Any momentum gained from the recent peace jirga, which brought together Pashtun leaders from Afghanistan and Pakistan, already seems to be fading.
About 600 tribal elders attended the August 9-12 gathering in Kabul. A declaration issued at the conclusion voiced a joint desire of Pashtuns on both sides of the Afghan-Pakistani border to combat terrorism and prevent narcotics trafficking. But perhaps the most significant development was an initiative to engage moderate elements within the Taliban.
To facilitate possible engagement, peace jirga attendees decided to establish a 50-member joint commission, comprising an equal number of Afghan and Pakistani representatives, to "expedite the ongoing process of dialogue for peace and reconciliation with the opposition," according to the joint declaration.
The hottest debates at the jirga centered on the issue of whether it is possible to distinguish "good Talibs" from the bad. Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf -- who addressed the jirga on August 12 after staying away from the first two days of discussions -- certainly thinks it is possible to do so. "We have to understand the conditions," Musharraf said. "The Taliban are part of Afghan society. Some of them are uneducated and do not know what they do, and to that we must be sympathetic."
It's understandable why Pakistan would be a strong backer of such a course. Islamabad has long been a sponsor of the Taliban, believing that the radical Islamic movement can serve as a vehicle for the preservation of Pakistani influence in Afghanistan. Musharraf even acknowledged during the jirga that Taliban militants have benefited from the use of safe havens in Pakistan's tribal areas.
Karzai -- no doubt cognizant of the Bush administration's tendency to frame nuanced issues in simple good/bad or black/white terms -- has been reluctant to press for an all-out effort to engage the Taliban. Such efforts would be sure to rile official Washington. However, the jirga's joint statement indicates that his thinking on the matter may be shifting.
The jirga began with Afghan and Pakistani leaders disputing the root causes of instability. Karzai emphasized the Pakistani factor in abetting the Taliban insurgency. He also urged closer bilateral cooperation. "Afghanistan is not under fire alone now," Karzai said in his opening address. "Unfortunately our Pakistani brothers are also under fire, and this fire, day by day, is getting hotter."
Meanwhile, Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz pinned the blame squarely on Afghans themselves. "Afghanistan is not yet at peace within itself," Aziz contended. Afghans, then, "can't blame anyone else for failing to achieve [stabilization]."
Musharraf's appearance at the jirga, along with his admission concerning Islamabad's role in the revival of the Taliban insurgency, seemed to salvage the prospect that the meeting could produce a breakthrough in Afghanistan's reconstruction, and in promoting better Afghan-Pakistani relations.
The Afghan co-chair of the jirga (and former Afghan foreign minister) Dr. Abdullah Abdullah reported after the conclusion of the gathering that Pakistani officials had pledged to take action to close Taliban camps within Pakistan.
Developments in recent days have tempered even what were from the beginning modest expectations. On August 15, for example, at least four Pakistani elders who attended the jirga received anonymous letters threatening them with reprisals if they followed through on efforts to curtail Taliban activity in Pakistan. The threats indicate that Islamic militants are prepared to use violence to block the implementation of the jirga's peace agenda.
Some political analysts have questioned whether Pakistani Pashtuns are sufficiently unified to implement the goals outlined in the jirga's joint declaration. Many elders from Pakistan's tribal areas, which border Afghanistan, shunned the jirga, arguing that the gathering could accomplish nothing without the direct participation of Taliban representatives. Taliban leaders denounced the jirga, and refused to fulfill preconditions that would enable their attendance, namely a public renunciation of violence and recognition of the Afghan constitution's validity. [For background see the Eurasia insight archive].
Musharraf appeared to recognize the challenges facing implementation of the jirga declaration. Upon his return to Pakistan he characterized the joint declaration as "a step in the right direction," but, he stressed, the commitment to reach out to the Taliban "is not an end in itself, [but] rather a beginning of a peace process."
Immediately after the jirga's conclusion, Karzai turned his attention to another of Afghanistan's contentious neighboring, Iran. On August 14, the Afghan president met with his Iranian counterpart, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in Kabul. Speaking at a news conference, Ahmadinejad rejected US assertions that Iran is supplying Islamic militants in Afghanistan with bombs and weapons. "Security in Afghanistan has a direct impact on Iran, and for us, a powerful and secure Afghanistan is very beneficial," Ahmadinejad said.
During an August 14 news conference, Karzai described Iran as a "close brother and friend to our nation." He also expressed a desire to act as a facilitator of a US-Iranian rapprochement. According to an official Afghan source, Afghan diplomats have already on several occasions passed messages from the US government to Iranian officials in Kabul. In each instance, Iran did not respond to the US feelers, the source added.
Afghan officials quietly express deep concern over escalating US-Iranian tension, underscored by recent reports that the US government is mulling whether to designate Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a terrorist organization. "If anything happened between Iran and the United States, Afghanistan would be caught in the middle," the Afghan source said. "Iran can destabilize Afghanistan easily."
Camelia Entekhabi-Fard has reported from Afghanistan and Iran for EurasiaNet. Richard Weitz is a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC.