Afghan jirga to debate US ties despite doubts


Afghan President Hamid Karzai has convened a “loya jirga” of elders from across Afghanistan today (Wednesday) to discuss long-term relations with the US and efforts to broker peace amid the threat of violence. After 10 gruelling years of war, the talks will be held under lockdown security that is a reminder of the constant danger even in the capital, while observers say it is unclear how the jirga can help. Some 2,000 Afghan elders are set to gather in a giant tent for several days of talks on two of the most sensitive issues in Afghan politics, as US-led combat troops start leaving before a full withdrawal in 2014. Diplomats in Kabul say Karzai is likely to use the talks to secure a sweeping mandate as he pursues a controversial agreement with the US on the strategic partnership which will govern their relationship after 2014.
But parallel talks with Washington and a lack of transparency over the agenda have prompted accusations Karzai is trying to manipulate the jirga to his own ends, substituting the talks for real progress on ending a 10-year war. “It would have been wise to postpone but I think these jirgas have become a kind of ritual for President Karzai because he lacks a genuine political agenda,” said Kabul-based political analyst Haroon Mir. “He’s not tackling the major issues.” The Taliban have threatened to disrupt the jirga. In 2010, they launched rockets at the site of the last such event, prompting the departures of two ministers charged with handling security.
The area around the venue is on lockdown, with Afghan security forces stepping up protective measures, searching houses and mounting “constant” police patrols around Kabul, the interior ministry said.
Insurgents claimed to have leaked the event’s security plan Sunday, although Afghan and Western officials dismissed the document as a fake. On Monday, a suspected suicide bomber carrying a bag of explosives was shot dead near the loya jirga venue and two accomplices arrested, officials said. Some attendees say they have received threatening text messages and are scared to go as a result.
After a 10-year military adventure in Afghanistan, costing thousands of lives and hundreds of billions of dollars, attention is focused increasingly on how many US troops will remain in the country in the long term. The US insists it does not want permanent bases in Afghanistan, but it is likely to want to retain a significant troop presence after 2014 — prompting a wary response from some Afghans, plus neighbours like Pakistan and Iran.
Karzai has made a string of hostile comments about the US in recent months, including saying in October he would side with Pakistan if Islamabad went to war with Washington. His office later tried to row back on the comments. But the government wants to pursue a partnership, due in large part to the billions of dollars of aid which the US has poured into Afghanistan since the war started in 2001, which it hopes will continue. “We’re wondering what will be the substance. To me, it looks like a useless move,” a senior Western diplomat said of the jirga, speaking on condition of anonymity. “Karzai will have to content himself with fairly general outcomes. He will seek and obtain a very general mandate to negotiate with the US.”
Some senior Afghan figures say they will boycott the jirga because of a lack of transparency about its aims. Abdullah Abdullah, one of Karzai’s main rivals and leader of the Afghanistan National Coalition for Hope and Change, has said he will not attend. Leading Soviet-era warlord and former Karzai ally Abdul Rashid Dostum is also boycotting it. Abdullah’s movement has denounced a “lack of transparency” in the jirga’s objectives and its outcomes will be “illegitimate”. With some lawmakers concerned that the meeting could be used to bypass their authority, officials insist the meeting’s decisions will not be binding and that parliament will be able to accept or reject any findings.
After the assassination of his peace envoy Burhanuddin Rabbani by a turban bomber believed to be a Taliban intermediary in September — a major setback to attempts at negotiation — Karzai said that the jirga would also decide the country’s peace strategy. The exact agenda on this issue is unclear. The diplomat said Karzai would likely submit the name of a proposed successor to Rabbani for discussion, plus some principles for negotiations with the Taliban and Pakistan, which Afghans accuse of fuelling the insurgency.