Levent Basturk / World Bulletin
After long negotiations between two sides, the U.S. and Afghanistan have agreed on the terms of a new bilateral security agreement that will be effective until the end of 2024. Alhough Hamid Karzai, the Afghan president whose term will be ending in April 2014, can make his own decision regarding the agreement, he preferred to call for a loya jirga. His call suddenly had all attentions drawn to the what loya jirga is and why he made this call.
What is a Loya Jirga?
A jirga is a traditional gathering of Afghan leaders and elders. A jirga meets in order to make communal decisions and settle disputes. On a local level, the elders of a village sit together to arrive at a consensus on matters related to or affecting the community.
A "loya jirga" is essentially a gathering on a much larger scale. It is more like a “national” or “grand” assembly where elders and community leaders from across Afghanistan can debate and discuss matters of major national importance, mutually consult and ultimately vote on a proposition.
Loya Jirga is an Afghan tradition which started almost three centuries ago. It is an attempt by the ruler to seek legitimacy for his government or decision. An American anthropologist Thomas Barfield argues that after a jirga chose Ahmd Shah in 1747 as the new head of the Durrani Empire, whose members would rule Afghanistan until 1978, the practice was dropped until 1915. King Habibullah made a call for a loya jirga in 1915 when he sought backing for staying neutral during World War I. Under Habibullah's successor Amanullah, they became more frequent.
However, after the U.S. led invasion of Afghanistan, what we observe is a kind of "invented tradition" which followed the overthrow of the Taliban.
Five loya jirgas convened in the past decade. The first of them in 2002 elected Hamid Karzai as president, the choice of the international community for interim leadership.
Another loya jirga convened in 2003. It ratified the existing Afghan constitution and determined the terms of what would constitute a loya jirga, or grand assembly. It specified who must be included in it.
The Loya Jirga is not a law-making body. The Afghan constitution of 2003 does allow for a Loya Jirga, made up of both houses of parliament and elected heads of regional administrations, with the power to amend the constitution, impeach the president and decide on matters of national sovereignty.
But the assembly which has been gathered for four days from 21 November is merely a consultative Loya Jirga, and has the right only to advise. Why is this so? It was billed as a “consultative loya jirga,” because it did not in fact meet the constitutional criteria. The delegates are chosen either directly or indirectly by the president and his aides. They were a more numerous and diverse group than specified in the constitution, including tribal elders, civic groups, and many other nongovernmental figures.
Why did the Loya Jirga meet?
Those attending the gathering are going to vote on a new, 10 year security arrangement between Afghanistan and the United States that will be in effect after the current international mandate expires in 2014. The agreement, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA), specifies in detail the obligations each side will have towards the other.
The draft being debated at the gathering includes the stationing of approximately 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, U.S. control of nine military bases, full freedom of movement by air for U.S. troops, and full immunity for U.S. troops accused of committing crimes. They can be tried in U.S. courts, but not in Afghanistan.
Who are attendees?
The jirga attendees consist of members of parliament, Muslim clerics, representatives of the professions, merchants and tribal elders from all corners of the country. A quarter of the seats should be reserved for women. Some attendees are well-educated, while others are illiterate. It's unclear how the delegates have been chosen, but literacy was not one of the preconditions.
How will the jirga work?
The loya jirga began on Nov. 19. After an opening session, the four-day sitting of the jirga broke up into smaller discussion groups or committees to debate the individual clauses of the agreement. They will reconvene for a final vote on November 24.
Why are some groups boycotting the jirga? Who are they?
The Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, are against the bilateral security agreement in principle. Besides, the Taliban have threatened to kill jirga delegates who endorse the security agreement. It seems that the Taliban threat had only minor impact on the approximately 3,000 invitees, 2,500 of whom are attending.
Some MPs who refused to participate in the gathering think that the jirga now underway is a presidential attempt to undermine the authority of parliament; therefore, it is undemocratic. Moreover, it was chosen by the government outside of constitutional rules. Some opposition critics accuse President Karzai of trying to solve 21stcentury problems through a "traditional, archaic and unlawful 19thcentury process."
Do consultative Loya Jirga have a veto right on the bilateral security agreement?
As mentioned in the question, it is only a consultative assembly; therefore, it does not have any veto power over the agreement. As jirga chairman Sibghatullah Mojadeddi says, the president has the right to sign the agreement without consulting Loya Jirga.
If Karzai could have made this decision on his own, why did he call the Loya Jirga?
The negotiations over the BSA have been ongoing for several months, with key disagreements between Afghanistan and the U.S. Among the most contentious issues was the ability of U.S. troops to search and enter Afghan homes, something most Afghans see as an affront to their human dignity and national sovereignty. Karzai did not want to sign the agreement in his capacity as president. He instead decided to put the decision before "the Afghan people" in the form of a loya jirga, because, he said, the security agreement is an important national issue.
In his opening speech at the jirga, Karzai created some questions in minds. Toward the end of his speech, he said the security agreement should not be signed until after the April presidential election. He also said that he does not trust the U.S. On the other side, he praised the bilateral security agreement. There is no doubt that he is in favor of the agreement. In fact, the jirga delegates will endorse what the Karzai government tells them to endorse. The jirga’s deliberations are broken down into 50 committees, each of which is headed by a government loyalist. In the case that the Loya Jirga backs the security agreement, it will give Karzai political cover to accept the agreement. It seems that he does not want to give the impression that the agreement was reached as a result of his wanting such. By calling a loya jirca, he is supposedly handing the responsibility to the people.