Here's What You Need To Know About The Afghan Loya Jirga

Nov 21, 2013
Originally published on November 21, 2013 6:54 pm
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So just who sits on this Loya Jirga, or grand council, and what power do they have? Thomas Gouttiere has observed Afghan Loya Jirgas in action, in 1964 and 2004. He directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha.

Professor Gouttiere, thanks for being with us.

THOMAS GOUTTIERE: It's good to be with you again.

BLOCK: So, 2,500 delegates. We just heard them referred to as elders and other elites. Who are they?

GOUTTIERE: Well, they're individuals who are generally regarded within their regions and towns and tribal areas as the elites by everybody who lives there with them. Or they're individuals who other elites are able to select to represent them. But the fact is, is it's a large number of individuals. And because it's so large, it tends to have an extended representational image to most Afghans who regard this as a very credible instrument.

BLOCK: Well, how are the delegates chosen? We've heard from Sean Carberry that analysts say that this jury is stacked with people who are going to approve the deal.

GOUTTIERE: And I think in some ways that's an accurate representation. But it's like many other political activities in societies that are diverse in their makeup, like tribal societies with also village societies, et cetera. And I think an individual like Hamid Karzai certainly has a lot of influence, and could help to stack the deck in his favor. The kings in the past were able to do that.

But they all know that it's best for them to choose individuals in each region that are reflective of the knowledge of the citizens, as to who might really be the most influential elders, influential tribal chiefs and religious leaders.

In Afghanistan, even in times when things weren't as democratic as they might be now, Afghans always had the sense about their kind of right to be able to be represented by the people who truly they felt should be their leaders.

BLOCK: We mentioned that you've observed Loya Jirgas in Afghanistan in the past. What happens? How do they work?

GOUTTIERE: People debate. They discuss. People talk. Sometimes they talk on and on and on. This is an opportunity for people to vent their feelings that they may be haven't had before. And so sometimes these discussions and debates go on beyond what others may wish.

But in the end, I think most people believe that the opinions of the mass of folks in the Loya Jirga are expressed. And so, they have been used to approve constitutions. They have been used to approve declaring war. And they were used once - the whole idea of the Loya Jirga was used to create the state of Afghanistan in 1747.

BLOCK: When you were in Afghanistan observing those two Loya Jirgas in 1964 and then 40 years later, what struck you most about it?

GOUTTIERE: I was struck most by the diversity of people coming from different parts of Afghanistan, because I had a chance to see people from all over the country that I might not have seen before up to that point. And then also the enthusiasm with which Afghans greeted the prospect of change as authenticated, or justified by this decision-taking.

BLOCK: Do Afghans see the Loya Jirga as an archaic part of their history? Or do they really see it as a sort of a vibrant part of their current tradition?

GOUTTIERE: I'm sure that some Afghans - or maybe the youngest Afghans, who are interested in their country's politics and their progress towards a civil society - might see it as somewhat archaic. But I think on balance the greatest majority of Afghans continue to see this particular process as indigenously Afghan, and very representative of their kind of national customs. And therefore, it has a high level of respectability and credibility amongst the majority of the population.

BLOCK: Thomas Gouttiere, thanks so much for being with us.

GOUTTIERE: It's good to be with you again, Melissa.

BLOCK: Thomas Gouttiere directs the Center for Afghanistan Studies at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.