Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

Political Landscape

Stanakzai Goes from Peace to War: For Afghanistan, finally a defence minister?

Kate Clark 9 min

The national unity government is making its fourth attempt to appoint a minister of defence. On 24 May 2015, the presidential palace announced the nomination of Masum Stanakzai who has been the head of the Joint Secretariat of the High Peace Council and Afghanistan Peace and Reconciliation Programme since 2009. Members of Parliament will still need to give him a vote of confidence. The fact that, eight months after the national unity government was sworn in, it has still not filled one of the most important offices during war time is extraordinary, says AAN’s Kate Clark. She looks at why this might be the case and presents a biography of the new candidate.

Portrait picture of Masum Stanakzai, nominated as minister of defense.Masum Stanakzai, former head of the secretariat of the High Peace Council, now nominated as minister of defence in the national unity government's fourth attempt to come up with a new minister, and a complete cabinet. Photo: Tolo News.

It took the government three months to make its first attempt to appoint any minister: on 20 January 2015, it announced a full cabinet list, but two thirds of the nominees either fell away (they were ineligible because they held two passports, had no higher education or were wanted by Interpol) or were rejected by the MPs. Those rejected included the government’s first choice as defence minister, General Sher Muhammad Karimi. Karimi is the current Chief of Army Staff; Sandhurst-educated in the 1960s, in the presidential guard of Sardar Muhammad Daud during the 1978 coup d’ètat and, after imprisonment, made his way back to the ministry in the later PDPA administrations (Babrak Karmal and Dr Najibullah) and those of the mujahedin, Taleban, Karzai and Ghani.

In the government’s second attempt to fill the cabinet, it put forward names for all the vacant ministries except defence. Although this was not officially acknowledged, it appeared Abdullah and Ghani had not been able to agree on a candidate. When the parliament voted on this second list, on 18 April 2015, it confirmed all the nominees. Since then, two other names for minister of defence were floated, although neither made it to the ‘being introduced to parliament’ stage.

On 6 April 2015, the president’s office announced it had nominated General Afzal Ludin as the new minister, describing him as “a military professional [who] in the past has worked in different capacities at the ministry of Defense and more recently as Military Advisor to the Office of the National Security Council.” Two days later, the president’s office announced his withdrawal. Dr Abdullah had reportedly been furious, saying he had not been consulted on the appointment, while Ludin said he had withdrawn so as not to risk internal turmoil, given that “some might cause problems to my country over my candidacy.” Ludin was a former commander of the presidential guard, under Najibullah, and worked closely with the current interior minister, Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi.

The third attempted minister was General Abdullah Khan Habibi, in mid-April, although he only made it as far as the second deputy speaker of the Wolesi Jirga, Nazer Ahmadzai, saying the general was to be formally introduced to the house (as reported by Mandegar newspaper). That never happened. Now it is the turn of Masum Stanakzai, who emerges not out of the Ministry of Defence but out of the High Peace Council.

A leaderless army

It is clear that the appointment has been held up not by a shortage of suitable candidates, but by the political ‘tug of war’ over appointments at the heart of the national unity government. Talk to the people involved on either side (in the Ghani and Abdullah camps) and they each accuse the other side of intransigence, working unilaterally or bias. Whatever the rights and wrongs of the matter internally, the impression given by that one empty ministerial chair is terrible – making it look like the national unity government is squabbling over positions while the country burns, with no sense of urgency over the need to get a leader for an army which is having to fight hard and sacrifice much.

It is indeed extraordinary that a country facing as dangerous an opponent as the Taleban and as bloody a year as this one should not have a defence minister. The insurgency has been fierce ever since the new government was formed, with no ‘winter lull’ (except in Kabul) and offensives by the Taleban in many places, including Kunduz, Badakhshan, Faryab, Uruzgan, Sar-e Paul and Helmand – where there was also a counter-offensive by the ANSF. Casualties have been high; in the first four months of 2015, according to a Western military official who spoke anonymously to The New York Times on Afghan government figures not officially released, more than 1,800 soldiers and police officers have been killed in action and another 3,400 wounded – more than 65 per cent higher during the same period last year. Civilians have also been harmed in greater numbers this year: 2974 killed and 1,963 injured in the first four months of the year, reported UNAMA, up by 16 per cent since the same period in 2014. The situation is so precarious the government is reported in the north, to be turning to militias, including those accused of carrying out human rights abuses.

