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AREU Synthesis Paper Series

Question: selected by?

Who are

these decision-makers

Answer: They have become our leaders and elders by their own power and relations to higher authorities...They have a large number of relatives and supporters, therefore they are governing the village.

  • Male teacher, semi-urban Nangarhar

It appears that while decision-making by consensus— sometimes labelled “assembly democracy”80 by scholars—is an ostensible way of preventing conflict, it can be used to bolster existing powerholders and exclude those outside their family or patronage networks. In more recent years (for example as a result of the violent removal of traditional elders during the Soviet regime), positions of leadership have been forcibly taken by military commanders

or strongmen, whose legitimacy communities is questionable.



Questions of how to “scale up” consensus politics also present a major challenge. While fines or community pressure can ensure that opposing parties comply with decisions made by community shuras at a local level, these mechanisms cannot provide the same guarantee when it comes to national politics. Different religious and ethnic groups may consider compromises made by leaders in the name of consensus as a dangerous strategy of interaction with other groups whose agendas they do not trust. This was certainly the case in 2006, when Hazara leader Mohammad Mohaaqqeq’s decision to align with Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf—a long-standing enemy of many within the Hazara group—led to the alienation of a number of Mohaqqeq’s supporters.81 The likelihood of this kind of alienation taking place is even greater given that very few if any mechanisms exist to promote the downward accountability of leaders to their group members.

These pitfalls suggest that the legitimacy and efficacy of consensus-based dispute resolution mechanisms


Keane, Life and Death, xv.

81 Niamatullah Ibrahimi, “The Dissipation of Political Capital Among Afghanistan’s Hazaras: 2001-2009” (London: London School of Economics Crisis States Research Centre, 2009), 12-13.


are not quite as clear-cut as they initially appear. Nevertheless, they are often romanticised by international actors who have sought to engage with local shuras in a number of development contexts, or in some cases attempted to create new shuras assigned to a particular project. 82 This is possibly a result of the relative success of the National Solidarity Programme (NSP) model, which other actors have sought to emulate. However, such efforts also form part of a broader effort by international actors since the beginning of the Bonn Process to combine “traditional” methods of decision making with liberal democratic institutions. Examples include the convening of the Emergency and then Constitutional loya jirgas (grand councils), and in the inclusion of a loya jirga in the Afghan constitution as the only means through which the constitution could be amended. This attempted combination of “old” and “new” practices has previously been noted as problematic by commentators—to the extent that one observer of the Afghan parliament elected in 1969 considered the merging of these traditions a critical hindrance to the efficacy of the legislature as a decision-making body:

In essence the jirgah practice rests on informalit , equalit , and free expression, the very qualities that tend, if uncontrolled, to sap legislative effectiveness. Indeed, the cardinal defect of the Afghan parliament, more notably the lower house, is the refusal of legislators to relinquish the spirit of the tribal jirgah. 83

In essence, a confused mixture of both old and new practices has emerged, in which institutions appear superficially aligned with the constructs of liberal democracy but function on a day to day basis according to an entirely different set of rules. Furthermore, the “traditional” quality of the loya jirga in particular as an Afghan institution is also questionable. As Thomas Barfield notes, the practice of using loya jirgas to select leaders

82 Not

Shahmahmood a Government

Miakhel and Noah Coburn (2010) ‘Many Shuras Do Make: International Community Engagement with

Local Councils in Afghanistan” (Washington, DC: United States Institute for Peace, 2010), http://www.usip.org/publications/many-shuras-do- not-government-make-international-community-engagement-local-

councils-in-af 1 (accessed 21 April, 2010).







Democracy,” Journal of Developing Areas 7, no. 3 (1972), 64.

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