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Teaching The World Since 1945


Inter-disciplinary Approaches to World History: Using A Jirga to Teach the History of Afghanistan

James Bradford


     When teaching world history courses we want our students to have a vision that transcends conventional national and regional narratives. We want our students to see broad and global connections between events and processes. We want them to think and act globally. That is, of course, one of the main, if not the main, objective of a world history course. However, one of the greatest challenges as an academic teaching a world history course is that the detail and the nuance that we strive to uncover in our own research is, more often than not, absent in our classroom.

     This can be not only monotonous, but also problematic. I learned this at a very early stage in my academic career. My first semester teaching as graduate student, I outlined to my students the expectations for their research paper due at the end of the semester for a course I designed, called The History of the CIA in Asia. After class, I was approached by an undergrad that wanted to write a paper about the tribal group the terrorists and their war on America. The student was followed by another who wanted to write a paper about how Osaka Bin Laden had become the leader of Afghanistan. After I regained my wits (and my faith in humanity), I realized that these students were not intellectually challenged, but rather, they simply had no real knowledge or understanding of these topics. What they knew, or thought they knew, was largely a product of the consumption of poorly informed, myopic media. More important, I started to recognize that, in this instance, students lacked the nuanced, detailed understanding needed to fully comprehend certain topics.

     As a professor specializing in the history of Afghanistan, I felt compelled to find a way to allow students to see how popular topics such as the War on Terror and Afghanistan could be better explained through careful attention to both the history of Afghanistan and its dynamic political culture. I decided that teaching students about the jirga (council), a traditional meeting of adult males to solve a variety of disputes in rural Afghanistan, as well as employing it in the classroom, could provide a nuanced glimpse of the history of the region. In addition, it could give students a better sense of how politics functioned in rural Afghanistan through an interdisciplinary approach.

Figure 1
  Figure 1: The concept of jirga as a tool for teaching world history. This image shows a loya jirga in Kabul, Afghanistan, November 21, 2013. ABC News  

     Teaching about and employing the jirga as a classroom tool not only gives students the opportunity to better understand historical and current political dynamics in Afghanistan: they also see how the jirga is vital to how rural/ tribal communities make social, political, and economic decisions (often in the absence of, or instead of, a formal state institution). In addition, they see how the jirga functions as an important forum for issues between rural/tribal authorities and national government, and also for issues of concern to a world history class (i.e. the mujahideen, the Taliban, etc.). The jirga also forces students to reexamine how they conceptualize their own ideas of governance by recognizing how the jirga, as an inherently democratic and egalitarian socio-political system, relates to other democratic institutions and practices more recognizable to them.

     Ultimately, the jirga is not only useful: it is fun. It injects life and pedagogical variation into a world history course (or any course for that matter) that serves to not only educate but to illuminate the critically understudied and misunderstood history and culture of Afghanistan.

The Jirga: What is it?

The jirga is, in many ways, the foundation of rural life in Afghanistan (as well as parts of Pakistan). The jirga originates from the Pashto language, and commonly refers to the meeting of large groups of Pashtun tribesmen.1 This is largely a reflection of the ritual and process of Pashtun traditions where "people gather and sit in a large circle in order to resolve disputes and make collective decisions about important social issues."2 The jirga functions according to the dictates of Pashtunwali, the code of conduct that guides all aspects of individual and collective Pashtun behavior, and supersedes both Islamic and state government principles.3 As Ali Wardak states, the " jirga has over the centuries, operated as an important mechanism of conflict resolution among the Pashtuns, and has contributed to the maintenance of social order in the rest of the Afghan society both in direct and indirect ways." 4

     The jirga, although defined as a Pashtun construct, is similar in most purposes and functions to the non-Pashtun shura. For Afghan Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks, the shura is "a group of individuals which meets only in response to a specific need in order to decide how to meet the need. In most cases, this need is to resolve a conflict between individuals, families, groups of families, or whole tribes."5 Both the shura and jirga are informal political mechanisms of non-state conflict resolution that are integral components of life in rural Afghanistan.6

     There are three types of jirgas, all of which indicate the ubiquity of this Afghan system, and also some of which indicate how this rural political practice has been adopted and transcribed into the national political forum. The maraka is the lowest level of the jirga. It operates primarily on the village level, largely as a space for kinship groups on a sub-tribal level to mediate disputes. The village is comprised of several plarina (large familial groups). At this level, it is pashtunwali that generally determines individual behavior and social relationships.7 One of the most important components of the maraka is the prikra, or ruling. The prikra is essential for the jirga to either investigate a dispute or to provide a forum for a conflict to be resolved between parties. Usually a village elder or authority serves as the judge in this case. But the manner in which judgment is delivered and received is important to all individuals involved. Should the recipient of a ruling reject it, they may be forced to pay a fine, or even be boycotted from the village (a death knell in a society which places a high premium on individual honor and social respectability). Conversely, a party may reject the ruling as long as they have the support of the community. In this case the individual ruling on the case would lose respect, legitimacy, and inevitably, authority.8

     The qawmi jirga, or tribal jirga, functions in a similar manner to the maraka, however, it usually deals with more severe issues within a tribe (murder, disputes over land) or between tribes. Because the qawmi jirga operates at a higher level than the maraka, the importance of social organization is more apparent. Authority figures carry more political and social clout, and more clearly embody the core tenets of pashtunwali.9 Pashtunwali demands that:

Group survival is its primary imperative. It demands vengeance against injury or insult to one's kin, chivalry and hospitality toward the helpless and unarmed strangers, bravery in battle, and openness and integrity in individual behavior. Much honor is given to Pashtuns who can successfully arbitrate the feuds that are endemic among them. Fines and blood money are devices frequently used to limit violence among rival families. Pashtunwali is a code that limits anarchy among a fractious but vital people.10

Although social hierarchies are established in the qawmi jirga, it is still designed to encourage a sense of equality. Prikra functions in a similar manner as in maraka, however the stakes are higher given the broader scope.11

     The last of the levels is the loya jirga (grand council). It has historically functioned as a grand meeting of tribal elders and authorities to discuss "vital national issues and make important collective decisions."12 The perceived legitimacy of the loya jirga, particularly in view of the national government or monarchs, has hinged on the legitimacy of those leaders comprising the loya jirga itself. If the men attending seem to acknowledge its importance, so too do the people (in most cases, at least).13 The loya jirga represents an important political function in Afghanistan. It is where the local and national needs, wants, and ambitions clash or coalesce. More important, for students, it is where local and global problems can become visible.

How has the jirga (especially the loya jirga) functioned historically in Afghanistan?

Historically, the loya jirga has reflected how rulers tried to gain legitimacy from rural tribal authorities. There are several cases in which the loya jirga served to legitimize national rulers, polices, or movements among the rural populace. Probably the first case was the loya jirga called in 1747 to galvanize the various Pashtun tribes in support of Ahmad Shah Durrani, which subsequently led to the creation of the Durrani Empire.14 Important as the jirga has been, its power should not be overemphasized: although it has functioned to give tribal men a voice, power through wealth still affects the role and legitimacy of the jirga. Ahmad Shah was given power from the jirga also because those who attended the council recognized his vast military and financial strength.

     In the 1980s, the Afghan-Marxist government, as well as the mujahedeen, both called jirgas that were rejected by the Afghan people.15 In 1980, a jirga was held in Peshawar, Pakistan, and claimed to be the "representative body of the people of Afghanistan, fighting for their independence, which has come forward in the extraordinary conditions, prevailing at present, and this body, in actuality, expresses the genuine will of the Loya Jirgah."16 In each case, the jirga, no matter how legitimate, represented an important attempt to legitimize political action.

     Arguably the most important jirga—and one that will be recognizable to students—was the Emergency Loya Jirga called in 2002 after the fall of the Taliban. After the Bonn Accords, the loya jirgas were used to bridge urban/rural power struggles, sanction the rule of Hamid Karzai, and usher in an era of relative tribal uniformity. This was practical for both local tribal authorities and the central state. The decade-long conflict demonstrated that no single tribal group could control Afghanistan, but also that the central state had limited power in rural areas. Hence, both the central government and tribal authorities saw the practical necessities in allying with each other.17 The loya jirga, therefore, was an integral piece of this political dialogue between state and local authorities. Particularly for local authorities, hopes of extracting revenue and aid from international donors required a functional central state to forge and mediate such interactions.18 The loya jirga also indicated the power of local and regional authorities in Afghanistan, and demonstrated that the central government must consult them to make important local, national, and global decisions.

