Afghanistan Analysts Network – English


AAN Dossier XXVI: Big Tent ‘Democracy’ – Afghanistan’s loya jirgas, 1915 to 2020

AAN Team 14 min

The loya jirga – or grand assembly – has been used as a political instrument by almost every Afghan king and president for the last century, with the first held arguably in 1915 and the last, for now, in August 2020. These jirgas typically bring together hundreds, sometimes thousands of delegates from the various ethnic and social groups from across the country. In recent times, they have been convened to discuss the contentious issue of making peace with the Taleban. This new dossier brings all our work on loya jirgas together, providing a bigger picture as to the place of the loya jirga in Afghan politics – and also highlighting the shortcomings and risks of such big tent ‘democracy’.

Dr Abdullah speaking at the Consultative Loya Jirga in Kabul in August 2020. In the first row, to the extreme right is Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf (from behind, with black-golden turban). Photo: Dr Abdullah Twitter account.

What is in this dossier

The reports presented in this dossier introduce the reader not just to the politics of today’s loya jirgas, but also to their fascinating history. Loya jirgas have their roots in Pashtun culture where jirgas are a conflict resolution mechanism. The term is a combination of the words ‘loya’ (great or large) and ‘jirga’ (assembly or council). The word jirga is usually considered as being of Turkic origin, meaning ‘circle’ and to be a reference to jirgas sitting in a circle. Some historians claim the first loya jirga was held in 1747 and selected Ahmad Shad Durrani as king, but this remains disputed. Other experts see King Habibullah convening the first such gathering in 1915, “when he ‘invited 540 delegates from all parts of the country to Kabul in order to explain[!] the reasons for Afghanistan’s neutrality during the First World War,” as one of our reports says.

Loya jirgas were then institutionalised by the reformer-king Amanullah who, in 1921 for example, convened a jirga that led to the country’s first quasi-constitution. Later on, the loya jirga became a quasi-parliamentary body. Today, it is enshrined in the constitution as “the highest manifestation of the [will of the] people of Afghanistan,” convened in order to “take decisions on the issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and supreme interests of the country.” 

AAN staff and guest authors have analysed many of these historic and modern-day events, explaining how they have shaped – or eroded – state building and political decision-making. The greatest focus of the reporting gathered in this dossier is on loya jirgas held after 2001, following the fall of the Taleban regime. The first two, both proposed in the Bonn conference in 2001, were the Emergency Loya Jirga (2002), which, under contentious circumstances, named the new transitional cabinet with Hamed Karzai as its head, and the Constitutional Loya Jirga (2003).

AAN has also looked at gatherings held to discuss a controversial security agreement with the US, the Bilateral Security Agreement or BSA, in 2013 and, most recently, in August 2020, whether to release 400 Taleban prisoners deemed especially dangerous (their freedom was a pre-condition for intra-Afghan negotiations). Two AAN reports on this latest jirga highlighted a fundamental question faced by all loya jirgas: what authority do they have? In the August jirga, delegates were given a stark choice: release the prisoners or face continuing war. They were also given little information about the prisoners – and themselves failed to question the terms of the task they were given. 

This and other examples raise the question of whether loya jirgas are a democratic mechanism. The dossier provides plenty of discussion on this. On the one hand, during the monarchy, kings from Amanullah to Zaher Shah, to some degree, acknowledged that involving at least Afghan elders or elites through loya jirgas could help secure and legitimise their power. Although participants had little room for decision-making, the idea of the jirga could be interpreted as a step towards democracy. One guest author, for example, looking at the historic roots of loya jirgas, noted that Amanullah’s “fused elements of the tribal political culture with the Afghan court’s ceremonial and modern ideals of Western parliamentarianism.” However, he also put a question mark in the title of his report, asking whether were loya jirgas were, indeed, “The Nation’s Voice?”

