Parliament was about to start scrutinising President Karzai’s nominations for three of the most powerful positions in government, plus one less significant ministry yesterday (Tuesday). But the nominees did not make into the Wolesi Jirga because the MPs demanded that they must be accompanied by either the President or one of his deputies in person.(1) (In earlier cases, the Minister for Parliamentary Affairs had been accepted instead who also was present yesterday.) On today’s Wednesday, it is due to vote to accept or reject the four candidates (this still can happen, with the hearings taking place before). They are: Mujtaba Patang, a professional policeman formerly associated with the PDPA, is promoted from Deputy to Minister of Interior; Bismillah Khan, senior commander with Jamiat/Shura-e Nazar, moves back from Interior to Defence; Haji Din Muhammad, scion of the powerful Arsala clan of Nangarhar and former deputy leader of Hezb-e Islami Khales, becomes Minister of Tribes and Borders; and most controversially, Assadullah Khaled, former governor of Ghazni and Kandahar, is the candidate for director of the National Directorate of Security (NDS), despite allegations against him of torture – something he denies. AAN’s senior analyst, Kate Clark, has been looking into the backgrounds of the four men ahead of the vote and of the implications of Karzai’s proposed re-shuffle.
It is a critical time for President Karzai to nominate new men to the three power ministers (NDS is not a ministry, but equivalent to one, with the director sitting in cabinet and answering directly to the president). There is the ongoing war with the Taleban, conflict with neighbouring Pakistan over cross-border shelling, the transfer (enteqal) of responsibility for security to Afghan forces, huge training programmes for police and army and rising numbers of ‘green’ (Afghan forces) on ‘blue’ (ISAF forces) attacks. The work of those in charge of Interior, Defence and NDS is of national importance and all need to have solid working relationships with the foreign military and intelligence agencies.
These ministries are also big and well-funded, providing huge opportunities for patronage and graft – the means to extend networks and make money – if desired. Whatever the integrity of any man in charge, he must inevitably also face huge pressure to reward friends and placate powerful vested interests.
Finally, Afghanistan is only eighteen months away from the presidential elections. Such a re-shuffle of powerful political positions has to be seen in that light too. This is not be so much about getting in competent ministers to important posts whose work might increase the popularity of the Karzai government – and whoever he might support to succeed him – but about making sure key people are in place, shoring up support and getting the right balance between different political blocks who are able to get the ‘vote’ out.
These are key positions, so who are the ‘new’ men Karzai wants for the top jobs?
Assadullah Khaled – for Director of NDS
It has taken Khaled many years to become Afghanistan’s intelligence chief. His name first came up in this respect in 2003 as a possible successor to Engineer Aref, a Panjshiri, but he got the Ghazni governorship instead. A charismatic man, fiercely anti-Taleban, first a protégé of Saudi-sponsored mujahedin leader Abdul Rabb Rasul Sayyaf, later a close ally of the Karzais, and, all importantly, with a long established, close working relationship with the US military and CIA (he speaks English very well), Khaled has been accused by Canadians officials among others of personally carrying out torture. If he gets the vote of confidence, he has the makings of being an extraordinarily powerful – and highly contentious – NDS boss.
Born in 1969(2), from the Nawa district of Ghazni, he is Taraki by tribe and comes from a notable family. His father was a Zaher Shah-era MP, winning the Andar seat in 1965 by beating the man who would go on to seize the presidency in the 1978 coup, Nur Muhammad Taraki. An uncle, an Ittihad-e Islami commander, was killed during the 1980s jihad. This gave him a good entry level into Ittihad – one of the few Pashtun factions in the former United Front (also called the Northern Alliance). He was based in the north and in Tajikistan during the years of Taleban rule. His official biography says he studied law in Tajikistan. There is also the story – which may or may not be true – that he began, in 2000 and 2001, recovering Stinger missiles on behalf of Ittihad’s boss, Sayyaf. (The US had donated anti-aircraft Stingers to the mujahedin in the 1980s and then had a buy-back programme, paying out lots of money because of the fear the missiles would get into the wrong – mainly Iranian – hands.) This may have been when Khaled first had contact with the Americans.
His first job after the fall of the Taleban was director of the fifth department of NDS. He then became governor of Ghazni (2003) and of Kandahar (2005), was appointed State Minister of Parliamentary Affairs – a job he did not accept (2008) – and Minister of Border and Tribal affairs (2011). For the latter position, he only got a sufficient number of votes from parliament at the second attempt.
Khaled was a very close associate of the President’s half-brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai. After the latter’s assassination last year, he was appointed director of security for the southern zone, while keeping his ministerial job. He is also thought to have taken over from Ahmad Wali as the point man for the Kandahar Strike Force, one of the irregular anti-Taleban militias which has been accused of serious abuses and which works closely with US Special Operations Forces and the CIA, apparently, outside Ministry of Defence command (for reporting and further sources, see here). Khaled gained more kudos, this year, by promoting the ‘Andar Uprising’, the supposedly popular anti-Taleban rebellion in a district of Ghazni.(2)
Already a powerful man, Khaled’s new post takes him to a whole different level of power. At NDS, he has nationwide access to intelligence, patronage and muscle. This is the agency which deals with security prisoners and gathers intelligence on the insurgency and other internal and external threats. The director not only has the president’s ear but also should have influence within the CIA with which he closely works – the CIA funds the NDS and, according to Pakistani journalist and author Ahmed Rashid, also ‘partly manages’ it.
However, Khaled’s appointment is highly controversial. Despite the accusations of torture which have dogged him since his time in Ghazni and Kandahar – and which he has always strongly denied – the president has nominated him to head up the Afghan agency with the worst record on torture. This issue came to a head after the publication last year of two damning reports (by UNAMA and by the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission (AIHRC) in cooperation with the Open Society Foundation).
The reports forced the US military and ISAF to finally take their legal responsibilities seriously. Under the Convention Against Torture, they are banned from handing over a prisoner if there are ‘substantial grounds for believing he would be in danger of being subjected to torture’ (article 3). Additionally, for the US, the 1997 ‘Leahy Amendment’ forbids the funding and training of foreign military units where credible allegations exist of gross violations of human rights. The scandal caused by the two torture reports compelled ISAF to act and this had a knock on effect on NDS. It is the main Afghan agency dealing with Afghan security detainees, so ISAF had to start scrutinising it and monitoring transferred prisoners through the Afghan system.
The man in charge of NDS at the time, Khaled’s predecessor, Rahmatullah Nabil (4), was seen by human rights activists as someone who was trying to curb torture. This was no easy job for the UNHCR engineer turned presidential palace security supremo, turned NDS boss. Torture has been used for decades by Afghan intelligence and remains widespread and routine. Moreover, Nabil, a technocrat with no real independent power base and no NDS experience, had to work with powerful deputies, including General Hessamuddin Hessam, a Panjshiri who is close to the First Vice President Marshal Muhammad Qasem Fahim(5) and Qayyum Katawazai, from Paktika, a close associate of Khaled who was provincial head of the NDS when Khaled was governor in Ghazni and then Kandahar.
Human rights activists were horrified when Karzai nominated Khaled as director of NDS. Both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have reported accusations that he personally tortured detainees and had an oversight role in torture while governor of Ghazni and Kandahar. The AIHRC has been more circumspect, saying it had investigated the claims about Khaled (but did not say what conclusion it reached), that it did not support or condemn his nomination, but did urge him or any other head of NDS to ‘stay committed to upholding human rights and the law, to consider all the national and international human rights regulations, and avoid any kind of violation’.
The most detailed allegations have come from a senior Canadian diplomat who worked directly with Khaled when he was governor in Kandahar and the Canadians had a PRT there. Richard Colvin told a parliamentary enquiry into the transfer of detainees by the Canadian military to the Afghan authorities that:
He was known to us very early on, in May and June 2006, as an unusually bad actor on human rights issues. He was known to have had a dungeon in Ghazni, his previous province, where he used to detain people for money, and some of them disappeared. He was known to be running a narcotics operation. He had a criminal gang. He had people killed who got in his way. And then in Kandahar we found out that he had indeed set up a similar dungeon under his guest house. He acknowledged this. When asked, he had sort of justifications for it, but he was known to personally torture people in that dungeon.(6)
Revelations that Canada knew about the abuse of detainees and Khaled’s alleged role, but not only kept this secret (censoring the governor’s names from documents), but also failed to investigate or stop handing over detainees caused a political scandal in Canada.(7)
By the middle of 2010, such domestic scandals and court cases had already forced the armies of Canada, the UK and several other countries to stop routinely handing over detainees to NDS. The all-powerful US military and ISAF in general chosen to ignore the issue until the UNAMA and AIHRC torture reports forced their hand – and NDS likewise. One of the key issues now is how and whether Afghanistan’s international military backers feel they can work with the newly nominated NDS boss. Until now, neither their legal obligations or the allegations made by a NATO partner against Khaled have made any apparent difference to his main backers, the US military and CIA, in this respect. Any concerns about his methods of operation have always been trumped by his reputation as a good fighter against the Taleban; this is despite the fact that abusive officials are one factor that drives the insurgency.
