A new attempt is underway to relaunch Hezb-e Watan, the ruling party that was revamped by President Najibullah in 1990 when he renamed the PDPA and tried to shed it’s communist past. Although the intention is to bring together an important segment of the former leftist forces in Afghanistan, the relaunch also has the potential to cement the existing fragmention. Whatever the case, the party will be entering the fray seeking to mobilise and court support as Afghanistan’s pre-election period begins to heat up. Thomas Ruttig and Ali Yawar Adili look into the party’s post-1992 history and the relationships between its many successor groups and discuss how this may affect its revival. Banner of the Najibullah Foundation at Kabul airport with a portrait of the former Afghan president. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2015).
Pre-announcing the “legal re-launch” of Hezb-e Watan
A large number of people – “thousands”, according to a BBC report – gathered in a Kabul hotel on 28 July 2017 for the fourth “consultative gathering for a legal relaunch of Hezb-e Watan” (Homeland Party) (media report here). Hezb-e Watan is not just any political party in Afghanistan. It is the reincarnation of the Soviet-backed Hezb-e Dimukratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, PDPA) that ruled the country after a coup in 1978 and under the Soviet occupation (1979-89) until 1992, albeit, since 1990, under its new name Hezb-e Watan.
The party was banned and dissolved by the mujahedin government in 1992. Several attempts to officially revive it after 2001 have been rejected by the Ministry of Justice (under which all parties have to register). The conferences, that still did not officially declare the “existence” of the party, are a way to explore how this could work.
The convener of the conferences was Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, a former MP, who relinquished his seat to become the president’s envoy for security affairs in Helmand in January 2016; a position he left after three months, as he told a Dari-language Russian website. Qahraman was a member of the central committee of the 1990s Hezb-e Watan, as he told AAN, but he is mainly known for his earlier association with the party as a pro-government militia leader in the country’s south (more about this below).
Qahraman stated in his speech to the conference that his party supported the current government, but only its “sound policies” (media report in Pashto here). He called on all former Hezb-e Watan members to re-join the party on the basis of its former leader Najibullah’s policy of ‘national reconciliation’ (ashti-ye melli) – an approach Qahraman suggested to be applied again on the current situation. This policy remains to be, after 25 years, the major feature and rallying cry for the ‘Najibist’ segment of the various PDPA successor groups. (1)
Under Najibullah’s lead, the party in 1990 dropped its leftist programme and its goal of turning Afghanistan into a socialist society in favour of a power sharing arrangement with his armed Islamist opponents. The new Watan party now wants to position itself as the heirs to this policy and the person of Najibullah, who was killed by the Taleban in 1996.
Emal Layan, a member of its leadership, echoed this position, saying the new Hezb-e Watan sees itself today as “centre-left.” This meant, he explained, that “moderate and inclusive policies for people from all walks of life lie at the heart of the party’s policies, including activities in favour of the rights of the toilers (zahmatkashan), including workers and [other] ordinary people.” He particularly pointed to the need for an insurance system.
Layan told AAN that the party is concentrating on gathering “mainly Hezb-e Watan cadres from the second-level and third-level”, rather than its prominent senior members. Indeed, the most prominent former PDPA/Hezb-e Watan leaders that were associated with earlier revival attempts of the party were absent from the conferences. Several of them confirmed to AAN that they did not receive invitations. (2) Layan said once this organisational process is completed, the party would right a new programme. He also said it will be decided at a future congress who will lead the party.
It is unclear what the mobilisation potential of the relaunched Hezb-e Watan might be. When still in power, and when the previous incarnation of the party held its last congress in 1990, it had 185,000 members, according to a former leader involved in those events (he is not part of the current revival attempt). Layan estimates that 60 to 80 per cent of these members are not politically active today and believes that this is the potential the party can tap into. As videos of the fourth conference showed (see one here), the old guard seemed to have been dominant among the attendants, but there were also a number of people from the younger generation (including women).