The army is sorely in need of a leader. The question now is whether Stanakzai will get through parliament and then whether he will make a good defence minister.

Muhammad Masum Stanakzai’s biography

Stanakzai was born in 1958, a Pashtun from Moghulkhel village, Muhammad Agha district of Logar province. He graduated from the communications (mukhabara) section of Kabul Military University. Later, he also got a Masters in Philosophy of Engineering for Sustainable Development from Cambridge University. (1)

As a young man, Stanakzai served in the Afghan army for a decade, rising through the ranks to end as a colonel, still, it seems, 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, moving up through the ranks there and serving eventually as director of one of the largest Afghan NGOs, the Agency for Rehabilitation and Energy Conservation (AREA) (2001-2002). I remember it being one of the first agencies to start mapping civilian casualties from at least early 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), serving there until the present – 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, as his loyal man in any contacts with the Taleban. Little, if anything, was achieved and some would say chances for negotiations were lost. However, any appraisal of the success or failure of the efforts would have to be laid primarily at Karzai’s door.

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. The Taleban officials were named as Mullah Abdul Jalil (former deputy foreign minister during the Taleban’s ‘Emirate’ government), Mullah Muhammad Hassan Rahmani (former governor of Kandahar) and Mullah Abdul Razaq (former interior minister). The meeting was denied by the Taleban. (2)

Reconciling Taleban

Stanakzai was also in charge of implementing the High Peace Council’s Afghan Peace and Reconciliation Programme (APRP), although it was – and is – still officially ‘led’ by the 70-member High Peace Council. The APRP, which aims to persuade combatants to come over to the government side, has been a highly expensive and futile endeavour. Here is one just-published conclusion by Deedee Derksen, in a paper for the United States Institute for Peace (USIP):

“Peace is business” was a recurring comment of well-informed Afghan officials and tribal elders, who assert that the [local High Peace] councils’ main goal is to receive funds from Kabul. Patronage drives resource allocation in the APRP on all levels. Although progress has been made on the demobilization phase, intelligence gathering and assessment for vetting takes place in a “‘black box’, hidden from scrutiny.” This lack of transparency allows political players to subvert the process.

Accordingly, many participants seem to have not belonged to the insurgency, or at best have operated only in its periphery. This situation is explained by a number of factors: the Taliban are not interested, program officials and international stakeholders need to show numbers of participants, no consensus has been reached over who was eligible for the program, the vetting process is not transparent, and some APRP officials seem to have included people connected to them who are not in the insurgency rather than Taliban.

The failure of APRP could be blamed on its unworkable assumption: that fighters could be brought over for money and other inducements at a time when there was no over-arching peace process to make ‘coming over’ not look like surrender or treachery (see AAN’s initial critique here). It has to be said, as well, that its failure on the domestic reintegration front is little different from many other foreign-funded, Afghan state projects, and its record matches all previous demobilisation programmes, with a lot of money spent, little to show for and questions of where the money ended up. Nevertheless, the failure of the APRP – and it has been massive – has been under Stanakzai’s leadership, with responsibility shared with the two High Peace Council chairmen, Burhanuddin and Salahuddin Rabbani.

In September 2011, Stanakzai was seriously injured in the suicide bombing that killed Burhanuddin Rabbani. He eventually recovered from his injuries, although still walks with a stick. He returned to his job – many admired him for his persistence – and was himself also targeted in another suicide attack almost a year ago (21 June 2014). Stanakzai managed to work for and with a difficult and varied range of characters at the High Peace Council, including its seventy, disparate, frequently demanding members, the patrician Burhanuddin Rabbani and then his son, Salahuddin, with whom Stanakzai reportedly had a much more antagonistic relationship as both vied to be the senior player in the High Peace Council; then there were the various international players – also often demanding and rarely acting coherently as a group.

