Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Pluralistic within Limits, but Not Democratic: Afghanistan’s political landscape before the 2014 elections

Thomas Ruttig 11 min

A look at the broad variety of (potential) presidential candidates seems to indicate some political pluralism. This is an illusion, however. Afghan analysts have recently argued that President Karzai’s political approach has hampered democratic party-based politics. This is only one side of the coin, argues AAN’s senior analyst Thomas Ruttig. He explains that the other side is the undemocratic internal workings of most political parties, particularly of the tanzims-turned-parties; their reluctance to relinquish relations to armed militias and non-transparent financing have led to their domination in the political party system of the country and to a phenomenon that could be described as “pluralism within limits”.

Omar Samad and Javid Ahmad recently wrote on the AfPak Channel that President Karzai “has publicly shown disdain for organized political movements and resisted any attempt to promote and nurture democratic party-based politics” since he took office in late 2001. (1) This is correct without doubt – but it is not only Karzai’s mistake. It also results from the character of the main parties that have come to dominate the Afghan landscape as well as the list of the originally 27 presidential tickets submitted for the 5 April 2013 election (see our analysis here, here and here). The same, even more so, is true for the preliminary final candidates list announced on 22 October that is (see our analysis here)

Afghanistan’s parties in general continue to be shaped by persons, not programmes. Different political programmes and approaches are discernable in contours at best. In recent months, political parties increased activity in preparation for registering a limited number of strong presidential candidates. This activity quickly ended when personal ambitions regained the upper hand. An old phenomenon resurfaced: everyone wants to be the leader. Sadeq Modaber, the head of the influential Office for Administrative Affairs who had also hoped for a place on one presidential ticket, reflected with a frustrated statement on his Facebook page: “The recent decision-making on the forthcoming presidential election is unhealthy and bases on personal interest instead of the national interest.”

The broad Electoral Union of Afghanistan (see AAN reporting here) survived barely a month. One of its core forces – the National Front of Afghanistan (NFA; it united the opposition parties Jamiat, Jombesh and the Mohaqqeq wing of Hezb-e Wahdat; see our introduction here) – split after less than two years, and the CCPPCA alliance (our introduction here) that brought together more than 20 parties and coalitions, including the NFA, had a life span of a bit over a year. One reason might lie in the one-point agendas of those alliances (CCPPCA: electoral reform; EUA: finding a single presidential candidate; NFA: creating a united opposition).

Another reason is the diversity of parties involved: some were opposition and others were in- or pro-government parties. One aspect in the original union of opposition parties in the NFA and the EUA was that some of the forces indicated that their aim was to break the Pashtuns’ hold on the head-of-state position (our analysis here). As a result of the rapid unravelling of those party alliances, Afghanistan is still far from having stable political forces, usually a prerequisite for a stable political system in the broader sense. (In this context, also refer to our analysis of executive-legislative relations here.)

Armed wings in reserve

In 2013, not only the list of the presidential and vice-presidential aspirants but Afghanistan’s political landscape in general is dominated by the former mujahedin tanzims now turned (at least in name) parties: Jamiat-e Islami, Hezb-e Islami, Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami, Jombesh and others. Most have numerous splinter factions. The reputations of these tanzims-turned-parties are built mainly on their role in the struggle against the Soviet occupation and the Taleban but also in the factional wars from 1992 to 1996. Among the new pro-democratic forces, only Hezb-e Kar wa Tause’a (2) was fielding a presidential candidate, Mr Salman Ali Dostzada; he is among those ruled out by the IEC now. (Also, late King Zaher Shah’s grandson, Sardar Muhammad Nader, represents an exception. But their chances of coming out on top are minimal since they neither enjoy the financial means nor the reputation of the parties-turned-tanzims, with all up- and downsides involved. This is also why the tanzims are perceived to be ‘strong’ by Afghans and foreigners alike – in fact, the euphemistic term ‘strongman’ has widely replaced the less ‘neutral’ term ‘warlord’.

