Pashtun Jirga for Peace: Will it Work under the Circumstances?

Jirga for peace
By Rahimullah Yusufzai: The News, November 24, 2006

The Pakhtun amn (peace) jirga hosted by the Awami National Party (ANP) in Peshawar on November 20 was the first of its kind and it seems there will be a few more in the coming months. The event brought together Pakhtun politicians, religious scholars, intellectuals, ex-bureaucrats and diplomats, and artistes, all sharing the carpeted stage despite having conflicting political views. Some of the participants were non-Pakhtun but they belonged to the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP) and as such were sons of the soil.

Almost all the speakers highlighted the pain that they had suffered due to the continuing violence in the Pakhtun-inhabited areas across the 2,500-kilometre long Durand Line border in Afghanistan and Pakistan. They voiced the yearning of the Pakhtuns for peace in a region that has been turned into a battlefield by the world and regional powers. It was pointed out time and again from the stage that bloodshed had been going on in the Pakhtun lands for the last 28 years and had gradually spread from Afghanistan to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and rest of NWFP and Balochistan. The ANP-sponsored jirga, held at the Bacha Khan Markaz named after freedom-fighter and apostle of non-violence, Khan Abdul Ghaffar Khan, or Bacha Khan as he was called out of reverence, was essentially an attempt to create awareness among the Pakhtuns about the need to put out the fire that is burning their homes and threatening their livelihoods. It was also an effort to remind the mostly alien combatants, including western armies and Al Qaeda fighters, that they risked becoming unwelcome if they continued to occupy and use the Pakhtun land as a battleground for achieving their strategic goals.

Jirgas are a time-honoured tradition in tribal societies such as that of the Pakhtuns, who more than others have stuck to it as an effective forum to resolve disputes and peacefully put an end to conflicts. A jirga, which literally means sitting in a circle, is essentially an assembly of tribal and religious elders in which unanimous decisions are taken to resolve petty as well as serious disputes involving murders, ownership of property, thefts, matters of honours, etc. Inter-tribal conflicts were also resolved by bigger jirgas drawn from all Pakhtun tribes and areas. The loya jirgas evolved in Afghanistan and were constituted whenever the Afghans faced external aggression or wanted to embark on expeditions aimed at conquering neighbouring countries. At a later stage, the Afghan loya jirgas were also convened to frame that country's constitution and repose confidence in a ruler or government.

The concept and function of jirgas has changed over the years. The jirgas convened by governments are stuffed with their nominees who make decisions favouring the rulers. The independent jirgas, such as those called by the tribes in FATA, mostly take decisions in keeping with riwaj (customs) and tribal traditions and in line with Islamic injunctions. There is no doubt the power of jirgas has diminished due to a host of reasons, ranging from government and political interference to the rise of moneyed classes able to influence tribal elders and clergymen. Jirgas like the one arranged by the ANP will have political and moral weight only because there is no official sanction for their decisions to be implemented.

The resolution adopted by the Pakhtun peace jirga called for unity among all Pakhtuns to stop the bloodshed in the areas populated by them on both sides of the Durand Line. It demanded an end to interference in Afghanistan's affairs and condemned the use of force to settle disputes. The jirga showed concern over deterioration of the security situation in FATA after becoming a turf of conflict between armed combatants including foreigners and called for empowering the tribal Pakhtuns by granting them fundamental rights and undertaking political and administrative reforms with their consent. The jirga also demanded investigation of incidents in FATA in which indiscriminate use of military force was made and awarding punishment to those found guilty in accordance with the law. This was obviously prompted by the October 30 bombing of the religious school in Chingai village in Bajaur in which 80 people, mostly young students, were killed. In fact, the Bajaur attack, blamed by most Pakistanis on the US military despite claims by the Pakistan government that its own gunship helicopters were responsible for the missile strikes, served as the catalyst for the ANP to hold its jirga in Peshawar.

The measure of the jirga's success was the positive response of almost all the invitees, whether political or non-political, to participate in its deliberations. Top leadership of political parties, except the ruling PML and interior minister Aftab Sherpao's PPP which sent their low-ranked representatives, attended the jirga and spoke to the audience, composed mostly of ANP activists wearing red caps. The religio-political parties, which have emerged as the main rival to the national and secular parties such as the ANP for the Pakhtun vote, were adequately represented. Jamaat-i-Islami's NWFP head Sirajul Haq was there making an emotional speech and blaming the Pakistani generals for the suffering of the people, particularly the Pakhtuns.

The JUI-F and MMA supremo Maulana Fazlur Rahman came in person and dominated one of the sessions by making the unusual declaration that the Durand Line border was still a matter of dispute between Afghanistan and Pakistan and by reminding that deployment of 80,000 Pakistan Army troops in the border areas in FATA was a violation of the more than 100-year old Gandamak agreement signed by the then government of British India and Afghanistan. He also offered to mediate between the Taliban and the Afghan government and its American sponsors, provided the Taliban were not labelled as terrorists and provided with a level playing field to take part in Afghanistan's politics. For that to happen, Maulana Fazlur Rahman wanted President Hamid Karzai to break himself free of the US and operate independently after getting rid of the occupying foreign forces in Afghanistan.

However, there was little doubt that the jirga was a show of Pakhtun nationalists. The ANP called the shots and got the jirga to adopt a resolution designed to advance the party's line on the situation obtaining in the borderlands of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Mahmod Khan Achakzai, the ultra Pakhtun nationalist and leader of the Balochistan-centred Pakhtunkhwa Milli Awami Party (PMAP), was his usual ebullient self, criticising all those who held a different view and robustly defending his stance that the Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan in 1979 and the US invasion in 2001 was justified in view of the foreign interference in the Central Asian country by an assortment of players ranging from the ISI and CIA to Al Qaeda. His partisan views could have split the jirga had it not been for ANP president Asfandyar Wali Khan, who wisely refrained from highlighting divisive issues and strived to achieve a consensus among his invitees holding divergent political views. This was in keeping with the dignity and norms of a jirga, where participants often let go their pride to arrive at a consensus for the common good of their people.

It is obvious the Pakhtun peace jirga will enable the ANP to gain political mileage and enable it to claim that it took a timely step to end the bloodshed in Pakhtun territory. Subsequent jirgas would add to the value of the ANP initiative and primarily follow its lead in demanding an end to hostilities in the Pakhtun belt. There is a possibility of convening similar jirgas in Quetta and FATA and participants could include representatives of Pakhtuns inhabiting lands as far as the US, Europe, Arab countries and the Far East. Then there are plans to hold state-sponsored grand Pakhtun tribal jirgas in Afghanistan and Pakistan in line with the decision taken by presidents George W Bush, General Pervez Musharraf and Hamid Karzai in their summit meeting last summer in Washington.

Jirgas are thus becoming fashionable and bigger and those unfamiliar with the name and the tradition are getting to know it better. Still all these jirgas will be unable to deliver if those sponsoring them use the event as a vehicle to achieve narrow political goals. Jirgas succeed when parties to the conflict get an equal hearing and decisions are made independently and by consensus. That is unlikely to happen in the prevailing circumstances. So we could have as many jirgas as we want but none would be able to deliver until those sitting on the jirgas are authorised by the powers that be, whether Afghanistan, Pakistan, the US and NATO, or non-state actors like Al Qaeda, to take any decision for the sake of peace.

The writer is an executive editor of The News International based in Peshawar. Email: bbc@pes.comsats.net.pk

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