The United States and the Afghan Loya Jirga

James Ingalls 

June 2002 loya jirga, or grand council, is considered to be the
start of a new era in Afghanistan, if only because the country is
finally engaging in a political process that the United States accepts.
Unfortunately for the people of Afghanistan, the U.S. government
is rather particular about which outcome it considers acceptable.
This is why important decisions were not left to the 1,500 delegates. 

no fault of the delegates, the sessions did little more than confirm
Hamid Karzai, head of the interim government, as president of Afghanistan.
This result can hardly be called a decision, however. According
to United Press International, “democracy nearly broke out
in Afghanistan on Monday [10 June], but was blocked by backroom
dealing to prevent former King Mohammed Zahir Shah from emerging
as a challenger to Hamid Karzai.” Instead of beginning at 8:00
AM on  June 10, as scheduled, the loya jirga was postponed,
supposedly until 10:00 AM, but at 3:00 PM it was announced that
the meeting would not convene at all until the following day. Zalmay
Khalilzad, the U.S. special envoy to Afghanistan, told the press
that the organizing commission decided to postpone the opening of
the Loya Jirga “to ascertain the true intentions of the former
King.” Before Zahir Shah could make his own announcement, Khalilzad
gave the answer: “The former king is not a candidate for a
position in the transitional authority. He endorses Chairperson
Karzai.” At a 6:00 PM press conference, the former king, “looking
grim,” was flanked by Khalilzad and Karzai. He said nothing,
but his chief of political affairs read a statement. “As I
have always mentioned, I have no intention of restoring the monarchy
and am not a candidate for any position in the emergency loya jirga.” 

explained, “statements that were issued yesterday [June 9 ]
that the former King might be, or is, a candidate for the post of
President of the Transitional Authority…were inconsistent with
earlier statements by the former King,” which had caused “consternation
and confusion” among the Loya Jirga delegates. The “statements
issued” were actually the former king’s response to a
BBC interviewer’s questions. When asked if he would accept
the job of head of state, he answered, “I will accept the decision
of the Loya Jirga… What the majority decides about the future
of Afghanistan, and my role, I’ll accept that.” Contrary
to Khalilzad’s assertion, this was consistent with at least
one earlier statement in which he said, “I will accept the
responsibility of head of state if that is what the loya jirga demands
of me” (AFP, May 28, 2002). Clearly, many delegates took these
remarks to mean that the former king would stand for office if nominated. 

to UPI, the U.S. special envoy had “apparently brokered”
a deal with the former king to withdraw his candidacy. So it was
only natural that, “Some delegates…were angered by what they
perceived to be a U.S. effort to front load the loya jirga to ensure
that Karzai was reappointed.” One delegate, Omar Zakhilwal,
wrote in the Washington Post, “Rather than address the
issue democratically, almost two days of the six-day loya jirga
were wasted while a parade of high-level officials from the interim
government, the United Nations, and the United States visited Zahir
Shah and eventually ‘persuaded’ him to publicly renounce
his political ambitions.” It is well known that, if given the
chance, Shah probably would have obtained a significant number of
votes. UPI said, “many delegates felt the highly popular ex-king
would probably have had the votes to be chosen for a role in the
transitional government, but had been prevented from declaring his
candidacy.” According to the New York Times, Amanullah
Zadran, the tribal affairs minister, “promised that he would
take 700 delegates from the loya jirga to the former king’s
house on Tuesday to show the strength of support for his candidacy.” 

over 1,200 of the 1,600 delegates voted for Karzai three days later,
it came as no surprise. The New York Times had reported in
late May, “[Karzai] is expected to win an easy victory and
lead the new government, Afghan officials and Western diplomats
said.” The predictions of “western diplomats” have
a strange way of being fulfilled, especially after the careful intervention
of the U.S. special envoy and other “high-level officials”
to ensure that there is no real choice in the matter. After the
vote, the Times wrote, “the grand council did what had
been expected of it today,” by electing Karzai. Sima Samar,
the minister for women’s affairs commented wryly to the BBC,
“This is not a democracy, it is a rubber stamp. Everything
has already been decided by the powerful ones.” 

“powerful ones,” namely the U.S. government and its allies,
have made sure that the leader of Afghanistan was not someone who
could challenge their power. Zahir Shah would present a minor challenge
to U.S. dominance in Afghanistan, but a challenge nonetheless. Unlike
Hamid Karzai, Shah is well known, with a 40-year history as king
of Afghanistan. A state department poll released in June 2001 found
that nearly half of the 5,000 Afghans questioned regarded the former
king “as the leader most likely to address the country’s
problems.” The next most likely choice (20 percent) was “Don’t
know.” Mullah Omar, the Taliban leader, was ranked third with
less than 10 percent choosing him. The Revolutionary Association
of the Women of Afghanistan (RAWA), a political and humanitarian
organization that is outspoken in its denunciation of fundamentalists
like the Northern Alliance and the Taliban, declared that they are
“not a monarchist organization.” Nevertheless, in the
absence of democratic alternatives, RAWA admits that “only…Zahir
Shah could unite the people and take the country out of prevailing

Shah’s “Experiment with Democracy” 

Shah is associated with a relatively happy period in Afghanistan’s
history. There was little bloodshed during his reign from 1933 to
1973. He established a constitutional monarchy in 1964, and the
period 1964 to 1973 (when he was overthrown by his cousin Daud)
is probably the most democratic in the country’s history. Writing
in 1973, U.S. Ambassador Neumann told the State Department, “Afghans
have become acutely conscious, and indeed jealous, of the personal
freedoms guaranteed them under the 1964 Constitution. This consciousness
has manifested itself in hitherto undreamed-of criticism of the
government by members of parliament, students, and the free press….
Many educated Afghans carry the Constitution in their pockets and
quote from it extensively.” During Shah’s reign there
were growing student and women’s movements, including eight
well-organized nationwide “parties” (true political parties
were outlawed) that Ambassador Neumann considered left-of-center. 

declassified record from the period gives a glimpse into the U.S.
government perspective on Shah’s “experiment with democracy,”
and foreshadows the disaster that was to follow. A 1970 analysis
by Neumann discussed “clerical unrest” and demonstrations
by religious leaders against “atheistic communism,” but
concluded, “mullahs [religious leaders] probably did little
to change the views of the segments of the society at which the
communist appeal is aimed.” Interestingly, the report also
finds, “Religious conservatism, for the first time in many
years, vividly demonstrated that it remains a force with which the
government must contend. Nevertheless, the existence of a reasonably
strong army, the absence of outside assistance, and a basically
conciliatory government policy, has so far prevented the situation
from getting out of hand…[T]he demonstrations may ultimately come
to be regarded as proof of the mettle of the society and the democratic
experiment.” Neumann’s mention of “the absence of
outside assistance” to the mullahs is ominous in hindsight,
given that billions of dollars of U.S. assistance to religious fundamentalists
in the 1980s is responsible for the condition of Afghanistan today. 

the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S., Zahir Shah, in exile
in Rome, began meeting with members of the Northern Alliance opposition
to the Taliban. In late September Shah had “asked for political
support and economic and humanitarian help from the United States,”
but not for an invasion. His grandson Mustapha said, “We believe
that Afghans can do the job (of fighting terrorism) but they probably
would need some of the tools to do the job.” Clearly, the former
king would not be a pliable leader. According to the Canadian magazine
Maclean’s, the Bush administration gave a “lukewarm
response” to “attempts to focus national reconciliation
around” Zahir Shah prior to the U.S. bombing. Meetings in Italy
with 11 U.S. Congressional delegates led Representative Curt Weldon
to assert naively, “We think perhaps he is the person that
can rally those [who are] against the Taliban most effectively.”
The next day a White House spokesperson contradicted this, saying,
“the United States is not backing any specific replacement
for the Taliban.” 

A U.S.-Backed “Dissident” Emerges 

after the bombing began, reports began surfacing of a “dissident”
Afghan exile named Hamid Karzai “who has emerged as the Bush
administration’s main hope for forging a southern alliance
against the Taliban.” The word “emerged” is appropriate.
A National Newspaper
search for Karzai’s name in the Christian Science
, the New York Times, the Washington Post,
the Los Angeles Times, and the Wall Street Journal
yielded 273 instances, the earliest of which is a Los Angeles
article from October 12, 2001 (the database extends back
to 1977). The New York Times first referred to Karzai on
October 18, calling him an “influential Pashtun chief”
who was starting “a quiet rebellion” against the Taliban
with U.S. support. This gave the impression that Karzai must have
had plenty of popular support among the Pashtun ethnic group, over
40 percent of the population, even though he was not well known
internationally. But in February 2002, two months after he was established
as interim chair of the Afghan government, the Times asserted
that a better description of Karzai’s standing would be the
exact opposite: “Mr. Karzai is a less formidable player at
home than foreigners perceive him to be.” Mohammed Fahim Dashty,
editor of the Kabul Weekly newspaper said, “I can understand
why people in the U.S. were intrigued by Karzai, but people in Afghanistan
are not impressed.” 

was picked by the U.S. because of his longstanding connections to
the U.S. intelligence establishment: “the Americans…knew
Mr. Karzai, who had served as a funnel for covert American aid to
the anti-Soviet mujahedeen in the 1980s.” He had no power base
of his own, and could make very few decisions of his own, making
him indebted to his foreign benefactors, and to his military colleagues
within Afghanistan. According to the New York Times, “the
anti-Taliban movement in the south led by Mr. Karzai and other Pashtun
leaders would never have succeeded—or even come together—
without the United States” (NYT, December 15, 2001). 

first step to legitimize the U.S. choice of Karzai, and to deligitimize
the former king, was the Bonn Conference of early December. “A
Western diplomat” explained that “delegates in Bonn had
chosen a different leader, Abdul Sattar Sirat, to head the interim
government [but] pressure from American and United Nations officials
resulted in the naming of Mr. Karzai.” Initially, Karzai received
no votes, “but all the delegates understood that the Americans
wanted Mr. Karzai…So on Dec. 5, they finally chose him.”
Sirat, who was supported overwhelmingly by Zahir Shah’s delegation,
did not even make it into the interim government as a cabinet minister.
Haji Attaullah, a Pashtun delegate said, “The Bonn conference
was only for show. The decisions had been made before.” Meanwhile,
James F. Dobbins the senior U.S. envoy there called the Conference,
“an outstanding success” (NYT, December, 6,15,16

Strong-arming Democracy 

loya jirga was the second step in foisting the U.S.-designed order
on the Afghan people. According to delegates Omar Zakhilwal and
Adeena Niazi (NYT,
21, 2002), the meetings began optimistically: “Delegates
from all backgrounds—Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks;
urban and rural, Sunni and Shiite—sat together under one roof
as if we belonged to a single village. Men and women mingled openly
and comfortably. In tolerant and lively exchanges, we discussed
the compatibility of women’s rights with our Islamic traditions.
Women played a leading role at these meetings. We were living proof
against the stereotypes that Afghans are divided by ethnic hatred,
that we are a backward people not ready for democracy and equality.” 

delegates had put together a “wish list focused on national
unity, peace, and security.” The list “emphasized access
to food, education, and health services in neglected rural areas,”
but above all else the delegates were united in “the urgency
of reducing the power of warlords and establishing a truly representative
government.” Zakhilwal and Niazi wrote, “The sentiment
quickly grew into a grassroots movement supporting the former king…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

the postponed opening of the council, followed by the announcement
that Zahir Shah would have no place in the new government, “the
atmosphere of 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
by supporters of the interim government.” 

delegate told Human Rights Watch, “We are hostages of the people
who destroyed Afghanistan. They are trying to hold us hostage to
their power. There are petitions being circulated and we are pressed
to just sign them without reading them.” When she complained
publicly, the delegate was later threatened with the words, “you
either mend your ways or we will mend them for you.” A June
13 Human Rights Watch press release attributed the problem to the
inclusion of major U.S.-backed Northern Alliance figures in the
meetings, people “widely held responsible for Afghanistan’s
devastating decade of civil war and ensuing atrocities” during
the 1990s. According to the rules of the Loya Jirga, war criminals
were to be excluded, but Human Rights Watch “is not aware of
a single case in which this exclusion clause was used, despite the
presence of some of Afghanistan’s most abusive warlords among
the delegates.” 

