Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

The upcoming jirga: an agenda with possible backdoors

Thomas Ruttig 7 min

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 long-awaited Traditional Loya Jirga* will be opened on 25 Aqrab, i.e. 16 November. When the spokeswoman of its Preparatory Commission, former Nangrahar MP Safia Sediqi, announced this in late October, she did not give too many details. What she said: the proceeding will continue for three days, on the fourth day (28 Aqrab = 19 November) the jirga’s conclusions will be announced and delegates ‘will be briefed on the objective behind the grand assembly’ for another four days before the Jirga starts, between 20 to 24 Aqrab (11-15 Nov), immediately after the Eid holidays, while they arrive in Kabul (read the related news item here). It can be assumed that the government wants to make sure that they are properly ‘messaged’ before they actually convene. It looks as if before and during the 2010 ‘consultative peace jirga’, the government doesn’t want to take any chances.
The rest of the information available on the jirga needed to be compiled from scattered reports of Afghan media which have been fed drop by drop. There is significant vagueness about a number of issues: the jirga’s composition, how exactly its participants are chosen, how it will be exactly conducted, the exact agenda and, most importantly, how binding its deliberations and ‘decisions’ will be.

On the latter issue first: Spokeswoman Sediqi said, in an interview with Kabul-based 8 Sobh daily on 1 November (in Dari, find it here) that this would be a consultative jirga and its decisions [sic] would not be binding, and it would send its ‘proposals’ [note the change of terminology], to the government, which will make the final decision:

‘The decisions of jirgas were certainly binding in the past. However, the decisions of this particular jirga, like the previous two jirgas [the peace jirga and the CLJ? – in the last case, this would be a new interpretation], are not binding. The traditional loya jirga will only provide the Afghan government with general advice.’ 

It is known that the 2030 delegates are being selected on the basis of 16 criteria (‘attributes’ as it is called on the PrepComm’s website here) referring to their ethnic, social and gender background as well as political status.Pajhwok News Agency reported that ‘[a]ll sitting parliamentarians, some former MPs, 30 per cent members of each provincial council, representatives of civil society and special people [this might be handicapped people], religious scholars and influential tribal elders will attend’ (full report here). A member of the PrepComm added experts and what locally is called saheban-e nazar (opinion makers) to the list when speaking to Kabul’s Mandegar daily (17 October). According to later statements of Sediqi, one quarter of the participants will be women, and 230 delegates will represent Afghan refugees in Pakistan, Iran, the US, Canada and Europe. She added that candidates who lost in the parliamentary elections were ‘essential’ for the jirga, whatever this means. Cabinet members and foreign dignitaries will be invited as guests.

Reportedly, lists are compiled both in ‘the provinces’, i.e. most likely by or through the provincial governors, and in the (all?) ministries and each province and ministry was directed to propose 18 to 25 candidates. According to Afghan media, some provincial lists have already been confirmed (the one for Herat, for example, as Hewad daily reported on 30 October). There were also reports that some lists were sent back for ‘improvement’. How exactly, and by whom, the final decision on the delegates is taken, is not fully clear either. Officially, this is the responsibility of the PrepComm but the Office for Administrative Affairs (Edara-ye Umur), Afghanistan’s prime ministerial office without a Prime Minister – also plays a strong role in this. It can be assumed that there is a lot of, sorry, horse-trading going on. The official invitations are said to be sent out between 18 and 20 Aqrab (9-11 November).

Most controversial is the MPs’ participation, among the MPs themselves. On 29 July, a majority 126 of the 249 Wolesi Jirga members voted to call the jirga unconstitutional and vowed not to take part in it. The PrepComm – which includes some MPs of the 2005-10 period – had no small role in provoking this reaction, having showed open hostility towards the parliament and calling it ‘illegitimate’. The MPs, led by the Law Support Coalition, retaliated and called the jirga a parallel institution to undermine its influence. But the resistance front is crumbling. On 2 November, WJ speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi – who still stands firm on the initial vote -, said that 153 MPs had filled out forms now to attend the event and others were expected to do so in the near future. The majority had been overturned.

On the agenda of the jirga, Sediqi said, in the words of Pajhwok, that it has been convened ‘to discuss the pros and cons of an Afghan-US strategic cooperation pact’ and ‘a mechanism for peace negotiations with Afghan insurgents, but she ‘indicated’ that the participants ‘might also take up other issues related to peace and stability’. This almost sounds like a threat, particularly since parliament ‘disapproved’ the existing technical agreement between ISAF and the Afghan government because it ‘breached the country’s sovereignty’ (read the full report here). Sediqi’s choice of words in her 8 Sobh interview also will not reassure those who have second thoughts about a hidden agenda:

‘No other issues, expect these two [the agreement and reconciliation], have been included in the agenda of the traditional loya jirga so far [my emphasis].’

