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Above: President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani (waving) at the consultative loya jirga in Kabul/Photo: UNI

In a strange scenario, peace talks between Taliban and the US excluded the elected government of President Ashraf Ghani. In a desperate move to remain relevant, he called a loya jirga

By Seema Guha

With the Taliban continuing to keep the elected government of Afghanistan out of the peace talks now being held with US officials in Doha, a desperate President Ashraf Ghani called a four-day loya jirga to ensure that the people’s voices are not ignored. Are these talks an indication that the civil war is about to end soon?

Violence is unabated as the Taliban continues to attack government forces. The administration is in no position to stop the bloodletting. Afghanistan does not want to go back to the dark days of Taliban rule, which ended with the US invasion in 2001. Despite assurances by the international community that the peace negotiations must be Afghan-led and Afghan-owned, the Taliban has been adamant about not talking to Ghani and the elected government.

In an attempt to remain relevant and ensure that the democratic rights gained in the last decade remain relevant, Ghani moved to have a loya jirga. It is a gathering of heads of different tribes and influential public voices, including those of religious leaders. But will this get around the Taliban’s obduracy?

The loya jirga is an old institution and is said to have existed since the days of Kanishka, the Kushan ruler. The last time a loya jirga was called was in 2013 when the Hamid Karzai government signed a bilateral security agreement with the US which allowed American troops to stay on beyond 2014. By this time, the majority of US troops had left according to the timetable laid down by the Obama administration. There was much debate in the country about whether American troops should remain indefinitely. This is why Karzai convened a loya jirga.

This time around, it met for four days from April 30 to discuss the recent peace efforts and how to ensure the government’s involvement in the process.  “I want a stable peace,” Ghani said in his speech to the gathering. “I am not after a hasty and temporary peace deal.”  Some 3,200 delegates from 34 provinces of Afghanistan gathered in Kabul. However, infighting within Ghani’s administration was apparent with the boycott of the No 2 man in the government, chief executive Abdullah Abdullah. He felt this was an election gimmick by Ghani, who is seeking another term in power. The much-postponed presidential polls are scheduled now for September.

Former President Karzai, who is still influential, also chose not to attend though he was present at the intra-Afghan meet convened in Moscow last year. Karzai said the present loya jirga would delay peace talks rather than help the process. He suggested that the meet be held after the outlines of the peace deal were finalised. Many blamed Ghani for cancelling intra-Afghan talks which were to be held in Doha. The delegation was so huge that the Taliban finally scrapped the meeting.

A large contingent of women delegates was also invited to this loya jirga. Women in Afghanistan want an assurance that the freedom they now enjoy will not be taken away. They remember the days of Taliban rule when they were not allowed to work or go to school and could not go out without being accompanied by a family member. Despite their presence, they were often shouted down by religious and conservative tribal leaders who were affronted by their presence. Women told reporters later that they were humiliated, asked to shut up and go back to the kitchen. Kabul went into shutdown mode during this time as government employees got a week-long paid holiday. The capital was sanitised and important junctions and roads leading to the meeting place were barricaded for fear of terrorist attacks.

At the end of the loya jirga, several important suggestions were made. One was an end to the current violence and a plea for a ceasefire while the political settlement was being hammered out. Across the world, peace talks are accompanied by a halt in fighting, but the Taliban remained adamant. A ceasefire during Ramzan, which has begun, had been suggested by the loya jirga.

The High Peace Council, which is the Afghan government’s main organ for promoting peace, had also called on both the Taliban and the security forces to announce a ceasefire during Ramzan in order to provide the ground for confidence-building measures and intra-Afghan dialogue. The Taliban’s reply was a statement which said: “Jihad will have more rewards during Ramzan.’’

President Ghani, who addressed the gathering, called for the continuation of the current Afghan Constitution which allows for multi-party democracy, protects the fundamental rights of citizens, free speech, free media and ensures the rights of women. These are the red lines drawn by the Afghan government and endorsed by the international community. But will any of these recommendations be taken seriously by the Taliban leadership? It does not appear likely at the moment as it is seen as a Ghani initiative.

The Taliban’s first priority is to rid the country of foreign troops. The demand coincides with US President Donald Trump’s wish to clear out of a non-productive war in Afghanistan. The Taliban has already reassured Washington that unlike in the past, it will ensure that Afghanistan will not allow any terror group to target the American heartland. The 9/11 strikes were hatched by Osama bin Laden when he was living in Afghanistan under Taliban rule. America’s chief negotiator, Zalmay Khalilzad, has been trying to persuade the Taliban to include the  Afghan government in the peace talks, but to no avail. He had also tried hard for a ceasefire.

“Khalilzad was insisting that the Taliban should announce a ceasefire, but it is unacceptable for the Taliban. Similar demands were made before also, but this time, they insisted a lot on a ceasefire. But the Taliban insists that first there is a need to clarify the issue of foreign forces withdrawal,” Afghanistan’s Tolo News quoted Sayed Akbar Agha, a former Taliban member, as saying.

The difficult part of the negotiations would be to ensure that the freedoms enjoyed by the people are not curbed and Afghanistan remains a moderate Muslim country. The Taliban naturally wants the biggest share of the political pie when the agreement is finalised. They will be backed by Pakistan who wants to ensure that a friendly government is installed. Those in power must also be anti-India. Karzai and Ghani were too close to New Delhi and India was spreading its wings across Afghanistan. This is something Pakistan will try its best to roll back.

The Taliban have always been unpredictable. Whether they have now changed remains to be seen. The civil war is not about to end soon. The best that can be expected would be a ceasefire following the withdrawal of US troops. That hope may be too optimistic. Uncertainty will continue together with talks for the time being.

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