Why do non-Pashtuns support Abdullah Abdullah?

By: Zaki Daryabi

With realizing that the international community along with other countries would not support him, Abdullah Abdullah, under pressure by his political patrons and supporters, held a parallel inauguration ceremony at the Sepidar Palace and declared his own inclusive government.

The reason why Mr. Abdullah’s supporters pushed him for a parallel inauguration dates back to history of power struggle in Afghanistan, especially political upheavals of at least the past four decades. For the past four decades, ethnic identity and ethnic politics have been the main driver behind foundation of governments, subversion of government, war, violence and politics. Ethnic politics played a pivotal role in formation and fall of governments founded by Dr. Najibulllah, Mujahideen, the Taliban, and Bonn agreement.

In Afghanistan, ethnic politics and power relations have shaped some sort of ethnic psyche that is surfacing these days more than ever before. As the Afghan election crisis gets worse, a large number of non-Pashtuns put their support behind Abdullah Abdullah, who is an ethnic Tajik.

There are some contexts why Afghanistan’s non-Pashtuns tempt to put their leverages behind a Tajik candidate.

Upon his arrival at the presidential palace in 2014, Ashraf Ghani, without considering the Civil Service Act, fired those staffs who were seen not loyal to him. The Hazaras carried the dead bodies of victims of a massacre from Zabul to Kabul. People marched towards the presidential palace to protest against government’s inadequacy and failure to protect lives of citizens. The march, which was known as Tabasum Movement, came under fire.  The removal of the staffs and fire at the movement were widely seen as Anti-Hazaras measures orchestrated by President Ghani.  

The Tabasum Movement was silenced by violence and hostility of some Hazara political leaders, who then were on the same page with Ashraf Ghani. Shukria Tabasum’s dead body was buried in her hometown but protests inflamed the capital, Kabul, later with new protest movements. There were a number of incidents that shaped political spheres of Afghanistan.

The Sapidar Palace, a new division of power formed for the first time after the Bonn Agreement, was marginalized and its share of power and authority was undermined. The new power division under the umbrella of Sapidar Police, was not a gift gifted by former President Hamid Karzai to non-Pashtuns, specially to Tajiks. Indeed, it reflects at least a 40-year struggle of non-Pashtuns for power against the presidential palace.

The 2014 disputed elections played out a political settlement, formally known as the National Unity Government which was a power sharing setup between the Presidential Palace and the Sapidar Palace. But soon after the formation of the National Unity Government, Ghani broke the agreement. The leaders and allies of the former had come out of the political agreement. Ghani, under the name of disenfranchising traditional jihadi leaders and ethnic parties, not only discredited chief executive’s orders, but also disappointed Mohammad Mohaqeq, Abdullah Abdullah’s second deputy, with his behavior. Ghani even disappointed Karim Khalili, who had a decisive role in forming his election team, and independently credited Sarwar Danish who represented Khalili in the government, providing the basis for a joint protest between the traditional Hazara leaders and the new generation of the Hazaras.

The Enlightenment Movement, led by the Hazaras, protested against a systematic and institutionalized discrimination in the country. The key demand of the Enlightenment Movement was not electricity but a protest against injustices. The Enlightenment Movement launched a peaceful rally which was targeted on August 02, 2016, as the security forces failed to provide safety of this peaceful rally in the capital Kabul. As many as 84 protesters were killed and hundreds of others were wounded in the attack carried out on the protest organized by the Enlightenment Movement. Ashraf Ghani, as the leader of the government, openly refused to address demands raised by the Movement.

Mr. Ghani subsequently took measures such as removal of Mohammad Mohaqiq from his position as deputy chief of executive, detaining Ali Pour, a Hazara commander, who fought to secure and protect the Hazaras and their lives in parts of Maidan Wardak and Bamyan provinces. In a selective move, Mr. Ghani dismissed Abdul Razaq Wahidi, a Hazara minister, on unsubstantiated charges of corruption. Wahidi’s removal irritated the Hazaras collectively and proved that Ghani’s agenda on fighting corruption was nothing less than a selective approach.      

Subsequent attacks on annual commemorations of the assassination of Abdul Ali Mazari in 2018 and 2019 coupled with this year’s brutal killing of civilians in annual commemoration of Abdul Ali Mazari—at the height of political division in the country— have added to the level of fear and skepticism among the Hazaras who are convinced that Ghani ignores them.

