Q+A: What is Afghanistan's loya jirga; what does it do?

Fri Nov 20, 2009 1:28am EST

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(Reuters) - After his inauguration on Thursday, re-elected Afghan President Hamid Karzai announced he would organize a "loya jirga" -- a large assembly of Afghan leaders.

Loya jirgas have traditionally been a forum to discuss and reach a consensus on important political issues. Following are some key facts about loya jirgas, their significance in Afghan politics and what Karzai's proposed jirga could bring about.

* WHAT DOES A LOYA JIRGA DO? Loya jirga is a Pashto phrase meaning "large council."

It traditionally involves ethnic Pashtun tribal elders -- Afghanistan's largest ethnic group. But other ethnic groups have recently taken part to give them fair representation in decisions since the Taliban, largely Pashtun, were overthrown in 2001.

Hundreds of tribal leaders, community elders and other officials gather in a large hall or marquee to reach a consensus on issues like the choosing of a ruler, amendments to laws or solutions to a crisis.

Loya jirgas can take precedence over all state institutions, including the presidency, according to the constitution.

The notion of the loya jirga as the best means to solve problems dates from 977, when a jirga in southeastern Ghazni province chose the freed Tatar slave Naziruddin to head the Ghaznavid Empire, one of the first Afghan states. * WHAT HAVE

LOYA JIRGAS ACHIEVED IN THE PAST?

In June 2002, seven months after the Taliban were ousted by U.S. and Afghan forces, Karzai, already appointed interim leader in a U.N.-led conference, was sworn in as president for the first time at a loya jirga which also approved his choice of cabinet.

In January 2004, Afghanistan's opposing factions agreed on a constitution at a loya jirga.

In August 2007, the first joint Afghan and Pakistan loya jirga was held in Kabul after relations between the neighbors deteriorated amid Afghan accusations that Pakistan was harboring Taliban and al Qaeda fighters to weaken Afghanistan.

A year later, ethnic Pashtun leaders, leading Muslim clerics and political leaders from Pakistan and Afghanistan met in Islamabad for a "jirgagai," or mini jirga, to agree on how to combat rising insurgent violence.

Earlier this month, Karzai's main challenger in the August presidential election, Abdullah Abdullah, announced at a loya jirga in Kabul that he would withdraw from a planned run-off in the fraud-ridden poll. Election officials canceled the run-off and declared Karzai elected for a second term.

* HOW CAN A LOYA JIRGA HELP KARZAI? Karzai gave few details at his inauguration about what the proposed loya jirga would address, but it would provide a way for him to show the West that his first major decisions will be as inclusive and consensus-driven as possible.

The loya jirga will include Afghanistan's most influential men from all major ethnic and tribal groups. But Abdullah, with support in the Tajik-dominated north, is unlikely to attend. He

reiterated on Thursday that he would take no part in Karzai's new administration.

Karzai could use the jirga to sound out cabinet choices, discuss changes to the constitution, particularly after the election exposed loopholes and vague passages. It will also be a chance to advance attempts to engage with moderate Taliban.

* WHAT DOES THE WEST WANT OUT OF THE LOYA JIRGA?

Washington and its allies would probably want Karzai to use it to push an anti-corruption agenda. In his inauguration speech, Karzai said Afghanistan should assume control of its security within five years -- an ambitious, but welcome goal in the West.

The jirga would be a chance for the influential in Afghanistan to decide to what extent they will increase cooperation with foreign and Afghan security forces to improve the country's role in fighting insurgents.

(Compiled by Golnar Motevalli and Robert Birsel; Editing by Ron Popeski)

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