Afghanistan: In search of peace

Sultan Ali Keshtmand, former Prime Minister of Afghanistan, contemplates the road ahead…

The author of this article, Sultan Ali Keshtmand, is a veteran statesman and former Prime Minister of Afghanistan who served in this position for most of the 1980s, during the era of the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) government.  Having resided with his family in Britain since the eventual fall of the PDPA government in 1992, he has written on the history and economy of Afghanistan as well as his memoirs which have been published in Dari Farsi (Persian) in three volumes.  He is a long-time advocate for the country’s Hazara people and other ethnic groups that comprise Afghan society, and a noted proponent of decentralised authority and an equitable federal model of government.  His insight is therefore invaluable at this current critical juncture for Afghanistan, with the fate of the country hanging in the balance after over forty years of bloodshed – and with US and NATO forces slated to withdraw by September 2021, almost twenty years after they began their occupation, having failed to achieve their stated objectives or leave a peaceful and stable country behind in their wake.

S.A. Keshtmand was born in 1935 to a humble agrarian family of Hazara ethnicity on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan.  Having studied economics at Kabul University, where his lifelong involvement with the political struggle began, he worked for the country’s Ministry of Mines and Industries.  In January 1965, he took part in the Founding Congress of the PDPA and was elected as one of the seven original members of its Central Committee.  By 1967, the PDPA split into two main factions; Parcham (Banner) and Khalq (Masses).  Keshtmand became a leading member of the former.  Following the Saur (April) Revolution in 1978, he was appointed Minister of Planning.  However, under the autocratic and vicious Khalq-led regime which presided at that time, a violent purge of the Parcham faction soon took place and he was imprisoned and severely tortured.  Originally sentenced to death, later commuted to a twenty-year prison term, he was released in December 1979 following the ousting of the regime by Parcham supporters and the intervention of the Soviet Union.  From January 1980 until June 1981, he served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Planning.  Despite ongoing serious health problems owing to the treatment he endured in prison, Keshtmand went on to become Prime Minister – the first person hailing from a poor background, and the Hazara community, to do so in the history of Afghanistan.  This first term, during which he gained admiration for his careful stewardship of the war-ravaged economy, came to an end in May 1988.  Just nine months later, he was reappointed as Prime Minister for a second term, coinciding with the withdrawal of the last of the Soviet armed forces from the country in February 1989.  In mid-1990, the country’s parliament elected Keshtmand as First Vice President with responsibility for the economy and social affairs.  He served in office until April 1991.  The PDPA government fell the following spring.  In 1992, he was very fortunate to survive an attempt by terrorists to assassinate him.  However, the injuries he suffered in the attack were to take a further toll on his health and he underwent several major surgeries in Kabul, Moscow, and London.  He and his family live in Britain, where they have resided since 1992.

Sultan Ali Keshtmand, Former Prime Minister of Afghanistan


Firstly, I would like to make clear that this article is addressed to the people of Afghanistan through those political, social, and cultural organisations that are for democracy and social justice.  I also talk to the popular, democratic, civil and media institutions, as well as the freedom-seeking and progressive organisations that truly defend the fundamental interests of the poor and suppressed people of Afghanistan.  My call is to those organisations and foundations that strive for the defence of human rights and the rights of women, children, and young people – and especially for the rights of the disabled and incapacitated, and the survivors and families of war victims, all of whom are integral to the fabric of the war-torn country of Afghanistan.  It is especially important that all working and well-informed strata, cultural and artistic institutions; trade unions; peasant and craftsmen unions; the institutions of artisans, local merchants, and petty financiers and investors, that are interested in investing and ready to work in the country, come together and all participate actively and positively in political debate on the issues of peace and war in the country and the political system to be adopted.

My goal in this article is to offer moral and ethical guidance to the people of Afghanistan, for whatever its worth, though I do not believe, nor have I ever, in imposing my views upon others.  This article is a synopsis of one of my broader passages.  However, its thrust could be informative, as it is compatible and congruent to the current circumstances in and relating to Afghanistan.

Summits for peace talks and deliberations on the future political system:

As everyone is well-aware, these days, the news on peace talks regarding Afghanistan abounds and is a constant feature of the editorial of many a media outlet and news network.  On 18 March 2021, a meeting was held in Moscow by the troika – Russia, the United States, and China – and Pakistan, along with delegations from Afghanistan, including the Taleban.  Likewise, the “Heart of Asia Summit” was held on 29-30 March 2021 in Tajikistan.  The next meeting is due to commence in Istanbul, Turkey, later this year.  It is being referred to as the “Second Bonn Conference” by some observers.  This time, the United Nations will co-chair the “conference”, thereby lending its name and credibility to the event.  Whatever the outcome, various thoughts and opinions will be expressed on the issue.  Moreover, many assumptions and speculations are already underway.  In this meeting, numerous agendas, plans, and programs may be presented and discussed by different groups.  If the meeting is anything like the Bonn Conference, then there is little cause for optimism of its success in the long run.  Likewise, this time around, the credibility of the United Nations will also be at stake.  [It should be noted that] the original Bonn Conference was held in the absence of the Afghan people, without the participation of representatives of all major [Afghan groups and organisations], without representatives of the grassroots population, without representatives of truly progressive and justice-seeking forces, and without any plan or scheme to institutionalise and maintain peace in the country [following the ousting of the Taleban from Kabul].

Perspective on the decision-making process:

In the Istanbul conference or at any other meeting to deliberate upon the destiny and fate of the Afghan people, state sovereignty, and the achievement of peace, it is my view that participation should comprise of representatives reflecting all sections of the population, including both men and women.  Alternatively, at the very least, their basic ideas, suggestions, and demands could be collected, evaluated, and reflected clearly and openly at such gatherings.  These ideas, suggestions, and demands of the people can only be articulated through the existence of democratic and popular institutions and organisations, along with the comprehensive and active participation of special representatives of the country’s ethnic groups, especially the four major ones: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks-Turkmens.  They should participate in equal numbers, according to the universally accepted standards used in many countries with a multi-national population.  There needs to be participation by representatives of popular movements, insurgent and self-defence groups who are directly involved in the crisis; as well as the participation of delegates with the full authority of their respective factions as parties to the crises of “war and peace” in Afghanistan.

With such a large and inclusive range either physically in attendance – or at least with a clear reflection of ideas, suggestions, and demands of representatives of different ethnicities and factions, political and social figures, representatives of institutions and non-governmental organisations – a “consensus” can be drawn from such talks.  In addition, a credible document will be made available to be presented in ensuing peace negotiations.

The people of Afghanistan should decide; a durable peace can be achieved by going to the polls!

Prior to taking any decision on the adoption of the future political system of the country, we must defer to the people – whose voices can be directly expressed through their vote in a nationwide “referendum”.  It is no longer possible or desirable to be content with the old ways and institutions whose participants are not all elected by direct popular vote. It would not be difficult to set up such a referendum in the present-day digital age given the astonishing technical advances that have been made.  In several countries, e.g. Switzerland, important national issues are referred every year to popular vote via referendums.  Additionally, the world has made tremendous progress by using the results of sampling methods, statistical surveys, charts, and verifications, and through the sharing of operational and working experiences between affiliate organisations.  In Afghanistan, it would also be feasible to apply such technologies and methods.  It might be counterclaimed that owing to where we are, going to the polls and the like would be impractical and unrealistic in the current context of Afghanistan.  Nevertheless, I believe it is possible today or tomorrow in the current era of great technological and computer advancements and with the cooperation of the international community, like the United Nations and others, but only if such cooperation is extended genuinely.

Requirements for sustaining and protecting peace:

At the Istanbul Summit or thereafter, if Afghanistan’s future political system is restricted to the framework of “Republic” or “Emirate” – like at the Bonn conference – then the prospects for a lasting peace in the country would be bleak.  My viewpoint is that federalism is an important option for a political system centred on democracy and social justice.  It could also pave the ground for achieving and safeguarding a lasting peace.  From my perspective, the political system that can provide the proper foundation for the convergence, solidarity, and unity of all peoples, amidst the range of different ethnic groups in Afghanistan, within a single and united country and to establish a lasting peace and justice, is a federal system.  This could be established through a system of bona fide and elected representatives of the people from the villages to the cities.  Obviously, this is not the first time that such an idea has been expressed.  There have been a lot of writings, arguments, and debate on this matter.  However, the option of federalism has many proponents and opponents.

A glance to the past in relation to federalism in Afghanistan:

The history of the political and social struggle for federalism in Afghanistan, as expressed in debate and writing, against the centralized presidential system dates back to the beginning of the Mohammad Daud presidency in 1973.  At that time, there was a tough struggle between the pro-presidential forces and the pro-parliamentary forces [on one side] with the pro-federal forces in Afghanistan, launched by the left and patriotic forces [on the other].  The People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) drafted a parallel parliamentary democratic constitution supporting a federal model of government, over the draft for a centralised presidential constitution [advocated by their opponents], and I was an active contributor to this process.  However, eventually, a highly centralised republican system in which the president assumed all power was imposed upon the country.

In the 1980s, the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan (DRA) government had within its plans the issue of federalisation, beginning with the de-centralisation of the country’s political system.  I was involved in this process as the Prime Minister of Afghanistan throughout almost the entirety of the 1980s.  The PDPA and DRA government took the following steps towards the decentralisation of the political system:

Thus, to take this step, in two stages, two social and cultural institutions, namely the “Hazara National Council” and the “Hazara National Cohesion Centre”, were organised to function alongside the parallel institutions for other nationalities.  A new ministry, the “Ministry of Nationalities”, was created in addition to the already-existing “Ministry of Tribal Affairs” that was mainly involved with Pashtun tribal issues.

However, by the end of that decade and the first year of the 1990s, the government policy dealing with regions, local elections, and ethnic matters had been shifted towards the centralised authority.  I should state at this point that I was not involved with the government during that time as I was recovering from a terrorist attack that had been perpetrated against me.  However, [it is my contention that] had the system based on popularly elected councils continued during that period and had there been no shortcomings in relation to the national issue and dealing with ethnic sensitivities in the country, then the government of Najibullah would not have collapsed so drastically as it did in the end.

History should not be repeated:

In 1992, the “Mujahidin” government was established in a mire.  Had dealing with the national issue and ethnical relations been handled properly – and the previous forces, who had an enormous experience and inroads in the civil and military affairs, not been “expropriated” and dismantled – then perhaps the shocking wars among various factions, firstly by the Mujahidin and secondly by the Taleban, would not have occurred so devastatingly.

Likewise, at the Bonn Conference in 2001, if a system had been established based on decentralised local and parliamentary elected councils as a replacement for a centralised presidential system and had part of the government and security power been transferred to locally elected bodies, then it is possible that the flames of the ensuing war over the last twenty years would not have become so widespread and pervasive.

The centralised governments of the last twenty years were flawed:

Following the Bonn Conference, and according to the newly agreed constitution, the presidential governments were established under the concept of an ultra-centralised system.  As a result, abject poverty prevailed throughout the country and afflicted the broad strata of the people of Afghanistan.  According to the official data, more than 70 percent of the population fell below the poverty line.

The disparity and gulf between the very few elite rich (around 5 percent) and the majority poor and hard-working people (around 95 percent) has massively increased.  Unemployment reached an unprecedented level of 60 percent of the population able to work.  Social and domestic violence against women is endemic.

More than 3-million children could not attend school.  More than half of the schools have no shelter, learning facilities, accessories, or qualified teachers.  Hundreds of schools exist only on paper but not in reality and the according state payments are siphoned off.  This same ritual takes place widely in the military and police forces.

According to the latest data issued on 19 April 2021 by the Centre of Statistics for Afghanistan, there are only four hospital beds available for every ten-thousand people in the country.  This stands in stark contrast to the minimum provision of one bed for every two-hundred people stipulated by international standards (according to the BBC’s Persian Service).

Discrimination against some ethnic groups – in particular, Hazaras, Uzbeks Turkmens, Baluchis, and others – occurs widely.  The ritual of racial and ethnic hatred, especially against Hazaras, is widespread despite it being known to constitute a serious crime according to international standards.

