Situated in a central position crossed by some of the most strategic road connections of the country, Baghlan province shows a high level of social and political fragmentation. The growing instability of the province does not bode well for the oncoming elections, and forecasts future problems for the government and the international forces in the area.
With a total of 118 candidates (including 12 women) for just 8 seats in the Wolesi Jirga – only Kabul and Laghman have a similarly high proportion of contenders – Baghlan inhabitants could be easily mistaken for a population of election enthusiasts. However, these high numbers seem to reflect more the fault lines splitting local communities and political groups, which prevented the most basics accords between candidates to take place (*). Looking at past elections, high numbers of candidates are not a new development for Baghlan. In the parliamentary elections of 2005 there were 106, and the number of participants to last year’s provincial council elections is even more striking, reaching 193 candidates for the 15 seats body.
Baghlan has been characterized for decades by a high number of different factions struggling to control this rich region’s economic assets and communication links and this is also reflected in the electoral competition.
Baghlan is a rich province, with a flourishing agriculture blessed by the water resources of the Baghlan-Kunduz river system and by proximity and good road connections to markets like Kabul and Mazar-e Sharif. Furthermore, the province has a relative concentration of industrial establishments (apart from the famed sugar mill, whose production is still hampered, cement factories and coal mines are active); the provincial capital Pul-e Khumri was once known as a rich and cosmopolitan worker city, and it was only after the war that poverty and hard competition for resources appeared.
The centrality of the province on the north-south axis allows flourishing illegal traffic too. Opium apart, weapons, hashish and scrap iron (trafficking of which is illegal) find their way to the neighbouring border provinces, a way that eventually can take a detour from the (sometimes) patrolled highways and climb up to old mujahedeen supply routes – previously nomadic herds paths – hidden in the hill-country stretching from the Salang to Takhar and Badakhshan provinces.
The political factionalism found fertile ground in which to develop in the mixed ethnic composition of the province. While the mountainous south, east and west of the province are inhabited mainly by Tajiks who sided with Jamiat-e Islami, the central and northern districts are dominated by Pashtuns, who came in different waves of settlement throughout the last century, and many of whom have supported Hezb-e Islami. Communities with a distinct political representation are the Kayan Ismailis inhabiting mainly Doshi district, and the Uzbeks dwelling in the northern part of the province, where Jonbesh-e Melli gathers some support. Finally, Pul-e Khumri (partly along with Doshi district center) has remained to this day a comparative hotspot of former PDPA members and other leftists.
But the convention of political affiliation following mainly ethnic or religious identity ends here, serving just for introductory purposes: the different communities of Baghlan are further divided among themselves in a struggle far less interested in ethnic considerations than in access to power.
As suggested by the successive appointment of ten governors in nine years, political instability in the province, even if not openly visible, has been a constant in past years. The roots of this situation are to be found in the conflicts for the control of the province’s strategic assets, which have been going on since the 80s. These conflicts erupted anew immediately after the establishment of the Karzai administration, when the Jamiati/Shura-ye Nazar forces ousted Naderi’s Ismaili militias from the main town centres and highways in early 2002. Since then, an uneasy situation has developed, in which the former Shura-ye Nazar commanders control the provincial security apparatus, while the central government endeavours to counterbalance their power by appointing mainly former Hezb-e Islami members from the local Pashtun community or other Karzai trustees as governors. This trend started early in 2003 when Mohammad Omar, actually a former Sayyaf commander, was appointed as governor and has continued to this day, with various degrees of conflicts between the governor and his police commander or other local strongmen (indeed, many governors were sacked after local demonstrations organized by Shura-ye Nazar leaders). Among the more controversial tenures was that of Jomah Khan Hamdard, the current governor of Paktia formerly known for his strong pro-Pashtun approach in several northern provinces. His 2005 governorship seems to have been instrumental in rallying the local Hezb-e Islami supporters, as well as gaining the loyalty of many other local government officials and industrial sector managers.
Notwithstanding that, none of the Baghlan MPs elected in the 2005 elections stemmed from Hezbi background, showing that economic and territorial control was still largely in the hands of the former Shura-ye Nazar and that the political fragmentation of Baghlan-e Markazi, Baghlan-e Jadid and Dahan-e Ghori districts had hindered Pashtun attempts to elect representatives.
Many of the outgoing MPs seem to be strong candidates for a second term. The position of the leader of the Kayan Ismailis, Sayyid Mansur Naderi, should be guaranteed by his religious charisma as well as by his remaining economic assets, notwithstanding the rival candidacies of two of his family members, his son in law Sayyid Hossamuddin Haqbin (who displays a suspiciously appropriate “axe” as electoral symbol to counter Mansur’s “palm tree”) and his own son, Sayyid Olfat.
Other favourites among the current MPs include Engineer Muhammad Asem, a former Jamiat commander from Nahrin district, Mawlawi Abdul Haq from the Uzbek-dominated (and Taliban-controlled) Burka district and Shukria Isa Khel, a female candidate with strong family connections to provincial authorities and a close ally of Karzai’s. On the other hand, a prominent Tajik family from Khost wa Fereng district associated with Sayyaf’s Ittihad-e Islami will probably manage to retain one of its members in the parliament: former Minister of Agriculture Obaidullah Ramin took the place of his retiring MP brother as a candidate for the elections.
Some external stakeholders too are interested in the outcome of the elections in Baghlan, looking for consolidation or further advancement of their economic interests. The Ghuri cement factory, the major (and only) cement producer of the whole country, is owned largely by Mahmud Karzai. The bulk of the industrial and real estate assets of the province seems actually to belong to a mixed class of Kabul-based banks and Kandahari/Panjshiri businessmen and politicians, among which Karzai and Fahim associates feature prominently. But business partnership does not necessarily extend to the domain of politics, and Karzai and Fahim are following rather different agendas with respect to the province.
Fahim’s long-term supporter in Baghlan is Mustafa Andarabi, a former Shura-ye Nazar commander and provincial police chief (he now serves in this capacity in Logar province). He seems to have moved beyond the realm of mere commander-politics, heading towards more ambitious projects: one of his brothers, Muhammad Rasul Mohseni, is the head of the Provincial Council, and another, younger and university educated, is a candidate in the oncoming elections, enjoying some support among students and young people. The family holds firmly a big share of Baghlan’s power and riches, being the dominant group in Pul-e Khumri.
Karzai’s governors on the other hand are rumoured to entertain connections with the Hezb-e Islami armed groups roaming the northern districts, and to have used them to contain Abdullah’s lead during the presidential election in 2009. This includes the last two governors: Mohammad Akbar Barakzai (now running as candidate) and Munshi Abdul Majid, both Hezb-e Islami, though the latter appears to be a compromise candidate agreeable to Fahim too. Some of the local Pashtun commanders – like the late Bashir Baghlani, whose son is now a candidate, or his deputy Amir Gul, district chief of Baghlan-e Jadid – have a rather long record of “mercenary” service for this or that patron: they have been used by Fahim to counter Jonbesh before becoming Karzai’s tool to foil Tajik hegemony. Still, presidential attempts to get hold of some degree of power in the province through Hezb-e Islami suffered a setback early this year, when Taliban and Hezb-e Islami fighters clashed in the north of the province in early March. The conflict was apparently caused by disputes over the taxation of farmers, and the Taliban gained the upper hand and most of territorial control in the fertile districts of Dahan-e Ghuri and Baghlan-e Markazi (**).
It is not clear how much the outcome of this conflict will affect Karzai’s local supporters in their run for parliament, but the overall impact on elections in northern Baghlan will be heavy. Insecurity is already at its highest in the region, even after the first big operation involving foreign forces took place in May. Campaigning would be an unfeasible risk for most of the candidates, and during election day, the insurgents, or any other armed group, can easily keep away potential voters by random firing of rounds or rockets, or by more serious attacks, as in last year’s elections.
Campaigning seems to be doomed to fail or to take place only with severe hindrances in most of the province. Indeed, many candidates reported the impossibility of addressing large crowds which would inevitably be bound to become a target for explosions or rocket attacks and few have the means to provide tight security measures even for small gatherings. Candidates’ programs will reach many places only indirectly, through printed posters or by word of mouth, a striking change from the campaigning experience of five years ago.
This set of problems is not going to be limited to the Pashtun-inhabited districts. The political landscape of Baghlan shows yet another feature: a high percentage of Tajik candidates, especially from the southern districts of Khinjan and Andarab (now divided in 3 woleswalis: Banu, Pul-e Hisar and Deh Salah), which constitute the stronghold of the Shura-ye Nazar commanders who have dominated political life in the province since 2001. Contradicting book theories and usual stereotypes, these Tajiks communities and their strongmen appear to behave quite “tribally” and to have become more fragmented than even the Pashtuns of northern Baghlan.
The powerful Andarabi faction, traditionally closely allied to Fahim, has in fact split into a myriad of small but heavily armed groups. Some of them still linger behind the biggest strongman, Mustafa Andarabi, while others may feel attracted by the increasing power of Muhammad Atta, on the border of whose sphere of influence Baghlan rests. The majority of the petty commanders from Andarab and Khinjan however, seem to have reverted to internecine fighting and highway robbery, putting up check-points to stop travellers and tax nomads’ livestock and fighting each other in order to expand their territorial control. The most disturbing feature about these new “post-democracy” warlords is their reported young age, in some cases less than twenty years old. Andarab is, after all, a poor and under-developed mountain area and being on the winning side in 2001 did not necessarily change the economic conditions of more than a few of the most prominent commanders’ families. This has resulted in the local strongmen’s fight for resources and their readiness to assume a quasi-illegal stance towards the government, from which they do not expect advantages or fear retribution.
Paralleling the destabilization taking place in the northern districts and posing a real threat to the Salang Pass, the major road connection between the North and the South of the country, the climate of violence in Khinjan and Andarab is likely to negatively affect the electoral process. Local strongmen registered in the elections will seek to prevent other candidates from campaigning and intimidate voters on election day, using the threat of the smaller commanders while denying that they exercise any leverage over them.
As of late, alarm bells have been ringing in the national press. Local authorities have warned that most of Baghlan districts could fall in the hands of the Taliban who are said to operate freely even in the suburbs of the provincial capital, This is a somewhat exaggerated statement – while it is certain that most of the districts are beyond the government’s grip, they are not necessarily under Taliban control. However, Taliban activities are expected to increase with the approaching elections unless there is a speedy major build-up of security forces – according to MP Muhammad Asem this would require at least another 2000 soldiers or policemen. This however seems unlikely.
Muhammad Asem further predicted that if the situation remains unchanged, only 30% of the provincial territory/population is likely to witness actual elections taking place. That means that even if all the voters of those areas, 120,000 out of a total of around 400,000 registered voters, decided to join the election, slightly more than 1,000 votes on average will be left for each candidate, and winners will actually need barely a couple of thousand to make it into Parliament. And this of course, even without considering the high probability of widespread fraud, tells much about the representativeness of the future MPs of Baghlan Province.
(*) The practice of propping up rival candidates, through limited monetary support, to weaken strong enemy contestants, commonly exercised by the government and wealthy political actors, is also probably responsible for a number of these candidacies.
(**) Other sources opted for a more “classist” explanation: the Taliban “Lumpenproletariat” fighters, hired by the government-connected Hezb-e Islami to carry out violence and destabilize the province when needed, grew tired of fighting for the crumbs and crashed their former employers to achieve full control of the area. Another version is that the tentative replacement of Taliban groups with more “convenient” insurgents by the government was checked by the strong reaction of the former with monetary and weapon supply from across the border.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020