Tribal Engagement: The Jirga and the Shura

Tribal Engagement: The Jirga and the Shura

by Major Jim Gant and William "Mac" McCallister

Download the full article: Tribal Engagement: The Jirga and the Shura

According to NATO's military chief of intelligence in Afghanistan, the Taliban now maintain shadow governors in thirty-three out of thirty-four provinces. While we like to see the world in black and white, the complexities of relationships and alliances in the village and valley make it anything but a straightforward contest between two parties. The U.S. strategy of stripping away Taliban loyalists is not easy in a very complex socio-political landscape. This landscape includes different types of traditional authority, local rivalries and the various configurations of social power in each village and valley.

The rubber of U.S. strategy meets the road in the village assembly. It is in the local assemblies where Coalition Forces speak directly with the local inhabitants and indirectly with the shadow governors of the Taliban. Identifying ahead of time the familial, sectarian, security, economic and political alliances represented in a given village or valley assembly will assist in identifying how these alliances might influence group decisions. We must also contemplate, identify and differentiate between two very different village assemblies: the jirga and shura.

Download the full article: Tribal Engagement: The Jirga and the Shura

Major Jim Gant is currently assigned to the Afghanistan Pakistan Hands (AFPAK Hands) Program as a Tribal Engagement Advisor. AFPAK Hands is designed to develop cadres of officers (and civilians) from each of the military's services who agree to three to five year tours to the Afghanistan-Pakistan region. He will be returning to Afghanistan in the near future.

William "Mac" McCallister is a retired military officer. He has worked extensively in Europe, Asia and the Middle East. He has applied his study of tribal culture in assessing reconstruction efforts, as well as insurgency and counterinsurgency operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror.

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Jim and Mac,

Great article. I am especially pleased to see that you spelled out, step-by-step, a way to proceed in each case (shura vs. jirga). I have often stated that talking in grand ideas is great, but if a Solider on the ground can't translate that into an actionable plan, it's useless. This is a useful guide and could easily be made into a pocket checklist.

Look forward to the next installation.


Another set of pearls from Major Gant, along with Mr. McCallister this time. Working within the culture, increasing "receive" to "send" ratio at gatherings and objective study of leadership dynamics as stated in the article should be a core foundation of anyone's kit when attempting engagement. Phasing in GIRoA representation was also beneficial to us at the PRT level with eye on building the bridge prior to our drawdown. I continue to look forward to insights from these authors.


Capt Don Moss, USAF

A handy tool for leaders at all levels. Nice product.

Not only should the Shura and Jirga be central to Coalition strategy; of course it is (and more importantly) central to Afghan strategy. After all, it is there insurgency and their COIN. We're just there to support and look after our own national interests that we perceive to be at stake in this little "family" drama.

Mr. Karzai's efforts with the series of Jirgas taking place is absolutely the main effort; with military operations as shaping, supporting efforts. Within those military operations it is critical that we employ local shuras and Jirgas to feed as equitably as possible into these larger forums and to promote the effects of local legitimacy.

As MG Carter laid out as his primary objectives for Hamkari in Kandahar :"To support the creation of representative opportunity, and representative governance." The key to this lies within insuring that higher level shuras do not become rubber stamps of those who already possess a monopoly on governance and opportunity, and that they become more inclusive of those who currently have little choice but to side with the violent opposition.

De Oppresso Liber


Maj K,

A huge portion of the contractors I am referring to in Afghanistan are Afghan. So to deduct that they are in fact participating in these types of meetings is not a stretch. Even in Iraq there are tons of Iraqi contractors who have attended these kinds of meetings. And even expats that work with those local nationals have been known to hang with these folks during meetings like that. For that to happen, is not a stretch at all in the context of this war.
As for expats attending meetings souly outside of ISAF or USACE leadership? That is a good question and I would love to see a study about such things. Tim Lynch could probably add more to this conversation than I could. The only reason why I bring it up, is because of the pure scale of contracting in this war, and high probability of such a thing happening. Currently we have a quarter million contractors working right now, Afghanistan is the longest war in US history, and contractors have interacted with the local populations tremendously.
Contractors are not just a bunch of American white guys with guns. Contractors are not purely working for the DoD either. They are working with in all aspects of the war, and involved with many projects, and they are of different nationalities.
For my blog, I have to cover it all because my readership is from all over the world and many are involved with all types of contracts in the war. Papers like this are extremely helpful because it gets the companies and individuals thinking about this stuff. It is the type of information that goes into a contractors mental tool kit. -matt


I'm honestly curious here about the attendance of contractors at shuras/jirgas. Are they there as a part of an NGO or other civilian agency? Otherwise, when would a contractor be alone without ISAF or USACE representation/leadership? Are contracts/contractors pursuing their own agenda in villages alone and unafraid? I only ask because your statement makes it seem so and what's more, that they're making their own decisions irrespective of RC or ISAF plans. If so, isn't this part of the reason why this war has progressed the way it has? Uncoordinated projects of little strategic worth because of the lack of central planning and control?