The political spectrum on offer was broader in the 2009 election. There was MP Ramazan Bashardost who made the competition interesting with his independent and somewhat populist anti-corruption campaign. Not surprisingly, it brought him 10.46 per cent of the votes, among them many from outside his ethnic group (which is rare for a Hazara). Such an outstanding, unorthodox candidate is missing this time. Besides, there were two leftist contenders in 2009, Shahnawaz Tanai and Habib Mangal, who tried to tap in to the vote bank of former members of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) and its mass organisations (which had some two million members in the 1980s) and draw on the sympathisers of the dozen or so legal parties led by former PDPA members. Additionally, three leftist northern ethno-nationalist candidates (MP Latif Pedram, Mahbubullah Kushani who was a minister in the Najibullah government, and Bashir Bezhan) (3) as well as Ghulam Faruq Nejrabi, from another splinter party, were running. But each except Bashardost received less than one per cent of the vote.

This time, among the non-tanzims only Afghan Mellat (4) and a very recently established alliance of small leftist or fully unknown political parties, the Association of National Amity of Afghanistan (ANAA), have treid to field candidates – Anwar-ul-Haq Ahady and ANAA founder Ishaq Gailani. Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, the leader of the National United Party – which mainly unites former members of the Parcham faction of the leftist and Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (ruled 1978–92) but insists it is not leftist anymore – has not fielded a candidate itself but is supporting the ticket of Dr Abdullah. Both Gailani and Ulumi are associated with the civil wars of the 1980s and 1990s, Gailani as a mujahedin commander and Ulumi as a regime general. Ahady was in exile, teaching in the US, but his party has been part of the presidential camp over the past years, with Ahady a member of cabinet.

Given the tanzims-turned-parties’ domination, it was not surprising that it caused widespread surprise when one of their main figures, General Dostum, took the unprecedented step of publicly apologising – although not seeking forgiveness – for his role in causing “pain and suffering of the people“ during the wars of the past decades (our piece here). His apology came only after he joined the ticket of presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani who is on the record as calling Dostum “a known killer” before the last election (see here and here).

Meanwhile, all the other leading actors from the 1990s tanzims – regardless of whether they had been military commanders or had worked on the political side – who now are populating the presidential tickets have avoided so far any public acknowledgment that they did any harm to the country in the past. When former national intelligence chief-turned-opposition-politician (and almost presidential candidate) Amrullah Saleh called for an internationally funded truth-finding commission to “investigate human-rights violations, massacres and major crimes of the past 20 years” in 2011 in an op-ed in a foreign newspaper (read it here and see our analysis here), his suggestion was met with deafening silence by his fellow Afghan politicians. Ismail Khan, one vice-presidential candidate, recently categorically rejected that those who fought for the country’s freedom are obliged to apologise (quoted in this piece). Unless presidential and vice-presidential candidates like Dr Abdullah, Mohaqqeq, Ismail Khan, Hilal, Anwari, Sayyaf and others follow Dostum by making their own public apologies, however, it will remain difficult to talk of “democratic party-based politics” in Afghanistan.

It is not only that Afghanistan’s political scene is more fragmented than at any time in the past decades with at least four factions each of Hezb-e Islami and Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami and even more splinters and offshoots of Jamiat – it is also more militarised, with many illegal armed groups (IAG), remnants of the tanzim militias that have either been legalised as Afghan Local Police (ALP) or have survived outside the law but protected by local strongmen (see for example our reports from Baghlan; Kunduz, Chahrdara in Kunduz, and Ghor). Officially, none of these groups should exist anymore after two disarmament programmes (see our report on DDR and DIAG here). At the same time, many former mujahedin commanders who have been integrated into the different Afghan National Security Forces still rely on the personal loyalty of ‘their’ fighters and might be able to turn them back into tanzim-related militias.

