Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Elections 2014 (22): How disenchantment with General Dostum split the Uzbek vote bank

Obaid Ali Thomas Ruttig 14 min

The outcome in the Uzbek- and Turkmen-dominated provinces in northern Afghanistan of the first round of the 5 April presidential election has turned in an unexpected direction. Jombesh-e Melli-ye Islami-ye Afghanistan’s (The National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan), the self-declared dominating party in this region, had expected to obtain the entire ‘Turkic’ vote for the Ghani-Dostum ticket but seems to have underestimated widespread local dissatisfaction. Particularly Jombesh’s educated and youth members, who for almost a decade have tried to push the party towards reform, have been disappointed with their leadership that blocked their attempts. This has created a wider gap between the leadership and the reformists and resulted in the establishment of two separate youth movements outside the party as well as the emergence of candidates independent from Jombesh for the 5 April provincial council elections. AAN’s Obaid Ali and Thomas Ruttig explain how these developments have split the Uzbek and Turkmen vote, diminished the expected Ghani-Dostum result and threaten to split the party (with input from Christine Roehrs).

Confident of victory, before the first round of Afghan elections. General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Ashraf Ghani. Photo: Dostum's Facebook page

The Jombesh party that has dominated the provinces of northern Afghanistan with strong Uzbek and Turkmen populations for more than two decades has fared much less successfully than expected in this year’s elections. This is shown by the final result of the 5 April first round (our analyses here) and represents a major setback for Jombesh and its leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum. Dostum had thrown his support behind presidential candidate Ashraf Ghani Ahmadzai, a former World Banker considered to be a pro-western technocrat, and is running as Ghani’s candidate for vice president. As a candidate in the previous election in 2009, Ghani had attacked Dostum – who then supported Karzai – for his dismal record on human rights as a “known killer” and criticized Karzai for this alliance. (Ghani’s second vice-presidential candidate is a former justice minister from the Hazara ethnic group.)

The numbers available

The party had expected to obtain most of the two million Uzbek votes (a figure given by the Jombesh campaign team). (1) The total outcome for the Ghani-Dostum team, however, calculated by AAN based on IEC data, seems to be less than one million votes. It needs to be emphasized, though, that all population figures in Afghanistan are estimates only and potentially politically manipulated, particularly those relating to ethnic composition. As a result, election figures – absolute and percentages – also have to be taken with more than a grain of salt.

According to the most reliable estimates available (2), there is one Uzbek-majority and one Turkmen-majority province in Afghanistan: Faryab has 57 per cent Uzbeks (plus 6.6 per cent Turkmens), while Jowzjan has a Turkmen majority of 54 per cent with 27 per cent Uzbeks. Three other provinces have a relative Uzbek majority (but only very few Turkmens): Takhar (44 per cent), Samangan (33 per cent) and Sar-e Pul (31 per cent). For Balkh, there are data estimating about 11.9 per cent Turkmeni and 10.7 per cent Uzbeki speakers, with two almost completely Turkmen-inhabited districts (Kaldar and Shortepe) and one with an Uzbek majority (Sholgara, 40 per cent). Badakhshan has estimated 18.5 per cent Uzbeks, with two majority districts, Argu and Khash. Kunduz has an estimated eight per cent Turkmens and a larger portion of Uzbeks (no figures found), with one Turkmen majority district, Qala-ye Zal (90 per cent), and one Uzbek majority district, Imam Saheb (45 per cent).

The final result of the presidential election announced by the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) on 15 May shows that in the two Uzbek and Turkmen majority provinces, Jowzjan and Faryab (3), the Ghani-Dostum ticket scored the highest number of votes; in Jowzjan province, Ghani and Dostum obtained 101,985 votes (69.23 per cent) and in Faryab, 173,225 votes (65.39 per cent). Given these figures, Jombesh clearly defended its dominant position there. In all other provinces with an Uzbek majority – Samangan, Sar-e Pul and Takhar – or with significant Uzbek and Turkmen minorities – Kunduz, Balkh and Badakhshan – the major rival presidential candidate, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, is ahead of the Ghani-Dostum ticket. Ghani and Dostum also clearly underperformed in the two Uzbek majority districts of Badakhshan, Argu and Khash. In Argu, with a 95 per cent Uzbek population, it received less than one third of the potential Uzbek vote (26.1 per cent, compared to 33.6 per cent for the Abdullah ticket). In Khash, with 85 per cent Uzbeks a much smaller population, Abdullah beat Ghani/Dostum with 63.3 per cent against 11 per cent. In Balkh’s two Turkmen-only districts, Kaldar and Shortepe, Abdullah managed to snatch significant percentages of voters: 45.2 per cent against 35.3 per cent in the former, and still 37.8 per cent in the latter, although Ghani/Dostum won there with 57.2 per cent.

According to the IEC, in Takhar, the Ghani-Dostum ticket won 121,100 votes (38.25 per cent), while Dr Abdullah Abdullah received 159,375 (50.35 per cent). In Sar-e Pul, the Ghani-Dostum ticket had 57,097 votes (38.53 per cent), while Abdullah won 74,711 (50.41 per cent). In Samangan, Ghani and Dostum trailed behind Abdullah with 37,632 votes (26.58 per cent) against 86,845 (61.33 per cent). In Kunduz, Ghani-Dostum had 80,893 votes (37.91 per cent), while Abdullah got 100,413 (47.05 per cent). In Balkh, too, the Ghani-Dostum ticket managed to win only 109,694 votes (28.01 per cent), while Abdullah received 238,582 (69.92 per cent). (Find all final results here.)

The drop in Dostum’s influence is also clearly visible when comparing this year’s election results to the results from the presidential election ten years ago, particularly considering that the number of voters and voter cards increased and, for today’s Ghani-Dostum ticket, additional Pashtun and Tajik votes also have to be factored in. During the first presidential election in October 2004, Jombesh, or rather Dostum himself, obtained ten per cent of the total country-wide vote – 804,744 votes and a clear majority in some of the Uzbek dominated provinces. In Faryab, he then led as expected with 72.9 per cent and in Jowzjan with 78 per cent. In 2014, he achieved 65.39 per cent in Faryab and 69.23 per cent in Jowzjan, which represents losses of approximately seven to eight per cent. In three other Uzbek dominated provinces, Sar-e Pul, Takhar and Samangan, he achieved 47.7 (2014: 38.53), 39.5 (2014: 38.25, which is nearly the same but is likely less overall as probably both Pashtuns and Tajiks casted votes for the ticket) and 29.7 (2014: 26.58) per cent respectively in 2004. These losses are lower than in his two heartland provinces but also from a lower number of votes. In Kunduz and Balkh, he – or Ghani/Dostum – gained votes this year, receiving 37.91 per cent of the vote (2004: 24.6) in Kunduz and 28.01 per cent in Balkh (2004: 23.4 per cent), both results probably attributable to additional votes from Pashtuns and Tajiks for the Ghani-led ticket.

In this first poll after the Taleban rule, Dostum had wanted to project himself as the leader of Afghanistan’s ‘Turks’, and he successfully did so, in the absence of any political challenger in these communities. In the 2009 presidential election, Dostum and Jombesh joined the incumbent Hamed Karzai, which turned out to be a safe choice to be on the winning side. Then, the number of votes obtained by the Karzai ticket (he had a Tajik and a Hazara but no Uzbek vice-presidential candidate) in some Uzbek dominated provinces – except for the strongholds Jowzjan and Faryab – was significantly higher than what Ashraf Ghani received this year. (4) In Samangan province, for instance, with almost no Pashtun population not a stronghold for Karzai, the president’s ticket obtained 42.5 per cent of the vote with Dostum’s support, some 15 per cent more than this year. In Sar-e Pul, with a similar ethnic set-up, his support also plunged significantly this year, by more than eight per cent, from 46.7 per cent (see IEC link for 2009 results here).

Challenges for Dostum leadership in the Jombesh party

One major reason for the slump in votes is that the Jombesh leadership has underestimated the importance, influence and mobilisation power of reformist groups in its own party who have pushed for years, though in vain, for internal democratisation (see a 2012 AAN paper about this here and follow-up analysis here). Jombesh, originally a militia that protected natural gas installations in Jowzjan province and supported the communist government in the 1980s, switched sides and joined the mujahedin in spring 1992. In the same year, Dostum established a political movement trying to represent commanders’ networks of different organisational backgrounds ‘of the North’. In the same year, it was reorganised as a countrywide party seeking to represent the Uzbeks and Turkmens (more background in this AAN paper).

Ever since, Dostum has been the party’s leader, but his refusal to give it more modern structures has led to pressure for reform in the party’s own ranks. Among the reformers’ demands was the replacement of former commanders by educated people in high-ranking party posts, better management of the party, transparency in its financial system and, most critical for Dostum, a new leader for the party as well. These demands faced stiff resistance by military commanders who are close to Dostum.

At a party congress in 2008, Dostum made some concessions and allowed the election of a new party chairman, Sayed Nurullah Sadat, a former communist who was considered to be a Dostum loyalist. Dostum was given the ceremonial post of “founding father of Jombesh” and its “honorary chairman”. He withdrew to Turkey and intended to control the party remotely from there. But after Jombesh’s poor performance in the 2010 parliamentary elections, the pressure for reform increased again. The reformers pushed for a new congress – according to the party’s charter, one should take place every other year. But the ‘conservatives’ pushed back. With procedural tricks, they blocked the congress to be convened up to today, although the delegates had been elected in most areas already. In 2011, they tried to kick the chairman, Nurullah Sadat, out of the party as he turned out to be too pro-reform for their taste. Finally, in early 2013, Dostum removed him. He and the commanders retained the upper hand and pushed the younger reformists out of the ring.

Did fraud diminish the Uzbek vote?

Speaking to AAN, Ashraf Ghani said that Jombesh had done “very well”. The presidential candidate described Dostum as “one of the five most charismatic figures in Afghanistan”. (5) In regard to the Uzbek votes, Ghani admitted that there had been “some shortcomings” due to logistical and organizational problems with his campaign team. Responding to a question about the unexpected split of the Uzbek votes, Ghani told AAN in an interview in mid-May that it was also the “unfair and non-transparent behaviour of IEC staff” that had contributed to a loss of Uzbek votes. He referred to cases in some polling centres where Uzbek women had their fingers inked but had not been allowed to actually cast their votes.

Faizullah Zaki, the deputy chairman and spokesman of Jombesh, alleged the same. He asked, when talking to AAN, how it was possible that in Uzbek-dominated provinces like Takhar and Sar-e Pul most of the IEC staff members were non-Uzbeks. He also claimed that IEC workers had not allowed candidate agents of the Ghani-Dostum ticket to observe polling centres in some Uzbek-dominated provinces on election day until 11 am while at noon most of the polling centres faced a shortage of ballot papers. He said that there, provincial IEC workers had stuffed the ballot boxes for the benefit of “a specific presidential candidate”.

New reformist movements and impact on Uzbek vote bank

Even if true, ballot stuffing is not the only reason for the unsatisfactory Uzbek result of the Ghani-Dostum ticket. There have been significant splits of the Uzbek vote because, for the first time, there were other contenders who could penetrate Jombesh’s vote bank.

One smaller reason for the division of the Uzbek vote is the candidacy of Mawlawi Abdul Wahab Erfan, who is running as second vice-president for ‘jihadi leader’ Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf. Mawlawi Erfan – a religious scholar, former member of the upper house of parliament, notable figure from Takhar’s Kalafgan district and well-known mediator in quarrels amongst local commanders – managed to attract Uzbek votes in his area. The main reason, however, is that apparently some of the Uzbek votes have been channelled away from the Ghani-Dostum ticket through Uzbek youth networks that have distanced themselves from Jombesh due to frustration over the failed internal party reform.

The mid-2013 clash between Dostum’s bodyguards and Alim Sa’i, the governor of Jowzjan in the Jombesh heartland and a Turkish-educated reformer and member of the party’s Central Council, had intensified the internal struggle in Jombesh. A prominent member of the party, who wishes to remain unnamed, said the conflict between Sa’i and Dostum started when Dostum asked the governor to throw his support behind the then newly established opposition National Front (see AAN reporting here) and cut his ties with the Palace. (The front did not exist very long, however, and its major leaders – Dostum, Zia Massud and Mohaqeq – all ended up supporting different presidential candidates.) When the governor refused, Jombesh followers staged protests against him. In July, the central government replaced Sa’i in order to defuse the tension in Jowzjan. This, in turn, fuelled the belief amongst reformists that their efforts may not bear fruit. Hakim Turkoghli, a former head of Jombesh’s youth organisation in Faryab province, described the party as a “military organisation where all the members are considered soldiers” and have to obey General Dostum’s decisions and orders.

It was mainly young, reformist Jombesh members like Sa’i and Turkoghli (many of whom, with the help of scholarships provided by Dostum, had been sent to Turkey to obtain high-quality university degrees during the 1990s) who acted upon this. They established several councils and two movements outside the party that, in defiance of their leadership, backed presidential candidates other than Ghani. They also presented provincial council candidates independently.

One of the new movements was started by Sa’i after his removal from Jowzjan. Along with other influential figures and educated Jombesh youth from different Uzbek-dominated provinces, he established Eslahat wa Edalat (Reform and Justice). Leading members include Jamaher Anwari, the current Minister for Refugees and Repatriation, and Wahidullah Shahrani, the former mines minister, as well as some members of the lower and upper house of the parliament. It says it functions outside of Jombesh but wants to continue to push for party reforms like the replacement of some former military commanders with educated youths and the transfer of the Jombesh leadership to political experts. During the presidential campaign, the group first backed Shahrani, who ran as the first deputy of presidential candidate Qayyum Karzai. When his presidential brother pulled out of the race in March and joined forces with Zalmai Rassul (see AAN reporting here), Sa’i’s group campaigned for Rassul’s team in the Uzbek-dominated provinces. This helped Rassul to win almost 50,000 Uzbek votes in Takhar, Samangan, Sar-e Pul, Jowzjan and Faryab, although he only came in third in the first round countrywide (for details on Rassul’s votes see the IEC final result here).

The other reformist group that separated from Jombesh is called Eslahat wa Mosharekat (Reform and Participation). According to Baz Muhammad Jowzjani, one of its leading members and an MP from Jowzjan, it was established three months ago, and most but not all of the members are former Jombeshi. He says they are mostly Uzbek parliamentarians and other influential Uzbek figures, for example, from Takhar, MP Qudratullah Zaki and Matin Beg, the son of late Mutaleb Beg, another MP from Takhar and former influential commander who was assassinated in 2011 (more AAN background here). Jowzjani said that the Uzbek community had the right to choose freely who to support in the elections and that no one should hinder them from doing so.

Both groups have different strategies to obtain their goals although they are united in their goal to prove their capability to act independently – and to teach General Dostum a lesson. Both groups also convinced a few (low level) commanders to join them. They did so mainly in order to be able to defend themselves in case of attacks by armed Jombesh militiamen.

What Jombesh conservatives say

On the other hand, military commanders in Jombesh find the young reformers’ demands irrelevant. Rahmatullah Turkistani, a commander in the 1990s and currently the speaker of the Faryab provincial council, told AAN that he and many other commanders spent most of their lives defending the country during the ‘jihad’ against the Soviets and the resistance against the Taleban. Speaking to AAN, he insisted that the youth standing up against the party establishment did not know much about “the reality of the Afghan society. These youngsters need more time to learn politics.”

Faizullah Zaki, a deputy of the Jombesh party and its speaker, is even less polite with his words. When talking to AAN, he described these groups as “opportunists” and “youth who are not loyal to anyone [and] only focus on their own benefits and interests, instead of Jombesh party’s interests.”

Some critics of Dostum and older-generation reformers still prefer to remain in the party. Among them is Nurullah Sadat, the Jombesh chairman ousted by Dostum. Speaking with AAN, he said the party currently faced serious challenges and difficulties in presenting its political views and plans. He, too, believes that the party needs to be turned from a primarily military and tribal network into a modern, democratic platform. He reckons that the party’s failure to obtain a larger number of votes was mainly due to “disunity and mismanagement” and criticised the appointment of “unworthy” figures as heads of some of the campaign teams. These people, Sadat said, were “milking their campaign jobs like cows” to fill their own pockets, rather than understanding them as a chance to obtain the party’s goals – the goals being winning the elections but also presenting the party in another light and as a democratic force.

Feda Muhammad Paikan, a member of the Jombesh Central Council who had served as medical doctor with Dostum during the anti-Taleban resistance, also said that disunity and mismanagement “drive the party towards nowhere.” He believes that it consisted mostly of Uzbek “warlords” and that this created a bad image of the Uzbek community in general. Although still in the party’s leadership, he also campaigns for reform “to win the Afghans’ confidence and trust.”

If the new reformist groups – possibly even people like Nurullah and Paikan – leave the party for good, it would lead to a serious split of the party. (6) But even if they remain, their mobilising skills could further erode the Ghani-Dostum ticket’s Uzbek vote bank in the second round of the elections on 14 June. The ticket’s unexpected slump in votes in most Uzbek- and Turkmen-inhabited provinces in the first round has already sounded the alarm bell for Jombesh and Ashraf Ghani. In his interview with AAN, Ghani stated that he is set to win the lost votes back and that his campaign team would be “addressing [the] shortcomings.” He also said that “fortunately, many significant members of the [Uzbek and Turkmen] community who were in other campaigns will be joining us very shortly.”

As for Dostum himself, after some weeks of absence from the public – that caused rumours about him breaking away from Ghani (although he does not appear in public often anyway) or health problems that were keeping him from campaigning – he staged a return on 18 May and was photographed hosting a meeting of the Ghani campaign leadership team (a photo here). The reformists’ move away from Jombesh and its alliance with Ghani shows that, for the first time, Dostum has become vulnerable to challenges from within his so far secure ethnic vote bank. The Jombesh leader will fight back. At the same time, Ghani’s opponent in the second round, Dr Abdullah, will surely try to capitalize on the rifts in Jombesh and among the Uzbeks.


(1) There are no reliable population figures about Afghanistan and its ethnic composition. The basis of most figures being used is a census that was carried out in 1979 that was never completed and consisted of samples only, i.e., it was never planned to be a full census in the first place. German geographer Dietrich Wiebe, in his 1984 country profile “Afghanistan: Ein mittelasiatisches Entwicklungsland im Umbruch” (p 124) – which is for the authors of this dispatch the most ‘recent’ reliable, independent study – calculated, based on a general population of 12 million, that there were 1.2 million Uzbeks (ten per cent) and 400,000 Turkmens (3.3 per cent). He explained that (then) recent studies (for the mid-1960s to mid-1980s) extrapolated population figures based on an assumed high rate of population growth of 2.5 to three per cent per year but said that “my own field studies and those of colleagues, however, show that for Afghanistan a zero population growth needs to be assumed.” Unfortunately, he does not elaborate further (our translation from German).

The much-quoted CIA World Fact Book reports, based on an estimated general population of 31.82 million for 2014, nine per cent Uzbeks (that would be 2.8 million) and nine per cent Turkmens (0.95 million). For more background on Afghanistan’s population estimates see also this chapter by Andrew Pinney in AAN’s e-book Snapshots of an Intervention.

If that figure is correct, a voting population of two million Uzbeks (even if Turkmens are included here) would still be exaggerated, given that 50 to 60 per cent of all Afghans are estimated to be under 18 years old, i.e., not of voting age. According to the most recent National Risk and Vulnerability Assessment (figures on 2011–12, published in 2014, see here) 48.4 per cent of all Afghans are under 15.

(2) UN provincial profiles from 2007 gave the following population estimates for Uzbek and Turkmen-inhabited provinces:

Faryab: Uzbeks 57.0% / Turkmen 6.6% / Tajik and Aimaq 22.3%

Jowzjan: Turkmen 54.0% / Uzbek 27.0%

Sar-e Pul: Uzbeks 31% / Tajiks 25% / Hazara 22% / Aimaq 11%

Samangan: Uzbeks 33.3% / Tajiks 29.4% / Hazara 24%

Takhar: Uzbeks 44% / Tajiks 42% / Pashtun 11% / Hazara 2%

Baghlan: Tajik 63% / Pashtun 21% / Hazara 10% / Uzbek 5%

Badakhshan: Tajiks 80.1 / Uzbeks 18.5 / (Argu: 90% Uzbeks; Khash: 85%; Darayim, Tishkan: 40% each; Shahr-e Bozorg: 30%; Baharak: 20%)

Balkh (from another source, the WFP Food Security Atlas that gives a linguistic, not an ethnic break-up): Dari (i.e. Tajiks, Aimaq, Hazaras and others): 50% / Pashto 27% / Turkmeni 11.9% / Uzbeki 10.7%

Kunduz (UNHCR province profile):

No province-level percentage figures.

Uzbeks in the following districts: Imam Saheb: 45%, majority; Archi: 35%; Chahrdara: 12%; Aliabad: 8%.

Turkmens: Qala-ye Zal: 90%; Archi: 10%; Chahrdara: 8%; Imam Saheb: 5%.

(3) The Turkmen population is much smaller than the Uzbek one and lacks a clear political leadership beyond its local communities. This has attracted many Turkmens to Dostum and his party who present themselves as defending the rights of the Turkic-speaking ethnic groups.

(4) In 2009, the Hazara vote in the Uzbek-majority provinces also helped the Karzai ticket as it was supported by Muhammad Mohaqeq and his Hezb-e Wahdat-e Mardom-e Islami-ye Afghanistan, a major Hazara party, particularly in the Hazara areas of, Samangan, Sar-e Pul and Balkh. In 2014, Mohaqeq is Dr Abdullah’s second vice presidential candidate.

(5) The others he mentioned are: Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the leader of the insurgent branch of the Hezb-e Islami Afghanistan, Taleban leader Mullah Omar, commander Ahmad Shah Massud, who was assassinated in 2001, and Abdul Ali Mazari, a Hazara leader of the Wahdat-e Islami party assassinated by Taleban in 1995.

(6) There was already another one that, however, did not diminish Jombesh in the long term. In the mid-1990s, under the onslaught of the Taleban moving north and after Dostum’s men allegedly had killed his brother, Rassul Pahlawan, Faryabi Jombesh commander Abdul Malek left the party and temporarily joined the Taleban. After 2001, he established his own Freedom Party (Hezb-e Azadi) that was active for some years, supported the Karzai presidency and was used by the Palace to undermine Dostum’s influence in the north. The party seemed to have fallen inactive after Malek settled in the US and is no longer on the list of registered parties.


Ashraf Ghani elections 2014 General Abdul Rashid Dostum Jombesh party Turkmen Uzbeks vote bank votes