Loya jirga — the Afghan name for the grand council that just ended in Kabul — is not something that rolls off the Western tongue. Journalists whiling away long days while Afghanistan pondered its future suggested loya jirga sounded more like a train, or a tribal dance. But what it became was a nine-day spectacle with over 1,600 delegates, inside a large tent, including former enemies and victims of violence, doing something they had never done before: They spoke their minds, without guns.
MEMORIES OF THIS seminal Afghan event are as chaotic as the loya jirga itself — a helter-skelter mix of frustration, humor and awe. There were mind-numbing rants by some who never before expressed to a national audience their local concerns about deeper water wells, bad zoning or the need for a soccer field in their neighborhood.
There was a mix of heckling, applause, filibusters and walkouts. Despite all the predictions of a terrorist attack by al-Qaida, all in all the jirga was no more belligerent — indeed it was probably a lot more benign — than many an Israeli Knesset session, or Congressional debate in Washington.
One of the bravest moments came early on, when a delegate from the majority Pashtun ethnic group took the microphone and, pointing at the warlords that sat in the vast hall, said, “In the name of God, there are too many military men here. Is this a military meeting or an emergency loya jirga?”
Challenging warlords in public is unheard of here. But that didn’t stop a group of women delegates — their head-to-ankle burqa coverings already history — from confronting former Afghan leader Burhanuddin Rabbani during a break, berating him for killing innocent civilians in a bloody civil war in the early 1990s. Rabbani was then head of the government. It’s perhaps only a coincidence, but shortly after the “spat” with these women, he officially declined to run again for the post, swinging his support instead behind the favorite, Hamid Karzai.
GRENADES KEPT COVERED Another memorable quote came from one of the U.N. international observers, Mark Pont, who lived through the worst years of the civil war in Kabul. For nine days, he walked around the loya jirga tent, looking half-dazed.
When asked how he summed it all up, he replied, “If you had told me, on this very spot, 10 years ago that I would be witnessing a democratic election, that this guy over here (he pointed at a large bearded man in a gray turban) would be sitting in the same room as this one here (a smaller man with a moustache and no turban), and that they would be throwing invectives rather than grenades at each other, I would have called you insane.”
Robert’s Rules of Order is not required reading here in the Afghan capital. While the day-long secret ballot on Wednesday that overwhelmingly elected Karzai as transitional president of Afghanistan was the best example of following — no matter how painstakingly slow — a proper, verifiable procedure, there were plenty of silly, chaotic moments, too.
One occurred when the speaker of the Jirga, IsmailQasim Yar — who knows only the northern Dari language but not Pashto, the main tongue of southern Afghanistan — called on delegates who wanted a certain form of parliament to line up on one side of the room, while those who wanted a more proportional form, line up on the other.
Suddenly, hundreds of (Dari-speaking) Tajik and Uzbek delegates ran to one side of the tent, stunning the Pashtu-speaking delegates, who hadn’t a clue as to what was going on. Some Pashtuns, who traditionally mistrust the Dari speakers from the north, feared a conspiracy. One delegate grabbed the microphone from the speaker and cried, “This is a strike against the Pashtun nation!” A translator was quickly found and order restored.
One of the more ominous images was the sight of Islamic fundamentalist and warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, at the podium, calling on all those who wanted the new Afghanistan to be called “The Islamic State of Afghanistan” to vote with their feet. “All true Muslims, rise in agreement, in the name of God!” Sayyaf exhorted.
Everyone stood up. “What were we to do,” asked an Afghan-American delegate, already fearful of the inroads Islamic fundamentalists are making in the post-war Afghanistan.
“This sly criminal put us all on the spot. Who was going to remain seated when their Islamic faith was being challenged? Also, mysterious individuals were walking around taking photos of all of us. This was sheer intimidation.” The vote, it turned out, was non-binding.
TEARS OF JOY
My favorite moment came when I followed a doctor, elected to the jirga in a central district of Kabul, as he prepared to leave for the meeting. Wearing a snug-fitting Western suit and tie and carrying a small suitcase, he entered his 80-year-old mother’s bedroom to say goodbye. She was seated on the wooden floor, lost in thought.
When she saw him enter, she smiled. “Mother, I am saying goodbye, I am off to the loya jirga.” They hugged. Her face, full of a thousand cracks and crevasses, lit up. “I love you, my son.” And off he went, looking like a 45-year-old schoolboy on his first day of class.
But perhaps the most emotion came from an unlikely group of loya jirga commissioners — a half-dozen surly-looking Afghan men who had organized the mini-miracle of grassroots, district elections of representatives who eventually voted for the delegates in the tent.
It was during a simple, inaugural ceremony, a day before the loya jirga was officially to begin. The commissioners carried painted, wood cutouts representing Afghanistan’s disunited regions, like pieces of a puzzle, and attached them onto a large backdrop, while a children’s choir sang “Our Beautiful Homeland,” a patriotic tune.
Suddenly, in unison but clearly unscripted, the men dropped to their knees and prayed to the backdrop of their country, whole again, if only in theory, on wooden cutouts. Then they stood and huddled together, arm in arm, weeping like children. Tears of victory after 23 years of war.
Afghanistan has come so far in a little more than a week. It has a head of state, Hamid Karzai — himself a majority Pashtun — with real, representative power. He has chosen a smart, balanced cabinet that should ease tensions between ethnic tribes.
Now comes the hard part. Karzai has no real army or police force. The warlords are still out there, plotting and conniving. There is no economy, no infrastructure and worse, no commitment, yet, of massive funding from the international community.
But Karzai’s biggest challenge lies in the loya jirga’s success: Afghans themselves now have higher expectations of their government than at any time in a generation. They also have hopes, though, that can still be so easily dashed.
Jim Maceda is an NBC News correspondent based in London, currently on assignment in Afghanistan.