Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Return of a Power From the Past

The return of controversial general Shahnawaz Tanai on the eve of elections stirs memories and raises questions over links to Pakistan.
By Mohammad Jawad

Coup plotter, eminence grise of Pakistani military intelligence, political kingmaker or scheming opportunist? The rumours have swirled around Shahnawaz Tanai since his return to Afghanistan ahead of its elections.


The 55-year-old former general is not even standing as a candidate in the September 18 poll. But with a background in the murkier corridors of power, Tanai is widely seen as still having an influential role despite having spent 15 years in exile.


Tanai, who admits mounting a failed 1990 coup against the then communist regime, and is widely believed to have been among the plotters who engineered the successful one which brought the communists to power 12 years earlier, told IWPR he had returned "at this momentous time" because he wanted to create a united party.


"I have come to consult with the candidates during campaigning for the elections. I want to have close discussions with those parties which are bound together by the same opinion, so that we get together in a united party," he said.


After the 1978 coup in which president Mohammad Daoud Khan was ousted and killed, Tanai was appointed head of military intelligence. He survived through the years of coups and bloodshed that followed, being appointed Kabul garrison commander, then army chief of staff and in 1988, defence minister.


In was from this position that he mounted his failed coup in 1990 and had to flee to Pakistan where, in exile, he set up his Afghanistan Peace Movement, Da Afghanistan Da Solay Ghorzang Gond.


Now registered as a party in Afghanistan, Tanai's movement has agreed with the National Party, Milli Gond, and the National Unity Party, Milli Yavali, to form a coalition which, he claims, has some 200 candidates standing for parliament and the councils.


Appropriately, as a defence minister from the communist era, Tanai welcomes visitors at an apartment in Kabul's Macrorayon district, a development of Moscow-style housing blocks built for government officials during the Soviet occupation.


The flat belongs to relatives, as Tanai's own home was also in Macrorayon but has changed hands several times since he fled by helicopter to neighbouring Pakistan after his coup failed against President Najibullah fifteen years ago. He has yet to decide what to do about his home.


Of medium height, urbane and elegantly turned out in traditional Afghan clothes, the moustachioed Tanai's political acumen is evident. He speaks smoothly, acknowledges he has many enemies but points out he has many supporters too.


Born in 1950 in the village of Dargai in the southern province of Khost, Tanai followed a classic military career, attending military academy and then university, specialising in infantry tactics, and later travelling to the Soviet Union to study leadership. He married in 1978 and has a daughter and two sons – the family is still in Pakistan.


Tanai rationalises his bid to seize power and denies it was inspired by Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence agency, ISI.


"Pakistan had no role in the coup d'etat that I launched against the president. It knew nothing about it, and nor did the mujahedin parties," he told IWPR, referring to rumours that the radical Hezb-e-Islami group conspired with dissidents in the Najibullah administration.


He says he did not fall out with Najibullah's views, but rather with his policy on the military.


"Najibullah was transferring all the privileges of his army to the tribal militias and in particular to his special guard. I was against this because the Afghan army was losing efficiency," he said.


Political analyst Abdul Karim Khurram said Tanai tried to oust Najibullah both because he disagreed with his views and out of pure ambition. "Tanai… wanted to take the lead in affairs himself, but failed," he said.


Another analyst Mohammad Qaseem Akhgar suggests that Tanai may also have had a hand in Najibullah's murder by the Taleban after they captured Kabul in September 1996. The former leader was seized from the United Nations compound where he had lived since the mujahedin toppled his regime in 1992, and hanged from a lamppost in Kabul city centre.


"After the coup, he went gone to Pakistan with the help of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar's Hezb-e-Islami, and [subsequently] joined the Taleban. It seems that Tanai was one of the people who had a hand in the killing of Najibullah," said Akhgar.


Rejecting this charge, Tanai says bluntly, "This matter had nothing to do with me."


Akhgar questions Tanai's motives in returning just ahead of the elections, "ISI has a close link with Tanai and the Taleban. Considering Pakistan's interference in Afghanistan, it is possible he may have come back to the country to pave the way for more meddling by Pakistan."


Tanai dismisses charges that he is an agent for Pakistan, which is seen in Kabul as failing to crack down on extremists supporting the current Taleban insurgency.


One reason he offers as to why some people think this way is that "after the coup attempt and then my escape to Pakistan, lots of people thought that I had a link with Pakistan's ISI, and in consequence many people think my return is at the orders of Pakistan".


Other political leaders have their own views about Tanai but say they want to try to look beyond the past.


Asked for his opinion of the ex-general Mohammad Yunus Qanuni, a parliamentary candidate and leader of the New Afghanistan party, Hezb-e-Afghanistan-e-Naween, he would only say, "I don’t talk about the personality of a person… we might [be able to] create a situation in which all Afghans live together."


An open critic of Pakistani interference in Afghan affairs is Haji Mohammad Muhaqeq, who heads the former mujahedin faction Hezb-e Wahdat-e Islami Mardum Afghanistan.


"Pakistan has its own people in the [Afghan] cabinet, in the administration. It has been greatly involved in wars, and in the fighting which is still going on. And the Taleban who have joined the [present] government have been sent by Pakistan," said Muhaqeq. "If we take all this into account, then Tanai too has been sent by Pakistan."


But he added, "I know Tanai as an Afghan national. I want Afghanistan to forget its past and open a new chapter."


Mohammad Jawad Sharifzada is an IWPR staff reporter in Kabul.