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The United National Front in Afghan Politics: An Explorative Study

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  • September 19, 2008
    Fellows' Seminar
    Only by Invitation
    1030 to 1300 hrs

    Chair: P Stobdan
    Discussant: Kalim Bahadur

    There remains an element of ambiguity as to when the United National Front formally came into being. It is generally believed to have been formed either in March or early April (April 3?) 2007. According to Pajhwok Afghan News, the UNF was formed in Kabul on March 12, 2007. Interestingly, according to the Strategic Forecasting Inc., better known as Stratfor, a well-known Texas-based private intelligence agency, it was founded a year earlier on April 3, 2006. Whatever might have been the exact date of its formation, the conditions that led to its creation continues to haunt the Afghan polity.

    The roots of the pronounced tribal-ethnic character of the present Afghan politics can be traced back to the formation of the modern Afghan state during 18th and 19th centuries. It is important to bear in mind the way ethnic and tribal dynamics played out in the face of externalization of the Afghan civil war through the 1980s and 1990s. Until the overthrow of the monarchy in 1973 and the 1978 coup by the Afghan communists, the modern Afghan state was strongly dominated by the Pashtuns belonging to a certain tribe/clan considered as one of royal origin or high in the Pashtun social hierarchy. The minority ethnic groups from the north and parts of western and central Afghanistan – especially Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks and Turkmen – had very limited participation in the Afghan national/state politics which remained a Pashtun bastion. Historically, the ruling elites of the minority ethnic groups were allowed to retain their autonomous or semi-independent status provided they accepted the suzerainty, often nominal, of the Pashtun dynasties ruling from Kabul and agreed to pay revenue to the state treasury or provide with men and resources in times of war. The above political understanding not only defined/institutionalised the relationship between the power structure in Kabul and the ruling elites in the far-flung provinces, but also between Pashtuns and the non-Pashtuns. Such traditional mechanisms of power-distribution and resource-sharing, however asymmetric, ensured peace and stability in the country for decades until the beginning of the civil war in the late 1970s. The traditional balance of power in the Afghan politics finally withered away as the ideologically adversarial proxy politics of the Cold War era militarized and internationalized the Afghan civil war. Soviet Union’s armed intervention in Afghanistan beginning December 1979 in support of the communist government in Kabul, led to a further polarization between the state and the people. As part of its strategy to counter the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, the United States (US) along with China, Pakistan, Iran and a host of West Asian and West European countries began sponsoring and arming the fragmented but popular anti-Soviet resistance building up in the Afghan countryside. This led to intense weaponisation and subsequent jihadisation of the civil war. Interestingly, it also led to the empowerment of the hitherto marginalised Tajik, Uzbek and Hazara anti-Soviet resistance groups who later came to have stakes in the national politics of Afghanistan. After the Soviet withdrawal by early 1989, they were among the key players in the struggle for control over Kabul.

    End of Taliban Interregnum

    The emergence of a Taliban movement with full backing from the Pakistan state in mid-1990s had a strong Pashtun dimension to it. The minority ethnic factions responded to the rapidly expanding Pashtun Taliban by forming a loose anti-Taliban alliance called the United Front (better known as the Northern Alliance, NA) in late 1990s which in turn was backed by Russia, Central Asian republics, Iran and India. Being new and relatively well-organised, the Taliban movement was often viewed by the Pashtuns as the return of Pashtun rule over Kabul; and an effective counter force to the Tajik militia.

    However, the events of 9-11 and the subsequent US invasion of Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 proved to be a yet another turning point in the Afghan civil war. It led to the ouster of a Pashtun force from power, re-establishment of Tajik dominance in Kabul, re-emergence of factional politics, and West’s return to Afghanistan. Interestingly, it had also led to the US re-engagement with the former anti-Soviet mujahideen factions, especially with the NA.

