The Loya Jirga

Purpose: Afghanistan's loya jirga (grand council) will meet from June 10-16 to form a national government that is both smaller and more representative than the interim administration currently in office. The UN-supervised council will determine the type of government Afghanistan will have – and then appoint the men and women who will serve in it. It will also set the stage for a more permanent administration, to be installed after general elections held within the next two years.

What's at stake: A successful loya jirga could create a much more stable and inclusive Afghan national government, bringing together all the disparate ethnic groups and militia factions. A failed loya jirga could set the stage for a return to civil war, pitting warlords against one another and the fragile coalition government.

The new government: The government selected by the loya jirga will likely include a head of state and a cabinet, serving as a stopgap until more formal elections can be held. Hamid Karzai, currently Afghanistan's interim leader, is widely expected to retain his role as head of government. One of the loya jirga's central questions is whether the powerful cabinet presence of the Tajik-led Northern Alliance will be diminished to give ethnic Pashtuns and minorities like the Hazara more of a presence in the government.

History: The Afghan tradition of the loya jirga dates back to the 18th century. The council, which generally meets to appoint new leadership, determine national policy, or draft a constitution, last met in 1977.

The delegates: The current loya jirga will be made up of around 1,500 delegates from across Afghanistan. One-third of the seats are reserved for specific interest groups, including women (160 seats), Afghan refugees (100), members of the current interim government (53), nomads (25) and religious scholars (6). The remaining two-thirds were allocated to the country's various districts, with delegates chosen by local councils, with public input.

Delegate selection: The loya jirga delegates were selected in a process that began on April 15. Local councils (called shuras) chose electors, who then cast ballots for loya jirga delegates.

The king's role: Afghanistan's King Zahir Shah was deposed and sent into exile in Italy in 1973. He returned this year, in part to preside over the loya jirga. Although his contribution (an opening speech) will be largely ceremonial, the popular monarch and his loyalists are expected to have some influence over the proceedings. Some observers have mentioned the king as a possible ceremonial head of state in a new government, but his frail health is an obstacle to any official role.

Sources: Institute for Afghan Studies, Human Rights Watch

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