Afghanistan: Fahim’s death leaves void

Why the demise of the Afghan warrior-turned-politician will affect the country’s future.

Fahim had a larger-than-life presence in government, writes Masoud [Reuters]

The death of Afghanistan’s first Vice President, Marshal Mohammed Qassim Fahim, is a loss to the country, and it will affect the ethnic Tajik community at this critical juncture.

Less than a month before Afghans head for the polls to choose a successor to President Hamid Karzai, the nation faces colossal challenges: A crisis of legitimacy, political uncertainty, weak security and a sagging economy.

I have known Marshal Fahim for decades. He was a lieutenant in the Northern Alliance resistance group led by my late brother, Commander Ahmad Shah Masoud, who was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks. A fellow native of the Panjsher Valley, he joined the resistance against the Soviet invasion in the late 1970s, and later spent years fighting the extremist Taliban.

In the eyes of many, Marshal Fahim suffered from what some might call an “image problem”; he was widely perceived as a gruff warrior-like figure and often labeled “warlord” by western media. For those of us who knew him well, however, he was a warm-hearted, generous soul, and a great raconteur of war-time exploits. My own children enjoyed spending time with him and listening to his endless tales of the time he spent fighting alongside their illustrious uncle.

How will Fahim’s demise affect the future of the country? There is no doubt that such a prominent figure will leave a void. To run a complex country like Afghanistan, a leader must have both a strong personality and an ability to get the job done. Fahim had a larger-than-life presence in the government, and he looked after the security concerns of Afghanistan. Never more than now, since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, has security been of such paramount importance, as the deadline of the withdrawal of US and NATO troops draws near.

For the enemies of Afghanistan, those who wish to see the country return to chaos, Fahim’s departure from the scene will no doubt be an opportunity.

Fahim’s death will certainly affect the entire process that the Karzai administration has charted during the last 13 years. And yet, the nation must go on because Fahim’s ideas and motivations will endure.

For the country’s ethnic Tajiks, whose rights and interests Fahim relentlessly pursued, there will be challenging times ahead. His importance as a leader and protector cannot be underestimated, and it grew tremendously over the last 13 years as he ascended from military leader to first vice president.

Fahim’s career might have begun on the battlefield against the Russian invaders, but on the political stage, he was able to draw from his little-known diplomatic skills. Few people remember that he was among those dispatched by Commander Ahmad Shah Masoud to talk with Communist President Mohammad Najibullah, while he was hiding at the UN compound in 1996. Fahim tried to convince the ill-fated communist leader to leave the UN compound and come with the resistance for his safety, but in vain. Najibullah was captured and brutally killed by a Taliban mob.

Pragmatic arrangement

Back in 2001, the Northern Alliance had faced a major challenge after my brother’s assassination. Ahmed Shah Masoud had not nominated a deputy to take over in the event of his death, and so a shura was convened and various functions were allotted to his trusted lieutenants. Fahim was given the responsibility of military affairs. It was therefore a natural progression for him to take on the Ministry of Defense in late December of 2001.

Fahim’s demise is not likely to impact the outcome of the election, as he had already made it clear that he was endorsing the candidacy of former Foreign Minister Dr Abdullah Abdullah. If it appeared to be a politically controversial move – for the incumbent’s vice president to back the man who had challenged Karzai in the previous election versus those contenders who enjoy Karzai’s implicit support – it did not come as a surprise to those who have followed Fahim’s decades-long career as a patriot, resistance fighter and finally, politician.

It is true that Fahim has not always been a supporter of Dr Abdullah, a former comrade-in-arms during the jihad against the Soviets. But in the country’s second presidential election, he announced his support. If he had allied himself with Karzai during the last decade, it was probably because they had come to a pragmatic arrangement. And if Karzai is not in the running, who should he have supported?

Fahim’s endorsement of Dr Abdullah’s campaign, in the days before he died, shows that his vision for Afghanistan has never wavered.

We are now watching various presidential contenders wage their campaigns for the April 5 vote, but none of them are offering viable platforms, agendas or strategies. Many have formed controversial alliances. But how many can claim to have had nearly 40 years of experience, through the country’s many difficult stages?

For the enemies of Afghanistan, those who wish to see the country return to chaos, Fahim’s departure from the scene will no doubt be an opportunity.

Ahmad Wali Masoud is the former Afghan ambassador to the UK. He is the younger brother of the late Commander Ahmad Shah Masoud.