Insights and Analysis

Can Afghanistan’s Traditional Jirgas Bring Hope for Peace?

June 23, 2010

By Fazel Rabi Haqbeen

During last year’s presidential election, Hamid Karzai promised to call a jirga to promote peace and reconciliation for Afghanistan’s future. After two postponements, the peace jirga finally took place in early June with 1,700 delegates gathering in Kabul. Some in the Afghan and international press have criticized the results, but the primary goal of the jirga – to take initial steps toward peace – was largely accomplished.

Afghanistan peace jirga

Nearly 1,700 delegates gathered in Kabul for a peace jirga in early June.

Many involved in organizing the jirga adhere to an old Afghan proverb: Blood cannot be washed by blood. According to a 2008 report by the International Council on Security, the Taliban now hold a permanent presence in 72 percent of Afghanistan. This has contributed to a shift within some in the Afghan government and the international community to think that inclusive negotiations are imperative to achieving peace and stability; and that reconciliation will not come if fighting continues.

The jirga, a traditional council comprised of elders and influential, elected community leaders, stands as one of Afghanistan’s long-standing customs. National and regional multi-tribal jirgas date back to the 18th century, when Afghans – under Mirwais Khan Hotak’s leadership – sought independence from Gorgin Khan, the Persian governor of Kandahar, when jirga members collectively decided to force Gorgin’s troops from Kandahar. In 1747, community elders in Kandahar convened a jirga to appoint their new leader, Ahmad Shah Abdali (or Ahmad Shah Baba), the founder of modern Afghanistan.

Since the fall of the Taliban in 2001, jirgas have continued to address momentous issues. The 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga nominated representatives to facilitate the transition from the interim administration, established by the Bonn Agreement, to the formation of the transitional administration. Some 1,550 delegates – including 200 women from Afghanistan’s 364 districts – attended. In November 2003, Afghanistan’s new constitution was unveiled, debated, and subsequently approved by 502 delegates at the Constitutional Loya Jirga in 2004. In 2007, President Karzai initiated a joint Afghanistan-Pakistan Peace Jirga to foster cross-border communication and cooperation.

The Asia Foundation was one of two NGOs providing support (the other was the German GTZ) for the 2010 peace jirga. Asia Foundation staff from our office in Kabul – Abdullah Ahmadzai, Najibullah Amiri, Roohafza Ludin, Abdul Ghafoor Asheq, Najla Ayubi, and myself – helped by providing logistical, procedural, and administrative assistance, as well as by organizing outreach campaigns to inform the Afghan public about the jirga’s objectives.

Meeting security and logistical needs for 1,700 delegates was an enormous challenge that took several months. Coordination with the president’s protection services, which controlled the overall security for the jirga, was especially difficult. In addition to time and funding constraints, there was no clear mandate on how to convene the jirga, while the relationship between the government and the international community was unclear, partially because the international community didn’t clearly announce their support for the jirga.

Despite ambiguity and confusion, the jirga’s Secretariat was able to meet many difficult challenges, like refurbishing the giant tent where the jirga took place and the Kabul Polytechnic University dormitory where delegates stayed, while simultaneously building a dining hall.

Delegates came from many positions and backgrounds, including members of the National Assembly and Provincial Councils, governors, members of the National Ulema Council, refugees living in Pakistan and Iran, the disabled, nomads, businessmen, elders, and representatives from educational, cultural, and social institutions. Twenty percent of the delegates were women. Members of armed opposition groups did not receive invitations since the jirga was consultative in nature and specifically designed to determine how to negotiate with these groups. Two prominent, controversial Afghan leaders, Mohammad Mohaqiq and Abdul Rashid Dostum, did not participate. Both claimed they were not invited, although Dostum’s name was announced as a delegate.

During President Karzai’s opening speech, several rockets exploded nearby, causing a small battle to break out, followed by two suicide bombings that detonated just outside of the jirga site. Despite the attacks, the jirga continued.

Soon after his speech, and after the dust settled from the scare outside, members from 28 elected committees debated common areas of concern, including: the strength of the government; the administration’s reputation as corrupt and for granting un-merited appointments; civilian house searches by the international military; timeframe for the coalition’s presence; influence from Afghanistan’s neighbors; lack of preconditions for peace negotiation; role of Ulamaas in both Afghanistan and other Islamic countries; removal of certain opposition leaders from the United Nations blacklist; and how inclusive negotiations should be. A proposal to send a group of women to the families of Taliban members was accepted by the jirga and acknowledged by President Karzai. In Afghan culture, women have historically served as agents of peace and have often at times acted as mediators between opposition sides.

A few days after the jirga concluded, the president ordered a review of all prisoners being held in Afghan jails, and declared that those prisoners held without evidence would be released – a move well received by most Afghans. The following Sunday, two respected members of Karzai’s government resigned after being questioned over the attack on the jirga by anti-government elements. This move gave the impression that the president is serious and the international community appears supportive of the jirga’s stated resolutions.

On June 6, 2010, Tolo TV quoted a Taliban spokesperson as saying that the Taliban agrees with some of the peace jirga’s resolutions. In this environment – albeit extremely fragile – if the Afghan government implements the resolutions, the Taliban may be in the position to enter negotiations with the government.

This jirga is the first time in eight years that the Afghan government has consulted with the people on a national issue. A great percentage of the delegates will deliver messages of peace to their constituencies and, in turn, will create greater opportunity for involvement in the new civic education peace process. However, expectations must be managed: the Afghan public should not falsely be led to believe that the jirga will magically resolve all issues and bring peace. As the long road has shown, peace cannot come overnight – but a much-needed process has begun.

Fazel Rabi Haqbeen is The Asia Foundation’s Program Planning & Development Director in Kabul. He can be reached at [email protected].

Related locations: Afghanistan
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions
Related topics: Peacebuilding in Asia


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