Hezb-e Watan relaunch in July 2017, with Jabbar Qahraman and Najibullah portraits in the background. Photo: Hezb-e Watan.
Hezb-e Watan’s PDPA past
The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan was founded in 1965, sailing the worldwide leftist wave. (3) It became popular among the progressive part of the Afghan intelligentsia; it mobilised among university and high school students and helped to build trade unions. One of it factions, Khalq (People) was dubbed the “teachers’ party” – its leader, Nur Muhammad Tarakai, (murdered in 1979 by his deputy) was a teacher too. This strong presence of schoolteachers gave the Khalq faction a substantial outreach into rural areas. Babrak Karmal (who died in 1996 in Russian exile), the leader of the PDPA’s second faction, Parcham (Banner), was a popular student leader who had served a jail term for this activity. 1965, the year of the first relatively free parliamentary election under a new constitution, saw four PDPA leaders elected as MPs. Khalq and Parcham operated separately and virtually as parties in their own right from 1967 to 1977. (4) Both also recruited young army and police officers, separately.
With the help of two military coups – in 1973 and 1978 – engineered by army officers loyal to the party, the PDPA took over power in two steps and ruled the country enabled by a large suppression apparatus under the Soviet occupation. From 1978 to 1987, the PDPA ran a one-party state. Najibullah’s change towards a more moderate course partly came in response to the sustained pressure of the armed resistance against his regime. It was also inspired by Soviet aspirations, starting in the second half of the 1980s, to cut the costs of its occupation, pull their troops out and hand over responsibilities to its protégé regime.
Despite some local successes, Najibullah’s efforts to make peace with the mujahedin failed. After the new Russia under Boris Yeltsin cut all aid, his regime was deprived of financial resources and fragmented and collapsed in April 1992. Troops of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, that had been the regime’s shock troops, but switched sides to the mujahedin, stopped Najibullah from leaving the country, after which he sought shelter in the Kabul UN compound. Four years later, when the Taleban moved into the capital, he was brutally murdered after UN protection was removed in the chaos accompanying the takeover.
The PDPA regime, when in power, committed mass atrocities against political opponents of all shades, particularly in its early years. Its targets ranged from supporters of the Islamist mujahedin and Maoist urban guerrilla groups to the old monarchist elites and tribal leaders. It covered all real and imagined opponents of the new regime (AAN reporting here and here). The memory of these misdeeds still haunts many Afghans, and continues to mar the image of any Afghan group that wishes to claim the PDPA’s and Hezb-e Watan’s political heritage. Najibullah’s efforts to later moderate the party, however, do mean that he escapes some of the worst judgements and enjoys a moderate, and seemingly growing, level of popularity.
Re-emergence in fragmentation
After the ban of Hezb-e Watan in 1992, most of its leaders went into exile, where some continued to be politically active. The party fragmented into a plethora of groups that first re-emerged among the diaspora, but increasingly also had a presence inside the country. By 2016, there were at least nine registered political parties that had some link to the former PDPA or Hezb-e Watan, and many more without registration – altogether over twenty.
Most of the small post-PDPA parties are led by individual former Khalq and Parcham leaders. They are negatively associated with, either the extremely repressive Tarakai/Amin period, or with Karmal, who was brought in and propped up by Soviet troops. By comparison, the brand “Hezb-e Watan”, and the name of its late leader Najibullah, today ring more positively, and not only among its own activists. A growing number of Afghans seem to, retrospectively, consider Najibullah to have at least been a shrewd politician, a good organiser and a commander of a functioning security apparatus—particularly when compared to more recent government leaders. Some seem willing to now overlook the atrocities committed by the KhAD, also in Najib’s time. For those who had not been directly affected, this may seem a long time ago while those committed under the mujahedin and Taleban regimes are often still more present.
