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.
‘We don’t know anything,’ two delegates who had just arrived in Kabul and the jirga tent from Daikundi, told AAN. ‘We have been told nothing.’ They were not alone among the delegates that AAN has spoken to. Official statements on the jirga have become no more exact since Thomas Ruttig pointed out how horribly vague it was all sounding, ten days ago.
The official jirga website is of little help. A couple of paragraphs loftily applaud the jirga as an institution: ‘the genius of Afghanistan’s ancient culture has endowed the Nation with historic and invaluable traditions of social and political importance,’ it says. The jirga brings together the religious injunction to consult and a pre-Islamic tradition of jirgas going back to the ‘ancient Arians and Kanishka the Great’ and means that, ‘after serious discussions – decisions are made by involving all layers of the society.’* As to the objectives of this particular jirga, there is only one sentence:
To bring all Afghan representatives under one umbrella to discuss the ratification of strategic partnership between the United States of America and also to talk about the peace policy and our future way forward on peace talks.
We now know there will be 40 odd sub-committees to discuss different aspects of these topics, but we still do not know what exactly they will be discussing. It is not as if the topics of the jirga are not of vital importance to Afghanistan. In principle, one could imagine, for example, in the absence of any strategic partnership document for the jirga to scrutinise, a discussion of principles, of red lines or essential demands – to provide a basis for the government’s negotiations with the US (whose stance, bland in the utmost, is worth a quick look).** Such a jirga would be a way of thrashing out some sort of national consensus on a difficult topic, as it could also on what to do following the assassination of Ustad Rabbani with peace talks, the Highe Peace Council, which he chaired, and so on. However, this jirga will not be such a forum.
First of all, the delegates were selected, at the provincial level, through the governors. Representatives come from a wide range of different types of Afghans – ulema, tribal elders, women, refugees, the disabled, but apart from MPs and provincial council members, few have undergone any sort of election. Senior ministry employees and senators – who are appointed by the president – will also be present. As official lists of participants have not been made available and the process of selection has been opaque, it is difficult to judge how hand-picked the ‘people’s representatives’ might be. However, as with the Peace jirga of May 2010,*** there are allegations that many of those selected campaigned for Hamed Karzai in the 2009 presidential election.
If you did want to hold a frank discussion to hammer out a national consensus on difficult topics, you would not want only such delegates. You would also want people with local influence, some independence, and the ability to sell decisions to the people and to represent their local interests. You would also want your critics in the tent.
Moreover, even among the wisest and most honest of these jirga delegates, the lack of a clear agenda given ahead of time, makes, as a tribal elder from Daikundi said, real representation impossible:
‘People asked me where I was going and I said that I was going to the jirga, but that I didn’t know anything about it yet. They said, if you don’t know anything about the agenda and you haven’t discussed it with us, how can you represent us and how can the jirga represent us?’
Confusion over what would be discussed and what the real aim of the jirga was has hung over the tent. ‘With past jirgas,’ said delegate, Muhammad Rasul Mohseni, head of the Baghlan Provincial Council, ‘the government announced and campaigned [about the content of the jirga] for at least six months beforehand.’ A provincial council member from Nangarhar said, ‘I hoped the jirga wouldn’t be farmayeshi – on orders – or namayeshi – for show. But so far, that’s what it seems to be. I’m sure it will end up with whatever outcome the president wants. I don’t know anything about the agenda – it’s totally unclear, but as far as I’ve heard from other representatives, it will probably talk about the strategic agreement and changing the constitution.’
Many of the delegates who spoke to AAN thought, like this woman, that a third topic, an attempt to change the constitution in the president’s favour, might be on – or indeed under – the table. The head of the Samangan Provincial Council, Zia-uddin Zia, for example, said he thought the agenda would be concerned with ‘changing parts of the constitution, especially concerning the president, allowing him to run not 2, but 3 times, and even if this is not on the agenda, it will be discussed and emerge as the wish of the representatives.’
It should be stressed that there has been absolutely no official indication that constitutional change might be on the agenda and, according to the constitution at least, this jirga has also not been convened in the appropriate manner to do this. Yet, where vacuum mixes with distrust, it is easy for rumours flourish.
The jirga is due to start tomorrow, Wednesday 16 November, with an opening speech by President Karzai – when all may become a little clearer.
* Part of the text in full is:
‘The genius of Afghanistan’s ancient culture has endowed the Nation with historic and invaluable traditions of social and political importance. Particularly precious and deeply ingrained within the society is the sacred Religion of Islam. The basis for Jirga is the Holy Quran which commands Muslims to Shura (consultation). Jirga is referred to an assembly where tribal leaders and influential bodies gather to decide on issues of special importance concerning the community’s vital national, regional and international interests. The historical roots of Jirga can be traced from the times of the ancient Arians and Kanishka the Great. For the same reason, its historical value and efficiency in solving major societal issues is still a salient factor in the present Afghan political context. Jirga is a reliable and honourable process of decision making within the Afghan societies where after serious discussions – decisions are made by involving all layers of the society. The process of holding Jirgas along the history – to decide on vital issues – has become an efficient mechanism in solving and saving the country from national and international crises.’
** Extract from the daily press briefing in Washington DC by Deputy Spokesperson, Mark C. Toner, on 14 November:
MR. TONER: Well, first of all, I do want to say – and I believe this was said by our ambassador in Kabul – Ambassador Ryan Crocker said earlier today that – he noted that the Loya Jirga itself is a traditional Afghan institution for which we have the utmost respect. And the U.S. and Afghanistan are close partners and allies, and we have great confidence that this Loya Jirga’s going to reaffirm that strong partnership…
QUESTION: Sorry —
MR. TONER: Yeah. Go ahead.
QUESTION: You have great confidence that the Loya Jirga’s going to do what?
MR. TONER: Is going to reaffirm the partnership between the U.S. and Afghanistan.
QUESTION: You do?
MR. TONER: We do.
QUESTION: Okay. It’s on Wednesday, right? So Wednesday afternoon we’ll be able to find out if your great hopes were – can we move on? Or is there more?
MR. TONER: We can move on.
*** For a detailed look at the National Consultative Peace Jirga, where many of the same problems arose, see AAN’s series called Peace Jirga 1-9 (the first one is here).
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020