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Afghanistan's Peace Jirga Pushed Back Until June

Afghans turned out in Kabul on May 25 to show their support for the peace jirga, which was delayed a second time.
Afghanistan has pushed back a national conference aimed at reaching a peace deal with militants who are willing to stop fighting.

The government says "technicalities" have forced it to delay the start of the so-called peace jirga until June 2 -- the second postponement announced within the past month.

The gathering would bring together lawmakers, provincial council chiefs, tribal and religious leaders, and members of civil society -- a total of some 1,600 Afghans -- to talk about a political resolution to Afghanistan's ongoing insurgency.

A spokesman for the peace jirga, Gul Agha Ahmadi Wardak, tells RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan that it has been difficult trying to arrange the logistics for bringing so many local and regional delegates to Kabul from across Afghanistan for the event.

"The only reason the peace jirga was postponed for three days was to give delegates time to arrive safety, to get registered, and to familiarize themselves with the procedures," Wardak says.

But European diplomats say the delay also may be linked to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's domestic political confrontations.

About 45 of Afghanistan's 249 lawmakers have threatened to boycott the peace jirga unless Karzai responds to their demand that he submit names of new cabinet nominees to replace those rejected by the parliament in January.

"This is a step made in the interests of the Afghan people, as well as to give the government a direction, and a measure that will ensure the national sovereignty and the will of the Afghan people," Abdul Satar Khawasi, a secretary of Afghanistan's Wolesi Jirga, or lower house of parliament, says to explain the call for a boycott. "That is the direction we want to lead the government."

Pushing Back

Siamak Herawi, a deputy spokesman for Karzai, denies that there is any link between the delay of the peace jirga and lawmakers' demands for Karzai to submit a new list of cabinet nominees.

"The president of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan has lots of difficult tasks in Afghanistan, and he has trips outside of the country," Herawi says. "You should remember that the president submitted his list of cabinet nominees to the parliament twice. Unfortunately, many of the most qualified proposed ministers did not receive a vote of confidence from the parliament. This has caused the president to face serious challenges. And now, the president is seeking to find qualified people based on the criteria the president has set."

Wardak, the peace jirga's spokesman, downplayed the significance of a threatened boycott of the peace jirga. He says some lawmakers have mentioned the possibility of a boycott, but he says that "generally speaking" the Afghan National Assembly agrees with the peace jirga and will attend the gathering.

Parliament has refused to confirm 11 of Karzai's 25 nominees. Nevertheless, Karzai's rejected choices have been serving as ministers in an acting capacity. The jirga could proceed without the parliament members. But a boycott by a substantial number of lawmakers would call into question the degree of nationwide support for any decisions made during the conference.

Although no senior members of the Taliban are expected to attend the peace jirga, the gathering is meant to include some supporters of the insurgency -- including delegates with ties to extremist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, one of the three main leaders of the Afghan insurgency.

The peace jirga was originally scheduled to start in early May. But it was pushed back until late May to allow Karzai to visit Washington and speak with U.S. President Barack Obama about the event.

Big Tent

After those talks, Obama signaled his support for peace talks and the reintegration of some Taliban fighters.

"I appreciated the president sharing his plans for the upcoming Consultative Peace Jirga -- an important milestone that America supports," Obama said. "In addition, the United States supports the efforts of the Afghan government to open the door to Taliban who cut their ties to Al-Qaeda, abandon violence and accept the Afghan constitution, including respect for human rights."

Karzai told reporters in Washington that thousands of rank-and-file Taliban fighters could, conceivably, be brought into the peace process if given a chance.

"Now there are thousands of the Taliban who are not ideologically oriented, who are not part of Al-Qaeda or other terrorist networks, or controlled from outside in any manner troublesome to us," Karzai said. "There are thousands of them who are country boys who have been driven by intimidation or fear, caused by, at times, misconduct by us, or circumstances beyond their control or our control."

The size of the peace jirga is expected to be comparable to the two loya jirgas, or grand councils, that have been held in Kabul since the collapse of the Taliban regime -- one to confirm Karzai as a transitional leader and another to approve Afghanistan's constitution.

But the peace jirga differs from the loya jirgas in at least one major respect: Any decisions made by the peace jirga are considered "consultative" and nonbinding.

Many Afghans voice optimism that the peace jirga can establish a framework for negotiations with armed militants and bring the country a step closer to a regional settlement. But considering that the jirga is merely consultative, others are skeptical.

written by Ron Synovitz, with contributions from RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Khalid Mafton in Prague
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