The Loya Jirga Joke

From the outset, the Bush Administration made clear its distaste for “nation-building.” The U.S. had not fared well in past nation-building exercises (in Lebanon in 1983, or Somalia in 1993); they left a very bad taste in the imperialist mouth. It had excelled, however, in nation-destroying; reducing relatively progressive, secular Iraq to a feeble shadow of its former self, through bombing and sanctions, during the first Bush presidency. Bush II’s bombing destroyed the Taliban’s apparatus in Afghanistan within two months. The U.S. government’s really good at that sort of thing. But when it comes to crafting institutions, supporting genuine democracy, empowering the oppressed, dealing with social complexity, it just don’t want to get involved. (“Hey, if those Rwandans and other uncivilized folks can’t get their act together, who really gives a shit so long as U.S. vital interests aren’t involved?” That’s their attitude.)

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not suggesting that they should undertake nation-building, any more than I’d suggest the Mafia oversee public schools. I’m not advocating a U.S “peacekeeping” force throughout Afghanistan, as some have suggested, and I’m not upset that Rumsfeld has ruled this out. Global oppressors can’t build nations that deliver justice to their citizens, so if they want to bag out, that’s fine with me. Unfortunately in Afghanistan, the U.S. government has undertaken what journalists are calling “nation-building” (see John Donnelly’s piece in the June 26 Boston Globe)—or what may be termed more accurately, the establishment of another puppet regime, another client state doomed from its inception to meet with popular contempt.

On November 12, barely a month since the U.S. started its bombing campaign, the Northern Alliance took Kabul. By all indications, the U.S. power structure was genuinely surprised at the lightening success of “Operation Enduring Freedom” and the weakness of the Taliban resistance. While the U.S. (and Pakistan) had opposed the Alliance forces’ entry into Kabul before a nationwide conference could determine the nature of the post-Taliban government, the Tajik-dominated militia forces occupied the city, to the dismay of most of its inhabitants, and reestablished the hated Burhanuddin Rabbani regime. The Russians and Iranians immediately embraced the warlord clique, but the Bush regime withheld diplomatic recognition, in part to avoid antagonizing the Pakistanis who have, since November 1994 (when they broke ties to CIA Frankenstein Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, blamed for some 50,000 civilian deaths, in favor of the Taliban), been on hostile terms with the Northern Alliance. With some help from Russia and Iran, the U.S. orchestrated the meeting in Bonn (November 27-December 4) that produced a bogus new government dominated by the Panjshiri Valley thugs. (18 out of the 30 government members were from the Northern Alliance.) The chairman of the interim administration, Hamid Karzai, was an English-speaking, longtime U.S. resident, a Pashtun who had been a deputy foreign minister in Rabbani’s government in the mid-90s. (By the way, although it’s probably impolite to bring it up now, he was briefly foreign minister under the Taliban too in 1996.)

The Bonn meeting resulted in an agreement that a Loya Jirga (Grand Council) would be held in June to determine the composition of a more permanent government structure. “Loya Jirga:” it has such an exotic sound to it. There have been loya jirgas for centuries—gatherings involving wise and powerful men from all the tribes and clans, engaged (or at least this has been the mainstream press spin) in crude, New England Town Meeting-style, democratic debate about the future of the Afghan nation. So this particular Loya Jirga (the mother of Loya Jirgas, closely followed by western news agencies from beginning to end, June 11-19)—this Loya Jirga, designed to legitimatize Karzai’s administration, was itself accorded in western reportage the legitimacy of native tradition.

In fact there was little traditional or legitimate about it. The warlords currently enjoying U.S. support largely determined the selection of delegates. Lakhdar Brahimi, UN envoy to Afghanistan, told reporters, “Voting for the Loya Jirga has been plagued by violence and vote-buyingThere were attempts at violence, manipulation, unfortunately. Money was used, threats were used” (ABC, June 12). Disproportionate representation was given Uzbek and Tajik regions controlled by the Northern Alliance (The Nation, May 11). At the meeting, the U.S.—the reluctant nation-builder—was much in evidence, and calling all the shots. Afghan-American, Donald Rumsfeld intimate and Big Oil man Zalmay Khalilizad, the State Department’s chief envoy to Kabul, was on the ground coaching Karzai throughout.

