The Loya Jirga: One Small Step Forward?
The immensity of the task of rebuilding Afghanistan into something resembling a coherent state cannot be over-estimated. Nearly three decades of political instability - including many years of savage warfare, the wholesale destruction of political and physical infrastructure and the inflammation of ethnic divisions - are layered on top of a nation that was among the poorest and weakest governed even in its "golden age" before King Zahir Shah was deposed in 1973. Afghanistan's transition back to a minimum level of political and economic stability will require many small but crucial steps to keep it on course.
The hopes of most Afghans and the world at large that the peace process will continue to move forward are singularly focused on the Emergency Loya Jirga, which meets 10-16 June 2002 and for which, expectations are unreasonably high. Visions of a great leap forward in reconciliation are misplaced, and the danger of missteps is grave. A successful Loya Jirga would represent at best an incremental, albeit important advance in the process of stabilisation. However, an unproductive Loya Jirga could send Afghanistan tumbling back into the internecine conflict of the early 1990s.
The Emergency Loya Jirga process, as laid out under the Bonn Agreement, has a number of phases. The first has involved the drafting of rules by the Loya Jirga Commission, a group of 21 Afghans who determined how representatives would be chosen and what they are to do at the meeting. Two-thirds of those attending the meeting are being indirectly elected in a two-stage process while the remaining third are to be appointed by the Loya Jirga Commission. In stage one of the indirect elections, representatives of communities gather on a given day to select a group of electors. In stage two, these electors gather in a regional centre between 21 May and 5 June to choose delegates to the Emergency Loya Jirga. That meeting, in Kabul, will then select the Transitional Administration that is to replace the Afghan Interim Authority (AIA). Within a further eighteen months, a Constitutional Loya Jirga must be held to write a new constitution, and within two years elections must be held for a new government.
The Loya Jirga process, which has been underway for several months, is challenged by: 1) a highly volatile security environment characterised by deepening factional tensions and a lack of common goals; 2) under-resourcing, unfamiliarity and an unclear agenda; and 3) an international community that has sometimes been working at cross-purposes when it needs to apply precise and unified pressure if there is to be a positive outcome.
The key expectation for the Loya Jirga on the part of most Afghans and the international community is that it will correct the ethnic imbalance produced at the Bonn conference that has created an Interim Authority dominated by ethnic Tajik members of the Northern Alliance. But a broadly acceptable, balanced outcome is far from certain. In the lead-up to the Loya Jirga, an intense power-struggle is occurring at the local, regional, national, and international levels to shape and/or subvert the outcome. Few outcomes seem broadly acceptable. For example, there will be deep Pashtun discontent if Zahir Shah, is excluded, and the security ministries (defence and interior) stay in the hands of the Panshiri faction of the Shura-i-Nazar. Similarly, a strong role for the ex-king and a loss of key posts may be unacceptable to the Shura-i-Nazar and important former Northern Alliance constituencies. These divergent interests may be on a collision course that it will take immense pressure and compromise to avoid.
Meanwhile, the goal of centralisation of the government, with emphasis on security functions, has hardly progressed. With the international coalition's war against the Taliban and al-Qaeda still progressing, there is little hope that local and regional commanders will soon be downsized. Indeed, the exact opposite appears to be occurring not only among Coalition-supported commanders, but all across the country. Inter-factional armed confrontations also appear to be on the rise, with recent fighting reported in the south-east (Gardez), north (Sar-i-Pul), and centre (Lal) of the country.
The recent lack of experience among Afghans with even remotely representative, let alone democratic institutions means that the legitimacy of the Loya Jirga will be based much less on the fairness of the process than on the fairness of its outcome. The international community is unified in its intention to support the former but has yet to utilise the resources at its disposal to ensure the latter. Given the extremely high stakes involved, it is incumbent upon the international community to make the extra effort to enable Afghanistan to take this small, but critical step forward.
In particular, the international community, including Coalition forces, should:
- engage in a pre-Loya Jirga dialogue with all factions to allow adversaries to articulate interests, work through mutual suspicions, clarify options, and craft a common vision for an acceptable outcome;
- initiate an intensive, transparent mediation process, accompanied by the threat of force, to resolve factional fighting between non-Taliban, non-al-Qaeda factions;
- deploy a security presence to regional centres for the second stage of the Loya Jirga indirect election process from 21 May to 5 June; and
- satisfy immediately all requests for logistical support from the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) and the Loya Jirga Commission and provide an emergency budget and transportation resource cushion.
In turn, UNAMA and the Afghan Interim Authority should:
- increase public outreach programing that not only explains the Loya Jirga process but also addresses well-know concerns head on, and encourage independent media outlets to offer their facilities for balanced, incisive programing to help counter locally-controlled propaganda;
- the Loya Jirga Commission should publish the Rules and Regulations for the Loya Jirga immediately since failure to do so is causing suspicion and political gamesmanship based on incomplete information and is unnecessarily truncating an already rushed political process; and
- explain publicly a realistic timetable for delivery of reconstruction assistance that dampens excessive expectations and encourages long-term engagement from donors and recipients.