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

Younis Qanuni: Panjshiri With National Ambitions

A veteran of Afghan wars and politics, Younis Qanuni is closely identified with the Panjshiri political grouping.
By IWPR staff

The birthplace of presidential candidate Mohammad Younis Qanuni lies in the heart of the Panjshir valley, just 15 minutes walk from the tomb of the legendary mujahedin commander Ahmad Shah Massoud.


The village of Shigha sits between two black rocky mountains in the Rukha district, deep inside the valley, where the wide, fast-flowing Panjshir river runs through a steep gorge.


This territory is synonymous with Massoud's political and military legacy, and rusting military hardware still litters the whole valley. Near Shigha, a wrecked Russian T-55 tank sits marooned in the river.


Rain and snow have worn the walls of Qanuni's childhood home. A big lock hangs on the steel door. No one has lived here for three years and like many other homes in the small village, it is deserted.


The tomb of Massoud, the "Lion of Panjshir" who was assassinated two days before September 11, 2001, lies just south of here. It is his political legacy that Qanuni now seeks to claim.


Qanuni allied himself with Massoud after the Soviet invasion of 1979 and was one of his trusted aides for the next two decades, first in the war against the Russians, then the internecine fighting of the early Nineties, and finally the desperate fight against the Taleban militia.


Alongside Qanuni were two other Panjshiris - men who are now his most powerful political backers. Fellow Tajiks, defence minister and vice-president Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, and foreign minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah immediately pledged their support for Qanuni after he announced he was running on July 26.


Known as "the three Panjshiris", they are now engaged in a political fight to win votes - and to gain support from the mujahedin who fought alongside them and Massoud.


But it remains unclear who will actually gain the majority backing of the mujahedin forces who pledge allegiance to the powerful Jamiat-e-Islami which dominates north-eastern Afghanistan.


When President Hamed Karzai announced his candidacy on July 26, he spurned Fahim as running mate for the vice-presidency, and chose instead Ahmad Zia Massoud, brother of "The Lion of Panjshir".


In so doing, he was making his own bid for the votes of Massoud loyalists from Panjshir, and also to the wider Jamiat constituency in the north.


Ahmad Zia Massoud - until now the Afghan interim government's ambassador to Moscow - has the right Panjshiri credentials, but he is also the son-in-law of Burhanuddin Rabbani, the head of Jamiat-i-Islami who was Afghan president in the mujahedin government that preceded the Taleban. Rabbani's powerbase is not Panjshir, but the Badakhshan region further to the north.


Rabbani has already announced that he will support Karzai.


In Shigha's mosque, built 60 years ago, more than 100 men were on their way to and from prayers.


"When we learned about Qanuni's candidacy, we went to the registration centre to take voting cards so we could vote for him," said Abdul Qasim, 19, dressed in the traditional shalwar-kemiz.


"All the men and women took cards to vote for Qanuni," said Gul Ahmad, a 73-year-old with a long beard and flowing turban.


Obaidullah, 30, said the villagers would vote for someone would implement Islamic law or shariat, "We will vote for a Muslim, not a democrat."


Qanuni's uncle, Haji Abdullah, 75, still lives in a nearby house. A wiry man with white beard, traditional clothes and turban, he fingered yellow worry beads as he recalled that "Qanuni was raised in my lap. He's never rendered any service to us since he achieved a high government position. But we will vote for him, because he is one of us."


Asked what kind of boy he was, Abdullah replied, "When he was a child he just studied, he always studied. He was talkative but well behaved."


Younis Qanuni was born in 1957 into an educated family. While his roots were in the village, he attended school from the age of seven at Imam Abu Hanifa High School in Kabul, where his father was a teacher. Leaving when he was 19, he went on to study Islamic law at the University of Kabul, earning a degree in 1980.


Immediately after graduating, he returned to the Panjshir and joined Massoud, working with the frontline mujahedin forces opposing the Soviet occupation.


Qanuni's first job in the resistance was as clerk for Massoud's Panshiri forces. An early indication of his political and diplomatic skills came when he was promoted to become Massoud's special representative dealing with foreign countries. He now speaks Arabic, English and Urdu


The post took him to Peshawar, Pakistan, where he acted as liaison between Shura-i-Nazar - the political grouping that Massoud set up within Jamiat - and the Pakistani intelligence service, ISI, which provided the group with money, weapons and ammunition.


In 1992, just before the mujahedin took Kabul and formed an Islamic government, Qanuni became Massoud's director-general of army political affairs.


In 1993, as the mujahedin battled among themselves for control of the capital, Qanuni was made joint defence minister under Rabbani's presidency.


Battles among the rival factions continued for more than a year, killing and injuring civilians, forcing people to flee and reducing much of Kabul to rubble.


Qanuni himself survived an assassination attempt in 1993 when a bomb blew up his car near the capital. Seriously wounded in the attack, he still walks with a cane as a result of his injuries.


In 1994, the factional groups agreed to a new distribution of government posts and Qanuni was selected as interior minister. More fighting ensued before the Taleban took Kabul in 1996, ousting Rabbani's government and all the warring factions.


Qanuni, Dr Abdullah and Fahim withdrew to Panjshir with Massoud.


Massoud made Qanuni chairman of a committee in charge of provincial affairs, a post he retained until 2001. Dr Abdullah was Massoud's spokesman, while Fahim became a battlefield commander and head of intelligence for Shura-i-Nazar.


On September 9, 2001, during a visit to Takhar, Massoud was assassinated by two Arab men posing as journalists. The resistance fighter became immortalised as hero and martyr.


In an interview the following year with Indian journalist Jyoti Malhotra, Qanuni said he believed al-Qaeda was responsible for the assassination.


Following the al-Qaeda attacks on the United States two days later, Fahim and other Northern Alliance commanders joined the US-led effort to oust the Taleban. By November, the regime was overthrown.


Qanuni was named interior minister of the Northern Alliance, and in December 2001 gained international prominence as he headed the Afghan delegation to a conference in Bonn that led to the creation of an interim government.


But at an emergency Loya Jirga convened in June 2002 to establish a more legitimate transitional government, Qanuni lost the powerful interior ministry post and was given the position of minister of education.


Qanuni is said to have viewed the appointment, engineered by Karzai, as a demotion.


For several days, the streets of the capital were tense. News reports at the time spoke of the armed rank-and-file Panjshiri troops who dominated the interior ministry blocking off roads around the ministry to demonstrate their support for Qanuni.


Small-arms fire and explosions were heard near the compound, and United States and British helicopters were deployed to monitor the area.


Kamin Shinwarai, an officer with the interior ministry in Kabul, recalled that, "All the routes to the interior ministry were blocked by deputy minister Din Mohammed Jurat, and for four days [newly appointed interior minister] Taj Mohammed Wardak was prevented from entering the interior ministry."


Shinwarai said that the troops cordoned off the area "because Qanuni was not made prime minister".


He believes Qanuni had stepped down as interior minister in expectation of promotion to the post of premier. When that failed to happen, Shinwarai said that Qanuni "regretted resigning and didn't want anyone else to enter the interior ministry".


The crisis was finally resolved, according to Shinwarai said, when Qanuni forged a relationship with Wardak, then 70, by arranging a marriage between him and a woman from Panjshir. Wardak, who was later replaced as interior minister, is now Qanuni's running mate for the presidential election.


Overall, the Panjshir faction was still viewed to have strengthened its hand following the emergency Loya Jirga. Dr Abdullah and Fahim retained their foreign affairs and defence portfolios, respectively.


Qanuni took up his post as minister of education, and also became a presidential adviser on security affairs.


Since announcing his candidacy, Qanuni has resigned his cabinet post and begun lobbying for the votes of Jamiat members and supporters in earnest.


Like other candidates, he is standing on a mixed ticket in hopes of attracting voters outside his natural constituency.


According to Qanuni's brother Haji Ibrahim, a party was held on August 3 in a restaurant in the upmarket Wazir Akbar Khan district of Kabul.


Under Persian-style canopies draped across the ceiling of the Shandeez Iranian restaurant, Qanuni met with 200 Islamic scholars.


According to Ibrahim, his brother told the scholars, "the mujahedin have decided to have [their own] presidential candidate. All the commanders have asked me to stand. I don't want to go against the decision of my brothers [in the mujahedin], so my candidacy is not a reaction against the decisions of the governmental office" - a reference to Karzai's decision not to choose Fahim as running mate.


But some dispute that Qanuni and his two Panjshiri allies have the unqualified support in Jamiat-controlled areas.


Jamiat spokesman Mohammad Nasim Faqiri told IWPR, "Qanuni is not the mujahedin's candidate for presidential office, and Jamiat will never support him."


Abdul Hai Moram, an analyst for the government daily Hewad, suggested that Qanuni has a small political power base. "Qanuni has always worked on the interests of his group and relatives, and has never taken care of the common people or even cultural figures or intellectuals," he said.


Some Kabul residents still have bitter memories of the period when the mujahedin commanders now in politics held sway over the capital.


"We fled to Mazar-e-Sharif from Kabul in 1992 because of the warlords," recalled Rabia, 35, a Kabul-born teacher at the Bakhter High School in Mazar-e-Sharif. "They don't care about people. They demolished people's homes across the board in Kabul.


"He [Qanuni] is not capable of presidential office."


But Jalaluddin, 40, who comes from Khost district in the central province of Baghlan, offered an endorsement of Qanuni as he limped along the streets of Kabul. "Qanuni is an honest, intelligent, patient Muslim," he said.


Jalaluddin, who lost one leg in a mine accident, added that "Qanuni is a person who never left the country during the jihad, but remained among the people and fought for the people and the nation."


But a former colleague raised questions about Qanuni's conduct as interior minister.


"Qanuni always gave jobs to his relatives and supporters," said Colonel Mast Alam Ahmadzai, an official in the interior ministry. "And he jailed people who were capable of doing the job but who were not Tajik, calling them Taleban or al-Qaeda. I am one of those who spent a month in jail."


IWPR submitted numerous requests for an interview with Qanuni, who agreed to but then broke several appointments. When he finally did meet with an IWPR reporter, the candidate demanded that all questions be submitted in writing.


But after reviewing the written questions, Qanuni refused to answer any of them, claiming he was too busy. After saying that he had yet to finalise any of his policies, he ended the interview.


Freelance reporter Hakimullah Shahriar contributed to this report.