Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

National Coalition vs National Front: Two opposition alliances put Jamiat in a dilemma

Thomas Ruttig 8 min

And yet another opposition alliance, but not a really new one. Before Christmas, Dr Abdullah Abdullah extended his own Hope and Change alliance with a few more political parties and politicians. It was renamed the National Coalition of Afghanistan (NCA). Apparently, Abdullah is trying to make it look more like a real coalition and less a one-man show. But, more significantly, it will rather contribute to more confusion than clarity: Shedding its unmistakable old name for a rather unexciting one, it will be confused with the new National Front of Afghanistan (NFA) launched a few weeks ago. Its political programme, too, is the same. But the parallel existence of the two alliances shows that there is a deep rift within the Jamiat-e Islami camp putting question marks behind its future. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig and Gran Hewad look at this latest development.

What looks like a new opposition alliance, called the National Coalition of Afghanistan (Etelaf-e Melli-ye Afghanistan), has been launched in Kabul on 22 December. It is led by former foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah, one of the most prominent ex-mujahedin leaders of the younger generation in the country. This new development in what until recently was the only noticeable organised opposition alliance – the Hope and Change (Taghir wa Omid) alliance – is in fact a moderate broadening of its composition and a renaming of its predecessor, that tried to challenge President Hamed Karzai in the 2009 presidential elections. It came less than four weeks after a new National Front of Afghanistan (NFA) had been established.
Both organisations are rather similar in their genealogy, their leading personnel and their political programme. Both go back to the period of the jehad against the Soviet occupation and resistance against the Taleban in the north, and key personnel of both come from Jamiat-e Islami, a former mujahedin ‘party’ that always had been characterised by an extremely diversified – some might say: fragmented – organisational structure. Many of their leading personalities have been closely allied with each other over long years. Politically, both alliances support Afghanistan’s shift to a parliamentary system, the decentralization of power and electoral reforms as well as talks with the Taleban. This will make it difficult to distinguish them from each other, and has made many observers wonder whether the two have to exist simultaneously at all. Nevertheless, the NCA has decided not to align itself with the NFA. For the time being.

Members of the NCA interim board explained to AAN why. They pointed to the Front leadership’s ‘political disability’ and ‘weak impression’ during the 2009 presidential elections. They say that the new Coalition, in contrast, is committed to its own political plans and goals, not to seats in the government – as the NFA is accused of. ‘We decided to wait until the upcoming presidential elections [in 2014] and see what the Front is doing. If they remain committed to their goals and don’t compromise [with the government], we will reconsider what to do’, Sayyid Agha Hussain Fazel Sancharaki said who, with a high profile, already acted as Hope & Change’s spokesman.

However, Hope & Change also had navigated through 25 months of political ups and downs, including two Loya Jirgas. The first one (the 2010 consultative peace jirga), it rejected as unrepresentative and the second one (the 2011 ‘traditional’ jirga), it boycotted as unconstitutional. But while its leader Dr Abdullah had been the main rival of President Karzai before and during the controversial 2009 presidential elections, the peace jirga caused the separation of Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani from Change & Hope over which he had presided as the undisputed leader of the whole Jamiati camp – when Karzai appointed him its chairman and then chairman of the quasi-governmental High Peace Council. This was a serious loss, as the alliance continued to position itself as an opposition force while Rabbani, accepting the new posts, remained closely linked with the Karzai government. Change & Hope struggled to survive. It organised press conferences, criticised the government’s policies, its performance and its corruption and unofficially supported some candidates during the 2010 parliamentary elections – but did not really impress. Maybe, this was also understood by Dr Abdullah, and he tries to do better this time.

Apparently, he is trying to sport a new, more democratic organisational structure and a broader tribal and political set-up, the latter by adding some Pashtun and Uzbek politicians to the otherwise rather ‘northern’ old structure of Hope & Change. Among the Pashtuns who joined are former MP Nur-ul Haq Ulumi, the leader of Mutahed-e Melli party and already part of the first National Front (2007), as well as two relatively new figures in this political camp: Dr. Muhammad Ebrahim Moshfeq, early on in the past-Taleban time a deputy governor of Khost (and known for his Northern Alliance links) and Dr. Hayatullah Popalzai from Kandahar. New in the forefront is Abbas Karimi, an Uzbek who was justice minister during the interim government and recently Afghan Ambassador to Kuwait. In the past, he had shifted from Jamiat to Jombesh, and now he is on Dr Abdullah’s side. The latter three could be described best as independent figures who, nevertheless, do not really represent broader political forces in their areas of origin.

Humayun Shah Asefi, the brother-in-law of late Baba-ye Millat (Father of the Nation), the former king, is also on board. In the first post-Taleban years, he ran a party to organise the once broad monarchist movement but it has split since and is not really active any more. Consequently, he also can be counted under independent personalities. He already had joined Dr Abdullah as a candidate for vice presidency in his 2009 presidential election campaign.*

From the old Northern Alliance camp, Eng. Muhammad Asim, a former Baghlan MP is in the new coalition, as interim head of its General Secretariat; former Wolesi Jirga speaker Yunos Qanuni, the leader ofAfghanistan-e Nawin party (officially defunct); Ahmad Behzad, the second deputy speaker of the current Wolesi Jirga; Qurban Ali Urfani, the head of one of the many Hezb-e Wahdat splinter groups (Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Millat Afghanistan); and most interestingly, Ahmad Wali Massud, the leader of Nohzat-e Melli party (also not officially in existence any more but old labels die slowly). He probably feels that the earlier launched NFA would be too small for him and his brother Ahmad Zia, the former vice president who leads it. He is also believed to be interested in keeping his old friendship with Dr Abdullah alive.

