Political Landscape

The Other Transfer of Power: Fahim’s death and Massud’s succession

Posters of late Marshall Fahim and Ahmad Shah Massud: the first followed the latter and became the most influential among the former mujahedin commanders - who will now become his successor? There seem to be only few candidates available, writes Fabrizio Foschini. Photo: FF

Until the elections of 5 April, the demise of Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim constituted the single major political event of 2014 in Afghanistan. His death directly affects the internal politics of a large group of Afghans: all those living in the north-eastern quadrant of the country. Tracing the political ascent of Fahim and assessing the influence he wielded during the past decade, AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini argues that the void left by him will need to be filled with different levels of leadership and group solidarity.

In the nearly 13 years between the 2001 US-led intervention and his death on 9 March 2014, Mohammed Qasim Fahim, among other former mujahedin, became the one politician who played the most prominent and lasting role in the new Afghan institutions. Initially serving as one of the lieutenants of Ahmad Shah Massud, he managed to transform his profile and made sure that the political-military network he belonged to, the Shura-e Nezar (Supervisory Council), survived the death of its founder and erstwhile leader, Massud, on 9 September 2001. Fahim occupied key institutional positions, mainly in the security forces in the making, after the collapse of the Taleban regime later that year. Although Shura-e Nezar’s structure officially ceased to exist, Fahim successfully capitalised on this network as a tool to further his political centrality.

Shura-e Nezar was largely part of but not completely identical to the Jamiat-e Islami party led by late Burhanuddin Rabbani who was assassinated in 2011. It had been the medium by which, throughout the war in the 1980s, Ahmad Shah Massud had tried to expand his influence among neighbouring commanders, offering training on modern guerrilla tactics and integration in broader groupings, which enabled them to stage more ambitious and effective attacks. This allowed him to become their main representative in front of the Peshawar-based Jamiat-e Islami leadership and to bargain for more weapons and cash deliveries, in turn enhancing his leadership through the re-distribution of war booty and party supplies. Shura-e Nezar developed out of his home turf in the Panjshir valley, progressively including a majority of commanders (mostly Jamiatis) in the northeast of Afghanistan. (1)

Massud’s was an early display of the advantages of dynamic patronage over remote-controlled and bureaucratic party affiliation or traditional kinship bonds among the fast rising class of small military entrepreneurs. Then, they were still mujahedin committed to a religious and ideological goal, but soon they turned into opportunist leaders of armed factions often ‘for hire’ in a situation of diffused conflict and shifting loyalties. Massud had become a highly influential leader by the end of the conflict with the communist government and its Soviet backers. His personal network, based on shared warfare practices, almost contiguous territory control and to some extent structured chains of command, proved, with few exceptions, loyal and stable ­– at least more than any other military coalition launched during the subsequent Afghan civil war and the struggle against the Taleban (1992–2001). This gave Massud the slight military advantage that constituted his main asset until his death in a suicide attack on the eve of 11 September 2001.

Massud’s closest political and military aides, Fahim, Dr. Abdullah and Yunus Qanuni, all coming from or having a long connection with Panjshir, managed his succession during the eventful days between the September 2001 attacks in the US and the fall of the Taleban regime and were rewarded with ministerial posts in the new, interim Afghan administration selected first by the Bonn conference in late 2001 and then by the Emergency Loya Jirga (ELJ) of 2002: Fahim at the Ministry of Defence, Abdullah at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Qanuni at the Ministry of the Interior and, after the Loya Jirga, Education.

Although, to many foreign observers, these three men seemed to be working as a sort of triumvirate leading the Tajik faction of the Northern Alliance, Fahim’s role, as the inheritor of Massud’s military might, was greater than that of his peers. A few hours after Massud’s death, a restricted gathering of approximately a dozen Panjshiri leaders had decided to appoint him as jayneshin (successor) to Massud in order to be able to keep up the fight. (2)

Rising fast during jihad

During the early days of jihad, Fahim had not been a particularly prominent commander, acting first as Massud’s diplomatic envoy to different mujahedin fronts and then being in charge of relatively secondary frontlines like Ghorband or parts of Baghlan. Nevertheless, he had been one of Massud’s few original followers who came across Nuristan into Panjshir in 1979, but his prestige so far stemmed more from his religious learning. Before the war, he had been a student of the state-run madrassa Dar al Ulum-e Arab in Kabul (same as fellow-Shura-e Nezar Panjshiri and current Minister of Defence Bismillah Khan Mohammadi – though according to some sources he studied at another government madrassa, Abu Hanifa). (3) His ascent to power started when he was sent to Kabul to secretly negotiate the terms of surrender with the communist officials, shortly before the city fell into the hands of the mujahedin in April 1992. He subsequently rose very quickly to the top hierarchy of Massud’s entourage, becoming chief of intelligence in the new mujahedin government, then, during the struggle for Kabul against Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami, the commander of Kabul city troops, and finally, according to many, Massud’s deputy in the Shura-e Nezar during the fight against the Taleban (although in a recent article Ahmad Wali Massud said his late brother had not named any deputy to take over in the event of his death).

Shura-e Nezar was never a political party, but rather a network of commanders kept united by a leader who could enhance their fighting skills and prospects of success. That the fight after 2001 would be a largely political one was just a detail back then; Fahim’s first two decisions as a leader in October-November 2001 were definitely strategic military moves. The first was to accept NATO offers and cooperate with the aerial campaign against the Taleban; the second was to contravene NATO requests of stopping short of entering Kabul. Fahim seized the capital with his troops on 13 November 2001.

The next moves of Fahim were more of a political nature: to accept the summoning of the conference among Afghan groups in Bonn and, there and at the ELJ, to cut short all talks of a possible resumed presidency of Burhanuddin Rabbani (appointed in 1992, he had remained the president recognised by the UN, although not in control of Kabul) or the alternative options. By having the northern commanders accept Karzai, Fahim laid the foundation of the coalition pattern that was to last for the next decade. Soon after, the title of Marshal was bestowed on him by presidential decree.

This lofty title was no mere personal fancy. It had a precedent in Afghan history in its bestowal on Shah Wali Khan after the conquest of Kabul from the bandit-king Habibullah Kalakani in 1929. The younger brother of Nadir Khan had played a major military part in the conquest as the commander-in-chief of the army, and the title was probably awarded in recognition of both this and of his quiet acceptance of the precedence of his brother’s claims to the throne (Nadir Khan’s family had spent some years of exile in France: hence the ‘exotic’ rank of ‘marshal’). The order of the day had been to bring an end to a situation of civil war and to reassert the stability of the state, quite like in 2002. It is likely that, mutatis mutandis, Fahim saw his support of Karzai’s presidency in the same light and picked this title as a memento of his founding role and partnership in the reconstruction of the state. (4)

An immense cash machine

Marshal Fahim, who among Massud’s top aides was the one who best combined military background with experience in managing the network of other commanders, thus continued the war practices of his predecessor in times of peace, or better, of post-conflict economy. (5) The range of activities shaping and reinforcing the patronage network would eventually expand to many legal or quasi-legal economic activities, while the political clout of the core Shura-e Nezar leaders had since been guaranteed by their hegemonic presence in the government, especially in the security sector. In the early days, Fahim was instrumental in providing the US troops with much needed “boots on the ground” thanks to his leverage with Shura-e Nezar commanders from areas where the hunt of Al Qaida and the Taleban was continuing, like Tora Bora or Kunar, and the wide employment of Shura-e Nezar militiamen for the logistics and security of NATO troops in many areas of the country.

But it was Shura-e Nezar’s military power around (and during the first years even inside) the capital that constituted his main asset. Indeed, Fahim turned his established position in Kabul into an immense ‘cash machine’, distributing wealth to powerbrokers in every corner of the country and making his patronage network broader and more diverse than Massud’s had been (for example, his 2002 request of wages for 700,000 anti-Taleban fighters, as related by Ashraf Ghani in his recent interview with AAN. This only increased when Fahim’s partnership with Karzai went a step further following the 2009 election in which Fahim was Karzai’s running mate (Fahim’s closeness to Karzai hindered some of the other Panjshiri and Jamiati leaders from going to the opposition). The compact between the president and his first deputy became rather stable and mutually beneficial in political and economic terms, enabling both to reinforce their means of patronage in a way that was more independent of foreign backing: Karzai assumed a new ‘nationalist’ stance in politics and Fahim, or his close associates and family members, joined in profitable economic ventures, which in turn secured new friends and allies.

A core Panjshiri network remained to some extent at the centre of Fahim’s pack of associates, but the commanders and businessmen (often the first turned into the second) who came to benefit from their connection to Fahim were not always ex-Shura-e Nezar. Fahim would, of course, consider political backgrounds in his choice of whom to support, but even more important was a personal connection to him, and he helped the careers of former commanders who belonged to other mujahedin parties in order to establish some leverage over them.

In this kingpin position, he played an ambivalent role. On one hand, he was consistently seen during the past decade as the heavy weight among the old class of mujahedin leaders and had recurrently used the rhetoric associated with the jihad to convey signals to his affiliates, to the government and even to foreigners (for a previous AAN analysis of this, see here). On the other, he had direct links with or could deter most of the commanders of the country and was thus seen by the government and by the foreigners as able to guarantee some degree of much-needed stability.

Consequences of his absence

After his death, Fahim has been hailed as the lost hinge between the government and the opposition (meant here as Dr. Abdullah’s camp), a possible mediator for negotiations before, during and after the election. In fact, his position was peculiarly complex. Of course, he ‘naturally’ leaned towards presidential candidate Abdullah Abdullah, and he made pledges of support in this direction. However, the arguably ‘softer’ personalities on Rassul’s ticket (his predecessor as Karzai’s deputy, Ahmad Zia Massud) might have tempted him, too, as they offered chances of playing a continued pivotal role from behind the curtains in the event of their victory. Besides having this double set of relations and opportunities, Fahim had since 2013 been a supporter of the so-called National Consensus, a process highlighting the need among the Afghan political elites to overcome their differences and settle for an inclusive new government team. It is highly likely that he would have helped broker a deal between Abdullah and Rassul’s camps, but this would not have been possible before the first round – and has actually happened anyway without Fahim. In the end, it is probably safer and more interesting to look to more down to earth (or better ‘down in the field’) consequences of his absence.

The network of ex-commanders around Kabul are probably hoping to regroup around another paramount leader with a mujahedin background and a strong position within the higher echelons of the state, in order to avoid unnecessary competition among themselves and make the best of their political connections for profits and immunity. However, there seem to be few candidates available, and most of them are polarising ones or do not have enough strength to impose their hegemony because of the lack of a mobilisation potential close at hand when in Kabul. (6)

Fahim’s peers from among Massud’s historical aides, like Yunus Qanuni, who replaced him as a first vice-president, and Dr. Abdullah, who may become the new president, do not fit the role of a new focal point for this network. Despite their common political background, they have rather different profiles from Fahim’s and ostensibly lack the ability to deal in the same effective way with rough commanders, for whom they remain basically mo’amalagaran (deal-makers). Moreover, at the grassroots level of networking, some groups of Jamiati supporters have come to resent the over-assertiveness displayed by the Panjshiris. Other local networks playing an important role in Kabul, like the Shomalis, notwithstanding their close political and traditional association with the Panjshiris, could pose a challenge to their hegemonic role. For the moment, pending the electoral results, too many possibilities are left open for anybody to make a clear bid to the position of ‘kingpin of Kabul region’s powerbrokers’. However, the general rule holds that the importance of commanders’ networks around Kabul will be enhanced by a post-electoral crisis or stalemate and depressed by a smooth and orderly transition of powers.

Outside of Kabul, the absence of Fahim will also have severe consequences. Ustad Atta Mohammed Nur, the powerful governor of Balkh, no longer has any senior figure remaining among the Jamiatis who can easily tell him off. He can now renew his attempts at taking over Jamiat-e Islami’s presidency – something he needs in order to attain an official national profile as a politician and to become less dependent on the Kabul-sanctioned appointment as a governor – that culminated last summer in his appointment as president of the party’s executive council (read previous AAN reporting here).

Atta’s further strengthening would not necessarily mean a more united north, though. Recent developments linked to the elections – and thus to be taken with a pinch of salt in terms of long-term significance – pointed to some new degree of fragmentation of the dominant Jamiati networks there. In Takhar, many Jamiati commanders of Uzbek ethnic background migrated to Ghani’s camp, lured by the prospects of a vice-presidency for their fellow-Uzbek Dostum, instead of supporting Dr. Abdullah’s candidacy (although Dr. Abdullah still managed to get a large chunk of the provincial vote, see AAN reporting here). The Ibrahimi family, also Uzbek although of a ‘mild’ Hezb-e Islami background, who controls some assets between their home district of Imam Sahib in Kunduz, the governorship of Takhar and the speakership of the parliament, may also represent a pole of attraction (see AAN reporting also here) for other disenfranchised local leaders, especially given their role in Kabul and the patronage it affords. (The clout of parliament speaker Abdul Rauf Ibrahimi is now facing a relevant test with the mutual accusations of corruption between him and Kabul mayor Yunus Nawandish).

Succession quarrels

All these local networks’ ambitions benefit from the popular perception that the Panjshiris have been over-represented during the past twelve years. The issue of the succession to Fahim’s position as vice-president helped reinforce this perception, disproving attempts by some prominent politicians even inside the Jamiat-e Islami to come up with alternative candidacies. Reportedly in the meetings held among various leading political personalities to settle on a name for Karzai to introduce as his new deputy, those of Sayyaf and Salahuddin Rabbani had also been suggested, but were rejected or criticised and in the end a Panjshiri Shura-e Nezar veteran like Yunus Qanuni was chosen – evidently as a compromise solution among the same Panjshiri leaders.

Some media outlets lashed out at what they termed “Shura-e Nezar’s dreams of hereditary power” (Sarnewesht, 17.03.2014), and even among the core Panjshiri powerbrokers a certain degree of dissent surfaced during the selection process. Some in the usually close-knit political community showed dissatisfaction at Fahim’s family’s request to Karzai to take into consideration their right to the inheritance of the deceased’s position and their alleged support of Bismillah Khan’s appointment as vice-president. The current minister of defence would have also been closer to the political line of Fahim with regard to keeping a tight control over the appointments in the security sector. Party and family links helped keep potential strains under control, but not before a series of meetings among the top Panjshiri nomenklatura were called. Finally, as part of the agreement, a call for separating the issues of the vice-presidency and the position of successor to Massud was made. This was announced by Ahmad Wali Massud through a post on his Facebook page on 17 March:

In meetings and consultations we had with friends and hamsangaran, [those who share (the fight in) the trench], of the National Hero, the decision was taken by consensus that the position of deputy to the president of the republic after the demise of Marshal Mohammed Qasim Fahim is considered only a state and official post and the first vice-president as a political figure and has no connections to that of the successor to the National Hero martyr Ahmad Shah Massud.

In fact, Wali Massud was said to have used even more direct words to remind the assembled hamsangaran that if they were talking about the inheritance of the leadership over the people who identify themselves as the former Shura-e Nezar, well, that had belonged to his late brother anyway and not to Fahim. Therefore, right now the quest was ‘only’ about finding a successor for the vice-presidency, and there was no need for anybody to lay claims on both.

In conversations AAN had with prominent Panjshiri politicians, this call was coupled with the one for separating the positions of rahbar (leader in the sense of ‘guide’) and ra’is (president) inside the Jamiat-e Islami party. There was a rather obvious hint to the fact that the first would stay with Rabbani’s family, in the person of his young and educated but rather ‘soft’ son Salahuddin, while the second could at some point be offered to satisfy the political appetite of Ustad Atta.

