Afghanistan’s Big-Tent Politics: TIME Explains the Loya Jirga

Thousands of tribal elders will gather in Kabul to decide the future of foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan

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Ahmad Masood / Reuters

Members of the 2011 loya jirga in Kabul on Nov. 19, 2011

Thousands of tribal elders from across Afghanistan will gather in Kabul on Thursday for a loya jirga, which is Pashto for grand council. In a giant tent, they will hold a town-hall-style meeting where they will try and find consensus on one of the most crucial decisions at hand — whether to support keeping American troops in the country for the next several years.

Delegates to the loya jirga meet now with the shadow of an American withdrawal looming over Afghanistan. For the past year, U.S. and coalition troops have been packing their equipment, while international aid has started to dry up. A cloud of uncertainty still hangs over negotiations to keep U.S. troops in the country after 2014. On Wednesday, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry announced that the U.S. and Afghanistan had reached a bilateral security agreement to govern U.S. forces after NATO’s combat mission ends next year. But before Afghan President Hamid Karzai signs the accord, it will face consideration by the loya jirga.

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The loya jirga is an institution deeply embedded in Afghan culture and has played a part in some of the country’s most crucial deliberations of the past century. The first modern gathering took place in 1747, when tribal leaders chose Ahmad Shah Durrani to lead the modern state of Afghanistan. “There’s a little bit of mystification about it,” says Thomas Barfield, a professor of anthropology at Boston University and author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History. Afghans often discuss the loya jirga as the process of choosing their leaders, but after 1747, the next time the gathering actually chose the leader of the country was in 1929.

In reality, as is the case this year, the loya jirga is most often convened when a leader has to make an unpopular decision for which he doesn’t want to take sole responsibility. In 1915, a loya jirga was held to ratify the decision to keep Afghanistan neutral during World War I. Most Afghans wanted to attack the British, and the Germans and Turks sent envoys to try to persuade Afghanistan to ally with the Central Powers. But Habibullah Khan, the Emir at the time, wanted to keep the country neutral, so he called a loya jirga to ratify that decision. Essentially, it’s a way for the leader to say he’s consulted with his people, but with one crucial twist: “Who controls the invite list? It’s the leader,” Barfield says. “If a jirga goes against you, it’s a bad change in the political wind.”

After the U.S.-led invasion that topped the Taliban in 2001, Afghans held several loya jirgas as they rebuilt their political institutions. In July 2002, the interim administration, led by Hamid Karzai, organized a loya jirga that ratified Karzai as head of the transitional government. In 2003, delegates considered the constitution and ratified it by consensus in January 2004.

The loya jirga process is different from most political gatherings. Delegates listen and argue, but when someone disagrees, generally he walks out. If enough people walk out, Barfield explains, the jirga is illegitimate, but no one wants to be the only person to leave. During the constitutional loya jirga, proposed sections of the constitution were read aloud, and when someone was unhappy with a proposal, he left. When that was an important person, someone would run after him, they would discuss the issue outside and cut a deal. In the end, the single vote was by acclimation. “There are no losers, that’s the essence of the loya jirga,” Barfield says. “It’s a consensus thing. It’s not a question of two-thirds majority; it will vote unanimously, because the dissenters will refuse to attend and refuse to vote.”

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The thorniest issue facing the jirga this week is the matter of immunity for foreign troops. The U.S. has a Status of Forces Agreement with every country in which its troops are stationed, guaranteeing that American forces won’t be punished under local laws, but tried under the U.S. judicial system. The issue of immunity is deeply contentious among Afghans; many consider the statute as giving a foreign military carte blanche to use violence in their country. They have been particularly furious about night raids and incidents involving the mishandling of copies of the Koran. The 2012 massacre where U.S. Staff Sergeant Robert Bales killed 16 civilians in Kandahar province, only to be brought back to the U.S. to face trial for murder, stirred deep distrust among the Afghan populace, angry that Bales couldn’t face Afghan justice.

But without immunity, the U.S. won’t keep its forces in Afghanistan after 2014. “If the loya jirga decides that the agreement shouldn’t include Afghan legal immunity for U.S. troops, there’s no way the United States is staying there,” says Robert Lamb, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “We’re pulling out. And if the United States pulls out, most other [International Security Assistance Force] countries will pull out as well.”

That prospect scares Afghanistan’s leaders, who fear a return of civil war if foreign troops leave too soon. As unpopular as immunity is, Karzai knows the potential consequences if it’s not granted. “Most Afghans want the United States and foreign troops to be gone, but not too quickly,” Lamb says. “By giving this decision to the Afghan people — through, frankly, handpicked tribal leaders — he’s basically creating collective responsibility for this decision, which is legitimately a difficult decision for Afghans to make.”

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Essentially, Karzai needs the jirga to ratify a decision to strike a deal with the U.S., which would be an unpopular decision, but one Afghan leaders will likely make. “The whole stability of this government has partially been on Western money, and on Western troops,” Barfield says. “Now Western troops are going out, and if all of them go out, the chances of Western money going out get much higher.”

Recent reports on security negotiations say the Afghan government might demand an apology for the suffering of the Afghan people during the years of military operations. Susan Rice, the U.S. National Security Adviser, dismissed the idea. “There is not a need for the United States to apologize to Afghanistan,” Rice said. “Quite the contrary, we have sacrificed and supported them in their democratic progress and in tackling the insurgents and al-Qaeda. So that is not on the table.”

The jirga is likely to support signing a new agreement to keep American troops in the country beyond next year. But even after an accord is signed, there will be pressing issues that will face a new government. In April, Afghans will go to the polls to elect their first post-Taliban leader who’s not Hamid Karzai; the new President will have to work closely with the U.S. government in the coming years, regardless of the security deal hatched this week. “The more important thing is what’s the relationship between Washington and Kabul, and it really doesn’t matter what’s on paper on either side,” Barfield says. “It’s a question of what happens, not what’s written down.”

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