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Monday, 1 October, 2001, 13:54 GMT 14:54 UK
Afghanistan's traditional forum of debate
A centuries-old tradition unique to Afghanistan
By BBC Eurasia analyst Malcolm Haslett

There are increasing calls from leading Afghan politicians, including the exiled king Zahir Shah, for the summoning of a Loya Jirga, or Grand Council of tribal chiefs, intellectuals and religious leaders, to discuss the country's future.

The Loya Jirga is a centuries-old institution unique to Afghanistan which would bring together representatives of all the main ethnic groups.

The words Loya Jirga mean literally Grand Assembly, and in recent decades they have been made up of hundreds of delegates from all over Afghanistan.

These meetings have been going on for centuries.

Perhaps the most famous one took place in 1747 when a nine-day assembly of Pashtun tribal chiefs in the southern city of Kandahar elected as king Ahmad Shah Durrani, the man who founded the state of Afghanistan.

Since then there were frequent Loya Jirgas up to the overthrow of the last king, Zahir Shah, in 1973.

United forum

Similar in concept to the Islamic "shura" or consultative assembly, the Loya Jirga has been used over the years to settle inter-tribal disputes, discuss social reforms and in 1924 to approve a new constitution.

Zahir Shah
Zahir Shah is at the centre of calls for a Loya Jirga
Now ex-king Zahir Shah is the focus for calls for a new Loya Jirga.

With the whole future of the Taleban regime in question, he says, it's the one forum in which all Afghans - Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras and Uzbeks, Sunnis and Shiites - can come together and thrash out decisions which will carry authority all over the country.

Though all parties, including the Taleban, would be invited to the proposed Loya Jirga, it's extremely doubtful whether the Taleban leadership would attend.

But some elements within the broad Taleban movement are said to support the idea.

About 20 tribal elders from the Taleban-held regions are reported to have crossed into Pakistan last week for discussions with Afghan exiles in the city of Quetta.

Given the past history of intense rivalries in Afghanistan, it is a big question, of course, whether even a Loya Jirga could find a consensus.

But there is an overall weariness of war, and a growing acceptance that the Taleban, who promised to unify the country under their rule, have failed to do this.

See also:

23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan opposition 'gaining ground'
23 Sep 01 | South Asia
Afghan ex-king offers his services
27 Sep 01 | South Asia
Analysis: Afghanistan's future
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