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Afghanistan’s Parties in Transition
Afghanistan’s Parties in Transition
Table of Contents
  1. Overview
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan
Briefing 141 / Asia

Afghanistan’s Parties in Transition

Afghanistan’s political parties must exercise restraint as they jostle for power in the final months of President Karzai’s mandate. For its part, the outgoing administration should also resist calls to excessively regulate the parties. A commitment to pluralism, by all players, is key to the legitimacy of Kabul politics – and an important advantage against armed insurgents.

I. Overview

Political parties are developing slowly in Afghanistan, discouraged by electoral laws and fragmented ethnic politics, but starting to shed their legacy as armed groups. Their newfound legitimacy will face its most serious challenge during the 2014 presidential election and 2015 parliamentary polls, as parties scramble to ensure their place in the new order that will follow the end of President Hamid Karzai's constitutional mandate. Many obstacles remain, as the outgoing government threatens to revoke the licences of many, if not all, political parties, and introduce tough regulations on political party activity. The jostling for power could inflict lasting damage on the political system, because the government’s effort to curtail the number of parties, while a popular measure among many Afghans, could shut out moderate political movements and emerging youth organisations, leaving voters with limited choices among only the biggest of the tanzims, or former mujahidin parties. For its part, the international community should condition financial assistance on further government efforts to promote multiparty politics.

Some parties with roots as northern militias are preparing to rally their supporters for street demonstrations that could turn violent. This comes as all the major political players are leveraging pre-election displays of strength in negotiations over slates of presidential and vice presidential candidates. Major opposition players, including traditional rivals such as Junbish-i-Meli-Islami, Hizb-e Islami and the Jamiat-i Islami factions – leading representatives of the Uzbek, Pashtun and Tajik ethnic groups, respectively – are showing unprecedented unity in their calls for electoral reform. However, their activism, albeit for commendable goals, could lead to further destabilisation in the transition period.

Indeed, any profound disruption in Kabul politics would leave an opening for the armed insurgency. Failure to see an understanding emerge between the Palace, parliament, political parties and civil society on remaining electoral reform issues or another veto of the reform law approved by parliament would undermine hopes for a stable transition and play even more directly into the hands of the insurgency. Irrespective of political parties’ technical progress, if there is again manipulation in the manner of the 2009 and 2010 elections, the 2014 winner may lack the credibility and legitimacy the new era will require.

For their part, the Taliban do not seem prepared to launch a political party. Despite recent announcements to the contrary from ex-Taliban figures and the successful entry of another armed opposition group, Hizb-e Islami, into mainstream politics, the insurgents’ primary mode of political expression in the near future will remain fighting, not party politics. Nor does the opening of a political office in Doha offer any likelihood of a change in Taliban strategy in relation to entering politics. The overall implications for the coming elections – good or bad – remain unclear.

This briefing builds on earlier Crisis Group reporting on Afghanistan’s political parties to provide an overview of their current position and analyse their ability and willingness to shape the transition to the post-Karzai era, after a decade of government efforts to restrict political party functioning. It is based on interviews with political party and other stakeholders in Kabul and four regional centres of Mazar-i-Sharif, Herat, Kandahar and Jalalabad. Without undertaking a detailed assessment of the insurgency, the briefing also includes interviews with insurgents to assess Taliban attitudes toward the party system. Its findings include the need for:

  • Greater transparency in the implementation of laws and regulations on political parties to improve perceptions of impartiality.
  • Greater independence of the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC) and Electoral Complaints Commission (ECC), and consultation with parties to achieve an accord on electoral laws and a more transparent electoral process.
  • Kabul’s support for pluralistic political development by providing funds for basic functions of parties that meet a threshold of popular support in elections.
  • Deferring implementation of the requirement, in the 2012 political party regulations, that parties maintain offices in at least twenty provinces. Additional time may be required for parties to establish themselves, and for security conditions to allow party offices in remote provinces. The deferral period should at minimum extend beyond the 2014 presidential and 2015 parliamentary elections. If the requirement is not deferred, Afghan security forces should offer physical security for party facilities where requested by party leaders.
  • Support by donor countries and the UN Mission in Afghanistan (UNAMA) for these reforms, including conditioning continued economic and military assistance in the coming years on credible electoral reforms that allow for political pluralism.

Kabul/Brussels, 26 June 2013

Op-Ed / Asia

There’s No Shortcut to Peace in Afghanistan

Originally published in Foreign Policy

Washington’s latest idea of a transitional government would be worse than the dysfunctional status quo.

If there is one thing the United States should have learned after two decades in Afghanistan, it’s that there are no quick fixes. That has proved true for the war, and it’s true for any possibility of a negotiated peace. But faced with the decision whether to comply with a May 1 deadline for pulling out all troops under a deal the U.S. government signed with the Taliban in February 2020, Washington is now searching for a shortcut to an Afghan political settlement. There isn’t one.