During 2014 election campaign Mr. Ghani, aiming to secure vote bank the Hazaras, chanted slogans, saying that he would put the underdeveloped central Afghanistan—Hazara populated areas—into a new trajectory. He vowed to bring fundamental reforms in government organizations and structure, empowering youths, modernizing the State but in vain. Under Ghani, Kankor quota was put into effect, Hazara minister was dismissed, and Hazara officers were marginalized in security apparatus. Ghani’s style of governance and his selective approach towards governance made a deep vacuum between his government and the Hazaras of Afghanistan, and as a result of these policies, Ghani appeared as authoritarian ruler in the eyes of the Hazaras.

Mr. Ghani put his efforts at level best to marginalize the Tajiks too. He broke provisions of the National Unity Agreement soon after he found himself established in the presidential palace. He broke the very political agreement which he had signed with Abdullah, the chief executive of the national unity government. To counter Abdullah, Ghani sought to consolidate ties with populist Tajik figures such as Atta Mohammed Noor, Amrullah Saleh, etc., but resentment and grievance grew more among the Tajik population of the country as Saleh and Noor failed to work with Ghani. Tajik youths and activists, who felt sidelined by the Ghani government, organized protests against the Ghani government.  Although the protest was mobilized to protest against insecurity in the capital and inefficiency of the security authorities, it soon turned into a political movement, know as the Rastakhiz Movement. The Tajik protesters were demanding reforms in the security institutions.

The Movement came under fire by security forces. Over five protesters, including Salem Izadyar, son of Alam Izadyar, a Tajik political activist and the Senate deputy, lost their lives. At least three explosions broke at their funeral ceremony, attended by a majority of Tajik politicians. Salahuddin Rabbani, the leader of the Jamait Party and then the foreign minister of Ghani’s government, accused the National Security Adviser, Hanif Atmar, for the attack.

Under Ghani, some Tajik ministers were disqualified and a number of Tajik commanders, who were dwelling in Khairkhana neighborhood of Kabul, were put under government control.

The 2018 parliamentary elections were marred by fraud and the country’s election commission failure to hold a transparent parliamentary vote disappointed a large number of populations of the country. Majority of those ministers and deputies appointed by Abdullah were disqualified, something that angered the ethnic Tajiks who felt being marginalized from the government institutions.

The 2019 presidential elections, which might be the last election ever since the Bonn agreement, was marred in fraud. The country’s election commission, at odds with actual number of the total votes cast, announced Ashraf Ghani as winner but Mr. Abdullah contested the result, hours after the official announcement was made. To protest election fraud, Mr. Abdullah held parallel inauguration as Ghani held his own oath-taking ceremony.                       

In the 2014 presidential elections, Mr. Ghani, aiming to secure vote bank of Afghanistan’s Uzbeks, picked General Abdul Rashid Dostum as his first vice president. But soon after Ghani found his authority firmed in the presidential palace, he sidelined his first vice president. General Abdul Rashid Dostum, who has been in the business of Afghan politics in the last four turbulent decades and knows it in and out, accused Ghani’s National Security Advisor, Haneef Atmar, of being involved in a bloody ambush that targeted the convoy of his vehicle in Ghormach, Faryab but by a sheer miracle Dostum survived the deadly ambush. To get rid of the Uzbek General, Ghani along with his national security advisor trapped him in political plot and sent him to exile in Turkey.

The legitimate mandate of the first vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostum, was suspended after he was sent to exile on accusation of ‘sexual harassment’ over Ahmad Ishchi, an Uzbek rival of Mr. Dostum. Claims made by Ahmad Ishchi were hugely covered by local and international media outlets. Given General Dostum’s social reputation among the Uzbeks of Afghanistan, and his subsequent defame by local and international media brought a collective humiliation for the ethnic Uzbeks in the country. General Dostum’s removal from post of first vice presidency coupled with a military operation carried out by Afghan security forces to arrest another popular Uzbek commander, Nizamuddin Qaysari, widened trust vacuum between the Afghan government and the ethnic Uzbeks.