AAN authors have pointed out that critics have regularly criticised loya jirgas, including some of those held since 2001, asundermining the democratic institutions of the country. Looking back, one author came to the conclusion that all too often, the outcome of jirgas are “designed in advance, making them essentially rubber stamp bodies with a bit of (tribal-)democratic window-dressing.” Another analyst takes a different argument: governments since 2001 have “undermined the institution of the loya jirga.” It could, he said, play a much stronger role in times of national crisis were it held properly. 

Actually, all of the loya jirgas convened since the introduction of the constitution in 2004 have been unconstitutional. The constitution prescribes who must attend a loya jirga and they include members of district councils, elections for which have never been held. Probably because of this, all the gatherings held since 2010 have been called ‘consultative’, ‘peace’ or ‘traditional’ loya jirgas – another indication of their actual lack of authority. As one analyst wrote, “For the time being, the government… must limit itself to convening quasi-loya jirgas.” Often, these gatherings have provided the government with political cover for difficult decisions. Very occasionally, such as the jirga called to scrutinise the BSA, delegates have come to a different conclusion than the president had planned. Either way, however, their resolutions can be heeded or ignored by the president at will.

For more in-depth reading and analysis, please browse the individual reports, presented here in reverse chronological order:


1. Doors Opened for Direct Talks with the Taleban: The results of the Loya Jirga on prisoners and peace

Author: Thomas Ruttig, Ali Yawar Adili and Obaid Ali

Date: 12 August 2020

The three-day Consultative Peace Loya Jirga held in Kabul from 17-19 Asad 1399 (7-9 August 2020) has opened the way for the Afghan government to release a final 400 Taleban prisoners from government jails, thereby removing the last obstacle blocking direct peace talks with the Taleban. The jirga delegates did not question the stark choice the government put to them – release the prisoners or face continuing war – and opted for ‘peace’. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig, Ali Yawar Adili and Obaid Ali discuss the proceedings and outcome of the jirga and provide a working translation of the 25-point final resolution. They conclude that the jirga provided President Ghani with political (but not waterproof legal) cover for the prisoners’ release and that although it provided a framework with which the ‘Kabul’ delegation will enter into talks with the Taleban, several of the jirga’s demands are ambiguous, contradictory or difficult to enforce.

Doors Opened for Direct Talks with the Taleban: The results of the Loya Jirga on prisoners and peace
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2. To Release, Or Not To Release? Legal questions around Ghani’s consultative loya jirga on Taleban prisoners

Author: Ehsan Qaane

Date: 7 August 2020

The Consultative Loya Jirga, called by President Ashraf Ghani to decide the fate of 400 Taleban prisoners, and whether they should be released to enable intra-Afghan peace talks, has begun. Ghani has argued that, according to the constitution and the penal code, it was not in his power to release these prisoners and therefore he had to consult the people of Afghanistan. The question is whether a consultative loya jirga can – legally – provide him with that authority. Further confusing matters, speaker of the lower house Mir Rahman Rahmani has said the Consultative Loya Jirga is illegal per se. AAN’s Ehsan Qaane has been unpicking the legalities and the politics behind today’s gathering.

To Release, Or Not To Release? Legal questions around Ghani’s consultative loya jirga on Taleban prisoners
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3. The End of the Jirga: Strong Words and Not Much Controversy

Author: Kate Clark, Ali Yawar Adili and Ehsan Qaane

Date: 3 May 2019

The Consultative Peace Loya Jirga has ended in Kabul with reports back from the fifty committees of delegates, a speech from President Ghani and a communiqué which he said is now the government’s ‘roadmap’. Key points emerging from the jirga were calls for an ‘intra-Afghan’ dialogue with the Afghan government in charge, for a ceasefire and protection of women’s and other rights. Kate Clark, Ehsan Qaane and Ali Yawar Adili (with input from the rest of the AAN team), report on the jirga’s conclusions and ask whether it will strengthen the government’s hands vis-à-vis the Taleban.

