The mother of all Jirgas, touted as the panacea for all of Afghanistan’s problems, is turning into a grand farce. Amid allegations that tribal elders have been offered bribes of up to US$1,000 by various warlords in Paktia province to elect them to the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) from June 10 to June 16, Pashtun elders have called for postponement of the meeting for 18 months. Resentment among the country’s Pashtun majority is increasing at being left out of power-sharing arrangements under last December’s Bonn agreement. This may now erupt into violence – the traditional Afghan method of settling disputes – instead of talks determining the outcome. The humpty-dumpty of an interim government cobbled together will then collapse quickly and the country will descend into even greater chaos.
The International Crisis Group (ICG), set up after September 11 and chaired by the former Finnish prime minister, Maati Ahtisari, echoed similar concerns. In a briefing paper titled “The Loya Jirga: one small step forward?” released on May 17, the ICG warned that expectations were unreasonably high and that the danger of missteps was grave. “If the Loya Jirga does not carefully rebalance power arrangements made in Bonn six months ago while heavy fighting still raged between coalition [foreign occupation forces] and Taliban/Al Qaeda forces, the country’s power brokers may reject the result and fragile stability could dissolve into new hostilities.”
Under the terms of the Bonn accord that installed Hamid Karzai as interim ruler last December, the 1,500-member Jirga is supposed to elect a transitional government and a 111-member parliament. This depends on delegates to the Loya Jirga being elected fairly but, as the Chicago Tribune, an American daily, reported on May 17, poor farmers in Paktia have admitted that they have received bags of flour as bribes and been given free taxi-rides to the nearest centre to vote for the warlords. Such fraudulent practices have infuriated Pashtun tribal elders, who have threatened to boycott the Jirga. They have also objected to the arbitrary increase in electoral districts – from 216 to 362 – in contravention of Afghanistan’s constitution (1964), which they say has primacy under the Bonn accord. More importantly, the new arrangement works to the detriment of southern Afghanistan, which is predominantly Pashtun.
The Christian Science Monitor reported from Gardez on May17 that a group of influential tribal leaders from seven of Afghanistan’s 33 provinces said they were so dismayed at the process by which the Jirga was being formed that they would boycott it. In the opinion of the paper, emergence of the movement represented the first organized opposition to the Jirga. Leaders of the boycott, representing the primarily Pashtun provinces, say that the selection process has failed to keep out warlords and others who have committed atrocities. They also say that the formula for creating the Jirga is undemocratic. Approximately 500 of the 1,500 delegates to the week-long convention will be selected by 21 Jirga commissioners, instead of being balloted for.
In a petition to the UN and the Jirga commission, the group says that the meeting is being convened without heed to traditional guidelines. Other groups are unhappy about lack of representation from their districts. People are also asking who will select up to 400 delegates handpicked from women’s groups, university faculties and religious scholars. United Nations officials and members of the Afghan commission organizing the Jirga admit that it will be difficult to fill all the seats without arousing hostility.
The ICG has said that international officials, especially the UN mission running the process, were devoting far too much attention to procedural matters, especially delegate selection, and too little attention to ensuring a broadly acceptable outcome. The commission in charge of preparing the Jirga has not yet published the rules of procedure and uncertainty exists even about what issues the delegates could decide, the ICG paper said.
Emphasising the need to tackle these thorny issues, the ICG has identified the status of the former king, who returned to Afghanistan on April 17, and composition of the transitional administration, especially the balance between northerners, mainly Tajiks, who were rewarded at Bonn for their anti-Taliban role, and the Pashtuns, who believe they have been disadvantaged, as the key issues. Security and lack of resources are other key problems identified in the ICG paper of May 17. It recommends deployment of international security forces to regional centres for the second stage of the process of delegate selection from May 21 to June 5. Given the uncertainty and lack of security in the country, this proposal is unlikely to be implemented. US and other foreign forces hide in heavily fortified compounds in selected locations; venturing out to help the Afghans to secure proper representation is the least of their concerns.
While convening the Loya Jirga remains problematic, there are several individuals who believe that they are leadership material and who have started jockeying for position. Karzai, already ensconced as interim leader, considers himself qualified to continue, despite the fact that his writ does not extend beyond Kabul. He enjoys US support and is pro-Zahir Shah; both considerations are important in present-day Afghanistan. Haji Zaman Ghamshareek, a discredited warlord and CIA agent who lives in Pakistan, and Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai, a former deputy prime minister, are also in the running. The latter has even sought the blessings of religious leaders in Pakistan.
Whether either aspirant will get anywhere near the corridors of power will depend on several factors: the ongoing military conflict between the US-led coalition forces and Taliban/al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan, whose outcome is by no means certain; the attitude of the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance; and the amount of aid, if any, that will be provided by international donors. The US has further complicated its position by an attempted assassination of Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, the former prime minister and leader of the Hizb-e Islami, early last month. He has returned to Afghanistan and has vowed to overthrow the Karzai government, which he denounces as an American puppet.
The Loya Jirga, a traditional Afghan process of resolving political issues, is turning into a grand farce and may well lead to further conflict, instead of beginning to resolve the country’s problems.