Afghanistan on the Edge? Elections, Elites, and Ethnic Tensions

October 31, 2019

Two days before Afghanistan’s recent troubled presidential election, the country’s president, Ashraf Ghani, sat for an interview. Asked whether he would consider a power-sharing government if voting results were close and contested, as happened in 2014, Ghani replied no unequivocally. His interviewer pressed further: not even if the country was facing civil war? Ghani replied, “the dangers and threats that existed then don’t exist now.”

If that were true, why would the interviewer raise such an intense hypothetical? Why, in the days following the election, did international and Afghan media raise concerns of “a similar impasse” to the one witnessed in 2014, suggesting the possibility of “political chaos,” “turmoil” and even “open conflict?”

Just over a month after their vote on September 28th, Afghans are still waiting to hear the election’s preliminary results. Could the outcome really trigger unrest, violence, or even broader civil conflict?



In 2019, Afghanistan’s political rhetoric has included accusations of abuse of power, betrayal, and threats of violence. Opposition politicians openly defied President Ghani by meeting with members of the Taliban, who called for an interim government to be established. Some of those same opposition figures had points of agreement with the insurgent group; more than one coalition called for Ghani to step aside for an interim government, citing more than one reason. And since the election, rifts within ministries have echoed past political schisms.

But President Ghani was essentially correct: the odds of ethnic tensions boiling over into widespread violence are relatively low — at least for now. The balance of armed strength has shifted away from informal powerbrokers and is more centralized under the Afghan government’s control than at any time since 2001. And for most communities not under Taliban control, the government has become the most prominent avenue of economic development. Yet this centralization has alienated elites and segments of the Afghan public, limiting options and raising frustrations.

Critically, a key enabler of Ghani’s consolidation of state control is the same factor that keeps political factions and ethnic blocs from openly breaking with his government: steady U.S. military support and international financial aid (or the risk of losing it).

Therefore, as the United States begins a gradual process of reviving dialogue with the Taliban, it should consider the social and political fabric of the Afghan political landscape just as carefully as it undertook the past year’s engagement with the insurgent group. The equilibrium that exists between Afghan political, social, and ethnic interests includes the current weight of international support. As the U.S. government deliberates over future troop withdrawals, it needs to ensure its gambit doesn’t tip the scales of civil stability.

Afghan Centralization and its Discontents

What supposedly nonexistent dangers was Ghani referring to in his interview? He was almost certainly alluding to ethnic tensions that have long been latent in Afghan politics — and, more pointedly, to the erosion of elites’ capability to challenge the government’s monopoly on force.

For years now, Ghani and his advisors have prioritized centralizing the functions of government within the presidential palace, or Arg, often at the expense of marginalizing traditional powerbrokers — figures whose reputations were largely established as mujahedin during the Soviet occupation (or the sons of such men), who amassed wealth and power in government posts after the fall of the Taliban, and who are usually regarded as patrons of their own ethnic communities. This centralization, leading to several notable arrests of politically connected militia commanders, has provoked resistance and moments of crisis. Ghani’s supporters say he is fighting corruption; some ascribe more personal motives, while others contentiously suggest ethno-nationalist aims.

This agenda has had dramatic impact on state and informal security forces. Five years ago, the command structure of Afghanistan’s military and police had a distinct demographic bent: many of its leaders (and a plurality of the rank and file) were drawn from the network of Northern Alliance fighters who partnered with the United States in its initial drive to oust the Taliban. For over a decade, these figures not only ran the security apparatus, but also used official status to fund and reinforce their network of informal militias. The political elites of northern Afghanistan feared a perpetual Pashtun-dominated government and actively maintained options for armed conflict even during the fateful election standoff in 2014.

But these reforms, encouraged by the United States and its allies, have steadily professionalized the Afghan security forces. After sweeping forced retirements and a purge of parallel power structures in high-profile security offices, young technocrats and officers from American-trained special operations units have been speedily promoted. Just this past year, 27 out of 34 provincial police chiefs (which after 2001 have become positions of considerable power) have been replaced, almost entirely by special operations veterans. In tandem, Kabul has been dismantling old structures and practices, especially within the police or under the purview of the Ministry of Interior, that many powerbrokers used to prop up their own illegal armed groups.

This is not to say that local militias have been disbanded or no longer exist; on the contrary, informal armed groups remain prolific across the country. But the ability of powerbrokers to marshal these groups effectively has always been an open question — and in any event, appears to be dwindling.

