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The Herald, July 22, 2012

The political void

By Razeshta Sethna

When at the Bonn conference in 2001 Hamid Karzai was appointed Afghanistan’s interim president by his international supporters, he came to occupy this position without any local backers. He had no traditional constituency and no political party, but has been able to exert his power for the past 10 years through his strong associations with the international community, power-seeking warlords and former Taliban sympathisers, many of whom have been part of his cabinet since 2004. Despite Afghan fears that the Nato withdrawal will bring back the Taliban in the absence of a strong government, the Karzai administration has not changed the political process and structure.

Today, almost 40 years after the country’s ‘first decade of democracy’ (1963-1973), and in the aftermath of the Bonn conference that initiated the process of statebuilding in theory – the creation of a constitution followed by elections for president and parliament – Afghans are critical of the Kabul-based, centralised government’s failure to promote regional autonomy and wider political party participation. This is because after years of war and political upheaval, Afghanistan is a different country from what it was in 1978, with a majority of Afghans – the war generation eligible to vote in the next election – judging the government’s legitimacy by its actions and its dismal record on governance.

Last month, when for the first time after the fall of the Taliban in 2001 the government banned a small, but vocal, leftist party rapidly gaining recognition, there was public outcry and the ban was overturned. The Solidarity Party had angered powerful politicians at an April demonstration in Kabul held on a national holiday which commemorates the victory of mujahideen fighters over Soviet troops; hundreds of protesters openly denounced and burnt pictures of politicians whom they consider war criminals. “[We] demand the prosecution of the criminal leaders,” the group said in a statement issued on the day. “Our party is committed to breaking the atmosphere of fear and dread.”

Photos of infamous warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Qaseem Faheem, Karim Khalili and Qanooni were defaced
April 30, 2012: Photos of infamous warlords like Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Qaseem Faheem were defaced. (Photo: BBC Persian)
More Photos

Human Rights Watch and other international observers strongly condemned the controversial ban; the government accused the party of violating Article 59 of the constitution which stipulates that no one can misuse their rights and freedoms to damage national sovereignty or unity. At the Kabul headquarters of the Solidarity Party, Hafiz Rasiq, a senior party member, explains that the party was summoned in May by the upper house of parliament to answer questions about the demonstration. Then, in early June, it received a letter informing that the party’s activities had been suspended to allow the attorney general to investigate the demonstration, Rasiq adds.

According to him, the party’s “main goal is to work towards peace and equal justice for all and ensure warlords involved in war crimes over the past three decades are brought to justice.” Having boycotted the last two elections to the lower house of parliament (“because of corruption”), the Solidarity Party has one senator in the upper house, barely standing as a political force to contend with other heavyweight power brokers and traditional patrons.

Thomas Rutting, a director of the Afghanistan Analysts Network, explains that “two years ago the Solidarity Party’s old leadership was voted out by young people refusing to participate in the post-2001 political process which they perceive as a facade democracy. They not only oppose human-rights violators from all factions but condemn what they term the ‘Nato occupation’ of Afghanistan demanding that western troops withdraw.” Solidarity Party representatives explain why their members refuse to sit in parliament: “We are not against sitting in parliament, if it is free and independent. Under the present conditions, parliamentarians are unable to voice the real concerns of Afghans. Alternately, the media operates as our mouthpiece,” Rasiq tells the Herald. Said Mohammad, a party spokesperson, adds that contacts with leftist parties in Europe have increased; posters reflecting this are prominent in the party’s Kabul office.

The clampdown is a reminder that the Karzai government has zero tolerance for dissent, with limited freedom of expression for political parties. “Political parties are crucial for shaping the future. The international community talks about democracy and relates political parties to democracy — this is a positive ideal. But I’m not sure if democracy is a realistic goal in the Afghan context. For the moment, the most important step is to authorise pluralism so that Afghan people feel that their opinions are voiced,” explains Herve Nicolle, a political analyst with Samuel Hall Strategy in Kabul.

