Political Landscape

Getting Ready for Change. Or: What to make of Fahim’s speech


On 11 June 2013 First Vice President Marshal Qasim Fahim gave a rare public speech, that has been reverberating in the media ever since. The speech was an impassioned and long-winded call for national consensus, but while he was at it Fahim managed to deliver a few thinly veiled threats, touch on a couple of sore points and make some barbed comments about other politicians. Most importantly, the speech illustrated the preoccupation of many of Afghanistan’s politicians – which is not so much about the elections or even who the presidential candidates will be, but rather about how to safeguard positions and patronage relations. This desire, to sort out the political transition before the elections take place, is on one hand understandable, but it leaves little hope that the way this country is run will change much. AAN’s Martine van Bijlert explains why.

Fahim delivered his controversial speech at the national governor’s conference in Kabul, where he addressed the assembled governors mainly as former mujahedin (not true of all, but certainly for most) and as members of a ruling elite facing a possible loss of power. He spoke, without notes, for over an hour, starting with a religious preamble on what it means to be human and the historic battle betweenkufr and manawiat (infidelity and spirituality). He then gave his reading of the last 35 years, which focused on the centrality of the mujahedin, but also concluded that none of the successive regimes had managed to establish an acceptable order. (1) This culminated in a meandering, impassioned and poetic plea for tolerance, acceptance, and national consensus: “We are all flowers from one garden … We need to view each other with eyes of love.”

He appeared, at times, to be getting ahead of himself, in particular when he launched into some of his more controversial comments. Moreover, the fact that several parts of his speech were not that clear or not fully developed has led to very differing interpretations of what he said. This is, for instance, illustrated by the wildly varying headlines, that ranged from Bakhtar’s: Spirit of Tolerance, Unity And Solidarity Saves Afghanistan, Marshal Fahim, to Bost News’: Fahim, If Mujahidin Are Ignored, I Will Take Gun and Will Climb Mountain. See here for further highlights of the speech in English, as well as the full speech in Dari.

During the last half hour, Fahim discussed the four big issues he said the country is facing: peace, the security transition, the political transition and border issues. On the first of the four issues, peace, Fahim argued that it was not the ‘disgruntled’ person who carried a gun that has the greatest responsibility to make peace, but rather that those who are in power – “you and me” – have to create the conditions for the disgruntled to join: “They will not want to be our servants. We will have to give them confidence that they can come.”

On the issues of security transition, he first acknowledged that, despite complaints, the international presence had brought the country good things (roads, an airport in Mazar). He then stressed that one day “the world has to go” and the country has to get used to standing on its own feet: “Transition is difficult,” he said. “In general, the process is not difficult, but it is difficult to get used to it. We must get used to defending ourselves independently.”

The part on relations with the neighbours focused mainly on the border issues with Pakistan. He tried to walk the thin line of, on one hand, insisting that the issue of the Durand Line had to be resolved, while on the other hand not provoking the constituencies who feel strongly about this, by making explicit what this should look like. He stressed it was not a simple issue and that it could not be forced – that Afghans would fight if it was – and, at the same time, the interests of both countries needed to be taken into account.

The heart of the speech, and the part that provoked most reaction and speculation, was on the political transition. Fahim first made a curious pitch – “a wish and a vision” – for a prime ministerial system, arguing that in such a system people would no longer direct their insults at the president, but rather at the prime minister. (2) He then argued that the confusion and challenges of providing an alternative to the current team in government could only be faced through a process of ejma-ye melli (national consensus) – a concept, currently touted by several politicians, that Fahim claims to have introduced first.

It was here that he got personal, singling out the Afghan-American former ambassador to Afghanistan, Zalmai Khalilzad, and others whom he said were linked to the Americans, such as Karzai’s brother: “It cannot be done through the kind of national consensus that Khalilzad talks about, who comes here as an American, going around meeting with leaders… I told the American general Dunford that people are not worried about the military and security transition, they are worried about the political transition and the concern has been created among the Afghan people by some individuals who consider themselves linked to you [the Americans].” Ashraf Ghani, another politician who is driving his own version of the national consensus, was also the target of a few mild taunts throughout Fahim’s speech, but was not dismissed in the same way as Khalilzad.

Several days later Khalilzad was provided with a platform to respond to Fahim’s comments on Tolo TV. In a long, slightly bland interview (3) he returned the barb to Fahim, insinuating that Fahim’s medical condition may be bothering him – he mentioned his diabetes and high blood pressure – and that Fahim may not be fully aware of what is going on. Khalilzad was clear that, in his book, national consensus did not come in the place of elections: “We have tried to establish a national team to take the power through elections and we do not want to replace elections with a national consensus process. Elections are a vital necessity.”

Fahim, interestingly, managed to discuss the subject of political transition at length with only the faintest reference to the upcoming election, focusing mainly on the need, and challenge, to build a new governing team. He explained that a new president would not “be stupid and keep [for instance] the governor of Ghazni here, with his turban and beard; he will appoint a governor from his own group.” That a new leader was bound to force through change was presented as a fact of life, “a principle all over the world,” but it also sounded very much like a warning: be careful, if you do not support the right team, you will all lose out.

