The long-anticipated peace jirga in Afghanistan concluded on Friday, with mixed but potentially very important results. And in its wake, President Karzai—who is committed to opening talks with the Taliban to end the war—fired two top Afghan security officials, to howls of protests from US and NATO officials. Both fired Afghans appear to have been American stooges.
In both the jirga and firing of Afghanistan’s interior minister and intelligence chief, a key issue was Karzai’s insistence on freeing political prisoners held by the United States and Afghanistan, including many Taliban, and removing more than 100 current and former Taliban from the so-called List 1267, the outmoded, post-9/11 UN-maintained watch list. At the jirga, the 1,600 delegates issues a sixteen-point resolution that called for the removal of top insurgent leaders from List 1267, including Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a key insurgent leader.
The jirga’s key accomplishments are significant: It decided to create a permanent shura, or council, to explore the opening of peace negotiations, and it’s possible that current or former members of the Taliban could take part in that council. It called on the Taliban to cut ties with Al Qaeda, a call widely seen as meant to placate the United States—even though Al Qaeda barely exists as an organization anymore. Besides calling for the elimination of the UN blacklist, it also called for the release of detainees held by the United States in Guantánamo and at Bagram Air Base and other prisons. Under great pressure from the United States, the jirga stopped short of calling for a timetable for the withdrawal of US and NATO forces.
The point of removing the Taliban officials from the list: it’s impossible to have official peace talks with men who would be instantly arrested and incarcerated. And it’s a gesture to the Taliban, a sign that Karzai is serious about wanting reconciliation. Ambassador Richard Holbrooke, the US special envoy, has expressed horror at the idea of removing Mullah Omar from the UN list.
The jirga also demanded that no preconditions be imposed on peace talks with the Taliban. As Anand Gopal in the Christian Science Monitor reported:
Among the controversial propositions include the demand that both the Taliban and the Afghan government drop any preconditions for talks. Kabul and Washington have said that they will only talk to those insurgents who lay down their weapons and accept the Afghan constitution. The insurgents, on the other hand, believe such terms constitute a surrender and refuse to start talks until foreign troops leave.
A number of delegates said the government’s demands were unrealistic.
"When they say put down your guns and accept our law and then we’ll talk, what kind of negotiation is that?" asks a delegate from the eastern province of Nangarhar, who asked not to be named.
Originally announced by Karzai in January, the jirga was to have included representatives of the Taliban, apparently including Mullah Baradur, the number-two Taliban official, who had engaged in secret contacts with Karzai and the UN. But in February, Pakistan’s intelligence service, the ISI, threw a monkey wrench into the planning for the jirga by arresting Baradur. His arrest was widely seen as an act by Pakistan to assert control over the Afghan peace process, a message to Karzai that his efforts would fail unless they brought Pakistan into the center of the talks.
It’s likely that the firing of the interior minister and the chief of intelligence by Karzai is meant to smooth the way for just that: talks with the Taliban, in which Pakistan will play a key role.
Though activists for women’s rights, among others, aren’t happy about the idea of reconciling with the Taliban, and although Afghanistan’s petulant opposition leader Abdullah Abdullah, the runner-up in last August’s presidential election, foolishly led a boycott of the jirga, the three-day meeting did bolster Karzai’s prestige, and it could set the stage for a lengthy peace process that could, in fact, end the war. Staffan de Mistura, the savvy UN official in Afghanistan, said that the jirga could indeed create conditions over the coming months that could lead to a political breakthrough. The Taliban are watching very carefully what is happening,” he said. “They are not naïve, as you know, neither blind, and they are also in my opinion tired.”
Mistura said that he’d orchestrate a visit to Afghanistan by UN officials to speed the process of removing Taliban officials from the UN watch list.
Two days after the jirga ended, Karzai fired Amrullah Saleh, the intelligence chief, and Hanif Atmar, the interior minister. In the New York Times and the Washington Post, along with other US media, American and NATO officials huffed and puffed with annoyance about their dismissal. According to the Times, the firing directly related to Karzai’s efforts to talk to the Taliban:
Officials also said that Mr. Saleh was uncomfortable with Mr. Karzai’s insistence that some Taliban members should be released from detention as a signal of the government’s intent to negotiate and reach out to the insurgents.
And the paper added that if Karzai wants to talk to Pakistan (and the Taliban, which is sponsored by Pakistan) about a deal, he needed Saleh out of the way:
Mr. Saleh is also an outspoken critic of Pakistan and has publicly blamed the government for its support of the Taliban and other extremists. As Mr. Karzai positions himself to reach out to the Taliban, he is likely to have to turn to Pakistan for help, and that could have been more difficult if Mr. Saleh remained in a central role.
Stunningly, the Obama administration has the gall to state publicly that it’s not happy about Karzai firing the two stooges. According to the Post:
The departures of Interior Minister Hanif Atmar and National Directorate of Security chief Amrullah Saleh are likely to become an additional irritant in the already rocky relationship between Karzai and Washington.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said both officials were "people we admire and whose service we appreciate." Atmar, Morrell added, "was one of the ministers we cared about."