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Ex-king moots ‘Grand Assembly’ for talks

Diplomatic efforts have been stepped up in recent weeks to have Afghanistan’s traditional Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, reconvened as a mechanism to achieve peace and reconciliation in the country.

The former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, who ruled from 1933 until 1973 and is now based in Italy, has called for an end to bloodshed and foreign interference in Afghanistan’s affairs, and proposed the establishment of a representative assembly of Afghans to decide on a future political set-up which would reflect the will of the Afghan majority.

On Wednesday, Shah announced that his envoys would embark on a round of state visits from Monday, 13 November, to seek support for his initiative. From the Italian capital Rome, he told ‘Azadi Afghan Radio’ that a delegation would meet the opposition Afghan United Front in non-Taliban regions of northern Afghanistan, after which it would visit Uzbekistan and Tajikistan.

The second leg of the mission would take the delegation, comprising various former technocrats and tribal leaders, to Russia, Turkmenistan, and to Saudi Arabia [one of the three states that recognises the Taliban as the legitimate Afghan government], the radio report quoted him as saying.

The US Congress is among the parties that views the Loya Jirga as a viable option for promoting peace, and has backed the proposed initiative. In October, it strongly supported the Loya Jirga option in a non-binding resolution calling for “democratic efforts that respect the human and political rights of all ethnic and religious groups in Afghanistan”.

However, Afghan scholar Dr Rauf Roashan - a former government official before the communist coup of 1978 - told IRIN that a political solution to the Afghan conflict was as elusive today as it was a decade ago, and that the political drive for a Loya Jirga was making no headway. “On the contrary, the drive [to have a Loya Jirga convened] is now facing division that is introduced to it by a variety of groups,” he said.

Roashan said that Afghans had lost interest in the idea, which had been delayed time and again for reasons not publicised. He said that that while the US, the United Nations and many other international sources continued to insist on “a broad-based government” for Afghanistan, no-one had ever defined in detail what this meant. “This term has different meanings to different factions and groupings in Afghanistan.”

While Pakistan has diplomatically shrugged off the idea of the Loya Jirga, the Taliban movement inside Afghanistan has insisted on the acceptance of its Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, led by spiritual leader Mullah Mohamed Omar, as well as the imposition of Islamic or Sharia law.

Mohammad Suhail Shaheen, a spokesman for the Taliban in the Pakistani capital Islamabad, told IRIN that those who were behind the drive for Loya Jirga - namely former King Zahir Shah - had been living abroad for many years and were distanced from the Afghan people and their suffering.

Central Asia analyst Barnett Rubin of the Centre on International Cooperation at New York University told IRIN it was difficult to see how the Loya Jirga process could succeed, as it had “insuperable obstacles” to overcome.

Firstly, he said, the Loya Jirga reflected a political reality that no longer existed. The second major obstacle, according to Rubin, was that the Loya Jirga process was organised around the personality of the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah. “It seems likely that he remains the most popular political figure in Afghanistan. Nonetheless, he has repeatedly refused to actually do anything, and it is difficult to see how, at the age of 86, he will change his ways,” he said.

The final hurdle, Rubin told IRIN, was that Pakistan was fully committed to keeping the Taliban in power, and was willing and able to commit the resources to do this. “No other international actor has the same degree of commitment to a particular outcome in Afghanistan, nor such an ability to bring it about,” he added.

This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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