Political Landscape

A Bridge for the Taleban? Harakat, a former mujahedin party, leaps back into action


Harakat meeting commemorating Mullah Omar, Kabul, July 2015. The speaker is party leader Mawlawi Qalamuddin. Photo: Pajhwok.

Harakat meeting commemorating Mullah Omar, Kabul, July 2015. The speaker is party leader Mawlawi Qalamuddin. Photo: Pajhwok.

Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami, one of the formerly most important mujahedin parties (tanzim) that had kept a low profile after 2001, is more visibly returning to the Afghan political scene. With a publicity campaign, it is presenting itself as the party of the religious scholars, with a history distinct from other Muslim Brotherhood-inspired tanzim, and offers itself as a possible bridge for peace talks with the Taleban. With its measured criticism of the national unity government (NUG), it sounds like a voice of moderation in an atmosphere where calls to dismantle the NUG thrive. AAN’s co-director Thomas Ruttig looks at Harakat’s latest initiatives and its special relationship with the Taleban (with a contribution by Fazal Muzhary).

 

With a poster campaign and a series of large in-door gatherings, a political party is trying to rekindle public attention that, in the 1980s, once was described as the largest mujahedin party (tanzim) in the country: Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami-e Afghanistan (the Islamic Revolution Movement of Afghanistan). (1) Harakat, a Sunni tanzim founded in late December 1979 or early 1980 in Peshawar (none of its current leaders seem able to recall the exact date in that turbulent time after the Soviet invasion over Christmas 1979) had been largely invisible during the years after 2001. This is already its third relaunch within that period, and also the broadest-based so far.

Harakat defines itself as “a party of the religious scholars and tribal elders”, claiming a distinct social base among the ulema, the upper echelons of the country’s Islamic clergy. One line repeatedly came up in AAN meetings with Harakat leaders in November 2015: “There should be no gap between the arg [the palace] and the menbar [the platform in the mosque from where the imam preaches].” The same slogan had been used by Ashraf Ghani during his 2014 electoral campaign; it came from ulema supporting him, among which there were Harakat members. With this, it offers the government – attacked by the Taleban as un-Islamic due to its Western backing – and particularly the Ghani camp – that felt it had a deficit given the then candidate’s Western educational and professional background, compared with Abdullah and some other mujahedin candidates ­– religious legitimacy.

Harakat first created real public attention, however, in August this year when it held a gathering to commemorate the death of Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar. It did this together with the Afghanistan Ulema Coordination Council which is close to the party. (2) With a lethal series of Taleban bomb attacks still very much on Kabulis’ minds, this sparked a wave of outrage and demands for a crackdown on ‘Taleban sympathisers.’

Officially, peacetime Harakat has been back for a number of years. In 2002, Ahmad Nabi Muhammadi, son of the party’s founder-leader Mawlawi Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi, an Islamic cleric from Logar province, returned to Afghanistan, established himself as leader in his father’s place (who passed away earlier that year) and registered the party under the slightly changed name of Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami wa Melli-ye Afghanistan (Islamic and National Revolution Movement of Afghanistan). However, he was soon ousted from his office and replaced by a former advisor to his father, Maulawi Muhammad Sayyed Hashemi. Hashemi put himself forward as a presidential candidate in 2009 but finally withdrew in favour of Hamed Karzai’s second bid. This party did not re-register in 2010 under the new Political Parties Law. Instead, Muhammad Musa Hotak, a former minister in mujahedin and Taleban governments and an MP after 2001, re-registered Harakat under its original name in early 2011.But it has not really played a very visible political role so far.

Now, however, for the first time since 1994, most surviving leaders of Harakat as well as of a party closely related to it, calling itself Khuddam ul-Forqan (Servants of Provenance), (3) have re-joined hands. For some weeks now, the party has rented a number of gigantic billboards at main roads in Kabul, displaying a poster with an array of portraits. Largest looming are those of the party’s late founder, Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi, its current leader Mawlawi Qalamuddin – former head of the Taleban notorious ‘religious police’ (amr b-il-maruf) who later ‘reconciled’ with the Karzai government – and former leader Hotak, now one of Qalamuddin’s deputies. Qalamuddin’s right hand is raised in a pointing gesture symbolising strong leadership. A little smaller that of late Mawlawi Nasrullah Mansur is shown who had been Muhammadi’s deputy during the fight against the Soviets but split off during the 1980s, setting up his own Harakat party called Harakat-e Nawin-e Inqilab-e Islami (New Islamic Revolution Movement). Mansur was assassinated in 1993. (4) The picture is completed by 24 other members of the party’s current leadership, all male and many of them clerics as well.

