Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Jamiat after Rabbani: The competition for the top job

Thomas Ruttig 9 min

The murder of Ustad Rabbani also made one of Afghanistan’s oldest parties, Jamiat-e Islami, leaderless. For more than three and half decades, the Ustad had stood at its top. His killing came as the party had started considering internal reforms. This process has now accelerated, pushed by the need to fill the party’s top vacancy. Two Jamiati grandees have already registered their candidacy, Ismail Khan and Ustad Atta. Thomas Ruttig, a Senior Analyst at AAN, looks at the party’s complicated internal configuration that makes the competition for its top job unpredictable.

The assassination of Burhanuddin Rabbani on 20 September not only decapitated the High Peace Council, but also Jamiat-e Islami. Since the 1970s, Ustad Rabbani had led this party, which, during the jihad, became a military-political network – a tanzim – and post-2011, has been registered as a party under the new political parties law. Not every commander or mujahed who fought with Jamiat, or was funded by it, is a member. However, Jamiat can probably count on their loyalty in times of crises and they still feel a certain ownership when it comes to deciding who will be the new leader. Jamiat still has a strong network in the ministries, security forces, parliament and at the subnational level; it has a number of provincial governors (Balkh, Takhar, Badakhshan, Panjshir, Parwan, Kapisa and several others with good personal links to individual senior Jamiat leaders), as well as police chiefs.
Jamiat had been planning internal reforms and a party congress for a long time. For months, if not years, there had been talk that the Ustad might move into a less formal position, from chairman to a kind of spiritual leader role.

In January, the first concrete steps were taken in that direction, with the convention of a ‘Preliminary Gathering of the General Assembly’ of the party. There, Jamiat’s general secretary Muhammad Nassim Faqiri announced that, ‘within a few months’, a general assembly would be convened during which a new leader and other officials would be elected. ‘We will try again to make the party intellectual and political’, he added (read full report here). Kabul-based Noor TV, which is close to Jamiat, quoted Rabbani as saying that it was necessary to give more roles to youth in the party, a hint that one of the second generation of Jamiatis might move up to the party’s top position.

His most likely successor was Ahmad Zia Massud who had taken over the day-to-day lead of the party after Rabbani’s move to the chairmanship of the High Peace Council in 2010. But the congress – and the reforms – were delayed time and again, not least because of the well-known reluctance of the Ustad to give up a position once he had it.* Rabbani’s violent death brought matters to a head. As an interim measure, his son Salahuddin was appointed acting head of the party for two months by a meeting of Jamiat elders on 4 October in Kabul.

Salahuddin Rabbani, who was born in 1971, has never been a high-profile politician. After graduating from King Fahd University of Petroleum and Minerals in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, he was employed by the Saudi oil company ARAMCO and elsewhere in the private sector, before joining his father’s presidential office in northern Afghanistan in 1998. From 2003 to 2006 and again from August 2010, he worked as a diplomat, first at Afghanistan’s UN mission and then as ambassador to Turkey, jobs which can be assumed he owed to his father’s influence. For a while, he also managed pro-Jamiat Noor TV, (quoted from the afghan-bio website here). Another Rabbani son, Jalaluddin, is deputy director of the oversight department in Afghanistan’s central bank.

But Salahuddin Rabbani’s leading role in Jamiat would seem likely – at first glance – to discontinue after whenever the congress convenes, sometime before 4 December, if the two-month’ period agreed upon on 4 October is upheld. (A fixed date has still not been given and it is possible there will be further delay.) Rabbani junior appears to have been selected mainly out of respect for his assassinated father, in order to use the family’s name as a rallying point for the party’s outraged followers and sympathisers and because it was safe, i.e. it would not antagonise anyone else. Also, the impression needed to be avoided that the official leadership was being taken away from the Badakhshi networks within Jamiat without a long and careful negotiation that made sure they were not left dissatisfied.

For the time being, two Jamiat elders have thrown their pakols – resp. turbans – into the ring. The first was Ustad Muhammad Atta Nur, on the very day Salahuddin Rabbani was made interim party leader. This is whatTolo News reported (read full story here):

‘Mr Nur said he will take the lead of the party to prevent it from splitting up. […] “There has been a lot of support [for me] from senior party members and if that continues I will take the lead,” he said. “If there are other candidates, I will accept the job after consultations in a bid to save the party from recession”.’ This statement does indicate that Atta believes the new chairman will not be elected but rather selected.

