The National Unity Government and the Re-Shaping of Political Coalitions in Afghanistan | Antonio Gi


The Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) had a difficult birth, and its life has so far been no easier. The diarchy Ghani-Abdullah proved very difficult to manage in the first year of existence of the NUG. In addition, in 2015, former President Karzai was coagulating around himself various fragments of the opposition, seemingly mounting a serious challenge to the NUG. For some time in 2016, President Ghani’s hold on the NUG seemed to be strengthening, and Karzai’s challenge -- receding. However, in 2017, a series of developments took place to further shake the NUG: (1) The reconciliation with the armed opposition group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar seemed uncontroversial good news at the beginning, but it proved quite destabilizing; (2) The troubled alliance between Ghani and his first vice-president Dostum came to an end, with the de facto exile of the latter; (3) The fight for the control over the main party in the Parliament, Jamiat-i Islami, also intensified; and, finally, (4) Growing international tensions between Iran and Russia on one side, and United States and Saudi Arabia on the other also contributed to adding additional pressure on the NUG. In the end, at the close of 2017, the lack of unity among the opposing entities did not coalesce into a formidable challenge to Ghani or to NUG’s unity. Whatever coalition or coalition of coalitions would end up running the country, it would be a heterogeneous coalition of multiple groups, often unsteady in their own leadership.


The Afghan National Unity Government (NUG) was formed in autumn 2014 as a response to the political impasse created by the disputed outcome of that year’s presidential elections. The formation of the NUG may have averted a dramatic political crisis, but from its very beginning the agreement set up a dysfunctional diarchy in the offices of the President and Chief Executive, held by Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, respectively. Despite the negotiation of a power-sharing agreement after the elections, deep rivalries persisted between the two coalitions, which at the same time also faced internal friction and even fragmentation.

These internal divisions were contained by U.S. and European diplomatic pressure on the NUG members to avoid another destabilizing political crisis. But in the first half of 2017 several developments intervened to make the centrifugal forces in the NUG stronger and stronger.

The underlying dynamic has been the preparation by the components of the NUG to contest upcoming parliamentary and presidential elections scheduled for 2018 and 2019, often against each other. The first major development that impacted on this underlying dynamic to further test the solidity of the NUG was the reconciliation of the Hekmatyar wing of Hizb-i Islami with the Kabul authorities, following a peace agreement signed in September 2016 and implemented in 2017.

The second development was the decision of the new Trump Administration to recommit to supporting Afghanistan and increase the level of military commitment, while at the same time seemingly siding with Saudi Arabia in the multiple rivalries of the Arab Gulf.

The third development was the riots of June 2, 2017, which started as a protest against the May 31 truck bomb in Kabul, and were exploited by some particularly disgruntled elements of the Jamiat-e-Islami party (opposed to Abdullah) to accelerate the pace of the developing political crisis.

Two other developments in external relations also affected the stability of the NUG:

  • Delayed direct Chinese involvement in Afghanistan, financial and political, which may have forced President Ghani to increase reliance on ties with Saudi Arabia. [1]

  • The further increase of regional tension between the Saudi monarchy and the Islamic Republic of Iran, which reverberated through Afghanistan

Will the NUG survive the growing centrifugal trends? How will political alliances reshape? What implications would the collapse of the NUG agreement have for the stability of Afghanistan? This paper is based on “on-the-record” and “off-the-record” interviews and personal contacts with high level members of the political parties and groups -- especially those that are most dissatisfied with the NUG (Jamiat-i Islami, Junbesh-i Milli and various Hazara political groups) -- as well as within Ghani’s camp. The aim of these interviews was to assess what these groups intend to do in terms of attitude towards the NUG and to future coalition building. The interviews took place during July and August 2017.

The formation of the NUG and its components

Before the NUG

The Afghan political system was already in bad health before the 2014 presidential elections and subsequent NUG agreement. The Jamiat-i Islami, Abdullah Abdullah’s party and previously the dominant actor within the Northern Alliance and a major player in the Karzai administration after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, has been unable to agree on a new leader since the 2011 assassination of former Afghan President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The Hezb-e-Wahdat, an ethnically Hazara party led by Mohammad Mohaqqeq, was fragmented and facing growing competition by new groups rooted in civil society. Junbesh-e-Milli leader Abdul Rashid Dostum from the outset was a controversial figure and had repeatedly been subjected to challenges in the past. And the conspicuous number of former and current Hizb-i Islami figures active on the political scene ended splitting over whom to ally with.[2]

The broader picture was one of a political landscape fragmenting more and more every year. Inevitably, therefore, whatever coalition or coalition of coalitions would end up running the country, it would be a heterogeneous coalition of multiple groups, often unsteady in their own leadership. The NUG was also a victim of this general trend. The two coalitions that confronted each other in the 2014 presidential elections were heterogeneous in their composition, and involved the breakup of old alliances and the start of new ones. Ghani’s camp included Dostum as key partner; Ghani had been very critical of Dostum in the early post-Bonn years, so their alliance was criticised as opportunistic. It also counted on supporters who were not technically part of the coalition, such as hardline Pashtun nationalists like Ismail Yoon (chief executive of Zhwandoon TV and leader of the Tehrik-E Afghanistan party), who was disavowed by the coalition even before the elections took place. Finally, it included some dissident elements of Jamiat-i Islami, such Ahmad Zia Massoud, one of the brothers of late commander Ahmad Shah Massud, and controversial figures such as Haji Almas and Gen. Jurat, who were accused of abuses in the past.[3] Abdullah’s camp was predominantly composed of the internally divided Jamiat-i Islami; it also included Mohammad Khan as a representative of Hizb-i Islami.

The formation of the NUG

When an impasse was reached after the vote in April-May 2014, it took international mediation to find a solution. The formation of the NUG has been repeatedly discussed in detail elsewhere,[4] but some points are worth stressing here, too. The right to choose appointees for the top government jobs was split 50-50 between President Ghani and Chief Executive Abdullah, but with each of them having veto rights over the other’s choices. This led to much controversy over appointments, slowing the filling of top government positions and turning each appointment into a political issue.

Although tension within the NUG is often portrayed as being a matter of disagreements between Ghani and Abdullah, in fact there was in all likelihood more tension between each leader and his pre-NUG allies. Having formed a power-sharing coalition, neither leader was able to reward his allies with the appointments to positions of power that he had promised. Abdullah faced greater constraints in this regard, in part because Ghani tended to win most confrontations over appointments with Abdullah, and in part because Ghani, as a more assertive personality and as the recognised counterpart of western donors to Afghanistan, towered over his allies to a much greater extent than Abdullah did over his.

The NUG was therefore an arranged, loveless marriage. There was an agreed agenda of constitutional, administrative and electoral reform, of economic re-launch, and meritocracy in appointments. The agendas of the two former rival coalitions generally overlapped on these issues – for sure, nobody wanted economic decline to continue – and more controversial points such as reconciliation with the armed opposition or relations with foreign countries were omitted from the agreement. Still, from its inception the NUG almost ground to a standstill, in particular on the issue of appointments to cabinet positions, which was -- of course -- the first step in operationalizing the deal.

While international mediation and pressure were able to spur the NUG into functionality at moments of crisis, the structural conflicts built into the agreement remained. Sometimes the NUG would just pretend that it had resolved issues; sometimes President Ghani just prevailed over CEO Abdullah and took urgent decisions arbitrarily; sometimes either Ghani or Abdullah would make concessions in order to allow some progress to be made. Friction would then start almost immediately on the next issue, in a nearly continuous tug-of-war.