When the new Ghani presidency appointed a political outsider and young technocrat as governor of the nationally vital province of Nangarhar (replacing a traditional powerbroker), one of the most powerful men in the province, Haji Zahir Qadir, was reportedly irked. David Mansfield, scholar of Afghanistan’s drug trade, noted in 2016 that Ghani’s perceived slight served as “further impetus [for Qadir] to bypass government institutions,” which was “exemplified by his establishment of a private militia.” Yet in recent years, Qadir’s ability to wield power has not matched his reputed wealth: his armed group initiated its fight against Islamic State forces with gruesome beheadings that repulsed locals. He wildly overstated his group’s strength, boasting of 9,000 fighters, while seeking support from U.S. special forces who later estimated Qadir’s militia to number around 80 men. And when the Afghan government established its latest iteration of local defense forces, which it placed under the control of the Afghan National Army, it changed the way such forces were vetted and funded to prevent corruption or the enrichment of militias, and Qadir’s group didn’t wind up making the cut.

Like Qadir, even the ousted powerbrokers whose wealth can maintain larger militias are no longer able to summon state resources (airpower, heavy weapons, logistics) that have supported costly defense operations. This often leads these powerbrokers to lose territory to the Taliban, as seen recently in the home provinces of two of Afghanistan’s most powerful northern warlords, former Balkh governor Mohammad Atta Noor and the country’s first vice president, Rashid Dostum. Territorial loss corresponds with a loss of local legitimacy, a factor addressed in greater detail below. In some cases, these losses have spurred mass defections to the “winning side” of the insurgency, or co-optation of militias by the CIA and Afghan intelligence — which do provide cutting edge equipment, funding, or support.

Deep Pockets and People Power

Government offices are not only integral to the security sector. The Afghan government has also become a main source of economic patronage countrywide. And in spite of its struggles and limited reach, the government is responsible for, or affiliated with, nearly all major service provision — including services in Taliban-controlled areas!

Many offices that used to be dispensed to tribal elders, famous former mujahedin, and wealthy elites are now awarded after open, ostensibly merit-based competition — ushering in a wave of young technocrats, even at the highest levels of government. The current governor of Nangarhar was previously affiliated with an international non-governmental organization; the governor of Zabul province was 25 when first appointed. Even the district-level governors of Kandahar province, a place that many residents regard as the real center of power in Afghanistan, are technocrats these days (the latest is a Ghani protégé, parroting his line on key issues). The nature of these high-level appointments has a trickle-down effect on local posts: I have worked on research from remote Daikundi province that indicates greater public satisfaction with service delivery under district-level officials who have been appointed based on open exams.

None of this is to suggest that the Afghan government has firm control over the entire country — nor even areas relatively free of Taliban. And critically, some of Afghanistan’s most valuable resources remain part of the illicit economy: drugs, precious minerals, and timber. And most of the country’s major border customs points remain under the strong influence of traditional stakeholders: Mohammed Atta Noor in the north, Ismail Khan in the west, and the late General Abdul Raziq’s younger brother and successor in the south.

But as already noted, what a warlord’s wealth buys him in Kabul seems to be slowly changing. Over the last two decades, one of the most potent means for an Afghan powerbroker to resist the central government has been the threat of mass protests, especially in the nation’s capital. Yet this is no longer so easily leveraged into favorable results.

Since 2016, the Arg sought to marginalize Vice President (and accused war criminal) Dostum, the preeminent Uzbek figure in Afghanistan. Even when evidence of new crimes surfaced, many believed arresting Dostum was practically impossible. But President Ghani did send the case to court, pressuring Dostum to flee the country. Kabul then worked to incrementally tear down the Uzbek leader’s patronage network: One of his chief allies was arrested in 2018. In response, Dostum encouraged protests across northern Afghanistan, hoping to come home after nearly two years in exile. It was widely understood that if allowed to return home unimpeded, Dostum’s quid pro quo would be to pacify the north.

At the time, the protests and the need to permit Dostum’s return were seen as serious setbacks for the Arg. Yet since then, Dostum has been effectively banned from Kabul, essentially stripped of his office, if not his title, while Kabul siphons off disgruntled former supporters with promises of alternate patronage, especially in Faryab, where Dostum’s ally had previously been so powerful. Meanwhile, his home province is more under siege than ever from insurgency, crippling his local standing. Protests did not re-secure Dostum’s position.

Former Balkh governor and “benevolent strongman” Noor has resisted Kabul’s encroachment on his traditional turf perhaps more forcefully than any other figure: In the last two years he engaged in secretive talks with opposition politicians, refused to vacate the governorship after being formally dismissed, and even rallied armed supporters to block central government appointments. But at each turn, Noor has been parried by the presidential palace: He was prohibited from flying to Kandahar for meetings, eventually maneuvered into stepping down, and watched the government literally sneak into the halls of power against his wishes. The most recent incident resulted in brief clashes between Noor’s partisans and Kabul police in the streets of Mazar-e Sharif — an unprecedented escalation in civil conflict — but the next day, shops were open and life carried on as normal, with Kabul’s new regime in place. Months later, just before the election, close associates of Noor began to side with Ghani’s campaign.