Taking the Jirga into the classroom

Students often view Afghanistan as a stateless place where wild, religiously fanatical tribesmen roam the mountains in search of loot. This myopic view has often led to gross misrepresentation of Afghanistan and its history. However, bringing a fundamental element of Afghan life such as the jirga into the classroom gives students new perspectives about Afghanistan and its role in more recent world historical events.

     First, the jirga provides a new perspective on governance that is essential to understanding Afghan political culture. Students come to see how local political decisions are made, and how those decisions can have local and global ramifications. For example, the 2002 Emergency Loya Jirga provided an opportunity for local authorities to transform their situation by embracing the expected monetary windfall of American occupation and development. At a quick glance, students might see this as disingenuous, corrupt even. But when they have a better understanding of how local communities relate to the central government—and by extension the outside world—such a perspective might change. Students begin to realize that local authorities make decisions based on what is best for their community. The state has historically had a minor, if not non-existent, presence in many rural communities. Thus, their decision to participate in a loya jirga is fundamental to understanding how they conceive of the state: not as an entity that rules or governs them, but rather as an entity offering resources that can be utilized to their own benefit. Local communities are not lawless. In fact, they already have a governing institution, the jirga, based on a prescribed set of codes and rules, Pashtunwali. As an historian utilizing the vast array of ethnographic work conducted by anthropologists in Afghanistan, I can connect the jirgas of the past with the present, and help students understand dynamic social, cultural, and political processes in rural Afghanistan.

     Second, the jirga can make an exotic, mythical, foreign Afghanistan seem more recognizable and relatable. Part of my inspiration as a professor and educator is to help students see similarities between peoples as well as differences. The jirga promotes equality within the tribe, in which "every free and experienced free male person of the tribe has the right to attend, speak, and to decide."19 The lack of clear social hierarchy reflects, according to observers, "their love of democracy and principle of equality."20 Many students will see close parallels to the ekklesia in Athenian democracy, whereby adult males had a direct say in the political, social, and economic processes. Some students remarked they found more democratic agency in the jirga than they see occurring in the US Senate. Indeed, the jirga can broaden students' understanding of democracy as more than an institution, but a practice. As a result, studying the jirga can create a far more global, yet nuanced and inclusive analytical model of governance.

What to do

Prior to holding a jirga in class, it is important that students have solid grasp of Afghan history and culture. When analyzing the more recent history of Afghanistan, students should come to realize how the Afghan government struggled (both willingly and unwillingly) to legitimize itself in much of rural Afghanistan. To do this, I recommend having students read Thomas Barfield's article, "The Problems Establishing Legitimacy in Afghanistan."21 Barfield provides a good overview of the history of Afghan politics by shedding light on both the history of the state as well as the function of rural, non-state socio-political systems such as Pashtunwali. When having students learn about the jirga I opt for Shermazan Taizi's "Jirga System in Tribal Life," mainly because it provides a basic understanding of the jirga without overwhelming students with too much variation and nuance.22

     I often hold the jirga as a means of discussing an assigned reading, preferably a novel. I prefer to center the jirga on Khaled Hosseini's A Thousand Splendid Suns (ATSS). ATSS is not only a novel that students thoroughly enjoy, but it also carries a variety of themes (patriarchy, religion, political power, sacrifice, etc) that can be utilized for fruitful discussion.

     Reserve an entire class time for the jirga. Before starting, make space on the floor (or go outside). Divide the class into groups of four or five and have them elect an elder (the final judge). This stage will replicate the lowest level of the jirga. At this stage, have each individual within those smaller groups argue what they think is the most important theme of the book. Encourage the students to try to defend their position using as many examples from the novel as possible to try to persuade the elder (this is also a good way of seeing who actually read the book). After each student has argued their case, the elder must make a decision on what he/she thinks is the best decision for the group. It is here that you must stress how the elder must come to collective decision with as close to unanimous approval as possible, but also that an individual's honor and legitimacy hinge on the decisions they make. If the elder chooses a theme the majority of their group dislikes, that individual can lose their legitimacy as the political authority (this can be one of the more entertaining parts of the discussion).

