What is a tribal elder anyway?

This week, a meeting of Afghan tribal elders and leaders — known as a loya jirga has been convened by Afghan President Hamid Karzai — in an effort to build popular support for Afghanistan’s long-term partnership with the United States.  Security is tight ahead of the meeting of 2,030 delegates, with one possible Taliban attack ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images
TAUSEEF MUSTAFA/AFP/Getty Images

This week, a meeting of Afghan tribal elders and leaders -- known as a loya jirga has been convened by Afghan President Hamid Karzai -- in an effort to build popular support for Afghanistan's long-term partnership with the United States.  Security is tight ahead of the meeting of 2,030 delegates, with one possible Taliban attack already foiled.

With all the confusion surrounding the purpose of this year's gathering, I spoke with Boston University Anthropolgy Professor Thomas Barfield, author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, for a quick interview on the history of the loya jirga, and an explanation of how exactly one get invited: 

Foreign Policy: How did the tradition of the loya jirga begin?

This week, a meeting of Afghan tribal elders and leaders — known as a loya jirga has been convened by Afghan President Hamid Karzai — in an effort to build popular support for Afghanistan’s long-term partnership with the United States.  Security is tight ahead of the meeting of 2,030 delegates, with one possible Taliban attack already foiled.

With all the confusion surrounding the purpose of this year’s gathering, I spoke with Boston University Anthropolgy Professor Thomas Barfield, author of Afghanistan: A Cultural and Political History, for a quick interview on the history of the loya jirga, and an explanation of how exactly one get invited: 

Foreign Policy: How did the tradition of the loya jirga begin?

Thomas Barfield: Traditionally jirgas are how local Pashtun communities solve their problems. They hold a jirga, everyone sits in a circle, and they solve the problem. That’s really common at a local level. It’s a regular part of village life.

The loya jirga — the national assembly — the first time that occurred was in 1747 with the creation of the Afghanistan state, that made Ahmad Shah Durrani the leader. The next time they elected a leader at a loya jirga was in 1929 at the end of the civil war, when Nadir Shah — who had usurped the throne so he was a little dodgy on his credentials — held a loya jirga to affirm him as king. Those are the only two that have ever been used to pick a leader, with the exception of the one in 2002 that affirmed Karzai.

[Since the first one in 1747] they never called a loya jirga again in the 18th or 19th centuries until the First World War under Emir Haibibullah. From then, Afghan leaders began calling loya jirgas to confirm major foreign policy decisions, particularly ones that were likely to be unpopular. In World War I, it was to affirm the decision to remain neutral in the war. The sentiment in Afghanistan was to join the Germans and the Ottoman Turks. Most people date the loya jirga from that.

FP: We often hear reference in news stories to the "tribal elders" invited to these meetings. What does that mean in political terms?

TB: It doesn’t mean anything. They need to look the part! What you want is what looks like a representative sample. You call a jirga to confirm a decision not to debate it. In general, the ruler selects the members. It’s a mix of clergy and "tribal elders." Every village has a bunch of elders. These are not necessarily positions of authority. Afghans look at the list of attendees would ask themselves, are these people of weight? Is it an impressive list or not?

When the first government was put together in 2002, the U.N. actually held elections for that, so there was a certain amount of legitimacy. Even though the warlords all muscled their way in.

There’s been no elections for this one. It seems like it’s fallen back on the more traditional process. I wouldn’t call exactly call it a rubber stamp, but it’s designed to affirm what the ruler has already decided to do.

FP: How does Hamid Karzai use jirgas, as opposed to previous Afghan rulers?

TB: Loya jirgas are not that common. They’ve been called in 1964 and 2003 to validate constitutions. One of the things that now comes up from critics is that Afghanistan now has an elected parliament. The question is why shouldn’t this be ratified by an existing constitutional institution. The only role for a loya jirga in the Afghan constitution is for completely rewriting the whole document. Some people are afaraid that this jirga could amend the constitution so Karzai could run again, but I don’t think that’s going to come up. I think they’ll just deal with this question of the strategic relationship.

For more on the legal questions surrounding this week’s loya jirga, see Scott Wordon’s new post on the AfPak Channel. 

 

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

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