Security around Kabul was tight
ahead of the jirga

Tribal elders from two of Pakistan's most troubled zones said they would not attend the event.

The Taliban dismissed the three-day gathering as a US-organised farce.

Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan's president, excused himself from attending by citing "engagements in the capital" as the reason for a meeting to which he agreed nearly a year ago.

But despite the party poopers, Kabul has been spruced up to receive guests from neighbouring Pakistan for a headline meeting that was first announced in Washington in September last year following separate meetings of Musharraf and Hamid Karzai, his Afghan counterpart, with George Bush, the US president.

That over 300 delegates from across the border are in the city is in itself unusual, as Pakistanis rarely visit Afghanistan.

"Travel between the two countries has mainly been in one direction. Millions of Afghans have gone to Pakistan as refugees," says Amin Mudaqiq, the Kabul bureau chief of Radio Azadi.

Need for dialogue 

Exchanges, especially post-9/11, have been largely between governments.

"When the governments have been in contact there have been slight misunderstandings" says Waheed Omar, deputy assistant of the jirga.

Haseeb Humayoon, an analyst with the Kabul-based Centre for Conflict and Peace Studies, an independent research centre, is more blunt, saying bilateral government dialogue has sometimes widened the gap between the two countries.

Hundreds of Afghan and Pakistani delegates
have been attending the meeting [AFP]
 
Featuring Pakistani and Afghan representatives, the three-day meeting is modelled on a tradition of calling jirgas - or tribal assemblies - in times of crisis.

And the rationale for a jirga that aims to take debate away from the strictures of formal government has never been more pressing.

Both countries have seen the worst instability in territories that straddle the international border.

The governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan have only limited control over these areas, where tribal elders hold particular influence and where the Taliban and al-Qaeda hold bases.
 
If tribal elders, community leaders or residents who provide food and shelter to the insurgents in the border regions were to be convinced to turn against the Taliban and al-Qaeda, the fighters would find it difficult to maintain their campaigns.

"If this jirga endorses punishment of the extremists, then the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan have a legal [that is, acceptable to the tribal communities] basis for carrying out military operations in those areas," says Mudaqiq, adding that the political impact of any negative fallout from such operations would be much reduced. 

Though the problem is too complex to be solved with one peace jirga, this week's council meeting could be a step towards reducing a long history of tension, he says.

Pessimistic view

Shinkai Karokhail, a member of the lower house of Afghanistan's parliament, endorses Mudaqiq's view. Emphasising that she cannot talk about what the result of the jirga may be, she says it is a good step in opening a dialogue. 
 

The jirga will aim to foster mutual
understanding on security issues
She is hopeful there might be a change of attitude in Pakistan, since it has also felt the impact of terrorism in its own territory. She points out that Aftab Ahmed Khan Sherpao, Pakistan's interior minister and that country's leader of the jirga, was himself the victim of an attack.
 
Not everyone is quite so optimistic. Mustafa Kazemi, the spokesperson of the newly formed united front, which is now commonly viewed as Afghanistan’s first opposition, dismissed the jirga days before it began. Ramazan Bashar Dost, an outspoken Afghan MP, attacked the jirga on grounds that it was a futile exercise. 
 
Ahmed, a young Afghan, feels the real issue is one of ownership and power sharing. Calling Karzai's government US-dominated, he says: "Pashtuns will not come to Kabul while the Americans are here. In my village they came looking for me.
I was not there but my cousin's son is now in Guantanamo and he has been there for the last six years. They have reduced the heroes of yesterday to terrorists."

Scope of meeting

The internal opposition to the government is something that the country has to deal with on its own and is not a bilateral issue, Omar says. The jirga will only examine the sanctuary and support provided to the insurgents in the volatile Afghanistan-Pakistan border region.

Shaukat Aziz, Pakistan's prime minister, said in his opening speech that global terrorism, Afghanistan's home-grown insurgency and the phenomenon of Talibanisation affecting Pakistan's own border areas were his country's main concerns.

However, Aziz also claimed that Afghanistan was not at peace with itself, adding that Kabul could not blame anyone else for this failure.

Some feel that the issues outlined by Aziz are already well known by the various parties concerned, but Omar says the jirga is an attempt to increase understanding.

The people of the affected areas, he says, "felt that they were ignored in addressing the problem they were most affected by. They felt the governments had taken the most superficial policy against terrorists and insurgents and that they were the ones who should have been asked. We feel this [jirga] is part of the democratic process."

Source: Al Jazeera