Sebghatullah Sanjar, leader of Afghanistan’s Republican Party, an advisor to President Karzai, an ambitious politician of a younger, democratically leaning generation and a good friend, lost his life in a traffic accident in Kabul on Saturday. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst and Co-Director at AAN, first met Sanjar in 2000 when he was working with the United Nations and the young political activist was a member of the anti-Taleban political underground in Kabul. In this obituary, Ruttig looks back, saddened by Sanjar’s death, but also grateful for the many years of friendship and cooperation with him.
On Saturday 5 May, our friend, Sebghatullah Sanjar, became the victim, not of war, but of Kabul’s sometimes life-threatening traffic. His car was hit by an Afghan National Army bus after its driver lost control. It is well known that young recruits are often forced to drive vehicles they are not used to and on roads they are unfamiliar with. Maybe this was the case on Saturday.
Sanjar, born in 1346 h.sh. (1967/68), a Tajik from Zendejan in Herat province who had married a Pashtun, was killed together with his driver and daughter. His wife, Saleha, was left seriously hurt. We hope she will recover soon so that she can take care of their two surviving sons.
Sanjar was the leader of the Republican Party of Afghanistan (RPA)(1). It had been founded on 6 November 1999 in Kabul, as an underground, anti-Taleban party, by a group of politicians that had worked with the republican regime of President Muhammad Daud (1973-78) and, later on, had decided not to go into exile. I remember the RPA founder, Ghausuddin Fa’eq, a civil engineer trained in Germany who had been minister of public works under Daud, sitting in his house in a back alley and showing me brownish photos of those days in a crumpled album, saying, ‘If we left the country now, we’d set a bad example to the people living around here’. As a signal to which values they subscribed to, the party chose to adopt the Universal Declaration of Human Rights as its programme.
The RPA belonged to a number of such underground parties and groups that organised during what they called ‘the dark days of the Taleban regime’. They consciously chose to refrain from taking up arms against it. They wanted to let the world know there were still people in Afghanistan who believed in internationally accepted norms and values.
It must have been only a few weeks later, on a bright spring morning in 2000, when I met Sanjar for the first time. A taxi picked me up at a hidden place somewhere outside my UN office to bring me to a meeting, the first one with a broad spectrum of Kabul’s political underground. A smiling Sanjar sat behind the wheel, with a beard that would have put most ulema to shame. In those days, he earned a meagre living from the ramshackle, yellow-white cab he owned.
I had been told to wear Afghan clothes, wearing the characteristic pattu, or man’s shawl and a pakol to hide my rather un-Afghan hair colour as far as possible. Then followed a sequence which could have been from a James Bond movie, although one I could never have anticipated featuring in, during any point of my life. However, Bond would not have recognised the scenes we drove through. This was Taleban-ruled Kabul – completely derelict, low-tech, and, of course, Martini-less. We sped through the city in big loops, making U-turns from time to time or stopping ‘to buy cigarettes’ (both of us non-smokers), to get rid of anyone who might possibly be pursuing us on Kabul’s empty streets.
We arrived at a private house in Karta-ye Parwan where some 25 Afghan women and men had secretly gathered, taking enormous risks to meet representatives of the international community. Many of these courageous people had never met each other before, and some were not on good terms with each other. Therefore, they were divided into two separate groups, who sat in different rooms on different floors. Unfortunately, the high-ranking German diplomat for whom the meeting had actually been arranged had withdrawn only a few hours earlier. So, we were on our own – myself, a new chap from the UN, and another German friend who had had links to pro-democratic groups since the days of the Soviet occupation.
18 months later, the Taleban fell. Five participants of this meeting were flown to the UN-chaired conference in Bonn that would decide on Afghanistan’s political future. They came at the invitation of the UN and the German government and the five were the delegation representing the pro-democratic underground in Afghanistan and exile groups. Sanjar’s predecessor, as leader of the RPA, was among the five. But one day before the conference opened, this fifth delegation was told by the head of the UN delegation they could not sit at the conference table. No reason was given, but I heard something about that there shouldn’t be ‘too many actors’. For the first time, Afghanistan’s democrats were excluded from the political process that was designed to establish democratic institutions for being ‘irrelevant’, read: for their lack of firepower. It wasn’t to be the last time. (For more detail, see this article of mine in a ebook.)
Several months later, Sanjar was appointed as one of the 21 members of the Independent Commission for the Preparation of the (June 2002) Emergency Loya Jirga. This was another important step in the Bonn process that was supposed to give Afghans new, democratic institutions. With the late Ustad Asef Ahang, one of Afghanistan’s leading journalists, and another Afghan colleague, Sanjar and myself – as an advisor to the Commission, seconded from the UN – were responsible for organising delegates from the central region (Kabul, Parwan and Kapisa provinces) in the two-stage selection/election process.
This was a highly contested area and well-armed and organised leaders of the mujahedin tanzims took almost every measure to ensure they dominated the field. In that time, the four of us often had to confront and were frequently threatened by violent commanders while trying to implement the democratic rules set out for the Emergency Loya Jirga. I learned to admire Sanjar’s courage, which was driven by his desire for his country to have a democratic future.
The Emergency Loya Jirga and successive stages of the Bonn process often lacked the democratic content Sanjar and his friends from the other pro-democratic groups always hoped and worked for. Nevertheless, they continued to work and struggle untiringly for democracy – although not always in harmony.
In all of this, Sanjar epitomized a new generation of political leaders in Afghanistan that should have been nurtured, in a pluralistic and non-intrusive way, by the democratic governments of the west. But the western obsession with Hamed Karzai as the only Afghan leader cut down the pluralistic political scene that emerged after October 2001, whether from the underground, from exile or newly established.
At one point, Sanjar’s party lost valuable western support. Because of its name, Sanjar was invited to meet Barbara Bush, then the First Lady of her country, at the US embassy in Kabul. When it was his turn to make some remarks, he had the guts or temerity or naivety to include some words of criticism towards the US for its approach to his country. There was no follow-up meeting.
Sanjar took enormous pride that his party, the RPA, was the first one to be registered under the new parties law in early 2004 (here a video showing him speaking at the 2nd RPA congress in 2009). Bolstered by his role in the Emergency Loya Jirga process, he had taken over its leadership from the older generation. He ran in the first democratic parliamentary elections in 2005 and had high hopes. Two days before the final results were announced, it looked as if he had made it into the Wolesi Jirga from Kabul city. Then some candidates jumped ahead almost miraculously and deprived him of what would have been a deserved seat in the country’s new legislative – and deprived the country, I think, of a valuable parliamentarian.
Although he – like most others of his generation – were inexperienced in how to organise daily legal political life, he continued to build up his party, waiting for his chance. Having been a young man during the leftist PDPA regime, a member of the party as a teenager and a police officer, he had learned his organisational lessons in the Soviet, centralistic, top-down way. But he had also learnt other lessons from that era, including attention to women’s rights.
As a result, the RPA had a strong women’s wing from the beginning and was one of the first parties to field almost the same number of female as male candidates during Afghanistan’s recent elections (see an election video of the head of the party’s women wing, Adela Bahram, here). The party’s office in Qala-ye Fathullah, with its sky-blue flag, was always a buzzing hub of young people and women attending courses and of party officials coming in from the provinces for strategy sessions, particularly on Fridays. Because of regular financial shortages, the party’s publications –Jumhuri Ghag and Payyam-e Madar – only appeared sporadically.
Sanjar learned from experience that ambitions which are too high may well be shot down and also that politics are often local. So, his party concentrated on getting candidates elected into a number of provincial councils, successfully in a number of cases.
Several years ago, he accepted an offer to work as the head of President Hamed Karzai’s policy department. He never belonged, however, to the inner circle in the Palace.
The Canadian, Grant Kippen, who, for many years, worked to help Afghanistan’s aspiring democrats to find their feet on a very uneven political playing field has also written about our mutual friend:
Sanjar was someone with a big heart who was really committed to trying to move his country forward, someone who really did put the interests of the people ahead of his own. He was extremely generous, constantly optimistic, hospitable, thoughtful and pragmatic, and above all a friend to all who knew him. He will be sorely missed by all of them, Afghan and non-Afghan. (2)
A profile of the Republican Party of Afghanistan (in Dari) can be found here.
(1) Actually the Party of Republicans (Hezb-e Jumhurikhwahan).
(2) This is quoted, with his permission, from an email sent to the author.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020