That many fighters are still out there, waiting for a call, has been shown by the widespread response of surviving illegal armed groups to the mobilisation of the ever-expanding ALP. According to the quarterly report (p 96) by the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (SIGAR) published in July this year, the ALP numbered 23,551 at that point and operated at 115 sites. The official target is 30,000 fighters in 138 districts in 31 provinces. (5) But many more illegal armed groups are out there, including those that applied for incorporation in the ALP but did not make in through the vetting. There is no indication, however, that those groups were disarmed on the spot, as they should have been. (At least officially, ALP applicants bring their own weapons which – according to the law – are illegal.) Many of these groups will wait for new offers now. Kunduz province alone, according to its governor, had 2,000 “irresponsible gunmen” earlier this year. (6)

No wonder the impression is widespread in Afghanistan that the tanzims are keeping in reserve their armed wings, or at least the option to remobilise them, and with them their power to intimidate. The tanzims also seem to command sufficient financial means, presumably provided with bags of cash similar to those received by President Karzai from various neighbouring and other countries (here and here). This leaves doubt about whether these tanzims have transformed from military into political organisations and whether this conversion is permanent. No wonder, too, that under these circumstances, the pro-democratic parties have virtually given up on participating in the current political system and are almost entirely absent from the 27 originally submitted presidential tickets.

If the political fragmentation described by Samad and Javed (and repeatedly by us, here, here and in 2011 a report here) is not overcome, and should Afghanistan descend into new election-related or other violence, then the ALP and freelance militias-in-waiting can be easily re-modelled into more regular armed wings of the political parties. This fragmentation and militarisation also renders the political landscape dangerously lopsided against those who reject the use of violence as a political means. The non-violent persuasion motivated pro-democratic underground and exiled forces to come out into the open after 2001 but they have been quickly sidelined again (more about his in my papers here and here).

The need to democratise internally

If the tanzims-turned-parties are democratically-minded, they should not only take a public position on past war crimes and human rights violations, but use the upcoming electoral campaign to publicly and verifiably vow not to engage in militia-building now or after the elections. These parties need to democratise their internal structures and dealings, starting with holding their congresses publicly and electing their leaders publicly – not in closed central-council meetings after the congress as is the dominant practice now. Also, finances need to become more transparent, to allow all legal parties to have equal opportunities. Already in its 2006 Political Party Assessment Afghanistan, the National Democratic Institute (NDI) pointed to the imbalanced and non-transparent financing of parties and added in the 2009 version that under the current system of oversight, Afghan “parties have little incentive to be more financially accountable”.

Afghanistan needs international support to come to terms with its civil war past, as Amrullah Saleh has acknowledged in his already mentioned 2011 op-ed. The same is true, though, for this internal democratisation of the tanzims and for their irreversible demilitarisation. This could possibly be supported by a democratisation trust fund, similar to or as part of the Afghanistan Reconstruction Trust Fund (ARTF): donors pay into such a fund and support political party development without violating the Afghan law that forbids direct foreign financial support to parties. This could connect with the establishment of a new, non-governmental mechanism to register political parties, as suggested earlier by the NDI, and then monitor their political, financial and military behaviour, a task currently assigned to the Ministry of Justice (MoJ) (the justice minister, though, could come theoretically from a political party which could compromise the ministry’s independent look at parties because he would be partial himself). Indeed, the 2009 NDI political party survey indicated that parties complained about unequal treatment and fraud at the responsible MoJ department (see here, p 37) and concluded that “the Ministry of Justice has little power or autonomy to verify the claims of parties on their membership numbers or declared assets”. As a response, the report recommends that “the Coordination Office (currently located in the Ministry of Justice) should be an independent institution named the Registrar of Political Parties. The mandate of this independent institution should be anchored in the Political Party Law.”

If Afghanistan is that aspiring “young democracy” that presidential candidate Zalmai Rassul evoked in his September 2013 speech at the UN General Assembly, still in his capacity as foreign minister, or a country where “democracy has taken root” as President Karzai put it one year earlier at the same occasion, the suggestion of international support for democratisation should be considered. It would make Afghanistan more democratic by levelling the extremely and dangerously lopsided political field.