As an Ahmadzai Pashtun born in Sayyed Karam in Paktia province, Najibullah is particularly popular in Afghanistan’s southeast. The first time this author saw a portrait of him (next to one of then president Hamed Karzai) was in a restaurant in Paktia’s capital Gardez in 2004. Since then, posters with his portrait have regularly turned up at Kabul street corners. There have even been banners at the international airport (see photo) for a while and his speeches are sold on DVD in the bazaar.
The new Hezb-e Watan party is trying to capitalise on this popularity, as reflected by several portraits of Najibullah put on display at the Hezb-e Watan conference venue. Rumours that Najibullah’s wife, Fatana, who lives in India, or his daughter Heela, who lives in Europe, might attend the conference, contributed to its high attendance, according to participants who, as they told AAN, were disappointed when neither appeared. When AAN spoke to Heela Najibullah, who has just published a book taking stock of her father’s national reconciliation policy, she said she had never intended to attend the conference and had not been consulted about the party’s relaunch. Her mother had already made it clear in an interview in 2012 that she had no intention of becoming politically active. [Corrected on 23 August 2017: Heela told AAN that “there is nothing absolute, I can’t predict the future but for now we are not active in the current political processes.”]
From militia to party leader
The leader of the latest incarnation of Hezb-e Watan, Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, also came to prominence under Najibullah’s government. Qahraman, a Nurzai Pashtun from Spin Boldak in Kandahar province, led a pro-government militia in Maiwand district in his home province as part of Najibullah’s extensive militia programme. In the early 1980s, he studied at Kabul’s military academy (a short bio here). Under this programme, which was strongly supported by the Soviets, army officers, such as Jabbar, were allowed to decommission and start militias in their home provinces. (5) (There are a number of remnants of this programme among Afghanistan’s current militias.) In Maiwand, Jabbar got his nickname Qahraman (which means “hero”) for his success in pushing back the local mujahedin. Later on, his militias, like other militias, received the same status (and even better pay) than regular army units. Jabbar received a general’s rank and a division’s status for his militia. His group was often sent into other hotspots of fighting, similar to Dostum’s militia from the north.
After his return to Afghanistan in 2007, Qahraman successfully ran for parliament in Helmand in the 2010 elections. When the current government lost control to the Taleban in 2015 over an increasing number of districts in Helmand (AAN analysis here), President Ashraf Ghani decided to employ his experience and made him special security envoy for Helmand in early 2016. (In 2010-11, Qahraman had already advised the US army on the defence of his former stronghold Maiwand, according to sources familiar with the local situation.) The envoy position gave Qahraman, as “operational commander” – at least in theory – control over the security forces in the province (media report here). He tried his 1990s recipe again, employing a mixture of talk offers to the Taleban and the use of irregular forces. However, after three months, Qahraman stepped down from the post claiming that widespread corruption had made his mission impossible. Incidentally, the police chief for Helmand from that time, has just been given a three-year jail term for corruption and nepotism by an anti-corruption court in Kabul (he has appealed the sentence; read here).
His return to Helmand gave Qahraman significant political clout and access to senior government officials, including the National Security Council. Former Hezb-e Watan members, who are carefully watching his current party project, in Kabul and from abroad, speculate that it is this access that might have helped him to secure the necessary resources for such a costly exercise, involving several large conferences.
The many Hezb-e Watans
After political parties were allowed once again under the 2004 constitution, several groups have attempted to relaunch Hezb-e Watan in the Afghan diaspora and in Afghanistan. (7) As a result, there are now several Hezb-e Watans competing for its political legacy. In addition to Qahraman’s faction, there are two other Hezb-e Watans that have been officially launched and still exist.
The first emerged in 2012 after eight years of talks between various Najibist groups. Some of them joined a party congress symbolically held in Kabul on 27 September, the anniversary of Najibullah’s death. They consulted the Najibullah family hoping one of them would take the lead. This led to Ms Najib’s statement that she would not participate in any attempt to relaunch the party. Mir Afghan Bawari was then elected its leader. The new party described itself on its website as “national and democratic, progressive and reformist.” Qahraman was not part of this group.
