Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Armed Group Turns to Politics
Supporters of one of Afghanistan’s most powerful armed factions gathered in a hotel in Mazar-e-Sharif in late March to discuss transforming itself from a military to a political party ahead of the September elections.
As many as 2,000 people attended the first youth congress of Junbesh-e-Milli-i- Islami-i-Afghanistan, one of the two main armed factions in the north. In a statement read out by his spokesman, Junbesh leader General Abdul Rashid Dostum encouraged supporters to start a new political campaign, and urged them to register to vote.
Dostum’s spokesman, Faizullah Zaki, told IWPR that more than 800 youth representatives, including many women, travelled from around the country to attend the congress. It was followed by a concert featuring three of Afghanistan’s most famous émigré singers that drew crowds of Junbesh supporters.
"This gathering will have a very important impact on the upcoming elections,” Zaki said, adding that the faction will hold further meetings to its transition from military group to political organisation.
Junbesh’s attempts to redefine itself – as well as its decision to woo young, undecided voters and women – is perhaps the clearest example yet of the way Afghanistan’s former fighters are seeking to make a place for themselves in the current political scene.
Dostum, an ethnic Uzbek who was a key ally of the United States in the fight against the Taleban, is one of Afghanistan’s most prominent warlords. But the new constitution prohibits candidates representing armed parties from running in the upcoming election.
For the moment, Junbesh loyalists say they are throwing their support behind Karzai and concentrating on voter registration. But it seems likely that the faction, which controls the Eighth Military Corps in Mazar and retains thousands of soldiers and weapons, is remaking itself with an eye to fielding candidates in the future.
In the meantime, its leaders are practicing the fine art of political spin.
A recent issue of the Junbesh party newspaper carried an article by a top party official entitled “Junbesh-e-Milli-Islami-Afghanistan is not a military faction anymore; it is a political faction”.
At the youth congress, attended mainly by 18 to 30 year olds, officials focused on the collapse of the Taleban, the recently approved constitution and the upcoming elections, while avoiding any mention of clashes between Junbesh and its main rival, Jamiat-e-Islami that claimed lives as recently as last autumn.
In his statement, Dostum praised young people for aiding Junbesh in its fight against the Taleban, saying the fundamentalist regime would not have been defeated without their help. Najibullah Salimi, who was elected leader of the Junbesh Youth Association during the congress, agreed, saying, “We have the right to take part in the presidential elections and select our president, because our youth people fought the enemies, and it is our privilege to take part.”
Salimi said the youth association is fully supportive of Karzai and the US-led Coalition forces in Afghanistan, but added, “We support General Dostum because he is our national leader and he has been powerful in the fighting.”
Zaki praised the recently approved Afghan constitution, calling it an important pillar of the government.
"Our representatives did their utmost in the constitution to make the government recognise the minority languages,” Zaki said. “This shows democracy.”
He underlined the importance of Afghanistan’s upcoming elections, saying that young Afghans have “a very difficult responsibility”.
“Junbesh asks young people to take part fairly in the elections,” Zaki said. “Junbesh urges young people to vote for honest, suitable people.”
As party leaders spoke, members of the youth association cheered and chanted “Long live national unity in Afghanistan!” and “Long live Junbesh!”
The youth association was founded a decade ago, a year after the party itself was formed. Officials said it has about 52,000 members and offices across Afghanistan. In an attempt to win popular support, Junbesh subsidises computer, art, science and language courses for young people in the provinces, party officials said.
Zaki highlighted women's rights, saying the faction has established courses for women in carpet-weaving and computers. Hundreds of women attended the congress, and several filmed the event with video cameras.
“Women have a very essential impact on society. Our main target is to improve women,” said Zaki. “Junbesh is paying more attention to women than other factions do. We do this because women make up 50 per cent of our society.”
Nahim Qadery is an independent journalist with IWPR in Mazar-e-Sharif
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