In the communist army – and Pashtun as well

So what will Stanakzai bring to the ministry of defence, should he get parliament’s votes? He has proven himself a loyal, hard-working government servant. He has run one ministry and a reasonably big government agency and has been at the heart of government for many years. He is going from trying to reconcile and seek peace to leading the war effort – which is interesting. He also has some military experience. However, that was a very long time ago, and it seems he does not have field command experience.

His ‘communist’ background may make him suspect to some, especially as he becomes the third head of the power ministries – defence, interior and NDS – with a non-mujahedin background; one could also add here the powerful National Security Advisor, Hanif Atmar, who also served in the PDPA regime (in his case, as a young Khad intelligence officer), then in NGOs before becoming a post-2001 minister. Given the threats – actual or perceived – of a coup over the elections, the president may have wanted to ensure loyalists in these ministries. Even so, the fact that Stanakzai served and rose through the ranks of the PDPA army may make him suspect for those who sacrificed much in the war against the Soviet invasion. Moreover, like Interior Minister Ulumi, NDS boss Rahmatullah Nabil and Hanif Atmar, he is Pashtun. This probably should not be relevant, but after an election which split the country on ethnic grounds, it needs mentioning. As political affiliation also counts, it should be added that – among the four – only Ulumi belongs to the political camp of CEO Abdullah.

New Chief of Army Staff as well

There was an attempt by the administration at some ethnic and factional balance with the simultaneous announcement of a new Chief of Army Staff who is a Jamiati. He is the current commander of the ANA’s 111 division (ferqa) based at Qargha, west of Kabul, General Qadam Shah Shahim.

According to a Badakhshi journalist AAN spoke to, Qadam Shah is from Tashkan district of Badakhshan and finished Keshm High School in 1360 (1981/2).(3) From the early 1980s, he was fighting with Jamiat-e Islami against the Soviets and then, judging by his promotion record, against other mujahedin factions during the civil war and then against the Taleban; in 1372 (1993/4), he was appointed commander of 82 regiment (ghund) in Qargha and in 1375 (1996/7) made brigadier (appointments by the mujahidin Islamic State administration of Burhanuddin Rabbani).

In 1380 (2001/2), Qadam Shah was the commander of 37 brigade (lewa) of commandos and, reportedly, had a lot of dealings with foreign forces. In 1389 (2011), he was appointed as the commander of 111 division of Kabul, which is relatively small, half the normal size of a division. Becoming Chief of Army Staff is therefore a big step up for Qadam Shah. However, he does at least have more high-ranking, more on the ground and, of course, much more recent experience than his (nominated) boss.

Stanakzai still has to be introduced to parliament. They were picky about the government’s first list – rejecting half – but then appeared to fear the country would not forgive them if they left posts empty and proceeded to endorse every single nominee on the second list. So far, only one MP, the Uzbek Enayatullah Farahmand from Jawzjan, has voiced criticism of the choice, alleging there had (again) been ethnic bias. Acting governor of Balkh and chairman of Jamiat-e Islami’s Executive Council, Atta Muhammad Nur, a more powerful voice, has called the appointment “a historical mistake.” Atta alleged that Stanakzai was behind the murder of the then head of Jamiat, the former president, Burhanuddin Rabbani.

The next step for the defence minister nominee is to go and present himself to the MPs. Then, if all goes well, they will vote to accept or reject him.


(1) The Masters from Cambridge was gained between Stanakzai’s stints at the Ministry of Telecommunications and the High Peace Council. During that time, he was also a visiting fellow at the United States Institute of Peace (2008) and a Jennings Randolph Afghanistan Fellow (2008-2009).

(2) These men are heavy-weights of the movement, probably already in regular contact with the Afghan government and also thought to be close to Pakistan. They are generally the more ‘talk-friendly’ people in the movement, but none has been expelled by the leadership, who know of their contacts. In going to China, they either had the tactical space and flexibility to talk and travel unofficially, and still be deniable by the leadership, or they have ‘gone rogue’ but expelling them would cause more trouble than not.

(3) The Afghan calendar starts from the Spring Equinox (usually 21 March), so unless you know the month of an event, it could have taken place in one of two Western years.


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