Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, is bracing for a peace jirga — a traditional gathering of elders and prominent Afghans — with heightened security next week, as nearly 3,000 delegates from across the country stream into the city.
“We came from a remote, insecure area. It’s really good of the government to invite us so we can meet the others,” said Syeda Nadiri, a high school teacher from Khashrod district in Nimroz province. She was in the capital to demand peace and for the Taliban to allow women their rights.
“Taliban should let girls get educated. When their own wives are sick, they can’t take them to the male doctors. They need female doctors,” she said.
Nadiri's area has a heavy Taliban presence, but she said they have so far left schools and clinics alone. The traditional gathering, is scheduled to start on Monday and last several days. The idea, according to President Ashraf Ghani, is to let the people decide how negotiations with the Taliban should proceed.
The Taliban have been negotiating to reach a possible peace deal with an American team led by U.S. special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad since last September. So far, however, they have refused to include the Ghani administration in the process, despite U.S. pressure.
Members of his administration say sooner or later, the Taliban will have to talk to the government.
“Even if the U.S. makes a deal with the Taliban to have peace in Afghanistan, the responsibility for implementing that deal will fall on the Afghan government,” said Ziaul Haq Amarkhel, a senior adviser to Ghani.
The jirga seemed to be preparing for that eventuality.
“There are two major objectives of this jirga,” said Ezatullah Pezhand, a member of the jirga preparation commission. “To decide what the Afghans want from peace, and to decide on the red lines for negotiations with the Taliban.”
Some of the delegates were clear about what parameters they were going to put down in their discussions.
“Women rights and human rights are both key. We want to preserve them based on the law. Women are concerned about losing their rights, but we will insist on upholding the law,” Syed Ibrar, an elder from Kunar province, said.
Amarkhel said this was just the kind of guidance the government was seeking.
“This jirga will create the boundaries for the Afghan government, for negotiations with the Taliban,” he said.
The participants in the jirga will be divided into 50 committees, to be able to better discuss the issues in a smaller setting.
Each committee will be given a set of questions. The committees will choose spokespersons to communicate their answers. It is supposed to end with a declaration announcing the final decisions.
The government’s claims that the gathering is designed to take the Afghan public onboard has not stopped it from becoming controversial.
Afghanistan is in an election year, and several leading presidential candidates have already boycotted the event.
One of them is Hanif Atmar, a former national security adviser to Ghani, who resigned over disagreements. Atmar claimed the jirga was a waste of money designed to benefit Ghani’s election campaign.
Another candidate, Afghan Chief Executive Abdullah Abdullah, was upset over what he said was a lack of consultation with him during the planning and preparation of the jirga. He also said the mechanism for the election of delegates was not transparent and that he expected no concrete result from the exercise.