The National Unity Government (NUG) has finally moved to fill the last two vacant key posts in the national cabinet, those of defence minister and head of the intelligence agency. In the climate of mistrust between its two camps, it was not easy to identify mutually acceptable candidates – and, so, the names are neither a surprise nor new. AAN senior analyst and co-director Thomas Ruttig (with input from Kate Clark, Fazal Muzhary, Ehsan Qaane, Jelena Bjelica and Christine-Felice Roehrs) looks at their biographies and the politicking around the nominations – with both candidates still needing parliament’s approval.On 10 May 2016, the care takers for the positions of the head of NDS (Stanakzai, centre) and the Minister of Defense (Abdullah Khan, left) were introduced by CEO Dr Abdullah, they are still awaiting the vote of confidence by the parliament. (Source: Tolonews)
Five months after the resignation of the head of the country’s intelligence agency and ten months after their last pick for defence minister was rejected by parliament, Afghan President Ashraf Ghani and his quasi-prime minister, Dr Abdullah, have come up with (not so) new picks for both posts. The names – Muhammad Massum Stanakzai for the National Directorate of Security (NDS) and General Abdullah Khan Habibi for Defence – were made public in two different presidential decrees during the night of 5 to 6 May 2016. The decrees also included the candidates’ immediate appointments as acting heads of the institutions they are supposed to lead, once approved by parliament.
With this, Abdullah Khan replaces Stanakzai, who has been acting as defence minister ever since the Afghan parliament denied him its vote of confidence in early July 2015. The NUG, now in its 19th month, never had a regular defence minister; its four previous candidates were either voted down or withdrew before the vote. As for the NDS, it has been led by an acting director general (its head has cabinet rank but is not called a minister), Massud Andarabi, since December 2015. His predecessor, Rahmatullah Nabil, left (or lost) his job, after he publicly criticised President Ghani’s efforts to re-engage Pakistan and re-launch peace talks with the Taleban during a trip to Islamabad.
Forward to the past
Both names come as no surprise. Stanakzai, who was the first ever civilian in a defence position (although never confirmed by parliament), had, according to Kabul’s rumour mill, long been considered the favourite candidate for the NDS job. Abdullah Khan, who is already the fifth NUG candidate for the top defence job, had already been picked once before (he was third in this line at the time) but was never officially introduced to parliament. (It is not clear why, although it might have had to do with his lacklustre mujahedin background). The fact that he has yet to be rejected might make him acceptable to the parliamentarians who, over the past years, have blocked many attempts, mainly by Ghani’s predecessor Hamed Karzai, to re-introduce candidates already voted down.
The filling of these two positions has been a recurring demand of both houses of parliament (see this AAN analysis) (both led by politicians who are close to the new quasi-opposition), but also of donor countries. Ghani is expected to attend the 2016 NATO summit in Warsaw in early July 2016, and it would cost him a degree of credibility in those circles (who, off the record, are all but uncritical about the NUG’s poor performance so far) if he, in spite of repeated promises, were to show up with those two positions still vacant. The other key positions, which were vacant for a long time, that of interior minister and attorney general, were filled in April 2016.
Abdullah Khan is not unknown. He is a career army officer who has served in every regime since that of President Najibullah (ie also under the mujahedin and Taleban regimes), posts that have culminated in his current position as director of the Afghan army’s general staff. Stanakzai, however, is the more prominent of the two. As the long-standing head of the Joint Secretariat of the High Peace Council and CEO of the Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Programme from 2009 to 2015, he was a key figure for the international community in its (so far futile) attempt to get peace talks with the Taleban underway. He managed to gain Ghani’s trust, even though according to a number of Afghan and international insiders he was initially suspicious of Stanakzai as a ‘Karzai man.’ But the president has obviously been convinced of Stanakzai’s qualities, to the extent that he kept him on as acting defence minister for almost a year after he was rejected by parliament. This, despite the fact that when he took office, Ghani had insisted that he wanted to run a ‘legal cabinet’ without unapproved acting ministers.
Ghani seems to have held on to Stanakzai for a number of reasons. For one, both seem to work well together – a rarity given the president’s temperament and his frequent impatience with even the highest-ranking government officials’ performances. Stanakzai also gets on well with Hanif Atmar, now in charge of what has become the overarching security agency, the National Security Council. He also, maybe equally importantly, got on well with the US commanders of both NATO’s Resolute Support mission and the US counter-terrorism mission, Freedom’s Sentinel. The US seems to have lobbied throughout 2015 to keep Stanakzai at the defence ministry. Given its large financial footprint, most certainly it will have had a say. (According to the October 2015 report of the US government’s Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction (pp 75,78, 79), US funding for the Afghan security sector was over 3.2 billion dollars in 2015, totalling 68.4 billion since 2002. For 2017, 3.5 billion dollars more have been requested from US Congress.)
