Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

“Atta for President” Again? The struggle for the Afghan presidency and Jamiat’s leadership

Thomas Ruttig 13 min

This year’s Nawruz, the Persian New Year on 21 March 2017, also heralded the beginning of the positioning for Afghanistan’s next presidential election, although due only in two years’ time. Atta Muhammad Nur, the powerful governor of Balkh province, used the popular holiday to announce that he will run in 2019. He kept open, however, whether that will be for president or vice-president. Atta also revived the struggle for the leadership of the Jamiat-e Islami party, thereby challenging its most senior representative in the current government, Chief Executive Dr Abdullah Abdullah. He is already facing severe headwind from within the party. AAN’s Thomas Ruttig looks at how Atta’s campaign has so far unfolded and the hurdles that stand in his way, even within his own party (with input by Obaid Ali and Ali Yawar Adili.)

When they were still friends: Abdullah 2009 election banner with Atta portrait – before the backdrop of late Shura-ye Nazar leader Ahmad Shah Massud. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

On the first day of the Persian new year, Atta Muhammad Nur, the powerful governor of Balkh province and head of Jamiat-e Islami’s Executive Council (shura-ye ejra’iya), went public on his future political intensions. The key point of his statement that was widely covered by the Afghan media (see for example here) was: “In the near future, after consultation with political allies and [the] people, I will make a decision on my resignation [as governor of Balkh province] in order to participate in the upcoming elections.” As early as December 2016, he had already indicated that he might leave his gubernatorial position, stating “I have been in Balkh for a long time. It is natural that I should open the way for others to take the seat.”

His Nawruz speech was not the first time that Atta (1) has hinted that he might run in the next presidential election. Earlier this year, but less prominently (at least for an international audience), he announced in an interview with BBC Persian on 3 January 2017: “I will [either] be a candidate [on my own] or I will go with one of the tickets [as a vice-presidential candidate]” (watch the video here, in Dari). The latter could indicate that he might be considering joining forces with incumbent President Ashraf Ghani, who, as many Afghan and international observers in Kabul believe, will probably run for a second term.

There were similar rumours of Atta’s presidential ambitions prior to the 2014 election (see this AAN analysis). But Atta eventually decided to support president Ghani’s main opponent, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, and assuming the role of a kingmaker. With his considerable riches and control over large stretches of the populous northern Afghan provinces, Atta was an important contributor to Abdullah’s campaigns in 2009 and 2014, both in terms of campaign funds and voter mobilisation. In 2009, his support for Abdullah led to a crisis in his relations with the then president, Hamed Karzai. This almost cost him his Balkh governorship, as the president was unhappy about someone he had appointed supporting his main rival in the upcoming election. Relations only improved after Atta paid a ‘reconciliation’ visit to the presidential palace in Kabul.

To be (a governor) or not to be

Atta’s announcement that he intends to run in 2019 came after a major political success: a month earlier, on 20 February 2017, he had finally succeeded in persuading president Ghani to renew his appointment as governor of Balkh province (see media report here), with its capital and economic boomtown Mazar-e Sharif. Up to that point, Atta had served in an ‘acting’ capacity, after the president had decreed, immediately after taking office in 2014, that all provincial governors would be replaced (more AAN analysis here). The deal allows Atta to resign as a ‘full-fledged’ governor – if, indeed, he does run in 2019.

The agreement to keep Atta as Balkh governor highlights his importance and specific role in Afghanistan’s power-play, which made trying to replace him so difficult for Ghani. Atta is not a ‘normal’ governor in the sense that, as an appointee of the centre, he is expected to act as the transmission belt of the central government and its policies, as is the case with most new governors appointed under Ghani. Atta became governor of Balkh in 2004, after a protracted struggle with General Abdurrashid Dostum and his Jombesh party for dominance in this key northern province, which he won. (2) He has since cemented his position – both politically, economically (AAN analysis here) and even culturally. He has had monuments of historical figures from northern Afghanistan built all over Mazar-e Sharif – from Zarathustra and Rumi, to Ahmad Shah Massud – and is sponsoring cultural projects, placing himself in the context of Balkh’s long history and artistic tradition (more AAN analysis here). His entrenched position makes him the last of the de facto autonomous former warlords or commanders, who used to rule over key provinces in the early years after 2001 without much interference from the centre – from Ismail Khan in Herat to Sher Muhammad Akhundzada in Helmand, Gul Agha Sherzai in Kandahar and Haji Din Muhammad in Nangrahar.

