London, Asharq Al-Awsat – “Yesterday’s foes are today’s friends and perhaps tomorrow’s enemies. It all depends upon [one’s] interests.” This statement has been used time and time again to the course of Afghan politics from Mujahedeen’s wars prior to the rise of the Taliban in 1996, and even following the collapse of this extremist movement’s regime in late 2001.
Today this statement can be applied to what is happening between Afghan President Hamid Karzai and former warlord Mohamed Qasim Fahim, whom Karzai announced that he wished to appoint as vice-President. This is an attempt by Karzai to strengthen his position by allying with leaders who enjoy popularity and influence in Afghanistan, and control militias, even if they are former warlords, and even if some of them, like Fahim, are considered to be major oppositional figure to Karzai having fought alongside Ahmed Shah Massoud.
In spite of the international criticism faced by Karzai for choosing Fahim to [stand] for the post of vice-president, Karzai defended his choice and asserted that the former warlord who has been accused of committing [war] crimes knows how to unite the country, especially since he is a member of the Tajik ethnic group, which is the second largest ethnic group in the country. President Karzai himself is a member of the Pashto ethnic group, which the majority of the Afghan population belong to.
In a speech delivered at Washington’s Brookings Institute for Research, Karzai said that Fahim “will be an agent of stability and unity for the Afghan people” and that “he will be a vice-president that can go to any province in the country and do what is expected of him.” Karzai went on to say that in he sees in Fahim “A man I could depend upon during the tough times.” Karzai justified placing Fahim in a position of power by saying that the veteran warriors who had fought against the Soviet occupation should be appointed to more senior positions in government.
With the announcement of General Mohamed Qasim Fahim – who is dubbed “the Bulldozer” for his role as commander of the Northern Alliance – defection from the opposition to Karzai’s presidential ticket in the forthcoming Afghan elections due to take place in August, it is clear that there is a rift in the ranks of the Afghan opposition.
Mohamed Qasim Fahim was born in 1958, in a small village in the Panjshir Valley in Afghanistan. He received his primary and secondary school education in the Panjshir Valley, before completing his studies in Islamic Shariaa Law and Arabic at the Institute of Islamic Studies in Kabul in 1977. He then travelled to the border city of Peshawar in 1978 where he studied military science. When he returned to Afghanistan, Fahim joined Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud in the Panjshir Valley Following the collapse of the pro-Soviet regime in 1992 Fahim was appointed Chief of the Afghan State Information Agency [Intelligence Service otherwise known as KHAD] during the Islamic State of Afghanistan [1992 – 1996], under President Sibghatullah Mojaddedi, and his successor President Barhanuddin Rabbani.
Many of Fahim’s critics say that despite being a military leader of an Islamist group and having strong ties to both the mujahedeen and Ahmed Shah Massoud, he has maintained an open-door policy with Moscow and the Communist Party of Tajikistan, and that he received his initial military training behind the scenes of KHAD under late President Mohammad Najibullah. A number of incidents have played an important role in the formation of Fahim’s character. For example following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1978, Fahim became a refugee in Peshawar, yet only a year later Fahim returned to Panjshir where he [joined Ahmed Shah Massoud and] began his armed resistance against Soviet occupation.
Fahim is also a former warlord, and some have accused him of committing war crimes during the time he was a member of the military wing of Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat-e Islami organization. During the Soviet occupation Jamiat-e Islamic took part in a series of assassinations that targeted key figures in Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hizb-e Islami organization.
Fahim is also regarded as one of the major leaders of the prominent armed Islamist groups that were involved in the Afghan civil war that took place between 1992 and 1996. This was the war between the Northern Alliance led by Tajik leader Ahmed Shah Massoud and the Taliban movement. Fahim is vehemently hated by the Taliban for killing hundreds of their members and leaders during their struggle to power following the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan.
The accusations leveled against Fahim concern his role in this civil war, where he served as a commander of the Northern Alliance under Ahmed Shah Massoud. The Human Rights Watch organization issued a report in 2005 entitled “Blood-Stained Hands” which reports that Fahim was involved in the death of 800 Hazara Shiite Muslims in 1992 in Kabul.
On 13 September 2001, just four days after the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud at the hands of the Al Qaeda organization, Fahim was appointed Military Commander of the Northern Alliance. Fahim – along with other warlords- assisted the US forces in driving the Taliban out of Kabul. The US allowed him, and a number of other warlords, to keep their militias and the areas that were under their control. Indeed Fahim is still in control of military troops who are directly under his command and have pledged their allegiance to him, not the central [Afghan] government.
Fahim served as Minister of Defense in the Afghan Transitional Administration under President Karzai, before being removed from cabinet prior to the first presidential elections in the history of Afghanistan which took place on 8 October 2004. One of the reasons for this was the intense pressure Karzai was subjected to from various foreign organizations who viewed Fahim as a major obstacle to the disarmament process. This was because Fahim had refused to disband his militia which at this time was comprised of around 50 thousand troops. In addition to being a favorite of Moscow, Fahim is considered to be one of Iran’s staunchest allies in Afghanistan. He believes that the massive amount of aid given to Afghanistan by Iran will remain forever engraved upon the memory of the country and he regards Iran as an important neighbor and strategic ally.
As is the case with many Afghan leaders, Fahim has been accused of having a hand in the manufacture and smuggling of narcotics in the northern region of Afghanistan, despite his repeated denials. These warlords are accused of spending the profit from the drug trade on arming their militias. Previously the US forces in Afghanistan had announced their intention of bringing General Fahim and a number of other Northern Alliance commanders to trial on charges of narcotic manufacture and smugglings. In fact, the US forces did not stop at merely issuing this threat, but took things to the next level by finalizing the legal procedures for taking Fahim to court. However this was merely a means of exerting pressure on Fahim to convince him to cooperate with President Karzai.
Regardless of the number of accusations made against Fahim, he has never been brought to trial. This is as a result of a law issued by the Afghan parliament in 2007 which provided a [legal] amnesty to former Afghan jihadist leaders, as well as the dropping of any charges of war crimes that may have been made against them This law has provoked angry responses from international human rights organization since it was enacted.
Fahim was one of the founders of the oppositional United National Front established to oppose the Karzai administration. Other members include former President Burhanuddin Rabbani, and a number of former ministers such as former Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs Dr. Abdullah Abdullah.
Fahim’s defection from the opposition party came amidst news of other Northern Alliance officials endorsing the incumbent president in the forthcoming presidential elections that are due to take place on 20 August. Karzai is widely expected to win a second 5-year term in what is only the second democratic presidential elections to be held in Afghanistan in the past 40 years. Winning this election will go along way in conferring a legitimacy upon President Karzai which he is currently lacking, this is due to the fact that the President was originally appointed by a Loya Jirga [Grand Assembly] following intense pressure from Washington on his behalf.
The US used Fahim and other warlords to overthrow the Taliban following the September 11 attacks in 2001. However the US made the mistake of allowing these warlords to keep their militias and the areas which they controlled. As months went by, these militias grew in strength to the extent that they began collecting taxes and duties that should rightfully have gone to the central government. These militias even began charging taxes on the opium trade which had begun to thrive once more in Afghanistan to the extent that Afghanistan is now the number one worldwide exporter of heroin.
Afghan sources in Kabul informed Asharq Al-Awsat that Fahim’s endorsement of Karzai is an explicit breaking away from the oppositional ranks. Forty-four candidates have registered as independents in the second presidential elections, two of whom are women. Along with prominent Afghan economist and former Minister of Commerce, Hedayat Amin Arsala, Karzai’s main rivals are Ashraf Ghani, the former Afghan Minister of Finance who has worked for the World Bank, and Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, former Afghan Minister of Foreign Affairs.
In a telephone interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Afghan Minister of Hajj Mohamed Siddiq Tashkiri revealed that the appointment of Fahim to the post of vice-president is compensation to the “Afghan mujahedeen” prior to the forthcoming election. Tashkiri added that the mujahedeen who had fought the Soviets for many years are spread all over Afghanistan and that their vote is important. Tashkiri also revealed to Asharq Al-Awsat that he personally would be voting for Fahim, the commander who fought against the Soviets for years. He added that Fahim is known among the Afghans as “Qasimi Fahim” the General who drove out the Taliban and Al Qaeda following the collapse of the fundamentalist regime in 2001. Tashkiri added that in the eyes of the Afghan people, Fahim was the “lion-cub of Panjshir” as he was the right-hand man of Ahmed Shah Massoud, the Commander of the Northern Alliance who is still known until today as the “Lion of Panjshir.” Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda only two days prior to the September 11 attacks and pictures and images of him can be found throughout Afghan cities. Sheik Tashkiri informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “There is a lot of negative propaganda that has accompanied the rise of Fahim, but despite this he is much loved by the Tajik ethnic group.”
Karzai has raised the concern of the international community by choosing Fahim as a running mate for one of the two Afghani vice-presidential positions. Karzai said “We will make mistakes just as we did in the past; however our objective is to serve the Afghan people.” Karzai justified selecting Mohamed Qasim Fahim and Karim Khalil for the two vice-presidential positions by saying “This is for the sake of the Afghan people and their welfare.”
The other candidate is the incumbent vice-president Karim Khalil, a Hazara Shiite; he has been Karzai’s vice-president for the previous 7 years, is a former warlord, and one of the leaders of the Hazara Shiite political party, Hizb-e Wahdat. Khalil has also been accused of committing war crimes during the Afghan civil war, but he cooperated with the disarmament process following the collapse of the Taliban, and dismantled his militia. It is said that Fahim [has now] disarmed [in preparation for the elections] but he has been accused of storing weapons in Wadi Banshir, the former base of the Northern Alliance that fought against both the Soviets and the Taliban.
Fahim’s nomination has not pleased the UN, as expressed by UN Special Representative in Afghanistan Kai Eide. According to a western diplomat close to the UN, “Eide regrets the current situation following Fahim’s nomination to the vice-presidency.” The diplomat also indicated that this reaction “reflects the feelings of the international community towards this nomination” and pointed out that this decision “may cause Karzai to lose the support of the international community and the Afghan people.” The Norwegian diplomat Eide warned the Afghan president several times of the consequences of nominating Fahim. UN officials in Kabul who spoke on the condition of anonymity also expressed their “fears” with regards to Fahim’s nomination to the vice-presidency.
Afghan MP Shukrya Barakzai, a legal and women’s rights activist said that “this [nomination] gives the impression that Afghanistan is unable to stay away from its past, especially with regards to the warlords.” She added “this makes it difficult to continue in the endeavor towards a progressive and democratic society, along with the protection of the rights of the people of Afghanistan.” Barakzai also said that Fahim being incriminated in [war] crimes and the suppression of people’s rights is another reason that the candidate should be disqualified.
Western observers describe Fahim as “ambitious” and a “trouble-maker.” They warned that the power struggle between Karzai and Fahim may result in a “violent split in an already fragile government that is accused by the West of corruption.”
In a statement commenting on remarks made by his opponents Fahim said that his goal is to sacrifice for the people of Afghanistan, something which was evident from his earlier cooperation with Karzai. Fahim added “I want to stress to you that my goal and my hope is a united Afghanistan, and my ambition is to create a state where law and legitimacy prevail.”
Dr. Hani al-Sibai, an Egyptian Islamist and director of the Almaqreze Centre for Historical Studies in London that specializes in Afghan affairs informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Tajik General Fahim was the commander of the military wing of the group presided over by Barhanuddin Rabbani…it is no surprise that today two foes are allying. Afghanistan has a history of such alliances. In the past, Massoud allied with Hekmatyar, before they came into conflict, and then the Taliban came [top power] and everybody fled to the mountains. In the past, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar also allied with the communist Abdul-Rashid Dostum during the mujahedeen government.”
Dr. al-Sibai informed Asharq Al-Awsat via telephone that “the US administration is unhappy with Fahim’s nomination because he is – militarily and politically – stronger than their man Karzai. Fahim has a trained and armed militia ready to follow his commands.” Al-Sibai also indicated that there are real fears for Afghanistan if President Karzai is assassinated. He said “There have previously been numerous attempts on Karzai’s life by Al Qaeda, including an assassination attempt in Kabul in May 2008 only yards from his presidential mansion, and another in Kandahar. If an assassination attempt made against Karzai proves successful, then Fahim, the Afghan Bulldozer, would become the next president of Afghanistan, according to the constitution.”
Dr. al-Sibai went on to say that “Fahim’s history with the Pashto and the people of Afghanistan is a bloody one, when he was a military commander under Ahmed Shah Massoud Fahim participated in the assassination of the Hizb-e Islami party leaders during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. He is also the bitter enemy of the Taliban after killing hundreds of its members and leaders. If appointed president, the Taliban will attack the Afghan governmental leadership in revenge.” Dr. al-Sibai also informed Asharq Al-Awsat that “the Afghan people have not forgotten the massacres perpetuated against the Arab Afghans in Kabul, Jalalabad, Mazari Sharif, Namrouz and elsewhere by the Northern Alliance under the command of Fahim. Due to this several attempts have already been made on Fahim’s life.”
The game of [political] musical chairs that is currently taking place in Kabul is one that has been going on for decades, and today Afghanistan finds itself witnessing a strange and astonishing political alliance whose objective is to stabilize the country. However this alliance may result in further disorder and instability, the effect of which is beyond speculation, only the coming days will answer this question.