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Loya Jirga: 'Group Therapy' For War-Weary Afghans - 2002-06-20

Afghanistan's grand elective council, the Loya Jirga, adjourned Wednesday, after President Hamid Karzai presented his cabinet choices. The Loya Jirga was a sometimes-chaotic meeting, as Afghans grappled with issues large and small. Some tangible goals may not have been achieved, but after years of war and unrest, the intangibles emerging from the meeting may have been just as important.

Weighing the success or failure of the Loya Jirga depends on your perspective. Interviews with more than two dozen delegates and observers produced mixed reviews.

One view is that it failed as decision-making body, deciding Afghanistan's future. In nine days, the Loya Jirga elected Hamid Karzai president, but could not agree on a formula for an interim parliament and was not allowed any say in Mr. Karzai's cabinet choices. According to the Bonn Agreement signed last year, all three issues were under the purview of the Loya Jirga.

The Karzai government now will have 18 months to try to forge a national consensus on a wide range of issues, while a new constitution is drafted in preparation for elections.

Alex Thier, an international observer at the council for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, believes many delegates will take a negative message back home and that may hurt Mr. Karzai's ability to forge that consensus.

"They're going to say that the government was indifferent to them. And, that's message, unfortunately, that they're going to carry back to the local people, that this is not really a government that they selected fully on their own. And, I think, ultimately, that's going to affect the ability of this government to sew this country back together. It's weakened that ability," Mr. Thier said.

The council was also marred by the heavy presence of warlords who had destroyed much of Kabul and the rest of the country, in recent years. There were also numerous complaints of intimidation of delegates.

Delegates complained the Loya Jirga became bogged down on trivial issues and was little more than a "talk shop" for a string of speeches made while real decisions were being hammered out, elsewhere.

But delegate Gulbandan Habibi said the Loya Jirga functioned as kind of a "group therapy" for Afghan people. "After 23 years of war in a country, not only the infrastructure is destroyed, but also the soul of people has been damaged. And, that takes some time. I think that will take longer than building the physical infrastructure of the country. And I think for that we need occasions like this so people can get their feelings out, their anger out and their frustrations out. It makes you frustrated in a way, but I think it's really necessary," Mr. Habibi said.

Many delegates say the greatest achievement of the Loya Jirga was more intangible. For many years, Afghans have been divided along ethnic or tribal lines. War and civil unrest prevented them talking to each other. But under the cavernous Loya Jirga tent they were talking instead of fighting; learning about each other rather than shooting each other.

Delegate Omar Zakhilwal has been one of the most outspoken critics of this Loya Jirga. In fact, he refuses to characterize the meeting as a Loya Jirga, referring to it as a "grand gathering." But, he says it did promote strong feelings of unity.

"Actually, the national unity was exercised to the fullest at this grand gathering. And that was quite a positive thing. We've heard quite a bit about ethnic divisions, linguistic divisions, in Afghanistan, and different types of divisions. And, what this grand gathering proved is that we do not have those divisions. We are a united nation. We are a very united country. The problem is not the people. The problem is not ethnicity. The problem is not language. The problem is not religious. The problem is the people who control us," Mr. Zakhilwal said.

As nearly every delegate interviewed said, the Loya Jirga was, to varying degrees, flawed. But, they said it started a process, toward what they hope finally be a stable and truly democratic Afghanistan.