In the real absence of mature political parties – most have failed to grow beyond representing constituencies with a narrow ethnic base – the real challenge towards a democratic transition is mobilising the younger generation which shares a deep mistrust of the Karzai government and its ministers. “They [Solidarity Party] may be more like a protest movement but they don’t fear talking against the US-led intervention. I have sympathy for them. Young people in Afghanistan today don’t want to make compromises. The Afghan system is very young; they need their own experiences,” Rutting says.

Political parties in Afghanistan date back to the 1940s when [Afghan king] Zahir Shah’s modernisation strategies nurtured various political groups, and the 1960s later witnessed the rise of communist parties, but such fragmented movements gave way to military factions divided along ethnic, tribal and religious lines – even in post-Taliban times political party identities and ideological profiles have not changed. (See Uneasy Political Histories). With 45 registered political parties to date in Afghanistan, they continue to face public distrust because of links to armed militias from pre-Taliban times. “In Afghanistan, politics is about individuals, alliances and ethnicities [rather] than parties. When we asked people [during a research survey: 80 households in 10 provinces] to name political parties, they mentioned Jamiat-e-Islami, Hezb-e-Islami, Jumbosh, the Haqqani network etc. These are political factions or insurgents; not exactly political parties with clear identities and frameworks,” Nicolle explains.

The Bonn Process initiated the post-war reconstruction of Afghan institutions which meant a political process of democratisation with the establishment of a presidential and parliamentary system, a bicameral parliament and an electoral cycle. This included the formation of a transitional government at the Emergency Loya Jirga in 2002 and the ratification of a new constitution 18 months later. According to this system, two elections, both for president and parliament, have been conducted. In the October 2004 presidential election, Karzai sought electoral approval for the first time, followed by parliamentary and provincial elections in 2005. While the Karzai-backed government established its legitimacy, many were dissatisfied with its performance, which meant lower popularity ratings in Karzai’s second term.

Analysts explain that when the 2004 constitution was ratified, the US-led international coalition perceived the problem to be the lack of a centralised system, so put in place a new constitution which made the Karzai government responsible for everything — from appointing provincial governors to police chiefs to paying local teachers. Certain provisions in the constitution state that the president as head of state “conducts authority in executive, legislative and judicial branches” which in the past two years has resulted in parliamentarians disgruntled by government interventions. Another heavily-criticised and controversial 2010 amnesty law (The National Reconciliation and General Amnesty Law) drafted and ratified by parliament gave blanket amnesty to war criminals: former warlords and militia commanders guilty of human rights abuses over the past three decades are not liable to prosecution.

Afghans now see these factors, that transformed the political landscape, as detrimental to their future post-2015: many believe the US-backed Karzai government has suffered from corruption, and incompetence; that development aid has inflated the Afghan economy; powerful regional commanders (such as Abdul Rashid Dostum and Mohammad Ata) have become stronger while former discredited leaders from the civil war responsible for killing hundreds of thousands of civilians (Ishmail Khan from the west and Gul Aga Sherzai from the south) now live in Kabul surrounded by ministerial trappings of power; and Taliban sympathisers in the cabinet continue to dominate the judiciary.

Ramzan Bashardost’s independent presidential campaign in 2009 won him supporters because he is a critic of Karzai, warlords-turned-ministers, and foreign and local aid agencies for spending millions on development projects with no results. This might have lost him Karzai’s favour (he resigned as Minister of Planning in 2004) but struck a chord with ordinary Afghans. The 50-year-old parliamentarian who came third in the last presidential election after Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Karzai’s main rival, and ahead of Ashraf Ghani, the former finance minister, says: “I am clean. I am not a criminal of war. I work for the Afghans; not just one ethnic group. I do everything I say and I say everything I do.” He gives most of his 2,000 dollar monthly salary to the poor, lives in a small room in his father’s house and even though he has no personal wealth and no powerful backers, his popularity is increasing.

