Afghanistan Analysts Network – English

War and Peace

Who was Jan Muhammad Khan?

Thomas Ruttig 4 min

Another closest Karzai aide killed within five days: after Ahmad Wali Karzai on 12 July, now Jan Muhammad Khan, the former governor and grey eminence of Uruzgan. While the circumstances of the assassinations are distinct (AWK killed by a lone gunman and ostensible friend, JMK by a suicide bomber crew), both men had a lot in common: personal closeness to the President and their key position in the southern pro-Karzai network. AAN’s Senior Analyst Thomas Ruttig looks at Jan Muhammad’s history.

Jan Muhammad Khan – killed together with MP Muhammad Hashem Watanwal, his political protégé, by a commando of suicide attackers in his Kabul house – was more than just an advisor to President Hamed Karzai. If Uruzgan’s political folklore is to be believed, the former governor* and long-time grey eminence in the southern Afghan province of Uruzgan was something like a second father-figure for Hamed Karzai. Time and again I have been told there, that the President’s father, late Abdul Ahad Karzai, has impressed on his sons to obey JMK – as he was known amongst non-Afghans – like himself in case he wouldn’t be there anymore one day. The Karzai sons were said to have referred to him as ‘Agha’. The senior Karzai was killed in Quetta in 1999 by the Taleban.

No one in Uruzgan, however, answered the question what made both men so close, the Popalzai aristocrat and deputy speaker of Parliament and the former school janitor and wrestler turned mujahedin and later militia commander. Maybe, it was gratefulness: Another Uruzgan story related how JMK once had saved young Karzai’s life from the bullet of a rival commander.

In this light, JMK’s violent death would be of almost the same imminence as that of the President’s brother, Ahmad Wali Karzai, just five days ago.

As Ahmad Wali Karzai in Kandahar, JMK stood for a style of governance that became typical for the post-2004 Karzai presidency – the reliance of networks of personal patronage rather than functioning state institutions. In 2004, Karzai had run on a reformist platform, promising to end his ‘coalition government’ with the warlords. The opposite was the case, not without the tacit approval of the Western coalition – fire power counted more than democratic credentials, or their absence.

This was the case from the beginning, and it was the case in Uruzgan. Karzai who had started his little post-9/11 ‘tribal’ revolt in this province, with the help of US Special Forces, also relied on a group of commanders to help him that was dubbed the ‘Karzai Seven’. One of them was Jan Muhammad.

Another story I heard countless times in Uruzgan when asking why the province’s tribes supported Karzai in the beginning but now were almost completely against him, went as follows: The ‘Karzai Seven’ also stood for a shura with representatives of Uruzgan’s seven most important tribes. But soon the post of provincial governor had to be filled. Jan Muhammad, from the Pashtun tribal aristocracy, the Durrani, competed for it against Mulla Shafiq, from the Pashtun Ghilzai underdogs, a former Taleban commander. Karzai opted for JMK, possibly due to his family’s close relationship with him. Shafiq went into opposition, became a leading Taleban commander again. But JMK also pushed most of the other tribes out of the shura and filled the province’s leading administrative posts, with only a very few exceptions, with his own – and Karzai’s – Popalzai tribesmen. Uruzgan morphed into one tribe’s power monopoly.

With his rivals, JMK dealt ruthlessly. He labelled them Taleban, and sent the Special Forces after them – who misinterpreted their mandate to support the ‘central government’ as supporting one man against his personnel rivals and who appreciated his qualities as an effective Taleban hunter; JMK still had an axe to grind with them after the Taleban had incarcerated him in Kandahar during the IEA era. (See a picture of JMK inhere, go to page 8.)

As my AAN colleague Martine van Bijlert describes in her Uruzgan chapter for the 2009 book ‘Decoding the New Taliban’**:

‘The resurgence of the Taliban movement in Uruzgan has been closely linked to the behaviour of the province’s local powerbrokers – in particular that of Jan Mohammad, the first governor after the fall of the Taliban […] with the Popalzai dominated local administration seeking to marginalise the weak (the Ghilzai and Panjpai Durrani) and to divide the strong (Barakzai and Achekzai).’

Together with Ahmad Wali Karzai, Sher Muhammad Akhundzada and Assadullah Khaled, then the governors of Helmand and Ghazni respectively, as well as Aref Nurzai – many of them related to each other by marriage – JMK constituted one of the main threads of the southern pro-Karzai network. Meanwhile, a younger generation has entered the fray, amongst them JMK’s nephew Matiullah in Uruzgan and Rohullah in Kandahar – and it is not always clear whether as allies or as rivals.

While Akhundzada, JMK and Khaled were removed under the pressure of the troop-contributing nations that were to establish PRTs in their respective provinces – the UK, the Netherlands and Canada -, JMK and Akhundzada remained major power players in the region. JMK possessed large shares in the dominating trades down south, security companies, contracting, land, real estate and others.

Whether any of these factors contributed to the violent death of Jan Muhammad Khan has to remain open for the time being.

(*) JMK was Uruzgan’s governor under President Rabbani up to 1994 when the Taleban took over Uruzgan (without much resistance) and again from early 2002 to March 2006. During his first pre-1994 stint he was ‘implicated in the pre-Taliban time of plunder and chaos’. See: Martine van Bijlert, The Battle for Afghanistan: Militancy and Conflict in Zabul and Uruzgan, The New America Foundation, Sept. 2010 (read it in full here).

(**) in: Antonio Giustozzi (ed.), Decoding the New Taliban. Insights from the Afghan Field, London: Hurst, 2009.

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Assassination Uruzgan Jan Muhammad Khan

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