Dostum’s removal, suppression of peaceful protests, and marginalization of the Sapidar Place sent a clear message to ethnic Uzbeks, Hazaras and Tajiks: Ghani is an authoritarian ruler who is not flexible when it comes to power sharing. Key government ministries, key security agencies and key institutions are administered by a circle Pashtun elites who are loyal to Ghani. Mr. Ghani can not trust people other than a small group of Pashtun elite, a problem that has widened gaps between his administration and non-Pashtun political elites.  

As currently as now, from ethic Hazara only Sarwar Danish—a vice president who is kept out of decision making circle—is in office. The Uzbek representative is no longer in power and the Tajiks are also kept out decision making circle.

Power monopolization in the hands of Pashtun Ghani has chained non-Pashtun groups to a single political fate. The ethnic Hazaras, Uzbeks and Tajiks put their leverages behind a Tajik for a single cause. They are fed up with power monopoly in the hand of a Pashtun leader who is trying to implement his monopolistic agendas under a project he labels as protection of republicanism.

A Pashtun-triangle in Afghan peace process

The Afghan peace process, which is led by Zalmay Khalilzad, seems to be another factor that has united non-Pashtun groups in a single political bloc, now led by Abdullah Abdullah. Though Ashraf Ghani appears to stand for values such as democracy and protection of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, a bitter reality is that the international community including the US are seeking a political settlement with the Taliban, no matter what consequences it bring for the country’s future.

For the government, peace with the Taliban might looks imminent, but for a large number of non-Pashtun populations, it seems unrealistic. Many non-Pashtun groups, who are critics of unconditional peace with Taliban, support the political bloc led by Abdullah.  

Mr. Ghani on his inauguration ceremony, attended by US envoy for Afghan peace, announced that he would sign a decree to release Taliban prisoners. A day later, he fulfilled his vow and signed a decree to release Taliban prisoners, something Khalilzad wants urgently so as to speed up the Afghan peace process and put end to US war in Afghanistan.

By signing a decree to release the Taliban prisoners, Ghani sought to achieve two objectives: take the lead of peace talks as head of the Afghan government and gain recognition by the US and international community.  

But non-Pashtun groups see the story of peace process from a different perspective. There is a formula for peace talks: Ashraf Ghani will talk on behalf of the Afghan government, Abdul Ghani will represent the Taliban militants and Khalilzad will act as mediator.  As the peace process progresses step by step, non-Pashtun groups tempt to interpret it as a process led by a combination of Pashtuns, something that makes peace process more frightening for non-Pashtuns.    

No doubt, ordinary people are fed up with insecurity and unemployment; they want peace nothing more, nothing less.

As Ghani tries to consolidate his absolute power, the Taliban want an Islamic system of Emirate, US envoy Khalilzad wants a quick end and take US troops back home before the US presidential elections, non-Pashtun populations begin to wonder what is next when the Taliban are back and the US troops are out of a country where struggle for power and violence are intermingled.  

Though Ashraf Ghani is chanting slogans to protect civil rights, the Afghan constitution, and pluralist system, his political behavior, shown in the last couple of years, proves the opposite.

The Taliban, however, seek to reestablish an Islamic government and abolish election and parliament system. Mullah Ghani will send his delegates to attend peace talks and discuss a future government. Demands raised in talks by Ashraf Ghani and Abdul Ghani may differ, but the former and latter, in the forms of republic and emirate system, want to assure their monopoly on power.

Any agreement, expected to be signed by delegations led by Ashraf Ghani and Abdul Ghani, will be endorsed by the US envoy but there is no guarantee on who will protect Afghanistan’s constitution and who will decide nature of post-peace settlement setup, let alone participation of non-Pashtun ethnic groups in the future government.   

The US envoy for Afghanistan reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, has single-handedly acted to bring Ashraf Ghani and Mullah Ghani on peace table, giving them a number of blank cheques.  In the eyes of non-Pashtuns, Ashraf Ghani, Mullah Abdul Ghani and Zalmay Khalilzad make a triangle of Pashtun negotiators who discuss the future government for a country where majority of the populations are non-Pashtun.    

As US-Taliban peace talks—led by Ashraf Ghani, Abdul Ghani and Zalmay Khalilzad—develops, non-Pashtun groups in Afghanistan become worried about their futures. Seeing themselves marginalized in talks with the Taliban, they tempt to put their leverages behind Abdullah Abdullah.     

Zaki Daryaby is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Daily Etilaat-e-Roz.