While Sancharaki claims that there are already around ten political parties in the NCA, Ulumi’s Hezb-e Mutahed-e Melli is the only one registered among them under the new political parties law. The number of MPs who participated in the inaugural gathering was not impressive either. It did not exceed a dozen.

On the internal structure, a number of leadership and policy bodies as well as procedural amendments are supposed to give the NCA a more democratic outlook. An interim board with around 30 members has been working on the structure and documents of the new Coalition since early 2010. These efforts resulted in the drafting of a charter, which its predecessor organisation was lacking, and a political action plan. The charter foresees a High Council at the top of the Coalition, more of a party congress-character. NCA sources say that it is to consist of people of 13 social categories (like ulema, youth, women, etc) and to be convened next spring. It will elect the Coalition’s chairperson and a smaller leadership council. Moreover, it will decide about the final structure of the coalition. So far the idea is that the leadership council and the Coalition’s chairperson will be elected annually, that the leadership council will have eight thematic working ‘teams’, that there also will be an executive committee with 12 subcommittees, a political and policy board elected through the leadership council and a general secretariat. The policy board will provide guidance on the main policy lines to the leadership council. Forty per cent of the coalition’s high council would be allotted to political parties’ representatives and the rest filled by unaffiliated people, Eng. Asim told AAN.

This mixture of political parties and independent national figures, however, is creating a potential conflict about the right to vote in decision-making processes. The bigger weight given to independent national figures, without a proven power base, risks alienating the political parties who at least can claim some broader support. The Coalition is clearly concerned that political parties may abandon it more easily than individuals. ‘Decisions would be made based on consensus rather than votes, to be fair and to keep the balance between the political parties and the independent national figures’, explains Eng. Azim. Meanwhile, Sancharaki says that the charter allows for an increase in the number of political party representatives in these bodies.

Although this all sounds terribly complicated, if implemented (and possibly simplified), these measures have the potential to make the new coalition more democratic internally and to move beyond just being a two-man show of Dr Abdullah and his spokesman Sancharaki. But at this stage, NCA stalwarts say, the founders’ council has reached an agreement to have Dr Abdullah as the coalition’s acting chairperson. (For contrast, see the also new Rights and Justice Party who refrained from making its most high-profile member already the interim chairman and rejected any cooperation with Dr Abdullah’s set-up, exactly over its lack of internal democracy.)

But that’s just the technical side of it. Both, the NCA and the NFA, also have lost the support of a younger generation of Jamiat sympathisers, symbolised by former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh and his Green Trend movement. He has shown that he is able to mobilise amongst the students, an ability the two larger coalitions still have to prove. It is also not clear what the position of Vice President Fahim will be vis-à-vis both alliances – after all he was the number two in late Ahmad Shah Massud’s Shura-ye Nazar and, after Rabbani’s assassination, is arguably the highest-ranking remaining Jamiati. He might be at odds with Ahmad Zia Massud’s NFA who had replaced him as first vice president in Karzai’s first elected tenure, but also did not appreciate Dr Abdullah’s 2009 candidacy against Karzai when the latter had re-appointed him his vice-presidential candidate again.

Amongst potential voters, Dr Abdullah’s new coalition is likely to create more confusion than clarity – despite all the (possibly positive) changes in its structure. Shedding its unmistakable old name, Change & Hope, for a rather unexciting one, it now almost sounds like that of its estranged sister organisation that it does not want to ally with, the NFA. What we would call ‘the ex-mujahedin opposition’ (to distinguish it from newer parties of a different legacy), and more precisely the old Jamiat-e Islami camp, is now split into two.

Explanations from within Jamiat or other proponents to AAN do not sound very convincing: Jamiat’s spokesperson Abdul Shukkur Waqef Hakemi claiming that Ahmad Zia Massoud remains to be a Jamiat member but went to the NFA as an ‘independent figure’, or Dr Abdullah saying that his framework of reference (‘my past’) is Shura-ye Nazar (a structure officially dissolved long ago). NB: Mohaqqiq and Dostam, now with the NFA, time and again have turned out to be unreliable allies, too. Their foremost interest is to protect their respective ethnic groups’ interests, the Hazaras’ and the Uzbeks’; if they find that on the government’s side, they will depart NFA again.

With its spiritual leader Rabbani dead, Fahim in government, Dr Abdullah and the Massud brothers splitting its clientele, and the Massuds – whose name still carries the legitimacy of the jihad for many – on different sides of the NFA/NCA split now, Jamiat’s own future is in question. Although it plans to elect a new leader this spring (Rabbani junior is the acting one), it has to define its relationship with the NCA and NFA. Does it want to pretend to be above their disunity, play in both camps or will it prefer one over the other? Whatever the decision will look like, Jamiat will come out severely weakened. It probably will not go for good, although even this wouldn’t be a bad thing because it would create more space for a gradual democratisation in the two new organisations.

But we have seen such attempts before, and not with a good outcome: Qanuni’s Afghanistan-e Newin party and Ahmad Wali Massud’s Nohzat-e Melli did not survive for long. Both were dismantled after Rabbani called for unity. The first (2007) National Front which included most of the groups now divided between the NFA and the NCA also fizzled out without having achieved much.

Separately they march again. But will they ever be able to strike jointly?

* Prince Mustapha Zaher, the oldest grandson of the king who, as many believed, still harboured royal ambitions for a while, was also a member of the first National Front of Afghanistan established by Prof Rabbani in 2007 – and was seen as its most spectacular addition then. When it was turned into an election vehicle for Dr Abdullah later, a number of its influential members, including the Prince, Marshal Fahim, Mohaqqeq and Dostum left the front and joined President Karzai’s camp.