    Return of Factional Politics

    Soon confronted with the huge challenge of raising a non-Taliban multi-ethnic Afghan leadership, a conference involving diverse Afghan factions (minus Taliban and Hezb-e Islami) was held at Bonn, Germany. The dramatic Bonn Conference (November 27-December 5, 2001) was a prelude to a new round of factional politics. The nine-day long gruelling negotiations had all the trappings of the factional politics of the early 1990s. It can be best summed up in the words of former US Secretary of State Colin Powell who while reacting to the possible collapse of the Bonn Conference had stated, “Do not let them break up. Keep them there. Lock them up if you have to. We do not want this to go anywhere else. We’re almost there, and this is the time to grind it out on this line. If they go off, I don’t know when I’ll get them all back together.” The signing of the Bonn Agreement (December 5, 2001) which laid out a road map for stabilizing and rebuilding Afghanistan thus facilitated and legitimized the role of mujahideen factions in the new political process.

    Hardening of Pashtun-NA Divide

    The hardening ethno-political divides and competing agendas of the diverse constituents of the Karzai-led provisional governments was best reflected during the proceedings of the Constitutional Loya Jirga (December 14, 2003 - January 4, 2004) and the presidential election (October 9, 2004). The 502-member Jirga, which was called for the approval of the new draft constitution, was marred by severe differences among delegates from diverse factions on issues concerning nature of the Afghan state, the form of government, status and role of Islam, centre-province relations, double citizenship, status of minorities, human rights and the linguistic rights. The idea of a highly centralised presidential form of government with overriding powers over the bicameral legislature came to be strongly contested by the non-Pashtun delegates.

    Marginalising NA

    It is noteworthy that since the Emergency Loya Jirga in June 2002 and the subsequent formation of the Afghan transitional administration, Karzai had been trying to deal with the strong influence of the NA leaders and commanders in his government. Karzai’s assertive tone against the NA reached a new pitch in July 2004 when he declared that the private militia of the warlords constituted a bigger threat to Afghanistan than the Taliban insurgency. Karzai’s frustration over lack of direct control in areas outside Kabul has since been a constant feature. Despite all rhetoric and attempts to marginalise NA, Karzai at the same time kept the option of dealing with them open. It is noteworthy that prior to the presidential election, at a time when Karzai was easing out powerful Tajik ministers from his transitional government, he was also trying to woo the Taliban and the Hezb-e Islami cadres to join the electoral process.

    The National Understanding Front

    Though much of the NA leadership was out or on the margins of the governing structure in Kabul by end of 2005, it failed to augment the position of Karzai in the Afghan politics in any substantive manner. With their presence in the government diminished, Tajik leader Yunus Qanuni on March 31, 2005 announced the formation of National Understanding Front or Jabha-ye Tafahom-e Melli (JTM) as the main opposition group to the central government, which was welcomed by President Hamid Karzai. The Front, comprising about 12-14 political parties, was also formed in view of the September 2005 parliamentary elections.

    The UNF: Composition and Agenda

    The UNF is said to be an agglomeration of about 15-18 political parties. Though there is not much information available on its exact size in terms of membership, the Front claims to have the backing of 40 per cent of Afghanistan’s Parliament. It reportedly has two governing councils with Mohammad Naim Farahi, a parliamentarian from Farah, currently leading the executive council. Many of the members of the UNF are either parliamentarians or former ministers from the Karzai-led interim and transitional governments. Few of them are still occupying senior positions in the central government which lends certain legitimacy to their “government-cum- opposition” status. Interestingly, the UNF argues against being an opposition coalition or bloc though its members constantly refer to the weaknesses in Karzai’s leadership. In view of the strong presence of the former NA members, the Pashtuns are by and large suspicious of the political agenda of the UNF, especially over the idea of strengthening the powers of the provincial governors.

    Reactions to the Emergence of ‘Rainbow Alliance’

    The emergence of the UNF had elicited reactions from the entire political spectrum of Afghanistan. Most of the Afghan political observers and analysts believe that the UNF would not survive long due to the extreme diversity of its constituents (jihadis, ex-khalqis, ex-parchamites, royalists, Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, shias and sunnis) and the ideological contradictions flowing from it. The Front is said to lack in common ideology and that its members have conflicting interests. The UNF is often believed to have been formed by former NA along with some ex-communists to legitimize their political existence in view of alleged war crimes and gross human rights violations committed by them in the past. Though they are covered under general amnesty made from time to time, nevertheless, the fear of Kabul coming under international pressure to conduct war trials in future remains. Otherwise, the only factor which is said to unite such diverse constituents of the Front is their shared opposition to Karzai’s leadership.

