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Afghan Political Parties: Past, Present and Future

By: Ajmal Shams

The history of political parties in Afghanistan goes back to the period of King Zahir Shah’s monarchy when the 1964 constitution legalized the formation of political and social organizations. This freedom soon resulted into three major political movements which can be broadly classified as Islamist, Marxist and Nationalist. Abdul Raheem Niazai founded the Islamic group called Jawanan-e-Musulman (The Muslim Youth) in 1969, which took inspiration from the Ekhwan-ul-Muslimeen (The Muslim Brotherhood) founded by Hasanul Bana in Egypt. It is noteworthy that most of the Mujahideen Leaders were associated with this movement including those currently influential in the Afghan government. Marxists formed People’s Democratic Party under Noor Muhammad Taraki and looked towards the Soviet communist party as their guiding force. The nationalist movement which rejected all kinds of foreign ideologies appeared in the form of Wekh Zalmyan (Awakened Youth), and Afghan Mellat Party founded by Eng. Ghulam Mohammad Farhad, the Kabul mayor and a respected parliamentarian.

Each movement or party had its peculiar manifesto and a vision for Afghanistan and each saw its ideology as the only panacea for all political and socio-economic problems of the country. The Islamists believed that only a radical Islamic government was the solution of all problems. They asserted that being Muslims, Afghans had no other option but to jointly struggle for the establishment of a truly Islamic government where all affairs of the state would be strictly dealt with as per their own narrow interpretation of Islam. The Marxists viewed problems of the country as a class struggle, where the so-called upper class exploited the working class. While the reality was no such classes existed in country at the time. They believed unless the authority of the upper class has been abolished, true social justice cannot be established in society. On the other hand Afghan Mellat Party advocated the cause of Afghan Nationalism based on social democratic principles to lead the country towards real development and progress. However, it was able to attract mainly the Pashtuns and its message did not get much appeal among the ethnic minorities of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras due to its stance regarding Pashto language and Patkhtunistan.

All the three major political movements were able to attract a large number of Afghans towards their respective ideologies. Schools, colleges and universities became the hub of political activities and student unions were formed in several universities. Besides these major political parties, there also emerged minor parties like Shola-e-Jawid (The Eternal Flame), which had Maoist orientations and a small nationalist party called Mellat Party, an offspring of Afghan Mellat. Another significant development was the splitting up in 1967 of People’s Democratic Party into its Khalq and Parcham factions each one led by PDPA founder Noor Mohammad Taraki and Babrak Karmal respectively. Most members of Khalq were from rural Pashtun areas. On the other hand, Parcham was mainly composed of urban middle class Tajiks. Afghan Mellat, due to its peculiar nationalist agenda attracted diverse sections of Afghan society. However, a majority of its membership was concentrated among Pashtuns.

In 1973, Sardar Mohammad Daud Khan, the former prime minister and cousin of King Zahir Shah overthrew him in a bloodless coup with communists’ support. Eventually Daud tried to eliminate the communists, but it was too late since the latter had already established themselves very well in the civil and military bureaucracy. Daud was overthrown by the communists in a bloody coup, killing him and all members of his family thus ending Mohammadzai Dynasty in Afghanistan. Noor Mohammad Taraki became head of the revolutionary council and president of the communist regime thus starting an era of public uprising, instability, bloodshed and misfortune for the country. The Pakistan-backed Islamist insurgency which had been initiated to destabilize Daud’s government further intensified against the communist regime. However, its role became truly significant only with the Soviet occupation of the country.

The Afghan resistance against foreign invasion was broadly classified into two main groups divided along ideological lines i.e. The Bunyadgara (Islamic radicals) and Milligara (The Islamic nationalists or moderate Islamists). While there were more than twenty political parties and groups, but Pakistan only recognized seven of these and they alone were the recipient of all kinds of military, financial and political support from both Pakistan and the West. The Bunyadgara included Hezb-e-Islami (Party of Islam) led by Hekmatyar, Jamiat-e-Islami (Unity of Islam Party) led by Rabbani and Ittehad-e-Islami (Islamic Unity Party) led by Sayyaf and Jamiat-e-Dawa-e-Islami led by Mawlavi Hussain, who later on changed his name to Jamil-ur-Rahman, who had realized that his previous name was in conflict with the Islamic faith of Wahdanyat (Unity of God). The Miligara included Mahaz-e-Mille-wa-Islami (The national Islamic Front) led by Pir Syed Ahmed Gelani and Jabha-e-Nijat Milli (National Salvation Front) led by Hazrat Sebghatullah Mujaddedi. The Harakat-e-Inqilabi Islami (Islamic Revolution Movement Party) did not include the word Milli meaning nationalist in its name but was more moderate and did not seem to pursue any extremist agenda.

