Loya jirga: Afghans question Karzai's motives in calling the meeting

Afghan President Karzai has summoned more than 2,000 leaders to a loya jirga to consult on relations with the US and the Taliban. Some question if he is trying to bypass parliament. 

Musadeq Sadeq/AP
Vehicles drive under a huge banner reading 'Traditional Gathering' on the eve of a meeting in Kabul, Afghanistan, Tuesday. About 2,000 Afghan elders are about to meet in Kabul for a grand traditional meeting called by Afghan President Karzai in an apparent attempt to shore up support for a formal partnership agreement with the United States.

When more than 2,000 Afghan leaders gather for a high profile four-day meeting Wednesday to discuss the future of relations with the US and negotiations with the Taliban, much of the nation will be watching to see what direction their elders take.

The meetings like this one called loya jirgas, or grand assemblies, are seen as an important part of Afghan political life, where leaders from all over the country gather to decide on critical issues.

But after 10 years of democracy building, many Afghans are asking why a loya jirga is still necessary.

“At the present time there is no need to have a loya jirga since you have the parliament and the representatives are selected by the people,” says Wagma Sapai, a member of parliament from Kunar Province. “If there is any need to make a decision, the president should consult with the parliament about the issue,” Mr. Sapai says, adding; “All the conferences that have been conducted in Kabul have not brought any change. This will just be a political exhibition.”

Loya jirgas are not a regular part of Afghan political culture: Fewer than 20 have been held in the past 300 years. The meetings are designed to discuss only one or two major issues during times of instability. Those held over the past decade have focused on issues such as choosing a transitional government after the fall of the Taliban and approving a new constitution. More recently, they have yielded little in the way of measurable results.

This week’s loya jirga is considered a consultative meeting and participants will review the two main issues – Afghan-US relations and talks with the insurgents. At its close, leaders are expected to pass their recommendations to the president and the parliament.

Many parliamentarians worry that President Hamid Karzai, who called the meeting, will use the loya jirga’s recommendations as a means of bypassing the legislative body altogether, using the loya jirga’s advice as grounds for passing new policies without parliamentary approval.

The parliament is already at odds with the Karzai administration, especially after an electoral dispute that dragged out for more than a year and ended in August when nine parliamentarians were removed from office after they’d already held their seats for nearly eight months. Even then, one parliamentarian who was removed from office went on an 18-day hunger strike in August to protest the decision.

“It has negative impacts on government institutions if you call a loya jirga for small issues and the parliament loses its credibility,” says Farouk Meranai, a political analyst and former member of parliament from Nangarhar Province. “If the parliament is not doing what is needed, why don’t they close it? Why are they wasting time and money on it?”

Supporters say the loya jirga provides a necessary forum to take key issues into the public space for discussion, while also providing the government an opportunity to dispel misconceptions.

Still, many of those attending the loya jirga reflect the increasingly common sentiments of many Afghans who say they are frustrated with the current parliament.

“Now this parliament can’t solve any problems,” says Zabet Ali Ahmad, who will represent Kabul’s Surobi district at the loya jirga. He points out that it took the parliament a month of heated debate just to choose a speaker. “They can’t agree on just selecting one speaker, so how can they come to a decision on the strategic deal with America.” 

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