Emergency Loya Jirga: Strength In Numbers?

As the largest grand assembly ever held in Afghanistan, the Loya Jirga will gather 1,501 Afghan delegates from inside and outside the country. The Special Independent Commission for Convening Loya Jirga has been planning the logistics and management of this event since January, but officials remain worried. “For a long time the Afghan people did not have a say in their government. And for the first time in Afghanistan’s history we wanted the people to feel that they were being represented in the government,” said Ahmed Nadery, a spokesperson for the 21-member Loya Jirga Commission. This pronouncement may mark a step in Afghanistan’s evolution, but acting on it will put a strain on Afghanistan’s scant security. Planners also have to consider how to make the Loya Jirga fair and accessible to the country’s largely illiterate population, and keep it from becoming a platform for tribal, political, and ethnic violence.

Such concerns are hard to ignore, even if the most immediate danger is that talks will bog down. Previous Loya Jirgas have not exceeded 1,000 delegates. The last one took place in 1964, when then king Mohammed Zahir Shah presided over 452 representatives who approved a new reformist constitution. Zahir Shah returned from exile in Rome this spring to open the session, but some Afghans remain uneasy about the Loya Jirga’s scope. “1,500 Afghans is too many. This is an emergency Loya Jirga, it should have been smaller,” said Kabul resident Ahmed Hashimi. “With this many people, I don’t think a decision can be made in 6 days, you would need at least a month.” But the Commission is working against the clock. The Loya Jirga is scheduled to end on June 16, but may extend as late as June 22–when, according to the United Nations-brokered Bonn Agreement, the current Interim Administration of Afghanistan loses authority. The Bonn accords require a two-year transitional government to be in office by then, with the goal of holding elections in 2004. So the commission is trying to orchestrate an inclusive, legitimate, and expedient council. According to Nadery, the first day of the Loya Jirga will host speeches by Zahir Shah, Chairman Hamid Karzai, and other ceremonial activities, leaving no time for discussion or decisionmaking. This leaves five days of work time totaling roughly 45 hours, if the original timetable is followed. This makes it impossible for every delegate to speak publicly, as Nadery acknowledges. “Not ever delegate will speak during the Loya Jirga,” he said. “Before the sessions begin the delegates will submit their ideas to the secretariat and the commission will register representatives for certain topics,” said Nadery. The concern this raises is that delegates who don’t understand the system will find their ideas ignored–and will be disappointed when they do not get the chance to speak.

Despite these concerns, most Afghans believe the Emergency Loya Jirga is the one time that they will have a say in their government and they are not taking the responsibility lightly. Some even believe the grand assembly should be double its current size. “Afghanistan is a baby struggling to survive and it is our time to choose the mothers and fathers that will be making the crucial decisions in our fragile growing period,” said 43-year-old Sadat Khan Malem, a resident of the eastern province of Kunar.

Excitement about the Loya Jirga’s inclusiveness has touched off a degree of political enthusiasm in the country. Malem was elected as a representative for phase two of the Loya Jirga election but did not win the final seat from the district. He says that the population count in Kunar was not accurate. He believes that Kunar has between 200,000 and 300,000 people, yet has clearance to send only two representatives in the Loya Jirga. “If representation was based on population and following the Commission’s rule of one representative for every 25,000 people, Kunar should have at least 8 delegates to the Loya Jirga. Kunar has a lot of problems that we want addressed during the Loya Jirga,” he says.

Other districts, including the provinces of Wardak, Ghazni, and Gardez, experienced problems selecting delegates, prompting criticism that the Commission spent too much time developing the Loya Jirga procedure and too little helping citizens participate in a truly democratic way. To these complaints as well, Nadery has prepared a response. He acknowledges that calculating the populations of the districts was one of the greatest challenges of the Loya Jirga, because the civil wars of the past 23 years have obviated any official statistics. The Commission used an average of the 1998, 1999, and 2000 United Nations and World Food Program statistics on Afghanistan to determine the population of the districts. More generally, Commission officials say they needed several months to determine the process of elections and follow through with two phases of representative elections, district-wide and provincial. Whatever misgivings Afghans may have about this Loya Jirga’s size and structure, authorities seem intent on using it as a blueprint. According to some projections, the Constitutional Loya Jirga that is supposed to take place in late 2003 will have to accommodate at least 3,000 representatives.

By then, Afghanistan’s progress toward stability will be a clearer matter than it is now. Also by then, it may be an easier proposition to accommodate such a large number of delegates in Kabul. Right now, the Commission is scrambling to get delegates to their seats. Once the delegates arrive, it is unclear how long–or how cheerfully–they will stay.