On Monday, September 27, Ashraf Ramazan, a prominent parliamentary candidate from
Balkh, a northern province, was assassinated in the city of Mazar-e-Sharif in broad
daylight. One of his bodyguards was also killed, while another bodyguard and their
driver were injured. Ramazan reportedly was running third in the preliminary count
of ballots from the September 18 election, and he was gunned down on his way home
from a counting station (Anis, September 28).
His death will exacerbate the already simmering ethnic tensions between two of the
three main ethnic groups in the province: the Tajiks and the Hazaras.
To protest Ramazan’s death, residents took to the streets and blocked the only
highway connecting the north and south of Afghanistan. The sit-in brought traffic to
a standstill for two days. When the central government intervened and promised an
investigation, the protest was temporarily disbanded. The government also changed
the composition of the investigative team to make it more acceptable to the locals.
The protestors issued a declaration that contained several popular demands. These
include, aside from the arrest and prosecution of the perpetrators of the crime, the
dismissal and trial of the governor who is allegedly responsible for the murder.
More important is the demand to allow Ahmad Shah Ramazan, brother of the slain
candidate, to assume his seat in the newly formed parliament. But as this assembly
will be the first Afghan parliament in more than 30 years, there is no precedent for
such a succession (Daily Outlook Afghanistan, October 3).
The governor of Balkh is under enormous pressure. Since Afghanistan has become
peaceful, Atta Mohammad Noor, an ethnic Tajik and a former mujahideen commander, has
ruled the province with an iron grip. He managed to kick his rivals, Abdur Rashid
Dostum, the Uzbek leader, and Haji Mohammad Muhaqqiq, the Hazara leader, out of the
province without using force. Dostum relocated to Sheberghan, capital of Jowzjan
province, Muhaqqiq went to Kabul, and Atta Noor has purged the government of almost
all other ethnic groups (Erada, October 1).
Balkh province is strategically located, straddling the road to the border with
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. It also connects southern Afghanistan to the north and
northwestern parts of the country. Historically an Uzbek territory, the province is
home to three ethnic groups — Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras — as well as some
Pashtuns. During the war years, Dostum ruled Balkh with Muhaqqiq serving as his
deputy, then Muhaqqiq ruled alone. When the Taliban took over, they massacred more
than 8,000 Hazaras who resisted their regime.
In the confusion following the overthrow of the Taliban, Atta Noor took over
Mazar-e-Sharif while other forces were busy purging the north the Taliban forces.
Noor is affiliated with the Jamiat-e-Islami party, the dominant party in the mainly
tripartite Northern Alliance.
Mazar-e-Sharif is a unique city and province where the ethnic balance is crucial. Of
the five or six major provincial cities, it is perhaps the only city with no
clear-cut ethnic majority. In a city with these delicate characteristics, the
dominance of one ethnic group over others would naturally create points of
contention. The slain candidate was increasingly becoming a voice for his community.
If he had entered parliament, he would have become a political force in his own
right. Another likely factor in his murder is the so-called “assassination clause”
that had caused concerns prior to the election. According to the election law, if a
winning candidate dies, his seat passes to the next-highest vote getter (RFE/RL,
October 3). That would seem to preclude Ramazan’s seat passing to his brother.
The government-appointed team investigating the case has so far arrested three
people. A fourth suspect in the case died under mysterious circumstances (Daily
Outlook Afghanistan, October 11). In a conversation with Jamestown, Ahmad Shah
Ramazan, the slain candidate’s brother, said that he cannot take his brother’s seat
in the lower house of parliament. However, he said he has been promised a seat in
the upper house, one-third of which will be appointed by the president of
Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. This appointment may be Karzai’s effort to calm the
Analysts believe that as long as Atta Noor does not threaten the stability of the
country at large, Karzai should consider him a good choice. He belongs to the strong
Tajik-based party of former mujahideen that can keep both the Uzbeks and Hazaras at
bay. A Hazara would not be acceptable to Tajiks and Uzbeks and an Uzbek or Pashtun
would not be strong enough to hold the province’s ethnic groups together.
However, Atta Noor’s preference for ruling the province with an iron fist,
especially when other ethnic groups feel isolated and neglected, could only be a
recipe for disaster. The antidote, according to some observers, would be a
provincial government with an ethnic consensus. Meanwhile, after conversations in
Kabul, Ramazan is focused on the real issue: “The governor will go, the question is
who would replace him?”