To Save Afghanistan, Look to Its Past

No matter who is ultimately certified as the winner of Afghanistan’s presidential election, the vote was plagued by so much fraud and violence, and had such low turnout, that it is inconceivable the Afghan people will regard the victor as a legitimate leader. And if a majority of Afghans do not consider the president and his government to be legitimate, the military campaign now being waged by the United States and its allies is doomed to fail, regardless of the number of troops deployed.

Current discussions about cobbling together mistrustful factions into a new power-sharing government will produce neither enduring democracy nor short-term peace. The slate must be wiped clean. Afghans need to start again from scratch and choose their leader by a fresh process that restores legitimacy to the national government.

Fortunately, such a process already exists — one that is both highly respected by the Afghan people and recognized in the Afghan Constitution: the convening of an emergency loya jirga, or grand assembly. The loya jirga has been called in times of national crisis in Afghanistan for centuries. In 1747, such an assembly in Kandahar selected Ahmad Shah Durrani as the first king of Afghanistan, uniting a patchwork of contentious tribal entities into the modern Afghan state. The loya jirga, moreover, is not only deeply rooted in Pashtun tradition, but is also consistent with notions of Western representative democracy.

Afghan society remains predominantly illiterate, agrarian and tribal. Indeed, the last king of Afghanistan, Mohammad Zahir Shah, often referred to himself as the “chief of all tribes.” Local disputes are routinely resolved by tribal elders seated on the ground in a circle, a gathering known as a jirga (or a shura in non-Pashtun regions). A loya jirga is, essentially, the same process on a much grander scale: an immense assembly of esteemed tribal leaders designated to debate issues of utmost national importance. Unlike presidential elections, which strike most Afghans as alien and fundamentally suspect, jirgas of all sizes are trusted and utterly familiar institutions.

According to the Constitution (which was itself ratified by a loya jirga in 2004), such a council can be convened “to decide on issues related to independence, national sovereignty, territorial integrity as well as supreme national interests.” Doing so does not depend on the support of any particular individual or group, including the president. While historically it was the king who most often initiated the process, the House of People, one of the two houses of Parliament, can directly convene a loya jirga at any time.

The Constitution further states that neither the president nor his ministers nor members of the Supreme Court have voting rights in a loya jirga; those are reserved for members of both houses of the Parliament and the provincial and district leaders. While in session, it trumps all other bodies of government. As the Afghan Constitution unambiguously declares: “The loya jirga is the highest manifestation of the will of the people of Afghanistan.”

Afghanistan faces a number of crises, any one of which would alone justify convening a loya jirga as soon as possible. But the most compelling reason for doing so is to have Afghans from disparate tribes, regions and ethnicities come together, outside the acting government, to select a president who will be considered legitimate by the people. No other process — not a presidential decree, a special commission, a court ruling, an elections committee, an act of Parliament or an internationally sponsored conference — could accomplish this.

Certainly, a loya jirga is no panacea. The emphasis on achieving consensus can cause discussions to drag on interminably. The process may not be immune from political intimidation or even violence. During the loya jirga that considered the Constitution, ethnic factions argued so vehemently that some Westerners feared the nation would splinter. In the end, however, such worries proved groundless. The Constitution was ratified. The loya jirga worked.

The debacle of last month’s election underscores a basic flaw in the efforts by the United States and other Western nations to solve Afghanistan’s problems: the country is simply not ready for direct presidential elections or a presidential system of government transplanted from a Western model of democracy.

A political structure like India’s, with a prime minister, would be a much better fit. And the proper mechanism for converting the Afghan government along these or any other lines is the loya jirga, rather than ad hoc political appointments (like anointing a chief executive to serve under the president), as some have suggested.

Because it is a unifying, time-honored and uniquely Afghan mechanism, a loya jirga offers the best hope for hitting the reset button and rapidly transforming Afghanistan’s political landscape. This would give the Afghan people a badly needed dose of optimism about the future of their beautiful, ravaged country.

Ansar Rahel, a lawyer, advised King Mohammad Zahir Shah’s loya jirga committee and Jon Krakauer, the author of Into Thin Air and the forthcoming Where Men Win Glory: The Odyssey of Pat Tillman.