Contemporary Afghan Politics

This essay focuses not only on the relatively short history and period of Islamist politics in Afghanistan, but also on the major leaders of the Afghan Islamists as well as the evolution of Afghan Islamists throughout Afghanistan’s modern history since the year 1965, given that 1965 was the year that Afghan Islamists first organized as a political group. The Afghan Islamists became commonly known as the “Mujahideen” at the peak of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union, and they were composed of about seven or eight sub-groups that fought the Soviet Union after the latter invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

Islamism in Afghanistan is a rather modern occurence, with its roots stemming from the founding of an umbrella group for Islamists in Afghanistan that was and is still known as the “Jamiat-e-Islami”, which translates in English to “The Islamic Society.” Ghulam Mohammad Niazi, a schoolteacher in Afghanistan’s capital Kabul, founded the Afghan Jamiat in 1965. The Jamiat was in essence the Afghan branch of the infamous Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood founded by Hasan Al-Banna in 1928. Niazi, who was in essence the founder of the Afghan branch of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, had a focus of recruiting and influencing Afghan professors and students in Kabul (Afghanistan’s capital) in order to develop a political group that offered an alternative not only to the status quo that was a somewhat feeble constitutional monarchy, but also to the rise of a leftist group named the “People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA)” that formed in the same year as Jamiat. It is important to note, therefore, that the rise of both the leftist PDPA and the right-wing Islamist Jamiat in Afghanistan occurred within a Cold War context in Afghanistan.

Both the PDPA and Jamiat took advantage of the advent of what is known to be the most liberal constitution ever to be crafted in the Muslim World by none other than the Afghans. Afghanistan’s liberal constitution came into being in 1964. For the first time in history, Afghans were able to form political parties that could be freely elected to parliament, and the freedom of the press was also allowed by Afghan authorities. Muhammad Zahir Shah, who was the King of Afghanistan in 1964, also decided to allow the people and their representatives in parliament to elect a prime minister. Before 1964, the King of Afghanistan directly appointed his prime minister.

But soon after the formation of both the Jamiat and the PDPA in 1965, both the Islamists and Leftists underwent and adopted the same features of traditional rural Afghan politics, in the sense that both the Jamiat and the PDPA fissured based on tribal and ethnic lines. Afghan politics, especially rural Afghan politics, is and has been tribal and ethnocentric in nature, and it is tribal and ethnocentric politics that are arguably the most primitive form of politics. The fissure of the Jamiat along tribal and ethnic lines was a premeditated act by none other than Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Massoud, who were at that time prominent members of the youth faction of Jamiat.

Gulbuddin Hekmatyar was born in 1947 in Kunduz Province, which is located in Northern Afghanistan. This is important to note, because Afghanistan’s ethnic and tribal divide is based on differences between the north and the south. The north of Afghanistan is predominantly non-Pashtun. The south of Afghanistan is predominantly Pashtun. The non-Pashtuns of the North comprise of almost 60 percent of Afghanistan’s population. The Pashtuns of the South comprise a little more than 40 percent of Afghanistan’s population. Hekmatyar is unique, however, in the sense that he is a Pashtun who was born and raised in the North, and thus he was well attuned to both the culture of the North and the South and is fluent in both Dari and Pashto.

Hekmatyar arrived in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul as a young engineering student almost exactly at the time of Jamiat’s advent in 1965. Throughout the course of his life, Hekmatyar became an author of several books on Islam and Politics. But Hekmatyar soon became known for his extreme intellectual positions and social views. Hekmatyar came under the influence of the Egyptian intellectual Sayyid Qutb at a very young age, and while in college he is known to have thrown acid in the faces of young women who refused to wear the customary headscarf. As his political and social activities with Jamiat went underway, Hekmatyar immediately became a rival of another young member of Jamiat named Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was a non-Pashtun Afghan from the northern Afghan province of Panjshir.

