Twenty-six years ago, in February 1989, the last Soviet soldiers pulled out of Afghanistan, ending a nine-year of bloody invasion that left behind a ravaged land and cost the lives of roughly 15,000 Red Army soldiers and two million Afghans. The war was a mistake – according to Soviet authorities – and a tragedy for Afghanistan. It also sowed the seeds of the devastating civil wars and subsequent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban in 1996.
When the Soviets left Afghanistan under the Geneva Accord signed between the last Soviet-backed government of Mohammed Najibullah and Pakistan with the former Soviet Union and the U.S. as guarantors, Afghan Islamic fighters known as the mujahideen were still fighting to enter Kabul. After another three years of fierce battle, they were in control of the capital. As a political tradition and a national holiday, the aging mujahideen leaders come together each year to celebrate their victory and attempt to define their current and future political role. This year, however, the situation in Kabul was rife with antagonism, uncertainty about the future, and controversy over who should be credited for Afghanistan’s jihad and consequently rule the country.
For instance, Abdul Rab Rasul Sayef, a powerful jihadi leader who competed in the first round of Afghanistan’s presidential election in April 2014, called President Ashraf Ghani’s shaky unity government a dictatorship and criticized it for excluding the mujahideen from major political decisions, particularly in the current negotiations with the Taliban and in the normalization of relations with Pakistan. Amir Ismail Khan, the former governor of western Herat province and minister of energy and water under Karzai, called on mujahideen leaders to establish a united political platform to defend their status and rights. Earlier, when Ghani announced his cabinet on January 12, 2015, Ismail Khan warned that war could break out within the next two months because of the exclusion of the mujahideen. In response to the mujahideen leaders, Abdullah Abdullah, the current chief executive officer in the unity government and himself a jihadi leader under the late Commander Ahmad Shah Masoud from the Northern Alliance, said that “being a former jihadi does not qualify one to be appointed as minister as the credit for jihad goes to all the people of Afghanistan.”
The political controversy over the legacy and ownership of jihad comes at a serious time, a time when disturbing evidence suggests that the country is coming perilously close to where it was left in 1989. Amid a fragile security condition, Ghani’s uneasy political coalition is divided on fundamental issues, including electoral reforms, the future of the Taliban, foreign policy objectives, and mitigating ethnic rivalry inherited from the April election. Five months after the power-sharing deal, only one third of the cabinet ministers have been approved. In a move to further undermine the political constituency of the government, Afghanistan’s parliament did not approve any minister-designates from two ethnic groups, Hazara and Uzbeks, deepening the chronic ethnic distrust.
The dispute over ownership of the jihad by mujahideen leaders is not about claiming spiritual credit for the popular uprising against the Soviet Union, but is rather a conspicuous struggle to maximize and perpetuate their grip on political and economic power. The political tradition of using jihad for political leverage was first laid down in the flawed Bonn Agreement of 2001 and later consolidated during Hamid Karzai’s 13 years in power. The miracle of Karzai – namely that he was able to govern Afghanistan for more than a decade and still be alive at the end of it – was not because of his effective leadership, but because of his political skill in brokering deals, often through a patronage-system of purchasing loyalty in return for political and economic incentives. In the short term, this quid pro quo policy enabled Karzai to rule and survive; in the long term, though, Afghanistan was deprived of two important prerequisites for a sustainable future.
First, the trade-off policy undermined any efforts by Afghans and international donors to build a functioning and viable political system that rewards merit, education and professionalism. Instead, the system, heavily infiltrated by former mujahideen, and their loyalists and commanders, blocked the creation of an innovative public administration with a competitive, skilled workforce. This explains why Afghanistan remains trapped in a maze of corruption, narcotics, and Taliban.
Second, Karzai’s symbiotic coalition with mujahideen leaders created a disturbing culture of impunity in which the people of Afghanistan, particularly those who suffered during the Soviet invasion, civil wars, and Taliban regime were deprived of the chance to seek justice and dignity for the violence and brutality inflicted upon them. The majority of the mujahideen leaders whom Karzai accommodated have been accused of serious war crimes, including massacres, rape, torture, and forced labor during the civil wars. According to Human Rights Watch, in just one instance, militia loyal to Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf and Ahmad Shah Masood demolished more than 5,000 houses in the western Kabul, belonging to the Hazara minority, and killed around 700 to 750 civilians. In 2008, to the consternation of war victims, civil society, and human rights activists, Afghan parliament passed the Amnesty Law, pardoning the mujahideen fighters and granting them immunity from future legal actions.
Restoring justice to the victims of war crimes and restructuring Afghanistan’s deficient political system are key to the country’s survival. It is difficult to shape the future without acknowledging the past and this has to begin with mujahideen leaders and senior officials. Afghanistan’s people and its politicians understand better than anyone that their country is on a hazardous path. The war is becoming too long and costly to continue and external support for the Afghan cause is fading. The belief on the part of Afghan leaders that the U.S. and NATO will be in Afghanistan indefinitely is naïve and unsupported by history. Afghan leaders must take the future into their own hands.
Ali Reza Sarwar is a Fulbright Graduate Fellow at Texas A&M University, Bush School of Government and Public Service where he completes a master on Intelligence and National Security. Reza graduated from the American University of Afghanistan (AUAF) where he was also in charge of the university’s enrollment management plan.