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Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai: Islamist Insists He's Broken Armed Faction Ties

Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai is a man with a mission - to place Islamic values at the forefront of a future Afghan government.
By Abdulbasir Saeed

Ahmad Shah Ahmadzai, a prominent contender for the October 9 presidential election, is a veteran mujahedin leader from the war against the Soviets. But now he says he has cut all ties to the military factions and is running as an independent, with Islamic values top of his agenda.

Ahmadzai, now 60, was part of the Afghan resistance to communist rule from 1978 until it ended in 1992. In the four years of warfare that ensued - with at least four mujahedin factions battling for control of the Afghan government - he was deputy head of one of the warring groups, Ittihad-e-Islami, under the fundamentalist Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf.

But Ahmadzai insists he has distanced himself from his former allies, telling IWPR, "I have moved away from these commitments since I stood for the presidential elections, and I don't have any links with Sayyaf. I am an independent candidate."

He also said his election campaign was being funded only out of his own funds as well as contributions from his friends.

Qasim Akhgar, a Kabul-based political analyst, said he understood that Ahmadzai is not currently linked to Sayyaf - but he added that the two could well team up again in the future.

Akhgar said the reality was that not one of the 18 candidates standing for election is independent, since all have links to some party, faction or foreign country.

Asked why he was standing, he said he had been urged to do so by many Islamic scholars, tribal leaders, and others.

He was forthright on what his first actions would be if he were to be elected president, "To impose the constitution and sharia [Islamic law] first upon myself, and than upon the people". He explained that the constitution adopted by the Loya Jirga, or grand assembly, at the beginning of January has not yet been implemented, and Islamic rules have not been put into practice. For example, he said, the consumption of alcohol is illegal under both the constitution and Islamic law, yet many people drink.

Ahmadzai is seen by many as a religious conservative - and he's come in for criticism from women's rights activists in Afghanistan, but he insists the majority of female voters share his values. "Why shouldn't women vote for me?" he said. "They are Muslims too, and I am sure that the majority will vote for me. Women can enjoy the rights accorded them by Islam, and we have no right to change those rights."

He added, "I am pretty sure that 80 per cent of women will vote for me, and that 80 per cent is made up of women who know nothing but Islam."

According to Akhgar, "Ahmadzai stated very clearly in his platform that he wants to create an Islamic government. The kind of government he's offering is incompatible with democracy, which he has described as an imported element that goes against Islam."

Ahmadzai has been in government before: he was interior minister in the mujahedin government formed in 1992, held the posts of construction and education minister at various times, and in 1995-96 was even prime minister of Afghanistan. The fighting raging across the capital made these titles somewhat meaningless - as he himself admits, commenting wryly, "At that time a minister didn't play any role. Resign or not - it all meant the same, they were just so-called ministers."

In his interview with IWPR, Ahmadzai was fairly unrepentant about the role he played in the internecine strife that killed tens of thousands of people and reduced much of Kabul to rubble between 1992 and the arrival of the Taleban militia in the city in 1996.

He blamed Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the Hizb-e-Islami faction leader who is now aligned with the Taleban, for starting the war over a dispute with the dominant Jamiat-e-Islami - whose head Burhanuddin Rabbani was president at the time - about who should get what government posts.

The fighting between Ittehad-e-Islami forces and the ethnic Hazara troops of Hizb-e-Wahdat is remembered by many in Kabul as particularly brutal. But Ahmadzai said the fighting was the result of a "misunderstanding" caused by false rumours spread by agents of the former communist regime.

"Nowadays we have good relations with Hizb-e-Wahdat. We didn't fight intentionally. Both sides accept that the conflict was caused by a misunderstanding," he said.

One of Ahmadzai's rivals in the presidential race is Haji Mohammad Mohaqiq, at the time of the war a senior leader in Hizb-e-Wahdat. "We've met a few times and we no longer think in terms of him being from Wahdat and myself from Ittehad," said Ahmadzai.

On the issue of accountability for past war crimes, Ahmadzai said it was better not to discuss such things, "These issues shouldn't be raised; Afghans shouldn't talk about past events. And if someone did do something, let God punish him."

He dismissed suggestions that Afghanistan might hold war crimes trials, asking, "From which tomb should I find Babrak Karmal [communist leader installed by Soviets] and from which cave should I get Mullah Mohammad Omar? It's silly."

Ahmadzai was born 60 years ago in the village of Malang in the Khak-e-Jabar district, to the east of Kabul. He studied engineering at Kabul University, graduating in 1967. He then worked in the agriculture ministry between 1969 and 1972, when he won a scholarship to Colorado State University, where he completed a master's degree three years later.

He then took a lecturing post at the King Faisal University in Saudi Arabia, but when the Communists took power in Afghanistan in the coup of 1978, he came to Peshawar, in Pakistan's north-western border region, and joined the mujahedin. Initially he was part of Jamiat-e-Islami, rising to become Rabbani's deputy, but he joined Sayyaf's group the year communist rule ended and the mujahedin came to power.

After the government of which he was part fled before the Taleban advance on Kabul in 1996, Ahmadzai left the country altogether, living in Istanbul and London and only returning to Afghanistan after the Islamic militia were driven out by the US-led Coalition and its Afghan allies in late 2001 and a new transitional government set up.

He has been married twice, with 10 children in all. His eldest daughter is a doctor while his eldest son is studying in the United States.

During his travels he picked up English and Arabic, in addition to the Pashtu and Dari of his own country.

Abdulbasir Saeed is an IWPR reporter in Kabul. IWPR reporter Wahidullah Amani contributed material for this report.

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