Traditional vs Radical – Jirga Diplomacy from Kabul to Kashmir

By K.N. Pandita

Observers anticipate United States’ move to wriggle out of Afghan imbroglio. Face saving is the pre-requisite. The latest is that of goading two concerned states, Afghanistan and Pakistan, into organizing a joint peace assembly (jirga) of the Pushtun leaders on both sides of the Durand Line. It is they who are crucial to what ultimately unfolds in the volatile region where Taliban and Al-Qaeda warriors remain entrenched.

The deliberations of the jirga in Kabul last week, largely understated by the media, have much significance for us in Kashmir.

Relations between Pakistan and Karzai government are not cordial. They trade accusations and counter-accusations: US is skeptical of Pakistan’s intentions ever since Islamabad lost the crucial lever in Afghan crisis following American attack on Afghanistan and dismemberment of Taliban regime.

Washington wants resolution of irritants in their relations through the instrumentality of a traditional type jirga. However, what ultimately came out of this exercise may not provide much comfort to the US policy planners.

That Pakistan paid the joint jirga plan only lip service was reflected in the composition of its delegation. No Punjabi or Sindhi or Baluch was included. This means that Pakistan is not bound by whatever is agreed or not agreed in the jirga. At the best, it could be a matter between some groups of Pushtons on either side of the Line. The formal speeches of two presidents carried more of rhetoric but little of substance.

The Americans expect traditional Pushtun tribal leadership to forge an understanding among them that would find endorsement of the two governments later on – a face-saving strategy for the US.

But the question is: does the traditional tribal leadership of the Pushtuns still exist with its age-old ethos and vitality? No, it does not. In the wake of Soviet incursion of Afghanistan, it was the US that maximally contributed to the dismemberment of that ethos, and unwittingly contrived its replacement by extremist religious fervour among the warlike Afghans. Pakistan (under Zia) played very active role in radicalizing the resistance movement. It not only volunteered to become the main conduit for supply of American arms but also facilitated opening of thousands of religious seminaries in Pakistan and Afghanistan where the mujahideen received profuse indoctrination in radicalism. The rise of religious extremist organizations in Pakistan was a logical corollary to this hyper patronage of Afghan mujahideen. Today Pakistan faces inevitable consequences of that feverish patronizing.

This forced a change in ideological perception of entire Pushtun tribal leadership. Afghan nationalism, once believed to be the crucial catalyst to Pushtun/Afghan unity, met with gradual erosion. As a result, two hundred year – old tradition of Pushtun rule over Afghanistan surrendered its place to religion – based camaraderie. This was an achievement of Pakistan’s Afghan policy during the period of resistance. The rise of the Taliban with outright support from Pakistan was the culmination of her pro-Islamization thrust in Afghanistan.

Three decades of intensive radicalization have changed the traditional tribal structuring in Afghanistan. During this period of strife many outstanding traditional Pushtun leaders were eliminated. That made the work of Pakistani religious crusaders easier, and the Taliban provided them the requisite logistics. This is the reason why the influence of Pushtun/Pukhtun tribal leaders in the Waziristan region has become considerably ineffective. The indication is that the place of traditional tribal leaders has been usurped by radical religious leaders. Thus the call for a boycott of the joint jirga given by the religious leader Maulana Fazlu’r-Rahman kept most of the Pushtun leaders away from the Kabul jirga. In this way the purpose of the US sponsored Pushtun jirga in Kabul got diluted.

Kashmir is in the throes of almost identical circumstances. Thousands of religious seminaries in Kashmir Valley sprang before and during armed insurgency. Not only the known anti-Indian elements but even feigned nationalists and pseudo-Indian elements holding political power in the State, overtly and covertly engaged themselves in radicalizing Kashmiri youth. Additionally, the gun culture promoted the expansion of the influence of radical leadership. In the process, traditional anti-Indian political leadership in Kashmir, previously with a low sprinkling of religious extremism, now remains sidelined and made ineffective.

New Delhi is trying to replicate in Kashmir what Washington does in Afghanistan. It tries to rope in the traditional dissident political leadership like the “moderate” Hurriyat for a procrastinated dialogue. But given the fact that the acceptability (not popularity) of this category of Kashmir leadership is far less than that of radical leadership, New Delhi sequentially fails to elicit any reassuring commitment from those who make up her “Kashmiri jirga” namely the PM’s Round Tables. Compare the boycott call given by Maulana Fazlu’r-Rahman to Kabul jirga with the one given by Sayyid Ali Shah Geelani against the “Delhi jirgas”.

True, New Delhi is doing some cautious acrobatics. It tries to keeps the “moderate” (read traditional) political dissidents in good humour: it hobnobs with medium weight ambivalent political segment like PDP, and it also keeps close liaison with the traditional political heavyweights like the National Conference. How far will this maneuvering succeed in delivering goods will be known only with the passage of time.

Of course, there is one clear difference between the philosophy behind the Kabul jirga and the Kashmiri jirga. New Delhi’s perception in Kashmir is that the vast ground seized by radical ideologues of an Islamist – militant combine over past three decades can possibly be retrieved by handing out a tempting economic package larger than anything offered to any other Indian State. This, among other ostentatious projects, includes the laying of the forbidding rail link between New Delhi and Srinagar at an enormous cost of over 8,000 crore rupees. Obviously, the impact of this extraordinary economic package will take at least another decade to crystallize. Till then the State shall have to put up with what it is faced since 1990. And even after the impact is known, one cannot be sure that radicals will forfeit their place to traditional political opposition in order to make things easier for New Delhi. May be that in the process of this long drawn struggle, a new thinking emerges in Kashmir in the wake of fast changing political scenario in Pakistan-Afghanistan region.

(The writer is the former Director of the Centre of Central Asian Studies at Kashmir University).

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