But even if Bashardost is the people’s choice, he appears destined to remain an independent fringe politician with no political party support and, given his anti-Karzai stance, he has failed to win international backers — for now. “Today we have Karzai, [Qasim] Fahim (the Vice President and a former Tajik warlord), [Karim] Khalili (a former mujahideen commander who is the current second Vice President) and if you add Mullah Omar, [Gulbadin] Hekmatyar and [Jalaluddin] Haqqani, we will have six enemies to deal with here. They have killed a lot of innocent people in the past. We cannot make political deals with them. We cannot respect human rights values with criminals of war. The US supports them as ministers, senators … this is damaging American taxpayers and young [US] soldiers who come to fight for this corrupt government. If the US supports a young Afghan generation, they in turn will support its values,” he adds.

Hamid Karzai with Fahim and Khalili
Hamid Karzai with his vice-presidents Qaseem Fahim (left) and Karim Khalili. According to Human Rights Watch: "He [Fahim] is widely believed by many Afghans to be still involved in many illegal activities, including running armed militias, as well as giving cover to criminal gangs and drug traffickers."

Critics argue when it comes to newer, pro-secular and post-Taliban era political parties, their internal organisation and capacity building has been neglected by the government and international community during the last 10 years when other political institutions were provided developmental assistance. “After the fall of the Taliban regime, Afghanistan had the opportunity for political parties to emerge in a new environment of progress and democracy but, unfortunately, this didn’t materialise. Instead of political parties, we saw ethnic and tribal national groups emerge,” Ali Aklaqui, a parliamentarian from Ghazni province tells the Herald. He explains that none of the existing registered parties has a solid mandate or even a constitution. “There are very few parties where all members have decision-making powers. The problem is that the international community was focused on human rights, the war against terror and drugs in the last 10 years but there is a responsibility to support Afghan political development which is in a transitory phase towards democracy,” Aklaqui adds. When aid money benefits only the existing older factions of Islamist parties, newer democratic parties are excluded and sidelined, Rutting concurs.

The Afghan electoral system, formed around the Single Non-Transferable Vote (SNTV), backs independent candidates and larger organised political parties. Rutting explains that “it’s an unfair system and worse in Afghanistan because there are multi-seat constituencies and no limits on the number of candidates that can stand from a constituency.” For example,Kabulhas many seats and support is given to those who have power and control such as the mujahideen parties. Voicing concern about ethnic-identity-based parties, Rutting believes “they will become a hurdle to forming an efficient political process because ethnic policies mean mujahideen parties will dominate, forming alliances and resulting in infighting.”

The 2004 presidential election had 18 contesting candidates, but only four – Yunus Qanooni, Latif Pedram, Syed Ishaq Gailani and Ghulam Farooq Nejrabi – were backed by political parties. The 2005 parliamentary election was conducted along similar lines: 14 per cent of 2,835 candidates declared their party affiliations. Party-affiliated candidates with grass-roots influence and campaign money to spend mobilised supporters which meant that parties with the most representation in the 2005 Wolesi Jirga (lower house of the Afghan parliament) were those which emerged from the seven mujahideen organisations, Shia parties representing regional factions and the Hazara community. Independent candidates, with ethnic associations and community support, won seats based on personalities that dominated; manifestos or even party objectives or slogans were absent. For example, parliamentarian and rights activist Shukria Barakzai from Kabul won a parliamentary seat in 2004 after a street campaign whereas, she explains, her husband spent thousands of dollars but was unable to win in the same election.

In 2003, the first political Party Law was passed allowing parties to register with the Ministry of Justice, but a modification in 2009 required that they needed the signatures of 10,000 members to register as opposed to 700. “Political party affiliations are closer to their ethnic, tribal and regional roots as opposed to being truly nationalistic in orientation. How participative and open these parties are in their functioning is also questionable. Political parties will have to adopt a balanced approach and not appear to be on a Western payroll or follow the West’s agenda. The issues of the Afghans will have to be the central theme,” Arif Ansar, chief analyst at PoliTact, a Washington-based think tank, explains.