However, the party’s application for registration with the Ministry of Justice was rejected. The ministry urged them to choose another name, as this one had been banned in 1992. The party instead chose not to officially register, but is still active. Bawari recently told an Afghan news website that they had 13,000 members with a presence in 30 Afghan provinces. Faqir Muhammad Wadan, one of the party’s leading members who lives in Germany, told AAN that there were also party structures in Western Europe, former Soviet countries and Australia. (8)
One faction of this party led by Sherullah Jabbarkhel took up the MoJ offer and registered under the altered name Hezb-e Melli-ye Watan (National Homeland Party). It also started a Najibullah Foundation to the indignation of the family who had not been consulted.
The groups led by Bawari and Jabbarkhel did not attend Qahraman’s conferences, but also did not seek to undermine his efforts. (9) Bawari told AAN that they did not have a negative view towards this new initiative, “but we talked to him two months ago and told him we already had an existing organisation” and urged him join. Jabbarkhel took the same line: “We did not participate in the gathering because we are an already constructed house, and he is just designing a house.” Layan, from Qahraman’s group, told AAN that they hope their new party will be: “at the centre of all factions that have branched out of [the old] Hezb-e Watan.”
There are also sceptical voices. Asef Baktash who had been active in most previous attempts to unite the progressive political forces, including but not limited to the former PDPA/Hezb-e Watan clientele, on a reformist basis, told AAN the current attempt was like the hope that “Jesus Christ descend from heaven and revive a dead body.” He said the currently active “splinter groups” were no comparison to the strength of the original Hezb-e Watan and “cannot bring back the party to its previous strength.”
For Bawari’s group, the problem is that Qahraman might succeed in taking over the Hezb-e Watan brand – if the MoJ agrees to register a party under that name this time (which it might, given Qahraman’s good relations with the government and, possibly, the passage of time). Wadan, from Bawari’s group, told AAN that they expect exactly this to happen, but had not yet decided whether they would join Qahraman in this case and that talks were ongoing. Jabbarkhel, from the third faction, told AAN that, if Qahraman succeeds in the registration, his party would form an alliance with him.
All three groups have made it very clear that they do not plan to relaunch the old PDPA. They all distance themselves from the Parchamis (who they now call ‘Karmalists’, after Najib’s predecessor) and the Khalqis. They allege that many former Parchamis are in cahoots with Russia and many Khalqis with Pakistan and note that they do not want to join hands with people who are remote-controlled from abroad. Indeed, in 1992, a number of prominent Khalqis fled to Pakistan and joined hands with then Pakistan-supported Hezb-e Islami after the regime’s breakdown, while a number of Parchamis joined the then Russia-supported Northern Alliance. A number of them have returned to Afghanistan and set up their own parties.
Pre-election positioning: A crowding political field
The new revival attempts of Hezb-e- Watan can be seen as part of a broader invigoration of Afghanistan’s political scene. It follows in the footsteps of the formation of other new groups, such as the ‘Ankara coalition’, or Etelaf baray Nejat-e Afghanistan (Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan) as it is officially called, which was sealed in Vice President Dostum’s mansion in the Turkish capital, the New Jombesh that was established by dissidents from Dostum’s party (read AAN on both here and here) and a pro-Karzai coalition called Mehwar-e Mardom-e Afghanistan (People’s Axis of Afghanistan) (press release here and an earlier AAN analysis here). The political comeback of Hezb-e Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, in the fall of 2016, in a partly welcomed, partly condemned, peace agreement with the Afghan government, also belongs to this line (see AAN collection about it here). In addition, a number of new protest movements as well as mujahedin councils have sprung up (outlined by AAN here, here and here), some with links to existing political parties, others in an attempt to shed the old leaders of their particular ethnic group.
