Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Campaign Trail 2010 (1): Badakhshan – drugs, border crossings and parliamentary seats

Fabrizio Foschini 9 min

The final candidates list for the 2010 parliamentary elections takes shape. It is expected for 21 June. Recently, the Independent Election Commission (IEC) reinstated seven candidates that had been removed from the list before. But currently, the vetting process has been frozen by the IEC – it waits for the return of the President from a trip abroad. As the elections get closer, AAN will look at various of its aspects and the situation in some provinces. In the first installment in this series, Fabrizio Foschini, AAN’s Junior Researcher in Kabul, looks at Badakhshan.

Until recently counted among the safest provinces in the country – actually still so, notwithstanding a string of acts of violence during last month – remote Badakhshan province is the theatre of a peculiar but far from marginal political life. Long associated withJamiat-e Islami party and its most prominent leader, former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, Badakhshan politics present a surprisingly varied face. And if the relative security enjoyed by the province alone can not guarantee for transparency and absence of fraud in the next elections, it at least allows for them to take place in the whole of the districts, a rare feature by now in Afghanistan.
First, let us see more in detail who are the main contesters for the nine seats allocated for the province in the Wolesi Jirga. The number of candidates in Badakhshan has increased in comparison to the past elections, a trend similar to that of other Northern provinces. Compared to 88 candidates in 2005, this year’s elections will feature 97 candidates. Women presence has even doubled, from eight to 16, giving Badakhshan the highest percentage of women candidates in the North-Eastern region.

Starting from well-known MP Fawzia Kufi and her colleague Kubra Dehqan, usually considered “democrats” inside the parliament (both run for a second term), women candidates display a wide range of geographic origin. Still their background often features a common tract: Most of them stem from families connected with politics since a long time with, for example, fathers who were members of parliament or wuluswal or ’alaqadar (district/sub-district administrator) in King Zaher Shah’s time. Others have past family affiliations with Marxist organisations.

Badakhshan is known as an area with considerable previous activity of leftist parties, like the PDPA or Settam-e Melli and its successor organisation, SAZA(1). The leadership of the latter came mainly from Badakhshan, and their political tradition is still represented, especially where the former party cadres originated from some big landlord family. Many of the strongest “democratic” candidates – the few among them who are thought to have fair chances to succeed – derive their support from their ashraf (noble) origin as much as from their previous PDPA or SAZA party networks. One candidate from Darayim for example, Shah Abdul Ahad Afzali, who is a former SAZA member, comes from the family of Mohammad Wali Khan Darwazi, Afghanistan’s first Foreign Minister and a life-long supporter of King Amanullah (ruled 1919-29). This situation is not only a matter of long-lasting relations of respect or patronage in rural context, the fact is that elections are a rather expensive issue, and most of the candidates without strong economic assets cannot simply afford to get good votes.

That brings us to the most represented category among Badakhshan candidates, notwithstanding the ban on persons with links to armed groups: that of (former) commanders. Even if it is true, as often claimed by interviewed candidates, that normal people are fed up with commanders’ abuses and corruption, it is even truer that their disillusion often also extends to the possibility of other representatives changing their lives for better. This brings them to see elections as a short term bargain: their vote against money to meet their immediate needs. And of course, apart from aristocratic families, it is the commanders who are the wealthy people around.

Among the 44 candidates AAN could identify, at least 16 have been commanders during the jihad and civil war – and almost all had retained security positions in the aftermath. This makes a striking percentage in a “pacified” province, especially when compared to the ten secular intellectuals and six religious leaders to be found in the sample. Out of these, ten have links with Jamiat-e Islami (three of them more specifically with Shura-ye Nazar), four with Hezb-e Islami and one with Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami (now Da’wat-e Islami), while another one is an outsider, (the son of an Ismaili religious leader from Baghlan province, actually playing more the sectarian card than his real power on the ground). But sheer numbers are not an asset in themselves, as more candidates from a social category, party or district are only likely to diminish everybody else’s chances to get elected; they show more the fractious, and often violently competitive, character of the commanders’ networks in Badakhshan.

It is true that Badakhshan represented for some 30 years a bastion ofJamiat-e Islami, one of the oldest and biggest political formations in today’s Afghanistan. Burhanuddin Rabbani, founder of the party, Interim President of Afghanistan from 1992 to 1996 and head of the rest of the ‘Islamic State of Afghanistan’ (ISA) that had not been taken by the Taleban up to 2001, hails from one of its central districts, Yaftal. Faizabad, the provincial centre,acted as the ISA’s capital in 2000 and 2001. The advent of Karzai’s administration did not immediately alter the status quo in the province, and until today Rabbani’s close relatives and associates hold key positions in the provincial government. For example his nephew, Shams-ur-Rahman, who as Deputy Governor has survived more than one governor, is rumoured to wield more power even than his “superior” Baz Mohammad Ahmadi, himself a former Jamiat commander.

