Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Under Atta’s Shadow: political life in the Afghan north

Enayat Najafizada 7 min

The collapse of the Taleban regime in 2001 paved the ground for the start of what had the potential to be a comparatively democratic political scene in Afghanistan. In due course, the existing jihadi parties and former communists in the northern province of Balkh slowly started to deal with the new situation. In the case of the jihadi parties, usually military-structured organisations or tanzims, this meant the politicisation of their military power. For the former communists, it was more about reviving themselves as democratic political forces, writes our guest blogger Enayat Najafizada (with input from AAN’s Thomas Ruttig).*

The process through which jihadi parties were meant to de-militarise was the programme of Disarmament, Demobilisation, and Reintegration (DDR). Article 35 of the Afghan constitution allows those political parties which do not retain military or paramilitary structures to be registered and carry on their activities according to Afghanistan’s laws.
The three major jihadi parties which had fought against the Taleban in northern Afghanistan as members of the Northern Alliance (or United Front) were Jombesh (the National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan), Hezb-e Wahdat (the Islamic Unity Party of Afghanistan) and Jamiat-e Islami (the Islamic Society of Afghanistan. Most of the commanders of these parties eventually underwent the disarmament and demobilisation steps of DDR.

What was not fulfilled was the reintegration part of the process and this has had negative consequences for society: many commanders and jihadi leaders, who had earned money and been armed by the US during the fight against the Taleban in late 2001, post-2001, dissolved their militias and surrendered their weapons, again earning millions of dollars from the coalition forces who were responsible for collecting those weapons under DDR. Some of these leaders are now re-establishing local armed groups under the name of the Afghan Local Police (ALP) (usually referred to asarbaki or militias by Afghans). The aim of the ALP is to prevent or halt the spread of the Taliban insurgency to the north, but they should also be seen as a limited re-militarisation of political parties. The ALP has provided an opportunity for Governor Atta Muhammad Nur, affiliated with Jamiat, in particular, to distribute weapons to his former commanders, who are still active in the areas around Mazar-e Sharif. (In the light of the ALP, DDR looks to have been a useless exercise.)

The way the tanzims were able to retain political power in the new political system has been criticised by Sayed Shamsuddin Sadat, a member of Jombesh party in Balkh province. He said that, ‘after the fall of the Taleban, all the military parties were disarmed and demobilised in order to obtain a political status. But unfortunately, political parties were soon forgotten and they had no place or recognition in the system.’ He claims that, in both the parliamentary and the presidential elections, people cast their vote directly for individuals and this left no space for the development of political parties. ‘It is all about the ascent of individuals in the current system,’ he said, ‘not of any political party.’

Moreover, while top commanders were able to gain benefits from DDR, the demobilised armies of fighters from the tanzims were not co-opted into the political process. Some senior commanders were given senior administrative positions in government. Most failed to accomplish their duty, and very few survived in their jobs. (Those with police and army jobs tended to fair better.)

A remarkable example of a former commander who has remained in power in the north is that of the Balkh provincial governor, Atta Muhammad Nur. Even before taking the post of governor in 2004, he was, as the head of the 7th Corps, the power behind the throne. The governor’s canny post-2001 manoeuvring, including making excellent relations with the international military and strong support from party comrades in Kabul, including Marshal Fahim, has raised him and his party to the position of front runners in the political competition in the north. Rival groups, such as General Abdul Rashid Dostum’s Jombesh and Muhammad Mohaqqeq’s wing of Wahdat, were elbowed out. The latest violent standoffs between Atta’s Jamiat and Jombesh occurred as late as 2003, with the latter being almost completely being pushed out of town and Dostum relocating his headquarters to Shebarghan in neighbouring Jawzjan.

Since Jombesh and Wahdat no longer have any governmental support in Balkh – the key province of the north -, they have lost the game financially and politically to governor Atta. ‘Our political party,’ said Sardar Muhammad Sa’idi of Wahdat, ‘has serious financial problems in the north which do not allow us to operate effectively. We [even] don’t have a permanent office in the north nowadays.’ Wahdat belongs to those mujahedin parties which, after joining DDR and demobilising, gradually lost their importance. They are now in dire conditions, so much that they are not able to hold monthly gatherings of their followers and supporters because of the serious financial challenges they face.

Since being appointed to his current post, Atta has evolved as the paramount strongman of the north. His political position also makes him economically strong, and many people in his province see how he has benefited financially from this. The New York Times wrote last year, he ‘has interests in oil, wood trading, fertilizer and construction, among other things’, but talking to the newspaper ‘he denied rumors that he takes a cut of every investment that flows through the region and said he made his money legally’ (read the full article here). Mazar’s ‘Jamiat-centered political elite’, represented by governor Atta, ‘widely distributed’ state lands around Mazar for new housing projects, with ‘the legality of much of it […] questionable [and] the effect […] to stimulate the private construction sector’ (Paul Fishstein in his 2010 paper on the relationship between aid and security in Balkh province, read it in full here).

Meanwhile, Atta is a major economic power beyond his province and one of the most powerful governors across the country. That clout and independence of power allows him to sometimes be critical of the President (for example supporting Dr Abdullah in the last presidential elections) and central government’s actions, for example on reconciling with the Taleban:

‘I have serious reservations against reconciliation with the militants. They are not sons of soil, they are bloodthirsty people and there’s no way to mend ties with them. That’s what I keep telling to the US officials, to President Karzai and to everybody else. I will never be part of this so-called reconciliation and I would keep opposing it. […] Dialogue with militants means befooling oneself’ (see full article from the Pakistani daily newspaper, The Nation, 16 June 2011 here).

