Many Little Kabuls
As elections near, Afghan opposition makes a case for federalism
He who rules Kabul rules Afghanistan. Or so the old adage went. However, if there is one thing the last 12 years of the Afghan conflict has shown, it is that no king, or modern-day president, can take this for granted any more. Neither US efforts in Doha nor President Hamid Karzai’s desire to give the Taliban a place at the high table can fix this.
Yet, still guided by the old logic that only Pakhtoons can rule from Kabul, Taliban insurgents—also Pakhtoon—are sought to be brought into a power-sharing arrangement. Whether even that can bring stability to Afghanistan remains in doubt. The opposition parties are quite adamant that there should be no powersharing with the Taliban without their going through the electoral process.
Elections for the president’s post and provincial councils are due in April 2014, and those for Parliament, a year later. The Afghan opposition is pinning its hopes on free and fair elections to bring about fundamental changes in the country’s political system. However, there are apprehensions that in his bid to retain power in the hands of Pakhtoons, Karzai may either postpone the elections or fix them. He might even decide to settle for a loya jirga (assembly of elders) instead.
“People who do not want free and fair elections and try to prevent them will be judged harshly by history,” says Ahmad Zia Massoud, former Afghan vice-president and chairman of the Afghanistan National Front (ANF), an alliance of parties opposed to the Karzai regime. Brother of the legendary Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, an ethnic Tajik, Zia Massoud voices the fears of Afghan opposition leaders gathered in Munich to discuss the future of a deeply fractured polity. If the Bonn Process undertaken in the aftermath of 9/11 in 2001 led to the appointment of Karzai as president, the Munich Process organised by the opposition sought to challenge the very idea of privileging centralised governance through a ‘super-president’ in a conflict-ridden, multi-ethnic country.
The elections are also fated by the fact that they are slated for the same year that US/NATO troops are to disengage from the country. The Taliban naturally see an opportunity for themselves in the post-withdrawal scenario and do not want elections. The democratic opposition to Karzai, however, is very keen on the elections, even if imperfect.
“We welcome elections but are worried also,” says Faizullah Zaki, deputy leader of the Junbish-e-Milli (led by ethnic Uzbek warlord-turned-powerbroker General Abdul Rashid Dostum) and ANF spokesperson. “Security concerns may be cited to keep voters at bay and allow electoral fraud. There is no proper registration of voters. Against the six million voters in the country, 17 million voter ID cards have been issued. Despite these shortcomings, we want to make use of every democratic opportunity offered.”
There is no way to ascertain the precise number of voters, since the country has not had a proper census. Given the charges of ballot-stuffing in the past, the opposition’s apprehensions seem well-founded. Zaki claims the government is citing security concerns to avoid having international observers in the elections. “We are opposed to this attitude of the government,” he says. The ANF—essentially a coalition of parties representing minority Uzbeks, Tajiks and Hazaras—says it wants politics based on a clearly defined agenda, not personalities. “Politics based on a charismatic individual can become centralised and exclude our country’s diversity,” says Zaki, critiquing the present system.
To achieve this end, however, the Afghans need a new political vision, new parties with new agendas. “We don’t have political parties that are diverse and inclusive,” says scholar Mohammed Rafiq Raza. “The political ground is ready for a new kind of game, but the parties are playing on an ethnic basis. The coalition between parties is also based on the individual identity of the leaders,” he adds, pointing to the ANF. Massoud and Zaki refute the charge. “It is wrong to say the ANF is only a group of parties from a particular region. We are open to all ethnicities. We are popular even among Pakhtoons,” claims Massoud. Zaki points to countries like India and Pakistan where parties are popular in particular regions. “They are nonetheless national parties,” he says.
As they hone their electoral agendas and look for a presidential candidate who evokes the ideal of decentralised power, the ANF parties are most worried about the decline of internal security in Afghanistan. Amrullah Saleh, former chief of the Afghanistan Directorate of Security and currently the head of the Green Party, does not mince words while blaming Pakistan for this situation. “Those killing our MPs, heads of communities and policemen find safe haven in Pakistan,” claims the former chief of Afghan intelligence. “We act against them, yet nothing changes. In 2010, in an anti-Taliban operation, some 3,000-4,000 Taliban were either killed or jailed. This made no difference to the security situation because those behind the Taliban are not those in front of the guns. The biggest proof we have of Pakistan’s role is that the Taliban who went to Doha to open an office flew from Pakistan and had Pakistani passports. Those who went for talks to Paris took the flight from Islamabad on Pakistani passports. Those who come to Kabul to negotiate also come from Lahore. Pakistan is the main adversary.” Yet, he argues, if there is to be a dialogue, it must be with Pakistan, not with its proxies.
Another Afghan scholar, Abdul Khaliq Lalzad, too agrees that the solution lies not in killing random Taliban, but in talking to Pakistan. “We should not, and cannot, go to war with Pakistan. Dialogue is the only option. The real solution lies in the decentralisation of political power and if the Taliban get elected in a particular region, they can come to power there,” says Lalzad.
Despite their differences of position, Afghan opposition leaders are united in arguing that Afghanistan will not become stable, secure and violence-free unless political power is decentralised. The spectre of fragmentation, as anywhere else, is what is used to stall decentralisation. They say the fear is baseless. “It is wrong to argue that if you have federalism, Afghanistan will break along ethnic lines. Despite 35 years of war, not once have the Uzbeks, Tajiks or Hazaras said they want to break away. Some in the majority community (read Pakhtoon) use this threat, which does not exist on the ground, to frighten people about a possible break-up,” argues Mohammed Nazif Shahrani, a professor of anthropology. He is not against a strong central government but thinks a regime based on an exclusivist tribal, ethno-nationalist ideology in multi-ethnic Afghanistan “is unlikely to produce genuine national solidarity and coherence”.
Zaki too thinks the Afghan crisis and the threat of collapse are causatively linked more to a centralised government, not to the demand for decentralisation. The latter, he argues, will take the government closer to the people, make it more accountable. For this, he says, the governors of the provinces and the districts would have to be elected and the status of provincial councils changed from being mere advisory bodies to those empowered to plan and execute provincial-level development projects, run education, ensure delivery of public services and even resolve local-level conflicts. Regarding the apprehension that decentralisation will encourage warlordism, Zaki turns the argument on its head saying it is not giving people the right to choose their own government and leaders which strengthens so-called warlords.
Tordiqol Maimanagi, an Afghan political analyst, points out that historically Afghanistan and Central Asia had decentralised governance. “It is centralisation of power which is new to the region. In the 1940s, people fought against the centralisation of power by the king. And now under democracy we have gone back to the same fight.” Shahrani forecasts a dismal future for Afghanistan without decentralisation. “If federalism is not given its due consideration,” he says, “the peoples of Afghanistan and the region will have to go through another purgatory of several decades.”