Afghanistan's Loya Jirga: Q&A

Afghan men walk near a registration area for the Loya Jirga, in Kabul Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Many Afghan MPs and the entire opposition say they will boycott the jirga

An assembly of around 2,500 Afghan elders and notables called to discuss a long-awaited bilateral security agreement with the United States wants the deal with the US to be signed this year.

President Hamid Karzai, who summoned the assembly - or Loya Jirga - would rather the deal were signed later, once US forces have brought peace to the country. The US itself sees no reason to delay the agreement.

The Loya Jirga is also focusing on whether to grant immunity from prosecution to US troops after they end formal combat operations in Afghanistan next year.

This is a matter of continuing controversy in Afghanistan, as is the convocation of the jirga itself.

Is the Loya Jirga a law-making body?

No. The Afghan constitution of 2003 does allow for a Loya Jirga, made up of both houses of parliament and elected heads of regional administrations, with the power to amend the constitution, impeach the president and decide matters of national sovereignty.

But the assembly that gathers for four days from 21 November is merely a consultative Loya Jirga, and has the right only to advise.

Can this consultative Loya Jirga veto the bilateral security agreement?

No. Even jirga chairman Sibghatullah Mojadeddi says the president has the right to sign the agreement without consulting it, although its advice will be sent to parliament for consideration.

President Karzai says he called the Loya Jirga because the security agreement is a matter of national importance, and a similar gathering agreed to the strategic partnership accord with the United States back in 2011.

Who is attending?

The jirga organisers say Muslim clerics, as well as representatives of the professions, members of parliament, merchants and nomads, will attend, adding that a quarter of the seats are reserved for women.

Many members of parliament and the entire opposition say they will boycott proceedings. The main armed groups - the Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami - are also opposed, although jirga organisers say some members of Hezb-e-Islami will attend.

Why are these groups boycotting the jirga?

The Taliban and Hezb-e-Islami are opposed to the bilateral security agreement on principle, and the Taliban have threatened to kill jirga delegates who endorse the security agreement.

Some MPs think the jirga is a presidential attempt to undermine the authority of parliament, and opposition critics like Maulana Farid accuse President Karzai of trying to solve 21st-Century problems through a "traditional, archaic and unlawful 19th-Century process".

How does the jirga work?

After an opening session, the four-day sitting of the jirga broke up into smaller discussion groups. These in turn convened to propose their detailed recommendations to the full jirga, for consideration by the president and parliament.

What must it decide?

One of the main issues to be determined by delegates is whether US troops should be tried in the US or in Afghanistan for crimes committed on Afghan territory. If no deal is reached on jurisdiction the US says it will pull all of its soldiers out after 2014, with massive consequences for security and aid.

There have also been last minute talks between Afghan and US officials on a second outstanding issue - whether to allow US troops forcibly to enter Afghan homes in pursuit of suspects.

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