I have great respect for MAJ Gant and Mac McCallister, especially for their efforts to develop COIN TTPs, and their success in stimulating debate, but I have to say that I found the jirga vs. shura distinction to be meaningless during my year in Kandahar in 2007-2008. Everyone on the coalition side - the PRT, the U.S. ODAs and PMTs, the Canadian Battle Group and other elements of Task Force Kandahar, and RC-South - all used the term shura to encompass all group meetings with Afghan interlocutors. I can't rule out that we were mistaken, but I also heard the same in all of my interactions with Afghan village elders, District Leaders, Provincial Council members, and the Governor of Kandahar. In fact, the only time I heard the term jirga used was in the Kandahar Governor's reference to a national-level Loya Jirga meeting.

That said, I completely agree with the advice on proper behavior during a meeting with Afghan interlocutors. We would have much better relations with our Afghan partners if all U.S. officials had the interpersonal sensitivity of MAJ Gant.

Finally, I was left uneasy by the apparent instructions to coordinate a jirga meeting with the relevant tribal leader. In my experience, the default point of contact to arrange jirga/shura meetings at the local level was the District Leader (also known as the District Governor or the District Administrator). I believe this still holds true, at least in the South, and therefore any engagement effort that seeks to bypass or sideline the District Leader would need to be cleared at the level of the Regional Command and the Regional Platform.


Thanks for writing. It is hard sometimes to use "Jirgas" to your "advantage." A "Shura" on the other hand - definately - yes.

As far as the issues with "contractors"...I defer. I have not worked with them at all in either Iraq or Afghanistan. But your point is extremely vaild. I do not know the answer.

And Tim Lynch? ANYTHING HE HAS TO SAY - Jim Gant listens to. He knows his business.

Once again - thanks and keep pushing.


Jim Gant

Excellent paper and I will throw this up on my blog as well. My readership is operating out there, and they do attend Jirgas and Shuras all the time. So this is the kind of paper that can further add to each individual contractor and company's 'learning organization' about how to properly participate in and use these types of meetings.

One thing that is missing from the discourse in my industry is contractors and their use of the Jirga and Shura. Both in Iraq and Afghanistan, contracting companies attend these types of meetings to accomplish all sorts of business related goals. I often wonder if these contracting companies are fully using the Jirga and Shura to their advantage? Or better yet, what impact do contractors have on the overall war effort, when they attend Jirgas and Shuras? I don't know, but I do know that it is something that today's strategists should consider talking about. Guys like Tim Lynch of Free Range International could help provide some input on such a thing.

Now I am sure that some folks that are reading this are rolling their eyes and saying why is this guy bringing up contractors in this discussion? Well for one, there are over a quarter million contractors working in this war. That is a quarter million individuals that are all doing their own thing and following company policy and rules. Do those company policies and rules fit in with the overall war strategy. Does the company have a contract with whatever party, that hurts or helps the overall war effort? That is where we are at, and until that reality changes, I don't think we have any choice other than to talk about such things.

In my opinion, to ensure that contractors are not hurting the war effort with their actions, there must be an effort to get them on the same sheet of music. That is called unity of effort(and in some cases-unity of command), and that is a conversation that is severely lacking when talking about today's war time strategies. -matt

Hey guys. I'm curious: what's your evidence for drawing a meaningful distinction between jirgas and shuras? In the literature I'm familiar with, the general consensus is that the line between them has blurred considerably. I don't know if this is true in a definitional sense, but since this is focused so tightly on practical considerations, I'm curious where the basis for the sharp distinction is coming from.

Jack Thayer,

Roger that.

I will be looking forward to your feedback.



Jim and Mac,

Nice piece; will download and read full article today (looking forward to it).



Hope all is well brother. Will send you an email today on AKO.

Will try and contact Joe Felter.

Keep up the great work.




Well done. It's good to describe what should be common sense for practisioners.

I noticed Joe Felter has taken up a role in the COIN Advisory and Assistance Team (CAAT). He's someone that y'all should probably get to know if you don't already. I met him while he was at Stanford researching small wars. He helped start up the USMA CTC and has extensive operational experience in the Phillipines.