Enduring corruption, as well as the consumption and trade in narcotics, the cultivation of which has continually increased in scale, has meant that Afghanistan is one of the most corrupt countries – and, in terms of opium production, ranks top of the world.

The spread of war was sped up all over the country and took the lives of hundreds of thousands of the innocent people of Afghanistan.

In any case, leaving the judgment of the past to history, I now express my thoughts on the present situation as follows:

Afghanistan as a multinational country, a mosaic of peoples:

Evidently, Afghanistan is a poly-ethnic, or multi-ethnic, and multi-racial country.  There are several nationalities present in terms of the population and geographical area, and among the main ones are: Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Uzbeks Turkmens.  I do not like the term “national and religious minorities” as it is used in Afghanistan sometimes to markedly pronounce the difference between some ethnic groups and dismiss them as insignificant and unequal.  However, if the term is to be accepted, then it should apply to everyone.  The existence of various ethnicities in Afghanistan is true in terms of population composition, whether relatively large or small.  None of the main nationalities in Afghanistan constitute a majority alone.  Therefore, each one can be considered a “national minority”.  Thus, hitherto for many years, the narrative has been of one nationality portrayed deceptively as “big brother” while others are underestimated and dismissed as minor and insignificant.

A federal system is the solution:

Federalism provides the grounds for popular solidarity between all ethnic groups, not disintegration as the antagonists and opponents of the federal model suggest and publicise.  Federalism does not lead to disintegration and fragmentation.  On the contrary, numerous tests around the world have shown that a federal government can provide the broad and real grounds for convergence, peaceful coexistence, solidarity, cooperation, and economic and social development among the various sectors and lineages of the country based on equality of national rights and citizenship.  In the federal model, new and sustainable opportunities emerge for self-defence and the maintaining of peace and public order because each ancestry and ethnicity are accorded their place in a federal union system, with devolved powers of self-government and equal rights in society. They protect and defend their rights and interests along with the public interest of the country as a whole.  Thus, the people can ultimately reach the preconditions for a lasting peace, which is their fundamental desire.

The necessity to replace the presidential system with that of a federal parliamentary government:

It is necessary now to choose new solutions within the framework of a federal government to prevent the recurrence of abhorrent events associated with centralised government.  A new strategy should be selected in the framework of federal state for administration of both central and local government in the country…  The basic solution by which one acquires the right to determine one’s own destiny, with the unity and collaboration between the various nationalities and ethnic groups of the country.

Within the framework of a federal government, the grounds can be provided for the freedom of individuals, groups, and interests, representing all nationalities of the country.  Consequently, a new Afghanistan can develop, in the conditions of peace, with the conscious and voluntary union of all nationalities, ethnicities, and localities.  If we are talking about achieving peace and forming a coalition government, for today or tomorrow, we need to propose a political system in which people can attain to “exercise their right to self-determination.”  I believe that this desire can be fulfilled in the existence of a federal government and that people can achieve their national rights and citizenship in an equitable way.

Time for change:

Consequently, the time has come to end the practice and idea of centralism in the government structure.  Based on experience and the test of history, centralised modes of government have exercised and demonstrated their authoritarian nature and ineptitude in Afghanistan for at least a century.  Now, a crucial stage is under discussion for the future of the country to achieve a lasting peace.  Therefore, fundamentally tested and reality borne solutions for the state structure must be sought.  The fact seems to be that in countries like Afghanistan it is possible to fulfil the national rights of the people in the framework of a just and democratic federal political system.  The federal systems have been tested in many countries around the world – whether large or small, advanced or developing.

Based on democracy and social justice, people of all races and castes, large and small, can participate in popular councils from villages to districts, from municipalities and cities, states and provinces, by electing representatives in their respective constituencies.  Through elections they can participate actively and equally in the formation of the central government.  In this way, the people can determine their own destiny in accordance with the national laws, public treaties, and decrees of the country.  Thus, federalism paves the way for lasting peace and its maintenance thereafter.

