The “Peace Jirga” Model

Susan Thistlethwaite examines whether the “peace jirga” in Kabul could replicate other successful efforts in nations.

Delegates listen to speeches of a committee member, unseen, during the Peace Jirga, a three-day conference in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)
Delegates listen to speeches of a committee member, unseen, during the Peace Jirga, a three-day conference in Kabul, Afghanistan. (AP/Musadeq Sadeq)

After several delays, the national “peace jirga” convened last week in Kabul. This form of national assembly is based on a more than 1,000-year-old Afghan model for conflict resolution. It was used as recently as in 2004, when Afghans employed it to settle controversies and approve a constitution, and again in 2007 between Afghans and Pakistanis over “Afghan accusations that Pakistan was harboring Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to weaken Afghanistan.”

Unfortunately, many of the elements that can make national conflict resolution successful seemed to be missing from this current jirga process. When President Hamid Karzai announced the national jirga process early in 2010, much was made of his statements about potentially including “our disenchanted brothers,” meaning members of the Taliban who renounce violence. "We must reach out to all of our countrymen, especially our disenchanted brothers, who are not part of al Qaeda, or other terrorist networks, who accept the Afghan constitution.”

Though this large jirga that convened in Kabul involved as many as 1,600 members and guests, including parliamentarians, provincial councils, governors, religious and tribal leaders, and representative from civil society organizations and women’s groups, the actual process seemed more symbolic than real, and hard negotiation about the real causes of conflict was doubtful. Women’s groups immediately expressed concern that their hard-won rights would be traded away in this process. And the invitees did not even include President Karzai’s main challenger for the presidency, Abdullah Abdullah.

At an on-the-record conversation at the Center for American Progress last month, Abdullah was not optimistic about the upcoming jirga, largely because huge problems of governance and corruption remain unaddressed—problems that in his view were unlikely to be addressed by the jirga. Conflict resolution processes where major parties to the conflict are not invited, and where there are serious questions about the moral and civil authority of the convener, are unlikely to succeed.

Still, reconciliation processes such as the one in Kabul, which once were thought to be the exclusive providence of religious institutions, are now attracting interest in political science and foreign policy circles for their capacity to help a nation, or a group of nations, break with violent histories and chart a new course. The most famous of these was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa. In 2004, reflecting on the TRC, Archbishop Desmond Tutu said in his 1997 book No Future Without Forgiveness:

Thus it was that when nearly everyone expected us to be overwhelmed by the most awful bloodbath, when blacks would engage in an orgy of revenge and retribution, were instead awed by the spectacle of South Africa engaging in the process of the Truth and Reconciliation…it became a common spectacle for victims of the most appalling atrocities to embrace the perpetrators in a display of forgiveness and reconciliation that was almost without precedent.

The TRC was far from perfect, but it did include elements that made it successful in unexpected ways.

The jirga process in Afghanistan is both like and unlike the South African truth and reconciliation model. The jirga is like the TRC because the jirga process itself is designed to break the cycle of violent revenge and bring a restoration of justice and order. Mohammed Shafiq, executive director of the Center for Interfaith Studies and Dialogue and professor of Islamic and religious studies at Nazareth College, remembers as a child when “there was a fight between our village and another one. A jirga of village elders from the nearby villages was convened to look into the fight between the two villages. The jirga, after a few days of investigation, blamed our village for the offence and asked for repentance and compensation while seeking forgiveness.” Expected violent conflict between two Afghan villages was avoided.

The jirga model is also like the South African TRC as religious authority is intimately involved in the reconciliation method. Archbishop Tutu’s religious standing, as well as national standing, was crucial to the TRC process. Similarly, the Jirga method is thoroughly Islamic. The jirga system is based on the Qur’anic principle: "If two parties among the believers fall into a quarrel, make ye peace between them. But if one of them transgresses beyond bounds against the other, then fight ye (all) against the one that transgresses until it complies with the command of Allah. But if it complies, then make peace between them with justice, and be fair. For Allah loves those who are fair (and just) (Qur’an 49:9)."

But this national jirga was not a village-to-village reconciliation, nor even a direct national reconciliation method as was done in South Africa. Instead, its announced objective was "to get guidance from the Afghan people on how to move forward towards reintegration and reconciliation—where reconciliation may be possible—and chart out an action plan in consultation with the Afghan people.”

Afghans do need to find ways to break with the spiral of violence and revenge in their history and achieve a level of national unity. The question is, can this current jirga even command enough respect to outline the way forward? Let’s consider again the South African example.

Another commonality between Shafiq’s experience of the village-to-village jirga and that of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is that in both cases the reconciliation processes commanded the respect of the participants. The jirga council was successful in Shafiq’s local village because the council elders were held in respect and had moral authority.

The same was true in South Africa. Perhaps no one except Archbishop Tutu could have commanded the national respect to bring off a national reconciliation process in South Africa. In countries such as Rwanda, no truth and reconciliation process has been able to be successful because there is no such nationally trusted figure.

Even to “move forward towards reintegration and reconciliation,” then, the Karzai government will need to address the deep problems with governance and corruption and thus gain the respect of the Afghan people for any steps outlined in the jirga to actually be implemented. President Karzai is not a nationally trusted figure like Desmond Tutu, nor does he seem to command the kind of local authority the tribal elders had in Shafiq’s village.

For the jirga to be successful in Afghanistan, the rhetoric of participation and reconciliation must begin to more closely resemble the practices or it will be futile. A good outcome from the jirga in Kabul would be to not only give the appearance of respecting the interests of national stakeholders attending the jirga, but actually to begin to share power with them and gain their real political and social investment in an ongoing process. If, for example, local provincial and district governors do not have any real power, then they have no real way to engage in either governance or insure security for the people.

Underlying all of this is the need to address corruption at all levels. Without serious attention by the Karzai government to corruption, there will not be the necessary moral authority to get the diverse groups in Afghan society to really engage in national processes of reconciliation over the long term. The fundamental learning from all the places where reconciliation methods have been tried—not just in South Africa but also from Chile to Peru to the former Yugoslavia to Sierra Leone and the Solomon Islands is that rebuilding trust is absolutely central for any even partially successful outcome.

Reconciliation processes have proved useful around the world in addressing deeply entrenched national and international conflicts, and breaking the grip of the past on the present and the future. Using a culturally established model, such as the jirga in Afghanistan, is necessary or the whole idea will be rejected as un-Afghan and un-Islamic. Stories of violence, of division, of corruption, and of a lack of good governance exercise a powerful undertow for any nation. Peace and reconciliation processes have been shown they can be useful for nations struggling to resist the drag of history and move forward, but not without real efforts to build trust and to confront these histories head-on. Sadly enough, key elements of what makes national reconciliation processes work seem to be missing in the current Afghan jirga process.

Susan Thistlethwaite is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.

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Rev. Dr. Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite