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 loya jirga is back on the political agenda. A so called consultative one will be convened on Thursday, 21 November, under the chairmanship of Sibghatullah Mojaddadi at Kabul’s newly built “Loya Jirga Hall”. More than 2,500 delegates (the final number has not yet been announced) will discuss the long-expected Bilateral Security Agreement between Afghanistan and the US for three full days. (1) The assembly’s topic is of vital importance for the future of Afghanistan – for this very reason, debate is inevitable on the representative character of its composition, the orchestration of its negotiations and perhaps even its overall ‘authenticity’ as a loya jirga. It seems, therefore, the right moment to step back and shed light on the evolution of the loya jirga as a central political assembly and the narrative about the institution, putting the upcoming assembly into a historical context.
The term loya jirga is highly ambiguous and may evoke differing associations. The term jirga originally denoted a certain kind of local tribal council for solving intra- or inter-tribal conflicts, but has departed from its tribal roots. In recent times, it has entered the terminology of civil society (e.g. adabi jirga or literature society) and the political system of Afghanistan (e.g. Wolesi Jirga or the Lower House). Thus, the question arises whether the term loya jirga primarily depicts a large (loy) tribal council (jirga) or whether it has also become a political term for assemblies that have little more than their name in common with the tribal culture, as for example the loya jirga as defined in the present constitution. In the 1930s, the Afghan intellectual and politician Muhammad Gul Khan Mohmand touched on this ambiguity in his dictionary and recommended that the loya jirga assemblies should be described by the term “kunferans” (conference) rather than as a “maraka” – a “jirga”, meaning tribal council. (2) His choice of a European term to replace loya jirga accentuates that these assemblies should be linked to the modernisation process in Afghanistan rather than to its tribal culture and that therefore, one should not project a priori ideals of tribal culture onto the loya jirga assemblies. Anyway, if we look to the mainstream’s perception of the loya jirga today, Mohmand’s recommendations seem to have fallen on deaf ears. The confusion about what the loya jirga is or could be is greater than ever (read an earlier AAN discussion of the subject here).
The invention of an Afghan tradition
The loya jirga, today depicted as a centuries-old institution, was ‘invented’ less than a hundred years ago by King Amanullah (1919–29). (3) He held the first one in 1923 as a central political assembly, borrowing the idea of extraordinary assemblies from his predecessors, who had convened them from time to time in the form of darbars (court audiences). Amanullah modified these darbars to suit the new political system and labelled them with the Pashto term loya jirga. As an extra-constitutional body, his loya jirgas fused elements of the tribal political culture with the Afghan court’s ceremonial and modern ideals of Western parliamentarianism. Amanullah convened three such assemblies – in 1923, 1924 and 1928, each bringing together more than a thousand delegates – and used them to both communicate his ideas of a new social and political order to his people and gain support for his modernist reforms. Central to his reform efforts was the adoption of Afghanistan’s first constitution, based on which he intended to reform the state administration, to codify both the civil and the penal law and to restructure the judicial system. The state’s increasing engagement in the legal sphere, however, bore potential for conflicts with the traditional elites. The loya jirgas became the king’s main instrument for settling potential conflicts face-to-face with the representatives of his people.
Amanullah promoted these assemblies as an innovation in Afghanistan’s political culture. Accordingly, their main characteristic was the way the participants communicated: representatives of the state on the one side and representatives of the people on the other were for the first time encouraged by their king to openly express their own opinions and even vote on crucial political questions. For Amanullah, the loya jirga symbolised his intention to give his people a voice in the modernisation process, even at the risk of being confronted with criticism. This happened, for example, at the loya jirga of 1924 when a group of conservative delegates denounced his new penal code as not conforming to Sharia and forced him to withdraw the law. Even though Amanullah, who abdicated in 1929, failed to realise his ideals of a modern Afghanistan in the short run, many of his reforms, including the loya jirga, have survived and have influenced Afghanistan’s political culture up to the present day.
During the reign of King Nadir Shah (1929–33) and his son Mohammad Zahir Shah (1933–73), the loya jirga was used only occasionally. Four were convened in those four decades, each assembly with a different composition – ranging from 500 to 2,000 delegates – and a different agenda. In 1930, Nadir Shah used the loya jirga to withdraw several of Amanullah’s reforms. ‘His’ new constitution, however, was adopted one year later by the new parliament. The government convened the loya jirga of 1941 to gain support for having – under British pressure – expelled German and Italian citizens. The loya jirga of 1955 was also concerned with the government’s foreign policy, namely the border disputes between Afghanistan and the newly founded state of Pakistan. The last loya jirga convened by an Afghan monarch was the constitutional loya jirga of 1964 that, compared to former assemblies, was particularly shaped by contemporary democratic ideals regarding election of its members and its modus operandi. This loya jirga adopted one of the finest constitutions in the Middle East, which consolidated the system of constitutional monarchy in Afghanistan and strengthened the role of elected representative bodies in the political system.
Mythologising the jirgas
The first turning point in the loya jirga’s institutional evolution was when it became a constitutional body in 1964. Up to then no official legal text existed on the loya jirga and its role in the political system, and each assembly had been designed by royal degree and had its own agenda, composition and modus operandi. From 1964 onward, the loya jirga was still not a permanent body, but became a supra-institution that – when convened under circumstances defined by the new constitution – would be composed of the already existing representative constitutional bodies, that is, the two houses of parliament and members of the provincial councils. In this way, it was very much like the loya jirga under the present constitution. Through this reinterpretation, the loya jirga lost its occasional character (for example, regarding its competencies and its composition) and, thereby, became a ‘modern’ representative body.
Against this background, paradoxically, during this very period, the ground was laid for mythologising the loya jirga. Intellectuals and politicians tried to disassociate it from the Amani Era and to find a new narrative that could give the institution (and the governments relying on it) a timeless legitimacy. In writings and speeches, they created the still-valid narrative that describes the institution as both rooted in the local political culture and connected to centuries-old national history. The founding myth of the Afghan nation – the coronation of Ahmad Shah Durrani in 1747 by a loya jirga – is probably the most prominent example of this rewriting of loya jirga history. (4) And so, by the end of the 1970s, the loya jirga had not only become a constitutional body with a ‘modern’ shape but also what the historian Eric Hobsbawm would call an “invented tradition”. (5)
After 1978, the Afghan Marxists set their sights on overcoming the old social and political order. But in response to evolving nationwide resistance, the party leadership soon realised that it could not find political legitimacy without acknowledging the cultural traditions of Afghanistan. From the early 1980s, this was reflected both in the party rhetoric and in the instrumentalisation of supposedly old Afghan institutions. Babrak Karmal, and later Najibullah, expected that loya jirgas could pave their way back into the Afghan society from which they had alienated themselves. From 1985 to 1990, they convened four loya jirgas in addition to several quasi-loya jirgas (such as the high jirga of tribes); each assembly featured its own particular composition and modus operandi and, thereby, ignored former constitutional requirements. These well-orchestrated assemblies, composed nearly exclusively of party members, not only served as rubberstamps to legitimise the general party policy, to adopt a new constitution and to elect the president, but were also symbolic events in which the political leadership could show its adherence to the political culture of Afghanistan.
Alongside the almost inflationary increase of its convocation, the loya jirga became more symbolically charged than ever as it was constantly present in the public discourse. Intellectuals played a major role in this, producing a huge amount of literature on the loya jirga’s history and its role in Afghan society. (6) At the same time, an ideological battle arose on the question of whether the government or the resistance (that had convened two quasi-loya jirgas in Pakistani exile in 1980 and 1981) should have jurisdiction over the interpretation of the loya jirga.
One may conclude that the still very influential myth of the loya jirga as the centuries-old Afghan instrument of conflict resolution and national integration was finally moulded during the crisis of the 1980s. (7)
After 2001, this narrative once again unfolded when Afghans and the international community were in search of a tool that could give the post-Taleban political process legitimacy. Measured by the disastrous circumstances of that time, the two loya jirgas convened in 2002 and 2003 and designed in accordance with the political and social needs of that time represented, without question, the best political option. Meant to be “an Afghan solution for Afghan problems” (8) they made it possible – besides all justified criticism regarding their decision making – to furnish Afghanistan with a transitional administration and a new constitution. After fulfilling this task, however, the loya jirga, as under all constitutions since 1964, was supposed to melt into the new ‘modern’ political order.
No historical continuum – mirror of political change
This short historical overview shows that there is no prototype of a loya jirga. The concept of the loya jirga – its composition, its agenda setting or its modus operandi – has been reinterpreted again and again in accordance with contemporary political needs, be it under the Afghan monarchy, during the 1980s or after 2001. Accordingly, loya jirgas do not represent a historical continuum immune from the manifold changes in Afghanistan – on the contrary, they have always been mirrors of the social and political change at certain phases of Afghan history. The loya jirga has been integrated into all four constitutions since 1964 as a constitutional body, and the legislature’s intention has been to regulate its composition and competency. In reality, not one such assembly has been summoned in the form prescribed by the relevant constitution. This probably is attributable to the loya jirga’s adaptability, the characteristic that makes it an attractive political tool. In short, the loya jirga is an alternative forum of political representation that owes its significance both to its myth and to its formal adaptability.
