Loya Jirga: Afghanistan Awaits its Future

The last time Ismail Qasimyar was in Kabul, the winds whistled with the sounds of rockets and the streets were filled with shrapnel and the bodies of dead and wounded civilians.

That was almost a decade ago, when Afghanistan's communist regime had collapsed — and the mujahideen leaders who had ousted it agreed to a power-sharing deal for the transitional period.

Qasimyar, a constitutional scholar, was a key architect of that agreement, but it didn't satisfy everyone. In particular, it upset Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a warlord and major figure in the anti-Soviet resistance.

Hekmatyar's protest came in the form of sustained shelling, which left thousands dead, even more fleeing Kabul, and, some scholars say, left the door open for a Taliban invasion four years later.

Among Kabul's exiles was Qasimyar, who spent the following years in Iran. Now, with the Taliban all but defeated, and Hekmatyar virtually impotent in exile, Qasimyar is back.

He has returned as the chairman of the 21-member Loya Jirga Commission, charged with creating the rules for the grand assembly that will, in two weeks, decide Afghanistan's next government.

"After 23 years of silence, [the Afghan people] should have this opportunity to ensure their rights," Qasimyar said.

'Dangers Are Grave'

With his platinum locks swept back over his head, and his neatly trimmed beard, Qasimyar looks every bit the accomplished legal scholar — and Afghanistan will need no less to usher in its future.

In a recent report, the International Crisis Group warned that "visions of a great leap forward in reconciliation are misplaced, and the danger of missteps is grave."

The biggest obstacle faced by the loya jirga will be satisfying the complex demands of representation presented by the country's diverse population.

Among those who have the most at stake in the upcoming council are the Pashtuns, Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. Pashtuns have complained that the interim administration in Kabul, headed by Hamid Karzai, contains too many former members of the Northern Alliance, which was primarily made up of members of Afghanistan's ethnic minorities.

Supporters of the interim administration argue that they deserve their positions, because they helped the United States oust the Taliban — and the Pashtuns comprised the majority of Taliban forces.

Nevertheless, the Pashtuns claim that because of their number, they are entitled to a bigger role in Afghanistan's government. They note that successive governments imposed on Afghanistan from abroad led to much of the suffering that exists today, and that the international community has expressed its determination to create for Afghanistan a government of its own.

That desire for an indigenous government has even more problems, noted Abdul-Rahem Yaseer, Assistant Director of the Center for Afghan studies at the University of Nebraska.

Not only must the loya jirga satisfactorily represent the country's various minorities, it must also negotiate between a government comprised of exiles that are educated enough to handle the demands of government, and natives who know their country's misery first-hand.

The exiles are the elite, the best-educated, Yasser said, "but the people inside, they say '[the exiles] have been away from the culture a long time, and there have been lots of changes in Afghan mentality, education, experiences."

Other groups are also worried about being accurately represented. Islamic clerics, for example, complain they have only been guaranteed six seats out of a total of 1,500.

Tensions and a Return to Tradition

The loya jirga also means a likely shift to more traditional sources of authority, Yasser said — and that is likely to also cause some tension.

For the past thirty years in Afghanistan, authority has been determined by what scholars have called "the cult of the Kalashnikov" — whoever owned the most weapons.

But with the establishment of a central government, village elders, scholars, and mullahs — the religious authorities — are beginning to reclaim their place at the top of society, Yaseer said.

There has already been resistance. "Some of the gunholders are still trying to influence those who want to become candidates," Qasimyar said.

Less than two weeks ago, a delegate to the electoral college to choose candidates for the loya jirga, Mohammed Rahim, was shot dead in central Ghor province.

In eastern Paktia province, one of Afghanistan's most notorious warlords has refused to give up the governor's palace to the academic assigned to the area by the interim administration.

Padshah Khan Zadran mocked the government, calling interim leader Karzai "nothing," and joked that he would attend the loya jirga to unseat him.

Zadran is not the only cause for concern though. Rashid Dostum, one of the most powerful commanders in the Northern Alliance, opposed the agreement that established the interim government until he was given the post of deputy defense minister. The loya jirga could be a chance to expand his ambitions.

Ismail Khan, another former Northern Alliance commander, controls much of Western Afghanistan. He also opposed Karzai's government, and there are fears he may be a destabilizing force on behalf of Iran.

The authorities are aware of the dangers of coercion. "The rules are that is anybody uses force, paying bribes to influence the result of the election obtained that way shall be known and the person prosecuted," Qasimyar said.

In its report, the International Crisis Group urged the international community to deploy a security presence.

Hope in the King

As great as the problems are, there are solutions, Afghans said.

Yaseer, who returned weeks ago from a three-month trip to Afghanistan to survey the preparations, said the Loya Jirga Commission was doing a good job ensuring accurate representation.

"When the delegates, members of the Loya Jirga Commission went to the provinces, they were chosen from among the people who knew the areas, the tribes, the conditions of the place," he said. "There was direct, intimate contact with the real representatives of places."

He also said several actions had been taken to allay tensions. One is the establishment of a national army, which will pay a regular salary — a privilege in this impoverished country — and wed individuals to the country rather than their ethnic group.

The other will be the continued participation of Karzai, and the expected introduction of Zahir Shah, Afghanistan's immensely popular former king — both Pashtuns.

"Karzai is very, very popular," Yaseer said. "He has a place in everybody's heart."

The King, Yaseer said, "has a very good chance of having more authority than people expected. Look at the way he was treated, the way he was received, regardless of his ethnicity. He has a very good chance of being elected the leader."

As for the threat from the warlords, he said their threat was diminishing. The wave of nationalism that has seized Afghanistan means they are getting "weaker and weaker," he said.

Facing Fate

There's no question this loya jirga is unique.

It will be one of the most important steps in Afghanistan's reconstruction — after four different systems of governance, eight changes of power and near-continuous bloodshed over the last 30 years.

In addition, "all the other loya jirgas have been done traditionally with Afghan values, ignoring international values, international mood," Yaseer said. "This one is going to have a flavor of western democracy."

Running a mere seven days, from June 10 to June 16, it will be one of the hastiest loya jirgas in Afghan history. By comparison, a Loya Jirga in 1964 to approve a draft constitution took 10 days and involved only 455 members.

Under the current timetable, the loya jirga would have to run for 24 hours straight over the seven days in order for each member to be able to speak for six minutes.

The international community overseeing the reconstruction of Afghanistan has said under no circumstances will the June 22 handover from the interim government be extended.

Qasimyar said: "After 23 years of bloodshed, we would not expect that a normal situation, 100 percent would be there."

The selection process has been no less demanding. Weeks before the loya jirga is to begin, a significant proportion of the delegates have not yet been chosen.

The International Crisis Group has warned that the situation is more dire than after the fall of the Taliban. "An unproductive Loya Jirga could send Afghanistan tumbling back into the internecine conflict of the early 1990s," it said.

On the contrary, Yasseer said he was confident Afghanistan was coming back, regardless of the results of the loya jirga. "This is all formulated, and its all there," he said.

Qasimyar, a participant in every loya jirga since the one in 1964, said he recognized the situation at hand. "In a situation like this, if everything goes all right, if we get in on time, it's a little less than a miracle," he said.