Karzai Calls for Meeting to Discuss U.S.-Afghan Relationship

By: 
Tim Luccaro and Sanaullah Tasal

USIP's Tim Luccaro and Sanaulla Tasal, both stationed in Kabul, discuss Afghan President Hamid Karzai's call for a "consultative loya jirga."

November 14, 2011

USIP's Tim Luccaro and Sanaulla Tasal, both stationed in Kabul, discuss Afghan President Hamid Karzai's call for a "consultative loya jirga."

Why has Afghan President Hamid Karzai called for what’s known as a “consultative loya jirga” to be held in mid-November?

President Karzai has called for a four-day ‘consultative’ loya jirga to take place Nov. 16, 2011, a little more than two weeks ahead of the Bonn Conference.  The main agenda item for the loya jirga is the discussion of a “strategic partnership agreement” with the United States that would provide for security cooperation through the transition period between now and 2014, when the Afghan government is to take responsibility for all of the country’s own security. In addition to laying the groundwork for political and security cooperation after 2014, the jirga will address how Afghans expect to approach a peace process in the wake of the assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani, who had chaired the Afghanistan High Peace Council and was killed by a suicide bomber claiming to be part of an insurgent delegation looking to talk about peace.

Both Afghan and U.S. governments have reiterated their desire to finalize the strategic partnership agreement before the Bonn Conference on Dec. 5.  The main sticking points over the last few months appear to have been over placing the actions of foreign troops under Afghan law. The Afghan government and people are concerned that any agreement limits civilian casualties, ends controversial night raid practices, allows the Afghan government to control battlefield detainees and prohibits foreign troops from using Afghanistan as a base to operate against its neighbors -- as the U.S. did in the assault on Osama bin Laden in Pakistan in May. President Karzai’s representatives have indicated that he has a draft of the strategic plan that he is ready to submit to the assembly for approval.

Critics of the potential agreement, such as Iran, Pakistan, Russia and China, have all cited the long-term military presence in the country as the source of their unease. There also have been Afghan protests against the agreement in Kabul, which some believe to be sponsored by groups affiliated with other regional parties who are unconvinced by U.S. claims that they are not seeking permanent bases in the country.  Afghanistan has recently agreed to similar strategic partnerships with India and France in the run-up to the 2011 Bonn Conference.

The second focus of the jirga will be to discuss the future of any peace process in the wake of the September assassination of Rabbani.  Many see this as an opportunity to create a more transparent process for reconciliation and reintegration.  Others continue to believe that any negotiation with a fundamentalist, amorphous insurgency such as the Taliban is not in the best interest of the nation.

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Will this loya jirga be representative of the Afghan people?  Will its decisions be viewed as legitimate?

As is tradition, the loya jirga will bring together more than two thousand of the most prominent individuals from across the country, including government supporters and some members of the political opposition. Participants will include members from the upper and lower houses of Parliament, provincial council members and governors from all 34 provinces, nomadic and minority groups and representatives from refugee populations in Iran, Pakistan, the EU and North America. Prominent businessmen, members of civil society, non-governmental organizations and academic institutions, as well as influential tribal and religious leaders will also participate.  The committee had initially promised that at least 25% of the participants would be female.  But, in all likelihood, due to resistance from different provincial actors (who are tasked with choosing representatives from their province), only about 18% of attendees will be women. Statements released a week prior to the jirga’s scheduled commencement also indicated that members of main insurgent groups such as the Taliban and Hezbi Islami have also been invited at the behest of the president.

The spokeswoman for the jirga has asserted that any decision the body reaches will only be consultative in nature, and will later be submitted to Parliament for the requisite, official approval. Typically, when a loya jirga is convened, its authority supersedes all other government institutions while it is assembled --meaning that it can enact laws or issue decrees that do not require presidential or parliamentary endorsement.  The president and his representatives have continued to emphasize that the forthcoming jirga will not hold this traditional power, though, and will only be able to make recommendations to Parliament.  As such, there are many who have critiqued the upcoming consultative loya jirga as little more than a symbolic gesture by the president to provide a veneer of popular legitimacy to agreements that have already been decided behind closed doors.

