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Afghanistan: Professionals Look To Traditional Loya Jirga For Support

  • Charles Recknagel

As Afghanistan's Loya Jirga meets to endorse the next interim government, many development experts say the new administration must include more professional people to help speed the country's reconstruction. But can a traditional and tribal assembly like the Loya Jirga produce a government of technocrats?

Kabul, 13 June 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Over the past six months of Afghanistan's interim administration, international development experts have often said efforts to rebuild the country will largely depend upon two factors.

One is a stable security situation that assures aid can be reliably delivered to various parts of the country. The other is enough professionals in Afghanistan's administration to assure that the aid is used in workable programs and with an adequate degree of accountability.

Now, with the current Loya Jirga, Afghanistan has its best chance since the Taliban's collapse to form a national government that can improve security within the country. The Loya Jirga process is intended to bring many of Afghanistan's rival regional and factional leaders into a new power-sharing deal that ultimately could lead to the creation of a sizeable national army and police force. That would greatly help secure roads and put an end to arbitrary taxes and shakedowns on aid deliveries.

But even as the Loya Jirga seeks to build broad support for the coming Transitional Authority, it is much less clear whether the process can produce the kind of technocratic government needed to direct the country's reconstruction.

One reason for doubts is the nature of the Loya Jirga itself. The traditional Afghan assembly, which is a centuries-old institution, is a gathering of tribal and clan elders mixing with religious leaders, faction heads, commanders, and a minority of professionals and businessmen. Observers soon realize that most of the key participants are known by their clan titles or military and religious reputations, while their professional training may never be mentioned.

That could mean that professionals will have a tough time obtaining top positions as deals are made regarding the makeup of the Transitional Authority. The deal making hinges upon faction leaders who now hold sway in Kabul -- particularly ethnic Tajik Panjshiris -- sharing power with key faction leaders from the majority Pashtun community. Many of the faction leaders involved in the negotiations are also members of the Loya Jirga, where they are expected to try to marshal approval for any deal they reach.

The reported dealing among the faction leaders maintains a pattern that historically has produced Afghan governments that are top-heavy with loyalists and relatives but sparse on technocrats.

Taj Mohammad Akbar is the director of the department of national economics at Kabul University and was recently appointed by the interim administration to head a state-owned commercial bank. As a trained economist, he is the kind of man needed in a top banking position. But he said that, in the past, professionals have not always been the first candidates for such posts. "In the past, people would not always be appointed in terms of their talents, fairness, or nobility of spirit. Instead, there were some parties that would appoint opportunists, who misused their influence, to the key posts. And those people did not always put a bank's or the nation's interests foremost but preferred their own private interests instead," Akbar said.

Akbar also said that finding professional people to fill top positions is now one of the country's greatest challenges after decades of wars. The conflicts have not only strengthened the practice of patronage based on clan ties and loyalty, they also have chased most of the former professional class out of the country. "The issue of professional people is one of the most important questions [we face]. During the past 24 years of fighting, our professional and experienced people have either left the country or were killed. A few of them now want to come back to join us, but most of those who are abroad will not because they have found a pleasant way of life there," Akbar said.

As the Loya Jirga meets this week, it has the power to assure that key posts in the Transitional Authority are filled by the kinds of professionals the country needs. The United Nations-brokered Bonn accord, reached last year between four key Afghan factions, gives the Loya Jirga delegates the power of approval over the Transitional Authority's key personnel. The agreement also left it to the Loya Jirga to decide for itself how far down the government's hierarchy the words "key personnel" should apply.

But it remains to be seen whether the Loya Jirga will use its approval power broadly and, if it does, how strongly professionals in the assembly can push for technocrats in the government.

One positive sign that professionals may have an influential voice in the Loya Jirga is the election today of two of their number to the assembly's top positions.

In the wake of a full day of deliberations yesterday, which included some sharp criticism of the presence of warlords in the Loya Jirga, the assembly chose Mohammad Ismail Qasim Yar, a former Afghan Supreme Court judge and constitutional expert, as assembly chairman. Qasim Yar previously headed the UN-assisted Special Independent Commission of 21 prominent Afghans that organized the Loya Jirga.

At the same time, the delegates chose Sima Samar, the interim administration's minister for women's affairs, as Qasim Yar's top deputy. Samar is a medical doctor and activist who funneled money into Afghanistan during the Taliban era to build hospitals and set up secret schools to teach girls.

With the election of the assembly leaders, the Loya Jirga now moves on to endorse a head of state. That is almost certain to be interim-administration head Hamid Karzai after the withdrawal of all of his viable rivals early this week. The delegates then address the mechanics of how the Transitional Authority will be set up, including the number of cabinet ministers and the structure of its major branches.

The current Loya Jirga has been termed by organizers and international observers as the most democratic in Afghanistan's history, despite some flaws in the election of delegates and the presence of hundreds of appointed figures.

It is also one of the most ambitious Loya Jirgas ever, tasked with discussing the full range of issues associated with forming a government able to lead the country to national elections within two years. By contrast, most past Loya Jirgas have met only to consider a few issues or to endorse a new ruler after he had seized power by force.