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Loya Jirga -- An Afghan Tradition Explained

President Hamid Karzai (second from right) attends a Loya Jjirga gathering of tribal and political leaders in 2011.
A traditional gathering of Afghan tribal elders, religious figures, and political leaders, will meet in Kabul this week to rule on a draft security pact with the United States. RFE/RL explains what a Loya Jirga is, its history, and its place in the Afghan political system.

What is a Loya Jirga?

A Loya Jirga, or "grand council" in Pashto, is a mass national gathering that brings together representatives from the various ethnic, religious, and tribal communities in Afghanistan.

The Loya Jirga is a centuries-old institution that has been convened at times of national crisis or to settle national issues. Historically, it has been used to approve a new constitution, declare war, choose a new king, or to make sweeping social or political reforms.

How much power does it have?

According to the Afghan Constitution, a Loya Jirga is considered the "highest expression" of the Afghan people.

But it is not an official decision-making body. Its decisions are not legally binding and any verdict it hands out must be approved by the two houses of the Afghan parliament and the president in order for it to be made official.

Unofficially, however, the Loya Jirga's decision is seen as final, with the president and parliament expected to respect the ruling.

What happens at a Loya Jirga?

Afghan President Hamid Karzai will open proceedings on November 21 by addressing the gathering. Delegates then choose a chairman to lead the Loya Jirga.

The 2,500 delegates will then be separated into 17 subcommittees. Each subcommittee will debate a clause in the 32-page proposed security pact. The subcommittee can revise or reject any clause of the draft document.

ALSO READ: Loya Jirga To Decide Whether U.S. Troops Stay Or Go

Each subcommittee's recommendations are sent to the chairman, who then reads them out to the whole gathering. A vote is then taken by all delegates with a show of hands. When a majority signals its approval, the clause is passed.

How are members chosen?

The process can vary. In the past few gatherings, each district in the country votes for one person to represent them. Further seats are allocated for every 20,000 residents. A certain number of seats are reserved for women, refugees, nomads, and members of civil society.

This time around, the Loya Jirga was handpicked by the Preparation Loya Jirga Commission. Members of the commission were picked by President Karzai.

The commission has not released a list of participants. But delegates must be at least 25 years old and cannot have been convicted or even accused of any crimes.

What about previous Loya Jirgas?

The most famous gathering took place in 1747, when Pashtun tribal leaders met in the city of Kandahar to elect a king. After nine days of debate, they chose Ahmad Shah Durrani, the man who founded Afghanistan.

Afghan King Amanullah Khan convened a Loya Jirga in 1928 to win support for sweeping social reforms. In an effort to convince the gathering of the need for modernization, Queen Soraya removed her veil, but the action backfired and prompted an uprising that led to the king's overthrow.

In 2002, an Emergency Loya Jirga was held after the overthrow of the Taliban. It elected Karzai as head of the transitional administration. It was the first time women took part in a Loya Jirga.

The last Loya Jirga to be held was in 2012, when the gathering voted in support of a Strategic Partnership Agreement with the United States.
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    Frud Bezhan

    Frud Bezhan is the editor for Afghanistan, Iran, and Pakistan in the Central Newsroom at RFE/RL. Previously, he was a correspondent and reported from Afghanistan, Kosovo, and Turkey. Prior to joining RFE/RL in 2011, he worked as a freelance journalist in Afghanistan and contributed to several Australian newspapers, including The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.