The National Unity Government Agreement (NUGA) between Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, which ended the political stalemate over the results of the contested 2014 presidential elections, provided that Afghanistan amend its Constitution within two years to create a post for a constitutional prime minister, thereby altering the current presidential system of the government. However, the National Unity Government (NUG) has struggled to take the required steps to amend the Constitution. The NUG has thus far failed to hold parliamentary and district council elections, and as long as these elections are not held, a Loya Jirga – Afghanistan’s constitutional amendment convention – cannot be assembled to approve amendments to the Constitution because the parliament, provincial, and district councils make up the constitutional Loya Jirga.
In addition, power struggles and distrust between the leaders of the NUG have further complicated the process. As International Crisis Group notes, both President Ghani and Chief Executive Officer Abdullah are apparently “stacking the government and security agencies” with strongmen allies, “mainly on ethnic grounds, with Ghani [favoring] fellow Pashtuns and Abdullah fellow Tajiks.” As differences mount between the leaders of the NUG, initiating and negotiating the intended constitutional reform looks considerably problematic.
To the already fragmented and fragile strongmen politics in Afghanistan arrives yet another controversial figure, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. His arrival on the Afghan political scene is part of the peace agreement that the Afghan government signed with his party, Hezb-i-Islami, in 2016. Hezb-i-Islami has returned with a revised constitutional vision and its arrival on the Afghan political scene might arguably make it even more difficult to alter the current presidential system by creating a constitutional prime minister. In this short piece, I explore Hezb-i-Islami’s possible constitutional vision for the Afghan state and the potential role that it might play in the proposed set of constitutional reforms under the NUG.
Background: Hezb-i-Islamic and Its Constitutional Vision, 1990–1996
Like the Jamiat-i-Islami mujahideen party, Hezb-i-Islami is an offspring of the Afghan Islamist movement that emerged during the 1970s. After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979, Hezb-i-Islami developed as one of the most powerful and notable resistance groups, fighting the Soviets and their installed regime in Kabul as mujahideen (holy warriors). In 1989, the Soviet Union withdrew from Afghanistan, and its installed regime in Kabul fell in 1992. Afterwards, the mujahideen parties, including Hezb-i-Islami, entered Kabul and announced the formation of an interim government.
Under an arrangement to provide for the rotation of the presidency between different mujahideen factions, Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, leader of the Jabha-ye Nejat-i Milli-ye Islami, became president. After Mojaddidi, Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Jamiat-i-Islami, became president and was expected to rule until October 1992. After the expiration of his term, however, Rabbani refused to surrender power to his successor. His chief rival, Hekmatyar, leader of Hezb-i-Islami, rejected Rabbani’s government. In March 1993, eight major mujahideen parties reached another agreement in Peshawar, Pakistan, to allow Rabbani to complete an 18-month term, but, this time, with Hekmatyar as prime minister.
Rabbani, however, began to entrench his power. He called a Shura-ye Ahl-i Hal-u-Aqd (Council of Resolution and Settlement) and convened a large assembly. Some 1,400 pro-Rabbani representatives came to Kabul and elected Rabbani to a two-year term. Rabbani’s decision to extend his term opened a new chapter of civil war in the country as most mujahideen parties opposed his election. Thereafter, the rival mujahideen groups and militias could never settle on an acceptable power-sharing arrangement, and fighting flared repeatedly between the various factions.
In an effort to establish a legitimate government, the various mujahideen parties came together to draft a constitution in February 1993. However, differences of opinions on the structure of the mujahideen-led Afghan state between two most powerful mujahideen groups, Hezb-i-Islami and Jamiat-i-Islami, caused the collapse of the constitutional negotiations. The disagreement between Hezb-i-Islami and Jamiat-i-Islami chiefly concerned the structure of the executive. Jamiat-i-Islami, which had occupied the presidency, favored a presidential system of government with a powerful president at its head. By contrast, Hezb-i-Islami, which controlled the office of the prime minister, rejected a presidential system and favored a system with a prime minister who would be equal and not subordinate to the president. As the two parties failed to reach agreement on the design of the executive branch, the constitution-making process collapsed and fighting broke out once again between the various groups.
