Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

A Joint ‘Durrani’ Candidate for President? After the Unity Jirga in Kabul

Thomas Ruttig 11 min

Tribal elders from most areas of the country came together in an attempt to reduce the field of Pashtun, and among them the Durrani, candidates. The jirga ended in a duel between the two main contenders, both of them close to the president. The meeting remained open to interpretation, after an initial vote apparently met the president’s rejection. He was seen by some as the inspiration of this gathering. The jirga is another snapshot of a still-fluid situation. AAN’s senior analyst Thomas Ruttig looks at why the gathering is significant nevertheless. He finds some lessons about how the pre-election politicking and post-2001 Afghan policy in general work, which – often contradictory – factors are at play, and the roles that tribalism and the president play. (With input from Martine van Bijlert, Ehsan Qane and Borhan Osman.)

It was the most high-profile attempt yet to streamline the confusingly diverse field of eleven competitors for the 5 April 2014 presidential election. Some 170 tribal elders, religious leaders and intellectuals from 29 of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces, tribes and ethnic groups (1) gathered in Kabul at the Intercontinental Hotel on 21 February. Officially dubbed “Unity Jirga” by its organisers, it had initially attempted to persuade the four presidential candidates with backgrounds in the southern Pashtun Durrani tribes (the president’s brother Qayyum Karzai, former foreign minister and national security advisor Zalmai Rassul, former Kandahar and Nangarhar governor Gul Agha Sherzai and Muhammad Nader Na’im, a member of the former royal family) to unite behind one of them. After Sherzai and Na’im pulled out and other Pashtun candidates protested – Hedayat Amin Arsala, an eastern Pashtun, called their pullout an illegitimate attempt to limit the presidential post to a “specific family or tribe” –, the choice was reduced to a duel between Qayyum Karzai and Rassul.

According to Muhammad Hamed Saburi, who heads Karzai’s campaign office, both sides had beforehand promised that they would accept the jirga’s decision.

But the jirga remained inconclusive. On Friday (28 February), Qayyum Karzai stated that “based on the suggestions from the jirga members,” he would continue his campaign. This sounds as if the jirga is over now. Previously, a member of Rassul’s campaign, in contrast, had told AAN the jirga has not yet officially been closed. The jirga itself, or its chairman, has not given any public statement, so its outcome remains open to interpretation.

What is also not fully clear is who initiated and organised the Unity Jirga and who picked the delegates. Some sources say that it was President Hamed Karzai’s initiative, intended to ensure a vote for his favourite candidate, Rassul (or to discourage his brother to run) and was started alongside his visit a week earlier to the centre of his family’s home province and stronghold, Kandahar (the Karzais’ place of origin, Karz village in Dand district, is not far from there (2). In the provincial capital, he had inaugurated a new Indian-funded agricultural university.) Sources within the Palace have told AAN that he has made clear, while there, that he does not wish his brother Qayyum to run. How the jirga was then convened resembled a known pattern: ‘delegates’ being handpicked through the networks in the Palace. The time between Karzai’s Kandahar trip and the jirga was simply too short to organise a genuine delegates’ election, though, for example, local jirgas in the traditional style.

Jirga almost gone wrong

Still during the first day, its participants appointed a committee of twenty to which it reportedly delegated the decision between Qayyum Karzai and Rassul (see the list here). But the next morning, all participants – and not just the committee of 20 – gathered at the palace. A number of Afghan media reported this meeting was held “on the invitation” of President Karzai. After the gathering, his spokesman sharply rejected this version and claimed the jirga participants had asked for the meeting in an attempt to uphold the president’s repeated assurances he would remain strictly neutral in the presidential race.

According to one report AAN received from among the participants, during the meeting in the Palace the 20-member committee held a vote before everyone. The same source says it ended in Qayyum Karzai’s favour, with 13 votes, against seven for Rassul – and against the intention of the president. (Some Afghan media reported the same trend but without giving exact numbers, see here and here). This was confirmed by Qayyum Karzai’s campaign manager, another presidential brother, businessman Mahmud Karzai (3), who said, “The jirga decided that Qayyum Khan will be their candidate.” The brothers appear to have tried to take over this gathering, as a reaction to the president’s rejection of Qayyum Karzai. They probably were also hoping to drag out the jirga’s session into a planned absence of the president from the country. Karzai had been scheduled for an official three-day visit to Sri Lanka to start on 23 February. The visit, though, was cancelled after a particularly severe Taleban attack on an ANSF post in Ghaziabad district of Kunar province not far from the border with Pakistan during which 21 Afghan soldiers were killed.

As Mahmud Karzai also told Afghan media, the president objected to the pro-Qayyum vote, saying that the jirga “discussed this [decision] with President Karzai, [who] however, due to some considerations, urged the jirga to [convince] Qayyum Karzai to quit running in the presidential race in favour of Zalmai Rassul.”

The Palace’s official statement issued after the meeting only mentioned that the president had told the jirga members he “respected” their effort to make the election go “well and in national unity” but explicitly said nothing about their choice and did not mention any name. According to Mahmud Karzai’s already quoted statement, he and Qayyum Karzai would accept the jirga’s decision if it echoed the president’s request. But, as mentioned above, they now claim that the jirga went in their favour.

Into a new round of pre-election politicking …

Following the Unity Jirga, the main presidential candidates have continued coalition talks in various combinations. Afghan media reported that Ashraf Ghani’s election team held talks with Qayyum Karzai’s team “under the mediation of President Karzai”. This, however, seems unlikely. First, Qayyum Karzai would not be prone to his brother’s mediation, as he had just shot down his biggest chance to come out on top of the candidates’ field. Second, Kabul’s rumour mill has it that the incumbent is also not interested in Ghani succeeding him: the latter is not exactly known as a team player and might be able to hold Hamed Karzai at bay, who seems to be striving for an influential background role after his second presidential term. His attempts to get a dialogue with the Taleban going, or at least one faction of them (see here and here), and his construction of a residence near to the presidential palace seem to prove this assumption.

Kabul-based, government-owned Hewad Daily reported meanwhile that Rassul’s campaign team is in talks for a coalition with candidates Na’im, Arsala, Karzai and Rahim Wardak. A spokesman for the Na’im campaign however has rejected this report.

A ‘Durrani’ or ‘Kandahari’ jirga?

Due to its composition and limited choice, Afghan and other media started to call the gathering in the Afghan capital’s Intercontinental Hotel the ‘Durrani’ or ‘Kandahari jirga’ (see for example here and here). The Durrani tribe (also known as Abdali) is one of the five Pashtun tribal ‘confederations’. (4) Its tribes live mainly in the southwestern region of Afghanistan, the five provinces formerly known as Loy Kandahar (Greater Kandahar) but have spread further northwest, to Herat and Badghis, and to the border with central Asia in the north, due to voluntary and sometimes forced resettlement prior to the early twentieth century. The Durrani have been closely associated with the Afghan monarchy, formed in 1747, and constituted the tribal aristocracy that ruled the country for more than 225 years. From 1747 to 1823, the Durrani kings came from the Sadozai clan of the Popalzai tribe; the Karzais belong to the Popalzai. After that, the Muhammadzai branch of the Barakzai tribe took over, until it was overthrown in 1973. Candidates Rassul and Na’im are Muhammadzai; Sherzai is also Barakzai, but not Muhammadzai.

A look at the jirga’s participants reveals, however, this was no Durrani-only jirga: the participants encompassed people from all Pashtun tribes, including a fair number of Ghilzai, eastern and southeastern Pashtuns, as well as some from smaller ethnic groups that often speak Pashto or live in close proximity with Pashtuns. Significantly, there appear to have been no (or only very minor) representation of the ‘northern’ ethnic groups: Tajiks, Uzbeks or Hazara. (5) So, it could more accurately be called an “all-Pashtun plus ‘affiliates’ tribal jirga”. This composition resembles the organising principle for the 2003 Constitutional Loya Jirga when the Pashtun and affiliated delegates supported Karzai and the presidential system and were sworn in on this line in Pashtun-only gatherings before decisive votes, while most ‘northerners’ wanted a mixed or parliamentary system.

The Unity Jirga’s choice was clearly Durrani (or Kandahari). Non-Durrani candidates like Arsala and Daud Sultanzoy, but even Karzai ally Abdul Rabb Sayyaf (a Kharoti from the Kabul area) and Hezb-e Islami candidate Qutbuddin Helal (a southeastern Pashtun), were not included in the effort. As the new president will be at the centre of the post-election Afghanistan’s political system, it is not a mistake to dub the jirga ‘Durrani’ or ‘Kandahari’. Sayyaf and Helal, as leaders of Islamist parties for decades, in particular, have played politics more along an ideological than a tribal agenda.