The NUG in 2015: diarchy, paralysis and Karzai’s challenge

Roots of division

From inception, the NUG faced multiple types of divisions: personal, political, ethnic, and of international alignments. In the different phases of the history of the NUG, the weight of each of these sources of friction varied. Initially, the weight of different personalities not used to working together was a main source of friction. Many found it difficult to work with Ghani because of his temper, as an excerpt from a profile early on in his tenure suggests:

…in Kabul the élite don’t hide their contempt. They call Ghani an arrogant micromanager and say that he has no close friends, no feel for politics—that he is the leader of a country that exists only in his own mind.[5]

Vice President Dostum also proved a difficult figure for other government members to work with. In fact most of the time Ghani and Dostum could not communicate with each other, or completely miscommunicated. Ghani’s office began to communicate with people in Dostum’s office, bypassing him personally.[6]

Political differences gradually started weighing heavier and heavier on the NUG. Although both Ghani’s and Abdullah’s coalitions included self-avowed reformers, the ideas on reform were very different between the two camps. Ghani believes in strengthening the central government (particularly in the security and financial sectors), whereas in Abdullah’s camp reform mainly meant decentralisation, as well as electoral reform. Ghani was by far the most committed and energetic reformer in the NUG, and other views of reform had little currency within the government.

The most controversial aspect of the reforms was the policy of appointments, which is not surprising as of all of the reforms under consideration this was the one going to have the most immediate impact. The NUG was at a standstill most often over appointments. Ghani pushed for the appointment of technocrats, whom often he wanted to choose himself. Despite its slow motion and the constant infighting within the NUG, in terms of appointments the new ruling coalition marked a significant difference from the previous Karzai administrations. Technocrats gained much ground, compared in particular to the 2008-14 cabinets, which Karzai had filled with powerbrokers and other notables (mostly figures with a background in the 1980s-1990s conflict, the “mujahidin”). This spurred accusations of “anti-mujahidin” attitudes, which gradually pushed the majority of the “mujahidin” to gather around their former protector, Hamid Karzai, or at least to start negotiations with him.

Linked to the issue of appointments is also that of ethnic friction within the NUG. Ghani has increasingly been accused by his opponents of “extreme Pashtun nationalism.”[7] Ghani has been surrounding himself largely with eastern Pashtuns, and 75% of the appointments made by the Office of Administrative Affairs (OAA) were reportedly Pashtuns as of September 2015. The leaking in September 2017 of a document from the OAA, detailing the importance of ethnic considerations in hiring gave more credibility to the accusations.[8] Abdullah was also accused of favouring Tajiks, and Mohaqqeq (the second deputy CEO) favoured Hazaras.[9] Other sources, however, see personal loyalty as a greater factor in determining appointments than ethnic background. Rather than being a Pashtun nationalist, Ghani appears to disregard ethnic sensitivities as illegitimate concerns, and to view anybody raising ethnic issues as a political manipulator.

Over time, the different international alignments of the various NUG components also became a source of friction. In his efforts to widen his contacts in the region, garner support for reconciliation with the armed opposition, and attract investment to Afghanistan, Ghani was remarkably successful in engaging with Saudi Arabia and China, although he failed with Pakistan. However, some of his success in this field boomeranged and ended up affecting negatively the stability of the NUG. While China was perceived as politically neutral in Afghanistan, this was not the case of Saudi Arabia. As it will be explained below, the Saudi role in support of Ghani and of the Hekmatyar reconciliation deal played a major role in unleashing the 2017 crisis.

The rivalries among the different components of the NUG are compounded by the persistent reliance of the Afghan state on external aid and other forms of rent, which not only stimulates competition among political groups over its control, but also makes them oblivious to the disruptive (and potentially devastating) consequences of their infighting. There is still not much of a “real” economy unrelated to conflict or aid that politicians would need to protect in order to ensure the smooth extraction of revenue. The current condition of the NUG – permanent friction, with peaks of turbulence, but without actual disintegration and collapse – reflects the desire of the members of the political elite to grab as much as possible of a share of the spoils, but to avoid action that could endanger the flow of revenue from abroad.

The coagulation of opposition around Karzai

Some important figures within the parties that joined under the NUG refused to endorse the agreement, shifting into opposition. For example, Jamiat’s Yunis Qanuni and Bismillah Mohammadi joined Sayyaf’s “Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council,” the main pro-mujahidin lobby, despite still sitting in Jamiat’s Leadership Council. Other groups and personalities who were aligned with neither the Ghani or Abdullah campaigns were left out of the NUG and started coalescing into a kind of opposition proto-coalition, linked to former President Hamid Karzai. According to some of Karzai’s closest advisers,[10] the former president had hoped that the deadlock created by the dispute over the electoral results would allow him to return to power through a Loya Jirga. Karzai later argued that the NUG should expire if it failed to convene a Loya Jirga by September 2016, as foreseen by the political agreement that established the NUG. A common view among diplomats in Kabul during 2017 was that within the NUG there was a concern that the Loya Jirga could be used by Karzai to promote his own political comeback.

Karzai and the Afghanistan Protection and Stability Council[11] were particularly criticised for allegedly toying with the idea of “impeaching” or somehow removing from power President Ghani on ground of ineffectiveness, although there is no clear framework in Afghanistan’s institutional framework for doing that. Karzai and his close collaborators always denied having something like that in mind, being very well aware of the risk of state collapse that it would imply. However, a source close to Sayyaf indicated in 2016 that Karzai had negotiated with them exactly about how to reach this aim.[12]

The repeated crises within the NUG and its failure to satisfy all its members did not lead to significant defections, however, because nobody would willingly surrender access to the prized flow of external cash from foreign donors who were committed to the NUG’s continuation. The few members of either Ghani’s or Abdullah’s coalition who joined the opposition all had been cut off the distribution of the financial flows before they quit.

The NUG’s partners suffered more serious losses among their external allies, who had hoped to join either coalition if the elections had delivered a clear victory. These external allies realised that with the spoils having to be distributed among a much larger number of partners inside the government, there would be absolutely nothing left for the bystanders. Some of these bystanders also started thinking that the NUG would not last and began drifting towards the most obvious alternatives. These included Anwar ul Haq Ahady, who then formed the New National Front, and former president Sebqatullah Mujaddidi and former vice-president Karim Khalili, who together formed the “High Council of Jihadi and National Parties”.

Most of these politicians and groups ended up rotating around Karzai, who was very active in 2015, putting himself forward as the solution to the (wished for) collapse of the NUG. The base of support of the NUG was particularly weakened in the south, a region that had sent many powerbrokers and notables to Kabul under Karzai in government positions. Ghani formed his own alliances with Barakzai, Noorzai, and Achakzai powerbrokers, such as Gul Agha Shirzai (of the Barakzai) who became the Minister of Tribal Affairs. This allowed Karzai to mobilise support among the tribes marginalised by Ghani, such as the Popolzai. For a period Karzai exercised a real attraction even on Jamiat-i Islami, which had had a hard time getting along with him during his 2004-14 presidency. The old conflicts were temporarily forgotten:

Jamiat would accept Karzai again as a leader and president if there was a chance, because we do not forget how good Karzai was when president. We got a lot of money and positions during his time, but Ashraf Ghani is not like him. So Karzai is much better for us… [interview with senior Jamiati cadre, September 2016].

Even when Karzai was not explicitly mentioned, his idea of a Loya Jirga as a way out of the NUG attracted interest:

People are very tired from this government, security got worse, many jobs disappeared. So this government will finish, there must be a Loya Jirga and Loya Jirga must appoint one transitional president for two years. After that the election must take place and a great president must be appointed. [Interview with Jamiati cadre, May 2016].

According to source close to him and to Hazara groups, Karzai also has good relations with Hazara leaders such as Mohaqqeq, Khalili, Mudaber and Akbari. Karzai is not seeing Mohaqeq a lot but often talks to him on the phone. Similarly sources in Wahdat (contacted in 2016) insisted that the leaders of the various factions of the party had more trust in Karzai than in Ghani, even if they did not believe in the possibility of unseating Ghani before his term was over and were more interested in discussing alliances for the future presidential elections.

In reality, Karzai was never keen on being seen as seeking an alliance with Jamiat or Wahdat, busy as he was trying to gather a large Pashtun constituency behind himself.

