A commentary ‘from the gut’ (1) about democracy and democracy deficits at the Kabul peace jirga, and of jirgas in general by Thomas Ruttig.
Previous publications in the series include: The Peace Jirga in tweets by Wazhma Frogh, PEACE JIRGA BLOG 8: The Afghan jungle’s big beasts and ‘lively debate’ by Kate Clark, PEACE JIRGA (GUEST) BLOG 7: The first day of the peace jirga by Wazhma Frogh, PEACE JIRGA BLOG 6: An attack on the jirga, an end to peace? by Martine van Bijlert, PEACE JIRGA BLOG 5: The Big Karzai Show by Thomas Ruttig, PEACE JIRGA BLOG 4: Who’s come to town… and who’s staying away by Kate Clark, PEACE JIRGA BLOG 2: Peace Jirga goes to Washington: whose opinions count on reconciling Taliban? by Kate Clark, PEACE JIRGA BLOG 1: How serious is the Peace Jirga? by Martine van Bijlert.
Not everything was bad in Afghanistan‘s peace jirga. Women’s rights activists described the discussion in the working groups as ‘open’ and ‘democratic’. A lot of proposals came up that make sense came up (see our yesterday’s guest author’s twitter account here) – many of them interestingly sound like the plan the Kabul-based group of former Taleban has been handing out since a couple of years.
Despite strict government control over who was allowed in and over the agenda, there still have been enough free thinkers amongst the gathered 1600 Afghan men and women. That‘s no bad omen. It shows that democracy, free speech and pluralism are no foreign words for people who inhabit what some (as the new Tory Secretary of State for Defence Liam Fox recently did) describe as ‘a broken 13th-century country’.
But one should be careful, nevertheless. It wouldn’t be post-Taleban Afghanistan’s first ‘democratic consultation’ that remained without any consequence. Remember the JEMB’s and UNAMA’s 2004 consultation with political parties about the system for the 2005 parliamentary elections. All of them – except Mujaddedi’s – spoke for a combined list and personality system – and what came out of it was SNTV. I still remember their rage when an Afghan JEMB official had to face them after they became aware that they had been let down. Or remember the ELJ and CLJ (we will come back to this). On key issues, decisions are taken in a very small circle.
Accordingly, it remains to be seen how much of the jirga’s proposals really make it into Afghan government policy. Karzai’s immunity to advice – as long as it doesn’t come from his ‘esteemed Jihadi leaders’ (see his 2 June opening speech) or US advisors – will possibly stand in the way. ‘His’ to a large extent British-authored ‘Afghanistan Peace and Reintegration Program’ – still marked as ‘draft’ – was neither presented nor distributed nor, logically, discussed at the jirga. But it was approved ‘unanimously’.
How did this work? As one participant twittered out of the tent, jirga chairman Rabbani just annouced: ‘We unanimously support government’s peace plan.’ Rabbani who has not been elected by the delegates but – in a surprise coup – presented by Karzai, through Mujaddedi, as the chairman. Mujaddedi, the chairman of the Senate, but here possibly in his position as head of the still not-defunct corrupt PTS program, alias ‘reintegration 1.0, had the first word at the jirga.
How ‘democratic’ was all of that? It reminds of what happened at the Emergency Loya Jirga when Sayyaf who had taken over the podium, declared, assisted by Mohseni, that ‘we’ want the Transitional Government be named as ‘Islamic’. And he asked ‘all good Muslims’ in the (same) tent to rise from their chairs if they agreed. Only a very few, possibly perplexed delegates dared to stay put. And like in the Constitutional Loya Jirga with its infamous by-tent with restricted access where the Khalilzads and Brahimis (who I hear is about to return to a role in Afghanistan) and ambassadors and warlords mingled and took the real decisions while the delegates next door still thought that their Loya Jirga is about democracy and self-determination. This – and not mistakes at Bonn – stood at the beginning of Afghanistan’s descent back into chaos, borrowing Ahmed Rashid’s phrase.
One could say: The reason was lack (or prevention) of real Afghan participation.
On the method, one should read what scientists write about Loya Jirgas (2) (some of it was echoed on the web over the past few days): Loya Jirgas are – and have usually been, despite all understandable idealisation of this traditional Afghan institution – gatherings which, despite all open discussions, simply rubber-stamped decisions taking outside, ‘posht-e purda’ (behind the curtain). Sounds like conspiracy theory, but is it?
All you need is a clever whitebearded chairman – like Rabbani – who proclaims unanimity without having a vote. Of course, indeed, ‘traditionally’ jirgas have no votes…
(1) That’s what Josh Mull on the Huffington Post website (see here) called my first one (see here). As you see, I was deeply touché.
(2) A lot of journalists wrongly called this jirga a Loya Jirga. It indeed resembled one but wasn’t – and the terminology used was deliberatedly left ambigous. See a short discussion of this at the end of one of our earlier blog here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020