Despite President Karzai’s denials, speculation continues to circulate in local media and among politicians over the possibility of the president taking advantage of the loya jirga to push for a constitutional amendment to presidential term limits, which would allow him to stand for a third consecutive term.  However, as the organizing committee stated, the Afghan constitution clearly describes the process needed to convene a constitutional loya jirga and to make such an amendment, which the current gathering does not meet.  Therefore, no legal change to the constitution is possible.

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What is a traditional consultative Loya Jirga?

Derived from Pashto, the term loya jirga roughly translates to ‘grand council.’ It is a centuries old Afghan tradition, which gained prominence in 1747 when the first loya jirga selected Ahmad Shah Durrani as the King of Afghanistan.  Throughout history, such assemblies have been called at the behest of the people or by the government to discuss critical national issues with the hope of obtaining popular consensus on national policies or courses of action. While generally representative of different tribal, regional and ethnic groups, much of the real politics of decision making at a jirga takes place behind the scenes. Notable recent incarnations include the 2002 “emergency loya jirga,” which led to the selection of President Hamid Karzai as the interim head of state. In 2003, a loya jirga ratified a new constitution. And in 2010, a national peace jirga led to the opening of peace negotiations with the Taliban, though they have subsequently stalled.

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How do Afghans feel about the creation of the loya Jirga?

 

The Taliban issued a statement last week that threatened to kill any individual who participates or supports the jirga. The statement said: “such traitors will be pursued by Mujahideen of Islamic Emirate in every corner of the country and will face severe repercussions.”  The Taliban statement recognizes the importance of the loya jirga in Afghan history as well as a legitimate Afghan institution. But the statement claims that the current Afghan government is only trying to give an artificial legitimacy to the long-term occupation of the country by foreign forces through the recognition of permanent military bases.   Much of the Taliban concern may seem baseless, though, considering the fact that President Karzai has rejected any international support for the jirga beyond security. And, the president is determined to make it an entirely Afghan led, organized and funded endeavor.  There are legitimate concerns among many security officials that the Taliban or affiliated groups may take advantage of such a gathering to launch a high-profile attack, as they did during the 2010 Peace jirga.  Especially in the wake of a Taliban statement released days before the scheduled commencement claiming to have obtained the security plans for the jirga  and the protection details for top government officials, including President Karzai. Reports are that as many as one in three of those invited initially have refused to attend because of security threats during the assembly.

Some Parliamentarians have also expressed their opposition to the jirga.  A number have publicly denounced the gathering as unconstitutional, creating a parallel governance structure and a usurpation of their duty to ratify any international agreements.  When asked about his objection to the Jirga, Parliamentarian Abdul Hafiz Mansur summed up the opinion of the opposition: “Karzai wants to hold a traditional loya jirga in contravention of the constitution, in order to place his own men there. His action is a threat to the jurisdiction of parliament.”  Most are particularly concerned about the discussions around the strategic partnership agreement with the US, which they fear may infringe upon Afghan sovereignty if not carefully negotiated.  Of the 249 members of the lower house of parliament, 78 have said that they will not participate in the jirga.  Additionally, high-profile opposition like former presidential candidate Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, are refusing to participate in the jirga.

Leading women’s rights advocates and youth leaders have also questioned the nontransparent selection process for participation in the loya jirga and its ultimate composition.  They fear that the majority of voices in attendance will be those of powerful, elder men in the country who may not have the best interests of large portions of the Afghan population in mind.  And, concerns about the composition of the jirga are echoed by many citizens on the street.  One man from Paktika wrote in an email that he believed that the people chosen to participate are not the real representatives of the Afghan people, but a select group of political and tribal elite who are aligned with President Karzai.  Another Afghan man from Kandahar noted, “I think the people who participate in the jirga will be only those who are connected to high level officials and because of their interests they will participate and decide.” He continued, “I think it would be a symbolic jirga and may not bring any positive changes since it has been experienced in the country that so far none of such state-owned jirgas have had any good fate,” a popular sentiment that recent loya jirgas have lost much of the legitimacy that they once had among the people. 

As one Afghan in Kabul said, “If we expect positive outcomes, then it is important to bring people from all the tribes, ethnics, well educated and well-known religious and political scholars. And to bring those people who really know the importance of the partnership.”  But, concerns linger among many people whether those who will send the recommendations of the people to Parliament are really an accurate representation of Afghans from around the country.

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November 14, 2011
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