Harakat poster with the party's leadership. C/o Hakarat.

Harakat poster with the party’s leadership. C/o Hakarat.

 

Why the relaunch now?

The party’s relaunch, as emphasised by three Harakat leaders AAN talked to separately in November in Kabul, seems to be driven by various motives. They include disappointment about the poor performance of the national unity government (NUG) of President Ashraf Ghani and CEO Dr Abdullah and a feeling of having been left out of the government. Although it supported Ghani during the 2014 electoral campaign, the leaders complain that their party has neither received high-ranking government positions (they admit that Ghani had not promised them such) nor been consulted when those posts were distributed – a promise, they say, Ghani had made. Hotak, one of several dozen advisor-ministers – a position of symbolic value given to him by Karzai, for tribal affairs, in his case – seems to be their highest-ranking government official.

In a statement published in Pashto in early November after its largest gathering of members and sympathisers, with 3,000 claimed participants, Harakat laid out its current political position. It criticises the government’s inactivity, corruption and lack of respect for the law; demands the holding of parliamentary elections according to the constitution (for which it is too late already) and a reshuffle of cabinet and provincial governor positions to bring in people “who are up to the job”; speaks out against the allegedly “illegal long-term presence” of foreign forces in the country and against “unnecessary irresponsible armed people and militias at their side”; and demands instead the strengthening of the country’s “[regular] armed forces”.

Abdul Hakim Mujahed, the (widely unrecognised) Taleban envoy to the United Nations during their emirate regime who now heads Harakat’s political committee, called the NUG’s very name a euphemism by saying: “We cannot even call it a national unity government.” But, he insists, his party worked “in the framework of the constitution,” believed in “elections and the peaceful change of governments” and the presidential system, as the country’s political parties were not mature enough yet. It also was against widely discussed plans of a transitional government or a loya jirga – unless the government is forced to “declare its failure” itself. Hotak said his party was still a part of the “Team Ghani”, that is, on the president’s side in the NUG, which it had joined during the 2014 electoral campaign. Leadership member Habibullah Fouzi, also a former Taleban diplomat, stated “Neither [ex-president] Karzai, nor anyone else can call a loya jirga; only the government can do this.” Mujahed concluded that “the best idea would be to allow the government to complete its term – but this depends on the government. Better a bad government than one that collapses.”

With its measured criticism, the Harakat party tries to sound more moderate than various other jihadi leaders and factions, including supporters of former president Karzai, who have lined up for a more profound change, that is, outrightly replacing the government and those lobbying for a rearmament of former mujahedin against the Taleban menace, boosted by the ANSF’s poor performance during the two-weeks’ takeover of Kunduz by the Taleban, or advocate to replace the underperforming NUG with a new transitional set-up, through a ‘traditional’ loya jirga and/or new elections. Mujahed called this “dangerous for Afghanistan.”

Memorial inscription for Mawlawi Nasrullah Mansur at the place in Zurmat where he was assassinated. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005).

Memorial inscription for Mawlawi Nasrullah Mansur at the place in Zurmat where he was assassinated. Photo: Thomas Ruttig (2005).

A short history of Harakat

Harakat was initially established as an umbrella organisation of the anti-Soviet mujahedin. But two groups, Jamiat-e Islami and Hezb-e Islami, left the alliance after only two months, in early 1980. Harakat started its own armed resistance against the Soviets from its main base in Miran Shah in Pakistan, initially financed by money collected among the Afghan diaspora in Karachi, as Mujahed told AAN. Harakat became one of the Peshawar Seven, the only anti-Soviet parties recognised, armed and financed by their Pakistani hosts (with Western and Arab money), freezing out smaller groups, including secular nationalists and Maoists.

Its strong ulema base set Harakat apart from most other Sunni tanzim. Particularly Jamiat and Hezb, led by late Borhanuddin Rabbani and by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar respectively, had emerged under the influence (and considered itself) as the Afghan branch of the Muslim Brotherhood in the 1960s. Both were, in the eyes of the Harakatis, not sufficiently rooted in traditional madrassa education: Rabbani was a university teacher (for Islamic law) and Hekmatyar an engineer; both came from an urban environment. In contrast, Harakat emerged from an autochthonous, rural and traditional Islamist movement that included the above-mentioned Khuddam ul-Forqan. This party, which came into being in 1964 under the then new Afghan constitution introducing elements of a parliamentary democracy, centred around one of the most prestigious madrassas of the country, Nur ul-Madares al-Faruqi in Ghazni’s Andar district.

After the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 and the fall of the leftist regime in Kabul in 1992, both Harakat factions (of Nabi Muhammadi and of Mansur) reunited and joined the mujahedin government. When, in 1993, Rabbani abolished the three-month rotation at its head (as agreed upon among the Peshawar Seven leaders) in an attempt to establish himself as permanent president, a number of tanzim leaders left the government. Among them was Harakat’s Nabi Muhammadi. He ordered all other party members to leave their positions in the cabinet and as provincial governors. One year later, when the new Taleban movement emerged to end the inter-factional wars that had broken out among the mujahedin, Nabi Muhammadi dissolved his party and urged all members to join the Taleban. That way, Harakat provided a large number of fighters to the new movement at that point. Taleban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar, officially declared dead earlier in 2015, belonged to Harakat during the struggle against the Soviets. Harakat leader Nabi Muhammadi, according to Mujahed, urged the Taleban to “establish a new coalition government” of mujahedin, but they did not heed the advice.

Harakat’s special Taleban relationship

The late Harakat leader’s alliance with the Taleban in the 1990s is the basis for a special relationship between the movements that lasts to the present. Many of the current Harakat leaders have been high-ranking Taleban officials. With previous years’ debates about how to negotiate with the Taleban, they have become more vocal. Many prominent leaders of the current Harakat also had been appointed members of the High Peace Council (HPC) by then president Karzai in 2010. They include Qalamuddin, Hotak, Mujahed, Fouzi and Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, a former governor of Helmand and now member of the Senate.

In its new set-up after the relaunch, without directly saying so, it presents itself as a bridge and possibly even as the still missing ‘moderate Taleban party’ which – the government and its Western allies hope – could be joined by ‘reconciled’ Taleban after a peace deal. This becomes more important as attempts to establish such a ‘moderate’ Taleban party, based on pro-talks dissidents like former Taleban finance minister Agha Jan Motasem, have so far failed to materialise.

In the AAN interviews in Kabul, all Harakat leaders emphasised “peace” as the party’s and country’s priority. “We want to gather the ulema to unite the people” behind a peace process, Fouzi told AAN. Hotak said that “a serious peace process, whether with [the help of] the UN, Pakistan or China” must be started. The Harakat position paper talks of an “Afghan-owned and Afghan led process in the context of the Islamic teachings and the constitution of Afghanistan.” Fouzi stated that “the government should trust us to talk to the Taleban as we are closer to them” than other political forces are – therefore Harakat’s demands for a reshuffle of government posts, at least on the provincial governors level. Hotak elaborated on that by saying that if the governors were “too young, they won’t be listened to by the Taleban”. Mujahed added: “Without peace and reconciliation, all other systems will fail.”

Interestingly, Harakat is also critical of President Ghani’s course to closely involve Pakistan in Taleban talks. “May God get us and the Taleban rid of Pakistan”, leadership member Sher Muhammad Akhundzada, who is close to former president Karzai, was quoted as saying in August. A member of Harakat’s ulema council asked the Taleban “to leave the traitorous and hypocrit[ic]al] country of Pakistan.” Also it cannot be ruled out that long-standing plans of the new government to reorganise and reduce the number of members of the HPC might be another driver inducing Harakat to feel the need to project its political importance and influence. Otherwise, many of its members might be among those losing these positions.

Some headwind for the new Harakat

In Kabul, not everyone is happy about Harakat’s re-emergence. Some of the party’s street posters were defaced, and an inhabitant of Logar – the province where its historical leader was born – doubted that Harakat will gain much popular traction there. Its leader Nabi Muhammadi, he recalled, had once – when in Peshawar during the jihad – declared that he would not return to the province even when the war was over, as he could not “bear its climate.” Such statements can have a long lifespan in a country like Afghanistan.

Both traditional and social media were largely quiet about Harakat’s re-entry to the political scene, apart from some TV reporting. This might in part be a result of the Harakat leadership’s undeveloped public relations. Harakat has no spokesman or printed publications; it only maintains a – not very active – Facebook page (the latest post is more than a month old) and nor does it maintain a dedicated website. The party’s statements are not widely distributed and, when the author asked for them, needed to be laboriously retrieved from outdated computers operated by some leaders in their HPC offices. Clearly, Harakat and the young generation, including the modern neo-Islamists, are transmitting on different channels. It remains to be seen whether high-tech works more effectively than traditional networking.

Apart from that, various groups that had split from the traditional Harakat continue to keep themselves apart and, despite some Harakat grandees telling AAN the opposite, are unlikely to join the mainstream soon. One party, Hezb-e Sa’adat-e Melli wa Islami-ye Afghanistan (National and Islamic Prosperity Party of Afghanistan), led by Maulawi Muhammad Osman Salekzada, a northerner, has officially been registered for almost a decade now and has little incentive to give up its independence, although it leads an existence at the political fringes. A newer, unregistered party, called Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami-ye Mardom-e Afghanistan (Islamic Revolution Movement of Afghanistan’s People), has political differences with the Harakat mainstream over the national unity government (NUG). It is much more critical of the NUG, advocating the need to replace it with an interim government, and closer to ex-president Hamed Karzai. Its leader, Abdul Hakim Munib, was the first ‘reconciled’ former Taleban official appointed to a high governmental position, as governor of Uruzgan province (2006-07) under Karzai. Also one part of the former Harakat (Mansur), led by relatives of the slain original leader, has remained with the Taleban movement and the insurgency (more background in this paper) and still commands significant support in parts of Harakat’s regional base, namely Logar and Paktia.

Even more significantly, the Khuddam ul-Forqan party now is showing signs of a split. Over the decades, first within Harakat and later within the Taleban, it had successfully maintained its political autonomy and cohesion. While Mujahed told AAN that the party no longer existed, its spiritual leader Amin Jan Mojaddedi (5) just toured parts of southeastern Afghanistan to reassert his support. On 14 November 2015, he arrived at his madrassa, the Nur ul-Madares in Andar, to take part in a graduation ceremony for students of the madrassa. There, he received a red carpet welcome. Hundreds of men stood in line to greet him, including local mullahs and current and former students as well as Taleban fighters; most of those Taleban fighters were alumni of Nur ul-Madares.

Although Mojaddedi stated that he did not visit “for political purposes”, he reiterated Khuddam ul-Forqan’s existence and “neutrality”. In a sideswipe to those former Khuddam who have sided with the government in Kabul (and are unable to travel to this region) he added: “If I was taking sides with anyone I would not be here.” Mojaddedi also visited a number of Taleban-controlled villages in Andar and Qarabagh districts, extending his trip from the initially planned three days to one and a half weeks. Apart from his security guards, taken from his headquarters in Kabul, a group of 15 to 20 Taleban fighters armed with heavy weapons escorted him while he commuted to different villages. The trip was not only a show of his personal influence, including of support among Taleban fighters, but a challenge to the new Harakat leaders and their claim to be able to build a bridge for talks with the Taleban.

 

(1) The other major Sunni tanzim – sometimes called the Peshawar Seven –were Hezb-e Islami (Hekmatyar), Hezb-e Islami (Khales), Jamiat-e Islami (Rabbani), Jabha-ye Nejat-e Melli (Mojaddedi), Mahaz-e Islami wa Melli (Gailani) and Ittehad-e Islami (Sayyaf). To avoid misunderstandings: there are two Harakat’s, Harakat-e Inqilab-e Islami which is a Sunni former mujahedin party (tanzim), and Harakat-e Islami, a comparatively smaller Shia tanzim. I use Harakat as a short-hand for the Sunni tanzim here.

(2) Unofficially, the council is the ulema branch of Harakat. Party leader Qalamuddin, however, said he strives to keep it as broad-based as possible, even extending membership to Shia clerics.

(3) More background about this further down in the text and in this 2010 paper of mine for AAN.

(4) There are many Mansurs in the past and present political scenes in Afghanistan, including current Taleban mainstream leader Mullah Akhtar Muhammad Mansur, who reportedly killed commander Mansur Dadullah from a Taleban break-away faction, and late Nasrullah Mansur of Harakat. These three are not related to each other. This name – not a surname or family name that is transferred from father to child, but a takhallus, more like a nickname – is chosen by the person himself. Mansur means “the victorious” and therefore is popular. On the other hand, some have started using their takhallus in Western style; those family members of Nasrullah Mansur who have stuck with the Taleban (more about this in the text) have adopted the Mansur takhallus to flag the relationship, including Abdullatif Mansur, one of the Taleban negotiators in Murree (Pakistan) this summer.

(5) Amin Jan Mojaddedi had re-launched the party in late 2001 in Pakistan, then together with Mujahed, Fouzi and others. In Andar, the district where his madrassa is located, he is known as Hazrat Saheb, a title also used by former interim president and chairman of the Afghan senate Sebghatullah Mojaddedi, who belongs to a another branch of the Mojaddedi family that traditionally leads the Afghan part of an international Sufi brotherhood, the Naqshbandiya.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape