Over the past two years, the National Unity Government (NUG) has been challenged by internal power struggles, protest movements and now an ‘opposition’ coalition made up of influential officials from within. It is the first time, however, that leaders of three mainstream political parties from three major ethnic groups have joined forces – at least under the NUG. The challenge posed by the coalition has now taken a more dramatic turn following the news that Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum was denied entry at Mazar-e Sharif airport on 17 July 2017 while attempting to return to the country. AAN’s Ali Yawar Adili and Thomas Ruttig look at the coalition members’ backgrounds, their demands and the consequences of this emerging protest from within the government as the country faces another wave of intensive fighting. From the right Salahuddin Rabbani (acting Chairman of Jamiat and Foreign Minister), Muhammad Mohaqeq (leader of Hezb-e Wahdat Mardom and Deputy Chief Executive), Atta Muhammad Nur (Balkh Governor and Chief Executive of Jamiat), General Abdul Rashid Dostum (first Vice-President and leader of Jombesh-e Milli) and Muhammad Nateqi (Deputy of Wahdat-e Mardom) after forming a political coalition in Ankara, Turkey. Photo: Atta Muhammad Nur's Facebook
Leaders of three major political parties – Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan, Jombesh-e Melli Islami and Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom-e Afghanistan – announced their decision to form a new coalition on 30 June 2017 called the “Etelaf baray Nejat-e Afghanistan (Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan).” The leaders of the coalition said that its aim was to “prevent the collapse of the system, avoid political chaos and restore national trust” among the political classes inside and outside the government. It is not clear, however, whether this coalition includes party leaders or how much support, in particular Jamiat, has from other party heavyweights or from its grassroots members (more about this in the text).
Three major themes emerge in the statements of the senior members of the coalition as well as in their agreements: criticism of the centralisation of power by the president’s circle; accusations of the government’s involvement in some of the high profile attacks, which they felt were targeted; and the general deterioration of security in the north. The latter is, sometimes explicitly, blamed on leading Pashtun politicians close to the president in what the coalition deems to be an attempt to destabilise the northern leaders’ local power bases.
In a declaration published on social media (see here, here, here and here (1), the coalition has demanded that Dostum’s vice-presidential authorities, which have never officially been taken from him, be restored. Earlier, Dostum’s Jombesh party held protests in a number of provinces, including in Balkh and Jawzjan, calling for the restoration of his authority, emphasising that his position was their ‘red line’ and that any disrespect to him would be regarded as disrespect to many millions of Uzbek and other Turkic speaking groups. Furthermore, the coalition has also called for the full implementation of the political agreement of the NUG, as one of its priorities. (2)
The formation of the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan by the leaders of the three parties is the result of a culmination of complaints and accusations that Jamiat leaders and the first vice president have been levelling against the president and his entourage for some time. On 5 June 2017 for instance, two days after Jamiat leaders survived triple bomb blasts during a funeral for Salem Ezadyar (who was killed during the 2 June protests), Salahuddin Rabbani, foreign minister and acting head of Jamiat, appeared in a press conference and called for the “[r]emoval of the national security adviser [Hanif Atmar] and other heads of security institutions,” implying they had had a hand in the attacks. (3) This was echoed on 25 June 2017 by Balkh Governor Atta Muhammad Nur, another Jamiat leader, who called for “reforms at the top of the military and security agencies” in his Eid-ul Fitr prayer speech last month, with a threat to “resort to the strongest and most dangerous civil moves.” (4) Similarly, in October 2016, Vice-President General Abdul Rashid Dostum, after his convoy came under attack while he was leading a clearance operation against the Taleban in the north, accused the national security advisor and NDS chief Massum Stanakzai of plotting against him and wanting him killed. He also lashed out at the president for favouring Pashtuns in appointments, particularly from his home province, saying, “For the president, whoever speaks Pashto is a good person, but if they speak Pashto and are from Logar, it is even better.” (5)
The coalition members have, however, emphasised that they “do not want to dismantle the government.” This was stated by Mohaqeq, the leader of Wahdat-e Mardom, in response to certain MPs’ call for coalition members to resign from the government; he argued that would be impossible as the coalition represented “at least three and a half to four million clean votes” cast in the last elections. In a press appearance upon his return from Turkey, Atta also insisted that the coalition members constituted “the system’s pillar.”
