New Afghanistan: Mujahideen need not apply?

Afghans voted for a changing of the guard and to move beyond medieval governance.

Members of Afghan security force inspect destroyed Soviet military tank at a junkyard in Jalalabad province
Afghan soldiers inspect destroyed Soviet military tank at a junkyard in Jalalabad province [REUTERS]

“Removing the mujahideen from the political scene will not impair us, it will damage the country,” threatened Abdul Rab Sayyaf, a former Afghan jihadi leader at a gathering in Kabul on Sunday marking the 26th anniversary of the Soviet military withdrawal from Afghanistan. “We are the inheritors of this country.”

In the past 14 years, it was the Americans more than the Afghans who took such threats and assertions seriously. Stability at all cost was the axis around which all US policies on Afghanistan were formed from the start of their military intervention in October 2001. Democratisation of the country, including institutionalising women’s rights became the window dressing.

With the ascension of Barack Obama to the US presidency, however, transitioning Afghanistan to self-management and self-reliance became the basis of the US approach to the war-ravaged country.   

Afghans consented to the world’s initial stability “uber-alles” strategy, as well as the recent disengagement policy. They had no choice in either case, though they earnestly questioned the wisdom of both. After all, in this part of the world, a state is historically defined in terms of justice. Thus, the Afghans believed, it is the rule of law that can ensure sustainable stability and eventual normalcy.

Flawed national unity

Then descended US Secretary of State John Kerry onto Kabul last summer to “rescue” Afghanistan from the threat of destabilisation posed by a messy presidential election. The intervention resulted in the imposition of a power-sharing recipe. Completely bewildered by America’s mixed messages, Afghans nonetheless acquiesced.

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Kerry’s national unity government formula that bonded the two rival candidates, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah, was deeply flawed legally, politically and on principle.

But, as Ghani was inaugurated as president and Abdullah as chief executive officer – an extra-constitutional post created to accommodate him in the power-sharing arrangement – Washington and its allies applauded themselves for averting chaos in Afghanistan.

Oddly, shortly after the inauguration, raving cheers gave way to an undercurrent of disapproval and cynicism.

Recent remarks among the diplomatic community in Kabul about Ghani’s “erratic” behaviour and CEO Abdullah’s “idleness” cannot be dismissed as harmless gossip. Some of the leading US newspapers consistently publish articles criticising, even mocking the Afghan president.

Yet, we often forget that the duo has taken the reins at a time when the Afghan economy is in shambles, security is at an all-time low, corruption and other crimes are at their peak, and the country’s predatory neighbours are unscrupulously fomenting trouble. They are the inheritors of a messy environment precipitated by 13 years of disingenuity on the part of both the international community and Afghan leaders. 

Power struggle

The tensions between the two leaders’ teams is palpable; the national unity government is not showing any signs of unity. Discrepancies between the two, however, can be mended with fair compromises and good faith on both sides.

The cabinet debacle has been illustrated as a sign of the new government’s failure. Problems stemming from poor vetting, weak CVs and wrong placements can be overcome. More critical to the success or failure of this government is how it will tackle the rage of the old guard – for the first time since 2001, they feel left out.

It is the tension between the self-styled mujahideen and the so-called technocrats that is the root of the problems the National Unity Government is facing.


In reality, it is the tension between the self-styled mujahideen and the so-called technocrats that is the root of the problems the National Unity Government is facing. There is an attempt to characterise the difference in terms of opposing ideological narratives. However, the friction boils down to a simple struggle over power.

Perhaps referring to a statement of a few weeks ago by Abdullah’s spokesman to the effect that professional qualifications, rather than jihad credentials, are the new government’s criteria for appointments, Sayyaf lashed back: “If jihad is not a criterion, is selling your country a criterion?” The former leader forcefully admonished inclusion of elements from the former communist regime and Afghan returnees from exile into the new government.


Backtrack to October 2001, the eve of the US military invasion of Afghanistan, when some of the former mujahideen leaders suddenly became the most trusted allies in Washington’s “war on terror”.

The ensuing political arrangement sealed in Bonn, Germany, hosted by the UN and directed by the US, created an amalgam of a few western-educated technocrats, but mostly the former mujahideen.

With pockets filled with CIA dollars and a revived relevance, the former jihadi leaders quickly reorganised their patronage networks, mostly based on clan, ethnic and sectarian relations.

The past decade proved exceedingly auspicious to the bunch, as the US policy of turning a blind eye to their illegal business ventures resulted in their amassing of untold fortunes. Moreover, they received the lion’s share of multimillion dollar foreign contracts.

Inevitably, former President Hamid Karzai cultivated this group’s friendship throughout his tenure by indulging them with political favours and exemption from the rule of law. In the recent presidential election this genre of political elite split between the two electoral camps of Ghani and Abdullah, with the majority magnetised around the latter.

In the aftermath of the polls, they began to grow anxious as they saw signs of becoming sidelined by the Ghani-Abdullah government. Today, many among the disenchanted old guard have joined a brewing opposition that revolves around Karzai. Today Sayyaf announced that: “You will soon hear the good news of the mujahideen’s unification … and God willing, we will announce our victory in a unanimous voice.”

Afghan public consciousness

Interestingly, during the first round of the elections, a number of such personalities were among the candidates. None mustered more than a few thousand votes. Those who had joined other teams could not bring in significant votes either, a clear sign that despite having spent hefty sums, their political clout is on the wane. People voted for a changing of the old guard.

The international community led by the US, however, seems to be remarkably slow in catching up with changes in the Afghan public consciousness. A vibrant young generation, comprising nearly 70 percent of the entire population and an increasingly vociferous female segment (38 percent female participation in the 2014 vote, for example) has emerged since the end of the Taliban rule.

Granted that most of the positive changes and enlightened attitude has surfaced in urban centres and in relatively peaceful parts of the country, but the indications are noticeable. Yet, the West continued to perceive this nation as a backward tribal society where only Machiavellian politics and medieval governance can work. It consistently paid heed to a group that demands political and economic domination as an open-ended payback for playing foot soldiers for the CIA-led invasion of 2001.

The onus is primarily upon Ghani and Abdullah to surmount their workable differences and form a truly united front for taking Afghanistan forward. They must increase their reliance on and confidence in the public and move away from the strategy of trying to please strongmen. Tactics that Karzai used successfully to appease warlords can no longer work. Afghanistan owes them respect, but not its future.

The pair, however, cannot achieve this without full support of Afghanistan’s allies, especially the US. Sustainable stability cannot be achieved without the rule of law, good governance and a forward-looking vision. Neither can self-reliance. The former mujahideen can’t deliver either. 

Helena Malikyar is an Afghan political analyst and historian.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.