Afghan President Ashraf Ghani inspects a guard of honor during the first day of the Loya Jirga in Kabul on April 29. Photo: Rahmat Gul / AFP

The Loya Jirga is a traditional Afghan institution for gaining a consensus on important issues, but through the decades-long civil war its halo dissipated and the legitimacy of the one that got underway in Kabul on Monday is already being questioned. This is symptomatic of the fragmentation of Afghan society and also a reflection on the power struggle raging in the country.

The current Loya Jirga was instigated by President Ashraf Ghani. He determined the list of people invited and he hopes to extract from it a “consensus” that he approves of. In his Presidential Decree on February 26, Ghani spelt out that the Loya Jirga was being convened with the aim of “listening, effectively using and paying ultimate tribute to the advice, views and analysis of people’s representatives from all layers and strata of society on problems to seek solutions and accelerate the negotiation process [with the Taliban].”

It spelled out the two key issues for deliberation as: a) “the definition of and the modalities of achieving peace”, and, b) “limits and a framework for negotiations with the Taliban movement.”

Simply put, the jirga is a pantomime, staged theatrically by Ghani to gain legitimacy for himself. It is being held three days after he inaugurated the new parliament in Kabul on Friday.

Afghan men pray as they attend the loya jirga in Kabul on April 29. Photo: AFP

Bid to boost Ghani’s legitimacy

Ghani’s political opponents are pressing for an interim government, which could include the Taliban, to deliberate on a ceasefire and a new constitution. But he refuses to walk into the sunset. With the Taliban stubbornly refusing to deal with Ghani – who they call an “American puppet” – and the crème de la crème of the Afghan political elite boycotting the Loya Jirga, Ghani’s strategy to enhance his legitimacy may not succeed.

However, Ghani also has allies. Delhi has let it be known that it endorses Ghani’s rejection of an interim government and supports his preference to front-load the presidential elections so that the elected Afghan government will steer any “Afghan-led, Afghan-controlled” reconciliation process with the Taliban.

Ghani sent his point person on peace talks Umer Daudzai to Tehran in mid-March seeking Iranian support also. Foreign Minister Javad Zarif assured Daudzai: “The Islamic Republic has always maintained it is the Afghan people who should have the final say in all their affairs. That’s why Iran believes that the government of Afghanistan, as the representative of Afghan people, must make the decisions.”

In a separate meeting, Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi told Daudzai that Tehran welcomes Ghani’s “recent initiatives” (read Loya Jirga) and “will spare no efforts to help” the Afghan government.  Araghchi also expressed doubts about the US’s intentions and emphasized the need for a regional approach, with the active participation of neighboring countries in the peace process.

The Indian and Iranian thinking would have something in common. But Delhi’s focus is on stalling any peace process leading to the formation of a pro-Pakistan set-up in Kabul, while Tehran’s priority is that Afghanistan should not get sucked into the US-led “maximum pressure” strategy against Iran. India is perfectly at ease with US troops remaining in Afghanistan, but Tehran resents the US military-intelligence presence on its eastern border.

General Qassem Soleimani, long-time leader of the Quds Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, which is in charge of security policies toward Afghanistan, warned on Tuesday that the more Washington steps up economic pressure on Iran, the more the “costs” would go up for the US too.

Complicated endgame

Suffice to say, the situation is fraught with the danger of degenerating into a quagmire for the US. The Afghan government has openly voiced lack of confidence in the US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad. Washington hit back by “blacklisting” the Afghan national security adviser Hamdullah Mohib, who relayed that unpleasant message via American media. Since then US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo telephoned Ghani to stress that the US-Taliban peace talks in Doha are the only show in town and he must cooperate.

Washington also forged, in the meantime, a trilateral consensus with Moscow and Beijing to advance the intra-Afghan dialogue. But Ghani has now upstaged the troika of big powers by calling the Loya Jirga. To be sure, the endgame in Afghanistan is turning out to be more complicated than the Vietnam War or the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Unlike in Vietnam, the US doesn’t have the luxury of cutting loose and making for the exit door. And, unlike the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union stopped its aid for Kabul and Najib’s government collapsed for want of foreign support, Ghani can at least count on Indian and Iranian help.

Khalilzad is due to visit Delhi on Monday. The Indians feel left out. But Khalilzad, while pandering to Indian sensitivities, also may have some plans to calibrate the extent of any Indian interference in the grim Afghan power struggle. The good part is that, fundamentally, Delhi will not want to be seen as working at cross purposes with the US in Afghanistan.

However, it is Iran which poses a big dilemma for the Trump administration. So long as the US-Iranian confrontation continues, Tehran will make life difficult for Washington every inch of the way. Washington must make its choice.

Quagmire could get messy

Equally, Pakistan-Iran relations have deteriorated sharply since the killing of 27 members of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC)  in a terrorist strike in February. Tehran suspects that the US and Saudi Arabia may use proxy groups based in Afghanistan to stage terrorist attacks across the Pakistani border.

Meanwhile, the Islamic State is gaining strength in Afghanistan. At a meeting in Bishkek on Monday of defense ministers linked to the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that “a breeding ground is emerging for extremist and separatist movements and terrorist cells are coming into existence. A most complex situation is developing in Afghanistan. The US presence in that country for many years has not solved existing problems.”

However, a Syrian-style Russian intervention in Afghanistan can be ruled out. On the other hand, Moscow has excellent relations with the range of Afghan leaders who are opposed to Ghani, especially former president Hamid Karzai. It also has contacts with the Taliban and is on friendly terms with Pakistan. At the same time, Russia and Iran are collaborators in the fight against IS. And the Iran-trained Afghan fedayeen who fought in Syria and Iraq are returning home.

Therefore, the big question is as to what form the expected Russian intervention may take. To quote Shoigu: “We consider it extremely important to assist the promotion of the inter-Afghan peace dialogue under the guidance of Afghans themselves.”

US special representative Zalmay Khalilzad gestures as he speaks during a forum talk with Tolo news director Lotfullah Najafizada in Kabul on April 28. Photo: Wakil Kohsar / AFP

More talks in Doha

Meanwhile, a sixth round of talks between the Taliban and the US started in Qatar on Wednesday, a spokesman for the group told AFP.

Khalilzad said on Sunday Washington was “a bit impatient” to end the war, given its $45 billion annual cost to US taxpayers and the continued toll on US forces, some 2,400 of whom have been killed since the US-led invasion in response to the September 11, 2001 attacks. President Donald Trump reportedly told advisers in December he wanted to pull about half of America’s 14,000 troops out of Afghanistan.

Khalilzad has stressed “there is no final agreement until everything is agreed” but the basic framework for a deal would see the US agree to pull its forces out in return for the Taliban vowing to stop terror groups using the country as a safe haven. But none of the talks to date have included the Ghani government.

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