“Pray for me,” said a delegate to Afghanistan’s upcoming Loya Jirga, or Grand Assembly, as he got into an armored car and went off to the Jirga tent in Kabul for briefings in advance of the formal sessions, which opened on Wednesday.
It was hardly a ringing endorsement for a gathering that is being touted as crucial to the future of Afghanistan. The Loya Jirga is being assembled to discuss reconciliation with the Taliban, and the future of the US presence in Afghanistan. But many believe that its real aims are to shore up, and perhaps even prolong, the shaky regime of Afghan President Hamid Karzai.
More than 2,000 delegates are expected, although a boycott organized by Parliament might depress turnout.
The Loya Jirga has been delayed several times, and is now so mired in conflict and controversy that few believe it will bring a positive outcome.
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There are also fears of violence. On Monday, a suicide bomber blew himself up near the Jirga tent in western Kabul. Some say that the attacker was wearing a burqa, a traditional garment that covers women from head to toe, but this could not be confirmed.
Security is tight. Delegates have identification cards with hologram photos, and police man numerous checkpoints throughout the city. Memories of a similar gathering in the summer of 2010, when the Jirga tent was attacked with rockets and a burqa-clad male carrying an RPG disguised as a baby nearly made it into the tent itself, are still fresh.
Two powerful cabinet ministers lost their jobs over the incident. Both are now firmly in the opposition and are vocally opposed to the present Jirga.
A Loya Jirga is a traditional Afghan institution enshrined in the Constitution as “the supreme manifestation of the Afghan people.”
It can be called in very specific instances: to take decision on issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity, and supreme interests of the country; to amend the Constitution; to impeach the President.
Karzai has said that he wants to assemble the Jirga to elicit views on two important issues: peace building and the future of the Afghan-American strategic partnership.
The Jirga, however, has very limited authority in either of those spheres.
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In fact, the US Embassy has already undercut the Jirga, saying it had no authority over the Strategic Partnership Agreement that is being negotiated in Kabul these days.
“The upcoming Loya Jirga is not a decision-making body,” Deputy US Ambassador to Kabul James Cunningham told a press conference in Kabul on Nov. 1.
The Strategic Partnership talks have hit rocky waters lately. It is supposed to spell out the future of US-Afghan relations after the announced drawdown of American forces, to be completed by 2014. Many Afghans, and most of the country’s neighbors, are vehemently opposed to a continued US military presence, and the United States has been at some pains to calm their fears.
"Our aims are clear … there is no threat that may worry Afghanistan's neighbors," Cunningham told the media.
But negotiations have foundered over the issues of prison control and night raids. Karzai wants the kill/capture missions, which are inflaming public opinion and providing a public relations bonanza to the insurgency, to stop. The United States insists that they are one of the most effective tools in the counterinsurgency arsenal.
Karzai also wants prisons such as Bagram handed over to Afghan control, but allegations of torture have made the Americans reluctant to proceed.
Talks on a Strategic Partnership continue. But, whatever the Loya Jirga has to say, it will be unlikely to have a significant influence the process. On peace-building the Jirga’s role is similarly obscure.
The Taliban, meanwhile, have threatened to target any who participate.
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On Saturday the Taliban published what they claim are security arrangements for the Jirga on their website, saying they will use the plans to fine tune their attacks.
In response, the Afghan government first said the document was a fake, then admitted it could be real but was, in any case, outdated.
The Taliban have shown little interest in peace negotiations. The September assassination of Burhanudin Rabbani, the head of the High Peace Council tasked with exploring overtures to the Taliban, demonstrated that reconciliation may not be high on their agenda.
The Parliament, as well, has problems with the Jirga. They point out that issues of national sovereignty, foreign agreements, war and peace, are within their purview, and they bitterly resent what they see as Karzai’s attempt to further erode their authority.
Many of them are boycotting.
“The aim of the traditional Loya Jirga is to weaken the role of the Wolesi Jirga (the Lower House of Parliament) and other legal entities,” said Asadullah Sadaati, spokesperson for the Parliament’s oppositionist Parliamentary Rule of Law Coalition.
“Parliamentarians have decided not to attend the Jirga and those who stand against legal decisions of the Parliament are disrespecting the legislature,” he said.
This is a problem, since the National Assembly is the backbone of the Loya Jirga.
Other delegates include the heads of provincial and district councils. But Afghanistan does not yet have any district councils, allowing Karzai to appoint nearly 400 delegates at his own discretion. The tribal elders and civil society representatives were also largely hand picked, giving Karzai a great deal of control over the 2,030-member Jirga.
“The members of this Jirga cannot represent the people of Afghanistan because the majority of the participants are selected by President Karzai,” said Faizullah Jalal, a lecturer in political science at Kabul University.
According to Jalal, Karzai wants to use the Jirga to shore up his image with the international community in advance of the Bonn 2 conference, which is scheduled to take place in Germany in early December.
“The president wants to put political pressure on the West and show his power to his international supporters, who have been recently dissatisfied with Afghan government,” Jalal said. “He wants to demonstrate that he is still able to bring key Afghan figures together.”
Others fear that the president hopes to make an end run around the Constitution by using the Jirga to overturn a provision limiting the president to two terms. Karzai’s tenure is up in 2014 and, while he has said that he will step down when his term expires, many suspect that he will try to remain in office as long as possible.
Karzai has been increasingly erratic of late, issuing statements that have raised hackles in Washington. His interview with Pakistan’s GEO TV, in which he stated that Afghanistan would side with Pakistan in the event of any conflict with the United States, was particularly troublesome. Many, including Afghan Foreign Ministry spokesman Janan Mosazai and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, have tried to massage the issue away, saying that Karzai’s remarks were misunderstood and taken out of context.
US Maj. Gen. Peter Fuller was sacked for complaining about Karzai’s comments. He called the Afghan president “isolated from reality,” a statement that many in the US administration and even more within the Afghan government quietly agree with.
At a dinner party in Kabul a few months ago, high-ranking officials and lawmakers did little except poke fun at the president. They joke about his vanity and his growing paranoia, and the extent to which they must go to soothe his feelings.
“He asked me who I thought could be president after him,” said one prominent administration insider. “But I knew what to say: ‘Oh, Mr. President, no one could take your place.’”
It might be what Karzai wants to hear. And, indeed, what he may try and get the Jirga to say.
Abdul Qayum Suroush and Asar Hakimi contributed to this report from Kabul.