While he was kept on in his position, US diplomats say Stanakzai delivered on some key issues that had been long lagging in the MoD, including sending home high-ranking officers past retirement age and clarifying competencies in the ministry and in the provincial defence departments – something that had apparently not been undertaken for many years, despite massive international funding for the ANA.
Stanakzai has, incidentally, not only been appointed acting NDS chief but also adviser-minister (see presidential website in Dari here), which looks like a precautionary measure in case the Wolesi Jirga says “no” to him again. The lively twitter account of the Kabul Council of the Jamiat-e Islami party, in a hint of dissatisfaction, has already reminded its readers of Stanakzai’s last rejection by parliament. With no safety net in place, this could otherwise easily end his political career; however the adviser position would enable him to continue to serve the NUG from the second row, although with less public prestige.
Lieutenant General Abdullah Khan, whose penultimate position was chief of personnel in the ANA’s general staff, comes across as a good choice to succeed Stanakzai at the MoD. According to officials both in the National Security Council and the Resolute Support Mission, he enjoys a reputation of professionalism, attaining high marks in his military training (including in the Soviet Union), and clean hands. This was confirmed to AAN by Atiqullah Amarkhel, a former high-ranking MoD official who has worked with Abdullah Khan. Amarkhel, who is now a military analyst, had stated before:“If the government wants better war management, the institutions should be non-political and the heads of the institutions must be professional people.” With his unbroken career throughout the most diverse regimes, Abdullah Khan seems to be ‘un-political’ enough to be considered for this position – but, at the same time, might lack full-hearted political backing.
Ethnicity and politics
The nominations also continue to go against the 50:50 job distribution formula between the two NUG camps, often considered along ethnic lines: both are Pashtuns – Abdullah Khan is a Kunari and Stanakzai is a Logari. (The Ghani side mainly nominates Pashtuns, the Abdullah side mainly Tajiks – the latter has already led to protests on social media by other allies, including Hazaras and Uzbeks, who demanded to know why none of their own were being considered.)
When reviewing Stanakzai’s chances of becoming defence minister in 2015, people involved in the appointment negotiations on both sides of the NUG told AAN that the president wanted what he considered ‘loyal Pashtuns’ in all four key security positions. With Atmar in the NSC, then-NDS and Interior Minister chiefs Rahmatullah Nabil and Nur ul-Haq Ulumi (both out of their offices now) and Stanakzai acting, this had clearly been achieved. However, it came at the cost of increasing criticism that the NUG had been disregarding the role of former mujahedin leaders.
In the controversy surrounding Ulumi, the former interior minister who had been an Abdullah candidate, his political affiliations seemed to have been even more important than his ethnicity: for the former mujahedin who opposed his nomination, it appeared to be of significance that he had not only not been a mujahed (instead a former communist general), but that he was a Pashtun – despite the fact that Ulumi had been a political ally of Dr Abdullah since the 2009 election. In particular, memories of former ‘communist’ affiliations do not fade away. (The reason Abdullah introduced him was probably that he wanted a professional officer as his candidate and to show that he also nominated non-‘northerners’.) With General Jahed (a Panjshiri Tajik, mujahed and relative of the former ‘Northern Alliance’ (NA) leader, Qassim Fahim) having succeeded Ulumi in April 2016, this might have partly been rectified in their eyes. Abdullah Khan, who, according to his former colleague Amarkhel, joined Jamiat-e Islami after the collapse of Najib’s regime (a step many former communist generals took; there are also rumours that he has an ID card from Panjsher province), might still run into the same problems due to his affiliation with the former PDPA regime. Some senators during the session on 8 May 2016 already voiced their criticisms of both candidates for not having a ‘transparent background.’
Recycling the elite
That two old names came up again shows that the NUG continues to have trouble finding candidates for key positions that are acceptable to both camps. There do not seem to be many obvious, well-trained or mutually acceptable newcomers for the top positions in the security ministries, beyond the relatively limited circle who already held positions during the post-2001 period. The names of the former incumbents were brought into the discussion following the inauguration of the NUG in late 2014 and again now, including former interior and defence minister General Bismillah Muhammadi and former NDS chiefs Amrullah Saleh and Eng. Aref Sarwari – and now Stanakzai and Abdullah Khan again.
