The Northern Alliance Prepares for Afghan Elections in 2014
The Doha talks with the Taliban have diverted Washington’s efforts away from the far more important negotiations among Afghanistan’s political elite that will actually determine whether the country’s unity and constitutional system endures past 2014. Afghanistan’s history suggests that any successful political accommodation of its different ethnic factions in 2014 will be impossible without incorporating the interests of those influential leaders and commanders currently or formerly associated with Jamiat-e Islami. Jamiat remains one of Afghanistan’s oldest and most influential Tajik-dominated political parties, forged as a political-military organization that eventually formed the core of the Northern Alliance against the Taliban. As negotiations with the Taliban proceed in fits and starts, U.S. policymakers would do well to remember that such negotiations hold very little appeal for the influential politicians affiliated in one form or another with Jamiat.
The political calculus of most of these former Northern Alliance leaders looking ahead to 2014 remains firmly centered upon maintaining and advancing their influence within the constellation of Kabul’s ruling political class. For these individuals, the question of who will succeed President Karzai and who will comprise a successor government in a post-Karzai era is paramount. These issues are also paramount for Karzai. For all of these elites, the prospect of civil war among existing Afghan factions is more dangerous to the country’s unity than the Taliban insurgency. But the establishment of a Taliban political office and political party that does not recognize the current Afghan constitution threatens all of them.
Jamiat and the other Tajik parties are not likely to pose a meaningful electoral challenge to Pashtun rule. During its years of resistance against both the Soviets and the Taliban, Jamiat never developed a centralized party structure independent of its many outsized personalities. After the fall of the Taliban regime, the party proceeded to splinter into two main camps, between the warlords who rose to prominence from the ranks of the mujahideen commanders and a group of self-styled opposition politicians. President Karzai has so far been able to co-opt the most influential Jamiat-affiliated warlords, including Marshal Fahim, Ismail Khan, and to some extent Atta Noor, through state appointments. This has successfully kept the party fragmented and marginalized his opposition. Looking ahead to 2014, it remains unclear whether Jamiat has the capability to unify behind a single candidate, and whether that candidate will run in opposition to Karzai’s his choice of a successor or in support of it.
The nature of the political handover of power in 2014 will be the most significant short-term benchmark of stability for the country. The United States should work to facilitate the timely, free, and fair holding of elections in April 2014. A repeat of the tainted election of 2009, in which a run-off between President Karzai and his challenger Abdullah Abdullah was nearly held, would be disastrous for the country. President Karzai understands this. The president will therefore ensure that the entire machinery of the Afghan state apparatus is energized behind his chosen successor once he makes his preferences known. In order to sow maximum dissension within Tajik ranks, the president is unlikely to publicly anoint his political heir until he has co-opted at least one or two influential Tajik politicians. In the short-term, the engagement of key Jamiat-e Islami politicians will be critical to a smooth regime transition in Afghanistan as the country moves into a post-Karzai era.
The politics ahead of the 2014 election indicate that it will not feature a radically new set of political players. Without international support for the institutionalization of Afghan political parties, civil society groups, younger and reform-minded political players, and the professionalization of an independent civil service, the election in 2014 will represent “business as usual” for Kabul’s political elite. A smooth transition of power alone will therefore not guarantee a durable political accommodation among those competing for power and influence in Afghanistan, but rather may simply delay into 2015 or 2016 a more violent struggle for control of the country.