It is of similar importance as his governorship that Atta belongs to Jamiat-e Islami’s core leadership. Jamiat is not only one of Afghanistan’s oldest and largest political parties (and, based on a wide network of commanders, still one of its most powerful military factions), but also Ghani’s de facto main coalition partner in the National Unity Government (NUG) that came into being after the botched 2014 presidential election and, in contrast to its name, is marred by almost constant infighting. Now also Abdullah, who was the runner-up and Jamiat’s de facto candidate (3) and became the new government’s chief executive (CE), has come under intense criticism from his own camp (see AAN analysis here) for not delivering on the power-sharing deal included in the NUG agreement (full text here) between its two formerly opposed camps.

It cannot have been an easy decision for Ghani keep Atta in Balkh. Not only had Atta openly supported his fiercest rival during the elections, using strong language against Ghani (including personal accusations of mass electoral fraud), but he also initially refused to recognise him as the elected president and had even threatened to unleash mass protests and to form a “parallel government” (quoted here). Atta, on his part, is well aware of his twofold position of strength, as he confidently expressed in the January 2017 BBC interview: “I remain in my position as governor because of my ability to better serve the people, and because of my political position within Jamiat.”

A look back: Atta’s move toward the Jamiat leadership

Atta’s political offensive has a second dimension. On 13 March 2017, about a week before his Nawruz statement, he sharply and publicly criticised his erstwhile political ally, fellow Jamiat-e Islami party member and NUG chief executive, Dr Abdullah. While addressing a gathering marking the third anniversary of the death of former Vice President Marshal Muhammad Qasim Fahim, another former Jamiat leader, Atta called his decision to support Abdullah in the 2014 presidential race “the biggest mistake [of] his political career” (Afghan media reporting here). He was quoted accusing Abdullah of selfishness, saying that “Abdullah’s huge[st] achievement is getting a salary and appointing advisors [for himself]” and of not achieving a fair share in the government, because he gives in to the president too often on top appointments. Atta even claimed that Abdullah had been removed from his positions in Jamiat:

After two years and a few months [in the CE office], we separated him from the decision making within the party. (…) We moved his responsibilities to other capable people.

This was not the first time Atta had expressed his disapproval of Abdullah, accusing him of dropping the ball on key Jamiati policy aims. These included strengthening the role of parliament, breaking the president’s institutional grip on the election-related institutions and convening the Loya Jirga, which, according to the NUG agreement was supposed to decide on whether Abdullah’s extra-constitutional position as government chief executive should be abolished or turned into a constitutionally-sanctioned permanent prime ministerial post. In a speech to Jamiat commanders and other supporters in Kapisa province on 30 January 2017, Atta had already spoken about his motives for backing Abdullah in 2014: “I invested in [Abdullah] because he served with Amer Saheb [the late Ahmad Shah Massud] and I thought he might approach the people in the way Amer Saheb did. Unfortunately, that did not happen.”

Over the last few months Atta has sought to re-negotiate the NUG deal with the president on Jamiat’s behalf. That he has now publicly opened up the front against Abdullah suggests that he firmly intends to become Jamiat-e Islami’s new leader.

The position of Jamiat leader has been in a transitional state for almost six years now. Since the Taleban assassinated the party’s founding father and long-standing leader, Borhanuddin Rabbani in 2011, Jamiat has been led by his son, Salahuddin Rabbani. When Salahuddin took the position on 4 October 2011, three weeks after his father’s violent death, it was supposed to only be for two months, after which, according to the party’s constitution, a regular congress was to be convened to choose its permanent leadership. The congress did not take place as planned. It was re-scheduled in 2013 for “after the 2014 presidential election” (more background here), but has yet to take place – which means he is overdue for another 30 months, since then.

Atta has been strengthening his inner-party position, with the aim of becoming the party’s leader for many years. After the power struggle over Mazar-e Sharif fell in his favour in 2004, he built an extensive network of followers from this stronghold to cover the northern provinces. He went public for the first time in 2011 on the very day that Salahuddin Rabbani was appointed interim party leader after his father’s death. He was quoted by the media (4) as saying that he was ready to take the lead of the party to prevent it from splitting and that“[t]here has been a lot of support [for me] from senior party members and if that continues I will take the lead” (see more detail here). In 2013 he was appointed chairman of the party’s Executive Council, which runs the party’s everyday affairs on behalf of the larger leadership council (he replaced Ahmad Zia Massud who became one of the two deputies to the party chairman, a position that is officially higher, but of less practical influence than the Executive Council chair; see more AAN analysis here).