As yet, there appears to have been no obvious diplomatic reaction to his appointment, with the US being described by one international official in Kabul as ‘hiding its head in the sand’ over the appointment. Human rights activists fear that, at the very least, reform at NDS is at an end.
Ghulam Mujtaba Patang – for Minister of Interior
A man of a very different stripe is General Mujtaba Patang, the candidate for the interior ministry, whose rise to the highest ranks of government has been exceptionally swift. A Logari from the small Abdulrahimzai tribe, he was a serving junior police officer during the PDPA era and probably a party member in the Khalqi wing. His official biography says he stayed on as an officer during the mujahedin government, has a discrete gap for the five years of Taleban rule, and then says he had a minor position in the ministry in 2002.(8)
Patang’s break-through came in January 2003 when the then minister, Ahmad Ali Jalali, as part of his attempts, as he would see it, to ‘professionalise’ the police force, appointed him in charge of liaison with the Provincial Reconstruction Teams (PRTs). From 2006, he became in quick succession: Takhar chief of police, police commander of the northern zone (303 Pamir), head of education and training for the Afghan National Police, Deputy Interior Minister with responsibility for the Afghan Public Protection Force (which took over most private security jobs from private companies earlier this year) and now – if parliament agrees – minister.
People speak of Patang as a good professional policeman. His career appears to have got a boost from the police pay and reform programme which began in 2005 and removed commanders who were illiterate or accused of involvement in crime or abuses. Additionally, former ministry sources said he benefitted from being a rare Pashtun in a Tajik dominated force. His swift rise has also come on the back of his building up excellent contacts with Ustad Atta Muhammad Nur, the governor of Balkh and the most powerful figure in northern Afghanistan, and with Marshal Fahim. He is also said to have done a little campaigning in the north for Karzai during the 2009 presidential election and to have excellent foreign contacts.
It is a long time since a professional police officer was minister of the interior. However, that is no guarantee of success. The ministry is notoriously difficult to handle, given especially its reputation as a place where posts can be bought and sold, where, in the words of a report on drugs by the World Bank and the UN Office on Drugs and Crime, chiefs of police were appointed ‘to both protect and promote criminal interests’ (That report was published in 2006, but others have made similar observations more recently.) The issue is not whether Patang is himself corrupt, but whether he has the clout or the desire to stand up against those wanting to control the goodies which his ministry offers.
Patang’s brief, like Bismillah Khan’s at Defence, is difficult given the efforts and haste to train up huge numbers of ANP and Afghan Local Police (ALP) before international troops leave at the end of 2014 and the continuing problems with green-on-blue attacks and abuses by the ALP.
Bismillah Khan Muhammadi – for Defence Minister
Bismillah Khan, born in 1961 in the Panjshir Valley, fought alongside Ahmad Shah Massud in the 1980s, rising through the ranks to become one of his most senior lieutenants. During the mujahedin government of the mid-1990s, he was appointed commander of Bagram Airbase (where the Afghanistan Justice Project reports that he relayed orders for bombing raids from Massud during the civil war in Kabul and, along with Human Rights Watch, reports that he was among the senior Shura-ye Nazar and Ittihad commanders who planned the capture of the Afshar neighbourhood when 600-700 civilians were killed).
After the Taleban captured Kabul, Bismillah Khan was in charge of the Shomali frontline for the United Front, which saw some of the most intense fighting of the 1996-2001 period, both fierce resistance on the part of Shura-ye Nazar and its allies and, ultimately, the taking of much of the area by the Taleban in 1999. They destroyed houses, vineyards and orchards on an industrial scale, killing and driving out civilians (again, see the Afghanistan Justice Project report for details).(9)
After 2001, Bismillah Khan was appointed, in rapid succession: commander of the National Guard (ie protection of the presidential palace), Deputy Defence Minister (when Fahim was minister) and, in 2003, Chief of the Army Staff. He served in this position until appointed to replace the sacked Hanif Atmar as minister of the interior in 2010. Bismillah Khan has been accused of packing people allied to his faction into both the Afghan National Army when he was last in Defence and more recently, the Afghan National Police. However, he is also an effective military commander, with strong anti-Taleban credentials. His appointment comes despite parliament last month accusing both he and the then defence minister, Rahim Wardak, of corruption and failing to secure the country. They gave the two ministers votes of no confidence.