The time to countenance federalism:

There is a lot of talk about the need to establish a federal system, its advantages, and ways of establishing it, so as to overcome the current chaotic and disorganised society of Afghanistan.  In my opinion, the proposal to establish a federal system in Afghanistan is not just an ideal, a speculative concept, or some desire for the distant future of Afghanistan… It is an urgent need of the present for the country, particularly when we are faced with the crucial question of war and peace. The solution is not to become entangled in an abrupt and a hasty decision, as was the case in the failed Bonn Conference in 2001.  Numerous tests have shown that the centralised governments are dysfunctional, and do not hold the key to solving the great difficulties faced by the people of Afghanistan.  Now that the question of peace inside and outside the country is at stake, it must be stated that whenever the negotiations for peace in Afghanistan are to reach universally acceptable results, it will be good news.  But for lasting peace to be achieved, it must be realised that a solid foundation has to be laid upon which to build a peaceful future for the people.  This is the cornerstone of a system in which all ethnic groups and sections of Afghan society can consciously and voluntarily participate.  Such a political system is represented by federalism based on social justice, which paves the way for a peaceful future for Afghanistan.  Whenever a decision is to be made pertaining to the future constitution of Afghanistan, it must be based on the clear separation of the three branches of state; the executive or the government (headed by the Prime Minister), the legislature (parliament), and the judiciary (tribunals and courts), and officials must be elected.  The methods of selection and the structural classification of each role, and the entailing duties and powers, will be clearly stated in the constitution and its subsidiary laws.

Once it is accepted that the people can directly control their own destiny, and the right conditions are provided for the ending of war and interference in each other’s affairs, and thus instilling respect for human rights in society, it is necessary to establish a centrally elected parliamentary government (headed by the president and the prime minister; the Parliament; and the Judiciary).  There would also be elections for people’s councils from villages to towns and municipalities; states and provinces (governorates and district rulers), formed within the framework of a federal government.  Initially, all government institutions from the top (central government) to the bottom (local governments) can be elected by the people.  The limits of the powers and remit of each can be determined in the constitution and supplementary laws.  And, if, for example, a question was to arise in relation to the division of power in either central or local governments in terms of lineage or nationality, it can be reference could be made to examples in dozens of other countries that employ federal systems and systems based on councils.

Federalism provides the basis for maintaining durable peace by self-defence:

It should be underlined that if a lasting peace is to be ensured in Afghanistan, and a new constitution to be drafted, there must be a broad and inclusive debate beforehand to determine the future political system for the country.  I believe that the adoption of a democratic federal system for Afghanistan – a country fragmented from within by nature – can provide the grounds for the conscious and voluntary unity and solidarity of all nationalities, and ethnicities from different parts of the single country entity of Afghanistan.  In the meantime, it provides the ground for self-defence and maintaining a durable peace in the country.  Federalism is tantamount to convergence and democracy.  It does not deny or violate individual freedoms or the nationwide right to citizenship.  Federalism allows for the implementation of religious beliefs and rituals, indigenous traditions, and cultures, without the violation of other’s rights in any part of the country.  It is a model opposed to dictatorship and tyranny, especially national oppression, and it converges neatly with national rights and equal citizenship based upon human rights.

All elected bodies:

Self-government and autonomy in the federal system pave the way for the election of all popular and governmental institutions, from the bottom to the top of the system.  It also creates dual legal accountability – contrary to the baseless, irrational, and inconsequential statements of some factions, like those behind the sectarian monarchy.  It provides accountability to the electorate, the people, and also to the higher elected institutions.  In the federal system, the basic grounds can be legally provided for the participation of people’s representatives in governmental, economic, social, and cultural institutions, at both local government and central government level, as well as a people-oriented administration comprised from among the different nationalities and ethnicities.  Equality between nationalities and ethnicities can be ensured [and enshrined within the constitution of Afghanistan].  [The balance of power and dynamic within each locale, whether large or small, would be related directly to the population and constituency, thus the possibility for an equitable allocation and distribution between each sector would present itself.]  Consequently, an atmosphere of true brotherhood could emerge between various nationalities of Afghanistan, a brotherhood rooted in equality and fraternity.

Photo (top): Mariam Alimi, Democracy International 

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