(The article was originally published by India Today on July 9, 2022. Views expressed are personal.)
Loya Jirga or Grand Assembly of religious leaders and elders, elected at the local levels, is the Afghan traditional democratic assembly system, in vogue for several centuries. In the Afghan political system, ratification by the Loya Jirga was considered mandatory for any government to gain legitimacy in the eyes of the Afghan people.
The last time that the Jirga was held was in the middle of June 2002, at the height of the US retaliatory strikes on Al Qaida hideouts in and around the Afghan hills. After disposing of the one-eyed Mullah Omar’s regime in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the US and its Western allies installed an interim administration in Afghanistan under the leadership of Hamid Karzai. That administration needed the approval of the Jirga for functioning as a legitimate government.
When the Jirga was finally called in June 2002, there surfaced two other candidates besides Karzai to compete for the presidentship of the government. Zahir Shah, the erstwhile king of Afghanistan, who was living in Rome, returned to Kabul to stake his claim. Former President Burhanuddin Rabbani too threw his hat in the ring. The US Special Representative Zalmay Khalilzad used his skill and manoeuvring to force the other two to withdraw and get Karzai supported unopposed at the Jirga.
2002 Jirga saw the participation of women scholars for the first time in history, with Mahboba Hoqomal, a lecturer in a local college nominated as the deputy chair of the Jirga. But it came under criticism for manipulation in the nomination of scholars by the ‘occupational powers’ and the warlords.
After two decades, another such congregation was called in Kabul in early June. This time it was the Taliban who called the congregation. Like the previous government, this Taliban regime too thought it prudent to get the stamp of approval of the religious elders for its governance. While the Jirga in 2002 was attended by 2000 scholars, the numbers were as high as 4500 this time.
The Taliban, though, did not call this congregation a Jirga. Instead, it was described as a scholars’ conference. It was probably to please the more radical and puritanical elements within its own ranks as well as terror groups like Daesh and ISKP, which considered the traditional Jirga institution as un-Islamic since it was not a part of the scheme of things that Allah had revealed.
The elusive supreme leader of the Taliban, Haibatullah Akhundzada, made a rare appearance at the so-called scholars’ conference, which is not really a scholars conference, or the Loya Jirga, which is not one either.
The conference declared the Taliban regime as Islami Nizam, granting religious sanction. It also extended the oath of allegiance to the Emir, Akhundzada. On the domestic front, it called armed rebellion against the regime “haram” or religiously forbidden. This was clearly directed at the rebellion that Ahmed Masood and Amrullah Saleh were waging from the Panjshir Valley. Amrullah had earlier announced a government in exile too. Now, the conference has declared it haram.
On the international front, it belligerently asked international powers to not meddle in Afghanistan’s affairs. It demanded the international sanctions be lifted and called upon the countries of the world to restore diplomatic relations with Afghanistan “on the basis of mutual respect and principle of non-interference”.
On an issue that was attracting global opprobrium for the Taliban, the conference took a surprisingly conciliatory line. It called upon the government to work towards building modern education that takes care of women’s and children’s educational rights, albeit with a rider, “in the light of the Sharia”. Going by the fact that the conference was an enactment of the Taliban with handpicked scholars and elders, this must be considered a small, yet noticeable progress.
Mullah Abdul Salam Zaeef, former Afghan ambassador to Pakistan, who spent time at Guantanamo Bay, was present at the conference. He claimed that a special committee was constituted to look into women’s education. There was no opposition in principle, although there were differences about the methods and meaning of it, he claimed. Given that educational access to girls was prohibited by the Taliban beyond the primary level, this could give some hope to them.
While the role of the other three was more political, India has limited its role always to humanitarian and developmental assistance. Indian officials, who visited Kabul last month, held deliberations with Taliban officials on those issues only.
Ten months after its violent take over of Kabul, the Taliban still fails to convince many in the world about its legitimacy. A large part of its government is controlled by a proxy of Pakistan the Haqqani Network. Democracy is a far cry; it even refuses to revive Afghan traditional institutions like the Loya Jirga, for the fear of Islamic extremists. While the conference made some noises about minorities, women and children, all three sections continue to face rough treatment in the country. Importantly, not a single woman participant was allowed to attend the scholars’ conference.
An Afghan commentator, nevertheless, called the conference the Rubicon moment for the Taliban. “The die is cast”, he proclaimed repeating Caesar’s words on the banks of the Rubicon river, meaning, the change is inevitable now.
Is the Taliban changing? Pessimists and hyper-realists still insist that it’s like a tiger changing its stripes (which never happens).