Karzai also succeeded in presenting his case to the regional powers. According to a source close to him, in mid-2016 he was receiving financial support for his campaign from India, Russia, and China. In late 2016, even Iran started supporting him.[13] Assuming these claims are right, some of these actors, such as the Chinese government, might just have wanted to hedge their bets and invest in Karzai in case the NUG really ended up collapsing, and continued to privilege relations with Ghani during 2016. Other international actors such as Iran and Russia saw Karzai as a useful ally in their struggle against U.S. or Pakistani influence.

The NUG in 2016: Karzai contained, Abdullah weakened and Ghani dominates

Ghani gains the upper hand

The momentum of Karzai’s campaign against the NUG was broken in 2016 for six main reasons:

  • Active and explicit American opposition to any idea of President Ghani being removed from power, the NUG folding up, and Karzai coming back to power;

  • The failure of Karzai and the dissidents within the NUG to reach an agreement about what would follow the day after: leadership, elections, power-sharing;

  • Widespread concern over the risk of instability and even state collapse as a result of any attempt to unseat Ghani;

  • Concern that Ghani’s replacement could endanger external aid to the country;

  • Ghani’s success in marginalising Abdullah and Dostum and concentrating more power in his hands, adding to his credibility as a leader with staying power;

  • Ghani’s successful engagement with regional powers such as China and Saudi Arabia, without compromising the relationship with Washington, again strengthening his image as a leader.

Ghani managed to isolate and weaken Abdullah by often bypassing him when the two leaders had disagreements and negotiating appointments instead with other leaders of Jamiat, such as Atta, Sattar Murad and Rabbani, or even deciding arbitrarily.

Dr. Abdullah is also somehow given up to Ghani and does not interfere a lot as he was doing before. Afghanistan has not reached the point yet where if the government collapses or the President resigns, then another President comes [smoothly]. We don’t have money for Parliamentarian election, we don’t have that ability to guarantee security during the elections, that’s why both Dr. Ghani and Dr. Abdullah understand that if they create problems or do not work as partners for this government, the country will go back to civil war and all the 16 years of achievements will end in one month. [Member of Abdullah’s office, May 2016]

Dr. Abdullah lost his power over the Jamiat leaders after he gave up to Ghani and joined the Ghani government. Next time in the presidential election if Dr. Abdullah again put his candidacy forward, I don’t think that Jamiat will support him again. Many Jamiat commanders and leaders are unhappy with Dr. Abdullah. [Member of Abdullah’s office, May 2016]

In fact Abdullah was in an impossible position:

All members of Jamiat are demanding positions from Abdullah. It is not possible for Abdullah to give positions to everyone. Another reason is this, that he did not show any reaction against the peace talks with Hekmatyar. This is the reason why support for Abdullah decreased within Jamiat party. [Member of Abdullah’s office, May 2016]

Ghani was similarly able to marginalise Dostum, his other main rival within the NUG, by making appointments of members of Junbesh to senior positions without consulting him, such as Faizullah Zaki as Minister of Labour and Social Affairs, or Anwar Sadat as deputy National Security Adviser.

When the parliament turned against some of the ministers, even forcing their dismissal in November 2016, it was speculated that Ghani was, in fact, behind the parliamentary uprising in order to get rid of ministers not of his liking.

While Ghani outmanoeuvred Abdullah and Dostum within the NUG, he also managed to project an image of successful diplomatic engagement, which Afghanistan badly needed. During 2016, the Saudis actively supported (diplomatically and financially) the reconciliation deal with Hekmatyar and its implementation, while the Chinese government seemed willing to bankroll Ghani with large scale investment, support reconciliation with the Taliban and even offer direct aid. Even if hardly any cash flowed to Afghanistan from either Saudi Arabia or China during 2016, this seemingly successful diplomatic engagement added to the perception of Ghani consolidating his role as key interlocutor between Afghanistan and the financial powers of the world, therefore becoming even more indispensable.

These successes in part dispelled the perception of extreme weakness of Ghani’s presidency, which had characterised 2015, and allowed Ghani to take some important, if initial steps in implementing at least some of his reforms. For example, during 2016, Ghani’s campaign against corruption started making some progress at last. Ghani was also able to push through the reconciliation agreement with Hekmatyar, despite strong initial opposition from Jamiat. Even when ministers were Abdullah’s appointees, Ghani managed to increase his ability to put pressure on them and have them choose the next layers of state servants according to criteria imposed by the president himself. One case in point was that of the provincial chiefs of police, among whom professionals reached the highest share since 2001, despite minister Taj Mohammad being a member of the mujahidin’s old guard.

At the same time, by the first half of 2016 the opposition to Ghani within the NUG was dreaming of forming an anti-Ghani front, bringing together the parties claiming to represent the ethnic minorities:

… all the people inside Jamiat have the same views. They are saying that all non-Pashtun ethnic groups must join together such as Tajikis, Hazara, Uzbeks, Turkmen and others. Then it is possible to get a lot of power and make Pashtuns weak and powerless. Hazara accepted this and there is a little problem with Uzbeks (Dostum), up to now they did not accept this and the talking is in progress. Maybe Dostum and Uzbeks will also accept it soon. If we do not do this action, we will be eliminated like the Taliban’s government. We will be very weak. [Advisor to Abdullah, interviewed in May 2016].

Nonetheless, Ghani managed to keep the NUG ship together by making occasional concessions to Abdullah and Jamiat or to Dostum in order to appease them. The appointment of Taj Mohammed, an old style notable of Jamiat, as Minister of the Interior in February 2016, was one such concession. Jamiatis considered his appointment a very positive step, as they believed that Ghani had previously pressured Abdullah to appoint a reformer -- Taj’s predecessor Nur ul Haq Ulumi -- to this position, instead of waiting for Abdullah to bring forward an acceptable candidate (the minister of interior was one of the positions Abdullah should have been filling). Abdullah’s role was merely to confirm Ulumi’s selection, to the chagrin of Jamiatis who had wanted one of their lot in that position.[14]

While up to January 2016 the headlines had been of the emergence of Karzai as a leading opponent of the NUG and of two alliances of disaffected politicians and parties forming, the rest of 2016 did not see any further shift to the opposition as a result of Ghani’s new lease on political life. Politicians and parties critical of Ghani all seemed to be losing steam during 2016. Jamiat did not negotiate directly with Karzai, but had long negotiations with Sayyaf, which -- as of mid-2017 -- had not achieved much yet.

The credibility of Karzai as an alternative to the NUG went into steady decline, too. In interviews carried out in late spring 2016 with tribal elders belonging to seven of the main tribes, some support was found for any prospect of Karzai returning to power: three of the seven elders expressed support for Karzai’s return. But only one seemed open to the idea of the NUG being replaced before its term was due. If Karzai had to come back to power, it had to be through new elections. The elders opposed to a Karzai-led overthrow of the NUG were mostly concerned with the risk of instability and with the possibly loss of essential external aid.

Among Hazara groups, while Khalili always maintained good relations with Karzai, Mohaqqeq never liked the idea of a return of Karzai to power, according to one of his collaborators. The same applies to Dostum. Both Mohaqqeq and Dostum, of course, had a few clashes with Karzai in his days in power, but even among the next layer or two of Hazara and Uzbek politicians, Karzai was not seen as a suitable replacement for Ghani, paradoxically exactly because of the latter’s links to Washington:

Ghani is very clever and he really kept his good relations or made again good relations with America and Europe after President Karzai destroyed these relations. Ghani has very good support from America and I repeat again that at present it would be very difficult to bring Ghani down. […] That’s true, the attitude that Karzai has against America is not beneficial to Afghanistan. We all know that we need America and its support. Our Afghan forces’ salaries are paid by America. If America stops its support, the country will disintegrate [interview with senior Wahdat cadre, October 2016].

Karzai was still perceived as a serious threat by both Ghani and Abdullah, who in part for this reason, showed little or no enthusiasm for calling the Constitutional Loya Jirga that should have introduced the prime ministership; even Abdullah, who had initially been in favour, seemed to have lost his enthusiasm by 2016. However, Karzai became a threat that the NUG could manage. Kerry’s reaffirmation of support for the NUG at the end of the summer of 2016 likely further stemmed the tide of Karzai’s campaign.

