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Gerard Russell

Gerard Russell

Posted: November 30, 2009 12:25 PM

Advice to Karzai: Build Support To Bring Taliban Into Loya Jirga

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President Obama's speech on Tuesday will set the seal on the reinauguration of President Karzai. The presidential election will be a thing of the past -- except for elections experts who can use it as a model of what to avoid.

Yet the election -- which I saw at first hand as a United Nations official, until I resigned in protest -- should not yet go so quietly into history. There are some lessons still to be drawn from it. They are relevant to the US President's speech on Tuesday: for they relate directly to the effort to stabilize Afghanistan.

President Karzai said in his inaugural address on 19 November that he wanted to bring the Taliban into the tent -- literally. He has promised a 'traditional Loya Jirga,' a consultative gathering which would -- according to his aides -- either include the Taliban or discuss options for how to include them in Afghanistan's political system in the future.

There is no doubting the need for a Loya Jirga in Afghanistan, if it is empowered to make constitutional changes. Afghanistan's elections were a scandal. A million votes were excluded in the Presidential election, and according to some experts nearly a million more are questionable. There was so much fraud that the final results of the provincial council elections, held in August, are still not available. Yet the Afghan Constitution demands elections should be held in as many as 17 of the next 20 years. This year's elections cost over $300 million. When Afghans start to pay for their own elections, they will be spending on them almost the same proportion of their GDP that the United Kingdom spends on defense. Would anyone call this value for money?

And what Afghan now feels comfortable with the Constitution's provision that the President, and the President alone, gets to choose the official who oversees the elections process?

There is no doubting, either, the need for a strategy to reach out to the Taliban. Military force alone has not and cannot roll back their influence. This influence was proven by August's elections. There could not be a better test of Taliban influence than for the Government to tell people to carry out a simple but public act, while the Taliban tells them not to. The test highlighted areas of Taliban dominance across the south and east of the country.

The official election results show that in the country's insecure southern provinces, turnout varied from 3.5 % of the estimated population (in Zabul) to around 20 % (in Nangarhar). Informal reports, given by Afghans and foreigners on the ground, point to much lower turnout in specific localities. For instance in a district less than a hundred miles from Kabul, called Deh Yak in Ghazni, some local people have estimated that fewer than a hundred votes were cast; 31,000 voters were registered there. Many similar reports have come in from the remoter districts of southern Afghanistan; several such reached me when I was managing the elections center at the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan, although for reasons of confidentiality I am not quoting them here.

The reports are also backed up by other evidence of insurgent influence. One senior parliamentarian in Ghazni province says that local people consult the Taliban before major decisions, to ensure their buy-in. A deputy Minister recommended to me Jalaluddin Haqqani, a major terrorist leader, as the man who could guarantee security in the remote, troubled province of Paktika.

This suggests that the geographical scope of Taliban dominance is now huge. Any number of extra troops could only be a small part of the effort needed to displace them. A larger part of that effort would need to be political. But is the Loya Jirga going to be enough?

It's not exactly new: in October 2008, a joint Afghan-Pakistani jirga was held in Islamabad and resolved to find ways to reach out to insurgents. Nothing has apparently resulted from this. President Karzai has often enough suggested he is willing to talk to insurgents. Again, there is no evidence of progress. The trouble about a Loya Jirga with no formal powers is that it may be seen as another empty gesture. Insurgents will not be tempted to join such a body. Nor could it bring constitutional changes of the kind Afghanistan needs. But to have formal powers, a Loya Jirga would need to be set up along lines prescribed by the Constitution. It would need to be comprised of Parliamentarians, and provincial and district councillors. Even if all these groups can somehow be gathered at a time when they are not either preparing for elections or recovering from them, they will not include anyone from the Taliban -- who continue to boycott the electoral process.

There is a possible solution, though. Foreign donors can -- and should -- refuse to fund next year's elections. The Afghan parliament will limp on for another year or two. District councils will not be elected at all: but President Karzai can use this gap in Afghanistan's body politic to offer the Taliban a more tempting bait. At least for the purposes of the Loya Jirga, he could get cross-ethnic and cross-party support for some district council seats to be offered to the Taliban. Other district council seats can be given to civil society and -- where they exist -- to representatives of the Community Development Councils which were set up at village level to decide on development priorities.

This would give a chance that the Loya Jirga could be a genuinely serious forum with a place in it for insurgents. It would also create a forum that approximates to the Constitution's model, and could therefore credibly claim the authority to make needed changes to the Afghan Constitution -- and lay the foundations for fewer, better elections.