Hezb-i-Islami’s New Constitutional Vision
In his first speech after returning to Kabul in front of Ghani and many notable powerbrokers, including influential members of Jamiat-i-Islami, Hekmatyar apparently highlighted Hezb-i-Islami’s new constitutional vision – a vision that remarkably differs from its position in the 1990s. While Hekmatyar strongly supported a prime ministerial system in the 1990s, today he supports a powerful centralized presidential system of government. He apparently does not see a prime ministerial system a good fit for today’s Afghanistan. He believes that only a centralized presidential system can cure Afghanistan’s current pathologies. Hekmatyar also commented that Hezb-i-Islami does not “trust a parliamentary system and that such a system is not appropriate for the current situations of Afghanistan.”
In his bid to maintain the current presidential system, Hekmatyar argued that only a presidential system can stabilize Afghanistan and promote national unity. However, it seems that ethno-political interests are the main force behind Hezb-i-Islami’s shift of constitutional vision. In the 1990s, Hekmatyar wanted a powerful prime minister alongside a president because he expected to be the future prime minister and that secured his political interests. Similarly, today Hekmatyar favors a presidential system without a prime minister because he arguably sees his interests best protected in a centralized presidential system. As a dominant Pashtun figure, Hekmatyar apparently sees a significant role for himself in the 2019 presidential elections. His speeches since his return indicate that he might be a future presidential candidate or may support a Pashtun candidate for the presidency in the next presidential elections.
Furthermore, Hekmatyar’s return happens at a time of deep political division and ethnic imbalance in the country’s political set-up. As calls for the proposed constitutional reform under the NUGA intensify, ethno-political interests continue to divide Afghan elites and society alike on whether to move to a semi-presidential system. Pashtun elites, including Ghani, apparently wish to retain the current presidential system. Non-Pashtun strongmen, including Abdullah and powerful members of Hezb-i-Islami, demand the creation of a post for a constitutional prime minister. Pashtun elites believe that dividing executive power with a prime minister will weaken the president, who is likely to be from the Pashtun ethnic group. The majority of the non-Pashtun elites, by contrast, wish to divide executive power between a president and a prime minister, believing that one of their own will be prime minister.
Under the current constitutional disagreement, Hekmatyar’s return favors the centralists and the presidentialists. His support for a strong central presidential government fits with Ghani’s vision and the majority of Pashtun elites’. Enjoying considerable support among non-Pashtuns as well, Hekmatyar might throw his support behind a presidential system and arguably turn into the tie breaker if the constitutional Loya Jirga is convened to debate amendments to the 2004 Constitution.
The signing of the NUGA presented Afghanistan with a real opportunity to engage in serious efforts to reform its constitutional system and to think about how best to do that — not to improve the short-term political interests of its most powerful figures, but to bolster the perceived legitimacy of its political institutions. However, short-term political interests have dominated the Afghan political set-up since the creation of the NUG, making it extremely difficult to initiate the constitutional reform process. Additionally, the leaders of the NUG still remain divided over whether to restructure the executive branch. Specifically, political realities thus far suggest that Abdullah and his supporters might want to push for a constitutional amendment that creates a parliamentary form of government or a semi-presidential system with a strong prime minister. By contrast, Ghani and his supporters might favor maintaining the current presidential system or creating a semi-presidential system with a very weak prime minister. Hekmatyar’s return under such circumstances may be quite consequential. Hekmatyar and his allies might arguably strengthen the position of those who want to maintain the current presidential system.
In short, Afghanistan will definitely face serious challenges in reforming its constitutional institutions under the NUGA. In fact, the intended constitutional amendment process has the potential to drive Afghanistan toward uncharted and dangerous directions if the interests of one side of the debate are imposed on the other. Hekmatyar’s arrival on the political scene can only make the process much more complicated. Therefore, it is important that the constitutional amendment process engages most, if not all, key strongmen like Hekmatyar, who have the ability to threaten the constitutional order. Otherwise, it is likely that the process might collapse and threaten to push Afghanistan toward ethnic fragmentation.
Shamshad Pasarlay received his PhD from the University of Washington School of Law in 2016. I am currently working as a legal advisor for the Legal Education Support Program-Afghanistan.