March 30, 2010 / 2:00 PM / 10 years ago

Q+A: What is Afghanistan's "peace jirga"?

KABUL (Reuters) - President Hamid Karzai wants to promote reconciliation with insurgents in a “peace jirga” — a large assembly — which is scheduled to take place next month.

Karzai has made it one of the priorities of his second term to try to forge stability in Afghanistan as tens of thousands of U.S. troops deploy in the south of the country to fight a worsening insurgency.

The following are some questions and answers about the peace jirga and its prospects for success.

WHAT IS THE PEACE JIRGA?

A “jirga” is a Pashto word and means “large assembly” or “council”. It is a traditional method of resolving disputes between tribes or discussing problems which affect communities.

The Afghan government uses jirgas to reach consensus with parliamentarians and civil society groups on controversial or problematic policy issues. Although jirgas are a Pashtun system of political decision-making, since the Taliban were overthrown in 2001 they have been inclusive of all Afghan ethnic groups.

When he was inaugurated as president in November 2009, Karzai said one of his main priorities would be to achieve security across Afghanistan within five years and as part of this a peace jirga would be organized as a means of bringing different and competing parts of Afghan society together.

WHO WILL BE INVOLVED?

The Afghan government is behind the plans but 13 different groups will take part including about 155 members from Afghanistan’s Ulemma council — a group of religious Afghan scholars and leaders who debate religious matters — civil society representatives, district and provincial officials, tribal leaders, groups representing Afghan refugee communities in Iran and Pakistan, women’s rights activists, businessmen and the upper house of parliament.

WILL INSURGENTS BE INVITED?

The three main insurgent groups fighting foreign forces in Afghanistan — the Taliban, Hezb-i-Islami and the Haqqani network — have not been specifically invited.

“The jirga is not for the advice of the insurgents or the extremists as they cannot guide us on peace and stability,” said Masoom Stanekzai, the top official involved in planning the jirga, who is also leading separate efforts to reintegrate low-level insurgents.

Nevertheless, it is likely that there could be insurgent sympathizers among some of the notables formally involved. Officials say the jirga is open to all factions. “This is an inter-Afghan jirga ... It doesn’t matter who they are, they can participate,” Stanekzai said.

Najib Amin, deputy director of policy for the jirga secretariat, said: “If the citizens of Afghanistan take the decision and the people support peace, even the extremists are always welcome.”

WILL IT BE SUCCESSFUL?

Reconciliation with insurgents in order to bring peace is an extremely delicate task.

Karzai faces a challenging balancing act — reaching out to insurgents while keeping his U.S. and Western backers satisfied that he is not appeasing the militants.

Washington says it supports any Afghan-led initiative to reach out to groups, provided they recognize the Afghan constitution, renounce all violence and repudiate al Qaeda, the militants blamed for the September 11 attacks on the United States.

The recent arrival of a delegation from one of the factions, Hezb-i-Islami, to Kabul for talks with the Afghan government was unprecedented and a sign Karzai’s overtures could bear fruit. But the biggest catch are the Taliban, whose southern Afghan heartlands will be flooded by 30,000 extra U.S. troops this year.

The Taliban say they will hold no talks as long as foreign troops are in Afghanistan. Washington says it does not expect the Taliban to participate in serious talks until Western troops achieve progress on the battlefield.

Pakistan’s actions regarding Taliban on its side of the border are also crucial to the success of the jirga. The recent arrest of a the Afghan Taliban’s number two leader, Mullah Baradar, in Pakistan could stall efforts. Kabul wants Baradar repatriated and the U.N.’s former top envoy to Afghanistan said Baradar’s arrest had led to the breakdown of behind-the-scenes meetings between the United Nations and high-ranking Taliban. (Editing by Peter Graff)

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