U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad has delivered to the Afghan government and Taliban a draft Afghanistan Peace Agreement—the central idea of which is replacing the elected Afghan government with a so-called transitional one that would include the Taliban and then negotiate among its members the future permanent system of government. Crucial blank spaces in the draft include the exact share of power for each of the warring sides and which side would control security institutions.

At the same time, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrote to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani, in a letter that soon leaked, saying it was “urgent” to “accelerate peace talks” and move “quickly toward a settlement.” The letter states that the United States has asked Turkey to host a high-level meeting between the Afghan sides “in the coming weeks to finalize a peace agreement.” The letter also references a U.S.-proposed 90-day reduction in violence (a concept short of a cease-fire) while diplomacy continues—which suggests that Washington knows an agreement within weeks is unlikely.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

Chances that Taliban leaders or Ghani would agree to anything like the U.S. draft peace agreement are vanishingly small. But if they do, the result will be worse than this gambit failing.

For the Taliban, the draft has too many hallmarks of the existing government setup: It includes a commitment to holding elections and keeping in place the constitution devised under U.S. auspices in 2004 until a new one is written. The available evidence of Taliban thinking points to their rejecting any arrangement that would make them appear co-opted into a system they have long opposed in exchange for a partial share of power.

For Ghani, the proposal is premised on him relinquishing power. That brutal fact, plus the rough-edged tone of Blinken’s letter, has whipped up a political tempest in Kabul. Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh reacted most bluntly, saying Afghanistan would “never accept a bossy and imposed peace.” Ghani knows that the main Afghan enthusiasts of the transitional government idea are his political opposition and the country’s former mujahideen, who sense opportunity to gain power as it is parceled out.

In the unlikely event the new U.S. peace plan materializes, the power-sharing arrangement it envisions would be prone to collapse. A body comprising multiple factions plus the Taliban—at a stage of the peace process before they’ve even begun to hash out core issues that divide them—would be less functional and less stable than the fragile government in place now. The hard work of negotiating the structure of a future Afghan state will not be eased by prematurely erasing the current one. And if a fractious transitional government fails, the cease-fire the U.S. plan promises would evaporate with it.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani. The Afghan leader’s critics have accused him of obstructing a peace process that has sapped his government of its already tenuous authority. The past several Afghan elections have been bitterly contested, the country’s politics are deeply corrupt, and service provision is increasingly limited to population centers, with the Taliban insurgency operating freely throughout much of the countryside.

The U.S. proposal reflects a boiling over of Washington’s frustrations with Ghani.

But however much Ghani has contributed to slowing the process, dismantling the elected government is unlikely to hasten peace. The Taliban have not moved any faster. It took over a year of bilateral negotiations and numerous U.S. concessions for the Taliban to sign a four-page agreement spelling out a tight timeline for U.S. and NATO withdrawal and more ambiguous Taliban promises to prevent Afghanistan being used as a launching pad for terrorists. And the Taliban remain coy about details of the political vision they seek to realize. Official Taliban statements that their movement will accept some degree of power sharing are contradicted by internal messaging emphasizing victory and ascendance.

After delays for which the United States was as much to blame as any other party, Afghan talks finally commenced last September in Doha, Qatar. They’ve progressed haltingly, at least in part because the parties are waiting for a new U.S. government to signal whether it will stay committed to a process the previous one catalyzed.

The slow pace now clashes with the deadline for withdrawing foreign troops. That’s a problem the U.S.-Taliban deal caused by decoupling the withdrawal timetable from any requirement of progress in negotiations. But it’s also a problem that can’t be solved by demands to speed up the hard slog of reaching a political settlement.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun. Instead of promoting a new plan that has almost no chance of being accepted and that would further weaken the Afghan state, Washington should put its energy into testing whether the Doha process can be made to work.

It will be difficult to get the peace process in Doha to produce results, but it’s too soon to jettison a process that has taken years to set up and has only just begun.

This should include rallying the regional powers, especially Pakistan, Iran, China, Russia, and India—who all have links to actors in the Afghan conflict—around generating momentum for the existing process. A high-level meeting of this group, which Washington has asked the United Nations to convene, is a good idea, but these stakeholders need a better peace plan to coalesce around than the new U.S. proposal.

If the United States wants to give the talks a real chance, then it will need to keep troops in Afghanistan beyond May 1 to maintain leverage for forging a settlement and to forestall a downward security spiral that would spike the process.

Ongoing talks would provide the best argument Washington could make to regional powers, especially Pakistan, for why they should help pressure the Taliban to let the deadline slip.

But if talks break down—as they probably will, given how divided the parties are and how rarely peace processes succeed—then it will be better to have even a dysfunctional Afghan government still standing than to have replaced it with a stopgap transitional one whose existence would not survive the end of negotiations. And if the Biden administration plans to pull out U.S. forces soon, then it’s better not to risk leaving such wreckage behind.


Program Director, Asia
Senior Analyst, Afghanistan