These new and returning parties and newly mixed coalitions foreshadow the pre-election positioning and alliance building that will only heat up from now on. Parliamentary elections are scheduled for July 2018 and presidential elections for the following year. Both Hezb-e Watan and the New Jombesh have announced they intend to ‘participate’ in those elections. Hezb-e Islami leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, even self-confidentially declared that the next president will be someone supported by his party.
So far, the new Hezb-e Watan seems to be targeting mainly its 1990s predecessor’s members. They may hope to become a gathering point for former leftists and the newly interested but, so far, there are few indications that they will be able even to unite the ‘Najibist’ spectrum of the former pro-Soviet Afghan left. One of the obstacles, other than the general difficulty of getting political leaders to unite (and give up the claim to be number one), are current political differences: While Qahraman’s group sees itself as an ally of Ghani, Bawari told AAN: “We supported Dr Ashraf Ghani in the last elections, but the president failed to deliver on the promises he made to the people. I do not think we will support Ashraf Ghani again.”
Other – non-Najibist – post-PDPA parties are not interested in joining forces with the Najibists, as Liaqat Ali Faramarz, a member of the leadership council of Hezb-e Mutahed-e Melli-ye Afghanistan (National United Party of Afghanistan, NUPA), told AAN. Faramarz’s party is led by former PDPA general Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, a former Parchami (he served as interior minister in the National Unity Government under Ghani and Abdullah; see AAN’s previous reporting here) and is part of the coalition that supported Dr Abdullah in the 2014 presidential election. It defines itself as “non-ideological” and “pro free market.” NUPA and several other post-leftist parties, in June 2017, have just finalised their own, multiple-step unification process that has taken several years to achieve. (10)
Regardless of the mobilisation power of this latest Hezb-e Watan relaunch, and whether it will succeed, or not, in bringing together all or most of the Najibists, substantively, it does not represent the return of an ideological Afghan left. Radical leftist ideas have been widely discredited – in Afghanistan more than in most other places – due to the bloodshed that ensued under its rule. Many of the former leftists of all strands today define themselves as ‘social-democrats’, supporting (and actually enjoying) political pluralism and electoral parliamentarianism. Some are strongly engaged in trade and professional unions. This is also reflected in the new Watan party defining itself as ‘centre-left’, while some other post-PDPA groups, such as NUPA, reject any notion of being leftist at all.
At the same time, as in the West, there is also an interest in leftism among young, educated Afghans, but more in a curious rather than an ideological way. Many of them find it difficult to identify with the groups originating from the Old Left, but even more so with the dominant Islamist ideology. However, whether a new Hezb-e Watan will attract them, remains to be seen, particularly as there is also a more radical Afghan ‘New Left’, with the Solidarity Party (that has repeatedly drawn the ire of Islamists). The Solidarity Party has established contact with leftist parties in the west, for example, in Germany and Sweden, as well as in Pakistan. It is visibly dominated by the young generation and has a young woman as its leader (AAN reported here).
But, even if the new Hezb-e Watan, and the various initiatives alongside it, has only limited success, it potentially represents a not insignificant part of the electorate and is still likely to become a target of political mobilisation and courting. This is similar to when the current president signed cooperation protocols with various parties before the 2014 election, including the leftists, in an attempt to secure their votes.
Najibullah when still in power. Photo: Payyam-e Watan website
(1) Najibullah became a PDPA student leader in the mid-1960 while studying at the medical college of Kabul University. He was head of the country’s intelligence service from 1980 to 1985. He became the PDPA leader in 1986 and was Afghan president from 1987 to 1992.
For several years, Najibullah (only one name) used only Najib, often also Dr Najib or Dr Najibullah. His family also confirmed once more that his name was only Najibullah, without Muhammad, as often used in media.