Today, the field of contenders for Jamiat’s top leadership position has thinned, which works in Atta’s favour. Abdullah’s position as the highest-ranking Jamiati in government has been weakened, in the eyes of many party influentials because of his failure – in the eyes of many party influentials – to place the expected number of party members in the NUG. Former defence minister and vice president, Muhammad Qassim Fahim – Ahmad Shah Massud’s anointed successor at the top of Jamiat’s armed wing, Shura-ye Nazar – passed away in March 2014. Ismail Khan, although an influential and indeed now Jamiat’s most senior leader (he is a decade or more older than Qanuni, Abdullah or Atta), is too much of an outsider given his base in Herat. And former interior minister Yunus Qanuni has kept a relatively low profile for a long time, without any indications of ambitions for the party leadership. Recently, however, he has moved more to the forefront again, speaking out about one of Jamiat’s key demands: the shift from the current presidential to a parliamentary system. He also participated in the formation of jihadi councils such as the one led by Ustad Sayyaf (see AAN analysis here). (5)

Atta’s current mobilisation

Atta has been working on his campaign for months. He began negotiating with president Ghani in the last quarter of 2016 in the context of the threat he felt to his gubernatorial position in Balkh, in an attempt to strengthen Jamiat in the NUG and to capitalise on a possible success for the competition about the Jamiat leadership (see AAN analysis here and here). He went the extra mile to disperse any impressions that these efforts might be mainly self-serving. In his speech in Kapisa province in January 2017, for example, he stated that he “received promises to serve as the first vice president and to get millions of dollars” (6) but that he “rejected all this” (see also here). Instead, he said he was trying to ensure Jamiat and its allies were better included in “decision-making on national, international and strategic issues.”

Although Atta claimed he had entered into negotiations with Ghani with the consent of the party’s leadership, a close aide, Farhad Azimi, was quoted by Afghan media in early January 2017, saying “talks are progressing slowly because of disagreements between the party members” (or rather party leaders) – singling out Ismail Khan and Ahmad Zia Massud. Ismail Khan, for example, raised concerns about a “lack of trust” between Abdullah and Atta that would jeopardise Jamiat’s unity. Indeed, public backing for Atta’s talks by the Jamiat leadership council only came a month later, in early February 2017. As it came with a two-month timeline, it put Atta under pressure to deliver on his own promises with regard to government positions. (7) This could be difficult, however, as the president’s camp insists that the talks are about Jamiat’s increased political participation in the government, rather than specific government positions (see for instance the statement made by the president’s deputy spokesman, Shah Hussain Murtazawi, on 1 February 2017).

Headwind for Atta from within Jamiat

Although Jamiat came out in support of Atta’s re-negotiation activities, there remains stiff resistance to his ambitions towards the Jamiat leadership within the party’s leadership council (that, according to the party’s constitution, includes its founders, the leader and the heads of its committees). The leadership council has the authority to convene the party congress, where the new leader will be chosen, but members have told AAN that a majority in its ranks is sceptical of Atta and therefore opposed to convening the congress. Unless the party congress is convened, Salahuddin Rabbani will remain at the party’s head.

Another reason for resistance to Atta, according to the Kabul-based daily Hasht-e Sobh, is that some in the party’s leadership council fear that the tensions between Atta and Abdullah, or any other contenders, could lead to a permanent split of within Jamiat.

There are already various factions and sub-factions within the party that are vying for power, some of them with ‘historical’ claims to the party’s leadership. To bring them under one hat will be a difficult task for whoever who wants to become the new, permanent leader of Jamiat.

If Atta does become head of Jamiat, the lead over the party will, for the first time, in the hands of a northerner. Politically, Jamiat has been led so far by the Rabbani family from Badakhshan in the northeast, a distinct region from Balkh that is culturally and historically part of Afghan Turkestan. His son Salahuddin may be considered too young by those still alive in the older leaders’ generation, although they might not say so publicly. (8) There is no other obvious candidate from Rabbani’s province. The important military wing of the party, Shura-ye Nazari, is in the hands of the Panjshiris. Although officially disbanded, it is still a powerful network linked to the memory of resistance hero Ahmad Shah Massud, to which Massud’s brothers as well as Fahim, Abdullah, Qanuni and former defence and interior minister, Bismillah Muhammadi, belong. The surviving Massud brothers, Ahmad Zia and Ahmad Wali, both lack Ahmad Shah Massud’s charisma or are too intellectual for Jamiat’s membership base. Neither do they have his strong credentials as a fighter and commander. And Fahim did not name anyone who would take his place. This factionalism is another major factor for resistance against Atta’s ambitions for the leadership post.

Another 2009 election poster showing Abdullah and Atta – the one that enraged then president Karzai so much. Photo: Thomas Ruttig.

Conclusion: a step-by-step campaign with hurdles

Atta’s push for Jamiat’s leadership appears to be a first step towards a higher goal: the presidency, an ambition that he has long harboured. Now, as laid out above, the conditions to create a platform with and within Jamiat, seem to be aligning. He can play on the hurt pride of many Jamiatis and Tajiks now that, under Ghani and for the first time since 2001, there is no vice-president from their ethno-political group. He alluded to this in a videotaped message released on 28 October 2016, when he stated that Tajiks in Afghanistan had “suffered most” as the main drivers of the resistance, both against the 1980s Soviet occupation and in the struggle against the Taleban regime. He said they now have “the least representation at the top of the power pyramid and in the leadership of the government” (watch the video here).

Atta has been upfront about his ambitions, while keeping it ambiguous how he will proceed. He left the door open for two options: running on his own, as the Tajik and Jamiat’s candidate or running as a vice-presidential candidate on someone else’s ticket. Such an approach is not uncommon in a political environment, where all sides keep their options open until the last possible moment, in preparation for last-minute manoeuvres. In his statements, however, Atta clearly signalled that although he respects the claims of the older Jamiati generation for a leading position both in the party and the government, Abdullah has squandered his chances, and now it is his [Atta’s] turn.

Although he may feel that his chances had never been better, there are still a number of significant obstacles to overcome on his way to the top. The first is Jamiat’s notorious factionalism and the readiness of its leaders to be co-opted by other contenders, as Karzai capably demonstrated in the 2009 elections (when, with Fahim, he had a Tajik/Jamiati running mate, while running against a Tajik/Jamiati contender, Abdullah, thus splitting their vote bank). The second obstacle is the difficulty of building a broader coalition around Jamiat, as Tajik votes alone will not suffice to win the presidency. Given the unreliability of the Uzbek voter base, still controlled by Dostum (who twice, in 2009 and 2014, switched sides from a pre-election opposition alliance to the camp of the later – Pashtun – winner) will make this goal particularly difficult. Thus, success for Atta is all but certain.

Last but not least, the fact that the Balkh governor has opened launched his campaign for the leadership not only of Jamiat, but also for the presidency in 2019, could have another negative side effect: it could well overshadow matters that are more important to most Afghans, namely the country’s socio-economic situation and prevailing insecurity.


(1) Although Nur is the governor’s takhallus – the Afghan equivalent of a surname (that can, however, be changed and is not usually passed on to children) – most Afghans refer to him as “Atta.” This is his given or first name, but its use is not deemed as casual as it would be in the West.

(2) Before his appointment as governor, Atta was commander of the (then-) 7tharmy corps of the pre-Taleban and Jamiat-dominated Islamic State of Afghanistan. These so-called “Afghan militia forces” were partly disbanded and partly reorganised and incorporated into the army and police in the years after 2001.

(3) Officially, Abdullah ran for his multi-party alliance, the National Coalition of Afghanistan (Etelaf-e Melli-ye Afghanistan) of which Jamiat was one member. More detail on this coalition and its relationship with Jamiat in this AAN analysis.

(4) Source: “Balkh Governor Eager to Lead Afghanistan’s Jamiat-e-Islami Party“,
 Tolo News, 3 October 2011 (not online, in the author’s archive).

(5) During a seminar on the political discourse in Afghanistan on 19 January 2017, Qanuni said that the presidential system did not meet “the people’s needs, and in some cases added to the problems” (as summarised by 1TV on Twitter here and here) and that he was “against the centralised presidential system and will continue to call for a parliamentary system in the country.”

In 2014, after Fahim’s death and during president Karzai’s last months in office, Qanuni had also accepted the ‘Tajik’ vice-presidential post that had been held by the late Fahim before. Indirectly, this made him the most senior Jamiati in government at that point.

(6) This alleged offer came against the backdrop of the affair surrounding Uzbek leader and First Vice President Abdulrashid Dostum, who stands accused of having his guards rape a political rival and amidst debates of whether that would cost him his job (a media report here). These accusations emerged publicly in December 2016 (media report here).

(8) Salahuddin Rabbani, however, does not seem to have given up. On 22 February 2017, in a speech at Jamiat’s youth organisation, Sazman-e Jawanan Jamiat-e Islami-ye Afghanistan, he spoke in favour of a parliamentary system “as the best method of governance,” and criticised the fact that no seats had been allocated to political parties in the coming parliamentary election, and promised that Jamiat “will come forward on the scene more coherently in the next Wolesi Jirga elections” and that “we will focus more on the internal cohesion of Jamiat in the year ahead.” (It was unclear whether this “we” was a pluralis majestatis, actually meaning himself, or whether he meant the full Jamiat leadership in general.) His speech can be watched in this video.


Atta Muhammad Nur Balkh Dr Abdullah Jamiat-e Islami presidency