Haji Din Muhammad – for Minister of Tribes and Borders
Finally, Haji Din Muhammad, nominated as minister of tribes and borders, was born in the Sorkhrod district of Nangarhar in 1331 (1952/53) and is a member of the influential Arsala clan of the Jabbarkheil(10). Recent Arsala leaders have included his brothers, Abdul Haq, who was executed, along with Din Muhammad’s son, trying to ferment an anti-Taleban uprising in late 2001, Haji Qadir, who as vice president and minister for public works, was assassinated in Kabul in 2002, Baryalai Arsala, who ran against Karzai for the presidency in 2009 (he left the race in favour of Dr Abdullah) and Haji Zahir Qadir, deputy speaker of parliament and currently the most powerful member of the clan.
Din Muhammad was first deputy leader of one of the seven Sunni mujahedin parties, Hezb-e Islami – Khales (the other deputy was Jalaluddin Haqqani) and held various ministries in mujahedin governments-in-exile in Peshawar in the 1980s and then in the mujahedin government in Kabul (resigning after factional fighting broke out). In the post-2001 period, he has been a senator, governor of both Nangarhar and Kabul and the president’s ministerial advisor on tribal affairs. He also ran Karzai’s second election campaign, controversially, after the president pardoned his nephew, Bilal Wali Muhammad, who had been sentenced to nineteen years for drugs trafficking (for reporting, see here and here).
Votes of confidence for all four men are by no means assured. Money is reported to be changing hands (as before) and intensive lobbying going on. Din Muhammad should have the least trouble getting his vote, given expected support from the ‘jihadi’ MPs. Bismillah Khan, although a Jihadi, too, may have more difficulty; MPs have been grumbling at the way the president nominated him for Defence, so soon after they rejected him as interior minister. He has the strong backing of Marshall Fahim, as well as the president, however. Khaled has been rejected by parliament once before, the first time President Karzai nominated him as minister for tribal and frontier affairs. Patang – and his standing among the MPs and the networks shaping their voting patterns – is an unknown quantity.
If the president does lose any of his candidates, he may leave them in post as acting ministers as he did in a number of previous cases. He kept Ismail Khan on, for example, as acting minister for water and power, over two parliaments, from 2009 until he finally got his vote of confidence earlier this year. Nevertheless, it would not look good to have the most powerful men in government in post without parliamentary approval. This could easily increase tensions between the executive and parliament again which would again see its vote ignored in such an event.
(1) Read more details on Tuesday’s events here and on the Tolo TV website.
(2) Some of the information on Khaled and the other candidates come from their official biographies, delivered as hard copies to parliament; they do need to be taken with a certain pinch of salt.
(3) Presented as a popular anti-Taleban uprising in the Andar district of Ghazni, this local push back against the Taleban on closer inspection looked to have had Khaled and arbakai forces involved or at the very least co-opting it. (For a detailed counter narrative, see here and here.) Whatever the truth of the matter, the idea that the people could rise up against the Taleban has been eagerly seized on and Khaled is the man most closely associated with the Andar model.
(4) Rahmatullah Nabil, a technocrat, with little independent power owed his job to Engineer Ibrahim Spinzada, the deputy head of the National Security Council, and Karzai. It was a notable appointment. Nabil was, aside from the five years of Taleban power in Kabul, the first NDS director since 1992 who was not from the Panjshir and the Jamiat/Shura-ye Nazar faction. The reasons for his sacking are unclear. The president’s office said he only wanted NDS chiefs to serve for two years. However, there were also reports, including from Jawedan, a pro Jamiat/Shura-e Nazar website, that the president had been unhappy with him taking an unauthorised foreign trip to Tajikistan during Eid.
(5) Hessam worked as Fahim’s security advisor to and as director of the military affairs department (riyasat-e umur-e nezami) at the Ministry of Defence before becoming deputy director of NDS.
(6) A report by the Canadian Military Police also found evidence of abuse of detainees in a prison under the then governor Khaled’s oversight. The Canadian Foreign Minister, Maxine Benier, publically called for the Afghan president to sack Khaled in 2008 when visiting Afghanistan but later, back in Canada, moderated the statement.
(7) Amnesty has also accused Khaled of possible involvement in the killing of five UN staff in April 2007 (see the citation above).
(8) He was the Director of Documentation and Relations of the Political Affairs Department of the Ministry of Interior.
(9) Bismillah Khan is said to be one of those most adamantly opposed to the release of the ‘Guantanamo Five’, the senior Taleban detainees who include one of the men who led the destruction of the Shomali, Mullah Fazl.
(10) The Jabbarkheil are either seen as a co-tribe or sub-tribe of the Ahmadzai.
Photo by Khaama Press.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020