Afghan Loya Jirga: What Is It and Why America Cares What It Decides

PHOTO: Members of the Afghan Loya Jirga
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This week is one of the most crucial weeks in the history of the U.S. mission in Afghanistan. Roughly 2,500 Afghans from across the country are gathered in Kabul to debate and vote on a new security agreement between the United States and Afghanistan. It will spell out the obligations the United States has to Afghanistan once the war officially ends sometime in 2014.

WHAT IS A LOYA JIRGA?

A jirga is a traditional gathering of Afghan leaders and elders used to make communal decisions and settle disputes. On a local level, jirgas typically involve the elders of a village sitting together to arrive at a consensus on issues affecting the community.

A "loya jirga" is essentially a jirga on a much larger scale, effectively becoming a national assembly where Afghans can debate, argue, and ultimately vote on a proposition.

WHEN IS IT BEING HELD?

Right now. The loya jirga began on Nov. 19. Delegates are currently split into smaller groups where they are debating the individual clauses of the agreement. They will reconvene on Nov. 24 for a final vote.

WHAT'S AT STAKE?

It's a big deal. The delegates are voting on a new, 10 year security agreement with the United States that will take effect once the current international mandate expires in 2014. The agreement, known as the Bilateral Security Agreement, or BSA, spells out the obligations each side will have towards the other.

IF THEY AGREE TO THE DEAL, HOW MANY US TROOPS WOULD STAY IN AFGHANISTAN?

The draft that will be voted on includes: Keeping approximately 10,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan after 2014, U.S. control over nine military bases, full freedom of movement by air for U.S. troops, and full immunity for U.S. troops accused of committing crimes. They can be tried in U.S. courts, but not in Afghanistan.

WHY A JIRGA? COULDN'T KARZAI HAVE MADE THIS DECISION ON HIS OWN?

The negotiations over the BSA have been going on for several months, with key disagreements between Afghanistan and the United States. Among the most contentious issues were the ability of U.S. troops to search and enter Afghan homes, something most Afghans see as an affront to their national sovereignty. Rather than sign the agreement in his capacity as president (which he could have done), Afghan President Hamid Karzai instead decided to put the decision before "the Afghan people" in the form of a loya jirga. Negotiations over the final wording of the draft – the one that is now before the jirga – continued right up until a few hours before the jirga began.

WHERE IS IT BEING HELD?

The loya jirga is being held in Kabul, in a specifically constructed "tent" next to the Intercontinental Hotel. The tent was built in 2001, for the country's first-ever loya jirga, and has been used exclusively for subsequent loya jirga's over the years. Delegates are being houses in dormitories nearby. Security in the city is at its highest level in years.

WHO ARE THE DELEGATES?

The delegates represent a mix of political, civil, and religious leaders from all corners of the country. They include politicians, women, activists, prominent Afghans, and village elders. Some are well-educated, while others are illiterate. It's unclear how the delegates have been chosen, but literacy was not one of the preconditions. Those convicted of war crimes, such as some former Mujahideen or warlords, were disqualified from attending.

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