councils, from parliaments, from civil society [and] of all the different ethnic groups.
I think it was always fairly unclear exactly what this was and what could come out of it because it's not institutionalizing anything. So who these people represented, what decision-making authority they had, and how to actually institutionalize and action any decisions that were taken were all very unclear. I really do hope it is undertaken in a spirit of dialogue rather than confrontation. And I think, perhaps, it could have been more useful to have actually restricted it more narrowly to people-to-people contact across that border area.
RFE/RL: What is the mood in Kabul among ordinary Afghans about the "Joint Peace Jirga?" Are people there cynical about the gathering, or are there positive hopes about what it could achieve?
Nathan: It's not generating a lot of excitement at all. I think "irrelevant" is too strong a word. But it's just not seen by ordinary people, certainly, that this will generate any giant leap forward. So I don't think anyone is holding out high hopes of this producing a breakthrough. And to a certain extent, I am actually worried that officials have put too many eggs in this basket. And what is the plan? And what will happen when this is over?
EYE OF A STORM:
Afghan officials first suggested that insurgents or terrorists were crossing the border from Pakistan in 2003. Relations have run hot and cold ever since. But the roots of the problem go back much further.
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