Besides the above seven parties, which were recognized by Pakistani government, there were also other parties and pressure groups. The most significant among them was Afghan Social Democratic Party well known as Afghan Mellat Party. Its founder president Engineer Ghulam Mohammad Farhad was in Kabul and the party was led by Shamsul Huda Shams, one of Afghan Mellat stalwarts and a nationalist politician. Afghan Mellat was the main target of Pakistani government’s anger because of its nationalistic agenda and its stance on Pakthunistan issue. This was the main cause of the party being deprived of all kinds of military and financial assistance. Several members of the party were harassed, terrorized and even assassinated since the extremist parties had been given a free hand to suppress their ideological opponents. While the seven recognized parties were highly divided among themselves, in their opposition with nationalist Afghan Mellat they were all united. Being nationalist was equated with being secular and un-Islamic in spite of Shamsul Huda Shams’s insistence that Afghan nationalism had Islam as an integral element and there was no need to carry it as a banner. Only Mahaz and Jabha-e-Nejat-e Milli had a soft corner for Afghan Mellat. The fact remains, however, that not all parties who had became prominent during the resistance against soviet occupation had a well defined political ideology except Hezb-e-Islami of Hekmatyar, Jamiat-e-Islami of Rabbani, Ittehad-e-Isalmi of Ustad Sayyaf and Afghan Mellat of Shamsul Huda. The rest resembled more or less like Tanzeems (organizations) than political parties. Their main task was to distribute aid and engage in military warfare with the incumbent communist regime with little to offer Afghans in terms of an alternate political system once the communist regime has been defeated.

Inside Afghanistan, rapid political changes came one after another. Noor Mohammad Taraki was replaced by hardliner Hafizullah Amin in a coup that resulted into the former’s assassination. Amin believed more in home-grown communism and did not agree with Soviet intervention in his country. The soviet regime quickly realized Amin’s intentions and his potential motives. His regime was overthrown by a full-fledged military intervention killing him and installing their loyal Babrak Karmal thus paving the way for a Parchami regime that the Soviets felt more comfortable in dealing with.

In spite of the fact that the Mujahideen parties were actively fighting against the Soviet aggression, they had essentially been sidelined when it came to determining the destiny of Afghanistan. When the Geneva Accords under which the Soviet troops were to leave the country were signed, Mujahideen were not a signatory to it. Instead the anomaly was that Pakistan was representing the Afghan Resistance. Furthermore, the top commanders belonging to different Mujahideen parties had direct links with Pakistani government.  The military and financial aid, which in principle should have been channelized through the parties, was instead delivered directly to the commanders because it was assumed that dealing directly with them was more fruitful for long-term political interests. While the manner in which the resistance progressed was flawed in more than one way, there was no effective nationalist force among Afghan refugees to oppose it. The main causes included a suppression of all such forces by depriving them of any privilege whatsoever and internal differences of nationalist parties and these were the main obstacles in their way to become a mass movement. For example, when Afghan Mellat Party held its congress to elect its new president in 1988 after the death of its founding president Farhad, the Wakman supporters refused to accept Shamsul Huda Shams as their new president although the latter had won by an overwhelming majority. Hence the party was split into three factions. It is Wakman’s faction that is currently led by Afghan finance minister, Anwarul Haq Ahady.

Even after the Soviets left Afghanistan, they kept supporting Dr. Najibullah’s communist regime and hostilities continued as ever before. After resisting for a few year Najibullah’s regime was eventually overthrown in April 1992 through a military coup by an alliance of his own commanders in collusion with some Mujahideen parties, the most prominent being Jamiat-e-Islami and its famous commander Ahmed Shah Masood. It is significant to mention here that overthrowing Najibullah through a military coup was more of a conspiracy aimed at sabotaging the United Nations peace formula under which power could have been peacefully transferred to a 15-member council under the auspices of the United Nations. While Mujaddeddi was the so-called head of the new Islamic regime, the political atmosphere in the country had virtually degenerated into a state of complete anarchy. Each region was controlled by a certain warlord or party. Fightings continued among various Mujahideen parties, groups and commanders to control more power. At this point the West had almost lost its interest in Afghanistan while Iran, Pakistan and central Asia together with Russia had become more involved in the affairs of Afghanistan and each country was supporting a particular group to better serve its interest in the war-ravaged country. However, all this was happening at the cost of innocent Afghan lives.

Against this backdrop of chaos, lawlessness, complete anarchy and internecine fightings the Taliban mysteriously emerged on the scene as religious reformers in 1994. They claimed that the Mujahideen had been corrupted and did not to deliver on their promises of establishing a truly Islamic government based on Sharia (Islamic Law) in the country. In an astonishingly short span of time, the religious students were able to extend their writ to large parts of the country eventually taking control of the capital Kabul in 1996. The Taliban had their own ultra-conservative interpretation of Islam and they actually enforced a strict Sharia in the areas under their control. Women were banned from going to school or work. Men were required to grow beards. Music, photography and even some sports were banned. The way the Taliban pursued their governance did not fit into the norms of the civilized world. Their main source of financial, political and ideological support was Pakistan. A major portion of the movement was made up of students both Afghan and Pakistani from religious seminaries located in Pakistan. The Taliban phenomena, however, is not so simple to be attributed to a single factor. Together with an indigenous situation that was favorable for their creation, there were a host of other factors both political, economic and ideological that made their emergence possible and their subsequent victories feasible. While the international community did not recognize the Taliban regime and had imposed sanctions against them, it was the Osama Bin Laden factor and the catastrophic events of the September 11 that caused their downfall

After the Taliban were overthrown in November 2001, Hamid Karzai was appointed as the interim president of the country under the Bonn Agreement. Subsequently he won the presidential elections in 2004 and hence became the first democratically elected president of the country. Meanwhile a new constitution was drafted by a team of experts and subsequently ratified by the Loya Jarga (the grand assembly) after lengthy deliberations and discussions. The constitution has allowed the formation of political parties and social organizations. These parties have to abide by and work within the framework of the constitution. The parties are also required to get themselves registered with Ministry of Justice in order to be officially recognized and benefit from their rights and privileges. A new wave of democracy and freedom at the horizons of the country has caused a party boom. So far more than 80 parties have been officially recognized and more are on the waiting list. Many of the old parties have further split up into two or more factions. For example Hezb-e-Wahdat alone has four factions with a slight change in name.

While more and more parties will be formed in the future, their credibility will remain in question unless they offer a more practical ideology within the confines of National-Islamic character of Afghanistan that has the potential to remedy the socio-economic ills of the society and put the country on the path of real progress and development. People can no longer be manipulated in the name of religion and social justice. While the buzz words of democracy, development and women’s rights might work for some parties to justify their existence, they will not be able to create a mass movement unless they provide the public with a solid action plan accompanied by a supporting ideology that could bring about a change in the status quo.  Particularly the old Jehadi and communist parties have little prospects of attracting many Afghans since both have been examined in the past and neither of them has managed to deliver on their promises.  

The role of political parties is crucial to strengthening democracy in the country. Although party registration per se is a positive measure aimed at systematizing the formation and activities of the political parties, the way it is being implemented raises many questions as to whether the government by making the parties register with a ministry might be trying to control them which is undemocratic in essence. It is being argued that parties should be overseen by an independent election commission instead of a ministry. There are also concerns that some of the high ranking government officials who also happen to be leaders of their own political parties might be using their office to harm their rival parties and benefit their own party members. Furthermore the registration process should be simplified to avoid complications and unnecessary curbs. While democratizing the war-ravaged Afghanistan, which is yet to recover from a war-like mentality, is a daunting and uphill task, a political courage with intelligent decisions by the rulers can make this happen.

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