Zalmay Khalilizad. This is the gentleman who, while employed by Unocal and involved in oil pipeline negotiations with the Taliban, argued as recently as 1998 in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post that, “The Taliban does not practice the anti-U.S. style of fundamentalism practiced by Iran We should … be willing to offer recognition and humanitarian assistance and to promote international economic reconstruction. It is time for the United States to reengage” the Afghan regime. Then he went on to write a boiok about Afghanistan as a “rogue state.” A real man of principle, here. So, what were his contributions to Afghan nation-building? (1) He pronounced a U.S. veto on the appointment of Zahir Shah, the former king, as head of state; and (2) he obliged Karzai to seek Loya Jirga approval of at least some of his cabinet appointments.

On June 9, between 800 and 900 of the 1600 delegates assembled in Kabul signed a petition asking that Zahir Shah serve as head of state. As two delegates, Omar Zakhilwal and Adeena Niazi, later wrote in the New York Times:

Within a day we had developed a common wish list focused on national unity, peace and security. We also emphasized access to food, education and health services in neglected rural areas. But the one issue that united the delegates above all others was the urgency of reducing the power of warlords and establishing a truly representative government. This sentiment quickly grew into a grass-roots movement supporting the former king, Mohammed Zahir Shah, as head of state. The vast majority of us viewed him as the only leader with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the warlords. But our democratic effort to nominate Zahir Shah did not please the powers that be.

Specifically, Mohammed Fahim, an ethnic Tajik and the defense minister, fearing that a major role for the Pashtun former king would undercut his own faction’s position, warned Karzai late that day that delegates representing the Northern Alliance would withdraw from the Loya Jirga unless Zahir Shah agreed to seek no political post. He also threatened to place his troops on alert (New York Times, June 12). Since the Alliance is the dominant military presence in the capital, these were serious threats.

Now, the U.S. position in Afghanistan is thoroughly dependent on its alliance with the Northern Alliance. So one-time Taliban apologist Khalilizad resolved the situation, pressuring the aging one time monarch to bow out, while softening the blow by persuading the interior minister, Tajik warlord Yanis Qanooni, to step down in favor of the Pashtun, Taji Mohammed Wardak. As the meeting opened belatedly, under a grand tent on June 11, delegates learning of the backdoor deal expressed outrage. “This is a rubber stamp,” declared Minister of Women’s Affairs Sima Samar. “Everything has already been decided by the powerful ones.” Another delegate, Asella Wardak, protested, “Everything seems to have been decided. But we don’t need anyone to decide for us. We have had enough of foreign interference in our country.”

Confusion reigned as Karzai misinterpreted his nomination as president as confirmation (the Americans, after all, had already told him he was president), prematurely seeking the crowd’s accolade. He was indeed elected on the 13th, overwhelmingly, challenged only by two little-known candidates, one of them a woman ridiculed and threatened by the fundamentalists. The puppet’s legitimacy was thus assured. We will probably be told time and again in future that he was the clear choice of the Afghan people in this Grand Council; even so, his position is shaky. “If the president does not follow the Islamic values, ” warned warlord Abdulrab Rassoul Sayyaf, “then the Prophet advises us to follow him anywhere, to oppose, protest, and strike against him.”

The next item of business was to select the new cabinet, and in this, the dreaded warlords had final say. Sitting in the front seats, they weren’t even supposed to be there. “We were told that this loya jirga would not include all the people who had blood on their hands,” complained one delegate, Safar Mohammed, to his fellows, drawing applause. “But we see these people everywhere. I don’t know whether this is a loya jirga or a commanders’ council.” (Independent, June 13). Zakhilwal and Niazi write that after the Karzai deal had been set, “the atmosphere at the loya jirga changed radically. The gathering was now teeming with intelligence agents who openly threatened reform-minded delegates, especially women. Access to the microphone was controlled so that supporters of the interim government dominated the proceedings. Fundamentalist leaders branded critics of the warlords as traitors to Islam and circulated a petition denouncing Women’s Affairs Minister Samar as ‘Afghanistan’s Salman Rushdie.'”

Even in the intimidating atmosphere, Karzai was unable to win ready acceptance of his cabinet nominees, and on June 17, fully half of the delegates walked out, some protesting foreign manipulation of the proceedings as well as warlord intimidation. Karzai announced his intention to select a cabinet without Loya Jirga approval, but, outside the grand tent Khalilizad informed him that the Bonn agreement of last December specified that such approval was, in fact, required. Two days later, the Loya Jirga concluded, its delegates having approved Karzai’s cabinet choices for most cabinet positions. Fahim remains Defense Minister, and has also been appointed deputy president. Warlords Haji Qadir (Pashtun) and Karim Khalili (Hazara) have also been named deputy presidents. Qanooni after some hesitation and a threat to form an opposition party has accepted the Minister of Education portfolio and (perhaps more significantly) has agreed to serve as internal security advisor. (His successor as Interior Minister, Taji Mohammed Wardak, has met with violent opposition from Qanooni’s thugs while merely attempting to settle into his office.) A son of Herat’s warlord Ismail Khan has been brought into the administration. The suave, English-speaking Tajik Dr. Abdullah Abdullah remains Foreign Minister. Mulavi Fazal Hadi Shinwari was appointed Chief Justice; an earnest proponent of Shari’a punishments (including stoning and amputation), he’s a fan of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. (He says the latter “deserves to be considered in the coming government. Neither Gulbuddin nor any other body [in his group] committed crimes and hence there is no reason to impose restrictions on them.”)

In a word, the Loya Jirga has empowered monsters, while excluding the more progressive forces; Sima Samar has been intimidated into resigning as Minister of Women’s Affairs and at this writing the post remains unfilled. As Vikram Parekh of Human Rights Watch put it on June 20, “Afghanistan’s warlords are stronger today than they were ten days ago before the loya jirga started.” Ahmed Rachid (Eurasia Insight, June 24) agrees: “Afghan President Hamid Karzai’s new cabinet configuration should yield even greater political and military powers to the already dominating faction of Tajiks from the Panjshir Valley, as well as to other warlords.” He predicts that “ongoing Pashtun discontent with the Panjshiri domination of the military and security establishments could create a serious situation for US forces, which are largely based in eastern Pashtun regions.”

“By these appointments Karzai and the Panjshiris have made more enemies than they had before,” said an unnamed European diplomat in Kabul interviewed by Rashid. “Karzai has only demonstrated his weakness and his inability to take hard decisions, which will increase instability outside Kabul and infuriate the Pashtuns.” Saman Zia-Zarifi, senior researcher for HRW, declares, “Short term political expediency has clearly triumphed over human rights.” Assadallah Wolwaliji, member of the independent commission overseeing the conference with UN assistance, explains fatalistically: “We cannot say this was a democratic loya jirga. Maybe it was necessary that it was an autocratic loya jirga.” It was in any case clearly a betrayal of the expectations of the Afghan people, a joke of a jirga achieved under U.S. auspices, and probably a prescription for “blowback.”

Gary Leupp is an an associate professor, Department of History, Tufts University and coordinator, Asian Studies Program
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Gary Leupp is Emeritus Professor of History at Tufts University, and is the author of Servants, Shophands and Laborers in in the Cities of Tokugawa JapanMale Colors: The Construction of Homosexuality in Tokugawa Japan; and Interracial Intimacy in Japan: Western Men and Japanese Women, 1543-1900 and coeditor of The Tokugawa World (Routledge, 2021). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, (AK Press). He can be reached at: