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En librairie

Transformation de conflit, de Karine Gatelier, Claske Dijkema et Herrick Mouafo

Aux Éditions Charles Léopold Mayer (ECLM)


Fiche de défi

, Paris, février 2010

A centuries old mechanism to resolve conflicts: The Jirga

If we want peace to be a success in Afghanistan it has to be made in accordance with a collective, Afghanistan, idea of peace.

Mots clefs : Travailler la compréhension des conflits | Construction et utilisation de l'identité culturelle | Représentations mentales et paix | Afghanistan

This presentation suggests that if some conflicts are inherent within a certain society, mechanisms for solving them are also to be found in the same society. Those mechanisms are the very institutions for solving conflicts. Peace researchers cannot ignore certain methods when these very methods have been practiced locally for centuries.

This raises the question whether peace can be found in Afghanistan outside the traditional structure practiced by the Afghan people? I am going to argue that this is not possible and suggest a more successful Afghan model of peace.

First, we have to look beyond the Afghanistan of the media: terrorism and chador; and, instead, immerse us in the core of its pashtun values (1). The Pashtuns values contained in the Pashtunwali and the Jirga are a centuries old mechanism to resolve the conflict.

I. The pashtunwali or the honour code

1. The Pashtunwali

The Pashtunwali is the honour code of the Pashtun. Willi Steul, a German thinker states that the pashtunwali refers to the « sum of the total values and social norms which determines the way of life peculiar to the Pashtuns » (2). Indeed, for the Pashtuns, the Pashtunwali is an unwritten moral code that rules all their life; the central principle of this moral code is honour (Nanga).

2. The principle of Nanga

According to the Afghan philologist Ibrahim Atayee, Nanga refers both to the defence of properties and the performance of what he calls ‘qualities’, (honorable acts).

a/ Tura

The first part of Atayee’s definition, ‘defense of the properties’ is embodied by the pashtun word « Tura », which means sword. Tura is the quality of boldness and boldness is what is expected from a young pashtun.

There are three principles which relate to the idea of the Nanga : Puna na Puna, Badal and Sharm.

  • Puna na puna is the famous Hammurabi code and well known biblical rule : an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

  • Badal is the pashtun’s word for revenge and, arguably, the principle cause of violence in Afghanistan. If the Nang is violated, badal is one of the mean to restore the Nang of the family or clan, this often results in long feuds that last many generations.

  • Sharm is another form of revenge which involves shaming the adversary.

b/ Aql

We now turn our attention to the second part of the definition : the performance of quality. The pashtun word Aql (reason) is what pashtuns expect from their eldest. Two principles are primarily associated with Aql : Melmapalana and Nanawateh.

Melmapalana is the principle of hospitality. If hospitality is required, even by an enemy, a Pashtun has to give it. Nanawateh means protection or asylum and is linked with the notion of hospitality.

Therefore, Nanga is the rationale for war and peace. For example, the violation of this principle leads to feuds and rivalries because of the obligation to take revenge (badal ); while the key to peace is found in the maintenance of the Nanga (by the performance of hospitality, for example) or the restoration of it which is only possible by the mechanism of the Jirga.

II. The Jirga: a traditional afghan institution to resolve conflicts

1. Definition

The Jirga is, according to Ibrahim Atayee,: ‘a meeting of a group of tribal men that has the authority to settle a dispute in a way acceptable to both sides’.

The origin of the word Jirga is derived from the Turkish word ‘Jirg’ which means ‘circle’ (3). This is plausible as the members of the Jirga usually sit in circle so that no one shall be considered privileged or powerful. As Naumann explains « there is no chairman among the Jirga members. All of them are equal » (4).

The Jirga is an institution in an open public space, for example, Mosques or a grave yard of a tribe’s ancestors, which every male can attend. However, this is not always the case, particularly for the secret Jirga whose place is not revealed to everyone.

2. The different forms of Jirga

The Jirga operates at different levels which refer to the size of the group unit it is applied to.

A Pashtun tribe (Tabar) is divided into many Khel (a unit of kinship group) which are themselves divided into Plarinas (unit of the tribe which has a common ancestral father) which are finally divided into different Kayols (extended family).

  • The Maraka is a Jirga at the level of the Kayols and the Plarinas. It is a Kalay’s (5) institution which deals with matters of small importance within families or between them.

  • The Qawmi Jirga is a Jirga at the level of the Khels and the Tabar. According to Ali Wardak this Jirga deals with more important issues that are central to the social order of the tribe (6).

  • The Loya Jirga is the « grand » Jirga or national Jirga. It is an important institution where « tribal leaders gather in order to discuss vital national issues and make collective decisions » (7) including, sovereignty, national unity, selection of a ruler, declaration of war or adopting a new constitution. The first and the most famous one was hold in 1747 in Kandahar when Ahmed Shah Durani was selected as the first king of modern Afghanistan. More recently an Emergency Loya Jirga occurred in 2002 after the Bonn Agreement. An extended form of Jirga was co-lead by the President Hamid Karzai and the President of Pakistan Pervez Musharaf when discussing the future of the border between the two countries in the Pashtunistan’s zone.

3. Elements of Jirgas

The Jirga consists of three main elements: the Narkh , the Marakachians and the Prikra.

  • The Narkh is the customary law which reflects, according to Ali Wardak, ‘the fundamental values and norms that are associated with Pashtunwali.’ (8) There are three types of Narkhs. The most famous is the Ahmadzai narkh and the Razmak narkh. In some Khels of eastern and southern Afghanistan other narkhs are adopted because they are more relevant to the local situation.

  • The Marakachians (for Maraka) or Jirgamarans (Qawmi and Loya Jirga) are the experts of the Jirga. There are also known as the Narkhans (the experts of the Narkh). If all the men can attend a Maraka, three categories of people are classified as Narkhans: the Mashran( elders) the Speengiri (grey beards) and the Speenpatkian (White turbans, the Mullahs). The elders, as we have already mentioned, represent the Aql. The religious men, the Mullahs bless the Maraka and lead the religious aspects of the rituals.

  • The Prikra is the final decision of the Maraka. Two Prikras are possible: one where the disputants are absent : « Wak Maraka » and one when they are present : « De Zhabi Shorawalo Maraka ». In the former « the Marakachians try to find common grounds between the disputant and resolve the conflict in such way that is acceptable to both parties. » (9)

If the Prikra is violated by one of the parties after the Judgement, there will be retaliatory measures such as a collective boycott by the whole village, or a nagha (compensation) will be asked for. For the worst violation the house of the offender will be burnt.

However, the parties can ask for an appeal in case of a Kog-Narkh (10) (application of a wrong Narkh). If the appeal is accepted a second Maraka or Jirg will be held and if this second Jirga concludes that the first made a Kog-Narkh, it will put in disrepute the previous Marakachians who will be asked to pay compensation to the parties.

These two modalities of the Prikra illustrate the legitimacy of both the process and the outcome of the Jirga.

In conclusion, the Pashtunwali and the mechanism of Jirga are major aspects of the Pashtun and more widely of the Afghan’s identity. To underestimate them is to risk compromising any effort towards peace in the region. This idea is also shared by the authors of ‘working with conflict’ who recognize that « many grass roots practitioners now recognize that traditional approaches may be very relevant and have positive aspects that can combined with more modern methods. »


  • Article relu et corrigé par Noah Strang.

  • (1) : The Pashtuns account for 60% of the population and Afghanistan means in dari language : land of the Pashtuns.

  • (2) : Quotation of STEUL Willi in NAUMANN C, The Pashtunwali’s Relevance as a Tool for Solving the “Afghan Crisis”, 2008, p 117.

  • (3) : NAUMANN C, The Pashtunwali’s Relevance as a Tool for Solving the “Afghan Crisis”, 2008., p 152.

  • (4) : Idem. , p 127.

  • (5) : Kalay means village WARDAK Ali, p 7.

  • (6) : Idem p 9.

  • (7) : Id. , p 13.

  • (8) : Id. , p 8.

  • (9) : WARDAK Ali p 9.