What the jirga says about the political landscape

Despite its less than clear-cut outcome, the Unity Jirga provides some lessons on how pre-election politicking and post-2001 Afghan policy in general work and which – often contradictory – factors are at play. First, the jirga’s composition shows that ethnic mobilisation is still a strong force. But the times of pure tribalism are over. Not that the tribes have disappeared; to the contrary, the feeling among Pashtuns of belonging to a certain tribe is as strong as ever. But, due to decades of violent conflict, undisputed leaders no longer exist in most tribes. Before the wars, most tribes and sub-tribes had their khankhel, the lineage from which their khans would ‘traditionally’ come. In some tribes, leadership has passed to other lineages, with the old ones resisting relinquishing their role; or, competing power groups have sprung up as the commanders of the different tanzims, or ‘mujahedin parties’. The result is fragmentation. Under these circumstances, every major national-level player can mobilise his jirga or shura, creating an impression of broad representation. (At the same time, many elders do not hesitate to attend gatherings of different leaders, promising support to each.)

Tribal affiliation often serves now as a cover, or easy explanation, for emerging new patterns of political organisation, as the ‘committee of 20’ showed: it had a strong sprinkling of organised political forces that have been on the ascent recently. There was a quartet of prominent Hezb-e Islami leaders (see an AAN analysis on Hezb’s political goals here), including the ubiquitous Amin Waqad as the committee’s deputy – he is also a leading member of the High Peace Council –, upper-house secretary Sayyed Ikram, Engineer Qarar and Sar Mualem Abdul Aziz. Most interestingly, the head of the jirga was Hazrat Muhammad Amin Mojaddedi (6), a religious scholar related, but not too closely, to the Taleban movement. (Coming from the family that has founded and led the prominent religious school Nur ul-Madares in Ghazni, he even has at times criticised Taleban Mullah Omar for a lack of religious credentials.) In early 2002, he was the head of a ‘moderate’ Taleban party, Khuddam ul-Forqan (Servants of Providence), established in Pakistan with the participation of some of the later ‘reconciled’ Taleban, but never legalised in Afghanistan (see an AAN paper about this group here). Including Mojaddedi, there was a trio of former Taleban (beside their ‘religious police’ chief Qalamuddin and Kabul University president Pir Muhammad Rohani, more were in the wider jirga), and even an eastern Afghan Salafi, Haji Rohullah.

This jirga again put Hezb-e Islami and former Taleban leaders in positions of so-called jirgamaran, conveners of jirgas. These are not necessarily key power positions but associated with the core team at the Palace, a possible foreshadowing of coming alliances in Kabul.

Second, the proceedings of the jirga belied President Karzai’s repeated assurances that he would remain strictly neutral in the presidential campaign. The UN and foreign diplomats have repeatedly hailed Karzai’s position, but probably more as a veiled appeal than as an expression of belief; surely, they were informed about the flurry of election-related meetings that have been held in the Palace for months. Karzai has also shown that he is not a lame duck at all; with less than six weeks to go to the elections, he continues to exert his influence, and successfully so. The jirga participants could have easily just insisted on any vote, but they seem to have buckled to him.

This makes the jirga another consultative jirga (for other such jirgas, see our analysis here and here and about the changing role of loya jirgas here) that can be be overruled by the president. As no result was ever officially announced, this can happen without too much loss of face for everyone involved.

Third, the jirga has shown that money and family links continue to play an important role in the campaign. (Organising such a jirga involves significant costs for travel, accommodation and catering, at least.) Karzai might have initially planned to project by this jirga that his family can mobilise enough votes in the ‘Pashtun belt’ to convince any candidate to guarantee him and his family a role in the post-April administration and in key appointments. But these are not the only factors that decide success or failure. Obviously, neither money nor family ties can overcome the fragmentation that characterises the Afghan post-2001 political landscape – which is not least a result of Karzai’s antipathy to strong political parties and the United States’ (failed) strategy to work with one strong, allied president.

Fourth, and linked to political fragmentation, the jirga showed that personal ambitions are still stronger than any political affiliation and moves to build alliances are merely tactical. Choosing a side is left to the last possible moment and is driven by the overriding desire to, at almost any cost, end up on the winning side, with its spoils. None of the presidential candidates appear to want to step back when ballots are already printed (doing so now would also result in wasted votes, as such a decision would simply not reach many voters in time); most of them also seem to assume that they have a real chance of winning.

