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What could a 'loya jirga' look like under the Taliban?

For centuries, Afghans have held grand assemblies to debate major decisions

taliban-members-reuters1 Taliban members pose for a photograph in Kabul, Afghanistan, September 4, 2021 | WANA (West Asia News Agency) via Reuters

Consultative. It is a new word and an entirely new idea for the Taliban. But even as an organisation steeped in a very orthodox and medieval interpretation of Islam, it is trying in its new avatar to change with the times and adopt a vocabulary that is more acceptable with the democratic world.

According to reports, the Taliban plan to form a "consultative" government in the long term. It is also planning to hold a "loya jirga" within the next six to eight months. A loya jirga is a very typical gathering of leaders in Afghanistan, held to decide upon an important matter. In India, a similar type of gathering is the mahapanchayat.

For the Taliban to even consider diluting its form of governance is a very big step. And perhaps not all its members are on board with these modern decisions. Observers say the delay in announcing its government formation could be indicative of the divisions within, among moderates. Already, one can see differences in statements: While one leader says that Kashmir is not their mandate, another says that Taliban will work for all Muslims in the world, including Kashmir.

The interim government which is likely to be formed in the coming days, is being planned on traditional lines, composed solely of Taliban members with a Shura of 12 scholars. The Taliban have already made appointments of governors and other posts in the provinces and locals say that these positions have gone to religious scholars who they fear will know little about modern-day administrations.

As the new Taliban tries to evolve, it will find itself in several intrinsic contradictions. One of them is its own identity. Taliban leaders say they are representative of the Afghan people. Taliban cadres, however, are largely Pashtun, while Afghanistan itself is a beautiful mosaic of several ethnicities including Tajiks, Uzbeks, Turks and Hazaras, as well as Hindus, Sikhs and a smattering of Christians. But the Taliban have not been benevolent towards minorities in the past.

Another identity conflict is whether they are more Islamic or more Pashtun and whether these identities are the same or there are differences. The loya jirga is one of these points of deliberation. While it is largely a Pashtun tradition, the Taliban have so far kept away from participating in such general assemblies. In the past, it preferred to be guided by its strict interpretation of Islam, eschewing local tradition. In its previous stint in power, it had the Shura, which is a consultative council too, but of Islamic scholars only. A loya jirga on the other hand, is more representative of various groups.

For Afghan people on the other hand, the loya jirga is a very important event to take decisions which have an impact on their lives. In modern day Afghanistan, this tribal custom has evolved to be representative of minorities, and even women (since 2002). The country's last loya jirga in 2020 was a very important one, paving the way for peace talks with the Taliban.

At that point in the negotiations, the Taliban had demanded the release of 400 prisoners. These were hardened prisoners and it was beyond the powers of the President of Afghanistan to release them. So, he took recourse to the traditional method for deciding matters, and a loya jirga of 3,200 people, representing different sections of society, sat together to take the decision. These members were not democratically elected representatives, but were selected from within the civil society, and was a showcase of how Afghanistan can move ahead with democratic norms while also keeping its traditional and tribal customs. Of course, there was enough pressure from the US to order the release, so the decision was not really an independent one. Yet, it was at least a showcase of representation.

Afghans have resorted to loya jirga consultations for major decisions in their history. Hamid Karzai was endorsed as President by one such assembly after the fall of the Taliban. Way back in 1747, Ahmed Shah Abdali, too, was anointed as king after being endorsed by a loya jirga.

Not every loya jirga decision has stood its ground, nor has every loya jirga seen unanimous approval. In fact, there have been enough criticisms of representations in these assemblies, and also of the fact that they were extra-constitutional consultative entities. However, the fact that they were still convened meant that for Afghans, it was an important part of their tradition, one that could be tweaked to suit demands of changing times.

What will a Taliban loya jirga look like? Time will tell. That is, if Taliban actually get around to convening one.

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