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Optics of the National Consultative Peace Jirga in Afghanistan

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I am the Afghanistan Blogging Fellow for The Seminal and Brave New Foundation. You can read my work on The Seminal or at Rethink Afghanistan. The views expressed below are my own.

You better bite down on something, because here comes some NATO propaganda:

That wasn't so bad, was it? Very short, and they devote a fairly large chunk of time to criticism of the whole affair. It's a little pedestrian for anyone with extensive knowledge of the region, but the explanation for the jirga is very accessible. But since the jirga has just gotten under way, it's far too early to draw any substantive conclusions about the criticism, or the praise, of the jirga. Even if they aren't making decisions and only building a broad consensus, it's going to take a while.

However, it's not too early to engage in that most reptilian form of analysis, gauging the "optics" of the event. How does it look? How does it register in your gut? And if we swirl our hands over the newsprint, what secrets of the future can we mystically divine? Not much, really. Most conclusions we come to about the optics of the meeting will be rendered meaningless soon enough when the jirga wraps up and the consequences to reality begin to take shape. But just as we can live through a little NATO propaganda to learn about the jirga, we'll lower ourselves to the level of gut reactions and see what we can learn.

Thomas Ruttig blogs his gut reaction on AAN:

The Peace Jirga that began today in Kabul, will fail its declared main aim: to establish a real national consensus on talks with the Taleban. In order to be able to, too many relevant political forces are absent - and those who attend are massively monitored and manipulated. The jirga does not bring an end - or at least a reduction - of violence closer.

Those are tough words, but again nothing has actually happened yet, so remain skeptical. He does raise some important questions though about exactly who and what is represented at the jirga. He explains further:

On the surface, the jirga with its 1,600 delegates bears all insignia of Afghan tribal 'democracy' which, although, is male-dominated. (The women were only able to push through their 20 per cent attendance quota after Western diplomats intervened - another example of 'foreign interference', so often blasted by Karzai.) Bearded and turbaned men from all corners of the country provide a blaze of colour that is supposed to create the impression of plurality that does not exist in reality. The delegates are rather handpicked. The main opposition party is absent and also some women rights activists boycott the jirga which they consider part of a Karzai legitimisation machine. They fear that burning issues like ‚justice', i.e dealing with the civil war crimes, and human rights might be sacrificed for a deal with the Taleban. This shows: if a pseudo-consensus is pushed through, only new conflicts will emerge.

The intervention of Western diplomats is very important here. It wasn't 100,000 troops that got a solid victory for women's rights, it was tough negotiations. The US didn't gain anything at the barrel of a gun, and the West didn't actually do anything for the Afghans. A tiny bit of Western engagement simply made room for the Afghan women to make positive gains on their own. After all, the Western-backed 20 percent quota pales in comparison to the benefit of actually having those voices contribute to the jirga. It should also be pointed out that the US Congress is about 20 percent women, and I don't think anyone would say they're somehow impotent or ineffectual because of their relatively small numbers. I'm less pessimistic than Ruttig when it comes to the role women will play in the jirga.

I'm also less pessimistic about the absence of the Taliban. For all its faults, this jirga could be construed as an arguably sincere effort by Karzai to reach a peaceful settlement. With the Taliban absent, and worse, attacking it with suicide bombers that Mathew Hoh calls "counter-productive as they distance the [Taliban] from the Afghan people," it appears that it is Karzai who is sincere while the Taliban is only interested in war. In years past, the Taliban have at various times come to the table for talks, only to be greeted by US and/or Pakistani air strikes and arrests. Karzai appeared duplicitous, and the Taliban got the moral high ground. Now the perception is reversed, Karzai is sincere and the Taliban look malicious.

Karzai said in his speech to the jirga, "My dear Taliban, you are welcome in your own soil. Do not hurt this country, and don't destroy or kill yourselves." The Taliban looks bad, and this is all about optics remember. It's possible pressure from the population over these shameless attacks can bring them to the table once again, if this perception holds sway.

But what about the opposition members and activists boycotting the jirga? That can't be good, right? Well, it's not good that they have to boycott, but a boycott is still political engagement. They want rule of law, not informal consensus-building jirgas. They want accountability for civil war atrocities, past and present, and they're not willing to sacrifice those things for a simple handshake peace with the Taliban and other murderous warlords. Even though the opposition's boycott harms the jirga's legitimacy, it does raise awareness of the issue and is far better than them remaining silent.

Activist engagement may harm this specific meeting, but it shows a political vibrancy that defies the media portrayal of Afghans as helpless and unable to stand on their own. Take a look at this description of Afghan politicians running in the upcoming parliamentary elections:

"The way into parliament this time is going to be by money, having a powerful patron or armed men to issue threats. Which of those routes are these guys taking or are they hoping their fame will win them votes?" [...] "Once catapulted into parliament, they think they'll get lots of bribes - for example, when it's time to approve or reject the cabinet. They're after the money."

Sound familiar? It's eerily similar to the US government, with its system of plutocratic lobbyists and shady, backroom dealings. It's difficult to argue that President Obama taking huge contributions from Goldman Sachs and then stacking his cabinet with its employees is any different from Karzai taking bribes from powerful drug dealers (Big Poppy?) and then filling his cabinet with his closest accomplices.

Democracy is hard. Accountability is hard. It requires fierce pressure from the citizens to achieve properly, and just as Americans seek to counter the machinations of the banking lobby, Afghans must fight for accountability to counter the forces of lawlessness and corruption in their country. I agree with Ruttig that the opposition boycott looks bad for the jirga, but I also see it as a positive sign that the grassroots democracy movement in Afghanistan is alive and well.

Most tellingly for US policy is the Afghan activists' demands. They want accountability for crimes committed in the civil war, a civil war in which the US is most obviously taking a side. The intense military presence only exacerbates that civil war, and empowers both the corruption of Karzai and the violent rebellion of the Taliban. If the US sees Afghanistan as important to its national interests or desires any sort of positive outcome in governance, development, or human rights, and as always that is up for domestic debate, then it can achieve those outcomes without the use of the military. As we've seen, a little Western pressure opens the door to the national jirga for Afghan women. Supporting a free press and fair elections can improve governance and accountability. Obama's policy of escalating the occupation runs completely counter to those goals, as does the US refusal to deal with the civilian government of Pakistan. The effect there is the same, with more war, more terrorism, and more despotism.

So we can learn something just from the appearances of the peace jirga, indeed we may even see signs to be optimistic about the process. But as I said, the jirga hasn't actually done anything yet, so it's not really possible to come to any firm conclusions on whether it will turn out positively or negatively. What if the Afghan women in attendance are shunned and ignored by the jirga? What if the Taliban remains defiant, and continues to attack instead of negotiate? What if those activists seeking rule of law fail miserably, and Afghanistan remains a narco-state torn by civil war? Our perception, the optics of the jirga, could change dramatically once the real consequences set in. Some optimism is not out of line, but we'll see.

In the meantime, join us on Rethink Afghanistan's Facebook page and collaborate with the tens of thousands of others around the country working to bring this war to an end.