The US-backed Karzai government is criticised for deliberately neglecting a political process through which parties are given space and raise awareness about the electoral system among the country’s rural districts. “Karzai didn’t encourage the development of strong multi-ethnic political parties, nor did he form his own political group which leads one to believe that he had an [implicit] political agenda,” Hamidullah Farooqi, the spokesperson of the Truth and Justice Party and an ex-transport minister explains. Karzai is known to have selected certain key warlords to form his inner ministerial coterie; as his popularity waned and he needed support from former mujahideen groups, Khalili as Vice President fitted the bill. This has left a dangerous political vacuum and, with no pro-reform, pro-moderation party in the last 10 years, the government also refuses to build political coalitions.

“Karzai intentionally didn’t want to build the political capacity of the country,” Farooqi adds. This would imply that Karzai is taking advantage of the weaknesses inherent in the political system to ensure that he retains power for years to come in some form. “[Afghan] Political party structures cannot be compared to that of other countries: Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, [Ali Ahmed] Jalali etc do not represent a specific party or political choice, based on political concepts (socialist, socio-democratic, liberal). They represent a personal way to deal with the US, insurgents,Pakistan, warlords and ethnic groups. They also represent a specific relationship with the past and Afghan history [mujahideen and Taliban time] and that drastically changes the way people do and understand politics,” says Nicolle.

Independent candidates have also had it tough not only while campaigning with minimum resources but many needed to form alliances with traditional powerbrokers in a multi-ethnic political milieu. “Alliances are complex but that is the only way to get things done in polarised societies such as the one that exists in Afghanistan,” Ansar adds. When it comes to political survival, despite factional infighting, the two largest opposition alliances – The National Coalition of Afghanistan (NCA) and the National Front of Afghanistan (NFA) – have played the game well. Abdullah Abdullah (a candidate in the 2009 presidential elections) fronts the NCA with Qanooni as another senior leader whereas NFA is a political alliance between Ahmad Zia Massoud, former first Vice President (and a Jamiat-e-Islami member), General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the founder of the Junbish-i-Milli, and Muhammad Muhaqqiq, a Kabul parliamentarian and the leader of a faction of Hezb-e-Wahdat.

Donor assistance, development and security forces alone won’t bring peace and stability, but an intra-Afghan political process supported by regional countries might be closer to the reconciliatory politics that Afghanistan needs. In two years, when Karzai will have to step down, the government will require a strong successor and not a weak proxy. The question is not simply decentralising the Kabul-government or ensuring that a proper electoral voter system is in place for the elections, but the solution lies in working to invigorate independent political parties. Because of SNTV, which suited the Karzai government at the time, analysts say that parliament is not only fractured but has strong ties to the Taliban leadership and other older extremist factions with regional links. If political parties and youth movements are denied an entry point into this system, the third parliamentary election will result in an even fragmented parliament — only with greater chances of extremist candidates and their supporters winning seats to continue with the old system, and this time without international intervention to guide as in previous elections.

Access to information about the elections has a clear impact on electoral participation, states an Asia Foundation Report titled Voter Behavior Survey: Afghanistan’s 2010 Parliamentary Elections. With low education levels, the first hurdle is educating the Afghan electorate. Secondly, political parties hardly deliver on promises and corruption levels are high. “Most candidates running for public office do so to get rich than to serve the people. This further dents public perceptions about the role of politicians,” a member of the Awakened Youth Movement explains. With a large part of the population based in rural areas where the writ of the government is weak, services offered negligible, and where traditional structures are more enduring, the media, especially radio, has to play a role in developing awareness and to illustrate where voters as citizens fit in. Ansar explains that “it’s a really tough place where status quo is much preferred over change, where people do not have the appetite for grand visions and promises. They have to make it through the day and if you are going to help do that, they’ll believe you.”

Tired of the war, young Afghans are joining anti-Karzai movements and secular-leaning parties that stay away from playing the ethnic card. “They [the youth] are critical to the future of any state. It also depends on how successful their experience with the state has been. This can be called the issue of national integration. Afghanistan needs a period of calm that lasts up to 10 years where positive experiences can be developed. Moreover, any political party that targets the youth on a nationalistic agenda and brings them into its fold, will have a huge advantage over the others. Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf, next door, is a case in point,” Ansar explains.

Originally published on Jul. 18, 2012

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