Under the current circumstances, the original 27 and remaining ten presidential candidates suggest a variety and pluralism that does not exist. What currently exists is a limited pluralism that mainly reflects the diversity of the former mujahedin movement. This includes both (former?) warlords and commanders and the so-called technocrats who, although they lived abroad and did not directly participate in the fight against the Soviets, belonged to or supported the various mujahedin tanzims. (Hamed Karzai, for example, was a member of Hazrat Mojaddedi’s Jabha-ye Nejat-e Melli, or Afghanistan National Liberation Front; his then chief-of-staff stated in 2004 that “the president of course was also a leader of jihad”). Other organised political forces have mainly been pushed to the fringes of a political system that remains extremely lopsided, fragmented and militarised. There might even be a silent majority – or at least a large part of the Afghan population – that did not see itself represented well in the list of the 27.


(1) Indeed, President Karzai has encouraged, if not forced, party leaders to quit their positions in their parties when they join his cabinet. This was the case with Afghan Mellat leader Ahady for example. Rangin Dadfar Spanta stopped his involvement in setting up a social democratic party when he was appointed presidential advisor for political and international affairs in 2005. Sometimes, however, he showed a softer stance, for example in the cases of (late) pro-Iranian commerce minister Sayed Reza Kazemi and of Hezb-e Islami leader Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, the current minister of economy. A former health minister, Dr Fatemi, was also known as being a member of Hazrat Mojaddedi’s party. On occasion, Karzai also has acknowledged that political party representatives are in his cabinet, as he did in an interview in May 2012 with Time magazine:

There are people who are from Hezb-e Islami who are part of this government, there are people from Jabha-ye Islami who are part of this government. There are people from . . . Hezb-e Wahdat who are part of this government. There are Afghan Mellat, and the former communists, the Khalq[is] and Parcham[is] who are part of this government.

(2) Labour and Development Party, newly established after 2001 by young Hazara intellectuals who tried to transcend the ethnic divide (successfully for a while). This year’s attempt, however, seems to be a desperate last-minute one, without coordination with other pro-democracy parties – some of which seem to be backing Ashraf Ghani as they did in 2009 when they were deeply disappointed by his result (a meagre 2.94%), his hastily assembled election team and their exclusion from it.

(3) The three candidates’ background is in the party Sazman-e Inqelabi-ye Zahmatkashan-e Afghanistan (Revolutionary Organisation of Afghanistan’s Toilers) that was legalised during the Najibullah government and goes further back to a group known as Settam-e Melli ([Against] National Oppression). It has since split into various groups. Two of those parties – Pedram’s National Congress Party and Hezb-e Azadegan (Party of the Free) – to which former SAZA leader Kushani belongs – are among the currently registered 57 parties.

(4) The party, officially named Afghan Social Democratic Party until 2012, but mainly known for its aspirations to reunite Pashtunistan, was founded in 1966 (according to other information in the 1950s or in 1964, together with its newspaper, also called Afghan Mellat; more background here). In the early 1980s, it was part of the armed struggle against the Soviets but its ‘fronts’ quickly ran dry of resources because Pakistan started channelling money and weapons to Islamist groups exclusively.

(5) The head of the US Special Operations Command (SOCOM) stated in January 2013, however, that he had been asked by the Afghan interior ministry – under which the ALP has been put – to expand this figure to 40,000.

(6) About where this situation is heading, just read the following headlines from Afghan media in the past months:

·      “IAGs Disrupting IEC Election Prep[aration]”, ToloNews, 15 September 2013;

·      “Kapisa Governor Fuels [actually Raises] IAG Concerns”, ToloNews, 6 September 2013;

·      “Balkh Residents Call Attention to IAG Activity”, ToloNews, 5 September 2013;

·      “Illegal Armed Groups Threaten Security of Baghlan: Officials”, ToloNews 18 August 2013;

·      “Existence of Illegal Armed Groups Posing Threat to Life and Security in Ghor”, ToloNews 5 August 2013;

·      “4 perish in Kunduz [IAG] clashes”, Pajhwok Afghan News 11 May 2013;

·      “Illegal Armed Groups a Security Threat: DIAG Chief”, Pajhwok Afghan News 23 December 2012.


democracy Democratization fragmentation militarisation militias parties Political landscape Presidential election tanzims