Strategy in Afghanistan

Written 5 October, 2001.  See also updates at end.


Initial responses to September 11 focused on the question of how to eliminate bin Laden and the threat of terrorism.   However, a broader set of related questions soon emerged.   Key among these is how to relate to the people of Afghanistan.   An immediate issue is how to gain support of Afghanis for bringing bin Laden to book.  A longer-term issue, but nearly as important to the success of efforts to address terrorism and support the emergence of stability in the region, is how to assist the creation of a credible government in Kabul.


This paper draws: a) on strategic lessons from peacebuilding efforts in the wars of Africa and the former Yugoslavia and b) on “insider” knowledge of Afghani culture in exploring strategic options for dealing with the Afghanistan situation.  The paper proposes use of the jirga, a traditional Afghani forum for decision-making, as a means for involving Afghanis in discussion about their future.   In contrast to some current discussions about beginning with a high-level jirga, this paper proposes a series of jirgas at lower levels, preparing the way for a high-level loya jirga.

Learnings from Peace building in Africa and Asia

“Rogue Elements” and the Population Bases in which they operate

Bitter experience in peacebuilding in the Africa and the former Yugoslavia in the last decade teaches that “rogue elements” – whether warlords, war criminals, or terrorists – cannot be contained or brought to justice in the absence of broad consensus about how to proceed within the populations in which these agents move.


Conventional wisdom takes an uncomplicated attitude towards “rogue elements”: “Kill a snake by chopping off its head.”   This overlooks the ambiguous relationship which almost always exists between rogue elements and the populations in which they move.   Populations typically experience a mixture of benefits and costs from the presence of rogue elements.  Efforts to simply remove rogue elements in South Africa, Somalia, Bosnia, and Rwanda without understanding the reasons why some people in the populations in question are drawn towards the rogue elements almost always causes violent polarization. 


Sometimes, of course, the attractions of rogue elements are inherently destructive.  They may appeal to a desire to settle ancient scores or to impose visions of ethnic superiority on others.  But frequently rogue elements appeal because they appear to satisfy legitimate needs: for stability, economic improvement, identity, religious recognition, etc.  


 It is not enough simply to focus on removal of “rogue elements”. It is important also to: a) understand the needs which these elements meet in the populations in which they move, so as to be able to address these needs and reduce their impact and; b) understand and immediately utilize procedures for decision making and problem-solving that are familiar to and trusted by affected populations, so as to be able to consult with them and identify strategies for response to rogue elements most likely to gain the support of a large segment of the population; c) conduct the first two activities in ways that feed into and support the eventual creation of credible, sustainable processes of decision making and governance within the societies in question.


In summary, the dual tasks of responding to rogue elements and establishing sustainable decision making/governance processes are closely related.  Creating processes for consulting with affected populations and involving them in planning and decision making about dealing with problematic elements and about governance structures thus becomes an essential task from the very beginning of efforts to respond to situations where rogue elements operate.


Rooting Strategic Processes in Affected Cultures.

A learning from global peacebuilding experience is the importance of rooting processes and institutions for decision-making, conflict resolution, and governance deeply in the culture and traditions of the people affected by conflict.    When such processes and institutions build on existing traditions for bringing people together, like the indaba of South Africa (which was repeatedly used to achieve breakthroughs during the political transition), the Middle Eastern sulha, the “council of elders” in Melanesia, the panchayats of India, etc., the odds of success are significantly higher.   


Every cultural context has an abundance of such resources for problem solving found in various categories including:

·        unique individuals (e.g.: South Africa’s Desmond Tutu)

·        uniquely constellated groups (such as a group of black and white religious and business leaders in South Africa who had longstanding relationships and met on several occasions to use their broad connections to keep the South African transition process from faltering)

·        special types of persons (religious leaders, elders, “peace chiefs”)

·        special processes or institutions (indaba, panchayat, etc.)


Peacebuilding experience in a wide variety of global conflicts has taught that the odds of long-term sustainability of any agreement or strategy are improved by rooting planning, negotiating, or implementation processes deeply in such resources.      

The Current Afghanistan Situation

A long-standing feature of Afghani Pashtun culture is the jirga, an assembly of elders, to resolve conflicts.  The jirga goes back thousands of years, and continues to serve as the primary means by which public and private problem solving is conducted among the Pashtun.   An important characteristic of the jirga is that it is independent of control by any one institution.  By tradition, anyone can speak, and decisions are made so as to reflect the collective will of the people rather than of any one person or institution.   An additional feature of the jirga is that participants are expected to take seriously the concerns of other participants and work actively to address the concerns of all.


Convened at local, regional and national levels, the jirga commands enormous respect among a large number of Afghanis.   Not only is it a forum for internal deliberation, it has traditionally been convened for problem solving with external parties.  The British used the jirga as their primary means of maintaining relationships with Afghani tribes during the years in which they ruled Afghanistan.  Pakistanis use it for decision making and problem-solving with Afghani refugees living in Pakistan.


Use of the jirga in responding to Afghanistan’s difficulties is by no means a novel idea.   For nearly a year there have been widely reported conversation about convening a loya jirga, the largest and broadest kind of jirga, to build consensus for a widely supported government.  For a variety of reasons, this discussion remained only talk until recently.   Since September 11 there has been a flurry of meetings with former king Zahir Shah in Rome to explore such a possibility.   We believe that convening a loya jirga is a goal that deserves the highest priority.


However, accomplishing this raises serious difficulties in practice:

-         The jirga is by tradition inclusive, bringing together all key actors and interested parties for deliberations.   A loya jirga may involve several thousand people.   This presents logistical questions, which will require several months of preparation to work out.    Conceivably a smaller jirga could be convened, but this is less likely to carry the weight and sustainability of agreements reached at a full loya jirga.

-         An enormous amount of conflict has taken place in Afghanistan in recent decades.   It will be difficult to simply bring a large number of people into one place and begin discussing the future, for complex personal, familial, tribal, and political histories will stand in the way of collaboration.

-         Difficult questions of location exist – will the Taliban allow a loya jirga to be convened inside Afghanistan? 

-         There is danger that international determination to quickly eliminate bin Laden and deal with terrorism will create pressure to use the structure of a jirga to install a government that suits the interests of outsiders but does not enjoy widespread support in Afghanistan.   If this happens, the jirga structure will be discredited and ineffective as a vehicle for governance or interaction between Afghanis as a whole and the outside world.

Proposed Strategy for Use of the Jirga

The following strategy in use of the jirga would, we believe, address these potential difficulties:

1.      Aim to convene a loya jirga as soon as possible.   Whether this could be done in a matter of months or years remains too early to determine.

2.      Begin immediately to lay the groundwork for a loya jirga by convening a series of smaller jirgas at grassroots and middle levels.   Purposes of the smaller jirgas would be:

a)      to begin immediate consultation with Afghanis themselves about how to deal with bin Laden and the Taliban;

b)      to enable participants to develop relationships and a sense of common purpose before attempting a major, comprehensive loya jirga, and

c)      to consult widely regarding protocols and procedures for the eventual loya jirga.

3.      Many of the people best equipped to provide leadership of a future Afghanistan no longer live in Afghanistan.  Over two million Afghanis live in refugee camps in Pakistan and a large number of educated Afghanis also live in the U.S. and Europe.   A first round of jirgas with these Afghanis abroad would provide opportunity to explore the dynamics of a jirga in settings where the political space is uncontested.  Because Afghanis abroad are in close communication with people at home, progress there is likely to have impact on the situation inside Afghanistan.

4.      Who should initiate and/or sponsor such a strategy?  The odds of success for any consultation or decision-making process are significantly higher if the process is initiated by persons or organizations with maximum credibility among the participants.   A large number of Afghanis recognize the former king Zahir Shah as a person enjoying sufficient stature to convene a loya jirga.   
      The smaller jirgas may possibly be better facilitated by organizations or persons more cleanly removed from the politics of the Afghani situation.  Possibilities might include the UN, a respected religious body or NGO, or possibly a coalition of credible organizations.   This would enable learnings to take place and allow room to recover from mistakes or unexpected dynamics without tarnishing prospects for the eventual loya jirga.
      Could or should the US government initiate a jirga process?   Possibly, however, there is substantial likelihood that the US role as a recent victim and hence a major protagonist would mean that U.S sponsorship would contaminate the credibility of the whole effort.  The U.S. government could however encourage the possibility of convening jirgas, and would benefit significantly from the jirgas as a source of valuable information and guidance regarding U.S. dealings with Afghanistan.