From his governor’s stronghold in Mazar-e Sharif which he has held since 2004, Atta has built an extensive network of followers and, particularly now, after Rabbani’s death, he is the Jamiat leader with the most clout in Afghanistan’s northern provinces. At the same time, he has maintained good relations with key leaders in Kabul, both Jamiat’s military strong man, Vice President Marshal Muhammad Qasem Fahim and President Hamed Karzai. Although Atta strongly favoured Karzai’s challenger, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, during the presidential elections of 2010, even appearing on a poster with the candidate and risking a breakdown of relations, he was able to repair this by a number of reconciliation meetings with the head of state, reportedly facilitated by Fahim and Sayyaf. Atta himself has often been described as nurturing presidential aspirations.

The second contender is Ismail Khan, the once self-declared ‘Amir of Western Afghanistan’. Ismail Khan is reported to have expressed his candidature during the same 4 October meeting in Kabul. Like Atta, he is a contender from outside Kabul (although serving as a minister here). But while Atta is well-connected in the capital, Ismail Khan is still an outsider here, paradoxically because he is too strong and too independent-minded a person to allow other Jamiat grandees to control him. (He also has strained relations both with President Karzai and the Massuds; Karzai started a military attempt to drive him out of Herat in 2004, while he and Ahmad Shah Massud boycotted each other’s commanders shuras in the 1980s and because Ismail Khan felt that Massud tried to control, rather than help him during the Taleban onslaught in 1995. Furthermore, his Jamiat wing in western Afghanistan, challenged by smaller regional factions there, is too peripheral to muster sufficient support in other regions of Afghanistan.

Ismail Khan is well-known for methods of rule that were not too different from the Taleban when he was Herat governor there after 2001, from rounding and beating up people who dared to run as candidates for parliament without his consent (or against his protégées) to virginity tests for women caught walking in the streets with men they were not married to. (He is also accused of eliminating his fellow commanders during the famous 1979 Herat uprising when a number of Soviet advisors and their families were also killed. More details in Giustozzi’s 2006 paper ‘Genesis of a “Prince”: The rise of Ismail Khan in Western Afghanistan, 1979-1992’, here) On the other hand, he is respected for his reconstruction initiatives in Herat which made the western city one the most prosperous in Afghanistan.

The same can be said, though, of Atta and Mazar. And, despite Atta being a darling of the Western diplomatic corps for making Balkh province ‘drug free’, Atta hardly has a clean record himself. In March 1998, his men fired on unarmed demonstrators in Mazar when there were public demonstrations against all the factions in the city – i.e. Jombesh, Jamiat, Hezb-e Wahdat and Harakat-e Islami – to protest against robberies, kidnapping, sexual assaults and the general insecurity. The protesters were marching on the Jamiat base and there, they were fired on. Currently, Atta is locally seen as monopolising political and economic power in the hands of his family.

Apart from these two major contenders, there still might be others entering the race. One problem some face is that although though they fought – or held backroom political jobs – under its flag in earlier eras, they are not currently members of the party. These could include the major Kabul-based, Panjshiri figures: Marshal Fahim, who holds the highest position in government of all Jamiatis, as well as the Massud brothers, Ahmad Zia, another former Vice President, and Ahmad Wali who are both claiming their slain brother’s legacy. One should also not discount Interior Minister Bismillah Khan Muhammadi too early. Fahim, though, might opt out of the direct competition and throw his weight behind Atta instead. This would allow him to have his cake and eat it, i.e. to control Jamiat (this at least would be his intention) and stay vice president at the same time. Apart from that, he cannot be too sure about his Panjshiri base anymore. Many Panjshiris are not Jamiati members, and many of them are disappointed about the Marshal’s closeness to Karzai which they see as a sell-out of mujahedin values.

Another group of prominent and influential Jamiatis already seem to be out of the race because they have started going their own ways, severing their links with the party or are in the process of doing so: the former Jamiat ‘Young Turks’, Yunos Qanuni and Dr Abdullah Abdullah who had been instrumental in persuading their leader Rabbani during the first Bonn conference in late 2001, to step aside in Karzai’s favour. This did not endear them to the Ustad, and brought them less than his and his party’s full support in their respective, failed, anti-Karzai, presidential bids. Qanuni, running for Nohzat-e Melli in 2004 and Abdullah in 2010 under the banner of his Hope & Change (taghir wa omid) alliance were hoping to be the officially endorsed opposition, or even the pan- mujahedin** candidates, but were denounced by some of their potential Jamiat allies.