In this way, it seems, there would be plenty of positions to accommodate everybody’s ambitions – and thus to keep the cohesion of the Tajik north-eastern core of Jamiat-e Islami. For almost all posts, because it is really difficult to imagine who among the Panjshiri leaders could be a successor to Ahmad Shah Massud after Fahim’s demise. This makes it difficult to assess if this would be something concerning only the Panjshiris or all the north and north-eastern mujahedin elites. It probably depends on future trends of conflict and community-oriented politics in Afghanistan: if we accept that what first brought Massud to the spotlight were his fighting skills in defending Panjshir’s inviolability (recently questioned in one rare instance of attack inside the valley), a successor to Massud hailing from Panjshir could be called to wage a battle against external threats to the valley’s security or to the position at the core of Afghan power that the Panjshiris – or at least the former members of Shura-e Nezar among them – have gained. Likewise, as a symbolic rallying point for all the mujahedin forces who opposed the Taleban in the 1990s, such a leader could hope to play this double role for all the rural communities and for those commanders who have more to fear from a comeback of the Taleban, although with lesser degrees of success in securing loyalty and grassroots support depending on their geography, ethnicity and political background.

Of course, this is a position – that of protector of the northern minorities and of the privileges attained by major networks of jihadi commanders – that many from Panjshir would also covet and, again, Ustad Atta could be among them. Politicians from the valley acknowledge the lack of a clear ‘natural’ successor from among their ranks, but notwithstanding this, claim the right to the last say about outsider potential candidates. As Mohammed Saleh Regestani, another of the Panjshiri veterans who followed Massud after 1979 and are now supporting Abdullah’s candidacy, phrased it:

On the issue of Massud’s successor, we will see after the elections are over. If the right person were not to be found in Panjshir we would not have any problem in finding him somewhere else. We will act with the consensus of all those from the North, but it is us Panjshiris who’ll take the decision. Not because we’re enamoured of ourselves, but because we know exactly what we are doing. We’re not lacking experience.


(1) The success of this expansion is often attributed to the common ethnic background (Tajik) of most inhabitants of the region. However, the significance of this is reduced by instances of resistance put up against Massud’s expansion by fellow Tajiks, while several Pashtuns, Uzbeks or Arabs commanders joined Shura-e Nezar, at least before the fall of Kabul and the civil war highlighted the trends of ethnic polarisation in party affiliations and loyalties. Actually the mountainous terrain of north-eastern Afghanistan can be considered, under ‘normal’ circumstances, that is, in the absence of a strong charismatic leader and the need to coalesce to face external threats, only slightly less fractious socially and politically than the often-cited (and extreme) case of the Loya Paktia Pashtun tribes.

(2) According to Mohammed Saleh Registani, this appointment was confirmed by a broader circle of 36 Shura-e Nezar leaders (still, all Panjshiris) two months after the death of Massud, on the eve of the fall of Kabul.

(3) The fact that Fahim hailed from Omarz, in the upper part of Panjshir valley, compared to Massud and a majority of his entourage coming from the main centres in the lower valley, may have contributed to make his career politically expedient for Massud. Panjshir, before the conflict, had not yet been unified into a single social and political entity and probably featured the rather jealous preservation of local prerogatives and powers that characterised much of rural Afghanistan and also some variety in local identities (although not that much between the upper and lower valley as between the main valley and lateral Darra-e Hazara).

(4) Of course, the ethnic and regional origin of Habibullah Kalakani has made him the object of a much posthumous and politicised rehabilitation at the hands of the extremely Shura-e Nezar/Jamiat-e Islami faction (though he already enjoyed the status of a folk hero, locally). Wherever his personal sympathies lay in Kalakani’s story, Fahim’s standing and ambitions make it realistic to infer that in 2002 he was thinking of the new state-reconstruction process as a long-lasting and successful one like the restoration under Nadir Khan, rather than the brief, ill-fated adventure of a social bandit turned king.

(5) Most obviously, in terms of patronage through the re-distribution of ‘booty’. A remarkable example would be Fahim’s role in the allocation of land to political allies in Sherpur in 2003.

(6) The good electoral result obtained by the most mujahedin-oriented presidential ticket, that of Abdul Rabb Rassul Sayyaf, could mean that the old and unclear proposal of instituting a mujahedin council will be revived in the near future. Sayyaf could thus hope to become the senior mujahedin focal point for the Kabul region and at the national level, although he would hardly enjoy Fahim’s established assets and homogenous network inside the security ministries.

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Thematic Category: Political Landscape