Afghanistan: President Ghani seeks to restore his legitimacy with a Loya Jirga

Afghanistan is holding a rare consultative assembly of tribal elders to negotiate a peace deal with the Taliban. Kabul is facing pressure from the US government, militant groups and opposition parties.

On Monday, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani opened a Loya Jirga, a grand assembly of tribal elders, to discuss the ongoing peace talks between the Taliban and the United States.

"It is a proud moment for me to have representatives from all over the country here, and today we are gathered to speak about the peace talks," Ghani said in an opening ceremony in in central Kabul.

The four-day grand consultative assembly is being attended by 3,200 trial elders and community and religious leaders from all 34 Afghan provinces. Milad Sikanderi, a spokesperson for the Loya Jirga, told DW that the participants include members of parliament, civil society organizations, Afghan media, and members of Afghan refugee organizations. "This covers the whole of Afghanistan," he said.

The Loya Jirga has a purely consultative function, but it carries huge significance in Afghan politics and society. Many consider it to be superior to even the Afghan parliament or the presidency.

The Loya Jirga is held on extraordinary occasions. The last such assembly, which took place in 2013, endorsed the so-called Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with Washington.

Read more: Afghanistan: Can peace prevail?

President Ghani seeks backing from tribal elders

Opposition to the Jirga

President Ghani, whose government has so-far played a marginal role in the ongoing US-Taliban talks, believes that the backing from his country's influential tribal elders will strengthen his position as Afghanistan's legitimate representative in the peace talks.

The Taliban has so far refused to talk to Kabul and have labeled the Afghan government as a "US puppet."

Read more: Taliban announce spring offensive as Afghanistan peace talks continue

Washington has held several rounds of talks with the militant group, with an aim to end the 18-year-long war in Afghanistan. Although the US says that any peace deal for Afghanistan would involve the country's elected government, the Afghan government feels it is being sidelined.

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The Taliban, which had been toppled by a US military invasion in 2001, is also critical of the Loya Jirga.  It declined an invitation by President Ghani to participate in the Loya Jirga, and they also urged people to boycott it, denouncing it as an attempt by the Western-backed government to deceive the country and extend what they see as illegitimate rule. 

"Do not participate in the enemy's conspiracy [in] the name of Jirga, instead find ways to further sideline the shaky administration of Kabul," Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid said in a statement.

Opposition politicians and government critics, including former president Hamid Karzai, also boycotted the assembly. They accuse Ghani of using it as a platform to boost his status as leader in an election year.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Fragile security

Repeated attacks in Afghanistan over the past several months have killed and wounded hundreds of innocent Afghans, and shown the world the fragile and worsening state of security in the conflict-stricken country. The incidents have plunged war-weary Afghan citizens into a state of despair and highlighted the limitations faced by the government in Kabul in ensuring public security.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

A long series of attacks

The violent incidents have made Afghanistan once again a staple of international headlines. Outfits like the Taliban and the "Islamic State" (IS) have claimed responsibility for the attacks. The Afghan government is under heavy pressure to restore security and take back territory controlled by a number of insurgent groups, including the Taliban and IS.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Spring offensive

Last week, the Taliban announced the start of their annual spring offensive, dismissing an offer of peace talks by President Ashraf Ghani. The militants, fighting to restore their version of strict Islamic law to Afghanistan, said their campaign was a response to a more aggressive US military strategy adopted last year, which aims to force the militants into peace talks.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Trump's Afghanistan policy

US President Donald Trump unveiled a new strategy for Afghanistan last year, vowing to deploy more troops, on top of the 11,000 already in the country, to train and advise Afghan security forces. Trump also pledged to support Afghan troops in their war against the Taliban and maintain American presence in the country for as long as there was a need for it.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Afghan peace process

Despite President Ghani's offer in February for peace talks "without preconditions," the Taliban have shown no interest, dismissing the peace overtures as a "conspiracy." Observers say it is unlikely that the militant group will engage in any negotiations, as they currently have the upper hand on the battleground. The Taliban now control more Afghan districts than at any other time since 2001.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Pakistani support

Pakistan has been under pressure from Kabul and Washington to stop offering safe havens to militants blamed for attacks in Afghanistan, a charge Islamabad denies and insists that its influence over the insurgents has been exaggerated. Kabul and Islamabad regularly trade accusations of harboring the other country's militants and the harsh language has underscored the strains between them.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

Role of the warlords

Apart from the Taliban, Afghan warlords exercise massive influence in the country. Last year, Hizb-i-Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar returned to Kabul after a 20-year exile to play an active role in Afghan politics. In September 2016, the Afghan government signed a deal with Hekmatyar in the hope that other warlords and militant groups would seek better ties with Kabul.

