Political Landscape

Trying to Stop the Bases: Another opposition block in the making?


Speaker in front of al-Aqsa mosque photo at Kabul press conference of the National Unity and Anti-American Bases Front. Photo: Pajhwok Afghan News .

Speaker in front of al-Aqsa mosque photo at Kabul press conference of the National Unity and Anti-American Bases Front. Photo: Pajhwok Afghan News .

A political front composed of traditional mujahedin and neo-Islamist groups that oppose any foreign military presence has raised objections to the plan to establish a ‘national unity government’. It rather proposes setting up an ‘inclusive’ government, which would also involve the main insurgent groups, in order to end the war and then to hold fresh elections later on. Although this front is positioned at the radical end of the political spectrum in Afghanistan, it seems to have become a stable factor on the Afghan scene and to appeal to a reasonably broad constituency, picking up popular and populist issues. AAN senior analyst Thomas Ruttig reports, (with input by Borhan Osman).

A coalition of groups organising politically against the presence of US bases in Afghanistan has started to raise its profile again. During a press conference held yesterday (11 August 2014) in Kabul, convened under the slogan, “Defence of Palestine and freedom of al-Aqsa mosque”, the National Unity and Anti-American Bases Front (NU-AABF; in Pashto, De Melli Yowwali au Bahraniyo Addo sara de Mukhalefat Jabha), not only addressed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also slammed the holding of the presidential elections and the envisioned formation of a ‘national unity government’. They may well have been waiting, in hope of the elections getting messy, to seize the perfect moment for presenting their alternative again: what they call an ‘inclusive’ interim government.

The NU-AABF is a coalition of different off-mainstream, non-violent Islamist groups, among them traditional mujahedin factions and leaders, neo-Islamist groups and individuals. It came together in late 2009, say activists of the front. Its most prominent member, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai (a former prime minister in the Rabbani mujahedin government of the mid-1990s), was linked to the initiators of the non-governmental De Afghanistan de Sole Melli Jirga (the Afghanistan National Peace Jirga), an attempt to mobilise tribal leaders as a ‘bridge’ for talks with armed insurgent factions launched in May 2008.(1) In November last year, the front was the organiser of the largest anti-US protest Afghanistan has seen over recent years when some 3000 politicians, mullahs and students from across Afghanistan participated in the so-called anti-BSA (Bilateral Strategic Agreement) jirga. Yesterday’s Kabul press conference also featured some of that jirga’s prominent speakers.

Front leader Ahmadzai stated at the press conference that this year’s election had ended up as his organisation had predicted: it had deepened the crisis in the country and led to “ethnical [sic] separation.” He attributed this to the situation of “war and instability” under which the polls were held, added that the current audit would not solve the problems and described current attempts to form a ‘national unity government’ as a US attempt “to impose a government of its own wants [sic] on Afghanistan,” a “repudiation” of the constitution and the “votes of the people.” On the Afghan level, this constituted, he said, a “mafia compromise” that would lead to “a very weak government.” Ahmadzai reiterated the front’s demand that, instead, a “temporary [interim] government” of “trustworthy individuals” should be established that would pave the “ground for talks between Afghans,” ie with the Taleban and other armed factions, and that, “after the ending of war”, prepare genuine elections. (The full English text of the front’s statement is here and in Pashto here.) In its statement about the elections, the front also picked up other widespread grievances with the dragging election process, for example about the economic downturn. It even underpinned its arguments by citing recent reports of the otherwise unbeloved US government’s Special Investigator General for Afghan Reconstruction (SIGAR).

The front’s plan for an interim government first and elections later strikingly corresponds with ideas submitted by the militant wing of Hezb-e Islami led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar (HIG) to the Kabul government in 2010 (translation and analysis here) that also, at least from HIG’s point of view, constitutes the basis for its frequent talks with Kabul.

As both presidential hopefuls have expressed their readiness to sign the BSA, as soon as one gets into power, (read here and here), the front’s recent statement also picked up the issue that was the raison d’être of its very establishment, the continued Western troop presence after 2014 as envisioned by NATO, agreed in principle with the Karzai government at the 2012 NATO summit in Chicago and to be reconfirmed at the upcoming 4–5 September NATO summit in Wales. “Signing the security agreement [with the US] and the presence of foreign troops will only help the continuation of war inside the country,” the front reiterated its position.

