Afghan and Pakistani politicians and tribal leaders have launched talks in the Pakistani capital to find ways to end surging militant violence.
The two-day event in Islamabad is a follow-up to last year's "Joint Peace Jirga," or grand assembly, in which delegates in the Afghan capital called for talks with Taliban militants to put an end to insurgencies in the two countries. This year's "jirgagai", or mini-jirga, features 25 participants from Afghanistan and Pakistan each.
This meeting has big shoes to fill in implementing declarations made at last year's meeting, according to one member of the Pakistani delegation. Its major task will be to organize another grand peace council in Pakistan in the near future.
Afrasiab Khattak, a veteran Pashtun nationalist politician and the peace envoy for Pakistan's insurgency-plagued Northwest Frontier Province government, says the political will of Kabul and Islamabad to work together to end regional violence will determine the success of the two-day talks that began on October 27.
"If there is a political will for a peaceful settlement of this issue among the political leadership of both countries, then this jirga will be the best forum to sort out the modalities and chart out a road map toward a comprehensive political solution," Khattak says.
This would mark a change from the past seven years, during which time the military situation on the ground has dictated the course of political developments. Analysts widely agree that theaters of war in Pakistan and Afghanistan are expanding and increasingly becoming one.
Violence in the hours leading up to the session gave credence to the theory that the two sides are fighting the same fight.
Just before the peace council began its deliberations, a suspected U.S. missile strike on a house in the South Waziristan tribal district killed up to 20 people, including top Taliban commander Mohammad Omar, according to Reuters.
The night before, a deadly attack was recorded in the Mohmand tribal district, located west of the northwestern city of Peshawar along the Afghan border. There a suspected suicide bomber targeted a security checkpoint, killing seven soldiers and injuring another five, according to Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Najib Aamir.
Also on October 26, in northwestern Pakistan's troubled Swat district, as many as 30 people were killed when locals clashed with the Taliban, according to AP. Local police told the news agency that the clash followed a botched Taliban attempt to kidnap local anti-Taliban militia leader Pir Samiullah, whose followers resisted. Twenty Taliban militants, including a commander, were reportedly killed in the ensuing hours-long gun battle. Six militiamen and four bystanders were also reportedly killed.
The increasing violence in Pakistan has compelled its newly elected government to own up to the war, and to stop blaming unrest merely on the presence of Western forces in Afghanistan.
"The mandate of the jirgagai is short in words [and] vast in scope," Pakistan's Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi said in his opening address to participants in Islamabad.
"There is an increasing realization that the use of force alone cannot yield the desired results. For lasting success, negotiations and reconciliation must be an essential part of the process," Qureshi added.
Afghans hope that increasing insecurity in Pakistan gives its current government a stake in the future peace in their country. Former Afghan Foreign Minister Abdullah Abdullah, who is heading the Afghan delegation, highlighted this theme in his address.
"Both countries and both peoples have no choice but to work together in a brotherly manner, with mutual respect for one another in achieving what is in the common interest of us and in the common interest of both peoples," Abdullah told the jirgagai participants.
Involving The People
Despite such reassuring words, both countries are far from agreeing on a common framework on how to talk to and reconcile armed opponents in their respective countries. The Taliban and other armed factions involved in the complex cross-border insurgency have so far stayed away from the jirga process.
Khattak maintained that the jirga was a voluntary process and it was difficult to persuade elements who "do not believe in negotiations and peaceful settlement of disputes" to participate in it.
But he hinted that some Taliban sympathizers were participating in the deliberations. "The Pakistani jirga has elements who have good relations with the Taliban or other elements opposed to the current Afghan government," he said.
According to Sana Haroon, a professor of history at Dubai's Zayed University and author of the book "Frontier Of Faith," a scholarly study of militant movements in the border region, the region's current problems are rooted in a long troubled history and no solution will be possible without prioritizing the welfare and empowerment of local residents.
"The real problem that needs to be addressed in the tribal areas is that of governance," she says. "And by definition, calling a jirga assumes a lack of governance currently, and a continual lack of desire to govern these regions, to administer them, to make justice available to the population, [and] to make available the amenities of the modern state available to the population of these regions."
The jirgagai has now been divided into two subcommittees. The results of their efforts will be made public on October 28 after its two-day, closed-door session concludes.
Najib Aamir and Wagma Saba of RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan contributed to this report from Peshawar