Riding on a wave of protests
The formation of the coalition from within the government comes at a time when protestors, calling themselves the “Uprising for Change,” resumed their demonstrations on 3 July 2017 (AAN background here). The movement’s first protest, which took place on 2 June 2017, was trigged by a massive truck bomb in Kabul’s city centre on 31 May 2017 (see AAN’s previous report here). It has since taken on a new dimension, following security forces’ use of live rounds, which killed at least six protestors. One other person was killed in a clash during the removal of one of the movement’s sit-in tents the night between 19 and 20 June 2017 (see AAN’s previous report here).
Criticism from within and outside the government of the president and of those close to him has been increasing. On 13 July 2017, more than 60 members of parliament, including the first deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga Humayun Humayun, travelled to participate in a gathering in support of the national security forces. General Abdul Razeq, Kandahar’s powerful chief of police who addressed the gathering, said that the government had been “taken hostage by a few, like in the dark days of Mullah Omar.” Razeq is loyal to former President Hamed Karzai (see AAN reporting here) Humayun also accused the government of causing both ethnic and intra-ethnic tensions. On 9 July 2017, the Enlightening Movement that emerged from among those protesting the rerouting of a planned power line (AAN reporting here) announced that it would organise a new protest on the first anniversary of a suicide bomb attack claimed by Daesh during a demonstration it had organised at Deh Mazang Square in western Kabul on 2 Asad 1396 in the Afghan calendar (which, unlike last year and coincidentally on 23 July 2016, falls on 24 July 2017 this year).
The coalition’s members and their internal disunity
The members of the coalition – also called the ‘Ankara Triangle’ by Afghan social media activists – because it emerged out of meetings in Dostum’s Ankara residence – are political leaders from the Tajik, Hazara and Uzbek communities. Mainly:
- First Vice-President Abdul Rashid Dostum, the founder and leader of Jombesh-e Melli Islami Afghanistan (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan) and until recently the unchallenged leader of the Uzbek community (AAN’s analysis here on recent developments);
- Foreign Minister Salahuddin Rabbani, acting chairperson of Jamiat-e Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Society of Afghanistan), one of the strongest parties and predominated by Tajiks;
- Balkh Governor Atta Muhammad Nur, head of Jamiat-e Islami’s Executive Council (shura-ye ejra’iya);
- Second Deputy Chief Executive Muhammad Mohaqeq, the leader of Wahdat-e Islami Mardom-e Afghanistan (People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan) and an influential Hazara leader.
As discussed above, the new Coalition is the culmination of complaints by Dostum and the two Jamiat leaders Rabbani and Atta, and they have now been joined by Muhammad Mohaqeq, the second deputy chief executive. Mohaqeq began criticising certain circles within the government (without naming names) in an interview with Ariana TV on 24 June 2017. Like Rabbani, Atta and Dostum, Mohaqeq implied that he appeared to be the target of a terrorist attack on Al-Zahra Mosque (which killed one of his most influential backers, a prominent businessman named Haji Hussain Ramazanzada – see media report here). Mohaqeq said he had been due to appear at the mosque for a late night religious ceremony when it came under attack; he had been late due to an invitation to iftar (breaking of the fast). He said that the attack had intended to cause more casualties than it did, including himself and some other high-ranking personalities. On 24 June, in his Eid message, he complained that two or three influential ministers who were close to the top of the “power pyramid” had revoked the authorities of all the ministries and that other ministers did not have any power, even in their own ministries.” He claimed that the “circle monopolising power” was attempting to “marginalise other factions” and that this was more important than working to prevent the fall of districts or protecting security forces from increasing casualties. (6)
Wahdat deputy leader Muhammad Nateqi, who also attended the Ankara meetings, insisted when talking to AAN that the coalition was a coalition of the three parties and not of the individual leaders. He pointed out that the agreement had been signed by six people: in addition to the four leaders Dostum, Atta, Rabbani and Mohaqeq, Dostum’s son Bator, the party’s acting leader in the country, and Nateqi himself, in his capacity as deputy of Mohaqeq’s party, had also both signed the agreement. Both were probably brought in to make the pact look balanced (with two representatives per party) and to hide the fact that Jamiat is represented by two competing prominent leaders.
