Some 1,600 delegates from around Afghanistan are descending on the capital to discuss peace. But this three-day gathering, or peace jirga, which begins Wednesday, won't be hashing out a deal that brings the troops home: It is neither legally binding nor does it involve the government's opponents.
Instead, the Afghan government says the "consultative jirga" is simply trying to build national consensus on how to pursue peace talks by answering some of the most basic questions.
"A lot of the past efforts targeting peace in Afghanistan were not that clear. Despite all of the effort made, we don't have a clear definition of who the opposition are and what is it we can talk with them about and what is it we cannot negotiate," says Najibullah Amin, head of policy for the jirga. "The bulk of the work is to identify what are the motives behind the insurgency."
Even with limited goals, many Afghans question the timing and legitimacy of the three-day event that starts Wednesday. The gathering does not meet delegate requirements for a loya jirga, or grand council, that would have a fuller representation and thus authority under the Constitution. Instead, aside from some high-profile figures such as parliamentarians and civil society leaders, the guests have been selected by the government.
"To have peace in a country you have to involve all different bodies of the nation," says Fawzia Kofi, a leading female member of parliament (MP). "The people who are hand-picked are not enough. You need people in the international community and the people who are actually fighting."
She and other parliamentarians are debating whether to boycott the event, with some arguing the jirga is unconstitutional and others wanting "to keep an eye on the agenda," she says.
The government says this jirga, which was delayed several times, is part of a longer process.
The first step involved recent visits by President Hamid Karzai to neighboring countries, including Pakistan and Iran, as well as Russia and the United States. The jirga is meant to build internal backing for a peace plan, which will then be presented in July to the Kabul Conference, a gathering of mostly Western foreign ministers. With domestic and outside support, the government hopes to confidently pursue negotiations with the insurgency.
Will insurgents care?
Whatever plan emerges, however, may not be of any interest to the militants. In recent months, the Taliban has escalated attacks on military bases around the country.
"The Taliban is not willing to cooperate unless they are weakened," says Khalid Pashtun, an MP from Kandahar Province, the insurgency’s heartland. He wishes the jirga would be held after the US military completes its summer offensive in Kandahar because "you would have better impact, more willingness from the opposition."
The plan envisions using an international trust fund to pay for projects in the communities of militants who agree to disarm and accept the government and Constitution. Some fighters would be given jobs in a civilian conservation corps doing work like clearing irrigation ditches and planting trees.
It's unclear if the reintegration proposal will be tabled at the jirga.
Connected to Karzai
In fact, the actual agenda remains a mystery, says Ms. Kofi.
Some organizational details have emerged from those attending an orientation on Sunday. The 1,600 attendees have been split into 28 groups, each including about 10 women. One attendee says her group of about 50 people included mostly elders from many different provinces, including leaders elected to serve on village development councils and a few university lecturers. Many had served in past jirgas, and were picked either by the presidential palace or by governors (who are appointed by the president).
Kofi says many of the attendees are relatives of people in the palace. Mr. Pashtun estimates that about a quarter are appointees not based on merit. Political parties are not represented – instead, MPs will attend as individuals. And the main opposition candidate in last year's elections, Abdullah Abdullah, was not invited.
All of the jirga groups will be given the same discussion points and about a day and half to talk together, according to the orientation. On the final day, the group discussions will be incorporated into a final statement from the jirga organizers.
The government already has some positions staked out in advance, according to Mr. Amin.
"All the Taliban who are Afghans but are unhappy for certain reasons, they have the right to come back to the government. But if they have a link or roots somewhere else beyond the borders of the country, then they can't be negotiated with," he says. "Whoever they are, things we cannot negotiate with them are the Constitution of Afghanistan and the advances made [since 2001]. We cannot compromise our freedom of women, freedom of media."
The area more open for debate seems to be the insurgency's causes and remedies. "It is not all about jobless people joining the opposition. There are a lot of factors involved,” he says.
None of the government positions are new, although a key insurgent demand is to reopen discussion on the Constitution. That particularly worries women who view the Constitution as a safeguard of basic rights denied under the previous Taliban government.
Women delegates met Monday to formulate a joint strategy heading into the jirga. The women will try to elect female heads of the jirga groups and will argue that any rewards given to ex-fighters must be shared with their wives, daughters, and mothers.