The End of the Jirga: Strong Words and Not Much Controversy
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4. AAN Q&A: Between ‘Peace Talks’ and Elections – The 2019 Consultative Peace Loya Jirga

Author: Thomas Ruttig and Jelena Bjelica

Date: 26 April 2019

The four-day Consultative Peace Loya Jirga will commence on Monday, 29 April 2019. This assembly – the sixth loya jirga since 2001 – was convened by President Ghani with the aim of discussing the framework for negotiations with the Taleban. Originally scheduled to start on 17 March, it had to be delayed for organisational reasons. Like the three most recent of these loya jirgas, it has been labelled as ‘consultative’, a qualification that changes this institution’s constitutional definition as a decision-making body. In this dispatch, AAN’s Jelena Bjelica and Thomas Ruttig (with input from the AAN team) provide answers to six basic questions about the loya jirga.

AAN Q&A: Between ‘Peace Talks’ and Elections – The 2019 Consultative Peace Loya Jirga
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5. Flash from the Past: Long Live Consensus – a look back at the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 28 January 2014

It is ten years since Afghanistan got its new constitution. It had been debated over 22 days by the 502 delegates to a specially convened Constitutional Loya Jirga (CLJ). Hailed as one of the most progressive constitutions in the region, it was also called a “juggle of the Quran and democracy” (The New York Times). The legacy has, of course been lasting: conflict between the executive and the legislative powers and a parliament without political parties and focus, the lack of a clear mechanism for arbitration over election disputes and controversies over linguistic and ‘nationality’ issues. AAN Senior Analyst, Thomas Ruttig, was working with the office of the European Union’s Special Representative in Kabul at the time and was present throughout the CLJ proceedings.

Flash from the Past: Long Live Consensus – a look back at the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga
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6. A Yes, a Maybe and a Threat of Migration: The BSA loya jirga’s last day

Author: Kate Clark, Gran Hewad and Obaid Ali

Date: 24 November 2013

Whoever expected clarity and a swift signing of the US-Afghan Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) following the consultative loya jirga will be disappointed. The heads of the 50 committees duly reported back on this final day with a unanimity of views which strongly suggested prior coordination; all supported and almost all urged President Karzai to sign the BSA before the end of the year. In his closing speech, however, he kept to his stance that it should be signed only after the presidential elections due to take place in April 2014 and he added new conditions: United States forces should immediately stop entering Afghan homes and the Obama administration show a commitment to the peace process and to fair elections. After saying he would continue bargaining with the US, he was lambasted by the chair of the jirga, former interim president Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, who said the BSA should be signed now. Kate Clark, Gran Hewad and Obaid Ali report (with input from Thomas Ruttig).

A Yes, a Maybe and a Threat of Migration: The BSA loya jirga’s last day
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7. Shocks in a Lacklustre Speech: President Karzai addresses the jirga

Author: Christine Roehrs, Kate Clark and Obaid Ali

Date: 21 November 2013

The consultative loya jirga, convened to scrutinise the Bilateral Security Agreement with the United States, has begun with a draft that was only agreed at the very last minute, confusion over the exact status and proceedings of the gathering and a lacklustre speech by President Karzai. The president made little attempt to really sell the agreement to the 2500 delegates; he mentioned some benefits, criticised the Americans and, with little passion or conviction, said it was up to the jirga to decide whether to support it or not. Kate Clark, Christine Roehrs and Obaid Ali report.

Shocks in a Lacklustre Speech: President Karzai addresses the jirga
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8. The Lion Roars Again: BSA, Loya Jirga and a strong sense of déjà vu

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 21 October 2013

Preparations are underway for the ‘consultative Loya Jirga’ which will meet in a month’s time, as the first step in deciding whether Afghanistan signs a Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States. The Afghan parliament will then either approve or reject the agreement. All this pushes the decision way past the 31 October deadline set by the US government. Meanwhile, the defence ministers of NATO member countries meet tomorrow for two days, with its post-2014 training mission in Afghanistan part of the agenda. Without the BSA, though, NATO will not have a training mission which means there is nothing much for the ministers to discuss. Kate Clark reports.

