If the failures of former Afghani President Hamid Karzai, former President Ashraf Ghani, and the international community laid the groundwork for the demise of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, the shortcomings of jihadi elites sealed it. Jihadi elites were ethno-factional leaders who led different groups in the war against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and its client regime (1979-1989) and later against the Taliban (1996-2001). Representing diverse factions, these leaders were closely involved in the civil war of 1992-1996 and were influential players in the politics of the Islamic Republic (2001-2021).
After the collapse of the Taliban in 2001, jihadi leaders and factions had a unique opportunity to remake the political landscape of Afghanistan by negotiating constitutional reform. They had the chance to right past wrongs at three different political junctures: during the drafting of the constitution (2003-2004), during constitutional reform and power-sharing negotiations after the disastrous elections of 2014, and during the renegotiation of a political settlement after an even more chaotic election in 2019.
Jihadi leaders came to the forefront during the drafting and ratification of the constitution of 2004. They held both military power and significant political influence during the process of drafting, reviewing, and ratifying the constitution. This meant they could also wield considerable leverage against President Karzai and his allies, who aimed to establish a presidential system, a strongly centralized state, and a fragmented parliament and party system.
Most jihadi leaders and their factions calculated correctly that a decentralized Afghanistan would be essential to accommodate diverse ethno-regional interests and reduce communal tensions. These leaders included Abdul Rashid Dostum of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Junbish-i-Milli), Latif Pedram of the National Congress Party of Afghanistan (Congra-i-Milli), Mohammad Mohaqiq of the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan (Hezb-e Wahdat Islami), and Ismail Khan and Atta Muhammad Nur of Jamiat-e-Islami, among many others. A coalition of these like-minded leaders and factions could have been sufficient to negotiate some concessions from President Karzai regarding decentralization.
However, commitment was lacking. Atta, who was vying with Dostum and Mohaqiq for control of the Balkh province, pulled his support for decentralization when Karzai promised him governorship of Balkh. Atta made a 180-degree turn and became a staunch proponent of a robustly centralized Afghanistan, parroting President Karzai’s argument that decentralization would lead to so-called "islands of powers" and partition. Mohaqiq and thePeople’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan also backtracked on federalization demands once they were promised seats in the government and Shi‘ite personal status law in the constitution. The demand for decentralization soon faded away as more and more jihadi elites received pledges of patronage from Karzai. Before long, the concept of federalism was increasingly associated, and indeed deliberately conflated, with the civil wars of the past.
The demand for a parliamentary or semi-parliamentary system receded as quickly as the demand for decentralization. Interestingly, a premier system was chosen as the appropriate political system in almost all drafts of the constitution. However, President Karzai was staunchly opposed to any system that would curtail his expansive presidential powers. If Karzai and inner circle were initially alone on this issue, he was able to win over others in a single meeting. He promised to appoint Qasim Fahim of the Jamiat-e-Islami and Karim Khalili of the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan as his vice-presidents in return for their support of the presidential system. The most prominent jihadi elites thus traded long-term constitutional reforms for short-term personal gains. As a result, a strong presidency and centralized system of governance were adopted, both of which turned out to be detrimental to power-sharing and to the Republic.
A second opportunity knocked on the door of these ethno-factional elites after the presidential election of 2014. The ultra-chaotic second-round election that year culminated in Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah both claiming victory and declaring they would each form their own governments. Most jihadi leaders endorsed Abdullah, while a few backed Ghani. Eventually, with the intervention of then-US Secretary of State John Kerry, a national unity government was formed in which the two parties split power relatively evenly. The agreement set forth the commitment of all parties to embark on some constitutional reforms, including decentralization, adding the post of chief executive to serve as head of government, and altering the electoral system. Leaders had yet another opportunity to bring about long-needed constitutional reforms. Yet once again, they sought only to preserve their seats in government at any cost. Constitutional reform remained elusive as these elites made no effort to hold Ghani to the terms of the agreement, while Ghani himself found all possible excuses to avoid following through.
The jihadi elites found themselves with a third opportunity to bring the Republic to safe harbor after the presidential election of 2019. President Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah contended that they each won the election, inaugurated their presidencies, and prepared to form their own governments. Once again, they had to form a national unity government in which Ghani was president and Abdullah became chairman of the High Council for National Reconciliation. Dostum withdrew his opposition to Ghani’s presidency as soon as he was offered the symbolic rank of "marshal." By this time, elites did not have any expectation that President Ghani would follow through with any constitutional reform and, more importantly, gave up their own commitment to pursuing such reforms. Instead, they focused their energy on making sure they were included in any peace deals with the Taliban to ensure they would have a say in any potential political settlement.
Both Dostum and Atta designated their sons as their representatives in the Republic’s delegation to the peace talks. The delegation was fractured by personal and partisan interests in addition to lacking the necessary negotiation skills and peace-building expertise. It also failed to realize that the Taliban simply had no intention of making a peace deal. Some elites naively began to find the Taliban more approachable than Ghani.