This is when and how the fissure of Jamiat occurred along ethnic and tribal lines. Hekmatyar and Massoud were rivals, and they were rivals because the former was Pashtun and the latter was non-Pashtun, and thus Jamiat became factionalized along ethnic and tribal lines because of Massoud and Hekmatyar. Massoud’s faction retained the title of “Jamiat-e-Islami”, whereas Hekmatyar and his faction would establish what is known as “Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan”, known in English as the “Islamic Party of Afghanistan”. Nominally, Massoud’s faction and Hekmatyar’s faction remained under the banner of “Jamiat” until the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1980. But the fissures within Jamiat along tribal and ethnic lines as a result of Massoud and Hekmatyar took place and crystallized soon after the advent of Jamiat in 1965.

Between the founding of Jamiat in 1965 and the year 1973, the social and political activities of Jamiat were for the most part left unperturbed by Afghan authorities. Muhammad Zahir Shah, as the King of Afghanistan, absorbed and acquiesced to the rivalry of the leftist PDPA and Islamist right-wing Jamiat that took the form of riots and student protests in Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul. To put a lid on the riots and protests, a military general from the royal family by the name of Sardar Muhammad Daud Khan forged an alliance of convenience with members of the Afghan police and military apparatus who happened to be sympathizers with the PDPA and were trained in the Soviet Union. In 1973, Daud used PDPA sympathizers in the military and the police to dissolve both the monarchy and the parliament. Furthermore, Daud ended the freedom of the press and abolished political parties. In effect, Afghanistan came not only under one-man rule in 1973, but to an extent one-party rule when taking into account the members of the PDPA within the police and military apparatus that helped Daud establish his rule.

In 1973, Massoud and Hekmatyar were on the run. Daud had labeled both Massoud and Hekmatyar as “bandits” who were seeking to import foreign influences into Afghanistan, given that both were affiliates of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. Both Massoud and Hekmatyar narrowly escaped Daud’s massive crackdown on Afghan Islamists and in 1973 they sought refuge in Pakistan. In Pakistan, both Massoud and Hekmatyar would transform from young political activists within a local Afghan context to major Cold War political operatives. Afghanistan under Daud’s rule was largely under Soviet influence, given that Daud’s patronage came from military and police officials who had trained in the Soviet Union.

Pakistan, on the other hand, was a major ally of the United States during the Cold War, and when Massoud and Hekmatyar fell into the hands of Pakistan in 1973, the Pakistanis decided to introduce the two of them to Western intelligence agencies as clients that could be used to undermine Soviet influence in Afghanistan. Both Massoud and Hekmatyar underwent immense training in Pakistan between 1973 and 1979. Their opportunity to operationalize came in 1979 when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in order to prop up and support the PDPA. The military wing of the PDPA killed Daud in 1978 when Daud decided to abandon the Soviet orbit and join the American orbit.

In 1979, the situation in Afghanistan was such that the PDPA was fully in power with the support of Soviet troops occupying the country, whereas the Islamists led by Massoud and Hekmatyar were the opposition in exile. Massoud and Hekmatyar, with the support of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States, began an asymmetrical and guerilla war against Soviet troops that were backing the PDPA in Afghanistan. The local rivalry of the 1960’s between the PDPA and Jamiat evolved into a Cold War battle in the early 1980’s. Beginning in 1979, the United States and the Saudis began funneling billions of dollars of support to the Afghan Islamists through Pakistan. Hekmatyar would receive the lion’s share of aid from the Americans and Saudis, because the CIA had told the Pakistanis to distribute the most aid to the individual or group who would be able to kill the most Russians. The United States turned a blind eye to Hekmatyar’s involvement in the Eurasian drug trade simply because Hekmatyar was killing Russian soldiers in Afghanistan.