5.      How to link conversation outside of Afghanistan with political processes inside Afghanistan?  It is difficult to formulate specific strategies for this critical ultimate goal because the variables are many.  Nevertheless, the following points could be made:
- Pakistan would be an invaluable ally in this.  The Taliban, after all, was sponsored by Pakistan and, recent events notwithstanding, remains highly vulnerable to Pakistani pressure.   Pakistan would likely be supportive of strategies to involve Afghanis in deliberation about their own future, particularly if the method of involvement were local in style rather than western/international.  Moreover, the Pakistanis have a great deal of experience in use of the jirga in their own deliberations with Afghanis.
- The flow of information from outside of Afghanistan via informal networks should not be under-estimated.   Borders cannot remain sealed forever.  Radio broadcasts will always be possible.
- It is more important to begin an inclusive, culturally appropriate process of decision making now than to at this time have specific answers for how it will end.   At some point, it seems obvious, Afghanis will need to be enabled to broadly participate in discussion about their future.  Rather than wait to begin such discussion until the major international actors have completed their own actions, it would seem wise to begin such discussion immediately, even in the face of limitations.
- A key part of the task in any such discussion is establishing a recognized process for planning and discussion among Afghanis.  Even if it remains unachievable to use this process inside Afghanistan for a long time, it would be a significant accomplishment were it possible to convene a series of inclusive conversations among Afghanis outside of Afghanistan.  This would set a precedent, help develop necessary negotiation and problem-solving skills, and foster norms of constructive engagement essential for that time when political space does open inside Afghanistan.  Were outsiders to make it possible for such a process to become established, it would also strengthen the confidence of Afghanis that others seek to make them the primary shapers of their own future, and not mere pawns in the destiny of others.


By Ali Gohar and Ron Kraybill.



Addendum on 10/25/01.   In the 3 weeks since the initial writing of this piece, it has become clear that actors of numerous backgrounds are attempting to convene talks in forums similar to the jirga.   What remains equally clear is that: 1) none of the publicly visible discussions have been convened under auspices trusted by all key factions, and 2) these discussions have been arranged with great haste, seemingly with expectations of immediate agreements forthcoming.  


Success in utilizing the jirga will require that the person, persons, or organizations convening a jirga be viewed as impartial in their totality.   It may be necessary for 2-3 sponsors with diverse backgrounds and linkages to jointly convene such an effort in order to provide the necessary credibility.   Any effort convened singlehandedly by any party perceived as having a vested interest in promoting its own agenda in the discussion will inevitably fail.


Furthermore, the layers of painful history which have produced the current impasse make a one-round effort to forge consensus unrealistic.   In any setting, short-term, high-intensity negotiation efforts tend to force parties into a contentious, self-protective mode, whereas the more relaxed atmosphere of talks understood from the beginning to unfold in stages makes it easier for parties to thoughtfully assess the needs and interests of former opponents. 


The stalemated efforts of the last several weeks to broker a new governing alliance underscore the importance, we believe, of viewing the Afghani talks in an extended timeframe.   The move towards a loya jirga should be understood as occurring in several rounds, with the first round or two oriented towards relationship-building among individuals and factions, dreaming long-term dreams for Afghanistan, and exploring processes for further negotiations.  


A long-term time framework creates an inescapable need for somebody to maintain law and order in the interim.   We believe it imperative for the UN to reconsider its current shift away from such a role.   We recognize the dangers and the costs this would impose on the UN, but we believe that the costs of UN unavailability for this critical role will, on the longterm, be even higher for all concerned.  


Addendum on 11/13/01

The fall of Kabul is likely to create a sense among some observers that the war is won.  However, even if the Taliban falls from central control, things will remain complicated.  Afghanistan is a large expanse of independent fiefdoms with a long history of antagonism to outsiders or imposed central authority.   The only way a coherent, sustainable government can be created is through careful, step-by-step negotiations and relationship-building, backed by tangible incentives for cooperation for these many regional and local powers.   Failure to engage in this process will result, we believe, in prolonged unrest and instability. 


The numerous processes for building internal consensus among Afghanis of which we are aware share a common feature: all appear to be heavily influenced by the interests of external actors.   Establishing a negotiation process that is widely accepted as credible by the broadest possible range of Afghanis remains an elusive challenge that is by its very nature resistant to hasty processes.


We continue to believe that the best way forward would be for a UN-appointed administration and security presence to be established for a period of several years, during which time the processes described above could be assisted to unfold.  



A Pakistani national of Afghan Pashtun descent, Gohar is a Commissioner with the Commissionerate of Afghan Refugees in Peshawar.  In support of his work with Afghan refugees over the last decade, Gohar has studied and often used the jirga as a forum for negotiation and decision making with Afghani refugees in Pakistan.  Currently he is on an 18 months course of study as a Fulbright Scholar in the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University.


Kraybill was deeply involved in the South African political transition from 1989-1995 as Director of Training at the Centre for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town, and as Training Advisor to the National Peace Accord.   Since 1995 he is Associate Professor of Conflict Studies in the Conflict Transformation Program at Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, Virginia.  He has served as a trainer and advisor to peacebuilding processes in several dozen locations in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Caribbean.  In 1999-2000 he spent 10 months living, studying and teaching in India. 


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