A Loyal Opposition?

by Joshua Foust on 6/29/2011 · 11 comments

I was rapped on the knuckles a bit for portraying the emergence of Besij-i Milli as a dangerous artifact of Afghanistan’s politics, with the potential to revive the civil war. Today, the Wall Street Journal reports:

The new opposition group is led by former key figures in the Northern Alliance, which banded together mostly Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara militias to fight the Taliban regime during civil war in the 1990s.

Along with Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, the group is led by Gen. Rashid Dostum of the Uzbek community and Ahmad Zia Massoud, a prominent Tajik whose brother, Ahmad Shah Massoud, led the Tajiks against the Taliban before his assassination by al Qaeda two days before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Really, there’s no way this can possibly go wrong. Besides contemplating what the re-emergence of the Northern Alliance, still led by gangsters like Dostum (no matter what his apologists try to say in the US), would mean—bad things—this is another indicator of the continued political fracture of Afghanistan. Mapping out a few of the different parties in Afghan politics along with their grievances shows why this is so worrying:

  • The unnamed “Opposition,” as represented by Dostum, Mohaqiq, and Massoud. They are angry that Karzai’s special court invalidated some of the gains won by ethnic minorities in the Parliamentary election. Each leader also has personal grudges against Karzai for Karzai’s attempt to check their power over the last ten years… and each has their own troubling history of bloodshed and war crimes to consider before complaining about Karzai’s mis-rule.
  • The Besij-i Milli, a different opposition bloc primarily organized around Panjshiri Tajiks, led by Abdullah Abdullah and supported by Amrullah Saleh. Their biggest sticking point is preventing a grand bargain with the Taliban as advocated by Hamid Karzai and the US, unless the Taliban in effect surrender by dropping their grievances against the government and giving up their weapons.
  • All the old tanzims, not reconstituted as political parties of a sort, which sometimes work together and sometimes at odds depending on the issue.
  • President Karzai and the government of Afghanistan in Kabul.
  • The Taliban, led by Mullah Omar, which may or may not be interested in a compromise-based political settlement.
  • The Haqqani Network, which claims fealty to Mullah Omar but operates mostly autonomously and maintains ties to the ISI and al Qaeda.
  • Hizb-i Islami Gulbuddin, which is both marginal and whose leader is desperate for power.
  • Other insurgent groups active in a smaller scale in limited geographic areas.

There are, obviously, many other political actors in Afghanistan. And by the day, there seems to be more and more, though this could just be an artifact of Afghan politics (e.g. that coalitions form and break up regularly). But the process of registering political parties is difficult and time-consuming—beside the general apathy Afghans seem to have toward the concept of political parties, the voting system makes it difficult to identify candidates by party: only five qualified to be named on the 2010 ballot. There is also, I believe, no register of named votes in Parliament (e.g. MPs are not identified by their votes) so party platforms aren’t enforceable. The very political system itself, in other words, disincentivizes many forms of political organization we’d consider normal in a normal country.

Now, none of this means Afghanistan is automatically headed for war. If we are extraordinarily lucky, the reemergence of the Northern Alliance (of a sense) will lead to a Loya Jirga that includes the Taliban, not to another civil war. In fact, this is what the International Community should be pushing for, as it poses the best chance of resolving the political conflicts at the heart of the war. Unfortunately, what we are getting instead is a disjointed and halting process driven by the international community, a separate track of talks spearheaded by Hamid Karzai, and a constellation of different political actors within Afghanistan who seem to oppose both processes.

In other words, while there still exists the possibility of a reordering Afghanistan’s politics, most likely in the form of another emergency Loya Jirga that brings together the Northern Alliance, the Karzai dependents, and the Taliban, there’s no sense from the international community, much less the Northern Alliance or Karzai, that such a thing is even in the cards, perhaps because they all think they have the international community on their side.

Either way, the continued fracturing of Afghanistan’s politics is a very worrying development. But so little attention is being paid to it, I’m just not optimistic we can do much about it.

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This post was written by...

– author of 1848 posts on 17_PersonNotFound.

Joshua Foust is a Fellow at the American Security Project and the author of Afghanistan Journal: Selections from Registan.net. His research focuses primarily on Central and South Asia. Joshua is a correspondent for The Atlantic and a columnist for PBS Need to Know. Joshua appears regularly on the BBC World News, Aljazeera, and international public radio. Joshua's writing has appeared in the Columbia Journalism Review, Foreign Policy’s AfPak Channel, the New York Times, Reuters, and the Christian Science Monitor. Follow him on twitter: @joshuafoust

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Don Bacon June 29, 2011 at 4:10 pm

I would be shocked if this new political initiative doesn’t have U.S. fingerprints on it. The U.S. political opposition to Karzai seems to be increasing, again. The U.S.’s AfPak allies simply don’t measure up to U.S. security needs like the European allies do. Or did, before they decided to leave that sinkhole of western armies.

A non-fire-walled link for “disjointed and halting process, ” which also helps explain the secrecy about the meetings that I mentioned on another thread, is here.

RYP June 29, 2011 at 6:52 pm

Look bast your racist bias Go back and analyse the last election. Karzai asked Dostum to run his campaign in the north and deliver the majority of the clean votes. Karzai then screwed Dostum out of the dozen or slots promised.
Your framing of this as old fashioned is incorrect. Educated afghans want a truly democratic govt based on votes not deceit. Karma and his cronies have played things well by blocking democratic evolution but I think Afghanistan is ready to kick out Karzai and the Taliban. People in the north remember what the Taliban and Karzai did to them.

E2 June 30, 2011 at 1:34 am

Ummm…so, how is Joshua being a racist?

Joshua Foust June 30, 2011 at 9:04 am

Robert! Nice of you to drop by again.

I’m a racist now? Good to know. I’d be curious to know what your basis is for that.

As for Dostum, Karzai didn’t “screw” him out of anything. Dostum did what Dostum does and acted like a violent thug by raiding Akhbar Bay’s house, murdering one of Bay’s bodyguard, and viciously beating Bay. Which led to a tense standoff with the police. Karzai very subtly suggested he go back into rehab in Istanbul, and rather than go down fighting he took the deal.

That’s not really racism. Your boosterism of the North is laudable, but it misses the point: No one objects to government based on votes. Karzai’s objection to the election is based on the systemic exclusion of Pashtuns from voting, both by security and by Taliban intimidation. That’s the only way Hazaras would gain seats in, say, Ghazni. It doesn’t automatically imply the anyone else in government did something wrong, and I’d make the case that using a court he controls to invalidate those results was a really bad idea… but if you think Afghanistan under Dostum, for example, would suddenly rely on votes instead of patronage and thuggery you’re gloriously naive.

But not racist. No, you’re not racist as I am, clearly and obviously. Well done.

DD June 30, 2011 at 5:02 am
Nathan June 30, 2011 at 7:34 am

It is, and you took the words right out of my mouth.

Nick Hanz June 30, 2011 at 11:17 am

The fact of the matter is is that Karzai has effectively prevented the US from having a parliament which serves their interests. The US officials thought that by putting all this pressure with the Kabul bank allegations and sowing discord along ethnic lines would cause Karzai to come crawling back to them. This instead backfired, and at this stage it is irreversible.

Please read “Burnt-out case exposes US-Afghan rift,” by MK Bhadrakumar. It sheds light on exactly what is going on, and what is likely to happen.

Nick Hanz June 30, 2011 at 11:25 am

I would also like to say that Abdullah Abdullah and Amarulleh Saleh have no realistic chance at any role in Afghanistan, mostly due to the fact that they do not control the Northern Alliance. Across the board, I think the US officials seem to disregard the contempt an average Afghan has for a foreign occupation, and therefore there is only one way this ends, and that is with our exit.

If the talks with the Taliban are even real, which I doubt, it will only be about a complete withdrawal of US-NATO from Afghanistan (this is their main and ultimate goal). If US officials are sincere about leaving Afghanistan, then there is one peaceful way to end this.

Either way, the outcome will be the same.

Nick Hanz June 30, 2011 at 11:30 am

Joshua Fost,

I would like to commend you on doing an excellent job with your informative articles. Have you ever interviewed the Taliban? Have you got a sense of what they think in regards to this ongoing parliament crisis? I know from reading, that they reject the government completely. However, in light of this open political battle being waged between Karzai and US-backed parliament members, how do they perceive this?

I don’t think anyone can disregard what is going on.

Nick Hanz June 30, 2011 at 11:35 am

Joshua Fost and others,

Please read this when you can. It is highly informative.


Don Bacon June 30, 2011 at 1:00 pm

Thanks — this goes back to my above reference on U.S. ‘fingerprints’ and the undermining of Karzai.

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