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Afghanistan: Opposition Alliance Receives Official Praise, Popular Doubt

Yunos Qanuni (file photo) On 31 March, former Education Minister and presidential candidate Mohammad Yunos Qanuni announced the formation of the National Understanding Front (Jabha-ye Tafahom-e Melli, JTM) as the main opposition group to President Hamid Karzai's government. A day after the formation of the JTM, Karzai issued a statement welcoming the formation of "an opposition to the government." The 1 April statement added that Karzai believes that in a democratic system the existence of an opposition "committed to reform and the true application of law" is essential.

Afghan media in general have been less enthusiastic about the aims and prospects of the new front.

The independent Kabul daily "Cheragh" on 3 April commented that some believe that the JTM is "manufactured by the [Afghan] government and foreign elements" to have a symbolic opposition and also to "paralyze" the political parties represented in the front. "Cheragh" labeled the leadership of JTM as "second- and third-rate members" of the former mujahedin.

The pro-government Kabul daily "Eslah" on 2 April commented that the JTM is not an opposition party to help the country move forward; rather, it is a group that will only try to "criticize the government and disrupt its work."

Pajhwak News Agency reported on 5 April that a sampling of Kabul residents showed that they blamed the founders of JTM for the destruction of their city. Mohammad Qasim Akhgar, identified as a political analyst, told Pajhwak that the people of Afghanistan have reached the maturity level to distinguish the truth from lies and accused the founders of JTM of being "criminals." Habibullah Rafi', director of the Ariana Encyclopedia, said that while the existence of an opposition was a necessity in a democratic system, those associated with JTM have been known to ferment discord among Afghans based on ethnic and linguistic differences. A Kabul resident named Aminullah told Pajhwak that members of JTM should be brought before the court for their crimes.

The JTM is a coalition of 12 individuals belonging to 11 registered and unregistered political parties, which, according one of three deputy leaders of the front, Mohammad Mohaqeq, was formed based on an agreement during the Afghan presidential elections in October 2004. Mohaqeq told the Voice of the Islamic Republic of Iran on 1 April that some of the presidential candidates agreed to "form an alliance and the candidate who receives the most votes would lead the alliance."

As such, Qanuni, who finished second to Karzai with more than 16 percent of the vote, became the leader of JTM. Mohaqeq finished third with close to 12 percent of the vote, while another deputy chairman of the JTM, Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, despite a rigorous campaign aided by his considerable personal financial assets, secured only 0.8 percent of the vote, finishing eighth. The third JTM deputy chairman, and the only female in a leading role, Najia Zahra, is a relatively unknown political figure and was not a presidential candidate.

Qanuni, Mohaqeq, and Ahmadzai, along with Sayyed Ali Jawed, the front's spokesman, all have their own political organizations and all were members of the mujahedin groups that were formed to fight the Soviets and their puppet regimes in Afghanistan in the 1980s. Most of these mujahedin groups also took part in the destructive and divisive civil wars that engulfed Afghanistan after the collapse of the communist regime of President Najib in 1992. After the Taliban took control of Kabul in 1996, most of the top leaders of the JTM joined hands in the loose anti-Taliban alliance that later become known as the United Front of the Northern Alliance.

Ethnically, the JTM's leadership can best be regarded as an alliance of Tajik and Hazarah political ambitions with a symbolic Pashtun presence in the person of Ahmadzai.

Missing from the JTM is the fourth-place finisher in the presidential elections, namely Abdul Rashid Dostum. According to a 3 April report in "Cheragh," he has "formed an unofficial opposition" alliance with Abdul Latif Pedram, another former presidential candidate who came in fifth.

While Pedram is not important to the JTM's larger plans to become the most viable opposition to Karzai's government, the absence of Dostum, who secured 10 percent of the vote for president -- almost the same level as the number of his co-ethnic Uzbeks in Afghanistan -- is major loss, especially among the Uzbeks, unless another viable leader emerges among Afghanistan's Uzbek population.

While Dostum -- after switching sides in 1992 -- eventually became part of the United Front against the Taliban and thus earned international recognition, both he and Pedram were associated with the communist regimes of the 1980s and as such have a different past than the current leadership of the JTM.

If the current composition of the newly formed opposition front remains unchanged, it will have to find a platform to attract popular support other than their standing in provinces dominated by Tajiks and Hazarahs, where Qanuni and Mohaqeq did well during the presidential elections. A representative opposition alliance requires credible representation from Afghanistan's main ethnic groups and different political opinions, not only the mujahedin parties of the 1980s. As such the JTM can best be described as an attempt by some of the former mujahedin who have been sidelined in the current Afghan political landscape to make a joint reentry, not a comprehensive and representative opposition platform.