Today, in the context of the ongoing conflict, the loya jirga is once again presented as an alternative to existing political institutions. In the course of sensitive and necessary decision-making, the Karzai administration, by organising ad hoc large loya jirgas with thousands of delegates, may hope to gain further legitimacy on the one hand and to prove its capability of acting on the other.
However, an obstacle to convening a loya jirga as defined in the constitution is the absence of elected district councils (which have never been elected due to the insecurity after the provincial council elections in 2009 as well as some confusion about district borders). For the time being, the government, therefore, must limit itself to convening quasi-loya jirgas such as the National Consultative Peace Jirga in 2010 or the Traditional Loya Jirga in 2011 (see here). At any rate, the government would not find the convening of a loya jirga as defined by the present constitution particularly attractive. It would not bring new actors into the political game, suggesting more support by wider parts of the population, as it would only include those already in office. Neither could it be depicted as a ‘traditional Afghan alternative’ to existing representative bodies.
However, the recent quasi-loya jirgas, with their ‘un-constitutional’ additional delegates such as tribal elders, district governors or intellectuals such as lawyers and professors, undermine the authority of the existing constitutional bodies and, therefore, risk jeopardising constitutional achievements since 2003 and disappointing all Afghans who have supported the constitutional process. It seems hardly constructive to ask whether they fit into the history of the political usage of loya jirgas in Afghanistan: of course, they do. One should rather ask whether in today’s Afghanistan extra-constitutional approaches to create political legitimacy are needed. However, the loya jirga is back on the political agenda and as long as the Afghan conflict is not solved, this ‘traditional’ institution will probably remain as a political option.
(1) See the official website for the traditional loya jirga and the upcoming consultative loya jirga.
(2) See Muhammad Gul Mohmand, Də musawwaday pə dawl lumray pashto sind [A Draft of the First Pashto Dictionary], Kabul 1937.
(3) Most source-based historical studies agree that in neither the eighteenth nor the nineteenth century was the term loya jirga used on the highest political level in Afghanistan. See Christine Nölle-Karimi, ‘The Loya Jirga – An Effective Political Tool? A Historical Overview’, in Afghanistan – A Country without a State?, ed by Christine Nölle-Karimi, Conrad Schetter, Reinhard Schlangenweit, Frankfurt/M. 2002, 37–52; and Jamil M. Hanifi, ‘Colonial Production of Hegemony through the “Loya Jerga” in Afghanistan’, in Iranian Studies 37, 2, 295–322.
(4) What ‘really’ happened in 1747 is difficult to say as historical sources do not clearly document the circumstances of Ahmad Khan’s takeover. However, it is a feature of historical myths that they have a core of truth and that the rest of the narrative suits present rather than past representations of an event. Regarding ‘how’ Ahmad Shah became a ruler, he was not elected and crowned by a loya jirga as the common narrative wants us to believe. (An AAN attempt to make sense of this can be found here.)
(5) See Eric Hobsbawm & Terence Ranger (eds), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge 1983.
(6) The two most famous books in Afghanistan on the history of the loya jirga are, first, adhering to the party line, Abdollah Mehraban, Tarikh-e jirgaha-ye melli dar Afghanestan [The History of National Jirgas in Afghanistan], Kabul 1982; and, second, adhering to the resistance’s perspective, Mohammad Alam Fayzzad, Jirgaha-ye bozorg-e melli-ye Afghanistan (loya jirga) wa jirgaha-ye namnehad taht-e tasallot-e komunistha wa Rusha [Afghanistan’s Grand National Jirgas (Loya Jirga) and the So-Called Jirgas under the Communists and the Russians], Peshawar 1989.
(7) If one understands the term myth as a narrative by which a society provides significance to its political experience and deeds and may furnish political decisions with legitimacy, calling the loya jirga a (political) myth has by no means a pejorative connotation, but rather underlines the fact that the narrative of the loya jirga has indeed become powerful in Afghan politics. For this approach to the concept of political myth, see Chiara Bottici, A Philosophy of Political Myth, Cambridge 2007.
(8) Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan, in his speech before the 2002 loya jirga, cited from the following text: Institute for War and Peace Reporting (ed), Emergency Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly) of the People of Afghanistan, London 2002, 22.
* Benjamin Buchholz is a researcher at Humboldt-University in Berlin. He studied Iranian Studies, Islamic Studies and Economics in Frankfurt, Bamberg, and Tehran and graduated (PhD) in Central Asian Studies at Humboldt-University. Since 2003, he has visited Afghanistan seven times. His dissertation deals with the history of the loya jirga and has now been turned into a book:
Benjamin Buchholz, Loya Jirga: Afghanischer Mythos, Ratsversammlung und Verfassungsorgan, ed by Zentrum für Militärgeschichte und Sozialwissenschaften der Bundeswehr, Center for Military History and Social Sciences, Freiburg 2013.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020