Context & Culture

The New National Front: A Dark Horse Returns – with Three Riders


Two months after the death of Burhanuddin Rabbani, his old coalition, the National Front of Afghanistan (Jebha-ye Melli Afghanistan), has been revived. The new grouping is calling for radical political reform in order, as they see it, to re-enfranchise the Afghan voter. They want decentralization,a proportional voting system and a prime minister. At the same time, the move can be seen as an attempt by three northern leaders who have experienced serious political setbacks in recent years to re-energise their careers: former first vice president, and member of Jamiat-e Islami, Ahmad Zia Massud, the founder of Jombesh party General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Muhammad Muhaqqiq, leader of one branch of Hezb-e Wahdat and an MP for Kabul. The Front is also interesting for who is not in it, argues AAN’s Gran Hewad: several key players from the 2007 incarnation of the Front are now missing.

 

The preparations to revive the Front had been on-going for many months. Its official unveiling had been expected around the middle of August, and the repeated delays have badly affected the reputation of both the Front and its leaders. The question of why it was postponed remains open.It is generally assumed there was disagreement as to who should be leader. But recently, both Massud and Muhaqqiq told AAN that it was because Ustad Rabbani had asked them to first expand the basis of the Front and allow time for prominent figures in the south, west and east to join its ranks. Despite having not really achieved this goal, the Front announced its re-launch on 11 November. Both Massud and Muhaqqiq spoke to the audience, while Azizullah Kargar,who is one of Jombesh’s deputy chairmen, spoke on behalf of General Dostum who was also present.

A majority of the audience appear to have been Uzbeks and Hazaras, with only small numbers of (eastern) Pashtuns and Tajiks.  This reflects the balance of the parties and leaders in the coalition, ie major Uzbek and Hazara and only minor Pashtun and Tajik figures. The Front’s declaration calls for a prime ministerial, parliamentary system, with an increase in the authority of provincial councils and governors, a change to a proportional electoral system and reforms to the judiciary.

Faizullah Zaki,* one of Jombesh’s deputy chairmen and spokesman for the Front told AAN, ‘SNTV (Single Non-Transferrable Vote) has really damaged the institutionalisation of political parties – which are important for democratisation.  The result is an incoherent, weak parliament. It is disenfranchising communities everywhere and not helping national unity.’

He said it had also created problems for his party. ‘80 per cent of our votes were wasted in the parliamentary elections,’ he said. ‘For example, in Sar-e Pul, two Jombesh candidates – Khairullah Azizi, the head of the Provincial Council, and Mawlawi Abdul Khabir, a sitting MP and deputy chair of Jombesh, because of SNTV, had to compete against each other and both ended up losing. It took time for us to reconcile them.’

Interestingly, for three parties which were the bedrock of resistance to the Taleban before 2001, the Front has declared that it does not oppose peace talks but says there must be political reform. This should also be before transition is completed. The Front also says the US should insist on reforms as a pre-condition for signing a Strategic Partnership Agreement.’ If serious, fundamental reforms do not take place, said Zaki,‘when international support is withdrawn, the system will fail.’

Arguing for political reform is one major part of the Front’s agenda, but the other surely is to do with the political fortunes of the three main leaders, all of whom can be seen to have lost ground in recent years, and their various parties.

Ahmad Zia Massud,who was replaced as Karzai’s first vice president by Marshal Fahim in 2009, had expected to be a candidate in the 2009 election on the ticket of Gul Agha Sherzai; he lost some political credibility when the Nangrahar governor decided, in the end, not to run. He suffered a further defeat after the death of Rabbani (his father-in-law) who had appointed him acting leader of Jamiat-e Islami when he became chair of the High Peace Council (HPC). Massud had worked hard when Rabbani was alive to be given the Jamiat leadership during a party congress (which had been scheduled for October 2011).  However, it was Salahuddin Rabbani, the assassinated leader’s son and ambassador to Turkey, who dramatically replaced Massud as acting head of the party in October during a Jamiat leaders gathering in Kabul.

The revived Front looks like the best stage for Massud to reassert himself in a leadership role among the former mujahedin. Jamiatis who follow Massud will probably join the Front, but – as is usual in Afghanistan – probably not give up their Jamiat membership. Marshal Fahim, the first vice president, and Ustad Atta the governor of Balkh who dominates the north, have huge capacity to attract Jamiatis and reward their loyalty; Dr. Abdullah, the main rival of President Karzai in the 2009 elections, still has relevant connections with several Jamiatis and even Ahmad Zia’s brother Ahmad Wali Massud supports him. Furthermore, there are other Jamiati leaders who own their own pieces of the party’s constituency: Yunus Qanuni, Amrullah Saleh and the current acting minister of Water and Energy Ismail Khan. This can give an idea of what is left for Ahmad Zia to take of Jamiat, once one takes out the share of Salahuddin Rabbani too.

Dostum was also at the launch. He is the leading figure in Jombesh-e Melli, one component party of the Front, but after the 2008 party congress in Kabul, he gave up his position as party chairman and was promoted to a honorary position, as founder of the party. In his place, Sayed Nurullah Sadat was elected as chairman. At the Front re-launch, Sadat was not present, while Dostum was introduced as Jombesh’s leader. This appears to be a recognition of his actual power in the party and also reflects unhappiness among some of the cadres about Jombesh being taken into the Front. Significantly, in a phone call with AAN, when asked whether his party had agreed to align with the Front or not, Sadat said, ‘I can’t say anything about this issue. This requires a party decision which hasn’t been made.’  Zaki accepted there was disagreement within the party, but said that was only natural.

Dostum will try to get a consensus about the party’s membership of the Front in the upcoming March Jombesh congress, but other senior figures are threatening a party split, ‘If Dostum continues his attempts to manipulate the party and even tries to change its charter to his own benefit, the probability of a split with the Turkmen component of the party would increase,’ said Ismail Munshi, a Turkmen member of the party secretariat. Turkmen are the group who have particularly struggled for reforms in the party and have their own leaders among the Jombesh leadership. They may have problems with being in a coalition with Muhaqqiq and Massud and may not be ready yet to see Jombesh take an openly oppositional stance. Possibly this is because they expect the government to give them more opportunities as an ethnic group in its effort at enhancing national unity.

In the 2004 presidential elections Dostum received 804,739 votes (10 percent of the national total), bolstering his claim that he, and only he, speaks for the Afghan Uzbeks (and other Turkic people in the country). Later, he allied himself with Karzai in the 2009 presidential elections, during which Jombesh delivered – according to their own figures – one million votes for Karzai. Zaki and Muhaqqiq said their parties’ support had been conditional. ‘We had an agreement with Karzai for political reforms,’ said Zaki. ‘We put it on the table and the involved parties signed the agreement. It was agreed that if he won and became president, this would be his policy document – but it didn’t work.’ Added to this disappointment, was Karzai’s failure to appoint a sufficient number of Dostum allies into important positions** which, in turn, triggered Dostum’s return into the opposition camp – and into the new Front.

Muhaqqiq another leader in the Front represents Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan (the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan). He has his own clever way in taking care of his party members’ interests, something that at times places him in a competitive role with Muhammad Karim Khalili, the Second Vice President who took the leadership of, the then still united, Wahdat-e Islami party after the death of Abdul Ali Mazari in 1995. Both of them compete to receive more privileges from the government, while keeping their options open and both, therefore succeed in being both with and against the government (although Khalili is more with and Muhaqqiq more against). Muhaqqiq resigned from his post as minister of planning to run in the 2004 presidential elections, when he received 931,572 votes (11.6 percent of the total). He also supported Karzai during the 2009 elections due to the same pre-election deal as Jombesh signed up to. Again, he was disappointed and told AAN, the current system resembled a monarchy and the way Karzai ‘deals with democracy’ is like the Afghan kings of a hundred years ago. Currently, he is representing Kabul in the Wolesi Jirga for his second term, and he recently boycotted the Traditional Loya Jirga in the house session and as part of the NFA.

