Afghanistan's Powerbrokers Prepare for 2019 Presidential Elections

By: Scott DesMarais

Key Takeaway: Afghanistan’s powerbrokers are in the early stages of an intense competition as they prepare for the planned 2019 presidential election. The multi-month disagreement between President Ashraf Ghani and warlord and long-time Balkh Province Governor Mohammad Atta Noor over the latter’s governorship is the first stage of a much larger battle between the two politicians for the presidency. Atta is exploiting friction caused by how President Ghani wields his power to build a network of alliances to challenge President Ghani in 2019. Meanwhile, Ghani is actively using his immense presidential power to undermine Atta’s attempts to build an opposing coalition.

The Political Disputes Permitting Atta’s Rise

The internationally negotiated National Unity Government agreement that set President Ghani in place has failed to create a genuine power-sharing arrangement between the president and his opposition.

Ghani’s administration has not adhered to the terms of the internationally negotiated National Unity Government (NUG) agreement that established him as President and his Tajik rival Abdullah Abdullah as Chief Executive Officer (CEO). Ghani has used the president’s significant constitutional authority and the vague terms of the NUG agreement to marginalize CEO Abdullah and to limit other Tajik rivals’ influence in governance.

The Ghani administration has not implemented the agreement’s required reforms aimed at ensuring transparent elections, so Ghani’s administration is repeatedly able to delay parliamentary and district council elections. Ghani has been able to postpone, on grounds of process, calling the required Constitutional Loya Jirga to convert the Chief Executive Officer’s (CEO) position into a constitutionally mandated premiership.[1] Such a constitutional change would create a more balanced power-sharing agreement between Ghani and CEO Abdullah, who is Jamiat’s most senior representative in the government. 

Ghani’s corruption reforms could drive Atta, Jamiat, and entrenched Pashtun powerbrokers to form an anti-Ghani coalition in order to secure the patronage networks they benefit from.  Ghani is pushing a reform agenda that is intended to combat corruption and empower government institutions over powerful regional personalities; as a result, Ghani has attempted to remove regional warlords and powerbrokers from Afghan politics—including First Vice President General Abdul Rashid Dostum and Atta. Ghani’s anti-warlord initiatives allow Atta to build and strengthen alliances against Ghani among traditional rivals. 

Atta’s coalition building

Atta is attempting to unite Jamiat under his leadership by courting other Tajik powerbrokers and by leveraging his governorship to increase Jamiat’s influence in government. Jamiat’s negotiations with President Ghani over the Balkh governorship are an effort to reset the Afghan political system in order to increase Jamiat’s power and influence in the government. Based on Jamiat’s current demands, Atta would resign from the Balkh governorship if Ghani appoints Jamiat leaders to key government positions and if Ghani alters the parliamentary system to increase the role of political parties, like Jamiat, in parliament. If Atta is able to use his negotiated resignation to force Ghani to adhere to Jamiat’s demands, Atta would accomplish what CEO Abdullah could not: getting Jamiat leaders appointed to key positions in the government. This would be an important step towards convincing the historically fractious Jamiat party to support Atta in 2019 elections. 

Afghanistan powerbroker coalitions.

View a high-resolution version of this graphic here.

Atta is trying to build a powerful and diverse coalition with ex-President Hamid Karzai to challenge Ghani in 2019. Atta has already created the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan (CSA) with Dostum and Deputy CEO Mohammad Mohaqiq in June 2017. This alliance has united three minority groups, the Tajiks, Uzbeks, and a faction of the Hazaras. Atta is also trying to build alliances with Pashtun powerbrokers, most notably with former President Karzai. President Ghani prevented Atta from attending a December 2017 meeting of opposition parties in Kandahar, indicating Ghani feels threatened by Atta’s attempts to build alliances with Pashtun powerbrokers. Jamiat political figure Ahmad Wali Massoud met with Shah Wali Karzai, Hamid Karzai's brother and the head of the Pashtun Popalzai Tribe, in Kandahar on February 7, 2018. It is possible Massoud is working as an emissary for Atta, given their January 2018 meetings. Additionally, the powerful Kandahar provincial police chief, General Abdul Raziq has publicly supported Atta, who claimed he met with one of Raziq’s representatives in Mazar-e Sharif on February 23. Raziq reportedly hosted the meeting, which several former Karzai administration officials attended. One of the most prominent attendees was Rahmutallah Nabil, Karzai’s director of the National Directorate of Security and the leader of the Karzai-linked Mehwar-e Mardom party.

Atta will struggle to create an enduring and strong partnership with Former President Karzai. It is unlikely that Karzai will choose to support Ghani, but it is also unlikely that he will fully support Atta in the presidential election. Karzai cannot run for President again, but he will likely seek the best opportunity to increase his own influence within the government. He may choose to support a Pashtun, likely one who served in his administration, during the 2019 election instead of Atta. The leaders of Karzai-linked opposition groups may have presidential ambitions of their own, so it may be difficult for Atta to maintain support from these groups until 2019, especially if Karzai decides to support one of their campaigns. Additionally, traditional tensions based on past dealings with Karzai may make it difficult for Atta to convince all of Jamiat to support an alliance with Karzai.

