Afghan leaders since King Amanullah have used Loya Jirgas to gain popular backing for difficult decisions
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Nov 13
The Loya Jirga that gathered in Kabul last week, an assembly of more than 2,000 handpicked tribal elders, chiefs and community leaders, has successfully made President Hamid Karzai seem the most unbending protector of Afghan interests.
On Sunday, after four days of closed-door discussions on the draft of a security agreement with the US that would allow thousands of American troops to remain in Afghanistan after 2014, the assembly issued a statement: "The Loya Jirga requests the president to sign the agreement before the end of 2013."
"Given the current situation in, and Afghanistan's need... the contents of this agreement as a whole is endorsed by the members of this Loya Jirga."
This constitutes a popular green light for the Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) that Mr Karzai’s government has negotiated with Washington. The BSA meets all the US conditions for retaining an estimated 10,000 to 15,000 soldiers in Afghanistan even after the drawdown of the NATO-led International Security Force is completed next year.
Despite his nail biting brinkmanship while negotiating the BSA with Washington, Mr Karzai eventually conceded contentious US demand for legal jurisdiction over American soldiers and civilian contractors operating in Afghanistan and for allowing US Special Forces to continue counterterrorism raids on Afghan homes “in exceptional circumstances.”
Most analysts agree that President Karzai had little choice. The BSA is crucial for the survival of the Afghan government after the NATO drawdown next year. The Afghan National Security Force (ANSF), which will number some 3,52,000 troops and policemen, will need help in combating an inevitable Taliban offensive, say experts.
Yet, President Karzai, with an eye on his legacy, has dextrously ensured that the BSA’s ownership is transferred to the Loya Jirga and, therefore, to the people of Afghanistan. While inaugurating the assembly on Thursday, Nov 21, Mr Karzai thundered that his successor, not him, would sign the BSA after presidential elections early in 2014. Mr Karzai is constitutionally ineligible for another tenure as president, having already served two terms.
Washington, however, insists that the BSA must be signed this year. The US says that any further delay will result in a full pull out of NATO forces --- the so-called “zero-option”. Now Mr Karzai has arranged political cover, with speaker after speaker at the Loya Jirga pleading with him to sign the BSA immediately.
The Loya Jirga head, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, declared he would resign and leave the country if the BSA were not signed this year. News agency AFP reports that other delegates shouted for Mr Karzai to “Sign in, sign it”.
"They (the Americans) have accepted all the conditions set out by him (Karzai) and us (the Loya Jirga). It would hurt Afghanistan if he does not accept it," said Mujadedi.
The ball is now in President Karzai’s court. The Taliban has warned that anyone supporting the BSA would be committing a “historical crime”. Yet, with the ANSF, still consisting mainly of light infantry and Special Forces units, with little heavy weaponry, logistical backup, medical resources or air support, the continued presence of US and European trainers and Special Forces remains crucial.
President Karzai has used the Loya Jirga skilfully. Often misrepresented as a centuries-old institution, it is in fact a political assembly that was invented less than a century ago by the founder of modern Afghanistan, King Amanullah. Combining elements of traditional tribal culture with the representative concepts of western parliamentary democracy, King Amanullah held three Loya Jirgas in 1923, 1924 and 1928, to gain popular support for his political, legal and administrative reforms and for Afghanistan’s first constitution.
In 1964 the Loya Jirga was first written into Afghanistan’s constitution, and has remained a feature of all four constitutions since. A series of myths were created to give it added legitimacy, such as the fabricated notion that legendary Afghan monarch, Ahmed Shah Durrani was crowned by a Loya Jirga in 1747. In fact Loya Jirgas have been handy political instruments that Afghan leaders have used to rubberstamp their decisions and imbue them with a timeless legitimacy.
This is easily done for the simple reason that the leader decides the guest list. Each of the 2,500-odd invitees to the recently concluded Loya Jirga was handpicked by Mr Karzai’s office. The Loya Jirga can be manipulated far more conveniently than those of the Afghan parliament, which consists of elected, not invited, members.