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Cautious Optimism Greets Afghan Peace Council


Female delegates listen to Afghan President Hamid Karzai's speech at the start of the peace jirga. Nearly one-fifth of the jirga's 1,600 delegates are women.
To some, the rumblings of reason have been echoing across the mountainous Afghanistan for weeks as delegates made their way to the Consultative Peace Jirga in Kabul.

Earlier this week, some 1,000 elders and local notables gathered in Farah, a remote desert province in western Afghanistan, in a show of support for the jirga, or grand council.

It's a centuries-old tribal institution that Afghans rely on to find consensus, discuss issues of the day, and resolve disputes.

Local tribal leader Ghulam Jillani expressed hope that this gathering would help reach out to recalcitrant "brothers." In this case, that is a euphemism for Afghans who are fighting against President Hamid Karzai's administration and its international allies, often within various Taliban factions or under the banner of the Hezb-e Islami led by fugitive Islamist leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.

"We want our brothers to reconcile with us so we are spared further destruction and can rebuild our homeland," Jillani says. "We express 100 percent support for the gathering in Kabul, and we hope it will have good results for promoting Islam and reconstruction of our homeland."

'Beginning A Process'

Some 1,600 delegates, nearly one-fifth of them women, are expected to participate in the three-day jirga, which began June 2. There, they will debate President Karzai's proposals to reintegrate insurgent foot soldiers into Afghan society by offering them amnesty, jobs, and security. According to a draft peace plan seen by RFE/RL, leaders of the insurgency would be offered political roles or exile to a friendly Muslim nation, in exchange for dropping their weapons.

Armed opponents have already made their presence known, with a rocket attack near the site of the jirga in the opening minutes of Karzai's welcome speech to delegates, followed by gun battles and an apparent suicide attack within 200 meters of the main tent. Two attackers were reported killed, but no delegates were hurt.

Speaking to RFE/RL, Vygaudas Usackas, the European Union's special envoy to Afghanistan, says that the event enjoys broad support from the European Union, the United States, NATO, and its international allies.

The Kabul venue of the national peace jirga
Usackas, a former Lithuanian foreign minister, says the jirga will pave the way for a "new page" in Afghanistan's struggle for a peaceful settlement. "Having in mind the complexity of problems and challenges the Afghan nation is facing, the peace jirga will not produce immediate results," Usackas says.

He argues that it will "earmark the beginning of the process, which will provide the framework and the mechanism for the future peace settlement," adding, "In that respect, we wholeheartedly support the Afghan-led initiative of future peace settlement."

Independent Afghan experts, however, raise critical questions about the event.

Kabul-based Afghan analyst Mohammad Yunos Fakur tells RFE/RL that although a vast majority of his compatriots are eager for peace, they have doubts about the participants and proceedings of the peace jirga. "All invited delegates are people liked by the government or are part of institutions that make up the current political system," he says.

"Independent-minded critics who disapprove of some government policies have not been invited to this jirga," he says.

Fakur insists Afghans are confused about the agenda of this jirga, saying the absence of a clear Afghan government plan or road map for peace undermines the idea of consulting the nation about peace. Moreover, any discussion of making reforms to the government and political system, whose flaws he views as partly fueling the insurgency, is off the agenda.

Too Narrow?

Fakur suggests that the jirga should have concentrated on all critical questions that his country faces. "Its [priorities] should have been to pressure Karzai to bring about a good government in place. And on the other hand it should come up with a clear plan on how to deal with the armed opposition," he says.

He thinks it should answer questions such as: Are they ready to share power with the opponents? Are they ready to change the constitution? Are they ready to delay the parliamentary elections?

"In the absence of such clear plans, the jirga will turn into a mere government sponsored event," Fakur warns.

Fakur and other Afghan experts suggest that the jirga is expected to deliver greater political legitimacy to Karzai, whose reputation was bruised by last year's presidential election.

They suggest that the event is likely to reassure support from Afghanistan's disparate minority ethnic groups, most of whom have opposed reconciliation with the Taliban, which is still remembered for its atrocities of the 1990s. Some minority leaders fear that Karzai dealings with the Taliban and Hezb-e Islami -- which like Karzai are ethnic Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group in the country -- would undermine their power and influence in the post 9/11 political system.

Opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah announcing on June 1 that he would stay away from the peace jirga.
In an effort to woo opposition lawmakers to end their boycott of peace jirga, Karzai on June 1 appointed a six-member commission to rule on constitutional disputes. His spokesman also promised to nominate 11 ministers for parliamentary approval next week, a sign that the Karzai administration is prepared to give in to the demands of legislators who have held up the formation of his cabinet.

Prominent opposition leader and Karzai's opponent in the first round of last year's presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, responded by saying on June 1 that neither he nor his supporters would join the jirga. He stopped short of a boycott, but said "we will not participate in it," agencies reported.

Complex Reconciliation

The potential prize the administration can gain from the jirga, observers suggest, is being able to walk away with support for inviting hard-line Islamist leader Hekmatyar to join the political mainstream. Discussing Hekmatyar's fate was reportedly high on Karzai's agenda as he toured Washington last month. In March, his representatives met with Karzai and senior UN officials and offered to support Kabul's government if Western troops were to gradually withdraw. Hekmatyar has also distanced himself from Al-Qaeda, whose leaders he has known for decades.

Briefly a prime minister in a failed postcommunist factional government in the 1990s, Hekmatyar joined hands with the Taliban after the U.S.-led military intervention in Afghanistan in 2001. But as he led part of the insurgency, many of his past associates joined with Karzai to become cabinet members, advisers, provincial governors, and lawmakers.

Reconciliation with Hekmatyar, though significant, would not end the insurgency, and delegates to the peace jirga are well aware of their country's complexities.

Qari Abdul Rahman Ahmadi, a member of the Parwan provincial council north of Kabul, says that the Afghan government and its international partners should commit to implementing the jirga's decisions and proposals. "The opponents of the government, people that we are trying to make peace with, they should accept our peace proposals and they should put forward their particular plans and mechanisms for peace," Ahmadi says.

The Taliban have already dismissed the jirga, saying in a statement attributed to them that the event is aimed at "securing the interests of foreigners," according to AP. But the Taliban's major demand -- the withdrawal of all foreign forces -- is no easy sell among average Afghans and their government.

RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report
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    Abubakar Siddique

    Abubakar Siddique, a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, specializes in the coverage of Afghanistan and Pakistan. He is the author of The Pashtun Question: The Unresolved Key To The Future Of Pakistan And Afghanistan. He is also one of the authors of the Azadi Briefing, a weekly newsletter that unpacks the key issues in Afghanistan.