It is not fully clear whether the two Jamiat leaders have the full support of all the Jamiat heavyweights, as some of them, such as Ismail Khan (who does not hold any government post) and Ahmad Zia Massud (who was dismissed by the president from his position as the president’s special representative for reform and good governance in April 2017), have been calling for early elections in contrast to the coalition’s declared aim of reforming and stabilising the existing government, not toppling it. A more radical Jamiat dissenter, Sayyed Ibrahim Emad, son of Sayyed Nurullah Emad, the former deputy head of Jamiat, claimed that “95 per cent of Jamiat members” are against the coalition, which may be taken with a pinch of salt. Jamiat’s demand (also reflected in its statement issued on 5 June 2017) for the dismissal of the national security adviser was immediately rejected by the Palace. But this demand has now also been taken up by the new coalition.
While the coalition’s support for the implementation of the NUG agreement has not earned them any explicit support from the chief executive who is also a leading Jamiati, Abdullah has not opposed it publicly either. This is understandable given that it will be hard for him to divorce from Jamiat (and also to some extent from Mohaqeq), whose supporters constituted his main voter base during the 2014 elections and continue to be his political mainstay. (Without alienating Jamiat’s heavyweights, Abdullah has also successfully manoeuvred among the inner-Jamiat struggle for leadership, where, for a while, he appeared to have been side-lined – see more background here)
Moreover, Abdullah’s working relations with the president remain unstable. (7) Sources told AAN that Abdullah remained sceptical about the president. For instance, in one recent private meeting with his high-profile supporters, Abdullah complained that the Palace had tried to drive a wedge between him and his main election supporter, Balkh governor Nur, in order to weaken Abdullah and then do “whatever it wanted.” He also grumbled that the Palace continued to disempower the ministers affiliated with him. Last month, during the weekly meeting of the council of ministers that he chairs, Abdullah publicly criticised certain ministers for not attending his meetings taking particular aim at the minister of finance who, after a seven-month absence, finally showed up at the meeting on 10 July 2017. On 11 July 2017, the president appointed (by decree) four new deputy ministers to the Ministry of Finance, including a replacement for Abdullah’s nephew Mustafa Mastur, who was the financial and administrative deputy minister. Sources close to Abdullah have told AAN that he has ordered Mastur not to leave his position, revealing the thorny relations that remain between the president and the chief executive.
The challenge posed by the coalition has now taken on an even more dramatic dimension following the news that Dostum’s plane was denied permission to land in Mazar-e Sharif on 17 July 2017, where he was due to participate in the official inauguration of the coalition and where Balkh’s Governor Atta (who was Dostum’s main rival for much of the post-2001 period) had reportedly gone to the airport with hundreds of supporters to welcome him (see this media report). Although both Dostum’s and Atta’s offices have denied the news, William Salvin, a spokesman for the NATO-led Resolute Support Mission forces, confirmed that their commander for the northern region had received a call seeking permission from the central government for the vice-president’s landing. The government has not provided any official explanation, but some sources from within it also confirmed the incident, warning that the vice-president could return to the country on the condition that he accepts being put under house arrest at his home in Kabul and appear in court to answer the accusations of torture and physical abuse levelled against him by his political rival, Ahmad Eshchi. Earlier, on 23 June 2017, General Dostum in his Eid-ul Fitr message had reminded the people that he was in Turkey for his son Batur Dostum’s engagement party and would return to the country after the holidays. Before Dostum’s failed attempt to return, Nateqi had confirmed to AAN that the member parties of the coalition would declare its existence and would present its programmes in Kabul.
Reactions from inside and outside the government
President Ghani reacted swiftly, albeit indirectly, to the formation of the new coalition when addressing several groups of supporters invited to the presidential palace. He resumed this practice recently, in the face of mounting pressure from the protest movements and from inside his own government. (He also held a string of meetings immediately after he took power in September 2014.) For instance, talking to elders, young people and civil society and political activists from the three south eastern provinces of ‘Loya Paktia’ and eastern Kabul on 30 June 2017, he welcomed “reform plans,” but rejected “ideas of sharing (power).” He said that “the presidential seat is not a shared seat” insisting on the president’s dominance in the political system. (8)
This rising polarisation within the government quickly extended to the parliament and beyond. On 3 July 2017, the first deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga (Lower House of Parliament), Humayun Humayun, previously a strong supporter of the president, called the formation of the new coalition a result of “the president’s poor leadership.” He criticised Ghani for failing “to reach an agreement with his deputy, with his governor or with the CEO’s second deputy.” Other MPs such as Allah Gul Mujahed accused the coalition’s members of wanting “to plunge the country into a crisis.” Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, also joined the chorus criticising the coalition, continuing to emphasise his loyalty and the indispensability of his party to the government since his return to Kabul following the September 2016 peace deal.
In the face of growing criticism, the president continues to promote his own narrative, which is – as evident in his reactions mentioned above – that these leaders are preventing him from delivering services to the people and changing the culture of governance. He also expressed concerns about the consequences of reviving ethnic polarisation, recalling what happened in the 2014 pre-election period. In his speech at the Joint Monitoring and Evaluation Board on 10 July 2017, he admitted that the discontent was increasingly taking on an ethnic hue, bringing about ethnic polarisation, a cause of “invisible annihilation”. Indirectly referring to the new coalition’s leaders, Ghani warned that “unscrupulous leaders and individuals who sacrifice the national interests for their personal gains could manipulate a polarized society”. However, the UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, Tadamichi Yamamoto, pointed to related deficits on the government side when briefing the UN Security Council on 21 June 2017. Here he urged “enhanced efforts by the National Unity Government to increase political inclusiveness, strengthen accountability, and improve the government’s credibility, particularly in the security sector”, otherwise “we are likely to face more crises in an increasingly fragile environment.”
In the meantime, another political group consisting of high-profile politicians called Mehwar-e Mardom Afghanistan (People’s Axis of Afghanistan) announced its formation on 16 July 2017 as a “political opposition current”, denouncing the NUG’s “failed and divisive policies”. (Members of its leadership council include former President Hamed Karzai’s affiliates, especially Former National Security Adviser Rangin Dadfar Spanta, former NDS chief Rahmatullah Nabil, former chief electoral officer Daud Ali Najafi and Shakiba Hashemi, an MP from Kandahar.)
Conclusion: Resurgence of ethnic polarisation
The announcement of the ‘Ankara coalition’ by Dostum, Mohaqeq, Rabbani and Atta, who all hold government positions, brought the paralysing power struggle within the NUG to the fore again (AAN analysis about previous power struggles, here). The member-parties of the coalition constitute vote banks for both the president and the chief executive in the disputed 2014 presidential elections and continue to hold a strong sway in their (mainly ethnic and regional) constituencies.
The ‘Ankara coalition’, which Nateqi termed “a protest from within” could potentially mount a more daunting challenge to the embattled government than the more civil society-based protest movements (ie, the Enlightening Movement and Uprising for Change). Their difference lies in that they are multi-ethnic, cross-factional (in the sense of election campaign camps) and all their members hold government positions. Unlike the grassroots protest movements that have brought up issues of social and security sector reforms, the new coalition – although utilising some of the same slogans – focuses on the on-going power struggle between the political classes within the NUG, and reflects its personal, factional and ethnic dimensions.
The rhetoric used by coalition members and the reactions from the government have already further deepened the polarisation within the government. But parliamentary elections have been announced for July 2018, and 2019 will see the next presidential poll. And as the ever-fluctuating combination of election camps and coalitions show, the ethnic factor is only one in a more diverse mixture of factors determining who will end up on certain election tickets – as the break-up of a similar pre-2014 election coalition, then-called the National Front (background by AAN here), showed.
The rather dramatic issue of whether and under what circumstances the first Vice-President will or will not be able to return to Afghanistan, will only be the next act in a play that will end in 2019. In any case, Dostum has the ability to mobilise his followers from afar – as both a challenge to the government and as a bargaining chip in future elections.
(1) On 23 July 2017, Muhammad Nateqi, the deputy head of Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom Afghanistan, confirmed to AAN that it was their declaration and that it had been signed. However, he also said that it had been decided that only the text without the signatures should be published.
(2) In addition to a call for reforms, which might only be aimed at strengthening the position of the coalition members within the NUG, it also seems to be focusing on the next elections. This kind of coalition has appeared before almost every election. For instance, Nur told the BBC that the Palace was trying to pull apart the coalition but has “emphasised that the coalition leaders are committed to continuing until their demands are met.” While the coalition has been formed apparently in response to what they call the president’s centralisation of power, Nur has already described “long-term goals” for the coalition, which is that it will field its own candidate or support someone who “will probably not be Mr Ghani.”