Ghani’s efforts to undermine Atta

Ghani can attack Atta’s fragile network of alliances in multiple ways as he prepares for Atta’s challenge. Atta will need a united Jamiat, full support from the CSA, and alliances with powerful Pashtun leaders to challenge Ghani realistically in the 2019 elections. Ghani will work to exploit intra-Jamiat tensions, the traditional rivalries between the members of the CSA, and long-lasting tensions between Karzai and most of Afghanistan’s northern power-elite. Ghani may also try to limit the appeal of Atta and Jamiat’s current proposals to alter the Afghan system of governance. If Ghani is able to secure deals with some disenfranchised powerbrokers, both inside and outside of Jamiat, he may be able to limit Atta’s ability to contend in 2019 elections.

Ghani is trying to fracture the Coalition for the Salvation of Afghanistan by creating tensions between its members.  Ghani is using historic tensions between Dostum and Atta and their respective political parties to weaken the CSA. Ghani reversed a decision to replace the Jamiat deputy governor of Samangan Province with a member of Dostum’s Junbesh-i Milli party after reaching a deal with Jamiat on February 20. This led the spurned Junbesh member to threaten to seize the deputy governor’s post by force. This incident demonstrates an example of how Ghani can play one CSA member against the other. Ghani also may be attempting to split Mohaqiq from the CSA, which would weaken the coalition. Ghani met with Mohaqiq in early February 2018 reportedly to build a “Council of Elders,” which may be Ghani’s attempt to create a rival coalition. Another senior member of the CSA, Mohammad Natiqi, criticized both Ghani and Jamiat for ignoring other opposition groups during their negotiations.[2] Natiqi said both Ghani and Jamiat are to blame for excluding other parties that supported CEO Abdullah in 2014 from discussions on implementing the National Unity Government Agreement. Atta will need the Uzbek and Hazara support he derives from the CSA to have a legitimate chance at winning a national election. However, Atta’s primary concern is likely to unite Jamiat and the Tajiks, so Ghani can use the political disputes this causes to reduce Atta’s support from the CSA.

Afghanistan political parties spectrum.

View a high-resolution version of this graphic here.

Atta is engaged in a power-struggle with Jamiat’s acting-leader Salahuddin Rabbani that may weaken Atta. Afzal Hadid, a close advisor to Atta and the Balkh Provincial Council head, claimed a resolution to the Balkh dispute was close following a private meeting between Atta and representatives from Ghani’s administration in Mazar-e Sharif on March 04-05.[3] However, a Jamiat spokesman denied any negotiations between Atta and Ghani’s administration occurred, and Rabbani reportedly does not support Atta’s direct negotiations with Ghani’s administration. An anonymous source from Jamiat claimed Ghani is negotiating directly with Atta in an attempt to find an alternative solution to the Balkh dispute because multiple rounds of negotiations with Jamiat representatives, led by Rabbani, have failed to resolve the crisis. Like Atta, Rabbani may have been using his role leading Jamiat’s negotiations over the Balkh dispute to improve his own position in Jamiat by demonstrating his ability to support the party’s interests. Rabbani may want a more prominent role in Afghan politics given reports that he initially supported Atta’s removal and rumors that he is interested in a unified Ghani-Jamiat presidential ticket—presumably with himself as the Vice President. Ghani may have offered an attractive deal to Atta that Ghani believes will split Jamiat.

However, there are conflicting reports about whether Atta and Ghani negotiated a settlement or simply set conditions for Ghani-Jamiat negotiations to resume. Some anonymous sources claimed that Atta and Ghani had reached a deal. Based on the rumored agreement, Atta plans to resign but will choose his successor and a new Balkh police chief.[4] Additionally, Ghani will appoint Jamiat members as Minister of Education and Minister of Information and Culture, and Ghani will appoint six new Jamiat ambassadors to unnamed countries. In contrast, other sources claimed Atta’s negotiations had only paved the way for negations between Jamiat and Ghani to resume in Kabul.

  • If Atta and Ghani negotiated a deal, Atta would likely have expanded on Jamiat’s initial demands that sought Jamiat appointments to senior government positions.[5] While Jamiat and Atta’s demands  gradually increased to include much broader electoral and constitutional reforms, Atta may believe he can use this agreement to consolidate his control of Jamiat.[6] Ghani may believe such an agreement will exacerbate a power-struggle in Jamiat. Alternatively, Ghani may be willing to make these concessions in order to reduce the pressure stemming from the growing support for Jamiat’s reform agenda combined with upcoming parliamentary elections. The parliamentary and electoral reforms Jamiat and Atta have demanded would make it difficult to hold parliamentary elections as scheduled so this possible agreement may indicate Ghani is trying to mitigate the potential consequences of delayed elections. 
  • If Atta set conditions for future negotiations, it would indicate limited progress, but given the broad reforms Jamiat demands, a resolution may not be imminent. This would also demonstrate that Atta is confident that Ghani will be unable to split Jamiat by offering a Jamiat faction a favorable deal to abandon Atta.

