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Afghanistan: Analysts Say Enforcement Of Law On Political Parties Will Test Karzai

  • Ron Synovitz

In a move considered critical to creating conditions for free and fair elections in Afghanistan next year, Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has approved a law that bans Afghan political parties from having their own militias or affiliations with armed forces. RFE/RL spoke with analysts who say Karzai's success in enforcing the new law will be a critical test for both his leadership and the internationally backed Bonn process.

Prague, 15 October 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Afghan Transitional Administration Chairman Hamid Karzai has passed a new law aimed at preventing Afghan warlords from using their private militias to intimidate voters during elections next summer. The law was formally approved by Karzai on 11 October. Justice Minister Abdul Rahim Karimi said it will be officially published by early next week.

Correspondents who have obtained the text of the legislation report that it bans political parties from having their own militias or affiliations with armed forces. The law also reportedly bans judges, prosecutors, officers, and other military personnel, police, and national security staff from being members of any political party during their term of office.

Vikram Parekh is an expert on Afghanistan who works out of Kabul for the Brussels-based International Crisis Group. He told RFE/RL that the ability of Karzai to enforce the new political parties law is a critical test for the Transitional Adminstration chairman.

Parekh said the expansion of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) into provinces of Afghanistan that are now controlled by different militia factions could help encourage disarmament and foster the environment needed for free and fair elections. But to achieve those goals, Parekh said the number of ISAF troops sent into warlord-controlled territory must be substantial.

"I can say what members of the various factions in Mazar-e Sharif have concluded -- which is that an international force of 1,000 might be enough to create a neutral space in which security-sector reforms and disarmament can actually be carried out [there]. And those are also the types of numbers we need to be talking about if there is going to be an electoral process that allows parties which don't have force of arms to participate -- and to enforce the new political-parties law that prohibits individuals and parties that have the force of arms from taking part in the elections," Parekh said.

The new political parties law was approved by Karzai following a particularly bloody battle last week near the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif. The tank and artillery duel was one of many recurring clashes between the private militias of ethnic Uzbek General Abdul Rashid Dostum and ethnic Tajik Commander Atta Mohammad, also known as Commander Mohammad Ata.

Factional leaders within Karzai's coalition cabinet who control the rival militias have gathered with radical Islamist leaders in Kabul at least twice this month in a bid to unify behind a single candidate to oppose Karzai in next year's presidential elections.

Although no official candidate has been named, the talks have highlighted the political divisions between Karzai and the factional leaders in his cabinet.

Christopher Langton, of the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies, agrees that the decision by the UN Security Council this week to expand ISAF beyond Kabul Province could bolster enforcement of the new political parties law.

But Langton told RFE/RL that the chances for its successful enforcement vary in different parts of Afghanistan. He said the governor of the western province of Herat, Ismail Kahn, has said ISAF is not welcome in Herat. "So, if they're not welcome -- and, of course, [Ismail Khan] has a huge number of people under his command who are armed -- it's hard to see how ISAF can actually deploy there," he said. "Mazar-e Sharif is feasible, even though the situation between Mohammad Ata and Dostum is somewhat insecure. I think [ISAF] is welcomed in Kandahar, so [the ban against warlords in political parties] can be enforced -- but it's dangerous. In Herat, [Karzai] can't enforce it. And Mazar-e Sharif probably is the place where it most likely could succeed."

Langton said he remains skeptical about long-delayed programs aimed at disarming the militias of Afghanistan's regional warlords -- particularly if rival militias are not disarmed simultaneously. But he says the new law on political parties, combined with substantial ISAF deployments in the north, could lead to at least a token start on disarming the militias of Dostum or ethnic Tajik leaders like Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim and Commander Ata.

"It will have some impact, maybe at the lower end of the armament spectrum where it doesn't matter," Langton said. "People like Fahim and Mohammad Ata will not wish to be seen to be dragging their feet in front of the international community. Nor will Dostum. But at the same time, they are not going to disarm more than they need to."

Langton said some aspects of the Bonn process itself could unravel if Karzai fails to enforce the new political parties law. And certainly, he said, Karzai's credibility will suffer from failure. "It could add up to undermining the Bonn process at least partially. What [failure] really [would do] is undermine Karzai himself and reduce his credibility -- certainly amongst Afghans, and to some extent within the international community," Langton said.

In the final analysis, Langton said Karzai's political future in Afghanistan depends upon his ability to bring together the divided ethnic Pashtun clans in the south and east of Afghanistan -- especially as the country heads toward a Constitutional Loya Jirga, originally scheduled for this month but already pushed back to December.

"The real problem is that Karzai's power base was fairly small at first and is really no bigger, and is probably more delicate now than it has been for some time. So we're really on a knife's edge as we go towards a Loya Jirga -- whenever it may be. And it depends to some extent on whether Karzai can give unity of voice to the Pashtun majority in the country, because if he can't, then the Loya Jirga is going to be dominated by the Tajik factions. And if they get their way on all the various issues and the constitution, then it basically isolates the majority ethnic population in the country, which does not bode well for the electoral processes," Langton said.

Other Afghan experts agree that international donors will not be well disposed toward providing additional financial support for the reconstruction of Afghanistan if Karzai is seen to be failing.