This Article appeared in DAWN on August 19, 2007

TO say that the situation in Afghanistan is grave would be an understatement. Every passing day sees the US becoming mired ever deeper in Afghanistan à la Iraq, because of its faulty strategy. In its desperation, it is looking for supporting planks and is leaning more and more on Pakistan. Thus the mantra of “do more”.

Meanwhile, Kabul, the proverbial capital of intrigues, is bustling with renewed activities. People are talking about a new great game related to the oil and gas reserves of the Central Asian Republics and trade opportunities that mask the ambitions of the US and the new emerging superpowers. It is in the backdrop of this environment that Pakistan is getting sucked into the situation in the name of the peace jirga.

This writer participated in the Pak Afghan Joint Peace Jirga in Kabul held from Aug 9 to Aug 12, 2007 with the aim of being useful, despite many people questioning the wisdom of such a jirga. Will the latter be able to achieve results or will it lead to Pakistan getting further sucked into a situation from which extrication would be difficult.

In its 60 years, Pakistan has suffered for 30 mainly because of the fallout from the situation inside Afghanistan. In this peace jirga, one saw the same old players with suspect loyalties and ambitions occupying front seats in new roles. They are the same Ustad Rabbani, Ustad Rasool Sayaf, Pir Sayyed Ahmad Gillani, Ismail Khan Toran, Rasheed Dostum and Pir Sayyed Mujadadi. Of course, the late Ahmad Shah Masud has been succeeded by Ameen Faheem and Younas Qanooni.

The main spokesman Abdullah Abdullah was co-chairing the jirga with Interior Minister Aftab Ahmad Khan Sherpao from Pakistan’s side. All the main Afghan speakers, well-prepared unlike their Pakistani counterparts, carried venom in their hearts against Pakistan ” in spite of the lip service paid to long historical linkages and the hospitality of the Pakistani people towards five million Afghan refugees.Afghanistan’s hostile attitude towards Pakistan since its inception is not a new phenomenon. The attacks on Pakistan’s embassy in Kabul and its consulates in Jalalabad on the slight pretext are well known and common.

Thus those who understand Pakistan-Afghan relations are justified in wondering as to who conceived this novel idea of the peace jirga and for what purpose. The men behind this are those who authored and brokered the infamous North Waziristan agreement.In an effort to sell the North Waziristan agreement, the role of the peace jirgas was overstated, and George Bush was prompt in observing that if these could resolve issues, why not have them between Pakistan and Afghanistan. We had to agree.

Pakistan realised the disastrous effects of the North Waziristan agreement after 10 months, after considerable damage to its writ and the resultant spread of the menace of Talibanisation to settled areas, right up to Islamabad.

Let us hope that our journey to this jirga does not land us into further trouble.

Talibanisation is an ideology and US operations in Afghanistan, instead of dealing with the threat posed by this ideology, are focused solely on getting hold of Osama Bin Laden, Ayman-al-Zawahiri, Mulla Omar etc. The stabilisation of society in Afghanistan does not seem to be high on their list of priorities. Thus the common man in Afghanistan, particularly in the Pashtun-dominated southern and eastern provinces, faces lack of security and the absence of service delivery.

The rank and file of the Taliban in Afghanistan is not only swelling but the effects of this phenomenon are spreading towards the adjoining tribal areas of Pakistan.

Owing to the Pakistani government’s inconsistent tribal policy that changes with the appointment of each new governor, the menace is spreading to the settled areas of Pakistan on hand and to the crossing of some Taliban into Afghanistan on the other, thus giving enough reason to Kabul to blame Pakistan for all its troubles.

Was the Pak Afghan Joint Peace Jirga beneficial to Pakistan? For an answer, it is imperative that the dynamics of the jirga system be clearly understood. The jirga is a formal forum to resolve issues in Pashtun tradition but it has certain prerequisites. First is the precise definition of the issue or issues that can be equated with terms of reference for the jirga.

Second is the nomination of the parties involved in the conflict and their willingness to submit to the jirga. This is known as wak or ikhtiar. These aspects were missing in this jirga.

