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Afghanistan: What Unites The New 'United Front'?

  • Amin Tarzi --> (RFE/RL) May 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- In Afghanistan, more than 30 people announced in Kabul on March 13 the formation of a political grouping called the United Front of Afghanistan.

The initial membership list includes representatives of about 15 political parties, as well as independents that include former communists and a grandson of the last Afghan monarch. Members have since talked about the group's agenda and intentions in general terms, but much of the coverage so far has ignored what unites the front -- beyond the well-worn slogans of "national unity."

The new United Front calls for amending Afghanistan's Islamic constitution to transform the political system from a presidential to a parliamentary model. It also wants provincial governors elected rather than selected by the president.

The United Front proposes changing the country's electoral system from the current system (a so-called single nontransferable voting system, or SNTV) to a proportional system, which would arguably strengthen the role of political parties. It has also outlined a series of social services that it vows to implement to improve the lives of the Afghan public.

In the area of foreign relations, the front seeks coordination of the activities of foreign forces present in Afghanistan, and official recognition of the international border between Afghanistan and Pakistan -- known in Kabul as the Durand Line.

Critical Of 'Government-Building' Effort

A member of the Afghan National Assembly's Wolesi Jirga (People's Council) and spokesman for the United Front, Sayyed Mustafa Kazemi, spoke at a roundtable in Kabul organized by RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in early April. Kazemi argued that there has been some progress in the state building -- or as he called it, "government building" -- that is envisaged in the Bonn agreement of late 2001, which served as a blueprint for post-Taliban Afghanistan. But he said no serious work has been done in second area -- that of nation building. Kazemi said the United Front essentially wants to redirect Afghanistan toward the ideals set forth in Bonn.

Kazemi dismissed suggestions that a campaign to transform the presidential system to a parliamentary one amounts to an effort to dismantle the constitution. He said that, in due time, the United Front hopes to test constitutional Articles 149 and 150, which allow amendments proposed by the president or legislative majority based on "new experiences and requirements of the time."

Once the proposal is forwarded, a presidential appointed commission would implement the proposal. It would then have to be approved by a Loya Jirga (Grand Assembly), after which a two-thirds majority in the National Assembly would be required. The change would be finalized after signature by the presidential.

Karzai vehemently opposes any effort to impose a parliamentary system on the country, and is unlikely to endorse any move to change the current presidential system.

Does the United Front represent an effort to resurrect the United National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan -- popularly known as the Northern Alliance?

Responding to fears that the United Front's proposal to elect provincial governors is a step toward federalism in Afghanistan, Kazemi said the group is not endorsing federalism. Instead, he said, it is advocating a strengthening of provincial government. He pointed to the current Provincial Councils, which are elected, and asked why governors should not undergo similar public scrutiny. Kazemi pointed to the U.S. model, in which state governors are directly elected, although he made no mention of the federal nature of the U.S. system.

Many Afghans, especially Pashtuns, view federalism -- an idea proposed in the past by some members of the United Front -- as tantamount to a de facto partition of the country. Or, at least, an imposition of Pashtun power in non-Pashtun areas of Afghanistan.

Kazemi briefly addressed the issue of foreign troops in Afghanistan. Some have suggested that the United Front would seek to legalize the status of foreign forces in Afghanistan. He said only that the United Front would desire a "partnership," but provided no further details.

Exclusive Membership?

At the RFE/RL roundtable, the United Front's membership list came under particular scrutiny for two reasons.

First, a number of the members of the United Front hold senior government positions; if they are criticizing the performance of the Karzai administration, then they presumably share some of the blame. Similarly, despite claims by members of the United Front that they are not an "opposition" grouping, their stated policies reflect opposition and they arguably should resign from the current government. Members of the United Front include Afghan First Vice President Ahmad Zia Mas'ud, Energy and Water Minister Mohammad Ismail Khan, Deputy Chief of Staff of the High Command of the Armed Forces of Afghanistan General Abdul Rashid Dostum, and Marshall Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who currently serves as a senior adviser.

On this government-cum-opposition issue, Kazemi asserted that the United Front aims to work under the Afghan Constitution and within the Karzai administration to bring about gradual reform. Kazemi insisted that the United Front is no opposition bloc, adding that its critical evaluation of the Karzai administration is an "exercise in democracy."

The second reason that the membership list came under fire relates to the inclusion within the United Front of former high-level officials involved in the security and military apparatus under the communist regimes of Afghanistan -- such as Sayyed Mohammad Gulabzoi and Nur al-Haq Olumi. Those individuals served within the command structure of a system that left more than 1 million Afghans dead, through military actions or their treatment in detention centers.

On this second criticism, Kazemi explained that many former communists entered the new Afghan political system only after the first postcommunist government under President Sebghatullah Mojaddedi in 1992 issued a general amnesty (to former communists). Kazemi said that Gulabzoi and Olumi, for instance, have been granted legitimacy by the people, since both won election to the Wolesi Jirga. He added that Afghanistan must "close steel doors" in its effort to break decisively with its past.

The main elements of the United Front's platform -- particularly the transformation to a parliamentary system and eliminating the voting system (SNTV) -- were addressed by the current speaker of the lower house (Wolesi Jirga) in conversations with RFE/RL in 2005. Mohammad Yunos Qanuni -- as leader of the now-defunct umbrella group, the National Understanding Front -- vowed at the time that his group would behave as a "loyal opposition" that accepted the legitimacy of the Karzai administration. Qanuni, who has joined but has remained largely behind the scenes, in 2005 spoke about "rationalization and legalization of the struggle" -- words echoed by Kazemi two years later.

Not Looking Back

Does the United Front represent an effort to resurrect the United National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan -- popularly known as the Northern Alliance -- which united against the Taliban regime? Despite the inclusion of many prominent figures from the Northern Alliance -- including Qanuni, Fahim, Dostum, and Mas'ud -- United Front spokesman Kazemi insisted that the new grouping bears no relation to the Northern Alliance.

He emphasized that the name of the new grouping is not the "United National Front" -- as has been reported -- because the new grouping wants to avoid being confused with the United National Front, or Northern Alliance.

So what unites such a diverse grouping?

The United Front seems united in opposing Karzai, despite the diplomatic niceties suggesting that it is not an opposition coalition. The strategy appears focused on gaining legitimacy by working within the Karzai administration while trying to weaken the political forces that President Karzai is trying to muster on his side. On one hand, it marks a success for Afghanistan that the United Front talks of the "rationalization" of its political struggle rather than resorting to violence -- which had been the story of Afghanistan since the 1978 communist putsch. But some might also consider it unfortunate that the president's second in command and others within his ruling circle unite in opposing the head of state, rather than work with him to address the problems facing the current administration.

Unfortunately for its supporters, if the Karzai factor was removed from the equation today, the United Front might not stay very united. Nor would the rational heads among its members be able to stop those who still command private militias.

RFE/RL Afghanistan Report

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