Leadership: Afghanistan Discovers Spin


December 4, 2011: The traditional national council of Afghanistan, the Loya Jirga, is under attack. President Karzai of Afghanistan is being accused of exploiting an ancient tradition for his own personal gain. Nothing new in Afghanistan these days, but Karzai seems to getting away with it and is using the Loya Jirga to push his personal agenda, not just to deal with national problems.

Until recently, Loya Jirgas were rarely called. On average, over the last four centuries, a Loya Jirga was called about once every fifty years, at least until the 1970s. Since then 13 have been held. Loya Jirga literally means "Grand Council" because the idea of anything "national" is relatively recent in Central Asia. The Loya Jirga was a meeting of the major tribes in the region, to discuss matters of mutual interest, and attempt to settle major disputes and create new alliances. The kingdom of Afghanistan was created via Loya Jirga, where the major tribes in what is now Afghanistan agreed to appoint someone king. This monarch was not an absolute ruler of the area, just a figurehead to deal with foreigners and help arrange peace talks among tribes. It was a Loya Jirga that got rid of the monarchy and replaced it with an elected president.

In November, 2001, right after the Taliban had been driven out, the former king of Afghanistan announced that he would to call the Loya Jirga (grand assembly) to form a new government. In June, the Loya Jirga was held and appointed Hamid Karzai interim president. Another Loya Jirga was held in late 2003 to approve a new constitution. When elections were held in 2004, Karzai was elected to the job he still holds. Now Karzai is using his power (inherited from the monarchy) to call Loya Jirgas to get some favorable publicity, and schmooze several thousand of his favorite tribal leaders.

Loya Jirgas were called so many times in the past 40 years because the present had caught up with Afghanistan. By the 1970s, radio and other battery powered electronics (like cassette players) spread all over the world, along with radio equipped cars and trucks. Afghanistan was no longer such an isolated place, and the new ideas caused much dissent and strife. More Loya Jirgas were needed to try and maintain unity. Karzai has taken the concept one step further and is picking the individuals to attend. The latest one, a four day extravaganza in Kabul, consisted of 2,300 Karzai loyalists from all parts of the country, selected to ensure that what Karzai proposed, received approval from the Loya Jirga. Everyone had a good time, and security was very tight. Good security made it the best good time of all in ultra-violent Afghanistan.

This was not the way it was supposed to work. The Loya Jirga developed thousands of years ago, when travel was difficult, and getting the rulers together to work out mutual, and sometimes complex, problems, required a great deal of effort and planning. With cell phones available all over the country, and satellite phones for the most remote areas, no leaders are unreachable on short notice. While face-to-face meeting are important (you can "see" what people are saying), often a phone call will get the job done.

But nothing is wasted in a poor place like Afghanistan. The ancient Loya Jirga has been recast as a political junket and media event. But with so many ancient customs being cast aside or recycled, hardly anyone noticed that it had happened to the Loya Jirga as well. Afghanistan has discovered "spin" (the ability to turn anything into a useful media event.)


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