Loya jirga mandate to boost Ashraf Ghani’s image

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By Rustam Shah Mohmand

Afghanistan’s President Ashraf Ghani’s four day loya jirga, which literally means ‘Grand Assembly,’ concluded on Friday. The jirga was attended by 3,200 parliamentarians, tribal leaders, ulema or religious scholars, youth representatives, leaders of political parties, representatives of all ethnic groups including minorities, and journalists. About 30 percent of the jirga members were women.
Conspicuous by their absence were former President Hamid Karzai, the current chief executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah and former interior minister Hanif Atmar as well as other heavyweights who claim to have strong political support or a huge following in the country.

But what prompted Ghani to call a massive grand assembly a mere four months before the scheduled presidential election?
The reasons are in fact, manifold. First, the President wanted to end his isolation. Since the commencement of talks between the Taliban and the US, his government had been effectively sidelined. This has understandably irked Ghani who has become somewhat irrelevant in the scheme of things. By calling the jirga, he created the impression that he is acting in the supreme interests of the country with all (or most) stakeholders in the future of Afghanistan, without pursuing a strategy for self-aggrandizement.
The president also wanted to bring pressure to bear upon the US government to stop treating him as a lonely, helpless head of state losing both control and popularity. To him, the jirga could show the world that he still commands respect across the country and that his actions reflect the hopes and aspirations of the people.
Ghani wanted to create a strong ‘people’s constituency’ to emerge as a third potent and vibrant force, besides the Taliban and the US, in crucial talks aimed at seeking durable peace in the country.
More importantly he would like his jirga demands to set the terms and conditions for talks with the Taliban, a sort of a framework for negotiations. This framework will then be touted as a national agenda that cannot be bypassed, violated or compromised.

In so doing, Ghani wants to wrest the initiative that he seems to have lost as US-Taliban talks enter a crucial stage. At the assembly’s conclusion, he will hope that he has created a place for himself and his government as an indispensable and important player that can no longer be ignored. So far, the only success the jirga seems to have achieved is in generating a huge interest and enthusiasm for peace-building efforts. Whether President Ghani will be met with some degree of success in garnering support for his faltering regime, still remains to be seen.

It will all depend on how the insurgency ultimately takes course. The Taliban are speaking from a position of strength at this point, and if their momentum continues, the pressure on Ghani will mount to show more flexibility on contentious issues. As expected, the jirga’s calls for an immediate ceasefire were not given any serious consideration by the Taliban, with the violence continuing barely a day after the conclusion of the assembly.

Meanwhile talks between the Taliban and US negotiators have continued in Doha. 
The resolution and eventual outcome of the talks will depend on how and to what extent the US puts pressure on Ghani’s government not to create hurdles in the way of their peace negotiations with the Taliban. Ghani could use the authority or mandate from the jirga to stake his claim to full ownership of the peace process. 

But it is clear that from now on, peace endeavors will get a renewed momentum. In other words, peace-making will now be the principal agenda that the regime and other groups in the country will try to promote.

With Afghan elections coming up in the fall, the US team of negotiators must move fast to put on the table workable proposals that meet basic Tailban demands. The Taliban will also have to formulate their vision of a broad-based Afghan Government, and put that across to the Afghan people and the world at large. 

Side by side, the mandate of the jirga could also be used by Ghani to bolster his own image, at the expense of wider national interests. A tough task lies ahead for the American negotiators, and it remains to be seen what Ghani will be remembered for in Afghanistan’s history.

 (Rustam Shah Mohmand is a specialist of Afghanistan and Central Asian Affairs. He has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to Afghanistan and also held position of Chief Commissioner Refugees for a decade.)