Hot air and improbable peace By Syed Saleem Shahzad
KARACHI - The recent Saudi Arabia initiative to instigate a peace process with
the Taliban-led resistance in Afghanistan was doomed to failure as the main
actors - the Taliban - were not included, leading them to summarily dismiss any
notion of talks.
Indeed, Afghan President Hamid Karzai concluded that the only result was to
give the Taliban an unprecedented moral boost, beside tacit legitimacy. And the
Taliban have said they want to wind the clock back to when they were in power
before the United States-led invasion of Afghanistan in late 2001, and may even
be prepared for the first time to continue fighting throughout the winter.
Despite this, another peace track is underway, that of a mini-council (jirgagai)
to be held in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad
from October 27 to October 28. Yet, once again, the main players have not been
invited to participate.
Afghan Foreign Minister Rangeen Dadfar Spanta is in Islamabad talking up the
prospects of the jirgagai, yet, given the failed Mecca initiative, it
can be expected that instead of bearing any fruit, the gathering will result in
further humiliation for Washington and its allies.
Senior Pakistani and Afghan officials on Tuesday agreed on an agenda for the jirgagai,
saying that it would review the implementation of decisions taken at a grand
joint jirga of Pakistani and Afghan delegates held in the Afghan capital
Kabul in August of last year.
At this much-trumpeted but ultimately failed event, it was decided to hold
dialogue with the Taliban and other factions for peace and floated the idea of
At Tuesday's preliminary meeting for the jirgagai, the six-member Afghan
side was led by Farooq Wardak, the deputy chairman of the Jirga Monitoring
Commission of Afghanistan. The Pakistani side was represented by Owais Ahmed
Ghani, chairman of the Pakistani component of the Jirga Commission, and also
governor of North-West Frontier Province.
It was unanimously agreed that the jirgagai would be attended by 25
members from each side and that they would "discuss ways and means to enhance
cooperation among tribals and elders to restore peace in both countries and
along the border regions". The mini-jirga will also discuss the next
grand joint jirga, scheduled to be held in Pakistan.
The Afghan delegation will include Dr Abdul Qadeer Ranjbar, a member of the
Afghanistan National Assembly, or Wulasi Jirga, and Dr Bakhtar Aminzai, a
member of the Senate, or Masharanu Jirga.
Let's talk about it
In essence, it was the idea of the British Embassy in Kabul to start talking to
selected Taliban, and it was on this basis that the grand jirga agreed
to set up small jirgas on a regional basis, including in North
Waziristan and Quetta in Pakistan and Kandahar and Khost in Afghanistan. (See
Talks with the Taliban gain ground Asia Times Online, August 24, 2007.)
Crucially, though, these were to involve tribal elders and related parties, including
the Taliban, to be run by acceptable mediators. They were scheduled for last
November, but the crackdown on a radical mosque in Islamabad had repercussions
in the Swat Valley, which turned into a full-blown insurgency in Bajaur Agency,
South Waziristan and North Waziristan, and the jirgas were postponed.
This month's jirgagai revives the process - but without the Taliban, and
it can only be regarded as an act of political posturing to shore up the
rapidly dwindling credibility of the Karzai administration in Washington.
Absurdly, the jirgagai not only excludes the Taliban and the
Hezb-e-Islami (HIA) associated with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, but also those who
have contact with these groups.
The chief of the Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan, Abdul Hadi Argundwal, commented to
Asia Times Online, "The Saudi talks did not have any official position or locus
standi as the real players of the game were missing."
Argundwal is a veteran mujahideen commander from the resistance against the
Soviets in the 1980s and a close confidant of former Afghan premier Hekmatyar.
After Hekmatyar decided to fight against American forces, Argundwal and other
HIA members joined hands and announced their separation from the insurgency and
registered HIA as a political party.
Even before registration, HIA members contested in elections in their personal
capacity and emerged as the single-largest party in the Afghan National
Assembly, with 40 seats. In the past six months, HIA, the largest mujahideen
faction before the emergence of the Taliban, has opened offices throughout
Afghanistan and once again emerged as the most organized political force. It is
tipped to be the most important factor in next year's presidential elections.
Talking to Asia Times Online by telephone from Kabul, Argundwal, whose party
members were part of the talks in Saudi Arabia, maintained that the real
players in the game are the armed opposition groups, not the former Taliban or
those members of the HIA who have disassociated themselves from armed
"The same goes with the jirgagai. It is necessary to improve ties
between the two brotherly Muslim nations [Pakistan and Afghanistan], but it is
without substance if the Taliban and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar are not given
representation," said Argundwal, adding that his party had not been invited to
the latest process of jirgas.
Commenting on the Saudi initiative, retired Pakistani Lieutenant General Hamid
Gul, who is close to the Saudi establishment, told Asia Times Online, "You
should not call it a Saudi-sponsored peace process. It was simply Hamid
Karzai's personal initiative and Saudi Arabia, being a well-wisher of another
Muslim nation - Afghanistan - cooperated."
Gul, recognized as one of the architects of the mujahideen's victory in
Afghanistan against the Soviets when he was Pakistan's chief spy master,
continued, "There was no representation on behalf of the Taliban or on behalf
of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The Taliban do not recognize people like Mullah Zaeef
[former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan during the Taliban regime] or [Wakeel
Ahmed] Muttawakil [Afghan foreign minister during Taliban rule]. That was a
straight forward move on behalf of Hamid Karzai to save his sinking ship. His
credibility at home is already non-existent due to the corruption of his
government ... Through such moves Karzai tried to buy some face-saving for the
next presidential elections.
"The same goes with the upcoming mini-jirga. Have you ever heard of
dialogue without a party of the conflict?", Gull questioned. "In jirgas,
all parties of a conflict are given representation and then through mediation
the conflict is resolved. Here, the Taliban are missing.
"There is a sanctity and significance of jirgas - they are held in a big
crisis situation to resolve a problem. In the whole of Afghan history, four
grand jirgas have been held. In the 40 years of King Zahir Shah's
period, only two grand jirgas were held. Now they have made a mockery of jirgas.
Mini-jirgas are held every now and then, but these mini-jirgas are
limited to smaller places - not at the level of two countries," Gul said.
"The Soviets were advised in 1986 not to adopt an unsteady approach, to talk
directly with the mujahideen and leave. Russia did not adhere to the advice and
withdrew from Afghanistan in disgrace three years later. Today, if the US does
not adhere to the right advice, that is, talking to the rightful resistance, it
will face the same fate as the Soviets," Gul said.
The vital point is that non-state actors in both Afghanistan and Pakistan have
the potential to play a role in any dialogue process, but neither the Afghan
government nor Washington aims to involve them, let alone include the Taliban,
rendering any hopes of peace illusory.
Syed Saleem Shahzad is Asia Times Online's Pakistan Bureau Chief. He can
be reached at email@example.com