A “Balanced” Cabinet 

unveiled his new cabinet on  June 19. The Christian
Science Monitor
called the new government “a rogues gallery.”
HRW’s Salman Zia-Zarifi said, “Afghanistan’s warlords
are stronger today than they were ten days ago before the loya jirga
started.” Zakhilwal and Niazi continue: “Our hearts sank
when we heard President Hamid Karzai pronounce one name after another.
A woman activist turned to us in disbelief: ‘This is worse
than our worst expectations. The warlords have been promoted and
the professionals kicked out. Who calls this democracy?’….
The key ministries of defense and foreign affairs remain in the
hands of Muhammad Qasim Fahim and Abdullah, both from the dominant
Northern Alliance faction based in the Panjshir Valley…. Three
powerful Northern Alliance commanders—Mr. Fahim, Haji Abdul
Qadir and Kharim Khalili—have been made vice presidents…These
are the very forces responsible for countless brutalities under
the mujahedeen government…. As the loya jirga folded its tent,
we met with frustration and anger in the streets. ‘Why did
you legitimize an illegitimate government?’ one Kabul resident
asked us. The truth is we didn’t…[W]e delegates were denied
anything more than a symbolic role in the selection process.” 

is significant that the New York Times and the Washington
published separate accounts by Omar Zakhilwal criticizing
the outcome of the loya jirga (the piece excerpted above was co-written
by Adeena Niazi), but both articles were published as “opinion”
pieces, not as “news.” So-called “news” articles
instead focused on the chaos of the meetings, trivializing the controversies,
yet praising the “balanced” outcome. The New York Times
(June 23, 2002) said that Karzai’s cabinet “showed a careful
balance of factions and ethnic groups…. Despite Mr. Karzai’s
declared intention of promoting professionals in his cabinet, his
appointments clearly reflected the need to please the various regional
and ethnic groups.” In this context “various regional
and ethnic groups” means “warlords.” For example,
the son of Ismail Khan, called “the strongman of Herat,”
was given the ministry of aviation and tourism. The newspaper rather
nonchalantly noted that women’s rights might get eliminated
from Karzai’s agenda: “The ministry of women’s affairs
was not mentioned for the new cabinet and may have been cut along
with one of only two women ministers in the last government, Dr.
Sima Samar.” 

Thier, a representative of the Brussels-based International Crisis
Group, called the loya jirga an “enormous missed opportunity”
to weaken the power of the warlords. The Guardian of London
complained, “The West is Walking Away From Afghanistan—Again.”
But these criticisms miss the point. By actively shaping events
so that the politically weak Hamid Karzai was unchallenged by Zahir
Shah, who the “vast majority…viewed…as the only leader
with enough popular support and independence to stand up to the
warlords,” the U.S. envoy was taking an opportunity. Far from
“walking away,” the West was deliberately manipulating
the politics of Afghanistan so that a weak leader who depends on
foreign backing and who needs to appease the warlords was installed.
The first act of intimidation was the U.S. and UN pressuring of
Zahir Shah. After the floodgates were opened it was impossible to
allow the delegates, many of who had a strong human rights agenda
and were intent on weakening the warlords, to either vote or speak
their minds freely and fairly. 

to the loya jirga, Salman Zia-Zarifi from Human Rights Watch said,
“Short term political expediency has clearly triumphed over
human rights.” This will continue to be the outcome in Afghanistan,
so long as the United States continues supporting fundamentalist
warlords and subverting popular processes within the country.                 Z 

Ingalls is an advisory board member of the Afghan Women’s Mission.
He is also a staff scientist at the California Institute of Technology.