The Loya Jirga, or grand assembly of tribal elders, is the traditional Afghan way of discussing and resolving differences, but there was something very odd about the one held in Kabul from August 9-12. True, large amounts of food that (including rice, lamb kebabs and other Afghan delicacies) were served with typical Afghan hospitality, but the jirga was not entirely an Afghan affair. This was partly because it brought together tribal elders from both sides of the Afghan-Pakistan border, which is something of a novelty with potentially grave consequences for the future of Pakistan if it is not handled carefully. These potential consequences follow from Afghanistan’s refusal to accept the Durand Line as a legitimate boundary. Some important tribal elders from Waziristan(on Pakistan’s side of the border) boycotted the proceedings because of intense fighting in their area.
The jirga was convened essentially to advance the American agenda that US president George Bush imposed on Pakistan and Afghanistan when their presidents, General Pervez Musharraf and Hamid Karzai respectively, met him in New York last September. Its aim was to create the illusion of progress when there was little that was real on offer. The only significant result from the jirga was the establishment of a 50-member committee of tribal elders from both sides of the border. They agreed to work toward peace by bringing the “enemy” (meaning the Taliban) to the negotiating table. This may well happen sometime, but not under American patronage. Despite their poverty, the Afghans do not take kindly to foreign interference in their affairs, especially not from uncouth Americans who lack political sophistication and speak only the language of violence. In these circumstances it is virtually impossible to persuade the Afghans to talk; when challenged, they would rather pick up a gun and fight.
The initial plan was for Musharraf to attend the opening session of the jirga. He boycotted it using the excuse of domestic problems that were further heightened by rumours of a state of emergency being declared. Though he faces many problems at home, these were not the main reason for his reluctance to attend. The real reason was his realization that the Americans are still attributing all their failures in Afghanistan to “cross-border infiltration”, as usual. The Afghans were delighted by this because they too need a scapegoat for their inability to deal with the resistance, which has now spread to large parts of the country. Musharraf was “persuaded” to attend the jirga by two midnight phone-calls from US secretary of state Condoleezza Rice, who delivered some blunt messages. He showed up on the last day of the jirga (August 12) and made an astonishing confession: that the Taliban are operating on both sides of the border and that Pakistan and Afghanistan needed to work together to address this “threat to peace”.
Afghanistan is facing serious military, economic and political crises as a direct result of the presence of foreign occupation forces in its territories. American and NATO use of excessive air power and the indiscriminate killing of civilians have alienated a very large segment of the Afghan population, especially in the southern Pashtun belt. The Pashtuns were already resentful of the minority Tajiks’ domination of the political landscape after the removal of the Taliban from power in November 2001. Initially, the Americans thought they had wiped out the Taliban; this impression was reinforced by the hasty retreat of the Taliban from Kabul. Some Taliban leaders were killed; others were sent to the infamous torture-camp at Guantanamo Bay. This, the Americans thought, was the end of the Taliban. What they ignored was that it is not only the Taliban but a vast majority of Afghans who resent foreign interference in their affairs. American arrogance and stupidity have also assisted the group by playing into their hands.
The traditional aversion of the Afghans to foreigners occupying their country has been augmented by the brutal manner in which the Americans have bombed villages, killing scores of people. This has swelled Taliban ranks because villagers, unable to get redress from the puppet-regime in Kabul, have been forced to turn to the only group that has a credible claim to be fighting the invaders. On the eve of his visit to the US early last month, Karzai told the American television network CNN that the security situation in Afghanistan had deteriorated. After his meeting with Bush, Karzai changed his tune, no doubt the result of the American president’s twisting his arm about the comments he had made about security. This is the dilemma facing Bush: at home he is trying to create the impression that American forces are making progress against the Taliban; abroad, he blames Pakistan for “not doing enough”, without ever saying what “enough” would be, to prevent the Taliban and al-Qa’ida from crossing the border into Afghanistan.
Before convening the Loya Jirga in Kabul, the US National Intelligence Estimate dramatically escalated allegations against Pakistan by accusing it of aiding and abetting the Taliban and al-Qa’ida, not merely that they were operating from its territory. American officials and congressmen threatened to attack Taliban/al-Qa’ida bases in Pakistan’s tribal belt. This angered the already resentful Pakistanis even further. It also undermined Musharraf’s precarious position. No matter what Musharraf does, the Americans will never be satisfied unless he commits the entire Pakistan army to fighting their war in Afghanistan. More than 80,000 Pakistani troops are deployed in the volatile Frontier region along the border with Afghanistan; at least 750 have been killed in operations against the tribes, who are so angry that insurgencies have erupted in Waziristan and Bajaur. Further trouble is also brewing in Baluchistan.
Pakistan is being sucked into the American-created quagmire in Afghanistan, yet the one question Bush is not prepared to consider is the removal of all foreign troops from there. This is the main source of most of the trouble and mayhem. It is very unlikely that the Taliban can be wiped out now, simply because they have the support of most of the Pashtun tribes. The struggle in Afghanistan has spread beyond a single group resisting foreign troops. Much of Southern and Eastern Afghanistan is in a state of insurrection.
What the jirga should have addressed was a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops. Only then will the people of Afghanistan be able to resolve their differences by means of a traditional jirga. True, people like Karzai will be consigned to history, joined no doubt by Musharraf eventually, but that is the fate of all puppets and pawns. People on both sides of the border will be relieved to see the back of them, and without their kowtowing to the US and the US’s allies their affairs will go much better.