While doing just enough to induce a Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in 1989, Hekmatyar would use the majority of the aid he received from the Americans, Pakistanis, and Saudis to crush Massoud in an attempt to come out on top in the localized Afghan context. Soon after the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the PDPA collapsed, and as a result there was a power vacuum in Afghanistan that could only be filled by either Massoud or Hekmatyar. Because of this power vacuum in Afghanistan soon after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, Afghanistan would collapse into a bloody civil war that lasted until 1996 between the non-Pashtun Massoud and Pashtun Hekmatyar. Massoud quickly occupied Kabul after the collapse of the Soviet Union and their satellite government in 1992, and Hekmatyar responded by brutally putting Kabul under siege with rocket firings and bombings. Between the years 1992 and 1996, it is believed that Hekmatyar was responsible for the death of over 50,000 civilians in Kabul alone. Hekmatyar is now infamously known as “The Butcher of Kabul”.

The year 1996 proved to be pivotal, in the sense that both Massoud’s and Hekmatyar’s political fortunes would take a major downturn. Their downturn came as a result of the rise of an obscure but growingly powerful group known as the “Taliban.” In 1996, Pakistan came to the conclusion that Hekmatyar was no longer a viable force and proxy because he was unable to unseat Massoud in Kabul, and as a result the Pakistanis would organize a large number of young Pashtun fighters known as the Taliban who stood outside of the traditional Afghan Jamiat fold that consisted of Massoud and Hekmatyar. The Taliban sought to crack down on both Massoud and Hekmatyar for the civil war and chaos they perpetuated in Afghanistan between 1992 and 1996. In 1996, Hekmatyar folded and escaped Afghanistan to seek refuge in Iran. What is strange, however, is that Massoud helped Hekmatyar escape the Taliban through the north of Afghanistan. One theory behind Massoud’s help for Hekmatyar despite the war and feud between the two of them is that both Massoud and Hekmatyar maintained their basic Afghan identity in the face of a group like the Taliban who took Islamism to its extreme. The Taliban would reach a stalemate with Massoud only after having taken over 90 percent of Afghan territory. Massoud would continue to resist the Taliban until two Tunisians with Belgian passports posing as journalists assassinated him in Northern Afghanistan on September 9, 2001.

Two days after Massoud’s assassination, 19 terrorists of Saudi and Egyptian origin would hijack commercial airplanes and attack both the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. The United States wanted to seek retribution against the perpetrators of the attack, and the United States came to the conclusion that Osama Bin Laden orchestrated the attacks against the United States from a safe haven in Taliban-held Afghanistan. Thus, the United States sought retribution against the Taliban, who by logic were the state sponsors of Osama Bin Laden. But the U.S. incursion and elimination of the Taliban in Afghanistan led to the dismay of Pakistan, a long time American ally, because the Taliban was a veritable proxy of Pakistan in Afghanistan, and Pakistan was the veritably proxy of the United States. It is important to note that both Al-Qaeda and the Taliban were Pakistani proxies in Afghanistan who sought to undermine Massoud, who happened to be a proxy of Pakistan’s major rival, namely India. Thus, Pakistan must have been privy to the orchestration and planning of the attacks against both Massoud on September 9, 2001, and the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001.

Massoud, as mentioned before, became an Indian proxy in Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, and Hekmatyar remained a proxy of Pakistan after the Soviet withdrawal. The proxy wars of Afghanistan transformed in nature from a global war in the 20th century between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R, to a regional war in the late 20th century and early 21st century between Pakistan and India. Soon after the dissolution of the Taliban in 2001 by the United States, Hekmatyar would return to Pakistan and seek patronage from the Pakistani ISI. Massoud’s wing of Jamiat, despite his death, would be propped up as the pro-American government in Afghanistan soon after 9/11. But because Massoud’s wing of Jamiat established ties with India during the 1990’s, Hekmatyar and his wing of Jamiat, with the support of Pakistan, would become the opposition to Massoud’s wing of Jamiat and their American backers. It is important to note that the interests of both Hekmatyar and the Taliban are very much aligned at this point in time.

