Posted by: Christian | October 21, 2007

The Myth And Reality Of The Loya Jirga

October 21, 2007.

I’ve always been skeptical of the Loya Jirga’s effectiveness. The most recent incident to induce further skepticism in me was this summer’s Afghanistan-Pakistan Peace Jirga (a sort of spin-off of the Loya Jirga). Apparently Afghanistan and Pakistan worked out their problematic relations over tea. It was good to see that this issue was taken care of:

“The participants of this jirga unanimously declare to an extended, tireless and persistent campaign against terrorism and further pledge that government and people of Afghanistan and Pakistan will not allow sanctuaries/training centres for terrorists in their respective countries.”

            Pic: “Hooray for us. Recommend we break for tea.”Loya Jirga

So yes, skepticism. But don’t take my word for it. You can read two critical analyses of the Loya Jirga by Benjamin Buchholz and Christine Noelle-Karimi:

Noelle-Karimi, Christine (2002). “The Loya Jirga – An Effective Political Tool? A Historical Overview.” In: Noelle-Karimi, Christine, Conrad Schetter and Reinhard Schlangenweit (eds.), Afghanistan – A Country Without a State?(pp. 37-52). Frankfurt: IKO-Verlag für Interkulturelle Kommunikation.

Buchholz, Benjamin (2007). “Thoughts on Afghanistan’s Loya Jirga: A Myth?” In Asien, No. 104. July 2007. Download pdf.

A quick excerpt from Noelle-Karimi, who claims that the institution of loya jirga was institutionalized by the Afghan central government about 100 years ago:

“Historically, the loya jirga has shown itself to be a useful tool in the hands of well-established rulers, no more, no less” (p. 48).

But Buchholz finds some “positive” use for the loya jirga, despite its dubious history and effectiveness:

As a political institution, the loya jirga clearly has some weaknesses and the loya jirgas of the past could be criticised with respect to their composition or decisionmaking processes. Nevertheless, it is a fact that the loya jirga is a common thread which runs through the entire modern history of Afghanistan, be it in written or oral records. Therefore, neither the institution itself nor its actual embodiments really matter. In fact, it is its myth or rather the label “loya jirga” which makes it a meaningful instrument of Afghan politics. The prevalent belief in its deep-rootedness in Afghan culture and history as well as the mutability of the myth give power to the instrument and to those who adopt it. Where modern institutions may be rejected, the loya jirga has the advantage of not just being assessed in terms of the decisions it makes, but also of being backed by a general faith in the institution itself.

Although Buchholz points out the loya jirga’s role as a political myth that helps to build national identity, he makes it clear that it is far from a perfect institution:

…on the eve of the 1990 loya jirga, the newspaper Anis had written: “The Loya Jirga: Emergency Exit from the Fire of War for People and Homeland.”

Yes. That was written in 1990. It’s nice to see that the 1990 Loya Jirga brought about 17 years of peace.

             Pic: “He says myth. You say reality. I say break for tea.”

                   Afghanistan Loya Jirga

Noelle-Karimi’s writing may be hard to find but you can easily download Buchholz’s article. It is worth reading not just for its discussion of the loya jirga but for its discussion of why such a faulty institution is nonetheless an important part of Afghan identity-building.  

I would love to see some questions on the loya jirga included in a large-scale survey of Afghan public opinion. I wonder if the average Afghan hears about the newest loya jirga and has the same reaction as an American who is told the government is forming a commission to “study the issue.”

Same day update: Whoops. I missed one very critical source (I got the names mixed up when I was searching). It is a very critical paper that reaches this conclusion:

“…in essence, the Loya Jerga is a colonial and neocolonial construct imposed on the people of Afghanistan by rulers who were and continue to be undisputed puppets of outsiders.”

The source is: Hanifi, M. Jamil (2004). “Editing The Past: Colonial Production of Hegemony Through the “Loya Jerga” in Afghanistan,” Iranian Studies, Volume 37, Number 2, June 2004.


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