(3) Rabbani continues to serve as the (acting-) minister of foreign affairs, despite the fact that he was given a vote of no confidence in November 2016 (see AAN’s previous report here) after the MPs set off an interpellation motion against those ministers who had not been able to spend more than 70 per cent of their ministries’ development budget for the financial year of 1394 (2015). On 6 June 2017, Rabbani boycotted the Kabul Process conference reportedly based on a decision by the Jamiat leaders, despite the fact that President Ghani held the conference up as a highly important process and did not want it to be weakened by internal disputes.
(4) Earlier, Nur was in negotiations over the implementation of the NUG deal with the president and to possibly join Ghani’s camp in Kabul. His negotiation with the president became controversial among Jamiat members, which only led to his reappointment as the governor of Balkh on 20 February 2017; before then he had been serving as acting-governor.
But these talks have now fallen apart. Tahir Qadiry, a senior adviser to Nur, has said this is because Ghani’s advisers “began spoiling the discussions.” He further accused the president of starting to crack down on “these personalities [Nur, Dostum, Mohaqeq and Rabbani],” saying that “[t]he clique wanted to get rid of these people.”
(5) The first vice-president was already in Turkey. He flew to Turkey on 19 May 2017 (see media report here for ‘medical treatment’ (see here), which came months after Ahmad Ishchi, a former governor of Jawzjan province just before the Taleban took over the province, accused Dostum in late 2016 of torturing and abusing him. The Attorney General’s Office (AGO) said that it had appointed a team to investigate the allegation. However, no clear results were made public and only at one point in February 2017, security forces supposedly besieged his house, which ended without any clash with his bodyguards (the coalition also called for an “impartial investigation of the illegal siege of the first vice-president’s residence in Kabul” (see here) On his part, Dostum accused Ishchi of financing ‘the opposition’ and of being involved in “security problems” (see here).
(6) Over the past two years, during the Zabul Seven, the Jombesh-e Roshnayi protest movements largely organised by Hazaras, Mohaqeq has defended the government. In November 2015, for instance, when the slaughter of seven Hazara travellers who had been taken hostage by Daesh sympathisers in Zabul province triggered one of the largest demonstrations (Zabul Seven protest) ever held in Kabul (See AAN’s previous report here), he lashed out at the organisers of the protest for what he called “setting the Hazara people against the Palace.” After the 16 May 2016 and 23 July 2017 demonstrations organised by the Enlightening Movement against the cabinet’s decision to reroute a 500 KV power transmission line from Bamyan to Salang (see AAN’s previous reports here and here, Mohaqeq, after an initial complaint against the cabinet’s decision in which he claimed his and Second Vice-President Sarwar Danesh’s voices had not been heard, again defended the government after the president agreed to appoint a review commission, which came up with a suggestion to extend a substation power line of 220 KV from Dushi in Baghlan province to Bamyan. Mohaqeq argued that this 220KV was adequate for Bamyan. This gave rise to outrage against him among his Hazara supporters, as they had expected him to act as one of their representatives in the NUG (in addition to Vice-President Danesh) in support of their demands; this cost him a large degree of popularity.
(7) Abdullah himself publicly criticised the president’s ‘unilateralism’ less than a year ago, on 11 August 2016 (see AAN’s previous analysis here and here). Since then he has patched up his differences with the president, although only on the surface. Their underlying problems remain.
(8) Besides his indirect response to the coalition through his meetings with people, the president also sent NDS chief Masum Stanekzai to Turkey for talks with General Dostum. Dostum’s chief of staff, Enayatullah Babur Farahmand, told the BBC that Stanekzai met Dostum in Ankara on 4 July 2017 and invited General Dostum to participate in “an imminent meeting of political leaders of Afghanistan” in Kabul. Earlier, another unconfirmed report indicated that Stanekzai had made a deal to offer to the first vice-president, in which the government would facilitate Dostum’s return to the country and restore his vice-presidential authorities in return for his withdrawal from the coalition. Muhammad Nateqi also confirmed to AAN that the NDS chief not only met General Dostum but also Mohaqeq and Rabbani. However, the Palace said it was not aware of the meeting. On the contrary, the Palace has asked the judicial agencies and the attorney general office to conclude Dostum’s dossier as soon as possible and that if Dostum is proved to be innocent as result of the investigations, he will continue his work; if not, he will be tried.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020