The U.S. Department of State would label Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami as a terrorist entity soon after 9/11, despite their Cold War relationship. The United Nations would follow suit by adding Hekmatyar to their terror list. As a result, Hekmatyar went from being a friend of the United States to a foe of the United States, because Hekmatyar remained bound to his conditioning through the teachings of Sayyid Qutb during his youth. The nativist and anti-western influence of Sayyid Qutb that Hekmatyar came under as a young man would not escape him, whether it was in his dealings with the Russians or the Americans. Both the Russians and the Americans were Western, and thus both were the enemy.

But as mentioned before, the main division within Afghanistan was between a non-Pashtun North and a Pashtun South. America remained impartial in the power struggle between Pashtuns and Non-Pashtuns that occurred even under America’s watch in the post-9/11 period. Under the direction of the United States and in particular the Obama Administration, the Afghan government in September of 2010 would create what is known as the “High Peace Council” that sought to make peace with opposition groups such as Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami and the Taliban under certain conditions. For one, Hekmatyar and the Taliban were asked to abide by Afghanistan’s constitution that was very much a replicate of the liberal constitution of 1964 and to lay down arms against the Afghan government and their American backers. Also, Hekmatyar and the Taliban were asked to disavow of ties with transnational terror groups such as Al-Qaeda. Because of the sheer force and overwhelming power that the Americans and Europeans posed against opposition groups such as Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e-Islami, the Taliban, and their Pakistani backers, Hekmatyar made a pragmatic decision and signed onto the conditions of the High Peace Council in September of 2016. Hekmatyar and his fighters have now returned to Afghanistan, where they are normally engaging in public life at the moment.

Nevertheless, Hekmatyar seems to have continued his stoking of ethnic tensions through his rhetoric. In a speech in the southern and predominantly Pashtun province of Khost in December of 2017, Hekmatyar complained about the number of northerners in the Afghan government and called on Pashtuns to demand a greater share in the Afghan government. Many individuals in the Afghan government and civil society from both the north and the south slammed Hekmatyar for what appears to be his attempt to stoke ethnic tensions in Afghanistan yet again. It is important to note that Hekmatyar is a Pakistani proxy in Afghanistan, and Pakistan is now very much a proxy of China in this day and age while remaining as an American proxy on the surface. Thus, one can conclude with some degree of confidence that Hekmatyar is covertly acting on behalf of Pakistan and China against American interests in Afghanistan.

Nevertheless, what the profile of Jamiat in Afghanistan shows is that Afghanistan is very much the center of geopolitical battles between the United States, Russia, and China, as well as a regional struggle between Pakistan and India. Furthermore, this geopolitical and regional struggle is confounded by a major local Afghan factor, namely the north-south divide that is based on ethnic and tribal differences. While Jamiat in Afghanistan is caught between the geopolitical battles of major global powers, they are also caught between inter-regional battles that are stoked by Pakistan-India tensions, and to an extent Saudi-Iranian tensions.

But what is remarkable about Jamiat in Afghanistan is the fact that it began as a small student group in 1965 and it is now the main political group in Afghanistan backed by the United States. American power and the American thought structure prompted the Jamiat to become the main political group in Afghanistan, and as long as American realpolitik and the American thought structure ensuing from realpolitik endures, it appears that the preponderance of Islamism in Afghanistan will also endure.

After the Americans signed a peace deal with the Taliban and announced a full withdrawal of troops in February 2020, it is likely that the two foremost power brokers in Afghan politics will be Jamiat as represented by the north on one hand and the Taliban as represented by the south on the other hand within a matter of time. An ideal outcome of the conflict between these two sides would be a peace and power sharing agreement by the time the Americans fully withdraw their troops in Spring 2021 and to avoid a relapse into civil war in the Summer and Fall of 2021. Despite the fact that a relapse into civil war is always possible, it is better to remain optimistic over the prospects of peace at the moment rather than pessimistic.

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