The endless battle for power in Afghanistan

An inefficient government

In the midst of an endless battle for power, President Ghani's approval ratings continue to plummet. Rampant corruption in the Afghan government and a long tug-of-war within the US-brokered national unity government has had a negative impact on the government's efforts to eradicate terrorism.

Wahid Omar, a representative of President Ghani, criticized the politicians who chose not to attend the Jirga. "The assembly gives a voice to those Afghans whose voice has never been heard," Omar told DW.

"Elected representatives from provinces and villages will advise the president on which road to peace he should take. Those who have boycotted the Loya Jirga have missed the chance to meet people from across Afghanistan and to listen to their views," he added.

Sima Samar, the head of Afghanistan's Humans Rights Commission, said that those who are not participating in the Loya Jirga should at least come up with some recommendations for the peace process.

Mohammad Hassam, a Kandahar resident, hopes that the Jirga will help bring peace to Afghanistan. "In my opinion, a few political leaders not participating in the Jirga won't make a big difference," he told DW.

What can Ghani achieve?

Experts have said that Ghani is increasingly becoming an isolated figure, which is something that observers could also glean from this year's Munich Security Conference. The president has been critical of regional and international efforts to negotiate a settlement with the Taliban without his administration's involvement.

In an interview with Kabul-based ToloNews TV in February, Ghani expressed his anger over talks in Russia involving Afghan opposition politicians, arguing the attendees did not have the executive power to translate decisions into action.

"They could hold a hundred such meetings, but until the Afghan government, the Afghan parliament, and legal institutions of Afghanistan approve it, they are just agreements on paper," he said.

Read more: Afghanistan will not attend peace talks with Taliban in Moscow

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Afghan president calls on Taliban to talk to government

To break the deadlock, Afghan politicians are calling for an interim government, with some saying that the Taliban should be included.

"The interim government should also pave the way for a transparent election ... so that political factions, including the Taliban, take part in the process," Atta Muhammad Noor, an influential former warlord, said on Twitter.

Read more: Hamid Karzai: Former Afghan president hopeful for 'permanent peace' with Taliban

The Afghan government has also offered a political role to the Taliban, but they have rejected it.

The militants say they want to replace the present Afghan constitution with an Islamic one.

"The Kabul government constitution is invalid. It has been imported from the West and is an obstacle to peace," said Sher Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, a member of the Taliban delegation.

Read more: Afghanistan: Peace without women's rights?

Organizers say that women's participation in Loya Jirga is around 30%

A risky affair

Nonetheless, Ghani, who hopes to secure a second term in a presidential election planned for September, is seeking to broaden his support.

"He wants to prove that he has the ability to secure a peace deal and also enjoys the support of Afghans," one diplomat told Reuters news agency.

"Ghani fears the opposition is using the Taliban refusal to engage with him to undermine him politically," the diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity, added.

But Huria Musadeq, an Afghan rights activist, believes the Loya Jigra will not be able to change much on the ground. "Loya Jirgas don't have any executive and decision making powers. So I don't think the outcome of the Jirga can change anything about the prospects for peace in Afghanistan," Musadeq told DW.

President Ghani's spokesman, Haroon Chakhansuri, however, is of the view that the grand assembly will only be part of President Ghani's consultative initiatives in order to involve all Afghans in the peace process. "It could guide the government on how to proceed with the talks with the Taliban," he told DW at this year's Munich Security Conference.

Neglected by the US and rejected by the Taliban, the Loya Jirga could give Ghani a political lifeline. But some experts have said it could also be a risky affair for the Afghan government, as a decision against Ghani could practically finish his presidency.

Additional reporting by DW's Pashto-Dari department.

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