M. Jamil Hanifi: Editing the Past: Colonial Production of Hegemony Through the Loya Jerga in Afghanistan

Posted on July 28, 2009 by


The following article was published in Iranian Studies volume 27, issue no. 2, June 2004, pages 295-322. It has been submitted for reproduction on this blog by the author. The author is thanked for making this work openly accessible and for contributing to this project’s strong concern for the continued war of occupation of Afghanistan.

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Editing the Past: Colonial Production of Hegemony Through the “Loya Jerga” in Afghanistan(1)

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The central government of Afghanistan disintegrated in April 1992 setting in motion the collapse of the Afghan state apparatus that culminated in the occupation of the country by the armed forces of the United States in Autumn 2001. In the early days of the occupation Hamed Karzai, an expatriate Afghan, appeared surrounded by American soldiers on Western television screens as the man who was to become the American-appointed head of the future Afghan government. Shortly thereafter, the media carried a picture of a turbaned Mr. Karzai being presented a Holy Qur’an by Muhammad Zaher, the former King of Afghanistan then living in exile in Italy. The picture symbolically conveyed the approval by the aged ex-king of the anticipated appointment of young Karzai as head of the Afghan government.

On December 5, 2001 a conference attended by about thirty hand-picked expatriate Afghans—mostly descendants or otherwise members of the pre-1978 Afghan bourgeoisie—was convened in Bonn, Germany. The gathering was subsidized and controlled by the United States and allegedly coordinated by the United Nations. The Bonn conference produced a document titled “Agreement on Provisional Arrangements in Afghanistan Pending the Re-Establishment of Permanent Government Institutions.” This “Bonn Agreement” provided for an “Interim Authority” as the government of Afghanistan and its Annex IV names Hamed Karzai as the “Chairman” of this authority. The agreement stipulated the convening of an “Emergency Loya Jirga” within six months after December 22 to establish a “Transitional Authority—to lead Afghanistan until such time as a fully representative government can be elected through free and fair elections to be held no later than two years from the date of the convening of the Emergency Loya Jirga. . . A Constitutional Loya Jirga shall be convened within eighteen months of the establishment of the Transitional Authority in order to adopt a new constitution for Afghanistan. The Emergency Loya Jirga will be opened by His Majesty Mohammed Zaher, the former King of Afghanistan.”(2)

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With the occupation of Afghanistan by the United States in progress the global mass media disseminated unprecedented amounts of news and information about Afghanistan, Loya Jergas, the Kabul government, and Hamed Karzai. The Loya Jerga has been hailed in the West as a triumphant exercise in democracy and representative government; so much so that some United States government leaders and the international press have recommended its application to the political reconstitution of the state of Iraq.(3) Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations representative who produced and implemented two Loya Jergas in Afghanistan (2002 and 2003–2004), has now been assigned to construct a transitional government for Iraq. It seems as though this exotic Afghan mechanism for the production of the hegemony of the bourgeoisie has become the favorite consent-producing tool of American neocolonialism in the Middle East and Central Asia.

Euro-American scholars, local intellectuals, and politicians view the Loya Jerga as the highest source of legitimacy for the Afghan government and its policies and decisions. Other than one descriptive study of the 1941, 1955 and 1964 Loya Jergas there exists no systematic examination of this feature of the Afghan state during the past century.(4) Approached critically, the Loya Jerga has been the most important consent-producing, hegemonic prerogative of post-1919 monarchs and heads of government in Afghanistan. Antonio Gramsci’s concept of “hegemony” is used here to mean generally the practices of the dominant class, including the process through which moral and intellectual leadership, nested in civil society, extracts consent from those who are dominated.(5) The Loya Jerga is viewed here as one element in the “hegemonic apparatus” of the Afghan state. The hegemonic apparatus consists of “a complex set of institutions, ideologies, practices and agents including the ‘intellectuals’.”(6) In addition to the Loya Jerga, other components of the Afghan hegemonic apparatus, in so far as they reflected the dominant class interests in civil society, included schools and universities, museums, libraries, public celebrations of independence and religious events, government publications (newspapers, journals, and books), radio, “representative” assemblies in Kabul and provincial capitals, and Sufi and other religious networks. Central to the idea of hegemonic apparatus is ideology, which Gramsci viewed as “a conception of the world that is implicitly manifest in art, in law, in economic activity and in all manifestations

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