Features | Politics | Central Asia

Former Warlord Primed For Afghan Presidency

“A presidential candidate with a violent terrorist group named in his honor.”

Luke Hunt

From the jihad wilds of Africa, Central and Southeast Asia an Afghan warlord has emerged as an unlikely favorite to become his country’s next president. Abdul Rasul Sayyaf – blamed for the deaths of thousands – has declared his candidacy for polls due later this year and political insiders say his chances are better than good.

Sayyaf’s ties have included Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda, the Southeast Asian terror outfit Jemmah Islamiyah (JI) and the widely loathed Abu Sayyaf Group (ASG) from the Southern Philippines. The ASG adopted his name after he trained Filipino members for jihad in Africa in the 1990s.

“Throughout the jihads and his Islamic wars he was responsible for the deaths of many thousands of people,” one Western advisor to the government of Hamid Karzai said. “But that is not necessarily a handicap in this part of the world and he is held in high regard by many people that matter.”

Karzai will stand down at elections due in April next year, at the end of his second term, as mandated by the constitution. That will clear a path for Sayyaf, who is one of three early favorites for the top job. The other two are Abdullah Abdullah, who almost won four years ago, and Ashraf Ghani, a former finance minister. Both are well known quantities where Sayyaf is not.

The Independent Elections Commission (IEC) last week began receiving applications for 2014 presidential nominations.

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Battle-hardened, Sayyaf earned his initial stripes fighting Soviet occupation in the 1980s with the Arab-backed Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan (IULA). He mobilized Arab volunteers for the mujahedin and caught the attention of another Arab fighting the Russians, Osama bin Laden.

Civil war followed and bin Laden shifted his operations to Sudan, until he was expelled in 1996, under international pressure. Osama moved back to Afghanistan and immediately invited Sayyaf into his tent.

Sayyaf had gained experience in Africa by training young Muslim Filipinos arriving from the war-torn Southern Philippines, where an essentially ethnic civil conflict was being complicated by foreign militants keen to use the region as a base and hideout for jihad to be spread across Southeast Asia.

The al Harakat al-Islamiyya had begun its push for independence and an Islamic theocracy in 1991 but so enamored were the rebels returning home, the group was soon renamed the Abu Sayyaf after their Afghan mentor. Numbering 1,000 active members at best, the Abu Sayyaf never enjoyed the same support among locals as established groups with more than three decades of fighting behind them.

But they did form a strategic alliance with Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), which comprised mainly Indonesians and Malaysian jihadists with direct links to al-Qaeda under the religious stewardship of the hardline preacher Abu Bakar Bashir. Their quest for a Southeast Asian caliphate was underpinned by a 10-year bombing campaign, mainly in Indonesia, that left thousands dead and maimed.

Allegations have also surfaced that Sayyaf had assisted in the assassination of Ahmad Shah Masood, the military chief of the Northern Alliance, which continued to fight the Taliban from 1996 until his death just days before the September 11, 2001, attacks on the United States.

But Sayyaf moved on. In the post-9/11 era he played the Afghan factions, eventually controlling the Ittehad-al-Islam, which by 2005 had been transformed into a political party named the Islamic Dawah Organization of Afghanistan. Despite these conflicting affiliations he joined the Northern Alliance.

“This is not going to suit the Americans at all,” said one long time Western observer. “He’s everything the puritans are against, nevertheless if he succeeds they won’t have much choice, after all the U.S. and the allied troops are leaving.”

Security is an enormous issue and a lack of it has resulted in calls to postpone the poll amid fears that the insurgency in Afghanistan has grown to such an extent, particularly in the countryside, that the legitimacy of any election would be compromised by dramatically reduced turnout rates.

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Just look at the past week. Car bombs and firefights outside the U.S. consulate in the western capital of Herat resulted in the deaths of two Afghans. A day later another seven were wounded when a NATO convoy came under attack in the Taliban heartland near Kandahar. Separate operations by Afghan troops killed almost 64 Talban. Then a Pakistani general and two soldiers were killed by a roadside bomb and a senior female Afghan policewoman was assassinated.

The strikes dampened massive nationwide celebrations after Afghanistan’s historic two-nil victory over India in the South Asia Football Federation Championship.

Wild scenes erupted with the nation’s youth taking to Kabul’s streets with fireworks, megaphones and AK47s. As the automatic gunfire rang out, security forces went on high alert and the few foreigners here scrambled for cover in the mistaken belief that a battle had begun.

What genuinely surprised many were the thousands of weapons that poured onto the streets from an array of Afghan factions, albeit this time for celebration.

Tribal elders say the ability of insurgents to roam unchecked will make it impossible to provide the security needed to hold legitimate elections. People were finding it a struggle simply to register for the poll due to the overwhelming presence of insurgents.

This is only likely to get worse given the rapid pace of the pullout. The 62,000 American troops stationed here will be down to about 30,000 by the end of the year. The number of bases will be reduced from more than 100 to less than 10, once the withdrawal is completed by the end of 2014.

Security concerns are shared by the IEC. Despite a decision to provide some international support for the Afghan National Army doubts persist over its ability to defend the hard-won political gains and vastly improved living standards made since the Pakistan-backed Taliban were ousted from power in late 2001.

This could be to Sayyaf’s advantage. One seasoned American described him as: “A presidential candidate with a violent terrorist group named in his honor; a presidential candidate for an Afghan government that previously incarcerated him; and a Pashtun who believes in horrific terrorist violence, but who doesn't get along with the Taliban.”

The same observer also noted that Sayyaf was “in bed with Al Qaeda until he started flirting with the Northern Alliance, is recognized as a person of importance by Pakistan, is funded by the Saudis, and is a proud insurgent” who fought against the Soviet forces in Afghanistan.

“If nothing else, this guy is a survivor, shrewd. Karzai is a walking dead man after the U.S. departs. This guy might actually survive on his own. He's ruthless enough and smart enough,” he said.

Luke Hunt can be followed on Twitter @lukeanthonyhunt