Nonetheless, with the consolidation of Karzai’s hold on power and the refinement of his political action at provincial level, Jamiat’s hegemony on Badakhshan was challenged in many ways. As it happened in other Northern provinces, Jamiat’s “natural enemies”, members of Hezb-e Islami, were summoned from inside and outside the province and appointed to top government positions to break the Jamiat chain of command & control. The two principal Hezb-e Islami local leaders, MP Mawlawi Abdul Aziz from Ragh district, and Argu strongman (and district governor) Mosadeq, have supported Karzai in 2009, and are both redoubtable candidates in the next elections.

But a stronger, more direct means of increasing government leverage in the province was found in the person of Zalmay Mojaddedi. A former small Jamiati commander from Jorm district, he was expelled from Badakhshan during the “commanders’ wars” – the internecine conflict among Northern Alliance strongmen that raged in the province from the mid-1990s, even while the struggle against the Taleban was going on, well into the first years of the new Karzai government. Zalmay found shelter and employment in Kabul, becoming the head of the NDS branch in charge of Karzai’s security. From 2005 onwards, he has been sponsored as Karzai’s man for Badakhshan, gaining not only an MP seat in the past parliamentary elections, but also a strong position for himself on the ground, both in terms of political power and economic assets. Just to give an example, he is rumoured to have facilitated the appointment of a leader of the Kirghiz community to the Senate in exchange for help in putting up a personal livestock business (the lucrative karakul sheep) in the Pamir.

In 2006, the number of Badakhshan’s districts was officially raised from 13 to 28, and between summer 2006 and March 2007 a vast turnover of local officials was effected from Kabul, with the appointments of a number of Zalmay or Hezb-e Islami supporters in place of Rabbani Jamiatis or Shura-ye Nazar affiliates. These moves, carried out with the political support of the then Minister of Interior Zarar Moqbel (another Jamiati won over by Karzai), gave Mojaddedi’s allies the control of most of the provincial border crossings, the real keys for power in Badakhshan.

The biggest economic asset of the province, the one business most of the would-be Badakhshan VIPs find necessary and profitable to enter into sooner or later, is in fact cross-border smuggling. Actually, some sources claim that the local control of routes and border crossings in Badakhshan corresponds to the map of political power grouping in the province.

Even if Badakhshan has lost its former status as one of the principal opium producing regions in Afghanistan, the local expertise and trade links have been maintained. Many laboratories for heroin processing are active in the province, especially in the central districts of Teshkan, Derayim, Jorm and Khash but have become smaller than they used to be in past years and consequently more difficult to identify and dismantle. Some candidates for the Wolesi Jirga elections are said to be directly linked with this business. Opiates are traded in a semi-overt way at border crossings where most of local police is part of the business or cannot interfere, often for Russian weapons which find their way to every armed group inside Afghanistan – insurgents included.

The power of local commanders has grown with the physical removal of prominent political actors to the capital. The direct dealing in narcotics is left to the former, in exchange for a share of the profit (usually money paid for being appointed at an advantageous position in the security forces) and political support in time of elections. With the actual distribution of power and the role played by national security forces in appointing local actors which manage the narco-traffic – a “joint extraction regime” beneficial for all the parts involved -, there is little prospect of a future reduction in it, unless it came from a decline in economic profitability of the opiates trade. This is, however, an unlikely development, also in view of the first signs of a reprise of the century-old opium route to China through Tajikistan, which opens another potentially huge market for the Badakhshi traffickers.

With this in mind, elections in the province represent mainly an opportunity to reformulate power balances and shares in the drug trafficking. But the relevance of certain political actors from Badakhshan makes its results likely to impact the political balance also at the national level. Rabbani is not running again for a Wolesi Jirga seat, and his designed successor, Abdul Shukkur Waqif Hakimi, is believed to possess neither his charisma nor his ability to mediate. Also, Rabbani’s presidency over the recent Consultative Peace Jirga cast another shadow on the real extent of his support for the opposition grouping around Dr. Abdullah.

In general, Jamiat politics in Badakhshan appears to be quite fragmented, as witnessed by the high number of candidates belonging to the party, sometimes originating even from the same district. Even Shura-ye Nazarcommanders appear to be divided. Most of them seem to support the candidacy of Sardar Khan, who is trying again after he was excluded from elections in 2005 due to his links with an armed group. The cost for this admission has been going through some DDR and relinquishing control of the Ishkashim bazaar and border crossing. Although it still looks like he could get elected, he has to face tough competition – even in his home area of Warduj and Baharak – from other Shura-ye Nazar power-brokers who decided to side with Zalmay Mojaddedi and have not been idle in the past years, building their local power through the institutional positions they had received. Judging by the presidential elections last year, Karzai was able to make inroads even in many Jamiat or Shura-ye Nazar strongholds like Warduj, Jorm and Koran wa Munjan through the support of commanders loyal to Zalmay or Fahim.

The previous analysis leaves out the votes of some particular districts, in particular those constituting the historical region of Darwaz and those inhabited overwhelmingly by Ismailis. Both areas present inner variety, but a common feature: a sort of secluded political game deriving from less direct control by commanders in the past, and from a strong ethnic cum political identity.

Darwaz appears to be to a great extent under the spell of Fawzia Kufi, which with the help of her family and her personal activities has been able to stand out as a contestant on equal terms with her male colleagues in many fields. She has played a smart game so far, keeping her balance between the two main provincial blocs, and supporting Abdullah in last year elections without falling out with the government faction in doing that. Not only did she extend and diversify the geographical span of her constituencies, but she also seems to have great plans for the future, hinting at a move to Kabul province in the next elections (scheduled for 2015), while her sister Maryam, this year running in Takhar province in what looks much like a training exercise, will probably take her place in the family home province.

Another candidate originating from Darwaz, Latif Pedram, has already attained a national, if controversial, status as leader of the National Congress party (another leftists ethno-nationalist outfit) and former presidential candidate. He will probably not find it too difficult to gather votes in his home district, in urban centres and among secularists and young people from across the province.

The Ismaili districts, and Shughnan remarkably among them, are home to the highest concentration of leftist voters. All four candidates from Shughnan are from a PDPA or SAZA background, and the rivalry between the two factions is still the main feature of political life in the district. The support for leftist parties is, in contrast with most of Afghanistan, not exclusive to intellectuals or a “tribal” feature with superficial roots, but a strongly interiorized political identity. One of the candidates, Muhammad Jan Pamiri, is the vice-president of a prominent offshoot of the PDPA’s Khalq wing, Hezb-e Ghurdzang-e Milli (National Movement Party). Shahnawaz Tanai, the party leader and candidate for last year’s presidential elections, though strongly connoted as an ethnic Pashtun from Khost, received his biggest amount of votes, 4704, in Badakhshan, 3587 of which came from Shughnan, out of a district total of 8300.

Of course, some Ismaili candidates, though hailing from a leftist background, had to come to terms with the reality of commanders’ influence like in Ishkashim – to accept the company of wolves, as an Ismaili put it – and may choose to support Zalmay Mojaddedi. The latter has been able, after some failed efforts in past elections, to raise support for himself among the Ismailis. This could partly happen because he has not been responsible for abuses against them, in contrast to the mujahedin leaders that occupied the Ismaili areas after the Soviet withdrawal. He is also the main paladin of Karzai, whose democratic, cosmopolitan and anti-factional charm (though rusty) is still widely perceived by many Ismailis to be the best alternative to the volatile rule of Sunni commanders from neighbouring districs.

The Ismailis voted massively for Karzai last year, even in areas where they are subjected to the authority of mujahedin commanders that supported Abdullah, like Shiwa valley (the rest of the district of Arghanjkhwah, to which most of the valley now belongs, voted compactly for Abdullah).

Just to show the complexity of local networking that supersedes any easy ethnic/sectarian cross-cutting, it will be useful to end with a paradox. The trend of Ismaili support for Karzai experienced a complete reversal in the Ismaili dominated part of Warduj. In contrast with the Sunni half of the district, were Zalmay’s penetration gave Abdullah supporters a tough time, the opposition candidate got an easy victory at the polling stations drawing the votes of villages where the Ismailis are the majority. The Warduj Ismailis participated massively in the jihad, and the local Ismaili Shura-ye Nazar commander loyal to Sardar Khan was evidently able to gather support for Abdullah. Few valleys away, however, another former mujahedin commander of Ismaili origin, Sayyid Feroz of Munjan, supported Karzai, as he will most probably do this year with Zalmay Mojaddedi.

(1) SAZA: Sazman-e Inqilabi-ye Zahmatkashan-e Afghanistan(Revolutionary Organisation of Afghanistan’s Toilers), a leftwing ethno-nationalist group with an ideology based on the priorisation of ‘ethnic’ over ‘class suppression’. Originally a loose group that split off in 1968 from the PDPA, called ‘[Against] National Oppression’ (Settam-e Melli). Its leader, Taher Badakhshi, was killed by the PDPA regime. In 2007 SAZA merged with other groups into Hezb-e Azadegan.


Democratization Government


Fabrizio Foschini

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