By mid-2016 Ghani seemed to be succeeding in raising centripetal forces, which were drawing even some of his fiercest critics towards his camp. The best example of this was the decision in the summer of 2016 of Atta Mohammed Noor, governor of Balkh, to enter negotiations with Ghani over the formation of a new future coalition. This was significant, because Atta had until then led the Jamiat internal opposition to the NUG.

Atta is always in contact with Ashraf Ghani by telephone and also face-to-face negotiations. He was not only in negotiations with Ghani about his future job but also about the situation and peace of Afghanistan (Hekmatyar), about the prime minister position, about Loya Jirga, about Dostum’s conflict with Jamiat and also about his own governorship […]. On certain points, they reached agreements, but on other points they did not [Interview with senior Jamiati cadre, September 2016].

It seemed for a while as if Ghani might be able to spin off a virtuous cycle of political consolidation, with most -- if not all -- the pieces of the political jigsaw coming together. But, although Ghani’s influence was increasing, his actual power remained limited and opposition to him was building up beneath the surface.

The 2017 crisis of the NUG

The latest crisis that started unfolding during spring 2017 had its roots in the 2016 successes of President Ghani. Although he managed to get some of his reforms going, by 2017 the impact was still minimal and the patronage-oriented nature of the system, as it had shaped in 2002-14, had hardly changed at all. Despite Ghani’s plans to mobilise funds for the development of Afghanistan, as of 2017, Afghanistan’s economy was as dependent as ever on financial resources pumped in from abroad, as well as rent accruing from shadowy activities (mining and smuggling). Being excluded from these sources of rent could only mean one of two things for the country’s powerbrokers: political and economic marginalisation or finding new sources of revenue, most likely in the form of “donations” from abroad. While Ghani’s successes in stabilising the state finances were appreciated by all, many of his other early successes and plans sounded more like existential threats to the political elite. And to make this sense of threat worse, throughout the first half of 2017, perhaps on the strength of reconfirmed support from the Trump administration for his personal leadership if not for a direct U.S. presence in the country, Ghani seemed intent on accelerating his consolidation of power.[15]

Hekmatyar comes home: good news or bad news?

When the ongoing negotiations with Hekmatyar were first made public in May 2016, negative reactions came primarily from old civil war rivals like Jamiat-i Islami.

We are happy with the coming of Hekmatyar, but there should be a clear deal with him. All the people of Afghanistan should know that on which basis Hekmatyar is coming in Afghanistan? The contract between Afghan Government and Hekmatyar team, which was published is something not true and we know that behind the curtain there are money and other deals between Ghani and Hekmatyar. [Member of Abdullah’s office, May 2016].

Opposition to Hekmatyar’s return was shared by the various factions of Hizb-i Wahdat, given the anti-Shi’a attitude developed by the Hekmatyar’s party in recent years, although a source close to Mohaqqeq indicated that in reality he was not too worried about Hekmatyar being in Kabul. The suspicion was from the beginning that what was in the making was much more than a simple reconciliation deal with a declining insurgent group:

We have information that these promises in the peace letter are not true, behind the curtain there are lots of other promises for Hekmatyar. We have information that Ghani promised four ministries for Hizbi-i Islami of Hekmatyar, many embassies, many governors and lots of other positions. Hekmatyar is not that much important and he was not that much of a big threat to the security of Afghanistan that the Afghan government or Ghani should promise him so much [Interview with senior Wahdat cadre, October 2016].

To some extent all established parties feared that any further incorporation of Hizb-i Islami in the political settlement would translate in them having to sacrifice at least some of their assets in government. These worries were enhanced by speculation about the possible reconciliation of at least some chunks of Taliban in the future, which could lead to some further redistribution of power.

Although Jamiatis feared that President Ghani might be planning to form a new coalition with Hizb-i Islami in their place, they were convinced to accept the deal on certain conditions: that Hizb-i Islami would disarm its armed groups, that it would accept the Constitution as it is, that it would abstain from activities hostile to Jamiat, and that Jamiat might join any future coalition too.

By early 2017, the concern over Hekmatyar had refocused from his old civil war role, towards the non-transparent role played by Saudi intelligence in sponsoring the deal. Widespread rumours of large scale funding from Saudi Arabia, aimed at transforming the reconciled Hizb-i Islami into a political machine comparable to Palestinian Hamas, elicited very different reactions: almost universal approval from Pashtun tribal elders, and almost universal rejection from Hazara and Tajik politicians. The rise in influence of Haji Almas and other former Hizbi members of Jamiat of Tajik ethnicity and their leaning back towards Hekmatyar was noted. It contributed to make the leaders of Jamiat worry about the impact of a well-funded re-launch of Hizb-i Islami, which could steal from Jamiat the position of largest party in the parliament. It is worth noting that Jamiat, Wahdat and Junbesh also accuse Ghani and Atmar of having distributed large numbers of weapons to Hizb-i Islami in the provinces, essentially turning the old insurgent group into a new pro-government (or rather pro-Ghani) militia. These charges are rejected by both Hizb-i Islami and the government.[16]

Perhaps more importantly, as the deal with Hekmatyar started being implemented in February 2017 (with Hekmatyar’s removal from the UN sanctions list), Iran and Russia activated their influence channels to counter the prospect of a Ghani-Hekmatyar alliance.[17]

It did not help in this regard that the Hekmatyar faction of Hizb-i Islami had deployed a virulently anti-Iran and anti-Shi’a rhetoric in 2016-17. Hekmatyar also rejected invitations to mend fences with Jamiat after returning to Kabul and offensively ranked them at the same level as the Taliban as partners for bringing peace to Afghanistan. His attitude was so controversial that it even caused a major crisis inside his party, between his faction and the faction that was registered in Kabul in 2005 and is led by Arghandiwal (the two factions were still working at a merge as of August 2017). The Arghandiwal faction reportedly objected to Hekmatyar undermining the “pacification” work done by them towards Jamiat in previous years, according to a high level source inside the Arghandiwal group. Arghandiwal is not willing to give up his party’s participation in the NUG, where he has two ministers and Abdullah’s deputy. There was also conflict (confirmed by sources within the party) over Hekmatyar’s retention of armed groups, against the terms of the reconciliation agreement. By June, however, possibly helped by pressure from the donors to the party, Hekmatyar appeared to have forced the Arghandiwal faction to bow to him.

Within Hizb-i Islami the general understanding was that the party would compete to gain well over 100 members of parliament in the parliamentary elections, and then support Ghani in the presidential elections. In subsequent presidential elections Hizb-i Islami would feel free to field its own candidate.[18]

Although Karzai and Hekmatyar met at least twice after the latter returned to Kabul, these cordial relations have little chance of developing into some kind of alliance in the foreseeable future.[19]

Dostum’s affair

Throughout 2014-16, Dostum and his party showed little concern for the alleged Pashtun-Chauvinist tendencies of Ghani, quite the contrary:

Junbesh is not worried about this, that the whole government might be controlled by Pashtuns or Pashtunisation. Because Pashtuns are not doing such activities to take the whole control in their hands. It is Jamiat that they have this aim and mission to have everything under their control. If Abdullah and Jamiat are removed from this government, Pashtuns will give more positions to Junbesh. [Junbesh cadre, May 2016].

At that time Dostum’s main enemy was the governor of Balkh, Atta Mohammed Noor. Dostum and his Jumbesh party even initially collaborated with Hizb-i Islami’s northern leader Juma Khan Hamdard in reasserting his influence in Balkh province in spring 2016, a move that placed very high pressure on Atta.

However, Dostum started being worried about the wider significance of the Hekmatyar deal once relations between Dostum and President Ghani started worsening again in December 2016. Following his assault on Uzbek elder Ahmad Eshchi in November 2016, by February 2017 Dostum was cornered in his Kabul residence. Ghani then started lobbying the Uzbek community to agree on Dostum’s replacement with a more amenable Uzbek. Turkish and Iranian mediation did not achieve much, except allowing Dostum to travel to Turkey in May 2017. Dostum’s entourage claimed he went there for medical treatment, while Ghani’s supporters depicted the trip as “Dostum going in exile.” Dostum’s first attempt to re-enter Afghanistan in July was foiled, forcing his plane to land in Turkmenistan.[20]

While the crisis was unfolding, Ghani also sacked Ahmad Zia Massud from the position of “presidential adviser for reforms and good governance.” Massud was widely rumoured to be one of the Jamiati politicians closest to the Iranians, whereas Dostum was widely believed to be close to the Russians and to the Turks (as of 2017). Massud was also the most open proponent of the need for Jamiat to re-mobilise its militias in northern Afghanistan. He had also been one of the few Jamiatis who joined the Ghani camp during the 2014 electoral campaign, so his sacking was particularly noteworthy, even if the 2014 Ghani-Abdullah agreement had made it impossible for Ghani to honour his commitment to Massud.

Whatever might have actually driven the collision between Ghani and his two former allies, together with Hekmatyar’s meteoric rise in influence after his return to Kabul, these developments combined to shape a perception of Ghani shifting fast towards a strategic alliance with Saudi Arabia, while consolidating the rapport with Washington, at the expense of relations with Iran and Russia. Although Ghani’s relations with these two countries were never very warm, they were pretty decent throughout 2015 and most of 2016.[21]

Atta vs Abdullah

Developments within Jamiat added to the perception that Ghani -- with Saudi support -- was trying to reshape the political landscape, purging Iranian and Russian influence from the government apparatus, either by sacking people or by co-opting them. In October 2016, Atta and Abdullah travelled to Riyadh, invited by the Saudi authorities. Sources inside Jamiat indicate that the Saudis offered financial incentives to the two politicians, for cutting off relations with Iran and Russia and for taking part in a new alliance with Ghani and Hekmatyar. After the trip, Atta resumed his negotiations with Ghani and, in December 2016, he even announced that he was about to reach an agreement with him. The perception at that time was that Ghani had offered Abdullah’s job to Atta, or Dostum’s.

Atta took a lot of flak from Jamiatis for his direct negotiations with Ghani, whose content he does not appear to have been sharing with other party leaders. Atta clearly intended to use his emerging “special relationship” with Ghani as an asset to capture the party leadership and then carry the bulk of Jamiat with him into the new coalition shaping up. In fact, he did offer in public to negotiate with Ghani on behalf of Jamiat as a whole.

In May 2017, Atta succeeded in marginalising Abdullah from the leadership of Jamiat. Atta, who after the trip to Riyadh had flirted with the Saudis for some months, eventually decided in spring to stick with Iran, in part because of his own growing doubts about the feasibility of an alliance with Hekmatyar. The struggle for the soul of Jamiat between supporters of privileged relations with Iran and advocates of closer relations with Saudi Arabia appeared over: all the 64 members of an Interim Council appointed on May 23 to lead the party while the leadership issue was still unresolved were pro-Iran elements, a clear indication of where the debate was heading. Abdullah was left as the only main leader of the party to be closer to Saudi Arabia than to Iran, and he was not even included among the 64 members.[22]

Anti-corruption and reforms or purges?

As Ghani’s campaign against corruption unfolded during 2016, it gave rise to accusations that it had political aims and biases:

Mohaqqeq had two ministers in the Ghani administration but one was suspended following an unjustified accusition of corruption. It was Ghani’s tactic to make a case against a minister whom he doesn’t like or who belongs to another ethnic groups and later sack him from his position [cadre of Wahdat-Mohaqqeq, July 2017].

Similarly the investigations against Dostum for the Ishchi affair are branded as conspiracies by Dostum’s associates, and after the formation of the alliance with Mohaqqeq and Jamiat (see below) by these two parties as well.

Ghani’s divide and rule tactics against his uneasy allies within the NUG were starting to yield decreasing dividends in the first half of 2017, as for example in March/April 2017 when he made Ahmad Zia Massud redundant following the creation of a similar job for Amrullah Saleh (State Minister for Security Reform): in this case Massud turned into one of Ghani’s most bitter enemies and Saleh resigned from his new job in just 3 months.

The May bombing and the June riots: the crisis accelerates

The May 31 truck bomb in central Kabul highlighted multiple vulnerabilities in the security apparatus of the city, but also deep divisions within the political elite. Sources inside Jamiat had already pointed out in 2016 that they were working at the hypothesis of bringing President Ghani down through mass demonstrations in Kabul, if his efforts to marginalise the party continued.

It is possible that the NUG will collapse if the leaders of NUG do not do good work and do not solve people problems. This is possible through a Loya Jirga not the Parliament. If again this does not work, then protests and demonstrations will start. If again protests and demonstrations do not work then there are other ways like fighting, taking guns and other things. [Interview with senior cadre of Jamiat, September 2016].

It seems that some segments of Jamiat (disgruntled young militants and marginalised leaders like Ahmad Zia Massud) saw the backlash against the truck bomb as the opportunity for pressing against Ghani. Most of the Jamiati leaders, taken by surprise, did not even have the time to think about their options. In the end, the crowd that tried to march on the Presidential palace counted about 1,200 people, not the 20-30,000 that Jamiat might easily have brought together if it had mobilised as a whole, and Kabul’s police (many of whose members are Jamiatis) did not sympathise with the demonstrators. The riots that started on June 2 therefore turned out to be just an (unplanned) test and a warning: a test of the potential of mass riots to threaten Ghani’s hold on power, and a warning to Ghani that his alleged plans to reshape the ruling coalition and the political landscape would not go through without resistance.

Although the riots were easily contained, the police as usual when confronting riots used violence and killed seven demonstrators. Although the reaction of the police could be justified with the need to protect the presidential palace in Kabul’s highly insecure environment, the incident had a significant deligitimizing impact on the NUG within Jamiat’s constituency. Perhaps even more importantly, it seemed to demonstrate that Ghani would not be able to resist mass demonstrations and a large march on the Presidential Palace, if another suitable opportunity for calling them was available.

The riots further weakened Abdullah, as the base of the party ended up being fully mobilised against the NUG, to which Abdullah chose to stay loyal despite demands from Atta and Rabbani that he should resign. In fact, arguably Abdullah never aligned so closely with Ghani until this political crisis. By June 2017, therefore, Abdullah was quite isolated: his party was mostly against him and the NUG, while his second deputy Mohaqqeq (representing the interests of a faction of the Wahdat party) formed a new opposition movement with Dostum and Atta (see below).

According to a senior cadre of Jamiat, contacted in July 2017, most of the Jamiati members of the NUG stopped attending meetings with Ghani after the June events. Among Jamiat’s demands were by July 2017 the sacking of the chief of the National Directorate of Security, Stanikzai, and of the National Security Advisor, Atmar, and the cutting off of relations between Ghani and Hekmatyar, as well as the full implementation of the NUG agreement.

Although Abdullah is irritated by Atta’s, Mohaqqeq’s and Dostum’s brinkmanship, he also has problems with Ghani. Throughout 2015-16, Abdullah remained adamant that the NUG would keep going until the end of its term and still Abdullah strongly wants the NUG to end its term. Abdullah has been trying to convince Atta to moderate his position, with no success. In his speeches, Atta has abused Abdullah during July and then again in December. Abdullah is now trying to gather the Panjshiris around himself, in opposition to Atta whose control of Jamiat in northern Afghanistan is unchallengeable. Some Panjshiri notables, however, also, like Amrullah Saleh, General Jurat and Ahmad Zia Massud, stay loyal to Atta. While the northeast, Kabul, Kapisa and Parwan are also somewhat contested between Abdullah and Atta, the latter seems to have an edge.

As intra-regional competition for influence in Afghanistan (and beyond) deepened in the first half of 2017, the Qatar crisis (where Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies imposed an embargo on Qatar because of their political divergences) arrived in June to further compound the Afghan political crisis. The Turkish government, which had previously supported Hekmatyar and the reconciliation agreement, and had pushed Dostum towards supporting it too, withdrew from all cooperation with the Saudis and instead supported the Atta-Dostum-Mohaqqeq alliance, signed on Turkish territory on June 28, 2017.

