Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Ustad Atta for President? The ‘Northern Front’ Summit and other Pre-Election Manoeuvres

Thomas Ruttig 13 min

Seven months before candidate registration starts this year for the 2014 presidential election(1) and 15 months before the incumbent has to leave his position for good, positioning for the post-Hamed Karzai period has picked up. Five leaders of non-Pashtun factions or movements, mainly former mujahedin, have decided to look for a joint candidate who might challenge the incumbent’s still-to-be-determined successor. Their meeting in the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif has put local governor Ustad Muhammad Atta Nur in the limelight. He has ambitions but also keeps all options open for himself, report AAN Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig and guest blogger Enayat Najafizada from Mazar (with contributions by Obaid Ali).

While the president is still looking for an optimal successor and various slates of candidates are spun in Kabul’s rumour mill,(2) what usually is described as the ‘Northern’ or ‘non-Pashtun’ camp has put the ball into the court of the president’s supporters with a bold political manoeuvre. On 27 January, the governor of Balkh province, Muhammad Atta Nur (usually known as Ustad Atta), hosted a joint meeting with four other political heavyweights: the former vice president and senior member of the Massud family, Ahmad Zia Massud, General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Ustad Muhammad Mohaqqeq (all three established the National Front of Afghanistan/NFA as a major opposition alliance in 2011; read our blog about it here), as well as former intelligence chief Amrullah Saleh.(3)

It was Governor Atta, who is also a former commander of Jamiat-e Islami, who was put in the electoral limelight by this meeting. The five participating leaders proclaimed unanimously that they would back him as a joint candidate in the 2014 presidential election – if he decided to run (see also here). Mohaqqeq stated, ‘I want the people not to waste their votes and cast them in support of a single candidate, whom we will announce soon.’(4)

When the leaders came to the press conference, Atta was sitting in the middle of the podium, as the host of the meeting, framed by the other leaders. To many he already appeared as the candidate-elect. Kabul-based daily Hasht-e Sobh spoke of an ‘unofficial start of the election campaign’.

Particularly puzzling was the friendliness with which Atta and Dostum came together in the city they had violently fought over between 2002 and 2004 (when Atta was appointed governor of Balkh).(5) They even exchanged niceties. Dostum said Atta ‘is young and has the talent for [the presidential candidacy]’ and even praised him for his work in Mazar-e Sharif, commenting that ‘after a long time’ in the city he was ‘unable to recognize’ it for all the changes. There are also old conflicts over power between Atta and Mohaqqeq, but they date back to the time before the Taleban took over Mazar in 1997. What contributed to the reconciliation between the three were corruption allegations; all three are accused of having pocketed customs income from the strategic river port in Hairatan at the border with Uzbekistan. They are also accused of land-grabbing. They stated that the announcement of those allegations so close to the election was politically motivated.

The meeting in Mazar was both a show of the alliance’s force and of its limitations. Hundreds of supporters of the three NFA member-parties, which are also the main non-Pashtun political parties in the nine provinces of the north and northeast of the country, attended the gathering. Among them were members of parliament and provincial councils, community leaders, religious figures and university lecturers as well as representatives of women groups.(6) All five leaders belonged to the pre-2001 anti-Taleban United Front (often called Northern Alliance, a name the UF leaders dislike), but the former Pashtun UF members (Sayyaf, Mojadeddi and Sabawun – now all allied with Karzai) are all missing. Therefore, Hasht-e Sobh uses the term ‘northern front’ (jabha-ye shemal) for the Mazar alliance. The meeting also did not come out of the blue. It was preceded by a series of bilateral and multilateral meetings in the north, in Kabul and allegedly even in Turkmenistan and Pakistan.

Atta has not fully committed yet to run in 2014 – although some Afghan media and observers have already overinterpreted the Mazar meeting as Atta’s definite ‘yes’. But ‘when asked if he will nominate himself for the 2014 presidential election’, ToloNews reported, he replied, ‘We will see. If Afghanistan goes towards more problems, the candidates are not from the people, if they don’t have a social base, or if they fail to resolve people’s problems, in that case, I will nominate myself.’

It is clear that Atta is more than just pondering a candidacy. He has already signalled this on several occasions. In November last year, he chose a joint press conference with the deputy US Special Representative for Afghanistan and Pakistan, James Warlick,(7) to proclaim, ‘Though my candidacy isn’t final, I could jump into the electoral fray’. On the day of the Mazar meeting, the Wall Street Journal came out with a report describing how Mazar is flooded by ‘giant billboards’ showing the governor in presidential poses, ‘saluting military parades, standing side-by-side with Afghanistan’s national heroes and walking down red carpets’ and ‘far outnumber[ing] the portraits of President Hamed Karzai’.

But one major question still remains to be answered: If he goes, will Atta go with Karzai’s support or against him? Atta made clear in Mazar that he prefers the former option. In the press conference, he said his possible candidature was an attempt to create a national consensus where all groups and political parties could agree on one candidate in order to prevent possible chaos and instability beyond 2014. Observers in Mazar-e Sharif interpreted this as including the insurgents of the Taleban and Hezb-e Islami. Indeed, Atta had said in December that he would even welcome Hezb’s insurgent wing’s participation in the elections.(8) Mohaqqeq recently met the deputy leader of Hekmatyar’s Hezb wing, Qutbuddin Helal.

Atta added that if this were not possible, then there would be the ‘second option’ where non-Pashtun groups could go together. He emphasised that he is ‘not a member of the National Front and I’ve not discussed or decided yet to be, but this gathering means we all go together and we will have a joint political decision not only for the elections but to maintain security for the year 2014 and beyond’.

Indeed, Atta has so far avoided being associated with any opposition force. This has to do with a confrontation with President Karzai before the 2009 presidential election when Atta had, for a while, openly supported the main opposition candidate, Dr Abdullah, and even had posters printed showing him together with Karzai’s main challenger. This had deeply angered the president, to whom Atta, after all, owes his provincial governor position. (This is similar to the situations of Qasem Fahim, Ismail Khan and Salahuddin Rabbani who – as vice president, minister and head of the High Peace Council – also are in government or quasi-government positions.) Soon rumours had spread about Atta’s immediate replacement in Balkh. After paying a reconciliation visit to the president, he gave in and opted for consolidating his political and economic power (read our earlier blog on this here). According to the Hasht-e Sobh article already quoted, Atta nevertheless supported Dr Abdullah’s campaign financially. He also used the time to further expand his grip over the Jamiat networks in the region between Faryab and Badakhshan where he has no serious competitor.

When the participants of the Mazar meeting said that they had held, and will continue to hold, talks to attract support from other key political players for selecting a single candidate for the 2014 election, this refers to three different groups – apart from the insurgents. The first group includes the remaining Jamiat big shots Fahim, Ismail Khan and Rabbani Junior. They were missing at the meeting in Mazar but had previously participated in a series of meetings held in Kabul. The second group includes opposition forces apart from the NFA – the National Coalition of Afghanistan, led by Dr Abdullah and with Yunos Qanuni as another prominent leader (both are Jamiatis, former ministers and were the main challengers of Karzai in the 2004 and 2009 presidential elections) as well as the Right and Justice Party, with another former minister, Hanif Atmar, as its most prominent leader.

Atmar is an exception in this field. He is reportedly courted in case the alliance decides that only a Pashtun has the chance to win against a Karzai-supported candidate. Just a ‘Northern’, non-Pashtun coalition will not be sufficient to avoid a repetition of Qanuni’s and Dr Abdullah’s unsuccessful presidential bids in 2004 and 2009. Another (Pashtun) option would be to include the legal wing of Hezb-e Islami.(9) Atta already met its leader, economy minister Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, in Mazar-e Sharif several times last year. Hezb-e Islami, usually seen as a staunch Karzai ally, had recently shown – by joining the new 20-member Cooperation Council of Political Parties and Coalitions of Afghanistan, which is critical of the president’s alleged take-over of electoral institutions (read our blog here) – that this cannot be taken for granted.

Atta himself is also being wooed from another side. During the Mazar meeting, he confirmed that he has been approached by the Afghan-born former US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad to ‘consult’ on a national consensus candidate. Afghan daily Arman-e Melli wrote that Khalilzad had offered to have him run as one of his vice presidential candidates. When asked about this in Mazar, Atta said he had told Khalilzad to consult other leaders first. There are indications that Khalilzad might also step into the ring as a candidate if no consensus candidate is found.

Already in December of last year, the Wall Street Journal
 reported that Khalilzad had confirmed that he had ‘returned to Afghanistan for consultations aimed at ensuring a smooth election and transfer of power from President Karzai’. It quoted Khalilzad as saying, ‘I am here to facilitate an agreement among key personalities and forces on a possible consensus on key issues confronting the country, and the formation of a team to lead a broad public discourse on those issues.’ The newspaper also quoted opposition politician Qanuni as saying that Khalilzad had agreed to work as part of a joint team. Asked whether he was considering running for the presidency himself, Khalilzad fell short of a clear denial: ‘This is not the purpose of this trip’ (emphasis added). In comparison, before the 2009 presidential election, Khalilzad had also categorically ruled out a possible candidacy, although AAN has met various reliable Afghans who have confirmed that they had worked for a Khalilzad campaign.

In January, the Kabul-based Khaama news agency quoted an anonymous ‘source close to Mr Khalilzad’ as saying that Khalilzad had ‘indirectly negotiated his nomination for the upcoming election’ during meetings with ‘various political parties in Afghanistan,… a number of former Mujahideen leaders and…Gul Agha Sherzoi and Mahmood Karzai’. It added that an ‘electoral office of Zalmai [sic] Khalilzad is informally operating in capital Kabul where thousands are visiting his office on [a] daily basis’, that this office ‘has created a number of committees and has indirectly contacted with a number of the private media agencies to broadcast reports regarding his nomination’ [as in the original]. Finally, the agency claimed, Senator Ehsanullah Bayat, the owner of the private Ariana TV channel, ‘is said to be one of the individuals who is assisting Zalmai Khalilzad with his indirect presidential election campaign’.(10) If he decides to run, Khalilzad would have to give up his American passport.

Khalilzad’s offer to run as a vice presidential candidate gave Atta the opportunity to touch upon an issue that, at least in public, is almost a taboo but has long be discussed among non-Pashtun political groups: the unwritten ‘law’ that the majority Pashtuns claim the position of head of state.(11) Atta challenged it by saying, ‘I haven’t thought of becoming the second person [vice president] yet. Why not others be the second person, and why not we be the [presidential] candidate?’ His ‘we’ obviously refers to the non-Pashtuns. Zia Massud, however, the political heir of his slain brother Ahmad Shah, gave it a slightly different meaning, reiterating that this time there had to be someone from the mujahedin groups who had fought the Soviets and the Taleban. He asked the people not to vote for those who had come from the western countries because they were not capable of understanding the country and the people very well.

Despite all the open questions, the summit of the big five northern leaders was a remarkable event. It is a sign of how seriously core ‘Northern’ leaders are preparing for the possibility that they will be sidelined by what they fear could be a Pashtun-only political deal emerging from the on-going efforts to start ‘peace talks’, including the Karzai camp, the Taleban (or parts of them), Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami and other groups. So far, the usually all-but-united camps of the former Jamiatis and the broader ‘Northern Front’ have mustered an astonishing unity of purpose. Atta’s reconciliation with Dostum and Mohaqqeq is another proof of that old Afghan political lore that one should never rule out alliances between former deadly foes.

At the same time, it is still early in the game. The elections are still more than a year away, and existing coalitions can morph and new ones be formed. The Mazar alliance might just hold until the next irresistible offer comes to one or a group of its leaders to join the president’s camp again – after all, he controls the electoral institutions (read our blog here). It is also not clear whether all Northern factions would go with a Pashtun candidate or even with Atta. Particularly Jamiat’s Panjshiri faction, with the Massud family, is driven by the idea that Ahmad Shah Massud’s legacy entitles it to a leading role in the country. On the other hand, many non-Panjshiri Jamiatis tacitly find this group too assertive.

The Mazar meeting could also turn out to be a manoeuvre of Atta to establish himself as the real kingmaker for the 2014 election, presenting himself as a possible bridge between the Karzai camp and the so-called political opposition. On the other hand, the offer to be their candidate could be read as a clever way for the NFA leaders to woo Atta and prevent him from hopping on Karzai’s bandwagon.

All options are still on the table: a national consensus candidate or a competition between a Karzai-backed and a ‘Northern Front’ candidate; a joint NF candidate or just a candidate of some northern factions; a Pashtun against a Pashtun or a non-Pashtun. We will know the answers only in the last moment before the registration ends on 6 October. And even after that, candidates can still withdraw, altering the balance.

(1) The registration is open from on 16 September to 6 October, followed by the election campaign (17 November 2013 – 2 April 2014). E-Day is on 5 April 2014. Then, the Afghan electoral institutions have 15 days time for the counting (6–20 April) and one month for dealing with election-related complaints (7 April–7 May) before, on 14 May, the final result will be announced. If necessary, the run-off between the two best contenders (if no one reaches 50 per cent plus one of the vote) will be held on 28 May.

(2) The current front-runner seems to be Omar Daudzai, ambassador to Pakistan, with HPC chairman Salahuddin Rabbani and head of the quasi-prime ministerial Office of Administrative Affairs, Najibullah Sadeq Modaber, as deputies. Modaber leads a registered political party – Hezb-e Ensejam-e Melli (National Coordination Party) – that, however, has kept a low profile so far and is seen by some observers as a stop-gap in case one day a ‘presidential’ party is needed. This combination of a Pashtun, a Tajik and a Hazara exists also currently with Karzai-Fahim-Khalili.

This leaves out the Uzbeks as the, assumedly, fourth-biggest ethnic group, having repeatedly caused pain particularly with General Dostum who, before both previous presidential elections, had supported Karzai and had harboured high hopes for at least a number of lucrative high positions for himself and his followers afterwards, only to be fobbed off with largely ceremonial and powerless positions. This motive became very clear in Dostum’s speech in Mazar when he said, ‘We didn’t expect this from the government. We yelled so hard saying give [your votes] to Mr. Karzai. We told Pashtuns, Uzbeks, and Kandaharis to vote for Mr. Karzai, but we didn’t expect him to accuse us of a betrayal to the nation’, a reference for the NFA’s campaign to turn Afghanistan into a federal state.

Two brothers of President Karzai have also entered the fray. One brother, businessman Mahmud Karzai, renounced his US citizenship in January in order to ‘become more active in the politics of Afghanistan’. In June last year, he had already told Afghan media that his family had nominated his elder brother Qayyum Karzai, a former MP, as presidential candidate. This, however, was never followed up by any confirmation or denial from anyone else.

(3) The NFA consists of three parties: Jamiat-e Islami (still led by Salahuddin Rabbani as interim leader; Massud and Atta also belong to it), Jombesh-e Melli Islami (led by Dostum) and Mohaqqeq’s Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan. Saleh, the youngest of the Mazar five, is organisationally separate and currently leads Rawand-e Sabz (the Green Movement, ‘green’ for the religious, not the ecological, connotation), a movement aiming at mobilising the younger generation.

(4) The statement published after the Mazar meeting emphasizes holding a free and fair election in 2014, criticises the government’s peace talks with the Taleban because of the alleged absence of major anti-insurgency groups in the process and warns that a hasty withdrawal of the international forces without sufficient security measures would cause a deterioration of the overall situation of the country during and beyond the 2014 elections. Atta added that he is not interested in having foreign troops present in the country but stressed that there is still a need for some.

(5) Atta also has been Dostum’s deputy in Jombesh in the early 1990s (see our paper ‘Reforming Jombesh: An Afghan Party on Its Winding Road to Internal Democracy’ by Robert Peszkowski, p 4-5, here. For more background, refer to Antonio Giustozzi’s latest paper ‘The Resilient Oligopoly: A Political-Economy of Northern Afghanistan 2001 and Onwards’ here.

(6) This included MPs Mohiuddin Mehdi from Jamiat, Farhad Azimi and Enayatullah Frahmand from Jombesh, Baghlan governor Sultan Ahmad Ebadi (a former chief of staff to late Ustad Rabbani and head of NDS in Balkh who is close to and supported by Atta), the heads of the provincial councils of Jowzjan, Balkh, Sar-e Pul and Faryab as well as local commanders from Takhar, Baghlan and Samangan provinces, among the latter Hekmatullah Tor, nephew of the assassinated former Samangan governor and MP Ahmad Khan Samangani.

(7) In September last year, the president had cancelled a meeting of the (then) US Special Envoy to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Marc Grossman, with Atta, then-Helmand Governor Gulab Mangal, Herat Governor Daud Shah Saba and Nangrahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai ‘to discuss matters related to the upcoming presidential election’.

(8) Atta was quoted as saying that ‘even if Gulbuddin Hekmatyar participates in the elections, we will welcome the move. We are even prepared to ally with Hizb-e Islami, or any other political party, to ensure democracy’.

(9) There are a number of Pashtun ‘wild card’ candidates, too. In April last year, the former interior minister, Ali Ahmad Jalali, who had been a hopeful before the 2009 elections, raised some expectations among Pashtuns but finally withdrew saying that he has been asked to run again but advocated for an ‘honest’ and ‘complete team’. Nangrahar Governor Gul Agha Sherzai, also a much-mentioned name in 2009, who finally did not run, said he would this time. Other names are those of the former finance minister and current ‘transition czar’, Ashraf Ghani (who received 2.94 per cent of the votes in 2009, coming in fourth) and MP Mir Wais Yasini (fifth with 1.03 per cent in 2009). Yasini told a US newspaper that if Afghanistan holds a ‘fair, transparent election, then I’ll be there’. Even Ustad Sayyaf, who has held himself in the background politically so far (apart from being an MP from 2005–10), might appear on the scene, if one believes rumours circulating in Kabul.

And then there is the super wild card of Khalilzad. His family is from Laghman and reportedly from the Mamozai tribe, although he was born in Mazar-e Sharif (for background, see here and here). Like Khalilzad, Jalali – who also does not live permanently in Afghanistan – has been recently spotted in the country probing the waters.

What is fully unclear is whether the family of the former king can and wants to play any role. Humayun Shah Asefi who was one of Dr Abdullah’s vice presidential candidates in 2009 is still a member of the latter’s NCA while Prince Mustafa, the eldest grandson of the deceased king, had left it in 2008 after surprisingly joining its predecessor organisation that also was called National Front and was established by Ustad Rabbani in 2007. He now heads Afghanistan’s National Environment Protection Agency.

(10) According to the Khaama news agency report quoted in the main text, the president’s spokesman confirmed that Khalilzad had stayed as a guest in the presidential palace: ‘Every time he is here, he is in the palace because it’s safer, and because he can easily meet officials’.

(11) Since the establishment of Afghanistan in 1747, only two non-Pashtuns have briefly been head of state: the ‘brigand king’ Habibullah II (aka Habibullah Kalakani or, derogatorily, Bacha-ye Saqao, the ‘son of the water carrier’) for some months in 1929, before he was overthrown by General Nader Shah who, then, became King Nader, and also the late Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani, from 1992 to 1996, first as interim president of an (almost) all-party mujahedin government, then as the president elected by a shura, which was boycotted by major mujahedin actions.

Photo: More pictures of the meeting here.


Elections Government