It is still not clear whether the resignation of Hazrat Sebghatullah Mujaddedi from all government positions last week was meant to be permanent, or a political manoeuvre planned to improve his chances in moving to lead the High Peace Council. Nevertheless, it is worth a closer look, argues Thomas Ruttig, Senior Analyst at AAN (with input by Gran Hewad), particularly as it could signify for President Karzai the loss of another important political ally; in this case the man who has been his mentor.
Prof. Sebghatullah Mujaddedi, one of the eight most important mujahedin leaders in the struggle against the Soviet occupation (1979-89)(1), has resigned from all his government positions. This includes his membership in the High Peace Council (HPC) and another independent dispute resolution panel, as well as his seat in the upper house of parliament, the Meshrano Jirga (or Senate). The latter technically is no government position, although Hazrat Saheb, as Afghans call him, belongs to the one third of the 102 senators appointed by the President.
The original statement by Mujaddedi’s office, reported by media in Kabul, cites the failure of the President ‘to consider the sincere views and demands of renowned jihadi leaders and public figures on issues of national importance’ as a reason for quitting, a hint of Mujaddedi’s disappointment that he has not been made the new HPC head after the previous chairman Prof. Burhanuddin Rabbani’s assassination. Meanwhile, the President’s office has said that the resignation has not been accepted.
When the HPC was established in 2010, Hazrat Saheb was one of the two leading contenders for its chair. But finally, Karzai opted for Rabbani, not least because this gave him the chance to coopt the senior figure of the political opposition. Mujaddedi had previously headed the less than successful HPC predecessor programme, Program-e Tahkim-e Solh (PTS), intended for the reintegration of insurgent fighters, but almost all of the reintegrated were either not fighters at all or low-level, and much of the programme money was syphoned off. PTS was all but officially closed down a few years ago on the insistence of donor governments for being ‘morally and financially bankrupt’, as an internal document said.
This is not the first time that Mujaddedi has resigned, only to return later. In 2005, when not elected in the first round as the Senate’s chairman, he stormed out of the hall decrying a ‘lack of respect’. He was persuaded to return, his rival withdrew his candidacy and Hazrat Saheb was proclaimed chairman without even a formal vote. He got his way again when he threatened to quit two years later when Herat’s mayor Muhammad Rafiq Mujaddedi – a member of his clan – was arrested by then Attorney General Abdul Jabar Sabet, who led a loose-cannon anti-corruption campaign. In the parliament’s annual inauguration session in 2009, Mujaddedi threatened his resignation yet again, criticising the government’s support for corrupt officials. A return, after some gesture of apology, is again possible now.
Nevertheless, his resignation – temporary or not – is relevant for two reasons. First, Hazrat Saheb is not just any Afghan politician or just ‘one of the Jihadi leaders’, as the former mujahedin leaders are referred to now. His personal relationship with the President, for whom he once acted as an elder guide, is particularly important. (More about this further below.)
Secondly, his fallout with Karzai – though it may be temporary – highlights a trend, of the incumbent President losing more key allies from earlier phases of the post-Taleban time, both non-Pashtun and Pashtun.(2)
On this point, the pro-human rights Kabul daily Hasht-e-Sobh a few days ago listed the names of those Karzai allies it said had turned into opponents: Muhammad Mohaqqeq (a Hazara leader), Abdulrashid Dostum (an Uzbek one), former interior minister Hanif Atmar (a Pashtun), the former head of the Afghan intelligence Amrullah Saleh, and Karzai’s former Vice President and brother of legendary Ahmad Shah Massud, Zia Massud (both Tajiks). Mohaqqeq, Dostum and, to an extent, Massud delivered ‘ethnic’ votes for Karzai in the presidential campaigns of 2004 and in 2009. Atmar was a loyal pro-Karzai campaigner during the elections, as well as during the 2002 Constitutional Loya Jirga when a hard-fought decision had to be taken between a presidential system (Karzai’s option) and a more parliamentary one (the Northerners’ preference). One could even add one of Karzai’s current Vice Presidents to the list, Mr Khalili, who retains his position but watches Karzai’s ‘reconciliation’ policy vis-à-vis the Taleban with more than concern. Even some of the President’s brothers rarely spare a chance to speak badly about him (sometimes even in public(3)), making his power-base extremely unreliable.