What’s next: elections, stability, alliances

Will elections take place?

The political crisis that exploded in June 2017 makes holding the already troubled parliamentary elections in 2018 even more difficult. On June 22, 2017 the Independent Electoral Commission set the date for elections on July 2018, but there remains widespread criticism that the NUG is not working to make the elections happen.[23] Ghani has little interest in seeing the elections take place, as his position is very weak except in Eastern Afghanistan and perhaps in some cities. Abdullah is even weaker than Ghani, and does not even have a party or coalition anymore to compete. The NUG should therefore not be expected to make a major effort to roll out parliamentary elections, which it hardly has any chance of winning. It would make better sense for Ghani and Abdullah to fold the parliamentary elections into the presidential ones and hold them together in 2019.

On the other hand, postponing the parliamentary elections again could create additional political turmoil. For sure the NUG will need a good excuse for postponing: the best strategy would be to let the Independent Electoral Commission run a delay of its own, or claim excessive levels of insecurity, or again insufficient funding from donors. Postponing the 2019 presidential elections, assuming there will still be a NUG at that point, would certainly unleash another dramatic crisis, and provide the best possible opportunity for another march on the Presidential palace, this time a much larger one.

The NUG might therefore have to go ahead with elections even if it is has no appetite for them. This consideration might in fact contribute to explaining the rush in the first half of 2017, in bringing order inside Ghani’s own coalition. It might also explain why Ghani had to tolerate Hekmatyar’s rather rogue behaviour after the returned to Kabul – he needs him for the electoral campaigns.

Is political stability under serious threat?

Does the opposition to Ghani really aim to overthrow him? Some members of the intra-NUG opposition seem to be trying to convince themselves that this would be a viable option:

America should respect the people of Afghanistan’s rights, respect the people of Afghanistan’s decisions. They are here to help the people of Afghanistan not to help only the Ghani government. America and European countries will support the decisions of the people, if they stopped their support then there are many other countries like Russia to support the new governement [Collaborator of Mohaqqeq, July 2017].

In reality, Atta and his allies in the view of a close associate of Abdullah do not aim to overthrow Ghani, as they know it would be the beginning of a new civil war. Instead they are talking tough in order to force Ghani to make concessions. The intra-NUG opposition’s demands for the sacking of Stanikzai and Atmar are seen as pretest; in reality appointments to positions of power is what the leaders of the coalition want. Atta was also irritated by the blocking of his bank accounts and of those of his companies. As a Jamiati cadre said some months before the June riots, the opposition leaders know that:

It is true that removing Ghani can destroy the country, and we do not want to ally with Karzai because half of the government is ours so why would we do such thing. Up to now Jamiat does not plan such things because it is not beneficial for us. We will only threaten. We do not want to cut relations with America. If we do such things, we will lose power, money and everything. [Interview with senior cadre of Jamiat, September 2016]

The Coalition leaders know that overthrowing Ghani without compromising western aid to Afghanistan is only possible if the demonstrations will be non-violent and sufficiently wide in terms of composition. But who can guarantee that? Things could easily get out of control. In this regard one of the worries of the Coalition leaders is that armed Hizb-i Islami militants might confront Coalition demonstrators in the streets of Kabul, according to a collaborator of Mohaqqeq and to one of Dostum. Hekmatyar himself issued a threat of this kind through the media.

Then, as discussed in Roots of division above, those members of the NUG critical of Ghani, but not deprived of their jobs yet, have little incentive to push the NUG over the brink, even when they might be convinced that in the long run Ghani will try to exclude them from power too:

Jamiat is led by people who are mostly busnessmen and have lots of money, these kind of people never try to collapse the government because of their own business. I believe that these members of Jamiat will prefer Ghani to stay like this for another 50 years rather then resign and cause the government to collapse, then they will all lose their business and money [Enlightment leader, interviewed in July 2017].

Typical of this is the reaction of Jamiatis to the sacking in August of Taj Mohammed, the then-Minister of Interior. Although his successor Barmak is also from Panjshir, he is a technocrat with no clear association with Jamiat. Despite being furious at the replacement and at the prospect of a coming purge of Jamiatis from the Ministry of Interior, the party stalwarts proved to be unable of making a stand and appeared more worried about saving their jobs for as long as possible, than to fight for the party’s influence.

While sources close to Karzai admit that he is trying to organise a Loya Jirga, they deny that he has personal ambitions. The Karzai camp rejects streets demonstrations as a way to resolve the political impasse in Afghanistan; they point out that unless there is an organized opposition able to immediately take over, successful demonstrations could only result in chaos.

I was also member of the “Enlightenment movement” (Junbesh e Roshnayee) but one year ago me and Mr. XXX both left the movement and our main reason for leaving the movement was lack of alternative plan for the new government. [Ally and former close collaborator of Karzai, August 2017]

There is also a belief that the Americans will not allow the NUG to collapse and would intervene if necessary.

Americans are not paying for Afghanistan only because of Ghani or Karzai. If they are really paying for these two people or the five persons circle then we don’t need this help. [...] I am sure that China, Iran and Russia cannot be an alternative for American and other European countries’ support for Afghanistan and the coalition will never accept and never believe that Russia, China and Iran would be an alternative for American support. [MP from Jamiat, July 2017]

The dominant belief is that China, Russia and others will not replace the U.S. as economic benefactors. Naturally, Americans have strategic interests in Afghanistan rather than in Ghani as such; hence they could accommodate another president and another ruling coalition.

All considered, there are at least two reasons why a confrontation cannot be ruled out.

  • Uncertainty over future elections as a more or less institutionalized path towards regime change might encourage opposition leaders and groups to take an extra-parliamentary route

  • Sources in Jamiat, Jumbesh and Wahdat all suggest that their fears of a purge sponsored by the Saudis and the Trump Administration (increasingly on a war path with Iran and on bad terms with Russia too) is shared by the Iranians and Russian authorities. As a result, both Russians and Iranians are encouraging the opposition groups to ally with each other and to take Ghani on, before he succeeds in completing the transition to a new ruling coalition, cleansed of Russian and Iranian influence.

According to sources in Jamiat, the Iranian authorities certainly would not like chaos in Afghanistan and particularly do not want state collapse. Still the Revolutionary Guards at least believe that a heavily Saudi- and U.S.-influenced ruling coalition, free from “counterbalancing” Iranian and Russian influence, would represent a serious threat to Iran’s national interest, and therefore some risk would have to be taken in order to prevent that from happening. The same sources suggest that Russia’s position is more reckless, probably for reasons that have little to do with Afghanistan: the Russians are willing to take even greater risks of instability, in order to deliver a clear message to Washington that Russia will not bow to American pressure (on Syria and Ukraine even more than on Afghanistan).

The convergence of worsening relations between Washington and Saudi Arabia on one side, and Iran, Russia and Turkey on the other, with the endogenous political crisis of Afghanistan is therefore potentially a highly combustible mix. Of course, even to the extent that there was a growing appetite for a “final confrontation” with Ghani, it would not necessarily mean that his more and more numerous enemies will be able to make it happen. Jamiat and various Hazara groups, such as the Junbesh e Roshnayee, surely have the capacity to mobilize tens of thousands of demonstrators, at least if a suitable opportunity presents itself.

Ghani could defuse the situation by offering some kind of pacification to the Afghan political actors who turned against him. One such attempt was made by NDS chief Stanikzai in July 2017, when he visited Dostum in Turkey and tried to convince him to leave the Coalition in exchange for being allowed to resume his functions as Vice-president. Shortly afterwards the U.S. Ambassador insisted that charges against Dostum should be investigated, but even this type of pressure had little impact.

