The Counter-Jirga: 3000 participants condemn the US, the Afghan government and the BSA
One of the largest anti-American events witnessed over the past years has taken place in Kabul with 3000 politicians, mullahs and students coming together from across Afganistan to voice their adamant opposition to Afghanistan signing a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. It comes just days before the government is due to hold its own jirga to decide on the BSA which open the way for foreign troops staying on Afghan soil after 2014 and, as AAN’s Borhan Osman (with Christine Roehrs), reports, the rhetoric was strong, calling the BSA un-Islamic and those who signed it friends of the kufaar (infidels).
Drive past the neon lights and over-sized symbols of love and marriage along Kabul’s wedding hall strip near the airport and you come to the Mumtaz Hotel. Instead of the usual wedding parties, on Sunday 10 November 2013, nearly 3000 people gathered there to protest against the BSA. Chairs in the large hall on the second floor kept having to be moved closer and closer together in order to accomodate the people streaming in. For three hours, one of the biggest anti-American demonstrations that Kabul city has seen took place. It was also the biggest event that these specific politicians had planned, although more can probably be expected. (1)
Haji Ahmad Farid, an ex-MP from Kapisa, ex-Hezb-e Islami member and talented orator, and Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a wealthy ex-mujahed, former prime minister under Burhanuddin Rabbani and deputy of Abdul Rab Rassul Sayyaf’s Ittehad-e Islami (renamed Dawat-e Islami, meanwhile) and now head of his own party, the Islamist Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Islami, had organised what they called a ‘jirga of ulama and intellectuals on the BSA'. It was a way for them to strongly condemn the upcoming government’s ‘consultative loya jirga’ and its probable outcome – support for the Bilateral Security Agreement with the US. The BSA, among other things, would guarantee continued US basing rights on Afghan soil and the immunity of US soldiers from Afghan courts (they would continue to fall under sole US criminal jurisdiction).
Farid and Ahmadzai were aiming for a show of ‘popular’ opposition to the BSA and they got it. Political events in Afghanistan are frequently boring, with guests sitting for hours quietly listening to long-winded speeches. This one was neither boring or quiet. Participants kept rising to their feet shouting: “Death to the traitors,” “Death to the sell-outs,” “Death to the slaves,” “Death to America” and “Allah-u Akbar!” Many were mullahs who had come in large delegations from provinces such as Nangahar, Badakhshan, Parwan, Logar, Ghazni, Kapisa and Paktia. Tribal and community elders also showed up, along with hundreds of youths and students who had apparently been alerted to the event by universities and madrassas with links to the organisers. (Ahmadzai – ironically married to an American – runs his own university, the Mashal University, in Kabul.) Posters on the wedding hall’s walls read “A Loya Jirga called by the government in the current situation of insecurity cannot represent the people of Afghanistan” and “The people of Afghanistan will never allow foreign soldiers to rule their land and do whatever they want.”
The organisers all belonged to the so-called Front for National Unity and Opposition to US Military Bases (Jabha-ye Wahdat-e Melli wa Mukhalefat ba Paigah-ha-ye Nezami-ye Amrika) (2) and included not only followers of Ahmadzai, but also members of Jamiat-e Eslah (3) and Hezb-e Islami. The Hezbis did not officially represent their party - but it is interesting that this specific agenda managed to bridge several political movements.
Farid and Ahmadzai’s movement was founded about five or six years ago and, while it is still on the fringes of politics, it is interesting. It channels the very vocal criticism of the US military presence of well-known and influential public and political figures. Moreover, this agenda looks aligned with aspects of the Taleban’s. Indeed, the Taleban promptly welcomed the anti-BSA jirga, saying “The Islamic Emirate appreciates the big meeting of respected ulama and intellectuals convened yesterday in Kabul in opposition to the BSA.” The Taleban statement also threatened participants of the government jirga: if the BSA was signed, it said, they would all be put on a list of “national traitors” who would be targeted and eliminated one by one.
The anti-BSA message seems to appeal to parts of the Afghan society. The group is gaining momentum and indeed, is increasingly active in outreach work. Members use religious events, such as madrassa graduation ceremonies, or social events such as weddings, to stage their speeches. The group first created a few ripples at a gathering during the Ramadan of 2011. At that time, the meeting just exceeded 100 participants. Last year, for speeches in front of Kabul University, around 700 people showed up. In the meantime, however, Farid and Ahmadzai have both been travelling the provinces, speaking in madrassas, mosques and at rural events and gathering more supporters. For yesterday’s event at the Mumtaz Hotel, one of the organisers told AAN, they had worked for two weeks. They were clearly prepared for the masses to turn up: at noon, everyone even received a lunch pack.
All speakers called the upcoming governmental jirga farmayeshi – pre-determined or “ordered”. It was a fraud, they said and claimed their counter-jirga represented the nation’s voice better than the government-orchestrated one would do. Haji Ahmad Farid, in his keynote speech, mocked the government’s inability to mobilise a “real popular jirga” and challenged President Karzai:
You convene a jirga of 3000 – here is our jirga of 3000. If your jirga (meant to approve of the Bilateral Security Agreement), is a representative one, than what is ours (that opposes the BSA)? If you bring 10,000 people to endorse the BSA, I will bring 10,000 people (to reject it).
He also argued more factually, saying he had identified two problems with the US stipulation that it alone should continue to have sole jurisdiction over its soldiers, something which, in effect, gives them immunity from Afghan courts. “Some things which are serious crimes under Afghan law are not crimes in the US,” he said, “for example when a US soldier is caught in adultery with an Afghan woman.” He also said, “If an Afghan is a victim of a crime committed by a US soldier, the Afghan man does not have access to the US trial system, and cannot hire lawyers, so it is difficult to ensure justice for Afghans.”
Following Farid’s speech, the heads of provincial ulama delegations took the stage, elaborating on the group’s belief that the BSA would be religiously invalid. One mullah said: “Whoever signs the BSA” would be “outside the faith.” Two other religious elders cited religious arguments to the same effect: “Friendship with the kufaar (infidels) means khoruj min ad-din” (abandoning the faith). A Quranic verse often quoted was: “God will never make a way (for dominance) of non-Muslims over Muslims.” Two speakers also pointed out that the US troops in Japan and North Korea (a country where there are actually no US troops stationed) have made local women prostitutes by the tens of thousands.
After the participants had been urged not to compromise the country’s sovereignty – "for which two million Afghans were martyred in the war against the Soviets" – there was a show of hands and a unanimous rejection of the BSA. The delegates promised to continue to oppose it. They stopped short of calling for jihad, but even so, this was very strong rhetoric against the US and the Afghan government and – in essence – against key elements on which the current political system in Afghanistan is based. How widespread these sentiments are is impossible to gauge, but there is clearly a current of Afghan opinion, separate from the Taleban, which sees the foreign military presence as, quite simply, beyond the pale.
(2) The Front’s spokesman is Wahid Muzhda, a former Hezb member who, for a while, worked with the Taleban regime and has now established himself as a (often-quoted) political analyst and commentator.