This forces the President to look for alternative allies. In some cases, he has worked with representatives of non-Pashtun groups who were either opposed to or had distanced themselves from their ‘traditional’ leaders. This included, for example, former interior minister Zarar Moqbel (a Tajik), General Abdul Malek (an Uzbek) and Nur Muhammad Qarqin (a Turkmen). But those politicians were either unable or unwilling to build their own powerbases, not least because they did not want to burn bridges with their old allies.
Some observers see the recent reshuffle of four provincial governors (in Farah, Logar, Sarepul and Uruzgan)(4) as an attempt by Karzai to reward politicians who have supported him during his 2010 campaign – and who have been ‘disappointed’ that no reward has been forthcoming so far. (But this is only one factor in the reshuffle.
Lacking a strong powerbase of his own, Karzai increasingly is playing the ethnic card (as his former and now estranged allies also do, including with their push for ‘decentralisation’ of the country.
And he is floating more and more into the orbit of Hezb-e Islami, or, to be more precise, of Hezb’s inland wing that has registered as a political party and claims to have severed links with its original leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who leads another Hezb wing which is the second largest insurgent group.(5) Many key politicians in Karzai’s close circle of advisers either belong to this party or did belong to Hezb when it was still united as a political-military body, during the anti-Soviet struggle, or to other political groups with Pashtun ethnocentric leanings.
This brings us back to Mujaddedi and his special personal relationship with Karzai. The President belonged to Mujaddedi’s tanzim-turned-political party in the 1980/90s, ran its foreign affairs and served as his deputy foreign minister when Hazrat Saheb spent two months as Interim President (April-June 1992), becoming the first post-communist head of state of Afghanistan. In this context, Mujaddedi is – and sees himself – as Karzai’s mentor if not elder/superior.(6) Moreover, the fact that Mujaddedi is the head of the Afghan branch of the international Sufi brotherhood of the Naqshbandiya, this relationship almost looks like a religious pir-murid (teacher-follower) relationship – although it is unknown whether Karzai belongs to this brotherhood or not.(7)
Mujaddedi (born in 1925) comes from an extremely influential religious family, the Hazrats of Shor Bazaar in Kabul (therefore the ‘Hazrat Saheb’), that stood in the focus of most of Afghanistan’s domestic conflicts over the past hundred years. With their spiritual centre at Dar-ul-Madares, one of the most important Afghan madrassas, located just outside Ghazni city, the Mujaddedis belonged to the major backers (some Afghan sources say with British money) of the finally successful uprisings against reformer-king Amanullah in the early 20th century. Al-Azhar-educated Sebghatullah Mujaddedi participated in the 1960s demonstrations organised by the clergy against what they saw as the growing influence of the Soviets(8), and was imprisoned from 1959 to 1964 for participation in an alleged conspiracy to assassinate visiting Soviet President Khrushtchov, and later, under President Daud, against the participation of leftists in his government. Threatened by new arrest, he went into exile, running the central mosque in Copenhagen (Denmark). His treatment in jail did not make him a friend of Zaher Shah.(9)
After the PDPA coup d’etat in 1978, and the subsequent murder of almost one hundred family members by the new regime (including the head of the family, Muhammad Ibrahim Mujaddedi, titled Zia ul-Mashayekh),
Mujaddedi returned to the region and created his own mujahedin tanzim. After the Soviet invasion over Christmas 1979, his group became one of the so-called Peshawar Seven(10), the Sunni mujahedin tanzim (organisations) based in and supported by Pakistan, with Western and Arab backing, although usually considered the smallest one. After the Soviets had withdrawn in 1989, the Najibullah regime collapsed in 1992, a coalition of former pro-regime and mujahedin commanders took over Kabul, and the mujahedin leaders based in Pakistan returned, establishing an (almost) all-party government led by Mujaddedi. (The Shia tanzims of the former Tehran Eight(11), most of which had united into Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami by then, did not receive any cabinet seat.) Under Mujaddedi’s successor Rabbani, factional war broke out again. Finally, with the Taleban at the gates of Kabul, the eight big tanzims reunited, but too late.Mujaddedi ended up in exile, again, as most of the other leaders.
Under the Karzai government, Mujaddedi became the chairman of the first Senate (2005-10). He did not stand for the same position again in 2010, remaining an ‘ordinary’ senator, apparently hoping for the HPC chair. This is much more a potentially lucrative then powerful position, given the lack of clout the council has among the target group of the Taleban.
But Mujaddedi is too egocentric to be able to reinvigorate the HPC as a team if he had been chosen to lead it then or now. And his repeated, sharp public criticism of Pakistan’s main intelligence agency, the ISI, for interfering in and destabelising Afghanistan (he is the only Jihadi leader who does this) significantly reduces his chances as the HPC will need to engage the influential neighbour..
After Pir Gailani, another former mujahedin leader, declared that he is not in the race for the HPC top job, only Hazrat Saheb and Rabbani’s son Salahuddin remain real contenders. Karzai now has the choice between offending one more powerful or one rather marginal ally: while the Rabbanis with their considerable support in commander networks in the North and even among some Pashtun tribes in Kandahar (Arghandab) and Uruzgan are a considerable factor, Mujaddedi’s party is more or less a one-man show, with not much political influence or military clout.
At the same time, the President might use Hazrat Saheb’s resignation as a tool to pressure Salahuddin Rabbani, who is less acceptable for the elders and ulema in the HPC because of his young age, also to abstain and accept another position. And give the chair to a third contender, Sayyaf, instead.
Given this context, Karzai might suffer more loss of face than practical political support if his former mentor Hazrat Saheb’s resignation turns out to be permanent. Instead, he will be able to please more powerful allies.
(1) Only five are still alive, besides Mujaddedi: Pir Gailani, MP and wannabe Chief Justice Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf, Vice President Abdul Karim Khalili (the only Shia among them) and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar who, as the only one, is not part of the current political set-up in Kabul and leads the second largest insurgent group, Hezb-e Islami. Yunos Khales and Muhammad Nabi Muhammadi have died of old age, Burhanuddin Rabbani was assassinated last year. Mujaddedi’s tanzim is Jabha-ye Nejat-e Melli-ye Afghanistan (Afghanistan National Salvation Front). Note the absence of the word ‘Islamic’ in the name; as the only among the big tanzims, Hazrat Saheb seemed to have believed that he does not need any additional religious legitimacy beyond his family’s pedigree.
(2) Mujaddedi’s ancestor, the Sufi reformer Sheikh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624), was purportedly born in Kabul, therefore the Mujaddedi’s are considered Pashtun.
(3) According to Kabul-based daily Mandegar, (31 May 2011), Mahmud Karzai has criticized the government’s inefficiency and that it provides the opportunity ‘to thousands of people to loot other peoples’ properties’ (source: AAN media monitoring).
(4) Source: Hewad daily (Kabul), 3 April 2012, AAN media monitoring.
(5) The registered wing of Hezb is using the same name and party insignia as Hekmatyar’s. Many Afghans doubt that the split is genuine.
(6) Diplomats report that Mujaddedi, at times, referred to the President as ‘his assistant’ while the latter was in the highest office already.
(7) It is known to be strong in Kandahar province, though.
(8) In general, Islamists like Mujaddedi rejected that the King’s government sent military officers to the Soviet Union for training. (This happened after the US had rejected a larger military cooperation with Afghanistan, after the latter had refused to join the Baghdad Pact, later CENTO, for the sake of keeping its historic neutrality.) More concretely, the demonstrations were triggered by a communist Afghan poet’s eulogy of Lenin printed in one of leftist newspapers, in which he used terminology usually reserved for praising Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
(9) This was ignored by most authors who wrote about the Afghan mujahedin during the 1980s and usually counted Mujaddedi’s tanzim among the ‘moderate’ and ‘pro-monarchy’ groups.
(10) Peshawar Seven: The seven major Pakistani- and Western supported Sunni tanzims: Jamiat (Rabbani/Massud), Hezb (Hekmatyar), Hezb (Khales), Harakat-e Enqelab-e Islami (Nabi), Ittehad (Sayyaf), NIFA (Gailani) and Jabha (Mujaddedi).
(11) Tehran Eight: Eight Iran-based and –supported Shia tanzims, 1989 most of them merged into Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami (under late Ustad Mazari), now split into various factions. One of the Tehran Eight that did not join Wahdat is Harakat-e Islami (Mohseni), also split in different factions now.
(12) But other options are at least ventilated, as Jon Boone and Emma Graham-Harrison point out in their 3 April 2012 Guardian article ‘Leading Afghans cast doubt on election schedule’.
Photo c/o website of the Meshrano Jirga (Afghan Senate/Upper House)
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020