On the proceedings, it has transpired that there will be discussion groups again, as during the 2010 Consultative Peace Jirga. It is not know whether, as then, the final declaration has already been written beforehand, so that the discussion won’t impact much on it – a fact that was one of the main criticisms about the Peace Jirga, besides its handpicked composition (see an earlier blog on this here).

What also is more or less clear: funding comes from the government’s budget, not directly from the international community as it was the case for the 2002 ELJ and the 2003 CLJ, the government has asked ISAF only for support in security matters; organisers claim they work voluntarily; the delegates will be accommodated in the dormitories of the Kabul Polytechnical Institute (KPI; also as during the ELJ and CLJ), where this already has led to demonstrations of the original inhabitants, the KPI students – even successfully: apparently their food and other living conditions will be improved; security measures are already up (inhabitants of the KPI’s vicinity say that access for trucks and construction workers has been banned.

It can be said that the organisers and planners of the long-awaited** gathering have a transparency problem. This automatically leads to all kinds of rumours, assumptions and even fears amongst Afghans and internationals. Most prominent among Afghans: that Karzai, through his allies amongst the delegates, will change the constitution in order to allow him a third presidential term which, in fact, he has already publicly ruled out. The counter-rumour: If this is done, supporters of the opposition Taghir wa Omid alliance led by Dr Abdullah will go for changes of the political system, federalism and a prime ministerial office. The counter-counter rumour: Karzai’s cronies are trying to up the number of Pashtuns to a) make their opponents’ a minority and block their plans and b) to push through the third term.

Not that this is a complete phantasy. Those who attended or closely followed the 2004 CLJ will remember how the Pashtun (and Nuristani and Baluch) delegates were gathered in a side venue and sworn in on the Karzai line, in favour of the centralised presidential system and against a stronger role of the parliament. This was the first time that the ethnic card was played so blatently, and the representatives of the non-Pashtun ethnic groups, slightly under the 50 per cent threshold then, have definitely not forgotten.

Last but not least, the mechanics of ‘traditional’ jirgas (more about this term’s semantics in an upcoming blog) allow spontaneous initiative. Jirga delegates are ‘traditionally’ free to raise any issue they wish. It just needs a few determined people to do so. Of course, they still need to get a significant number of supporters behind them to make a mark, but this is not unthinkable, particularly when emotionally charged issues come up. And of such, there is plenty of choice. Looking at it from this angle, we might be in for surprises in this upcoming jirga.

Apart from Dr Abdullah’s followers, the strongest objections to the jirga continue to come from civil society organisations. Enquiries by AAN’s researchers showed that there is, expectedly, no unanimous position: The majority of these organisations believes that the president has the constitutional right to consult the people, and that if the jirga is only for consultations, it is legal – but since the agenda was still unclear, it was difficult to judge its legality. ‬‬Other civil society activists argue that the jirga is illegal because it is not convened according to what the constitution says.***‬‬ Women’s rights activist and women who were, as they said, already invited to the jirga are worried about the inclusion of the ‘peace’ issue, i.e. possible talks with the Taleban, in the agenda. They also doubt whether the 25 per cent quota for them will be implemented. They point to the example of Parwan province from where apparently only 2 of 19 delegates are female.

Interestingly, in rare instances of open political discontent, the provincial councils of Nangrahar (a Pashtun area but with strong Hezb-e Islamiinfluence) and Ghazni (strong Hazara and Hezb influence) have rejected the Jirga as ‘not useful for Afghanistan’ (Tolo TV, 1 and 2 November). The leader of Hezb’s insurgent wing, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also has criticised the jirga. In a declaration published on 25 October, the party’s Political Committee said that it ‘can never reflect the will and wishes of the Afghans and therefore it cannot be considered the nation’s representative’. At the same time, Hezb did not fully rule out its participation (quoted from BBC Monitoring):

‘First of all, an agenda should be set for every gathering. The agenda for this jerga has not been set yet. We can say whether we will take part at it once its agenda has been set.’

The Taleban, meanwhile, have already done their expected part and threatened everyone who has to do with the jirga with ‘severe repercussions’. According to a ‘decree’ passed by what they call ‘the country’s trustworthy scholars’ ‘every participant of this convention shall be charged with treason if caught. [The] Islamic Emirate also calls on its brave and courageous Mujahideen to target every security guard, person with intention [to cooperate], participant and every caller of this convention in all corners of the country’ (read their 26 October statement here).

* This is the official name, now. About confusion about the name and what it means, see an upcoming blog.

** Karzai mentioned a jirga to decide about the strategic agreement for the first time in his 2010 speech on International Women’s day (see our earlier blog on this here).

*** Its Article 111, however, stipulates that ‘[A] Loya Jirga is convened in the following situations:
1- To take decision on the issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and supreme interests of the country. [my emphasis]
2- […].’

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