Upon realizing that the Taliban were not serious about peace negotiations and that President Ghani had no plans to mobilize a united front against the Taliban, the jihadi elites had a last chance to take up their responsibility and establish a united defensive front. However, Ahmad Massoud’s call for a unified front remained mostly unanswered, as most jihadi leaders did not join his initiative until long after the Taliban seized power in Afghanistan. The anti-Taliban campaigns of Nizamuddin Qaisari in the north and Abdul Ghani Alipoor in Hazarajat, among others, were mostly ostracized by the government and some jihadi elites. By the time they began mobilizing their forces to defend their localities, it was too late. This was true of the resistance forces organized by Ismail Khan in Herat, Batur Dostum in Jowzjan, Ahmad Massoud in Panjshir, and Rashid Dostum, Atta Muhammad, and Mohammad Mohaqiq in Balkh. As one might expect of these fragmented and uncoordinated groups trying to resist the Taliban, they fell one after another like dominos.
Jihadi elites also failed to serve Afghan society and the Islamic Republic due to their patronage-based politics, hindering the potential growth of political parties as disciplined, principled, grassroots political organizations. In post-Taliban Afghanistan (2001-2021), elites were never invested in developing their own political parties, because they saw institutionalization as a threat to their personal influence over the party. In other words, elites prioritized personal interests over their parties’ interests. Because they mostly treated political parties as personal property, these parties had difficulties in transitioning after their leaders passed away. Some parties became hereditary as leaders began involving their family members in politics and promoting their children as their political successors.
Other parties split into more minor factions after the death of their leaders. For example, after the death of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the Jamiat-e-Islami party splintered into smaller groups led by different party cadres. The same had happened to the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan after the death of Abdul Ali Mazari in 1995. Likewise, Sayed Hussain Anwari’s son succeeded him as the leader of the Islamic Movement of Afghanistan after his death in 2016, and Rabbani’s son took over at least part of the Jamiat-e-Islami after his assassination in 2011.
Elites overshadowed their parties during elections, projecting their own personas as the main link between candidates and their constituencies. These figures were increasingly referred to as Tikkadaran-i-Qawmi ("ethnic powerbrokers"), a term which usually referred to those who traded their constituents’ support for personal gain. They did not shy away from betraying or fracturing their own parties if they felt it was necessary. The fragmentation of Jamiat-e-Islami in all four presidential elections illustrates this well. In 2004, the party had two presidential candidates: Yunus Qanuni and Abdul Hafiz Mansoor. Hafiz Mansoor ran as an independent candidate, while Yunus Qanuni attempted to form his own party. Ahmad Zia Massoud, another member of the Jamiat-e-Islami, joined Karzai’s ticket as his first vice president. The fragmentation of the party continued in the presidential election of 2009, 2014, and 2019.
It is worth mentioning, however, that this was not the only party experiencing such splintering in the presidential elections. Other political parties and coalitions such as the People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan, Islamic Party, National Congress Party of Afghanistan, National Coalition of Afghanistan, United National Front of Afghanistan, and National Movement of Afghanistan have also split up temporarily or permanently.
Additionally, due to the concentration of power and resources, most elites shifted their focus and political investment to the capital, leaving their localities politically unattended. Although there had been hundreds of parties over the twenty years of the Islamic Republic, there was only one registered as the local party in Herat: Hezbollah Afghanistan. The elites even moved their party bases to the capital because that was where all decisions were made, even those involving peripheral areas. With all political activities and parties concentrated in the center, the peripheries were left entirely open to the extremists to operate and expand.
Unlike patronage-seeking political factions which were concentrated in the capital and mostly run by individual leaders, extremists were committed to societal infiltration and structural change. They sought to radicalize and mobilize the masses and overthrow the republic. This strategy was particularly apparent among Tajik and Uzbek communities whose traditional political leaders were busy seeking power in the capital while their constituencies were left exposed to extremist groups such as Hizb ut-Tahrir, Jamiat Eslah, and factions sympathetic to the Taliban. Communities in the peripheries felt betrayed or victimized, and some joined the Taliban. Once an unwavering stronghold of resistance, northern Afghanistan was the first to fall to the Taliban.
Much to the embarrassment of the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan (Junbish-i-Milli)and the Jamiat-e-Islami parties, the traditional rivals of the Taliban, it was mostly their co-ethnics who ousted them from their traditional strongholds. Extremists had the opportunity to expand and recruit for twenty years under the Republic with almost no competition. They began infiltrating madrasas, mosques, schools, and universities, eventually recruiting enough soldiers to overthrow the major centers of power in these regions.
Perhaps, the term "warlords" suits the jihadi elites, who sometimes succeeded on the battlefield but failed miserably in their civil and political roles despite opportunities in key moments of Afghan history. Eventually, in 2021, they lost on the battlefield as well. Their actions and inactions contributed significantly to the demise of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. This article has presented an analysis of at least three points on which the warlords mishandled constitutional matters at key political junctures. These unforgivable mistakes set Afghanistan on a different trajectory than it might otherwise have taken. The three shortcomings of these elites were (a) a lack of commitment to critical reforms, including decentralization and electoral reform at various junctures in constitution-building, (b) short-sighted and self-promoting ethnic politics that fragmented the party system and failed to develop grassroots appeal to consolidate democratic norms and institutions, and (c) unwillingness and inability to form a united defensive front despite the advances of the Taliban across Afghanistan, including within these elites’ own traditional strongholds.