The phenomenon of patrimonial politics had been running the affairs at least since the end of the withdrawal of Soviet forces from Afghanistan in 1989-Afghan. The country’s natural resources, development projects, and even the citizens have been exploited given the prevalence of the politics of exclusion. Local warlords have played politics with ethnic cards. Roughly, three decades of such patrimonial and sectarian politics with the presence of local strongmen have been de facto running much of the affairs of Afghan communities, specially so in outlying regions. During this period, the post-Taliban era marks a particular phase in Afghanistan’s history. Despite the initial optimism by the 2001 Bonn Agreement, the post-Taliban era once again brought with the 1990’s notorious political figures or warlords who had often wreaked havoc on the country and its inhabitants. In the post-Taliban era, the Afghan Northern Alliance were awarded unprecedented power by the U.S.-led Western forces. This also occurred due to the former President Karzai’s need to sustain his reign, which among other things required the blessing of the grip on power and resources by the former warlords who had once fought the Soviet troops.
In the 2014 general election, as well, the two leading presidential candidates were backed by influential strongmen whom in their view were essential in both candidates’ winning chances. The now President Mohammad Ashraf Ghani’s administration also included two vice-presidents, General Abdul Rashid Dustam and Sarwar Danesh. While Danesh is an ethnic Hazara from an academic circle, Dustam, an ethnic Uzbek, is a former warlord and local strongmen.
The question rises as to why Ghani, a proven impressive thinker had to align with a person known for his involvement in the Afghan fratricidal civil war. How sociologist Max Weber would see is that given the Afghan context, the strongmen are important to fill traditional leadership gap. Hence, Ghani who was determined to be part of transfer of a peaceful power transition could generate hundreds of thousands of additional votes by aligning with Dustam to fill the traditional leadership role.
However, in the 2014 general election campaign, Ghani made many promises, among them were putting an end to the illegal land confiscators, stopping extrajudicial killings by local militia, curbing organized criminal networks, and most importantly arresting local strongmen and warlords.
Fast forward to 2016 when General Dustam, abducted a political rival and former governor of Jawzjan province, Ahmad Ischi. According to Ischi, he was tortured and sexually assaulted by Dustam’s gunmen. This led to President Ghani ordering a full investigation, in turn, leading to Dusam’s self-exile in Turkey. Ghani also sacked Ahmad Zia Massoud, special representative in Reforms and Good Governance to the president. This attempt was made due to Zia Massoud’s weak performance.
In addition, the ex-warlord, Atta Mohammad Noor, who for more than a decade was the governor of Balkh province, and who had been accused of human rights violations and drug trafficking, and governed with impunity, was ousted by President Ghani. This led to nearly three months of verbal clashes and demonstrations by Noor’s supporters in Mazari Sharif in 2017, threatening to create instability and chaos in the country but finally ended up with his ouster. In the southern part of the country, Kandahar, provincial police Chief Abdul Raziq, a prominent strongman stated in interview with local radio “this government has neither appointed me, nor can it remove me. I have been appointed based on the demands of Kandahar people and I will leave based on Kandahar residents’ demands.” Tolo News reports 2 January, 2018.
The above moves by Ghani to do away with troubling strongmen in political posts has led to the same individuals to design a triangle alliance composed of the former warlords Mohammad Mohaqeq, the second deputy to Afghanistan’s Chief Executive Officer Dr. Abdullah and head of People’s Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan; Atta Mohammad Noor, who now serves as chief executive of Afghanistan’s political party Jamiat-e-Islami; and Abdul Rashid Dustam, leader of Islamic Movement of Afghanistan, and acting foreign minister Salahuddin Rabbani, member of Jamiat-e-Islami party, including some other anti-Ghani political figures and members of parliament who were involved in criminal cases either in one way or another.
The recent crackdown on local militia who are involved in many extrajudicial killings, drug trafficking, illicit trade, organized criminal networks, and illegal resource extraction has also led to the arduous reaction of the alliance and accused the government on fueling ethnic tension among the people which in reality they are trying to incite the masses against the central government. Among the recent arrest was Nizamuddin Qaisari, the police chief of Qaisar district, northern Faryab province and loyal gunman to General Dustam, who insulted other officials in a meeting, calling them traitors and threatened of kill opponents and to burn government offices. This arrest has become a valuable pressure button for the strongmen’ alliance to prompt anti-government sentiments.
President Ghani, a western educated technocrat, intends to relinquish the country from the clutch of warlords and strongmen and free Afghanistan from the negative components of traditional rule into running the country in a modern way, and tackling rampant corruption. This confrontation comes at a time when the Afghan National Security Forces are fighting in many corners of the country against the Taliban and affiliates to the terrorist group of the so called Islamic State. Simultaneously, these arresting strongmen as Qaisari has harshly confronted from many fronts by the strongmen.
“There’s a tug of war between two different ways of running the country,” said Peter Semneby, Sweden’s ambassador to Afghanistan. “It’s the traditional patronage way of running Afghanistan against the modern way of running a country, with respect for the constitution, laws, and transparency.”
Given the recent “tug of war,” who is going to win, technocrats or the warlords?
Ghani’s administration does not seem to surrender in to the strongmen’s pressure and is determined to go in pursuit of their arrest. In a recent remark, the president’s spokesperson Haroon Chakhansoori says that “we don’t share the strongmen list but the government is committed to arrest them and bring them to justice.” The final result of this confrontation will depend on a gradual and systematic process. The divide and rule approach works. Prior to arresting the strongmen, Ghani’s administration must work to alienate them. That means to bring the young, educated and well-deserved political figures in government domain in warlords’ stronghold. On the one hand, this can weaken their foothold in their local power base. On the other hand, this can contribute to sidelining them. Though, most important to succeed this effort Ghani must garner the political and material support of the international community. Their engagement will weaken the warlords and their mercenaries’ moral against the central government.
The crackdown against warlords is a good move and is widely welcomed on social media and the public masses. This move will give the public confidence in the government and institutions. A reversal, however, will pulverize the already weak confidence on the government. Ghani’s administration vs. the warlords is possibly the peak for testing the warlords’ last remaining power. The warlords have lost public support with the exception of a narrow circle that backs each of them. Ghani must keep pursuing them with the help of the international community. This would relinquish the country from warlords’ roughly four decades of exploitation. Ghani’s vision of new Afghanistan with transforming the fate of the country’s leadership to new educated generation may well come true.
*Rahimullah Kakar holds a MA in Politics and Security from the Organization for Security and Cooperation (OSCE) Academy and writes on the Political and Security situation of Afghanistan and Central Asia.