The auspicious absence of Sayyaf in the manoeuvres around the Unity Jirga might indicate that he is the only one who is realistic about his chances and who prefers his role as a background operator. (AAN heard from participants in internal meetings that he does not expect to win.) This interprets his presidential candidature as a shrewd move to project his influence and expand his space to manoeuvre in a post-NATO Afghanistan, including for more key positions for his allies and possibly even for himself this time. For example, his tanzim – Dawat-e Islami (formerly Ittehad) – has held the key position of Chief Justice for most of the post-2001 period and is well represented in the cabinet and in provincial governor positions.

Zalmai Rassul now seems to be openly emerging as President Hamed Karzai’s preferred choice for his succession. There has been a growing consensus for a while on that (see an early AAN analysis of this here). Until now, many observers believed that Karzai wished to keep playing a game, alternating his support to keep any candidate from getting a clear victory, to unambiguously show that he is not supporting his brother Qayyum and, preferably, having him supporting Rassul. But events around this jirga have forced him to show his hand more clearly. Nevertheless, the last word may not yet have been spoken.


(1) AAN received a list of 187 names but it is not clear whether it contains those invited or finally participating. Most Afghan media talked about 170 participants. The names listed are from 29 of the country’s 34 provinces. Most came from the Kandahar region, with Kandahar (18), Helmand (9), Uruzgan (6), Nimruz and Zabul (2 each). The largest provincial group came from Herat (20), with Farah (9) and Badghis (6), all with significant Pashtun populations, making the western region almost as strong as Greater Kandahar. The east and the southeast followed, with Kunar (9), Nangarhar (8), Laghman (5), Kapisa (2), Nuristan (2) resp. Ghazni (8), Khost (7), Logar (5), Paktia (3), Wardak (2), Paktika (1). The north followed with Balkh (6), Jawzjan (6), Faryab (5), Sarepul (4), Samangan (2). The northeast had Baghlan (11), Takhar (6) and Kunduz (5); and the centre Kabul (9) and Parwan (3) (one other participant was listed as from Qarabagh, a district of Kabul province). Badakhshan, Bamian, Daykundi, Ghor and Panjshir remained unrepresented. Also, the names appear to show a large number of people from non-Durrani Kandahari and non-Kandahari tribes, including from the east and southeast (Hotak, Safi, Yussufzi, Mangal and Tani, among others) as well as Baloch and Pasha’i. The latter two often speak Pashto and live close to Pashtun communities.

(2) An interesting 2012 reportage from Karz here.

(3) According to the Wall Street Journal, his holdings “range from a restaurant in Cambridge, Mass., to a [7 per cent] stake in Afghanistan’s troubled Kabul Bank to a housing development in the Taliban’s southern Afghan heartland”. He is also chief executive of the Afghan Investment Co (AIC).

(4) There are five tribal ‘confederations’, each with a large number of tribes and sub-tribes besides the Durrani (Abdali), the Ghilzay, the Karlani, the Sarbani and the Gharghasht. (There are also some other systems, and sometimes the spellings Sarbanri and Karlanri are used.) In their tribal mythology, the Pashtuns claim a common ancestor for all these tribes, called Qais Abdul Rashid (there must have been one woman, at least, too), with his five sons the ‘fathers’ of the ‘confederations’. The Durrani are usually divided into the Panjpai and the Zirak, with the Nurzai, Alizai, Ishaqzai and other tribes among the former and the Alekozai, Barakzai and Popalzai and other tribes among the latter. (Actually, it should be Nurzi, Alizi, etc. because this is the correct plural, while -ai is the singular in Pashto. And while we are at it, it is ‘Pashto’ but ‘Pashtuns’, or, in Pashto, ‘Pashtane’, with a stress on the last syllable.) According to some Afghan sources, the Durrani ‘confederation’ was more a political than a purely ethnic construct, composed by the founder of the 1747 Afghan empire, Ahmad Shah Durrani, from tribes who supported him, called gund (party!) in these sources. (See for example: Muhammad Omar Rawand Miakhel, De Pashtano Qabilo Shujre au Mene [The Lineages and Dwellings of the Pashtun Tribes], Kabul 1999, p 217.) For this high degree of differentiation, the Pashtuns are not ‘a tribe’ but ‘tribes’, or an ‘ethnic group’.

(5) The ethnic affiliation of the participants listed (see footnote 1) is not provided. But many names, even from northern provinces, include parts that refer to certain Pashtun tribes.

(6) Amin Mojaddedi is distantly related to Hazrat Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, the former interim president and chairman of the 2013 BSA jirga.


Elections Jirga Pashtun president presidential candidates Qayyum Karzai tribes Zalmai Rassul Zalmay Rassoul