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Afghan Lawmakers Tackle Karzai on US Deal

Legislators say president has no right to call national congress to discuss long-term American military presence.
By Maiwand Safi
  • A previous loya jirga, held in 2002, confirmed Hamid Karzai as Afghan president. (Photo: US State Department)
    A previous loya jirga, held in 2002, confirmed Hamid Karzai as Afghan president. (Photo: US State Department)

President Hamed Karzai is in conflict with Afghanistan’s rebellious parliament again, this time over plans for a “loya jirga” or national congress to discuss future relations with the United States.

First floated in April, the idea is to convene the traditional congress to underpin the legitimacy of a possible long-term strategic agreement whereby the US military would retain a significant presence in Afghanistan long past the projected pullout of combat troops in 2014.

The idea of foreign troops remaining in Afghanistan for the long term is hugely controversial, as people weigh their natural suspicion of foreign intervention against the fear that without it, neighbouring states like Pakistan and Iran would seek to destabilise or control their country. (See Afghans Debate Future US Presence.)

Loya jirgas – “grand assemblies” drawn from people across the country – are periodically convened in Afghanistan to debate important national issues and arrive at a consensus view. The idea is that with broad-based participation, the congress will produce decisions that by definition will be accepted by everyone and can therefore be made binding. 

A loya jirga was held in 2002, following the ousting of the Taleban regime the year before, and a second was called the following year to approve a new constitution. Last June a “peace jirga” was held at which delegates approved a proposal to negotiate a peace settlement with any insurgent groups willing to come to terms.

Parliament responded angrily to Karzai’s plan, saying approving deals like the one proposed with the US were its own prerogative, and calling a loya jirga to do so would be illegal as it would encroach on legislators’ authority.

The current legislature elected last September, like its predecessor, has not had a good relationship with President Karzai, accusing him of acting in a high-handed manner and ignoring the views expressed and laws made by parliament.

One member, Abdul Hafiz Mansur, said that while the constitution retained the concept of jirgas, the traditional loya jirga as an institution had become embodied in the elected parliament, which had the requisite kind of legitimacy. The members of parliament’s upper and lower chambers – known as the Wolesi Jirga and the Meshrano Jirga – effectively constituted a loya jirga, he said.

“Karzai wants to hold a traditional loya jirga in contravention of the constitution, in order to place his own men there. His action is a threat to the jurisdiction of parliament,” Mansur said. “We acknowledge that jirgas are referred to in the constitution, but why is the president violating [the rules] by arbitrarily convening people and calling it a jirga?”

Another member, Shinkai Zahin Kalokhel warned, “If the demands and views of parliament are ignored, I do not think the people’s expectations of the strategic [US-Afghan] plan and or in other areas will be fulfilled.”

Karzai’s deputy spokesman Siamak Herawi defended the loya jirga plan, insisting that elected politicians would be included in it.

“There is a range of people in parliament from different provinces and with various opinions. But members of the lower and upper houses of parliament, along with elders and representatives of the different parts of Afghanistan will be part of the jirga,” he said. “No one institution has the right to regard this as their prerogative. The jirga is being held to bring members of the national assembly together with other people in order to discuss the issues.”

Previous loya jirgas were criticised because of the role the international community played in providing funding and security. Herawi said that this one would be an entirely Afghan-led affair.

Herawi’s views were echoed by political analyst Habibullah Rafi, who said loya jirgas enjoyed a legitimacy even higher than that of parliament.

“Jirga participants represent the ethnic groups in this country. They don’t need ballot boxes, because the people have voted for them in their hearts. They can even abolish the system of government system and amend laws,” he said. “If the Wolesi Jirga opposes this [loya] jirga, it will be committing a major legal error.”

One of the factors that weakens parliament’s position in its latest standoff with Karzai is that its own legitimacy is widely questioned, following allegations of substantial ballot-rigging in the September election.

“It isn’t a united or [universally] accepted parliament. Some of its members are not committed to this country at all, and work on behalf of others,” legal expert Nasim Nuri said. “Whether to accept or reject this jirga is above the authorities of this parliament. This issue [continued US presence] needs to be addressed by a traditional loya jirga.”

As well as initially refusing to inaugurate the new parliament in January, the Afghan president set up a special court in December 2010 to investigate claims of electoral abuse. That called into question the final poll results as announced by the Independent Election Commission, and verified by the Electoral Complaints Commission with some disqualifications. Those two bodies are supposed to be the final arbiters on election results.

The five-member special court produced its findings in June, announcing that the recounts it had ordered in several areas where electoral fraud was alleged meant that 62 Wolesi Jirga members must stand down and be replaced by others.

Parliament has so far rejected the court’s ruling.

Political analyst Fazel Rahman Oria believes this dispute must be cleared up before parliament can legitimately take a stand on the loya jirga.

Interviews conducted by IWPR suggest the Afghan public is equally divided on Karzai’s right to call a loya jirga, and on whether parliament is in a position to block the move.

Mohammad Ibrahim, a community elder in Kapisa province, northeast of Kabul, said the president had taken the right decision.

“The true representatives of the people are not in parliament. Instead, it contains factions and groups that make deals for their own benefit,” he said. “There will be true popular representatives in the traditional jirga, with no one trying to perpetrate fraud or deceit there. So holding a loya jirga is a good thing.”

Safiullah, a shopkeeper, said the loya jirga was unlikely to be any more representative than parliament itself.

“Everyone knows that agents and puppets of other countries sit in parliament. They’ve sold themselves for dollars. But the jirga that Karzai wants to hold won’t represent the people, either. It will be attended by [local] governors, police chiefs and elders with good relations with government one way or another,” he said. “In my opinion, it would have been better to hold a jirga drawing on legal, political, military and other experts.”

Maiwand Safi is an IWPR-trained reporter in Kapisa province, Afghanistan.

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