The Lion Roars Again: BSA, Loya Jirga and a strong sense of déjà vu
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9. The Nation’s Voice? Afghanistan’s loya jirgas in the historical context

Author: Benjamin Buchholz

Date: 19 November 2013

On 21 November, another loya jirga (grand assembly) is forthcoming in Afghanistan, convened to represent ‘the nation’s voice’ about the still pending Afghan-US Bilateral Partnership Agreement (BSA), the basis for any post-2014 NATO mission in the country. This will be the fifth such assembly under the Karzai government. On this occasion, our guest author Benjamin Buchholz (*) looks at how this special Afghan instrument of representative democracy has changed its form over the past 12 years – and over Afghan history.

The Nation’s Voice? Afghanistan’s loya jirgas in the historical context
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10. Flash from the Past: Power play before the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 27 April 2012

Ten years ago, Afghans were preparing for the Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ) with high hopes. The chairman of its preparatory commission had dubbed it the ‘Peace and Democracy Loya Jirga’(1), reflecting the aspirations of a majority of Afghans. But the country was already in the grips of political posturing. There were attempts to prevent the former King from returning, and the mujahedin of the Northern Alliance were claiming an almost monopolistic role in the political process, a discussion that is a live issue in Afghanistan once again. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN who had helped to organise the ELJ, looks back to some of the events in spring 2002 and how they are still playing out today.

Flash from the Past: Power play before the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga
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11. Traditional Loya Jirga 3: lacklustre political theatre (amended)

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 19 November 2011

The Traditional Loya Jirga (TLJ) is over, after a drab last day in which President Karzai got his public backing for signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) with the United States. However, it was clear to all watching the proceedings on television that the discussion had hardly been lively and the results tightly controlled. The 2000 delegates had spent 2 days discussing the SPA and the peace process in 40 working groups and every single one accepted the SPA but – in imitation of President Karzai’s opening speech on Wednesday, they had conditions. Almost word for word, the working group leaders expressed the same demands and injunctions. At the end, a formal declaration was read out and Karzai said he agreed with it. Kate Clark reports on a day of political theatre at its most uninspiring.

Traditional Loya Jirga 3: lacklustre political theatre (amended)
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12. Traditional Loya Jirga 2: Not Sellers of the nation – but lions! (amended)

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 16 November 2011

President Hamed Karzai flew in by helicopter the few kilometres from his palace to the site of the ‘Traditional Loya Jirga’. He said later in his speech that he had been impressed to see just how much Kabul had grown and developed. He arrived to give the opening speech of the jirga to the two thousand delegates representing most of the major (non-fighting) political players in Afghanistan. The speech was also aired to the nation via live TV broadcast. AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, tries to decipher the President’s message with a special focus on his effort to reconcile the contradiction between allowing US military bases on Afghan territory and keeping US forces in Afghanistan after 2014 on the one hand and maintaining national sovereignty on the other.

Traditional Loya Jirga 2: Not Sellers of the nation – but lions! (amended)
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13. Innovative Jirga-ism 2 or: The rule of bending the law

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 16 November 2011

The 2030 jirga delegates have come into town now, and their sessions are to start today (Wednesday). Interestingly enough, it had been unclear until recently, at least to some people, how exactly the event was called they are to attend. This has repercussions to which authorities the meeting will have exactly – an issue still open. In a follow-up to an earlier blog on the issue Thomas Ruttig, Senior Analyst at AAN, looks at this more than semantic problem.

Innovative Jirga-ism 2 or: The rule of bending the law
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14. Traditional Loya Jirga 1: Why the Jirga?

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 15 November 2011

More than two thousand delegates have gathered in Kabul for the ‘Traditional Loya Jirga’. Business in the Afghan capital has stopped, the major east-west arteries have been blocked, check points set up all over and at least some of those living near the site itself are in lock-down. The jirga is to discuss two items: the strategic partnership agreement with the United States and ‘peace talks’ (unspecified with whom), but until now, there are no further details and no agenda. When asked about this, the jirga spokeswoman said ‘There is nothing of substance yet. It is up to the President of Afghanistan to set the agenda when he comes tomorrow.’ Not surprisingly, says Kate Clark, diplomats, journalists and, most importantly, the delegates themselves, have been left mystified as to what exactly they will be discussing – and why.