Part of the shift in how protests are politically employed has derived from Kabul’s willingness to respond to stands against the government with force. This has proven true even in the aftermath of shocking violence: In May 2017, after a devastating attack in Kabul, protestors supported by northern politicians were brutally suppressed by police. At a critical moment this spring, the political opposition declared that Ghani’s term in office had legally expired and threatened mass protests unless he stepped down. Yet protests failed to materialize, in part due to immediate preventative measures taken by security forces.

But another key factor is the generational change and societal development that has drawn educated and activist young Afghans away from political factions anchored by former mujahedin, instead focusing on women’s issues, human rights, and sweeping critiques of the political establishment. The most impressive recent protests have coalesced locally and organically around issues of popular concern, such as marches for peace and demands for greater protection of ethnic minorities. Even protests mounted in favor of warlord figures have been rooted in local concerns about security and the central government’s perceived obligation to provide it. In spite of many Afghans’ disappointment and disillusionment in their government, mass protests have evolved beyond serving as leverage for powerbrokers and into an engine for youth and activists to push for better governance.

A Cornered Animal More Likely to Bite?

If traditional powerbrokers are being gradually marginalized from the political center, and others react as Haji Zahir Qadir reportedly has —  by rejecting political participation and instead focusing on accumulation of wealth — doesn’t this suggest a greater risk of civil conflict? Are these warlords more dangerous without options, rather than if they remain accommodated somehow?

International military and financial support are central to this question. Many figures who are powerful enough to raise sizeable militias were members of the Northern Alliance; for some, their working relationships with the U.S. military date back nearly two decades. These powerbrokers clearly understand that direct clashes with the government would imperil any future American or international assistance.

Moreover, it cannot be assumed that the public would rally behind warlords in internecine conflict, even those who serve as patrons of their ethnic communities. Popular Afghan fears do fall along ethnic lines, but such concerns are constantly in flux, and difficult to address with finality: some of the most concerned communities today were perceived as disproportionately holding power a decade ago. Meanwhile, popular critiques across ethnic lines urge greater responsiveness and transparency on the part of Afghan leaders, rather than increased power.

In any event, traditional stakeholders do retain political options — particularly when it comes to spinning the issues of elections and peace. In the event President Ghani is declared the electoral winner — or the second runoff round of voting is delayed until next year — it is likely that powerbrokers in the political opposition will attempt to taint his legitimacy, much the same way they have the past year. Opposition figures called for Ghani to voluntarily reduce his powers during campaign season, then began demanding he step down for a caretaker government, threatening mass protests that never came.

Concurrently, similar calls arose in the context of peace: as Taliban representatives insisted they would call for an entirely new constitution, some Afghan politicians said this meant an interim government would be necessary, and that elections might not be — surprisingly, a position that echoed the Taliban’s. Most dramatically, when presented with the opportunity in February, opposition politicians met Taliban representatives in Moscow, a move the Arg labeled “betrayal.” Did this indicate a newfound enthusiasm for compromise with the Taliban — a position that has historically been anathema to former Northern Alliance powerbrokers?

It is far more likely that these figures sensed political winds shifting. It should come as no surprise that the Moscow meeting coalesced soon after U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted about drawing down troops in Afghanistan. But regardless of U.S. commitments, this pivot also reveals how few options traditional powerbrokers have left to regain lost position and stature.

But what if Chief Executive Abdullah, rather than Ghani, were to win reelection? What lies in store for the political dynamics Ghani’s administration has labored to change? Most of the political opposition’s commitment to pursue peace would very likely vanish. Abdullah’s allies and rivals alike, along with every other powerbroker currently left out in the cold, would scrum for government positions. It is worth recalling how intensely today’s opposition figures recoiled at former President Karzai’s peace efforts, and how suspicious many were of the 2017 reconciliation of long-exiled Pashtun warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. The north’s historical aversion to Pashtun authority and antipathy toward the Taliban would almost certainly be revived.

But if Ghani either wins or a runoff is required, the opposition’s continued interest in peace efforts will be perceived by the palace as an attempt to delegitimize the government’s official position. Almost by default, the opposition’s stance on peace could prompt the Arg to harden its own, as initial opposition forays did in late 2018, when Ghani ushered in a new cabinet of hardline security hands. Unfortunately, domestic political dynamics do not appear well-aligned to incentivize real progress on peace.

