What is a loya jirga anyways?

A grand council of elders in Afghanistan is debating the presence of US troops in the country beyond 2014. What is it and how does it work?

Rahmat Gul/AP
Delegates at the Afghan loya jirga today. The fate of the US military in Afghanistan is in their hands.

A grand meeting of Afghan tribal figures and warlords, over 2,000 people in all, is debating the future of the US military presence in Afghanistan

The so-called loya jirga has gotten off to a rocky start, with Afghan President Hamid Karzai this morning saying that any bilateral security agreement with the US wouldn't be signed until sometime after a presidential election scheduled for April. A draft accord foresees a US security presence until 2024. Should the loya jirga say no to the deal the result could be a near total US withdrawal from the country at the end of 2014. 

What is a loya jirga?

Thomas Barfield, an anthropologist at Boston University who has studied Afghanistan since the 1970s, says these meetings are a kind of "invented tradition" that followed the US-backed overthrow of the Taliban. In Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History Mr. Barfield argues that loya jirga are an attempt to provide legitimacy to the nascent Afghan state. 

The phrase itself is Pashto, the language of the Pashtun tribes that have long dominated the central government in Kabul (and the ranks of the Taliban leadership). It roughly translates as "grand council." It's often referred to as an "ancient" or "traditional" means of coming to important decisions, but has mostly been used to rubber stamp decisions made by a king or, in recent times, by President Karzai. It's also not that ancient.

Barfield writes that after a jirga chose Ahmd Shah as the new head of the Durrani Empire in 1747 (whose members would rule Afghanistan in one form or another until 1978) the practice was dropped until 1915, when the ruler Habibullah sought backing for staying neutral during World War I. Under Habibullah's successor Amanullah, they became more frequent, though the composition of the meeting was controlled by the ruler, and so was the outcome.

Pashtuns use jirgas to hash out local problems, but raising it to a national level is a sleight of hand. When the NATO powers that helped topple the Taliban in 2001 wanted to install Karzai, an ethnic-Pashtun, as president, an "emergency loya jirga" was hastily assembled. And, in line with tradition, the result was preordained. When some delegates proposed Zahir Shah, the last king of Afghanistan who had been deposed in 1973, as head of state, US envoy Zalmay Khalilzaid stepped in. 

"Only when (Khalilzaid) strong-armed the king into throwing his support behind Karzai did the leadership contest end," writes Barfield. "The obviously forced nature of the king's withdrawal and its embarrassing televised presentation undermined Karzai's legitimacy because to many Afghans it appears that it was the United States that was calling the shots."

Karzai wants to distance himself from the US before he steps down next year. That's why he's called this jirga to vote on the security pact with the US. He's seeking to create collective responsibility for a decision that is unlikely to prove popular with many Afghans. But the US insists on immunity for its forces, and any attempt to undo this protection would be a deal breaker for the Obama administration

How is it going?

The meeting is being held in a vast tent erected next to Kabul's Intercontinental Hotel. At stake is vast US military aid to Afghan forces and the presence of 10,000 American troops in the country beyond 2014. But nationalist anger has grown at the presence of US troops, particularly over raids on Afghan homes looking for insurgents. Karzai told the group this morning that the agreement is in Afghanistan's interests, but that the final decision rests with the delegates.

Most Afghan watchers expect the meeting will end with support for the draft agreement - and powerful tribal chiefs haven't staged mass walkouts that would signal the deal is in major trouble. But there are no guarantees.

What about when it's over?

If the jirga doesn't approve the US security deal it isn't the end of the road. The Pentagon says it needs a deal in hand a year ahead of the current scheduled withdrawal for planning purposes. But the US won't fold up its own tent if it gets bad news over the weekend. There will still be time to finesse a renewed deal.

Even if the jirga gives its approval, Karzai says the Afghan parliament has to weigh in. And then comes the new intrigue over getting the document signed, either by Karzai or his successor. He's been pressing the US to promise heavy weaponry from the Afghan army, so the Obama administration may sweeten the deal in exchange for his signature before stepping down.

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