Fahim’s discussion of the political transition illustrates a few important points. First, whereas much of the international attention is focused on who the candidates might be and how the elections will go, Afghanistan’s ruling political class is much more preoccupied with how to smooth the wider transition that involves the whole ‘government team.’ They are partly concerned about protecting their patronage and business interests, but are even more worried about possible humiliation and downfall, in particular through retaliatory criminal and legal prosecutions. Or in the words of Fahim: “It is impossible with all the suffering and hardship that the mujahedin went through, that someone can just come in from the outside and do whatever he wants. We need unity, a real national consensus. It shouldn’t be like this, that one day you are in power and the next day someone comes after you. It happens all the time, even in this age of democracy. If we do that, the war will start again.” (4)

Second, Fahim’s speech reflected a view in which the ‘Karzai team’ and the ‘government team’ are not only treated as near synonyms, but almost as a discrete political entity, based on the shared interest of not wanting to lose what they have. In practice, however, this is a network that is so loose that it is often not clear who is in and who is out – and who might still be rewarded in any new constellation. This also explains the current confusion, with different platforms all trying to work towards some form of national consensus. They are eying each other, seeking to simultaneously undercut and co-opt.

To further complicate matters, it is not clear which one of these initiatives will represent, incorporate or be blessed by the ‘government/Karzai team’, nor whether they will hold together. The main opposition groups are getting ready to field their own candidate(s), to at least have a shot at a change of regime, but some of their personalities may be persuaded to join a ‘consensus’ team. Closer to the government, the largely mujahedin platform of tanzeem leader Abdul-Rab Sayyaf and the gathered Pashtun technocrats (5) both consider themselves best placed to orchestrate the wider national consensus-building, while Balkh Governor Atta Noor apparently also still sees a role for himself.

Although most politicians in theory agree on the need for some form of consensus, and also the implication that egos will have to take a backseat, the implicit struggle as to who will come out on top continues. In many ways the national consensus, as of yet, still boils down to ‘myself and whoever I can assemble to back me’.

Finally, the ideal-typical ‘national consensus’, at least in its rhetoric, aims to involve – and make happy – as many strands, groups and informal constellations as possible. If successful, this obviously signals the continuation of the kind of politics that has characterised the Karzai regime: governance through patronage relations and co-optation. It also means that some will be accommodated to their satisfaction, while others will not.

Where the international community is fearing a messy electoral process, the political class seems more concerned with what comes after: the process of sorting out the new distribution of power, how this power will be used, and against whom. There is an understandable desire to iron out some of the difficulties beforehand and try to come to some common understanding. But it also means that, if this becomes the dominant process of political transition, there is little hope that the way this country is run will change much.

(1) Fahim extolled the role of the mujahedin, commended former president Burhanuddin Rabbani’s willingness to hand over power in this regime’s first political transition in 2001, and bemoaned the decision to dismantle the mujahedin’s fighting forces after the fall of the Taleban. He did make some (very) faint acknowledgements of the mujahedin’s chequered past:“Unfortunately when we were victorious, the inexperience and unfamiliarity with governing and the interference by the neighbours who didn’t want us to have a strong system or strong army…” [unfinished sentence]. Also: “Some people differentiate between the ‘clean’ and the ‘unclean’ mujahedin, but I say everyone who stood against the Soviet Union is commendable… Most of you governors were in the jihad, you know how hard it was.”

(2) There are occasional speculations in the media and among politicians that Fahim and/or Karzai would like to pull a “Medvedev-Putin”. See for instance here for a reaction by 8 Sobh daily, which incidentally also points out that Fahim in the past has, actually, consistently undermined efforts to establish a Prime Ministerial system.
Ironically, if – hypothetically – Fahim and Karzai would indeed pull off a “Medvedev-Putin” trick, and if Fahim’s argument were valid, Karzai as the new Prime Minister would again bear the brunt of the insults.

(3) The interview with Khalilzad, apart from a few comments that are quoted here, was relatively bland, particularly compared to Fahim’s much more informal off-the-cuff comments. It may have been reassuring for Afghan viewers to listen to a more balanced exposé, but the largely unchallenged political platitudes did not make for very interesting viewing. The full interview can be viewed here (in Dari).
Although Khalilzad clearly has his fans, many Afghans are still quite unimpressed by the fact that he seems to be mainly flying in to explore what role he can play when there is an upcoming election.

(4) This was followed by Fahim’s widely quoted comment on taking up arms: “If someone treats us badly, we will not sit still like the Georgians. If one man oppresses me, I will take my weapon and go to the mountains. This is Afghanistan’s misfortune and problem. If I say that the Afghan people are disarmed, it’s a lie. There is no one that has no weapon for his own defence and because of his worries for the future. God forbid that the war of weapons starts again’ [If it does], no one will be able to bring order to the country again.” These comments can be read either as a stark warning, or as an acknowledgement of Afghanistan’s problematic way of dealing with power (and loss of power) – or a combination of both.

(5) The gathered technocrats appear to include former American Ambassador to Kabul Zalmai Khalilzad, head of the transition process and former presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani, president’s brother Qayum Karzai, current Minister of Finance Omar Zakhilwal, current Minister of Education Farooq Wardak, former head of the Independent Directorate for Local Governance Jailani Popal, and former Minister of Interior Ali Ahmad Jalali). They have agreed among themselves that none of them will put themselves forward as a candidate until the consensus settles on who it should be.

Further reading:

How to Win an Afghan Election. Perceptions and Practices by Martine van Bijlert, AAN, August 2009 – This 2009 pre-election report discusses in detail how the outcome of the elections, in the view of many Afghans, is shaped by four factors: (1) decisions by international actors, in particular the US; (2) behind-the-scenes negotiations and deals among local leaders; (3) manipulation of the electoral process; and – only in the fourth place, if at all – (4) the vote of the people.

Ustad Atta for President? The ‘Northern Front’ Summit and other Pre-Election Manoeuvres by Thomas Ruttig, AAN, 6 February 2013

Elections or National Consensus: Which one wins? by Gran Hewad, AAN, 4 April 2013

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape