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Loya Jirga: An Afghan Institution Surviving Tumultuous Centuries

More than 3,000 Afghans recently backed the release of remaining Taliban prisoners to begin peace talks.
More than 3,000 Afghans recently backed the release of remaining Taliban prisoners to begin peace talks.

Hopes for ending four decades of war in Afghanistan are high this week after a Loya Jirga or grand assembly of more than 3,000 political elites, tribal leaders, clerics, and activists approved the release of 400 Taliban prisoners.

Their unanimous decision removed the last apparent obstacle in beginning direct talks between representatives of Afghan society and the Taliban. Dubbed as intra-Afghan talks, the negotiations will be aimed at ending the war through a political resolution among Afghans.

Holding the most recent consultative Loya Jirga amid the coronavirus pandemic highlights this institution’s centrality in Afghan political life. For nearly three centuries, Afghans have used the forum to build consensus, grant political legitimacy, approve constitutions, and resolve major political issues.

Rooted in the tribal customs of the country, the Loya Jirga became a distinct political institution with the rise of the Durrani Empire in the 18th century. Since 2004, the current Afghan Constitution recognizes it as “the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan.”

“The Loya Jirga is an extrapolation at the national level of traditional village jirgas convened to resolve local disputes,” wrote Scott Smith, a senior Afghanistan expert at Washington’s United States Institute of Peace think tank. “Yet despite this nod to tradition, [Loya Jirgas] are essentially modern political institutions.”

The institution of the Loya Jirga gained centrality in the early 20th century. After winning sovereignty from the British in 1919, Afghanistan’s reformist King Amanullah drafted Afghanistan’s first constitution. Titled The Fundamental Principles of the Afghan Government, the supreme law was adopted by two Loya Jirgas in 1922 and 1923.

“This constitution was advanced and progressive at the time,” Afghan historian Ghulam Mohammad Mohammadi noted. “It granted both rights and some liberties and paved the way for implementing modern laws in the country.”

Alam Ishaqzai, a historian at Afghanistan’s Academy of Sciences in Kabul, says King Amanullah’s supreme law preserved Afghan sovereignty and granted its citizen some rights at a time when most of the world was colonized by European powers.

“The main achievement of this constitution was to create an inclusive political system, which enabled all the diverse elements of the Afghan society to participate in the political system and contribute to economic and social development,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Disagreements between Afghanistan’s royal ruling Musahiban dynasty ultimately led to one of the most significant Loya Jirgas in the 20th century. In 1964, a Loya Jirga adopted a new constitution, which established parliamentary democracy and constitutional monarchy. Under the supreme law, Afghanistan witnessed two elections in the period now called the ‘decade of democracy.’

After a bloodless coup in July 1973, Mohammad Daud Khan also tried to gain legitimacy for his republican system from a Loya Jirga. But his critics maintain the Loya Jirga in 1976 was more of an assembly to legitimize his coup. This particular Loya Jirga eventually approved the constitution of the republic of Afghanistan and elected Daud Khan as president.

But in April 1978, young radical communist officers launched a coup by killing Daud Khan and his entire extended family. Afghanistan is still reverberating from the aftershocks of the coup that ended more than 250 years of Durrani dynasty, attracted superpowers to its wars and spurred endless strife and suffering for Afghans.

Leaders of the Parcham faction of the Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan also held Loya Jirgas. In 1985, Babrak Karmal held one to muster support for his Soviet-backed regime. After a leadership change in 1986, Dr. Najibullah held a Loya Jirga in 1987 to unveil a new constitution and a new policy of national reconciliation. The assembly also chose him as president for another six years.

But Afghan authoritarian regimes failed to garner widespread support amid Soviet occupation and its chaotic aftermath. "Tyranny cannot deliver because the real representatives of the people were not able to participate in the jirgas,” Mohammadi said.

Afghanistan’s war entered its current phase after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, against the United States. By the year’s end, a U.S.-led military attack ousted the country’s hard-line Taliban regime for hosting Al-Qaeda. Washington blamed the radical group for orchestrating the 9/11 attacks out of its sanctuaries in Afghanistan.

Months after the demise of the Taliban regime in December 2001, an emergency Loya Jirga elected Hamid Karzai as president of an interim Afghan government in June 2002.

A year and a half later, the constitutional Loya Jirga approved Afghanistan’s current constitution in January 2004. This supreme law turned the Loya Jirga into a formal institution. Article 111 of the constitution states that Loya Jirgas are assembled for major decisions are made regarding independence, territorial sovereignty, constitutional amendments, and trials of the president.

According to the constitution, the Loya Jirga consists of members of the national parliament, members of provincial councils, and members of district councils. The Loya Jirga was never convened according to the measures set out in the constitution. The reason is because the district council elections were not held, the quorum of this jirga was not completed.

But during this time, other large assemblies were formed under the name of consultative Loya Jirgas. The most recent Loya Jirga was the fourth such event. Like previous events, peace and security were the main issues discussed.

This consultative Loya Jirga, attended by 3,200 people from across the country, decided to release 400 from a list of 5,000 Taliban prisoners. Their release was agreed on in a U.S.-Taliban agreement in the Qatari capital, Doha, in February. Senior officials and Western diplomats expect intra-Afghan talks to begin next week after the prisoner release is complete.

According to Masoom Stanekzai, head of the Loya Jirga Advisory Commission, these soon to be freed Taliban had committed crimes such as kidnapping, murder, and drug trafficking, and a number of them were sentenced to death under current Afghan laws.

Nilofar Sakhi, an academic at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., says that despite shortcomings in the work of such Loya Jirgas, public discourse on major issues is always beneficial.

“Consultation with the people on national political issues is a good thing and denotes that the government is connected to the people and includes their views on important issues,” she told Radio Free Afghanistan.

Loya Jirga is expected to be the main forum to debate and eventually endorse a future peace deal between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

Radio Free Afghanistan correspondent Omid Marazban contributed reporting to this story.