Traditional Loya Jirga 1: Why the Jirga?
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15. The upcoming jirga: an agenda with possible backdoors

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 4 November 2011

Less than two weeks to go to the opening of the long-awaited Traditional Loya Jirga. This meeting of 2030 delegates from all 34 provinces will discuss the strategic US-Afghan agreement and the future approach to reconciliation with the Taleban. About the rest – from its composition to its exact agenda and its authority – there is more secrecy, or intended vagueness, than information available. Thomas Ruttig, Senior Analyst at AAN, looks at some of the issues.

The upcoming jirga: an agenda with possible backdoors
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16. Guest Blog: Principles Sold-out – A Farewell to Afghanistan

Author: Jan Malekzade

Date: 19 July 2011

The 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga was more representative then anything seen in Afghanistan in the previous 25 years, writes our guest blogger, but it was sold out to the warlords for a cheap political compromise, argues our guest blogger Jan Malekzade*. Looking back at two stints with the UN, he says farewell to Afghanistan.

Guest Blog: Principles Sold-out – A Farewell to Afghanistan
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17. Innovative Loya Jirga-ism

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 13 June 2011

President Karzai announced during a press conference on 31 May that a Loya Jirga was due ‘in the coming days’ (my emphasis) to discuss ‘the strategic relationships with the U.S, [that] all the people of Afghanistan from all different parts will gather together[,] view their options and the final decision will be made by Afghans’. That must have rung some alarm bells. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig explains why and wonders what a ‘traditional’ Loya Jirga is.

Innovative Loya Jirga-ism
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18. Reviewing prisoners after the peace jirga

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 16 June 2010

AAN has learned that a new committee to review security prisoners – as called for by the peace jirga and decreed by the president on 5 June – has been set up and has held its first meetings. Member and spokesperson for the committee, Professor Nasrullah Stanekzai, told AAN the committee was currently getting lists of prisoners from various Afghan security agencies and foreign forces and will start by reviewing those prisoners who are in legal limbo – not under investigation, not charged and not sentenced – but not released either. The committee told AAN it hopes to free its first prisoners in a week’s time.

Reviewing prisoners after the peace jirga
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19. PEACE JIRGA BLOG 9: A Déjà vu of Big Tent ‘Democracy’

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 4 June 2010

A commentary ‘from the gut’ (1) about democracy and democracy deficits at the Kabul peace jirga, and of jirgas in general by Thomas Ruttig.

PEACA JIRGA BLOG 9: A Déjà vu of Big Tent ‘Democracy’
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20. PEACE JIRGA BLOG 8: The Afghan jungle’s big beasts and ‘lively debate’

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 4 June 2010

The peace jirga has left the older generation of factional leaders nicely split: a few (Sayyaf, Rabbani, Mujadddidi) have been honoured by the president and treated like long-lost brothers by the world’s diplomats; others (Dostum, Mohaqiq, Abdullah) are sitting, Achilles-like, sulking in their tents; while just a couple from the 80s generation of mujahideen stalwarts (Hekmatyar, Haqqani) have been left, issuing curses from the wilderness. Meanwhile, in the jirga tent itself, delegates have told AAN there has been real, lively debate about what to do with those relatively new kids on the block, the Taleban. On the third day of the peace jirga, AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, reports.

PEACE JIRGA BLOG 8: The Afghan jungle’s big beasts and ‘lively debate’
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21. The Peace Jirga in tweets

Author: Wazhma Frogh

Date: 4 June 2010

There has been some formidable twitter reporting going from inside the peace jirga tent, particularly during today’s plenary session. AAN has been following @Hairan and @WazhmaFrogh and has collected all the tweets, for the record.