The situation has become even more difficult since many influential former mujahedin leaders, as well as those in circles close to former President Karzai, have made it one of their goals to give Ghani a hard time for appointing too many young people to influential positions. But it is also a sign of a much wider problem that the post-2001 elites – largely consisting of the 1978-96 mujahedin elite, plus a number of ‘technocrat’ newcomers, some ex-communists and a sprinkling of ex-Taleban officials – have clung to their posts, powers and privileges. This is particularly the case for the former mujahedin, who seem to believe that only those who have fought the Soviets and the Taleban are fit to govern.
It is not clear yet when the Wolesi Jirga will vote on Stanakzai and Abdullah Khan.
Annex: Biographic details for both candidates
Abdullah Khan Habibi
(an official biography in Dari of Abdullah Khan Habibi can be found on the MoD website)
Abdullah Khan, as he is usually known, had already been flagged for the MoD position in 2015 but he withdrew before being introduced to the Wolesi Jirga for a vote, possibly in response to misgivings among some former mujahedin to his ‘communist’ background (despite his shift to Jamiat). A Pashtun from Sauki district of Kunar province (year of birth 1952, equivalent to the Afghan year 1331), he is a professional army career officer who was trained as an artillery officer both at the Military Academy in Kabul (graduated 1972/1351 with a bachelor’s degree) and in the Soviet Union in the late 1970s (lisans [master’s equivalent] of Military Science in 1980), all reportedly with distinction. He held different posts at the Ministry of Defence during the Najibullah, Rabbani, Taleban and Karzai governments. This included a stint as the head of the Afghan border troops under Najibullah. (The border troops were under the defence ministry then. Also, shifts between army and police are normal in Afghanistan; see also current interior minister Jahed who came from the army.)
In 1995, during Rabbani’s government, he became the head of the training and education department; he was deputy head of the same department during the Taleban regime. In the early Karzai years he initially continued to work in the same department, until in 2003 he became head of inspection at the office of the Chief of Army Staff, and then the head of information (pezhandwal) department in the same office. From 2008 to 2010, he served as a military aide for the minister of defence and in 2010 he became Commander of the 201st ANA corps, responsible for the eastern region (Nangarhar, Kunar, Nuristan, Laghman). This is also his place of origin, close to the Pakistani border, and surely one of the areas he had an eye on when heading the border police. In 2012, he returned to his former positions as the head of pezhandwal department at the office of the Chief of Army Staff. From there, in 2015, he rose to the position of Chief of Staff (rais-e arkan) where he served in this capacity until his ministerial nomination.
Muhammad Masum Stanakzai
(shortened version from an earlier AAN dispatch)
Stanakzai (born in 1958) is a Pashtun from Logar province. He graduated from the communications (mukhabara) section of Kabul Military University. Later, he got a Masters degree in Philosophy of Engineering for Sustainable Development from Cambridge University. As a young man, Stanakzai served in the Afghan army for a decade, where he worked his way up, eventually attaining the rank of Colonel in Communications. No official dates are given, but this would have been during the PDPA era. At some point, he moved into NGO work in Peshawar, serving as Director of one of the largest Afghan NGOs, the Agency for Rehabilitation and Energy Conservation (AREA) (2001-2002). Stanakzai also served on the steering committee of ACBAR, the Agency Coordinating Body for Afghan Relief.
He moved into government in 2002, first as Minister of Telecommunications (2002-2004), then as an advisor on security to President Karzai. In 2009, he was appointed Head of the Joint Secretariat of the newly created High Peace Council (HPC) and its Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Programme (APRP) – one of the few senior officials to stay in office during the transition from Karzai to Ghani. Stanakzai was centrally involved in Karzai’s peace-making efforts, serving as his loyal ally and having contact with the Taleban. His final action in this capacity – under Ghani – appears to have been organising and “holding talks,” as it was reported in The Wall Street Journal, with three senior Taleban officials on 19 and 20 May 2015 in Urumqi, the capital of China’s western Xinjiang region.
In September 2011, Stanakzai was seriously injured in the suicide bombing that killed Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of the HPC. He eventually recovered from his injuries, although he still walks with a cane. He returned to his job, although he was targeted in another suicide attack on 21 June 2014.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020