The real issue at hand is that the Panjshiris fail to see the need to share their power with anyone else. They perceive themselves as the country’s natural born leaders, gained by their ability to resist both the Soviets and the Taliban, with an undisputed right to represent Afghanistan, largely to the detriment of other tribal or ethnic groups
The powerful Panjshiris are seeking to impose their dominance at the Loya Jirga, but they risk losing everything unless they make a greater effort to support a truly broad-based Afghan administration.
The 70-mile-long Panjshir valley remains littered with military wreckage from the Soviet occupation of the1980s when the Red Army repeatedly tried — and failed — to quash the region’s armed resistance led by guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Massoud.
The Northern Alliance commander — who was assassinated last September 9, two days prior to the Al Qaeda attacks in the US, by suspected members of the militant Islamic group and now lies buried on a hill overlooking
the Panjshir River — also represented the main opposition to the Taliban.
As with the Soviets, Massoud succeeded in preventing them from taking the Panjshir — and thus acquiring direct access to the north-east of the country — as part of their strategy to control the entire country.
Over a dozen years after Moscow’s withdrawal from Afghanistan, the symbolism of the shattered Red Army tanks and armored personnel carriers lying by the roadside or half-submerged in the river as it churns its way down from the snow-capped Hindu Kush mountains is more than one of victory over a 20th century Super Power. It is one of resilience, obstinacy, and, increasingly, arrogance. And it is this arrogance that is causing one of the greatest problems for Afghanistan today.
Representing a population of less than 300,000 both inside and outside the valley, the Panjshiris are asserting a disproportionate and often heavy-handed control over Kabul. The Panjshiris currently control three key ministries — defense, interior, and foreign affairs — and are now seeking to impose their dominance at the Loya Jirga.
They are doing this through a combination of bribes and intimidation, including physical threats, of the delegates, who, for the first time, seem to represent the Afghan grassroots over the interests of the warlords.
The real issue at hand is that the Panjshiris fail to see the need to share their power with anyone else. They perceive themselves as the country’s natural born leaders, gained by their ability to resist both the Soviets and the Taleban, with an undisputed right to represent Afghanistan, largely to the detriment of other tribal or ethnic groups.
Defense Minister Mohammad Qasim Fahim, who was appointed head of the Northern Alliance following Massoud’s death, recently maintained that the Panjshiris had assumed control in Kabul because there was no one else proficient enough to run the key ministries.
While claiming to support any government named by the Loya Jirga, he also said that he would not relinquish control until peace and security were “fully restored” and “acceptable”. To do so otherwise, he maintained, would be “irresponsible”.
Another problem is that, since Massoud’s death, there is no single leader amongst the Panjshiris capable of making decisions as a group. As a result, each faction, whether headed by Fahim or Interior Minister Yunus Qanuni, is doing its utmost to retain power.
This is compounded by the lack of any clearly stated policy by the United States. “The message that needs to be communicated is that the Americans will not tolerate any form of government that does not fully represent a broad-based consensus,” said one senior UN official.
The US is regarded as the only power in the position to assert firm influence over the Panjshiris. In addition, he maintained, the international donors need to impose conditional aid based on how the country’s leadership perform over the next 18 months.
During the Soviet-Afghan war, Massoud and his men, primarily Panjshiris but also other northern Tajiks, represented one of Afghanistan’s most effective fighting forces. They were revered by Afghans throughout much of the country, and became the favourites of many journalists and aid workers.
I first came across Massoud in the summer of 1981. I had trekked several hundred miles by foot across north-eastern Afghanistan to report on this “extraordinary” guerrilla commander, an Afghan “Che Guevera” who was not only good at fighting but also cared for the civilian population.
As the Soviet war dragged on, Massoud’s reputation grew. I met with him on various occasions throughout the 1980s and 1990s. There was no doubt that he was an impressive man with strong leadership qualities coupled with a vision for an independent and moderate Afghanistan uniting all ethnic and tribal groups.
Not only did he succeed in leading his valley against the Soviet empire, but he later developed his Shura-e-Nezar (Supervisory Council of the North — soon to be labeled the Northern Alliance) into the only force capable of staving off the Taleban.
And the Panjshiris knew it. With Massoud their hero, they walked tall wherever they went, instantly recognizable by their longish hair, camouflaged uniforms and woolen Chitrali caps. When the Soviets finally left in February 1989 and the communist regime in Kabul fell more than two years later, the Panjshiris were among the first to enter the capital.
They immediately began to dominate the city by packing the government with their own people, competent or not. Corruption abounded and their disdain for other ethnic groups, particularly the Pashtuns, became more pronounced. Massoud’s insistence on holding the capital in 1994 during the bitter factional fighting with other former mujahed fronts, such as Guldbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, resulted in the destruction of much of the city and the loss of over 50,000 lives. His forces also brutally put down Hazara opposition to his authority.
As a politician, Massoud failed badly. He had genuinely sought to bring together Afghanistan’s diverse ethnic and tribal groups as part of a new government of unity, but there was too much distrust and the Pashtuns considered him too powerful. By the time the Taleban took control in 1996, Massoud and his Panjshiris — once the heroes of the Jihad — had become overwhelmingly unpopular both in Kabul and many other parts of the country.
Massoud was fully aware of his shortcomings. He was also informed of the abuses committed by his Panjshiri supporters. Prior to his assassination, Massoud warned his commanders to never again commit the mistakes of the early 1990s. This was reiterated during the Bonn talks in December 2001. The only way for a new government to succeed, he had stressed, was through equitable power sharing among all groups.
The reality today, however, is far different. Since re-taking Kabul last November, the Panjshiris have once again sought to control as much as possible. Known as the “Panjshiri Mafia”, they immediately took the main ministries and are now involved in mafia-style rackets ranging from imposing their own taxi cartels to beating up competitive Pashtun merchants.
For a faction that claims to represent Afghanistan as a whole, the Panjshiris have promoted Massoud’s image to one of almost mythical proportions. His portrait appears in virtually every shop, tea house and mosque in Kabul and the northern areas. It is also featured in every police or army facility. All of this does not go down well with Afghans, particularly Pashtuns, who do not regard Massoud as their leader.
“If the Panjshiris were really interested in projecting a unified image, they should include other heroes such as Abdul Haq,” said Anders Fange, a senior UN official with many years experience in Afghanistan, referring to the renowned Pashtun resistance commander who was killed by the Taleban in eastern Afghanistan in the autumn of 2001.
Perhaps most critical of all, the Panjshiris run the Amniyat, the National Security Directorate, or secret police, which, as with the Soviet-backed KHAD of the 1980s, is much feared and largely run by armed thugs. In a move that may totally torpedo the credibility of the Loya Jirga, UN special representative Lakhdar IBrahimi and the assembly commission made a last minute decision on Sunday to grant the Amniyat full access to the proceedings.
This unexpected move came despite warnings by various advisors, including senior UN, aid agency and peacekeeping representatives, to keep the Amniyat out. According to one UN official, who requested anonymity, the secret police can now be expected to step up its pressure in favor of the Panjshiris, whose current support within the Loya Jirga, UN estimates believe, stands at barely 20 per cent.
Regardless what happens at the Loya Jirga, the Panjshiris are clearly determined to hold on to their influence. But their arrogance may also prove to be their downfall. Unless they make a greater effort to support a truly broad-based Afghan administration, they risk losing everything.
They may end up with another war on their hands, but this time as an unpopular minority faction with no international sympathy or support.
Geneva-based Edward Girardet is director of Media Action International and editor of the Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan. He is currently writing a book on 23 years of reporting the wars in Afghanistan