Another example is that of Mohaqqeq, who received the visit of the U.S. Ambassador, advocating his withdrawal from the Coalition, according to one collaborator, and then of the Iranian one, of course advocating the opposite. Sources close to Mohaqqeq and Atta suggest that by September 2017 Mohaqqeq was ready to break ranks with Dostum, as long as Atta agreed to do the same.

The new alliances taking shape

Ghani for now continues to rely on the divisions among his opponents. The alliance signed in June between Atta, Dostum and Mohaqqeq and called "High Coalition Council for the Salvation of Afghanistan" is a serious threat in this regard. The announcement of the new alliance was not mere rhetoric: an intense activity of high-level meetings followed, presumably discussing the details of how to set it up. Sources in Atta’s and in Mohaqqeq’s camp indicated at the end of June that negotiations were ongoing to extend the alliance to Haji Zahir Qadir, who would then turn into the first major Pashtun member of the alliance, as well as to southern Pashtun powerbrokers. In the meetings reportedly the options of mass riots in Kabul and of seizing control of whole provinces were extensively. Formally, the High Coalition’s key demand is the full implementation of the NUG agreement.

But the alliance has not been tested yet – these three leaders have a record of fighting each other in the past. As of July 2017, the Coalition did not include yet any Hazara or Shi’a groups except Mohaqqeq’s, although negotiations with several of them were going on. The Junbesh e Roshnayee movement seemed all but interested in joining and bitterly criticized Atta, Dostum and Mohaqqeq for declaring themselves as opposition while holding tight on their government jobs and their privileges. Mohaqqeq, in particular, is viewed with suspicion by the Junbesh e Roshnayee movement because of having sided with Ghani over the TOTAP electricity project.

This coalition was made to bring pressure on the government and get spoils from the government for themselves, I don’t think that this coalition was made for the people of Afghanistan, if this coalition was made for the people of Afghanistan, all these three people should resign from the governement, stop using the government services and together with people stand against the governement. [leader, interviewed in July 2017].

The Junbesh e Roshnayee movement also had little interest in plans to bring the NUG down, as it attributes Afghanistan’s problems not to the NUG or Ghani in particular, but to structural problems within the political system, and opposes the old Hazara political elites as much as it does Ghani.

Changing or replacing Ghani or Abdullah means that you have an old car and it doesnt work, by changing its driver we still cannot use the car. Now the government system is very corrupt and very dirty system, for making Afghanistan, we need to change the system of Afghanistan. [Enlightenment Movement leader, interviewed in July 2017]

Instead, the Junbesh Roshnayee movement prefers to focus on demanding the resignation of Stanikzai and Atmar, whom it accuses of complicity in the attacks on the Roshnayee movement demonstration in July 2016.

The High Coalition’s attractiveness is also weakened by the fact that its main component remains leaderless and divided internally:

I believe that Jamiat is too weak now, Jamiat itself is divided in many groups, Jamiat now cannot control its own party, then how will Jamiat find that much power to overthrow Ghani and take power? No old leaders of Jamiat are left now, Jamiat is only history, imagery and dream now, who is Jamiat? Jamiat is Abdullah, Jamiat is Atta who everyday is insulting Abdullah, Jamiat is Ahmad Zia Massud? [leader, interviewed in July 2017]

Within the other components of the coalition (Jamiat and Junbesh) opposition to the agreement was muted. In Jamiat, only Mohammad Nasim Faqiri, possibly the most senior Pashtun in the party (from Laghman), opposed the deal initially, then retracted.

Even more complicated will be linking up the High Coalition with the opposition groups rotating around Karzai, and with Karzai himself. Most of the opposition groups with street power have no interest in gathering under Karzai’s leadership:

Karzai is like a village elder, he is not made for a modern government, he missed lots of opportunities during his period. I am very openly saying this that Karzai is like a village elder, as you know recently a new coalition called Mehwar e Mardom e Afghanistan (Axis Of People of Afghanistan) was formed, many people are saying that this coalition is backed by Karzai. But I say that if there were election and Karzai and Ghani were the candidates, of course I would vote for Ghani. Karzai is too weak and useless compared to Ghani. [Enlightenment leader, interviewed in July 2017]

Karzai is not acceptable for the coalition and he doesn’t have any chance to become president again. [MP from Jamiat, July 2017]

It is worth noting in this regard that Karzai welcomed and defended the reconciliation deal with Hekmatyar, once again showing that his priority to gathering Pashtun support, not a wide multi-ethnic coalition.

Sources close to Karzai indicate that he sees a role for himself in bringing together the disparate coalitions that have been forming after the elections. This is, however, easier said than done. Karzai has been sending emissaries to sound out Junbesh at least, and according to some sources even met Dostum himself in Turkey shortly before the formation of the Coalition. However, according to a source close to him, Karzai still has rather bad relations with Junbesh and Gen. Dostum, from the time when he clashed with them over Akbar Bai.

Within Jamiat-i Islami, memories of working with Karzai are not always fond ones. In 2016, Karzai deployed some negative rhetoric about Jamiat, probably as he was trying to mobilise Pashtun support in the south. Jamiat seems to have resented that, and now wonders whether it should trust Karzai. Karzai and all the other opposition groups are also likely to be wondering whether they should trust Jamiat to share power with them. Still Jamiati politicians have not entirely given up on Karzai. Karzai has relatively close relations with Rabbani, Qanuni, Atta and Bismillah Khan. With Abdullah, instead, relations are cool. Reportedly still during 2017 Karzai was meeting Jamiat’s leaders twice or thrice a month; when Atta Mohammad Noor is in Kabul, he reportedly always meets Karzai.

If the NUG was to be overthrown in a “color revolution” style riot, Jamiat would be in a situation similar to the one it was in 2001: it would have played the key role in the uprising, moving from its stronghold in northern Kabul towards the presidential palace. Mohaqqeq and other Hazara leaders would probably need the Junbesh e Roshnayee movement to contribute decisively, and no other opposition leader or group has much of a base in Kabul city. Sayyaf has armed groups in Shakardara, but the “color revolution” scenario should feature civilian demonstrations, not militias.

Ghani’s efforts to divide and rule seem to be running out of steam. The room of maneuver for Ghani to divide Dostum and Atta is shrinking, following the repeated, protracted and ultimately unsuccessful negotiations of the past with both Dostum and Atta. Both of them now believe they have been manipulated or even cheated by Ghani, and it will be hard for Ghani to convince them that any offer he might make is genuine. Any prospect of splitting Jamiat and seeing a pro-NUG faction emerge seemed even more remote. Dr. Abdullah himself, according to sources inside Jamiat, by the second week of June was reported to have started expressing support for the demonstrators and their demands while attending Jamiat meetings.

Hence, during October and November, Ghani changed tactics and started working to undermine the two pillars of the “Salvation Coalition” from within. Ghani is widely believed to have encouraged some dissident elements of Junbesh to set up a separate organization, which was announced to the public on 11 June: Junbesh-e Nawin (New Junbesh). The leader, a technocrat and former governor of Jowzjan Alim Sayee, was never a Dostum loyalist, and other members hardly had a better reputation than Dostum himself (such as Gul Mohammad Pahlawan). In general the new party was not expected as of summer 2017 to steal much influence from Dostum, especially since it might already have lost support from Turkey (which it was alleged to have initially). But in the autumn Ghani reportedly promised the leadership of the New Junbesh party substantial support, to enable them to steal much of Dostum’s base of support. Some senior leaders of Junbesh, such as Sayed Nurullah, reportedly went to discuss their defection to New Junbesh at the end of October, and appear to have agreed. Karim Khalili, head of his own faction of Hizb-i Wahdat, was also reportedly leaning towards Ghani, perhaps swayed by a promise that he could replace Mohaqqeq in a future grand coalition replacing the NUG.

At the same time Ghani also put pressure on Atta to resign from his Balkh governorship and enlisted Abdullah’s and Rabbani’s support in achieving this, at least initially.[24] At the beginning of November 2017 Atta visited Herat, addressed a large crowd and called for the end of the NUG and its replacement with an interim administration. But within Jamiat there was unease at his more and more confrontational attitude.[25]

The internal fragmentation of Jamiat was by the end of 2017 beginning to take a toll in terms of the morale of the ranks and file. On social media, like Facebook and Twitter, members were often disparaging about the prospects of the party, which might end up running in 2019 two presidential candidates and a deputy candidate on three different tickets.