As the tanzims transformed themselves into political parties of sorts, leftists in the north have faced different obstacles and have fared less well. In Mazar in 2003, there was an attempt to start a united leftist party of northern-based groups – Jombesh-e Hambastegi-ye Melli Afghanistan led by Engineer Ahmad and Hedayatullah Hedayat (both former members of Groh-e Kar, a former small northern PDPA faction, mainly composed of Uzbeks) in competition to Dostum’s Jombesh. It collapsed after a short period of activity. The reasons for this were internal conflicts and differing opinions about the legitimacy of Karzai government. Abdul Wakil, a former Parchami in Mazar-e-Sharif, recalls that ‘in the early years of the Karzai government, we came together from different backgrounds, Khalqis and Parchamis, and planned to re-start a united party, but some of us argued that the Karzai government did not have any legitimacy’. Former PDPA members, not only in Mazar, felt they had been excluded from the political process because they had had no representation at the Bonn Conference in 2001.

Eventually, former communists did launch a party in Kabul called Hezb-e Mutahed-e Melli (National United Party) with former PDPA-era Kandahar governor Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi as chairman, which has branches in Mazar. However, it was not intended to be a communist, but rather a democratic and national party.

Most of the different groups and parties established by former communists who had some experience of how a real political party works, failed to expand beyond their small support base among intellectuals and students who come from different ethnic groups and believe in an Afghanistan without discrimination. Understandably, these groups were not able to count on the religiously conservative part of the population or the national government dominated as it is by jihadis and western-educated technocrats. They even faced repression by the jihadis who were in government.

The former Parchami, Mr Wakil, said the only time leftists in the north operated effectively after the fall of the communist government in 1992 was during the rule of General Dostum, before the Taleban took over here, and that was because Dostum himself was a former general in the PDPA government. He added that at the moment, ‘I don’t see very well-managed political activity among [leftist] intellectuals. Although we have had a number of them and young people doing cultural work in the province who are not affiliated to any ex-mujahedin faction or ex-communists group and they are more independent in their movements.’

Qayum Babak, an Afghan political activist based in Mazar, said that nowadays not only the communists and the intellectuals, but even the most powerful parties, which have members in government, are suffering challenges and problems in their political activities. ‘Political parties [in general]’ he said, ‘have lost the trust of the people, whether these parties are mujahedin, communist or call themselves democrats.’ He went on, ‘I don’t see a real [independent] political class nowadays. Everybody is trying to be involved in the government in order to fill his pockets. They see this crisis as a good opportunity to become rich.’

Beside the prominent former mujahedin parties, there are a number of others active which have regional offices in Mazar-e-Sharif: Afghan Millat, led by commerce minister, Anwar-ul-Haq Ahadi, the Republican Party led by Sebghatullah Sanjar who works in the President’s office, Hezb-e Ensejam-e Melli (National Coordination Party) led by Dr. Sadeq Mudaber, the head of the Office for Administrative Affairs in Kabul, vice president, Karim Khalili’s wing of Hezb-e Wahdat and Hezb-e Islami led by Abdul Hadi Arghandiwal, who is the present minister for economy. Most of these political parties have only small branches in Mazar-e-Sharif and do not organize any relevant event, youth group or cultural activities.

Among university students, some are also affiliated to political parties, mostly to well-known mujahedin parties and Jombesh and mainly joining because of their party’s perceived ethnic outlook or makeup. Only a minority of students at Balkh university seem to think beyond ethnic issues: small groups on the campus have come together from different ethnic groups and are trying to organise political activity. As this is not allowed openly inside the universities, they often choose to reflect their ideas and thoughts in newspapers. These initiatives, however, have not been thoroughly successful and sometimes have even been targeted by local government. Many of those newspapers run into financial problems or were swiftly stopped somehow by the power-brokers who rule the province.

With governmental power and financial means firmly in Atta’s hands, the governor of Balkh can control the media either by owning outlets directly or forcing self-censorship. Governor Atta has shares in Arzu TV channel, one of the three private TV channels in Mazar-e Sharif, and is trying to launch his own station for which he has already set up studios in Mazar. According to reporters here, Atta also pays local journalists, primarily those who work for nationally-important TV stations, such as Tolo and Ariana, to broadcast news in his favour, or at least not against him.

A number of local newspapers run by leftist intellectuals and other political activists were directly or indirectly banned. Some, critical of the government and the warlords – like Andesha-ye NawAndesha-ye NawinJahan-e Nawand Atesh which were published in Mazar-e-Sharif during the past ten years – disappeared without explanation. Parviz Kambakhsh, who was sentenced to death for alleged blasphemy, and then released under domestic and international pressure, used to work for one of them, Jahan-e Naw.

Samiullah Ghoshtun, a Pashtun and reporter for Radio Liberty in the north, says that media is pushed by government officials to carry out self-censorship. This prevents them from safeguarding their impartiality. He said that locally, ‘the media is under the control of a circle related to a specific ethnic party in power in Balkh. This is an obstacle both for civil society and for the other political parties to make their voices heard.’

* Enayat Najafizada is an Afghan journalist based in Mazar-e Sharif. He regularly works for the German magazine Der Spiegel and for the news agency Agence France Presse (AFP).


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