Moving Past the Status Quo: Stability, State-Building, and the United States

What can the United States government do to mitigate the disincentives and distrust rife in Afghanistan’s two biggest looming political issues?

The United States has slowly, incrementally restarted the mechanisms of talking with the Taliban; this is a necessary process of restoring buy-in for a political settlement after early September’s boondoggle, just before an agreement was to be signed. The U.S. Special Representative for Afghanistan Reconciliation, Zalmay Khalilzad, carried out whirlwind shuttle diplomacy in the region this week, and at one point the Taliban was set to meet many of the same prominent opposition politicians who traveled to Moscow — this time in China.

To pre-empt political friction on elections as well as peace, the United States could engage in equally quiet arbitration among key political figures — or request that another international body, such as the United Nations, do so in its place. Officials would need to take care so that this engagement would not be seen as making promises or picking sides, especially with regard to the country’s more notorious powerbrokers — those already starkly at odds with the current Afghan government or facing international opprobrium. But U.S. diplomats could use such sessions to temper stakeholders’ expectations for the next five years, while encouraging the country’s next president to prioritize a workable, equitable balance of power.

Such arbitration could come under the pretext of aiding preparation for intra-Afghan dialogue; the government has yet to name an inclusive national negotiating team, something the United States and European governments have repeatedly lobbied for this year. And given that any further meetings between the Taliban and opposition are likely to irk Ghani’s team as much as the last iteration did, the international community could offer carrots and wield sticks with all parties.

Given the resistance President Ghani’s administration has shown to various elements of the peace process, the United States and partners are in need of strong incentives to persuade the Afghan government to buy in to its sequencing (deal with Taliban first, engage in an intra-Afghan dialogue next, then produce a ceasefire that allows talks to continue). A firmly uncooperative government would leave international partner nations no choice but to encourage intra-Afghan dialogue with a more prominent role for traditional stakeholders. But a multilateral mediated dialogue might also be able to bring this parallel track more in line with the government’s preferred efforts, in exchange for some real inclusion on the government’s negotiation team — the best kind of quid pro quo, one that Afghan actors struggled to independently agree on earlier this year.

More broadly, the U.S. government needs to emphasize its steady, continued dedication to economically supporting the Afghan state, even — especially — if troop withdrawals come to pass. Concrete and well-publicized commitments of long-term economic and development aid are a necessary signal that the United States and the international community will stand firm in enduring partnership with Afghanistan and its incoming presidential administration, whenever it assumes office.

Highly visible commitments could help stem the growing tide of mistrust among the Afghan people — many of whom have come to believe that the United States is simply buying itself a “decent interval” before abandoning them. That the stability of the Afghan state and economy relies on international aid and the U.S. troops that keep it anchored is no secret. As talks progressed over the last year between the United States and the Taliban, which were oriented around U.S. troop withdrawal and which were deemed by critics little more than a retreat, concerns spread across Afghan society.

Recent diplomatic gaffes stand in stark contrast to what is needed, today: A high profile announcement that aid and anti-corruption support would be withheld, and the U.S. ambassador to Afghanistan’s chiding of the president, both just days before the election, were beyond tone-deaf. If the U.S. military winds up withdrawing further in the near term, such posturing could prove destabilizing.

The U.S. government has reasons to be frustrated with the Arg: for most of the last year, Khalilzad was open about the desire to secure a peace deal before elections, calling elections “complicating.” And this week, Afghanistan’s controversial national security advisor announced a hardened government stance on peace — a move widely interpreted as stalling, just as Khalilzad has geared back into action.

Yet, rather than attempting to browbeat the Afghan government, the United States should strengthen its sales pitch on peace to the Afghan people. It should substantively address the government’s concerns that peace is being used by other actors to delegitimize its authority, in part by actively refereeing between top political figures with an eye towards peace and election deadlock. The Afghan government has, for better and worse, become the country’s predominant source for services, development, patronage, and outsized expectations. The United States should take great care in any course of action that might marginalize it.

Whatever disapproval the United States may wish to convey, it pales in comparison to the role it is obliged to play: a committed partner and stabilizing force for Afghanistan during a time of intense, multifaceted political transition.



Andrew Watkins is an independent researcher with over four years’ experience in Afghanistan. He deployed there as a member of the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment, later returned as a liaison with local security forces and as a conflict analyst for the humanitarian community, and most recently with the United Nations this year. You can find him on Twitter @and_huh_what.

Image: U.S. Army (Photo by Maj. Thomas Cieslak)

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article stated that the Arg considered it “treason” that opposition politicians met with Taliban representatives in Moscow. This is incorrect. The correct term is “betrayal.”