Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

International Engagement

The Road to Turkestan or: More Theses on Peacemaking in Afghanistan. Manifesto No 2

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

Author’s Note: The title and the theme of this set of theses refer to Barnett Rubin’s “Theses on Peacemaking in Afghanistan: A Manifesto” published in War on the Rocks on 23 February 2018 (read here). But these theses will mainly scrutinise Afghanistan’s internal institutional crisis that needs to be addressed in order to improve the conditions for successful peace talks that do not result in a roll-back of post-2001 achievements particularly when it comes to rights and freedoms.


ترسم نرسی به کعبه ای اعرابی
کین ره که تو میروی به ترکستان ااست

(I fear you won’t get to the Ka’aba, oh traveller(*)
The way you are going leads to Turkestan.)



اوبه له سره خړې دي

(The water muddies at the source.)

Pashto proverb, also available in Dari


What is an optimist: A person that doesn’t take things as tragically as they are.

Karl Valentin



Afghans are facing a highly complex situation involving multiple crises – security/war-related, socio-economic and institutional – of which the emergency of the insurgency was only a symptom. This means that when concentrating on ‘peace’ (and outsourcing blame for the lack of it) without looking at Afghanistan’s internal defects, this addresses only half of the problem.



Afghanistan’s institutional crisis political institutions and their inability to adequately react to these crises. This is due to birth defects resulting from the fact that the 2001 Bonn agreement was never fully implemented. The most important birth defect was not so much that the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami were not invited to the conference. There were other ways of including their constituencies as evident in the presence of multiple Hezb leaders at various levels of the Afghan government as well as in parliament even before the peace deal. It was rather the centralised political system it created.



Over-centralisation does not refer to the discussion about whether Afghanistan should remain a central state or become a federation, or whether it should experience a degree of de-centralisation or ‘devolution’ (elements of the latter, such as the promotion of minority language education and the protection of ethnic groups not explicitly mentioned among the 14 in the constitution, could strengthen national cohesion). It refers to some powers given to the president, such as the power to appoint the members of ‘independent’ institutions and commissions, including the electoral institutions, thereby putting in question their independence. The same goes for the members of the Supreme Court.



Centralisation of power was further increased by the removal of the position of a Prime Minister when the 1964 constitution “minus Kingdom” was temporarily reinstated in Bonn in 2001, as well as by the refusal of Afghan leader Hamed Karzai and his main supporters to include an independent Constitutional Court in the Constitution during the 2003/04 Constitutional Loya Jirga. The position of a Prime Minister would have mitigated the effects of the presidential system without rendering the president only a symbolic head of state. It would have made possible the formation of coalition governments of various parties under his lead that would be responsible vis-à-vis parliament which, in turn, would be able to replace them when needed. Such a set-up would also have better reflected the political and ethnic diversity of Afghanistan’s population and political landscape.



It was another mistake in Bonn – and obviously one intended by Karzai’s supporters – not to prevent the chairman, deputies or cabinet members of the interim and transitional administrations (2001-04) from running for office in the 2004 and 2005 presidential and parliamentary elections. It gave them the responsibility for organising elections in which they would themselves stand and opened the gates for them to manipulate the outcome through the electoral institutions, which they had appointed.



It was also a mistake not to hold the first presidential and parliamentary elections simultaneously. Afghanistan has been suffering from the resulting convoluted electoral calendar ever since. The international community has failed after every electoral cycle so far since the one in 2004/05 to urge the Afghan authorities to carry out serious electoral reform. Major defects within the electoral system were already obvious after the 2004/05 electoral cycle.



The already delayed holding of the first elections – which was against the constitution, but seen then as a minor fault – opened the gate for further breeches of the constitution at key political junctions later on.



The effects of the over-centralisation of power only became fully apparent following the interim and transitional periods. This early period was overshadowed by the quasi-monopoly of power by the former ‘Northern Alliance’. It was also based on a one-sided disarmament and failed de-militarisation of Kabul after the overthrow of the Taleban regime, which contravened the stipulations by the Bonn agreement.



A partial disarmament campaign that favoured former western anti-Soviet and anti-Taleban allies empowered warlords and commanders, enabled their transmutation into anti-terrorism entrepreneurs, who were paid for by foreign militaries and profited from large security, logistical and other contracts. Many of them were given positions in government or the new security forces while their ‘private’ armed groups remained (and still remain) at their disposal. These groups are thus able to switch between being ‘irresponsible armed groups’ (outside of formal government chains of control) or ‘pro-government militias’ or units of the Afghan Local Police and similar forces.



The turning point was during the 2003/04 Constitutional Loya Jirga when the question “presidential or parliamentary system” became ethnicised. It pitted the Pashtuns and other small ethnic groups, supporters of a centralised presidential system, against most non-Pashtuns who supported a parliamentary system. The former won by a very small margin, leaving the substantial minority’s wishes largely unaccommodated. (The parliament was only given the right to ‘impeach’ ministers at any given time. This right was often invoked, leading to regular disruption of the government.)



One major outcome of these poor decisions and the developments playing out as a result is that the checks and balances foreseen in Afghanistan’s legal framework are often not utilised or even outmanoeuvred.



One major element of this are the long-term strained relations between the executive branch (‘the Palace’) and the legislative branch, particularly the lower house of parliament, the Wolesi Jirga. This started during President Hamed Karzai’s tenure when the house was often circumvented and its reputation undermined by manipulation and bribing. (Of course the blame is also on those MPs who accepted this.) This often leads to mutual obstructions, blockades and acts of revenge, as well as the stalling of vital legislative projects.



Parliament’s effectiveness was further curtailed by the failure to allow political parties, including those emerging from the underground after 2001, to play a role in the elections. There is a factual, although not legal, ban of parties presenting lists of candidates in the parliamentary elections or from forming party-based factions in parliament.



The government has erected further hurdles for political parties, e.g. by repeated campaigns of re-registration (often close to an election), which aims to reduce their numbers through administrative measures instead of letting the voters decide.



This has created a lopsided playing field between the ‘civilian’ parties and the former armed factions (tanzims)-turned-parties, with their ability to mobilise armed power and occasionally use the threat of violence to achieve political goals. This resulted in the almost complete disappearance of the underfunded pro-democratic parties of the first post-2001 years, while it perpetuated the tanzim-based parties who have access to other resources in violations of the political parties law without being held accountable by the relevant authorities.



Checks and balances have been further undermined by the failure to hold the 2015 parliamentary election on time. The current Wolesi Jirga is in legal limbo, only patched up by presidential decrees, which, themselves, have become a major instrument of legislation around parliament. A fact that is also often overlooked is that the Meshrano Jirga has never been fully instated, as it lacks directly elected district council representatives, which have never been elected. It also seems that this election – although planned to be held simultaneously with the parliamentary elections and mentioned by the Afghan electoral commission when announcing a further delay in early February this year – have dropped from current election preparations.



In general, political institutions often remain a façade or are relegated to having a secondary status, while key decisions are made in an intransparent ‘inner circles’ on the basis of ‘traditional’ systems of patronage. President Ghani has not been able to cut through this corrupt system because he was elected on its basis, relying on an electoral alliance that included tanzims and parties who demanded ‘their share’ after he was declared president. The same would have probably happened, had he been the outright winner of the 2014 election. Positive steps such as more merit-based appointments are too small to swing the system around; simultaneous ‘deals’ such as the recent one in Samangan, and before the peace deal with HIG, undermine them again.



With these points being taken into account, we can conclude that Afghanistan’s political landscape is polarised in various ways, without buy-in into institutionalised ways of resolving political conflict: between the government and the armed opposition; within the National Unity Government (NUG) – where the camps are also fracturing; no current alliance is fixed –; and also between the personal or factional ambitions of leading personalities. There is no political middle ground. Even if power changes hands after the next election, it will remain within the existing élite. In such an environment, the threat of violence remains a key means of retaining power during political conflict. This is underpinned by the impunity for pre-2001 war crimes and human rights violations self-awarded by parliament through the 2010 ‘amnesty law’.



This polarisation is accompanied by tendencies to ‘ethnicise’ politics, both real and perceived. It currently culminates in the never-ending debates such as about electoral reform, the e-tazkira and the Arg-Atta and Arg-Jamiat negotiations. These debates will prolong the time needed to prepare any election or to reach a consensus on how this will be done and by whom. Many positions in the electoral institutions are still vacant or open to further change. In the shadow of these debates, tendencies become visible that some Afghans describe as ‘authoritarian’.




Now many dream about ‘going back to 2001’ and starting from scratch, and some even propose doing this by convening a new Loya Jirga. But this is arguably self-serving, as it likely would return those to office who have contributed to the current situation. This would likely be the case because the existing (although factionalised) political elite has created an almost hermetically sealed system which blocks entry to fresh forces, or only allows them by co-option.



In the current situation, it is not merely important that elections take place, when and in which sequence or combination (parliamentary first, or parliamentary and presidential simultaneously) but also what will the quality of these elections be and will the future parliament, president and government be seen as legitimate as a result? Legitimacy, in the eyes of potential losers and of the disillusioned electorate in general, will only derive from reformed, independent electoral institutions and measures to minimise disenfranchisement. Elections in an unreformed framework will mainly legitimise the International Community’s presence in Afghanistan (in the eyes of donor country parliaments and electorates, and even there scepticism about the Afghanistan involvement has grown).



Currently, electoral reform mainly means that both sides in the NUG are fighting for control over the electoral institutions.



Even if electoral reform results in the strengthening of the role of political parties, it empowers parties that do not democratically function internally. It arguably also empowers some that might intend to use democratic means to establish an undemocratic government.



The major fact impacting voter disenfranchisement is, of course, the on-going war, which has long spiralled into cycles of senseless escalation. The war, however, which has led to an insular presence of the government in parts of the country, also provides ample opportunities for the manipulation of future elections, for example by ballot-staffing in the absence of Afghan or international observers.



For now, the Afghan government and its international donors should undertake that the 2018/19 elections are the last ones that will be held in a largely unreformed framework and in breech of some stipulations of the constitution. This would require that efforts at full electoral reform commence the moment this electoral cycle is over, and are not left to the last possible moment, again.


Thomas Ruttig is a co-director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network (AAN, Kabul/Berlin). He has a degree in Afghan Studies from Humboldt University in Berlin. In 2000, he joined the UN mission to Afghanistan and – in this capacity – participated in a UN attempt to negotiate a peaceful end to the war between the Taleban and the ‘Northern Alliance’ that same year. He also had a part in the preparation of the 2001 Bonn conference and was a member of the UN team there. 

(*) e’rabi literarily means ‘nomad’.


Elections institutions Kabul Process peace talks