Among the minor players joining the front is Haji Aman Khairi, who is an eastern Pashtun. He served as commercial attaché at the Afghan consulate in Peshawar from 2002 to 2004 and was detained in 2007 for two years by the Karzai government when he returned from US, accused of involvement in the murder of Haji Qadir in 2002. He was eventually acquitted of the charge, right before the 2009 presidential elections. After failing to win a seat in the Wolesi Jirga election last year, he now leads the Nangarhar Tribal Unity Council. His older brother Haji Zaman Khairi ‘Ghamsharik’ was murdered in February 2010 in a suicide bomb attack in the Chamtala area of Sorkhrod district near Jalalabad, a place where their fellow Khugiani tribesmen are involved in a land dispute with locals backed by a different set of  eastern political heavyweights – the Arsala family. Haji Aman is a newcomer in this part of the Afghan political opposition, marking the Front’s first major inroad into the Eastern Pashtun constituency.

What was just as interesting as who was at the Front’s launch, was who was not there. Chief among the absentees was Amrullah Saleh, former head of the Afghan intelligence agency, the NDS, and currently leader of the so-called Green Trend (see the website here).  Both Zaki and Muhaqqeq said Saleh had been heavily involved in pre-launch discussions.  Muhaqqeq said Saleh told them he supported Massud and would give a speech at the inauguration, but when the Front contacted his office on the day of the launch, it said Saleh was ill. When AAN tried to talk to Saleh to find out why he had not turned up, his office said, ‘he is out of the country and is not a member of the Front.’

Other leading Jamiatis who were present in the 2007 Rabbani-led incarnation of the Front and are now missing include Marshal Fahim (now first vice president), Ismail Khan, also now in the government as acting minister of water and energy, Yunis Qanuni, former parliament speaker and current MP, and Hafiz Mansur, another MP and Jamiat ideologue.  The Front was also much wider in 2007, with leading former PDPA figures, including Nurul-Haq Ulumi, leader of Mutahed-e Melli Party and former governor of Kandahar, and Sayed Muhammad Gulabzoi, former PDPA interior minister.  Mustafa Zahir, grandson of the former king Zahir Shah and now head of the National Environment Authority was also a member of the first Front, as was the leader of another Wahdat faction, and now MP for Bamyan, Muhammad Akbari. The former leader of the Shi’a mujahedin (and never a memberof Wahdat) party, Eqtedar-e Melli, Mustafa Kazemi – his brother Dr. Mohammad Ali Kazemi current leader of the party and representative of Kabul to parliament is allied with the Change and Hope coalition – was also in the 2007 Front, but later that year he was among dozens to have been killed in a suicide bombing in Baghlan.

The launch of the National Front is just one instance of the frequent alignments, re-alignments and gatherings among different networks of politicians these days. The ‘liberal’, ‘human-rights-oriented’ and multi-ethnic, Haq wa Edalat party (Rights and Justice Party, see our previous blog here) and the National Front both declared their existence during a single week in November.

Such political churning appears prompted by the need to organise before the 2014 presidential elections, but at the same time, it is also a recognition that they must prepare for a future which is unclear.  The present time is marked by contradictory statements by US officials about withdrawal and the lessons learned from the American drawdown in Iraq, which have created uncertainty among Afghan politicians and people, especially given the possibility of the full withdrawal of international military forces. The various political groupings and regroupings are like horsemen, riding into the darkness, trying to position themselves for the end game – but not sure yet what that might be.

 

* Zaki is head of the organizational Committee of Jombesh. According to the party charter head of every 12 committee are deputies to the chairman, at the same time he is spokesperson of Jombesh and the Front.

** Karzai appointed some Jombesh figures as ministers, but Parliament did not endorse them; however, unlike others who have been kept on as acting ministers, he replaced the Jombeshis  with other candidates.

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Thematic Category: Context & Culture, Political Landscape