Clout of the Loya Jirga
Afghan parliamentarians have begun to express their misgivings about the government’s support for the Loya Jirga’s extra-constitutional decision-making authority.
Tribal societies have always functioned through the powers of clan chiefs and their local group of elders. At a higher level, beyond a single village or tribe, it is a council of chiefs and elders that decides matters. The panchayat system under the British was a variation of this concept. Another example is that of the Islamic shura. Among the Pakhtun tribes in the northwestern part of the subcontinent – northern areas of Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and FATA in Pakistan and in Afghanistan – this concept is known as the Loya Jirga.
The tribal chieftains have always been fiercely independent about their territory as well as their local culture and customs. They have never accepted the suzerainty of a king or a sovereign monarch. Their society has always been a maze of clans and kinships governed by these councils at the local as well as regional levels.
The Loya Jirga is not a modern phenomenon. According to the accounts of early Aryan settlers, some 5,000 years ago, when it was time to select a king for the tribes, a grand council of pastoral herdsmen and nobles would convene in open air. As legends has it, it was believed that during one of those meetings, an eagle swooped down from the heavens to place a crown on the head of the first king of the first urban center that the Aryans had built south of the River Oxus (Amu Darya).
There are records going as far back as some two millennia that suggest that the Kushan emperor Kanishka had held a jirga of some 500 tribesmen and spiritual leaders in the region now known as Afghanistan. The agenda was to debate and decide reforms to Buddhism which was prevalent in the area at that time. The Kushan kings were themselves migrants from what became Persia in the Middle Ages and then contemporary Iran. Similarly, there are records of Genghis Khan holding large councils much akin to the Loya Jirga, in Samarkand.
There are two types of Loya Jirga. The first is called on by the people themselves in times of national crisis to debate and decide issues such as war and peace, the election of an emir or monarch and matters of national sovereignty and independence. The second type of jirga convenes when the prevailing situation obliges the existing ruler or chief to consult his people on issues like the formulation and enactment of basic laws, ratification of treaties or agreements reached with outside powers and defence of territorial integrity and sovereignty. In Afghanistan, three jirgas were held in the beginning of the 18th century under Mirwais Khan Hotak, which helped the Afghans in liberating western Afghanistan from the despotic Saffavid ruler, Gurgin.
According to afghanland.com, the Loya Jirga of Nadir Khan was held in September 1930 to approve the rules of business for a milli shura (national council). In July 1941, Zahir Shah convened a Loya Jirga to deliberate upon the country’s position vis.-à-vis. the Second World War. Another Loya Jirga was convened during the prime ministership of Sardar Daoud Khan in November 1955, which raised the issue of Pakhtunistan under the conditions that Pakistan had come into being as the inheritor of all British rights and obligations in the area. Daoud Khan also called a Loya Jirga in February 1977 to legitimize his rule, pass the new constitution, elect a new president, get approval for launching his National Revolutionary Party and ratify some laws and agreements reached with other countries.
After the Communist Revolution of 1978 and, especially after the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union in December 1979, Cold War rivalries entered Afghanistan and both sides, rulers as well as the opposition forces, resorted to this tradition. Dr M. Halim
Tanwir writes in his book ‘Afghanistan: History, Diplomacy and Journalism’ that jirgas held by moderate elements were opposed by the mujahideen. Since the jirgas by the Karmal regime in 1985 and by President Najibullah in 1987 were held under the shadow of foreign powers, their influence on the course of events was limited. The same was the fate of the Shura-e-Al-oAqd held in Herat in 1992 to legitimize and prolong the rule of Burhanuddin Rabbani. This jirga did not have any representation of the opposition.
Questions are often raised about the fairness, uniform representation, common interests and overall efficacy of the grand tribal councils such as the Loya Jirgas and the debate continues to rage in current day Afghanistan. President Hamid Karzai was himself nominated as an interim head of state in 2002 in a Loya Jirga convened at
that time. It was after a full quarter century that so many heads and chiefs of Afghanistan had convened at one place.
Since then, Afghanistan has gone through the process of becoming a modern state. It now has a constitution and a parliament in accordance with regular democratic practices. So, technically, the Loya Jirgas held during the last few years may, at best, be viewed as no more than advisory bodies. They certainly do not have the powers to legislate and intervene in the matters of national importance. The 2011 Loya Jirga was meant to debate the situation that would prevail after the withdrawal of U.S. troops and was expected to have a gathering of some 2000 tribal chiefs and nobles. Parliamentarians had at that time expressed their misgivings about the government’s support for extra-constitutional decision-making authority against the constitutionally laid-down mechanisms of the state.
Three factors prevent the constitutional state from using its full powers and continue to give the traditional Loya Jirgas more importance than they probably have under the constitution. The first is the continued presence of foreign forces in the region. The second is the volatile situation that arises due to the infighting between fundamentalist factions such as the Hezb-ul-Islami and the Taliban and the moderate factions that still prevail. The third is the divided and fragmented identity of the Afghan people. The abysmally low reach of education in the region, the general absence of law and order, widespread poverty and migrations across the porous borders further complicate the situation. As Tennyson said in the Mort’d
Arthur: Old order changeth, yielding place to new; and God fulfils himself in many ways, lest one good custom should corrupt the world.
The modern state of Afghanistan cannot sustain itself unless the people unite behind a common identity and purpose. It is also pragmatic to say that this cannot happen easily.The intractable problem can only be solved by first eliminating or at least marginalizing the lawless fundamentalist factions and then launching a massive drive for education. It is equally certain that no foreign power can do this. Only the people of Afghanistan can. How they should do it, given their present resource-depleted situation, is the big question.