The Peace Jirga in tweets
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22. PEACE JIRGA (GUEST) BLOG 7: The first day of the peace jirga

Author: Wazhma Frogh

Date: 2 June 2010

Chevening Scholar (International Development Law and Human Rights) and civil society activist, Wazhma Frogh, reports on the first day of the Afghanistan Peace Jirga.

PEACE JIRGA (GUEST) BLOG 7: The first day of the peace jirga
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23. PEACE JIRGA BLOG 6: An attack on the jirga, an end to peace?

Author: Martine van Bijlert

Date: 2 June 2010

It was in the middle of a live radio interview, as we were discussing the basics of the peace jirga that had just kicked off, that the interviewer cut in: “It seems the jirga has been attacked. There was an explosion or shooting. Karzai has been taken away, maybe to hospital. It was probably the Taliban, no? So this must mean the end of any prospect for a peace deal.”

PEACE JIRGA BLOG 6: An attack on the jirga, an end to peace?
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24. PEACE JIRGA BLOG 5: The Big Karzai Show

Author: Thomas Ruttig

Date: 2 June 2010

A first commentary on the beginning National Consultative Peace Jirga in Kabul by Thomas Ruttig

PEACE JIRGA BLOG 5: The Big Karzai Show
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25. PEACE JIRGA BLOG 4: Who’s come to town… and who’s staying away

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 2 June 2010

The peace jirga has begun today without President Karzai’s main rival in last year’s presidential elections, Dr Abdullah, who has announced that he and his supporters are not attending. Abdullah’s party comrade, head of Jamiat-e Islami and former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, however, looks set to chair the jirga – a move which is seen as an attempt by the President to split potential opposition inside the tent and beyond. There is now an agenda of sorts and a better idea of how discussions will be structured. And it appears ever more clear that it will be largely Karzai loyalists hearing and discussing what plans the government has for the insurgency. A blog by AAN senior analyst, Kate Clark, with input from AAN co-director Martine van Bijlert.

PEACE JIRGA BLOG 4: Who’s come to town… and who’s staying away
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26. PEACE JIRGA BLOG 3: Preparing the Delegates

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 31 May 2010

The long-anticipated and twice-delayed ‘consultative peace jirga’ is about to happen. Delegates from across Afghanistan have been arriving in Kabul and the press corps of the world is arriving to report on them. Journalists are here in such numbers that AAN is wondering if there will be more reporters than delegates. Diplomats are also excited about this ‘Afghan-government-owned process’ which they hope will demonstrate a national consensus for peace. Meanwhile, the expectation on the streets seems to be that the jirga will be a ‘drama,’ a show for the cameras. Senior AAN analyst, Kate Clark, has been looking at preparations for the jirga, due to start on Thursday, 2 June.

PEACE JIRGA BLOG 3: Preparing the Delegates
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27. PEACE JIRGA BLOG 2: Peace Jirga goes to Washington: whose opinions count on reconciling Taliban?

Author: Kate Clark

Date: 10 May 2010

‘Peace Jirga goes to Washington,’ was the headline in Payam-e Mujahid newspaper this week. The headline sums up how politics have been on hold in Afghanistan since President Karzai was invited to Washington and also, very succinctly, where the power of decision-making in Afghanistan lies. By Kate Clark, currently engaged as Senior Analyst with AAN.

PEACE JIRGA BLOG 2: Peace Jirga goes to Washington: whose opinions count on reconciling Taliban?
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28. PEACE JIRGA BLOG 1: How serious is the Peace Jirga?

Author: Martine van Bijlert

Date: 28 March 2010

While the press makes it sound like a deal with Hekmatyar is just around the corner now that a 15-point plan has been presented, and while the Taliban continue to deny their involvement in any kind of talks and continue to adapt to the twin pressures of military operations in Afghanistan and high-level arrests in Pakistan, preparations for the Peace Jirga in Kabul continue. The timing is right, the agenda is relevant and the consultative nature of the gathering is necessary. But as usual with these kinds of high-profile events the question is: how serious is it going to be?

PEACE JIRGA BLOG 1: How serious is the Peace Jirga?
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