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Afghanistan: Nation Looks To Loya Jirga For Post-Taliban Future

As many exiled Afghans wish for the Taliban's collapse, they are pinning their hopes on former King Zahir Shah's promise to return to Afghanistan. The former king and the Northern Alliance have agreed to hold a traditional Afghan national assembly -- a Loya Jirga -- to form a new and broad-based interim government. But as RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel reports from Pakistan, forming a Loya Jirga may be no easy task.

Peshawar, Pakistan; 6 November 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Over the centuries, the Loya Jirga has been Afghanistan's traditional legal instrument for giving new rulers -- who often took power by force -- popular legitimacy.

The assembly historically would gather tribal, ethnic, and religious leaders together as the generally agreed-upon representatives of the people. And those leaders would then express a consensus that a new monarch was acceptable and should be obeyed.

The system has worked well enough that in more recent times it also has been adapted to legitimize many of the succession of non-royal leaders who have taken power since Afghanistan's last king, Zahir Shah, was deposed in 1973.

Such a constant role in Afghanistan's political history explains why holding a new Loya Jirga is one of the first things on the minds of Zahir Shah and his allies as they hope to return to Afghanistan in place of the Taliban.

The ex-king cut a power-sharing deal with the Northern Alliance in early October, setting up a council to convene a Loya Jirga. Under the deal, the ex-king's camp and the Northern Alliance each agreed to nominate 50 representatives to a 120-member Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan, with the 20 remaining seats to be filled jointly.

The council is charged with arranging for the Loya Jirga that, in turn, is to elect a broad-based interim administration from among the council's members. Finally, that interim administration is to prepare for popular national elections at a later date to form a government.

The Northern Alliance announced on 4 November that it has chosen its 60 representatives to the council. The alliance and the ex-king's camp hope to meet in Turkey early this month to agree on a final list of all 120 names. Already, the process of naming the people who will convene the Loya Jirga is proving to be lengthy. But deciding on who will actually be members of the Loya Jirga itself is likely to be even more difficult. That is because -- after decades of political turmoil in Afghanistan -- it is no longer easy to determine exactly who should take part in a Loya Jirga.

To learn more about the challenges, our correspondent spoke to Sayed Fida Yunas, a Pakistani Pashtun who spent 22 years as a Pakistani diplomat in Afghanistan. He later retired in the northwest Pakistani city of Peshawar -- also home to large numbers of Afghan refugees -- to write five books regarding Afghan politics and society.

Yunas says the traditional type of Loya Jirga -- that is, a meeting of tribal elders -- could be difficult to re-create today. He says the last such traditional meeting was held in 1964 when times were simpler and the eligible elders were known to everybody. But most of those people now are very old or dead, meaning new decisions must be reached regarding who else might be eligible candidates.

Yunas says those decisions are likely to be difficult because there are a number of competing -- and sometimes conflicting -- precedents to consider. Many of them are enshrined in Afghanistan's various constitutions that, from 1964 forward, tinkered incessantly with just what the makeup of a Loya Jirga should be.

Sayed Fida Yunas says: "The convening of a Loya Jirga is not an easy affair these days. Before 1964, the Jirgas were held in a different manner. The elders were known. The tribal structure was well-known. But in 1964, the Loya Jirga became a part of the constitution, and a set procedure was laid down in the constitution of 1964."

He continues: "Similarly, another procedure was laid down in the 1977 constitution. In 1986, [then-President] Najibullah laid down some different composition of the Jirga. And in the 1990 constitution, the composition was again somewhat different."

The tinkering with the assembly's composition ranged from the 1964 constitution, which made all members of parliament automatically members of the Loya Jirga, to the 1977 constitution, which called for workers and laborers to also be included. The 1977 constitution came four years after Afghanistan's monarchy ended in the deposition of Zahir Shah by his cousin Sardar Mohammed Daud, with the aid of leftist army officers.

With so many models of Loya Jirgas to consider, the task of choosing one -- or creating another -- is now likely to be a major preoccupation for the Zahir Shah camp and the Northern Alliance.

Yunas says: "They will have to devise some means as to what qualifications, what type of criteria should be laid down for the members of the Loya Jirga. [These] things will have to be sorted out jointly by the council formed by Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance."

But the challenge may not end there. According to Yunas: "[The other] very difficult question is where they are going to hold the Loya Jirga. No Loya Jirga has so far been held outside Afghanistan. But inside Afghanistan, they have to have some place where they can hold a Loya Jirga, and how that is possible still remains to be seen."

The Northern Alliance has repeatedly said it can guarantee the safety of a Loya Jirga held in the less than 10 percent of Afghanistan it now controls. But it is uncertain how Afghanistan's Pashtun majority would react to a Loya Jirga held by the various Northern Alliance groups, whose members are mostly made up of Afghanistan's ethnic minority populations of Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Hazaras.

In jointly announcing the creation of their Supreme Council for the National Unity of Afghanistan last month in Rome, the representatives of Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance said that if a place in Afghanistan cannot be found, they would consider taking the exceptional step of forming an interim government without holding the assembly.

However, such a step might risk undermining the perceived legitimacy of the interim government -- just when it may need all the popular authority it can muster to maintain any post-Taliban order.

That may mean the political process that Zahir Shah and the Northern Alliance began in Rome last month will be a long and contentious one, with plenty of occasions for bitter rivalries to surface.

But experienced Afghanistan watchers like Yunas say that as long as the various anti-Taliban parties are talking -- not fighting -- there is reason for optimism that such talk can lead to rebuilding the nation.

The political process surrounding former monarch Zahir Shah, living in Rome, takes place as U.S.-led strikes continue to target Taliban front-line positions around Kabul and the northern city of Mazar-i-Sharif. U.S. officials say the ruling militia is suffering substantial losses of men and material but have refrained from predicting if or when it might be toppled from power.