(2) The absentees included Eng. Nazar Muhammad, the highest ranking among the former pro-Najib Hezb-e Watan leaders (he was one of the four secretaries of the party’s central committee, ie de facto deputies of Najib) and 88-year old Sulaiman Laeq, one of Najibullah’s key 1990s allies (he is also a well-known Pashto poet linked, by marriage, to the Mujaddedi family and former UNAMA political officer). Laeq told AAN: “I was not consulted about the initiative. Otherwise, I would have attended the meeting. My position towards all Hezb-e Watan factions is similar: I do not belong to them, but I am optimistic about them. I am against those [other] groups who terrorise, loot and kill our countrymen.”
(3) Afghanistan’s left was divided into two currents: pro-Soviet (represented mainly by the PDPA) and pro-Beijing (usually called Shola-ye Jawed, Eternal Flame – which also fragmented into many groups). The Najibists – which combine the former Parchamis (to which Najibullah belonged) and Khalqis who supported Najibullah’s national reconciliation policy of the late 1980s – today have become a third faction among the former PDPA members (in addition to the old Parcham and Khalq networks). The former Parchami. who were against Najibullah’s new policy (and the fact that he replaced their leader Karmal as party leader and president). are today known as ‘Karmalists’. Most Khalqis were against the Soviet intervention in the first place, as it removed and killed their then leader Hafizullah Amin, the former deputy of murdered Tarakai. Many of them also opposed Najibullah, the former Parchami, as many of them were in jail when he was head of the intelligence. The attempt to overcome this notorious factionalism was one of the reasons to recreate the PDPA as Hezb-e Watan.
(4) Khalq and Parcham were brought together again in 1977 under major Soviet pressure via the Indian Communist Party. By then, Parcham had been pushed out of its de facto coalition with President Muhammad Daud, a member of the former royal family, who had attained power in the first PDPA-engineered coup in 1973. (Khalq was never part of this coalition.) The party was reunited, but fierce power struggles between the two factions continued, and. apart from some minor factions, PDPA members were, either “Khalqi”, or “Parchami.” Najibullah belongs to Parcham.
The two factions were named after the party’s consecutive and short-lived party newspapers during the country’s ‘decade of democracy’ (1963 to 1973), the period between the introduction of the 1964 constitution, which changed Afghanistan into a fully constitutional monarchy, and the military coup led by Daud in July 1973. The new constitution brought about formal elements of parliamentarianism, including a two-house parliament, a free press and relatively free and pluralistic elections. For the first time, it opened the way for the formation of political parties, from Marxists to Islamists. As the king has never signed the drafted political parties law, all parties remained unofficial.
(5) See: Jonathan Steele, Ghosts of Afghanistan: The Haunted Battleground, Berkeley 2011, 141ff.
(6) See for example: Antonio Giustozzi, Empires of Mud: Dynamics of Warlordism in Afghanistan, 1980-2007, London 2009, 76; Mike Martin, An Intimate War: An Oral History Of The Helmand Conflict 1978-2012, PhD dissertation, London 2011, chapter 3, 20.
(7) The first new Hezb-e Watan already had emerged in the mid-1990s in Belgium. It was led by a young relative of the last aide-de-camp of Najibullah and successfully established branches all over Western Europe. This party formally expelled all old leaders (with the exception ofNajibullah, obviously) in an attempt to draw a line under the PDPA past. The party has now disappeared.
(8) Bawari was a member of the 1990s Hezb-e Watan central committee and headed its economic department. Wadan was also a central committee member, where he led its propaganda department. He was later secretary of the party’s provincial committee for Nangarhar.
(9) This process has resulted in a merger of NUPA with Hezb-e Melli-ye Taraqi-ye Mardom Afghanistan (Afghanistan People’s National Progress Party). The latter, with its complicated name, is the result of three parties joining forces earlier on (the National Party, the People’s Party and the Fatherland Progress Party; “fatherland” was dropped). On the way to unification, most parties involved suffered the loss of breakaway groups that can be expected to continue working under the old names.
This article was last updated on 4 Aug 2020