The dynamics internal to Jamiat also mean that Abdullah and Ghani were able to counter-attack towards the end of 2017, sacking Atta from the Balkh governorship. The fact that Atta has not been hiding his presidential ambitions alienated not only Abdullah, who during 2017 was still planning to run himself, but also Rabbani and others who are tempted by the option of a Jamiati vice-presidential candidate alongside Ghani. By choosing Mohammad Daud, a Jamiati intelligence officer linked to Rabbani, as Atta’s replacement to the position of governor of Balkh, Ghani and Abdullah clearly tried to further undermine Atta’s standing within Jamiat, and highlight how he was fighting his personal battle, not the party’s. Although Rabbani and even Abdullah later came out criticizing Ghani’s decision to sack Atta in December 2017, after the Jamiati grassroots came out in Atta’s support, when President Ghani decided to fire Atta and appoint Daud as governor of Balkh, Rabbani didn't object, and Abdullah approved. Ghani also tried to co-opt Amanullah Guzar, a Jamiati heavyweight in Kabul, to his side by appointing one of Guzar’s associates, Dr. Yasin Zia, as deputy of the National Security Council.[26]

Clearly, as the end of 2017 approached, President Ghani seemed reassured that with renewed U.S. commitment following U.S. President Trump’s speech in August, with the decision of Abdullah to openly dump Atta, with the co-optation of Khalili and his faction of Hizb-i Wahdat, with the formation of New Junbesh and with the successful approval of the new (pro-Ghani) ministers of defence and interior by the parliament in December, he was gaining the upper hand and was now in a position to assert his prerogatives against Atta and the “opposition within the NUG” that he was de facto leading.

Ghani also knows that, without a strong coalition agreement -- preferably identifying already a future “interim president” -- any attempt to overthrow the NUG would be a big gamble, potentially leading to civil war and/or state collapse. Some opposition leaders -- such as Atta -- might want to take that risk, particularly if the alternative path is their own demise, but that is probably not the case for all of them. That is unless some major development, like the Hekmatyar deal or the June riots but of even stronger resonance, intervenes to polarize opposition around a figure or a cause. As the end of December approached, both Ghani and Atta seemed to be pushing their games of brinkmanship towards… the abyss. Ghani had reportedly tasked his Special Forces to take Atta out of the Balkh’s governor office, while Atta was distributing weapons to his militia commanders in the north. Local Jamiat and Junbesh militia commanders were issuing bellicose statements and declaring their readiness to fight on Atta’s side. Police officers were also declaring their loyalty to Atta (like the northern region ANCOP chief, Hasibullah Quraishi, and the deputy Chief of Police of Balkh, Col. Abdul Raziq Qadri), or to the central government (like Balkh’s Chief of Police). The conflict was not limited to northern Afghanistan: in Herat, Ismail Khan offered wholehearted support to Atta and -- more surprisingly -- so did the Chief of Police of Kandahar, Gen. Razziq, probably due to the rumors that he too is on a list of officials to be replaced soon.[27]

Without that, the NUG might therefore well manage to make it to the end of its term, despite the worsening odds, but the political landscape is reshaping nonetheless. Whatever coalition or coalition of coalitions would end up running the country, it would be a heterogeneous coalition of multiple groups, often unsteady in their own leadership.

[1] Diplomatic sources indicate that despite Chinese-Afghan relations being still very friendly, Chinese enthusiasm for diplomatic and economic involvement has been cooling down during 2017, for a variety of reason ranging from difficulties over the two signed Chinese projects in Afghanistan (Aynak copper and Sar-i Pul oil) to close Chinese relations with Pakistan, to competition between India/Iran and China/Pakistan over trade routes.

[2] Thomas Ruttig, ‘Still Temporary and Exclusive: A new leadership for Jamiat’, Berlin : AAN, 5 July 2013; Thomas Ruttig, ‘National Coalition vs National Front: Two opposition alliances put Jamiat in a dilemma’, Berlin : AAN, 4 January 2012; Thomas Ruttig, ‘Jamiat after Rabbani: The competition for the top job’, Berlin : AAN, 23 October 2011; ‘Old Guard Hazara Politicos Resist Grassroots Democratization’, US Embassy Kabul cable, 1 December 2008; ‘Hazaras Divided By Karzai, United Front Politics’, US embassy Kabul cable, 16 March 2008; Robert Peszkowski, ‘Reforming Jombesh: An Afghan party on its Winding Road to Internal Democracy’, Berlin : AAN paper, 2012; Niamatullah Ibrahimi and Robert Peszkowski, ‘Reforming Jombesh’, Berlin : AAN, 31 August 2012; Thomas Ruttig , ‘New Trouble in the Jombesh: Dostum reasserts leadership’, Berlin : AAN, 17 February 2013.

[3] ‘Killing You is a Very Easy Thing For Us’, New York : Human Rights Watch, July 28, 2003; ‘Blood-Stained Hands: Past Atrocities in Kabul and Afghanistan’s Legacy of Impunity’, New York : Human Rights Watch, 2005.

[4] Ali Jalali, ‘Forging Afghanistan’s National Unity Government’, Washington: USIP, 2015;

[5] George Packer, ‘Afghanistan’s Theorist-in-Chief’, The New Yorker, July 4, 2016.

[6] See among else Azam Ahmed, ‘Afghan First Vice President, an Ex-Warlord, Fumes on the Sidelines’, The New York Times, March 18, 2015 [].

[7] The accusation surfaced several times in interviews with members of the ethnic minorities.

[8] ‘NUG One Year On: Struggling to Govern’, Foreign Policy, September 29, 2015.

[9] ‘Afghanistan: The Future of the National Unity Government’, Crisis Group Asia Report N°285, 10 April 2017.

[10] Interviews carried out with two of them in June 2016 and August 2017.

[11] The Council was led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (leader of Islamist party Dawat), Omar Daudzai (who served in several ministerial and ambassadorial jobs under Karzai), Ismail Khan (the main powerbroker in Herat province), Yunis Qanuni (one of the leading figures in Jamiat) and Sadiq Mudaber (who also served as minister under Karzai).

[12] Interview with close associate of Sayyaf, Kabul, June 2016.

[13] Interview with close collaborator of Karzai, Kabul, June 2016.

[14] Interviews with mid-ranks and senior members of Jamiat-i Islami during 2017.

[15] Trump appears to have signaled this support to Ghani directly in two telephone calls shortly after his election at the end of 2016, and through diplomatic channels. See

[16] Interviews with senior members of Jamiat, Junbesh, Wahdat and Hizb-i Islami during 2017.

[17] Interviews with senior members of Jamiat and Junbesh during 2017.

[18] Interviews with cadres and senior figures in Hizb-i Islami during 2016 and 2017.

[19] Interviews with cadres and senior figures in Hizb-i Islami during 2017.

[20] Interview with senior Junbesh member, July 2017.

[21] Interviews with senior members of Jamiat, July and August 2017.

[22] Interviews with senior members of Jamiat, July and August 2017.

[23] Ali Yawar Adili, ‘Afghanistan election conundrum (1): political pressure on commissioners puts 2018 vote in doubt’, Berlin : AAN, 18 November 2017.

[24] See footnote 26 below.

[25] Interviews and telephone contacts with senior members of Jamiat, July-November 2017.

[26] Telephone contacts with senior members of Jamiat, November-December 2017; ‘Abdullah says he approved of decision over Noor’, 1TVNews, December 25, 2017. Daud in one interview said that he supported ‘supported’ by Rabbani and had in fact been introduce to Ghani for the job by Rabbani himself (

[27] Telephone contacts with Jamiati and Junbeshi commanders in Faryab, Sar-i Pul, Balkh and Takhar, December 2017.

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