On the foreign policy front, the front tried to link up with international protests against Israel’s war in Gaza, describing it as a “genocide”. Former Kapisa MP Haji Ahmad Farid, speaking at the press conference, condemned how – he said – even some Islamic countries support Israel and claimed the US and the United Nations would only do “what Jews and Christians want”. Ahmadzai urged the Afghan government to open a Palestinian embassy in Kabul. (Reporting based on a live feed on Twitter, starting here.)

Most speakers and the front’s main representatives at yesterday’s press conference have a background in traditional mujahedin tanzims (‘parties’). Ahmadzai – a former mujahedin commander, prime minister under Burhanuddin Rabbani (1995-96) and deputy of Abdul Rab Rassul Sayyaf’s Ittehad-e Islami (renamed Dawat-e Islami) who, like Sayyaf, has taught at a university in Saudi Arabia in the 1970s – is now a wealthy businessman. He was one of the first former mujahedin leaders branching out into business, mainly real estate, and private Islamic education after 2001, establishing Kabul’s Insaf Hotel and his own Islamic university, Mashal, in Kabul. For a number of years, he has also headed his own party, the Islamist Hezb-e Eqtedar-e Islami (Islamic Power Party). Ironically, he is married to an American. Other prominent members, Haji Farid and Muhammad Zaman Muzammel, have a background in Hezb-e Islami as does Wahid Muzhda, who later became a Taleban regime official and prominent political commentator,. Many of their often young followers are mobilised through universities and madrassas which have links to the organisers.

However, as the anti-BSA jirga showed, there are other groups associated with this movement. They include Jamiat-e Islah, a social organisation with a considerable youth following in Kabul, Nangrahar and Herat and various media outlets, including a television channel in Herat and an Islamic radio station in Kabul. It considers itself the legitimate heir to the Afghan wing of the Muslim Brotherhood – in opposition to the tanzims that were, at least initially, inspired by it. This jamiat does not reject electoral politics in general (unlike, for example, the pan-Islamist Hezb ul-Tahrir with its – illegal – branches in Afghanistan); however, it says Afghanistan’s continued ‘occupation’ and war make free and fair elections impossible. The front even includes some pro-Iran Shia clerics, such as Sayed Hadi Hadi, the former Maidan Wardak MP and member of the small mujahedin tanzim and now Islamist party, Harakat-e Islami (led by Muhammad Asef Mohseni).

The front also has the potential to mobilise among parts of the population, including the ideological anti-Western youth, and among those who oppose a presence of Western troops and/or bases on Afghan territory, a constituency that might be much broader than the groups participating in the front. This has been shown during the protests organised by the front against the step-by-step but violent removal from power of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt after its (not fully clean) election victory in 2012 that brought together political forces way beyond the front’s core. (The front was also involved in protests against a fringe anti-Islam video released in the US in 2012 already.)

Both with its leading personnel and its ideas, the front is compatible also with the remaining militant wing of Hezb-e Islami and even the Taleban. The Taleban had hailed the November 2013 anti-BSA jirga as a “big meeting of respected ulama and intellectuals.” The Taleban’s favourable view of the front does not stop at hailing its activities. As activists of the front privately claim, they also reportedly want the front to play an active role in peace talks, and it has indeed, been negotiating in recent years with various politicians to try to persuade them to present a reconciliation plan it thinks the Taleban would back. Establishing an interim government made of Afghans not involved in higher positions in the government over the past 13 years is a key part of that plan. Such a neutral new government would then, the front says, pave the way for what it calls a “real inclusive government” which would also represent the Taleban and Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. This would also enable members of the front to make their way back onto the political centre stage.

Although the anti-US bases front has been a relatively fringe phenomenon so far, its existence over a number of years proves it has some political resilience. It also shows that the political spectrum in Afghanistan is broader than just the current two camps of the presidential candidates that made it into the still inconclusive 14 June run-off – both of which can be expected to disintegrate or, at least, crumble around the edges.

 

(1) This non-governmental jirga (see one media report here) also included a significant Hezb-e Islami and Dawat-e Islami (Sayyaf) element. One of its two main initiators, Senator Afzal Ahmadzai, is a nephew of Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai. Not to be confused with the National Peace Jirga convened by President Karzai in May 2010.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape