At 9:30 a.m. on Monday, the helicopter carrying President Ashraf Ghani landed on the esplanade at the Kabul Polytechnic. Wearing a large fluttering turban and a chapan coat for special occasions, the president was greeted by a military band. He kissed the flag of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan and walked confidently on the red carpet leading to the inside of the large auditorium. The audience before him consisted of 3,200 delegates, of which 30% were women, coming from all of the 34 provinces of the country. They were tasked to decide whether, and how, to negotiate peace with the Taliban.
The Loya Jirga, the traditional assembly of the Afghan people, began on Monday, accompanied by extraordinary security measures. Kabul was rendered unrecognizable for days. The streets were nearly deserted. The government offices, universities, schools and many shops were closed. The city was subject to even stricter controls than usual. The Loya Jirga was too important an event. The government could not afford any mistake. First and foremost, it was him, the president, who couldn’t afford any.
Ashraf Ghani has been a strong advocate for the Loya Jirga. Although legend has it that the practice goes back to times immemorial, the Loya Jirga as it is today was actually introduced by the reformer King Amanullah Khan in the 1920s. Its purpose is to reach an agreement on particularly controversial topics. It no longer takes place in large, colorful tents, but in an air-conditioned auditorium on the grounds of a university built by the previous foreign occupiers, the Soviets. This time, the topic was peace with the Taliban. Should there be a peace deal or not? When? How? To what extent? And what would be gained?
There are very many questions that the Afghans have to ponder, particularly after the Taliban and Americans began sitting down at the negotiating table in Doha, as guests of the government of Qatar. So far, a preliminary deal has been struck on the withdrawal of foreign troops in exchange for guarantees from the Taliban that the country would not become a home base for terrorists with international aims. But the road ahead is still a long one, and a key actor is missing from the negotiating table: the government in Kabul.
This is why President Ghani was counting on the Loya Jirga: to reaffirm the central importance of his government and his country. While this is a legitimate goal, it has not gone unchallenged. Many prominent politicians, including some members of the government—such as Ghani’s longtime foe, the “Chief Executive Officer of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan,” Abdullah Abdullah—decided to boycott it. In their opinion, the Loya Jirga was merely a ploy ahead of the September elections, when the president will seek a second term. “It’s not really representative. The delegates are pro-government. It’s a waste of time and money,” Kadir Shah Angar—a spokesman for Hanif Atmar, a former national security advisor and one of the frontrunners in the presidential race—told us on Sunday before the start of the Jirga.
In his inaugural speech at the start of the Jirga, Ghani highlighted the inclusiveness of the proceedings, listing the names of all the provinces that had sent delegates with great rhetorical fervor: “Balkh, Herat, Farah, Faryab, Kandahar, Paktya…”
“This is because, while it’s true that the politicians and the members of Parliament are there, the most important aspect is that many men and women delegates are there, who were elected by local communities after transparent voting around the country,” Zamaray Baher, the chief of staff of Omar Daudzai, former Interior Minister and head organizer of the Loya Jirga, assured us.
“Nobody expected that we could make it in time, and yet here we are,” said Shaqib Rahim, deputy head of the Secretariat of the Loya Jirga. “The 30% who are women, the representatives of all the professions, the young people, the scholars of Islam, the artists, the families of martyrs, men and women from all over the country,” he added for emphasis. The assembly had a merely advisory role, but its representativeness was its real strength. “The most representative in Afghan history,” the organizers kept repeating, echoing Ghani himself.
Those boycotting or criticizing the Jirga thought it was a waste of time, a spectacle meant to strengthen the perceived legitimacy of the government, and particularly that of Ghani himself, who, they say, already had the final text in hand from the beginning. Thus, there was no point to have endless arguments for four days, from Monday until Thursday.
Abdul Waheed is 24, has a college degree and has studied in Kazakhstan. He comes from Faizabad, the capital of the Badakhshan province in the country’s northeast. He had no confidence in the consultation process or in the outcome of the Loya Jirga. However, he decided to take part in it. He was curious. “It’s all arranged. They Pashtuns are the ones to decide, as always,” he told us derisively. “It’s a big waste of money,” he added. He’s not the only one who thinks so.
Among the delegates, however, some disputed the idea that everyone taking part in the Jirga was an advocate for Ghani or a pawn in a power game being played between the Arg, the presidential palace, the Wolesi Jirga, the lower house of the newly installed Parliament, and the inner circle of the local strongmen. Nurzia Yusufzai Charkhi, from the Logar province, told us: “People voted for me. They are the ones who wanted me here. The message that I bring, from them, is a simple one: we want peace. For that, we need unity, consensus, not continuous fights and battles.”
Fareshta Shirzad is another delegate whom nobody would dare call naive, and who has clear ideas: “It’s fine for the Americans and the Taliban to negotiate. But peace cannot come from the outside. First of all, we need an internal peace.”
Before that, however, what would be needed is justice. But nobody is willing to utter that word. It seems to have been banned, eliminated altogether from the political and media discourse, where the influence of characters who are remnants of other times still prevails. The president of the Loya Jirga, appointed by Ghani, was the 73-year-old “Ustad” Abdul Sayyaf, a fundamentalist and misogynist preacher of jihad. Sayyaf has never wanted to hear any talk about justice—quite the opposite, as he lobbied heavily for amnesty for past crimes, including his own. These days, he presided over the Great Assembly calling for peace. “Ustad Sayyaf? Yesterday [Tuesday], at the Loya Jirga, he said that he had changed, that he respects women. For now, these are just words,” says the young delegate Sharifa Mohamedi, from Ghor, who can claim to be the first woman from her province “who opened a restaurant and rides a motorbike.” Afghanistan has changed. Sayyaf and Taliban should learn to deal with it.
On Thursday, the Loya Jirga concluded with an unequivocal call for peace talks between Kabul and the Taliban, as the overwhelming majority at the assembly were in favor of negotiations. In what could be seen as a gesture towards reconciliation, the Jirga also backed a call for the UN to change its designation of the Taliban as a “terrorist” group, which has been one of their longstanding demands. Nonetheless, the assembly also made clear its support for women’s rights and for preserving the gains made by women since the ousting of the Taliban regime in 2001.
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