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Is the Afghan "Jirgah" the way forward?

The "Peace Jirgah" called by President Karzai convened amidst accusations that the process has being rigged. But rather than dismissing it as another government failure, Carlo Ungaro says it should be seen as an instrument to help reconcile respected and valid Afghan traditions to the country’s aspirations to be part of the modern family of nations
Carlo Ungaro
14 June 2010

The military intervention in Afghanistan has become one of the longest-lasting war efforts in US history. It does not  look like a coincidence that particularly deadly attacks are being carried out by the Taleban, while the repeated threats of an “all out attack” on Kandahar underlines the Sisyphean nature of NATO’s efforts.

These circumstances do not bode well for the success of the recently convened “Peace Jirgah”, and yet the idea  deserves close scrutiny and should not be dismissed, out of hand, as yet another failed attempt  by The Afghan Government - with the support of its allies – to embark upon a political path instead of relying mainly on a military venture which shows no signs of  imminent success.

My first memory of an Afghan Jirgah dates back to the years of World War II, when, as a child, I was living in Kabul with my parents: the British had issued strong demands that Afghanistan deport all Axis citizens, and close their Diplomatic Missions. A “Loya Jirgah” was convened and, after many days of debate, declared – to our great relief – that this would contravene Afghanistan’s laws of hospitality. A fundamentally important decision had been taken which would guarantee Afghanistan’s neutrality until the Soviet invasion of 1979.

The Jirgah has traditionally been an institute of primary importance in the Pathan tribal areas of Pakistan and the Pashtun areas of Afghanistan. Although, traditionally, it gathered only Pashtun tribal elders, in modern times it has been extended also to include representatives of all the other areas.

It can be argued, as, indeed it has been argued, that this form of representation is much more suited to the Afghan political reality than a western-style Parliament, no matter how correct the electoral process. Afghanistan, as Pakistan’s North-West, is basically a tribal society, and peaceful coexistence among the tribes cannot be guaranteed by political processes which do not take this reality into account.

With the passage of time, the term “democracy” has acquired a rather dogmatic aspect, and is associated with certain particular rituals which have evolved, in the course of centuries, in some western societies, and which have then been applied, with success, also outside Europe and North America. An analysis, even a superficial one, of local interpretations of democracy would be completely out of context in an attempt to examine the Afghan situation, which is of grave and understandable concern, but serious thought ought to be given on how it would be possible to reconcile the need for stability in such a volatile and strategically important area with social and political realities which long predate the current insurgency, and all this without further eroding basic liberties.

It is, of course, probable that the Jirgah called by president Karzai will not have immediate, appreciable repercussions in the desired direction, mainly because, rightly or wrongly, the President no longer has the massive backing of the Afghan people, not even in his own tribal area. At the same time, his support among the leading international actors in Afghanistan has also sensibly declined. These circumstances, unfortunately, lend credibility to the accusations that this Jirgah is rigged and that it has been packed with Karzai supporters, thereby depriving it of the dignity essential to its success.

A future scenario could, however, be envisaged in which enhanced local autonomy would allow the application of “our” democratic rules in Towns and Provinces ready freely to choose such a solution (Herat comes to mind), while others could choose more traditional methods of local rule. The central Government, instead, with a role more of guidance and coordination rather than dominance or rule, would be more in tune with the traditions of the land. This arrangement has worked in the past, and could be an indication – with the necessary variations – of a way  forward.

The calling of Jirgahs, and their composition and competencies should not be left to the arbitrary will of the Head of State, but rather be regulated in a new, bold and imaginative attempt to reconcile respected and valid Afghan traditions to the country’s aspirations to be part of the modern family of nations.

Of course, the principal obstacle to any durable, credible negotiated settlement remains the massive and bellicose foreign military presence, whose support of the government is distasteful to many strata of Afghan opinion. The possibility of solutions along the lines suggested by the Jirgah would be greatly enhanced if agreements in that sense would coincide with a publicized, credible and accepted timetable for the withdrawal of the bulk of foreign troops.

As things stand, there are few alternative suitable solutions, and recourse to the Jirgah as a convincing instrument of negotiation should not be discarded.

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