Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Panjshiri Factor Looms Over Loya Jirga
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 renowned 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 Taleban.
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 armoured 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,
And it is this arrogance that is causing one of the greatest problems for
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 in Afghanistan," 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.
As a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor, 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 what one French aid worker had
described as an "extraordinary" guerrilla commander, an Afghan "Che Guevera"
who was not only good at fighting but also cared for the civilian
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
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 labelled 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 recognisable 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 Hekmatyar
Guldbuddin'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 Brahimi 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 favour 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, a former correspondent for the Christian
Science Monitor, is director of Media Action International - an IWPR partner organization - and editor of the Essential Field Guide to Afghanistan. He is currently writing a book on 23 years of reporting the wars in Afghanistan.
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