    UNF Woos the Taliban

    In March 2008, the UNF announced that it had been secretly talking to the Taliban at least since last five months as part of its efforts for national reconciliation. UNF spokesperson had revealed to the Associated Press that Chairman Burhanuddin Rabbani and Mohammad Qasim Fahim had been meeting “important people” from Taliban and other anti-government groups to seek reconciliation. It is interesting to note here that within days of the launching of UNF, Karzai for the first time admitted on April 6, 2007 (according to some sources April 7) that he had been talking to the Taliban. With UNF trying to woo the Taliban, a new dimension has been added to the ongoing politics of national reconciliation in Afghanistan. Taliban are more likely to use divisions between Karzai and UNF to their advantage. It would strengthen their bargaining capacity in case of any serious negotiations with Kabul or the UNF. It is also indicative of the growing fragmentation of reconciliation process in the country. Interestingly, purported Taliban spokespersons have constantly denied talking to either the Afghan government or the UNF.


    The UNF is a typical Afghan political experiment. It has all the trappings of Afghanistan’s ethno-regional dynamics and factional power politics, obviously interspersed with the interests of external powers. The UNF may be a recent entity, but it is also a manifestation of tendencies with a long and a varied past to it. Like any other grouping it draws its characteristics from both historical and prevailing socio-political tendencies in the space in which it originated and is fighting for survival. At a more nuanced level, it may be said that the UNF is struggling to legitimize and mainstream itself in the Afghan politics. It is striving to raise its profile both at the regional and international level by being an effective and a relevant force in the domestic politics. The key objective seems to be to evolve as a viable alternative to the faltering political structure in Kabul. The outcome of the 2009 elections, provided it is held, would be a major challenge to its growth and survival. As regards its alleged foreign backers, they would be far more interested in its peace initiatives for national reconciliation. Since the limitations of the military option against the Taliban have come to be realized, some of the neighbouring or even Western countries might be backing UNF’s efforts to engage the Taliban. The UNF may have also been formed in response to growing Taliban challenge. The impetus might have come from the weak position of Kabul and the growing divide in the trans-Atlantic coalition. As political discontentment and insecurity grows, the UNF is likely to gain ground despite its limitations and contradictions. It is also likely to be challenged by other mini-fronts that might be sponsored by groups inimical to its existence. As for its future prospects, the UNF is not meant to be a long-term venture.


    The seminar was chaired by Dr. Arvind Gupta, Lal Bahadur Shastri Chair, IDSA. Amb. Ugendra Kumar, Joint Secretary, and currently with NDC, and Professor Kalim Bahadur were the two external discussants. Comments on the paper were also provided by the two internal discussants - Dr. Ashok Behuria, Research Fellow IDSA and Dr. Shanthie Mariet D’Souza, Associate Fellow IDSA.

    Major points that were highlighted in the discussion were:

    • The UNF is limited to ethnic politics and did not put forward economic and social policy.
    • Like elsewhere, as in Iraq for example, it is the minority community that rules over the larger society.
    • Pashtuns have been dominant only for a short time in Afghan politics.
    • Two contrasting views were expressed about the UNF. One view was that the UNF has no social power and mandate and therefore the possibility of its coming into power is less. The other view was that the UNF has a multi-ethnic forum which may enable it to gain power and provide stability.
    • The future political structure in Afghanistan will essentially depend on the America-Taliban-Pakistan triangle.
    • UNF has not taken political shape.
    • Pakistan is now alienated in the process and India’s future role is far too delicate.
    • It was suggested that the paper should include a debate on the movement from Presidential to Parliamentary type of government in Afghan politics.

    Prepared by Gunjan Singh, Research Assistant at IDSA.