     After the elders have reached a decision, hold a loya jirga in which you create a giant circle, with you acting as the supreme elder and judge. Have each elder present their decision and why they reached this conclusion. After they have presented, ask the class how you should determine a verdict. Unless there are a variety of answers, you will likely choose the answer with the most approval. However, to complicate things, ask students if they were persuaded by other arguments. Here is an opportunity to transform the dynamic of the discussion. A student who rejects a decision at the jirga may face scrutiny from their group, but at the loya jirga they may find themselves in the majority.

     At each stage of the jirga it is important that students recognize the nuances and complexities they face at each decision-making stage. They may have unanimous support from their group, but face scrutiny from the rest of the class if their argument is inadequate. Or, a student may face scrutiny from within their small group, but find broad support at the loya jirga. And you, as the supreme elder, may make a final decision with which students agree or disagree, and face the possibility of losing legitimacy and therefore authority.

     Ultimately, incorporating the jirga in the classroom is good break from the normal lecture model. When students learn about the jirga and its historical function, and then participate in a replication of the jirga, they come to appreciate the depth and complexity of Afghan history and culture at the both the local and global levels.

James Bradford earned his PhD in History from Northeastern University in April 2013. He was awarded the John F Richards Fellowship from the Afghanistan Institute of Afghanistan Studies to research the history of opium production, use, and trade in Afghanistan. He is currently preparing his dissertation, "Opium in a Time of Uncertainty: State Formation, Diplomacy, and Drug Control During the Musahiban Dynasty, 1929–1978," for publication. His research also led to the publication of an article, "Drug Control in Afghanistan: Culture, Politics, and Power during the 1958 Prohibition of Opium in Badakhshan," in the Journal of Iranian Studies (forthcoming, March 2015). His broader research interests include US foreign policy, the illicit drug trade, and issues related to state building, globalization, and economic development in South Asia and the world. In addition to The World Since 1945, he teaches classes on the global drug trade, human rights, political and social revolutions, South Asia, and US foreign policy in the world at Berklee College of Music.


1 Pashtuns are a tribal group that largely inhabits the regions that straddle the borders of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

2 Ali Wardak, "Jirga- A Traditional Mechanism of Conflict Resolution in Afghanistan." The University of Glamorgan, UK, 2003, 3. Found at Accessed April 10, 2014.

3 L. Carter and K. Connor, A Preliminary Investigation of Contemporary Afghan Councils (Peshawar: ACBAR, 1989), 7.

4 Wardak, 4.

5 Carter and Connor, 9.

6 Wardak, 5.

7 Wardak, 7.

8 Wardak, 9.

9 Wardak, 10.

10 N. Newell and R. Newell, The Struggle for Afghanistan (London: Cornell University Press, 1981), (23)

11 Wardak, 11-12.

12 Wardak, 13.

13 Wardak, 14.

14 Thomas Barfield, "Problems Establishing Legitimacy in Afghanistan." Iranian Studies, Volume 37, number 2 (June 2004), 269.

15 Wardak, 13.

16 Sherzaman Taizi, "Jirga System in Tribal Life." Tribal Analysis Center, University of Peshawar (April 2007), 8.

17 Barfield, 290-291.

18 Barfield, 291.

19 B. Glatzer, ' Is Afghanistan on the Brink of Ethnic and Tribal Disintegration?' in Fundamentalism Reborn? Afghanistan and the Taliban, edited by William Maley, (New York: St. Martins, 1998), 176.

20 Taizi, 6.

21 Thomas Barfield, "Problems Establishing Legitimacy in Afghanistan." Iranian Studies, Volume 37, number 2 (June 2004).

22 Sherzaman Taizi, "Jirga System in Tribal Life." Tribal Analysis Center, University of Peshawar (April 2007). If you have more time and want a more comprehensive discussion the jirga, see Ali Wardaks' "Jirga- A Traditional Mechanism of Conflict Resolution in Afghanistan." The University of Glamorgan, UK: 2003. (3) Found at

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