The present issue is between Al Qaeda and the Taliban on the one side and the Afghan government and Nato forces on the other. Since neither side is willing to negotiate, one is at a loss to understand as to how a peace jirga between the people of the NWFP and Balochistan and the people of Afghanistan can resolve the issue, especially when the main contenders are not represented.

Whether non-state actors should be represented is an altogether different question. There are those who contend that this jirga would at least bring the two people together to get to know each other more. Do the people of the NWFP and Balochistan and the Afghans require further introduction?

Some nationalist elements in Balochistan and the NWFP and on the Afghan side question the validity of the Durand Line, the international border between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The government should be aware that such frequent meetings could give impetus to this dormant issue.

There are those who think that the new game is to “pretend” that there are issues between Afghanistan and Pakistan that need to be resolved. Such issues would subsequently be used as a pretext to involve Pakistan in the war in Afghanistan, thus paving the way for joint operations involving Pakistani territory.

All such theories need to be given due consideration by Pakistan before the government haphazardly peruses processes which have not been thought through.

As already mentioned, the Afghan side had prepared very well for this jirga, with the aim of putting the whole blame on Pakistan for the present situation in Afghanistan. They wanted the delegates from Pakistan to believe that all Taliban under Mulla Omar are Pakistanis or have been trained by Pakistan and are being financed and directed by it.

The speakers had been well selected and had prepared with proper speeches. On the Pakistan side, such preparations were hardly visible. The participants consisted of three main strands: nationalist parties like the ANP and Pashtun Khwa Milli Awami Party with their own ideologies, traders who wanted to establish/refresh links with their counterparts in Afghanistan, and simple tribesmen who did not know what to do and what to say.

It was said that the Afghan delegates had more than 60 meetings to prepare for this jirga. On Pakistan’s side, there were hardly any preparations. Everyone was on his own, creating an embarrassing situation for the Pakistani delegation despite some last-minute efforts by Mr Sherpao to bring some sanity to the proceedings.

To quote just one example, the Afghan side was so consistent in its efforts that Abdullah Abdullah, known for his anti-Pakistan stance, was monitoring the progress of each subcommittee personally.

The attorney-general of Afghanistan, with a full team of lawyers, was the member of the first committee which was to deal with the main issue of non-interference in each other’s internal affairs. This equated to allegations against Pakistan and the propaganda which the Afghan government carries out against it.

The proceedings of this committee started from 8am on Aug 11 and continued until 4am on Aug 12. The Pakistan side had no qualified person to draft the recommendations. The result was a diluted version of the recommendations which assumed the form of a trade agreement. These recommendations were never placed before the committee and were announced in the morning in a hurry.

The jirga also witnessed some ugly moments. At one point, the tribal leaders wanted to walk out and address a press conference on the plea that if the Pakistani delegation accepted the whole blame for the situation in Afghanistan, they would be the ones that would have to take action.

In fact, they would be required to stop cross-border incursions and that would mean the complete consent of their tribes which would be a tall order, particularly when they had not discussed the issue with them beforehand.

On another occasion, Hazrat Pir Sayyed Mujadadi, not satisfied with the venom that he had spewed against Pakistan from the rostrum in the main jirga hall, while leading the Friday prayers started talking against Pakistan in the khutba.

Some of the tribal elders from Pakistan stood up and refused to offer prayers behind him and forced him down from the pulpit.

In spite of all this, one must accept that the way the Afghan government and the people treated the guests from Pakistan was really praiseworthy. They had put in much effort to arrange accommodation, transportation and food, and their movements appeared to have been well coordinated and they remained very courteous in spite of provocations.

The British, after three costly wars, learnt that the best way to deal with Afghanistan was to leave it to its own fate and concentrate on controlling the borders between Afghanistan and the territories now representing Pakistan. This is the lesson available to the rulers of Pakistan. One wishes they would understand this plain logic. But then a wish is not a fish that one can fry and enjoy.

The writer is former secretary, home & tribal affairs, NWFP, and secretary Fata (Security).