What Is a Loya Jirga?


May 28, 2002 — -- It's back to the future to settle on Afghanistan's next government.

As interim leaders leave office next month and attempt to begin leading Afghanistan out of decades of warfare and decline toward stability, they will use a centuries-old Afghan tradition — the loya jirga — to help put together a more permanent government.

What is a loya jirga?

A loya jirga, or grand council, traditionally is a gathering of male representatives from different tribes and factions in Afghanistan. The representatives are selected by their local leadership.

"It grows out of this fairly ancient tradition of self-governance, usually by elder males in local communities or sub-tribes," says Larry P. Goodson, an associate professor of international studies at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass., and author of Afghanistan's Endless War: State Failure, Regional Politics and the Rise of the Taliban.

Who attends loya jirgas?

The representatives sent to loya jirgas traditionally have been men only — a combination of the wisest, most respected local citizens, and the most powerful or well-connected.

How is a loya jirga different from a parliament or the U.S. Congress?

A loya jirga is a one-time gathering, not a standing body like the legislative branches in most Western governments. It is normally called to deliberate on specific proposals, and then disbanded.

How is a loya jirga different from a jirga?

A jirga is a standing local body, a tribal council of elder males, that makes decisions that help guide and govern the tribe.

A loya jirga is a much larger national meeting of the representatives of the jirgas and other local groups.

When has a loya jirga been used in the past?

Historically, national figures have called loya jirgas when they were seeking a stamp of approval from local entities to a national policy or proposal.

In 1964 and again in 1977, for example, loya jirgas ratified Afghan constitutions. During World War II, they played a role in Afghanistan's decision to stay neutral. In earlier centuries, they were used to declare war or take joint military action to repel invaders. Kings and leaders have called on loya jirgas to grant votes of confidence in their rule.

What are some potential benefits and pitfalls to calling a loya jirga?

As world diplomats gathered under the aegis of the United Nations in late 2001 to map out Afghanistan's future in the German city of Bonn, Goodson said: "If a loya jirga whose membership is widely acceptable to everyone gives credence to whatever is decided at the Bonn meeting or any other similar type of meeting, that would give it a sort of stamp of legitimacy."

However, he added, loya jirgas normally are not used as planning bodies, which he fears is the goal of the gathering agreed upon by delegates at the talks in Bonn, Germany, on Afghanistan's future.

"It's much harder to reach a decision with hundreds of people in the room than it is with 15 or 20," Goodson said. "The loya jirga is really something that is a facade of decision-making, but it really is a sense of ratification" of prior decisions by leaders or smaller groups.