Dr Abdullah still continues to stick to Hope & Change, although it never really took off and most other Jamiatis did not join or support it. For a while, he also tried to link up with Amrullah Saleh and his Green Trend movement, with which Saleh had started to reach out to the young generation of Jamiati supporters, the internet-savvy students and young professionals, after Saleh fell out with Karzai (more information in earlier AAN blogs here and here).*** How big the distance between Dr Abdullah and the pro-Rabbani tendency of Jamiat already is became strikingly clear during Rabbani’s funeral on 23 September, when Abdullah wanted to make a statement but had his microphone cut off.

It is rumoured that Qannuni plans to re-register his old, New Afghanistan Party (Hezb-e Afghanistan-e Newin) which he dissolved as result of a deal with Rabbani in 2005. This deal was engineered by Fahim, Ismail Khan and Ahmad Zia Massud and secured him Rabbani’s support in going for the Wolesi Jirga speakership in exchange for his return to the Jamiat fold. He had to apologise for his solo attempt and kiss the Ustad’s hand as a sign of repentance. If he renounces this step now, after six years, this will damage his relations with his former comrades – and it might be a striking indication of what he thinks about the possibilities of reforming Jamiat (or about how weak his chances vis-à-vis the other contenders to get to its top are).

Dynamics inside Jamiat are further compounded by the rivalry between provincial networks, like those of the Panjsheri, Badakhshi, Parwani and Shemali. Between them, the competition for the Jamiat leadership will be dealt out. The Jamiat enclaves in Pashtun areas like in Kandahar, Uruzgan or Laghman/Nangrahar will play only a marginal role.

But the main conflict in Jamiat is between the modernisers like Dr Abdullah, who are on a clear opposition course (at least currently) and the party’s mainstream (if it is the mainstream) that was represented by Rabbani and does not want to appear too radically anti-Karzai. A bit of criticism against Karzai is okay for the latter, but at the same time they want to maintain their relationship with the Karzai government and their posts and positions in it – after all, that’s how foreign money is accessed.

Many leading Jamiatis, like the late Rabbani himself who accepted Karzai’s offer to chair the HPC, have opted to keep one foot in government: Fahim and Ahmad Zia Massud as vice presidents, Bismillah, Ismail Khan, Moqbel and Muhammad Seddiq Chakari as ministers – the latter, one of Jamiat’s strategists and Rabbani confidants, who was Minister for Hajj and Awqaf (religious endowments) for a few months in 2009, before an affair over alleged bribe-taking during that year’s hajj season felled him. (He escaped to the UK before his arrest was possible.) Amrullah Saleh, as NDS chief for over six years (2004-10), also held a cabinet rank.

But when thinking about who might end up as the new Jamiat leader, let us not forget one central theorem of Afghanistan-shenasi: The unlikely can always happen. In the case of Jamiat, this would mean that Salahuddin Rabbani is elected permanently as the party’s chairman. Given the numbers of wings and factions within Jamiat, and the complicated power dynamics resulting from it, elders might not be able to agree on one candidate and might opt for the apparently weakest, hoping that he would be easier to manipulate in their favour while they exercise the real power bit out of the limelight.

* As was the case after he was chosen as Interim President of Afghanistan in 1992, initially for six months. When his term was over, he arranged a supposedly all-parties conference, the shura-ye hal-o-aqd, which extended his term against the will of a number of the major tanzims that boycotted the gathering.
** Ahmad Wali Massud was quoted in Jamiat’s newspaper Payyam-e Mujahed (no. 587, 13 Saratan 1387 = 3 July 2004) as saying that ‘the mujahedin must have a distinctive candidate for the presidential elections’. The Massud brothers later contested Qanuni’s claim that he represented the party they had founded, Nohzat-e Melli in the election – after he already had printed and distributed the posters saying so.
*** On the other hand, Saleh had initially been in contact with a group of reformist former ministers and other high-profile politicians clustered around Hanif Atmar who are in the process of setting up their own party, or movement, Ejtema-ye Haq wa Edalat (Assembly for Law and Justice). This group also includes former Minister of Rural Development, Ehsan Zia and AIHRC chairperson, Sima Samar.


Government Ustad Rabbani