Ghani may try to counteract growing support for Jamiat’s reform agenda. Multiple parties have announced their support for the reforms Jamiat is demanding. Ghani has held separate meetings with multiple opposition leaders whose parties either already have or could ultimately support Jamiat and Atta. Ghani has met with Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, the leader of the Council for Protection and Stability in Afghanistan;[7] Hezb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar;[8] Deputy CEO Mohammad Mohaqiq; CEO Abdullah Abdullah; and Hazara Hizb-e Wahdat leader Karim Khalili. Ghani’s office said the meetings were “to discuss issues of national interests;” however, anonymous sources claimed Ghani intended to create “Council of Elders.” It is possible Ghani is trying to constrain Atta and Jamiat by creating a rival coalition focused on implementing reforms but on terms that are more favorable to Ghani.

Ghani’s decision to release new electronic National Identity Cards (e-NICs) that include nationality could drive a wedge between several opposition groups. The Tajiks and Hazaras are opposed to including ethnicity and nationality on the cards, while Uzbeks and Pashtuns support the labels. One of Jamiat’s current negotiating demands includes the use of e-NICs that do not include nationality or ethnicity. Ghani may be able to use e-NICs to increase tensions within the CSA and, more importantly, could use ethnic tensions to block Atta from aligning with Pashtun leaders.  As an example, General Raziq said that anyone opposed to listing nationality on the e-NICs as “Afghan” should leave the country, while Atta criticized the e-NIC release on February 17.[9] Atta’s February 23 meeting with Raziq’s representative may indicate their emerging alliance can overcome the e-NIC issue but impassioned disagreements over e-NICs could pose challenges to Atta’s alliances.

Inflection Points

The ongoing Balkh dispute and continued parliamentary election delays could become inflection points that lead to an uncontrollable destabilization in Afghan domestic politics. The most likely indicator that either of these inflection points will cause significant problems is the outbreak of protests in Kabul. Atta has continually threatened to organize mass protests in Kabul unless Jamiat’s demands are met. As long as the Balkh dispute persists, large protests will remain a possibility. Atta said that it would be difficult for him to control a “massive movement from Balkh” that could lead to a crisis that caused the government to collapse.[10] Large anti-Ghani protests in Kabul increase the risk of violent confrontation between security forces and pro-Atta demonstrators, which would lead to an unpredictable escalation of tensions.  It’s also possible that repeated election delays could catalyze destabilizing protests. Many political parties demand timely and transparent elections, so the emerging anti-Ghani coalition may be able to leverage electoral delays to organize protests. Parliamentary and district council elections are still officially scheduled to occur on July 7, 2018, but Independent Election Commission (IEC) officials have admitted elections will likely be delayed until October. There are indications some parties will accept a delay to October, but any announcement that elections will not be held in 2018 could prompt destabilizing protests in Kabul. Given widespread demands for timely elections, protests over elections delays could grow so large and intense that Ghani is forced physically to resign and a transitional government is created.      

[1] Parliamentary and district council elections must be held before a Constitutional Loya Jirga can be held.

[2] Natiqi is Mohaqiq’s deputy in the Hizb-e Wahdat-e Mardom party. Natiqi is one the six signatories of the original CSA agreement in Turkey in June 2017.

[3] Atta reportedly met with the head of the National Directorate of Security, Massom Stanekzai, and the head of the Office of the President, Abdul Salam Rahimi (both of whom have been involved in the discussions with Jamiat’s representatives). Hadid said he was not aware of the details of the negotiations but said he “can say it with confidence that the door for settling the tensions has opened.” 

[4] The current Balkh police chief announced he would remain loyal to the government should the dispute escalate into a violent conflict on December 26 so Atta probably wants to appoint a more loyal commander

[5] Jamiat and Atta initially demanded Jamiat members be appointed Minster of Education, Minister of the Economy and the ambassadors to Tajikistan and Bangladesh. 

[6] Control of the Ministry of Education is a crucial concession to Jamiat because the ministry is the largest civil employer in Afghanistan and is a key component of Afghan patronage networks.

[7] The Council for Protection and Stability of Afghanistan (CPSA) consists mostly of former Karzai administration officials who had previously supported Abdullah in the 2014 election. They have previously demanded Ghani implement reforms and hold timely and transparent elections.

[8] Hekmatyar is not likely to support Atta but a faction of Hezb-e Islami supports Jamiat’s agenda and Hekmatyar has said timely elections are necessary.

[9] “Afghan” has historically been used to refer to the Pashtun ethnicity.

[10] Atta was referring to protests planned to coincide with the Kabul Process meeting that he later postponed.