President Pervez Musharraf arrived unexpectedly in Kabul this past weekend on the last day of the carefully planned jirga of Afghani and Pakistani leaders. This tribal assembly was devised nearly a year ago after the less than effusive meeting between Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s president, and General Musharraf. The White House celebrated the idea and has backed the proposed traditional jirga from the beginning as the stepping-stone to resolving the ancient and contemporary animosities in the Afghan/Pakistan region. It also was hoped that this would be a way to diffuse the personal tensions between the two leaders.
Musharraf at the last minute had cancelled plans to attend the opening ceremony. Only a few days before, key Waziristan tribal leaders decided not to attend the grand meeting in Kabul. Whether or not Musharraf’s absence was supposed to carry some political meaning is not known, but the result was that the expected deal-making potential of the jirga had been put into jeopardy.
It was hoped the Taliban might send at least some lower level representatives if their Waziri allies attended. That, too, however, was turned into a non-starter when it was made clear that the requirement of the assembly was for all participants to recognize the Afghan constitution and foreswear armed conflict. Giving up the option of killing any and all who disagree with them is not in the Taliban handbook.
It was at this point that Condoleezza Rice apparently began to put pressure on Musharraf. In several phone calls the American secretary of state pushed, shoved, cajoled and finally convinced Pakistan’s president into abandoning his plans to impose emergency rule in the weeks prior to the national elections. At the same time Sec. Rice indicated it was her belief that Gen. Musharraf was losing a major opportunity to take up the issue of border security with the Pashtun tribal leaders attending the jirga.
Musharraf clearly accepted Rice’s suggestions for he not only canceled the emergency plans but also flew to Kabul on Sunday. He proceeded to give an impassioned speech that stunned the attendees and observers. “There is no doubt,” he said. “Afghan militants are supported from Pakistan.”
This was the first time there has been an official admission of Taliban aid and sanctuary being obtained in Pakistan. It was a striking gesture by Musharraf not only in political terms, but personally toward the Afghan president, Hamid Karzai. The smile in assent on Karzai’s face told the whole story. None of this was lost on the over 600 hundred tribal representatives in attendance.
The purpose of a large gathering such as this jirga is to allow certain ideas and concepts to be discussed without commitment. Long-standing feuds are settled by group arbitration and contentious issues are debated openly while deals are made on a myriad of levels — all confidential, if not blood secret. It’s the way of that part of the world. At the same time Musharraf wants to remain under the protective American umbrella. That means taking a tougher line with the mountain tribes.
The security of the border regions of the Northwest Frontier, Baluchistan, Waziristan, etc. is first the responsibility of the Frontier Corps. It is among these units that one will find the great regimental names of the British Raj. The South Waziristan Scouts have been assigned to their area for many decades, and they are virtually all locally recruited.
The problem with this system is that in recent years a divided loyalty has been created among the troops when it came to policing their own tribal areas. The S. Waziri Scouts obviously know their region well. Often their officers and noncoms are related to tribal notables. Great for intelligence, lousy for loyalty to the central government…
Musharraf shifted in regular army regiments and the result was greater loyalty but lousy intelligence. He has been stopped cold by this problem. The local Waziri tribes worked closely with mujahedin during the Afghan-Soviet war. Al Qaeda fighters are seen as the new mujahedin and they are thusly protected.
It would be helpful for both Pakistan and Afghanistan if Karzai and Musharraf could have something more binding than the cold courtesy with which up to now they have treated each other. Musharraf’s speech at the close of the jirga may have just provided the required breakthrough.
Musharraf is a tough, smart soldier who is quite essential to American anti-terrorist objectives. He also provides a steady hand on the trigger of Pakistan’s nuclear weapons. Nonetheless he certainly tests the Bush Administration’s concept of encouraging democracy. Perhaps his newly found openness and diplomatic skills will aid all sides.