PUL-E-KHUMRI, Afghanistan — On a recent Monday afternoon in Afghanistan’s northern Baghlan province, in front of a whooping crowd of bearded ex-rebel commanders, a stocky, one-legged veteran grabbed the microphone to make himself heard: “The mujahideen will seek martyrdom against the Taliban,” he shouted. On stage, presidential envoy Ahmad Zia Massoud, as a consummate Afghan politician would, posed for selfies while a group of elderly men ceremoniously wrapped a blue and green chapan cloak over his shoulders. The message Massoud had come to deliver played well with the northerners. It also probably surprised, and infuriated, his boss, the president.
Massoud carries one of the most revered names in Afghanistan. His older brother was Ahmad Shah Massoud, the celebrated leader of the northern resistance against the Soviets, and later the Taliban, who was killed by al Qaeda in 2001 and has since been declared a national hero. So when the younger Massoud went on a weeklong tour of five northern provinces in February, and invited me along for part of it, he drew large crowds.
Playing to a growing feeling of angst in a populace that has spent the last year watching the Taliban gobble territory at a steady pace, Massoud attempted to portray himself as a steadfast hand of resistance in a government much criticized for its failure to defeat the insurgency. He attacked the army leadership for incompetence. He ridiculed the president’s most sensitive political gamble: attempts to reboot peace talks with the Taliban through improving relations with Pakistan. And most controversially, he called on the commanders to rally their men and arms for the spring fighting season.
While Massoud didn’t use the contentious word “militia,” for all intents and purposes, that is what he was trying to mobilize.
While Massoud didn’t use the contentious word “militia,” for all intents and purposes, that is what he was trying to mobilize. And militias were supposed to be a thing of the past. Afghan President Ashraf Ghani has told local, private militias — which were once espoused by U.S. Army Gen. David Petraeus, though the Defense Department often just called them “local police forces” — to stand down. Their litany of human rights abuses often did more to instigate unrest than fight it.
Massoud’s tour of the north exposed just how dysfunctional Afghanistan’s so-called national unity government has been ever since it was conceived (with help from U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry) after the disputed 2014 election. Ghani, the official winner, became president, and Abdullah Abdullah, who also claimed victory, his chief executive. Since then, the national leadership has been mired in conflict but generally tries to keep differences behind closed doors. Massoud, however, took his complaints on the road. He actively undermined the president’s agenda, and that for a man named the president’s special representative for reform and good governance.
Political gridlock has stalled reforms — most notably on the economy and the electoral system — andsapped many Afghans of any hope they had left of being able to create a prosperous, safe future inside the country. Afghanistan’s international partners, eager for signs that it won’t collapse if left to its own devices, are also impatient with the unity government they helped create. And to make matters worse, some prominent officials, fueled by opportunism and ego, threaten to implode the government from within.
Recently, a scuffle between supporters of two northern strongmen, Vice President Abdul Rashid Dostum and Balkh province Gov. Mohammad Ata Noor, over whose face should be allowed to adorn posters in the streets ended in armed clashes. At least one person was killed. Several prominent politicians, some of them former Ghani supporters, have created councils whose official purpose is to keep the government on the right track without explicitly opposing it. In practice, the councils seem to have served more as platforms for disgruntled mujahideen and sidelined officials to claim a place in the limelight. All the while, ex-President Hamid Karzai is believed to be waiting in the wings for an opening to return to the national stage.
That opening is moving closer. According to the agreement underpinning the unity government, a vote must be held this fall, before the government’s second year runs out, to turn Abdullah’s post as chief executive into a prime ministerial position. Nobody believes that is going to happen. In March, the embattled commission chief who oversaw the 2014 elections resigned, paving way for much needed electoral reforms, but even if the commission began now, it would not have sufficient time to prepare for the vote.
While the government will likely be able to extend its election mandate, as long as its international partners maintain their support for it, in response, political opponents of all colors will likely claim that the government is illegitimate. Meanwhile, Ghani and Abdullah have also failed to agree on key positions, including a defense minister. They also continue to argue over a new intelligence chief, and it wasn’t until this weekend that they managed to get an attorney general approved, a year-and-a-half after he was supposed to have begun his charge against corruption, a possibly bigger evil than armed insurgents. The frailty of the unity government has become so obvious that Kerry, during a visit to Kabul on Saturday, felt the need to make it “very, very clear” to opponents that the government was to last the entirety of its five-year term.
Ahmad Zia Massoud traveled with his entourage in army helicopters and on the government’s dime, but his message to northerners directly contravened his boss, the president.
Two demands are emerging, said Haroon Mir, a political analyst in Kabul. Some demand early presidential elections; others are pushing for a Loya Jirga, a grand assembly, which would attract strongmen, opposition politicians, and elites from all over the country. While a so-called traditional Loya Jirga has no binding legal authority, it could easily have more public credibility than the current government and could be used to whip up frenzy and mount a serious challenge to the government.
“A traditional Loya Jirga will not be controllable,” Mir said.
So Massoud has hit a sore spot at the right time, politically speaking. Afghans feel increasingly alienated from their leaders, and his was the first government face many in the north had seen in a long time. His crowds often numbered more than a thousand people. On a Sunday in February, outside a rally at a wedding hall, I found myself squished in the middle of a dozen thickset, brawling men, clawing and shoving their way through an entrance door barricaded by three soldiers. Inside, bathed in fluorescent lights, Massoud was showered with applause. Finally, it seemed, someone from the government was giving the north the respect it deserved.
“Our province was central for the jihad, but we have been forgotten,” one snazzily dressed elder from Samangan with a long white turban proclaimed when it was his turn at the microphone.
To many northerners, Massoud’s tirades sound honest. To sensitive ears in the palace, though, he could sound like a mutineer.
This lament resonates. To many northerners, Massoud’s tirades sound honest. To sensitive ears in the palace, though, he could sound like a mutineer. A mutineer, that is, with a rank akin to vice president, whose entourage travels in national army helicopters, all on the government’s dime.
Ali Mohammad Ali, a Kabul-based security analyst, put it this way when asked about Massoud’s political moves: “Using government resources and turning them against the government is wrong.”
Some among Afghanistan’s foreign allies, whose patience with the government is already wearing thin, feel that Massoud’s maneuvers are only making matters worse, undermining a government that is already struggling to assert its legitimacy and is taking a beating on the battlefield.
“It is irresponsible for a government official to attack the security forces in a situation where the country is at war,” said Franz-Michael Mellbin, the European Union’s special representative and ambassador in Kabul, about Massoud’s tour. “Everyone in the government doesn’t have to agree. But the discussions shouldn’t take place in public. It is disrespectful towards the security forces who are out there dying every day.”
Nearly two months after his return to Kabul, Massoud’s mutiny has yet to materialize. Nevertheless, his protest is a sign of a recent willingness among some officials to capitalize on the weakness of the government, even if they are a part of it. It also puts into question the president’s broader public support. Massoud was a key member of Ghani’s election team and is the only representative among the president’s top allies who is Tajik, the country’s second-largest ethnicity. (Ghani is Pashtun.)
“Ghani can’t claim that he is a national leader if he doesn’t have support from [such a fundamental] sector of the Afghan population,” said Mir. Vice President Dostum, an Uzbek, has also made a habit of going to his home base in the north when he seems to feel sidelined. If such officials continue to play regional powerbrokers, Mir said, “the name of the national unity government loses its meaning.”
Ahmad Zia Massoud is celebrated on stage in Samangan, one of the five provinces in his northern roadshow.
It was predictable that the Taliban would exploit the vacuum left by the international military withdrawal. The government’s inability to prevent the Taliban from gaining ground is rooted, many think, in the brittle relationships inside the leadership. Though far from the traditional Taliban heartlands, the north has recently been hit by fierce Taliban offensives. Last September, Kunduz became the first provincial capital since 2001 to fall, temporarily, to the Taliban. Even now insurgents are within a couple of miles of several more capitals. In January, militants destroyed three power pylons in Baghlan, disrupting electricity southward to Kabul.
When Massoud’s entourage arrived in Baghlan a month later, I heard security officials swear to his advisors that they had cleared the area around the electricity towers. But as we flew over the area only hours later, we saw insurgents fighting on the barren ground below. Some of them took potshots at our helicopter.
Incidents like this foster claims that the security forces don’t take the worsening situation seriously. As politicians appear inept at securing the provinces, some Afghans start looking around for others to lead them. That is one reason the Taliban can still gain significant support. It is also a reason some are nostalgic for Karzai, and why others long for old strongmen. And so the public anxiety Massoud is trying to exploit is real.
When I probed him about the need to arm and reinforce old commanders the government had chosen not to include in its security forces, Massoud was unequivocal. “The mujahideen are very keen to support our army, and they have a lot of experience,” he told me on a cold soccer pitch ringed by mountains, yelling to be heard above the rotor of the helicopter, as it prepared to fly us onward. “The mujahideen are a very big social group in Afghanistan. Now that we are in an emergency situation, we need the mujahideen to support our troops.”
When I put to him that Afghanistan’s international partners are worried about the resurgence of irregular forces outside the auspices of the government, Massoud insisted that he is not out to create militias. He wants to form local “councils of resistance,” centered in Takhar province, where his brother was headquartered, and he wants the government to enroll the mujahideen in the national forces. However, if that doesn’t happen — and it is unlikely to — “then our mujahideen will do something on their own to fight against terrorists,” he said.
Crowds of old mujahideen commanders flocked to meet Ahmad Zia Massoud, partly out of respect for his late, celebrated brother, Ahmad Shah Massoud, whom they used to fight for.
Ahmad Zia Massoud doesn’t immediately fit the prototype of a guerrilla commander. For one, he doesn’t have his brother’s charisma. On billboards, Ahmad Shah, known as the “Lion of Panjshir,” looks radiant, like a splicing between Bob Marley and Che Guevara. In contrast, Ahmad Zia, stern-faced and calm, looks more like a serious dad. When speaking in public, he folds his hands across his abdomen, as if trying to appear as unimposing as possible. His hands are soft, like a politician’s, not a fighter’s.
But the Massoud name goes a long way with the mujahideen. One of them is Baghlan’s provincial council chief, Mohammad Safdar Mohseni, who said he went to Massoud’s rally out of loyalty to the family legacy.
“If the government continues to waste time, people will take up weapons and fight the Taliban. They will ask the government to leave them alone so they can fight on their own,” he said. Another commander, Jalan Bajgar, said the mujahideen had long deterred the Taliban from attacking police posts just by being well-armed, but the insurgents had grown bolder. “We need bigger weapons and commanders to go to the front lines,” he said.
The idea of private armies scattered across the north makes foreign diplomats uneasy. “It might solve a local security problem, but it doesn’t strengthen the state,” Mellbin said. “We have invested enormous sums in moving Afghanistan out of fragility towards stability. So undermining the authority and legitimacy of the state is not a solution for those of us who would like to see a stable Afghanistan.”
In March, Ghani got a rare win in his attempts to restart the peace process when a delegation from the insurgent group Hizb-e-Islami visited Kabul to pledge their readiness to talk. Last week, the group dropped a previous demand that all international forces must leave Afghanistan before they want to talk peace. Though not as militarily important as they once were, the government hopes Hizb-e-Islami’s concession will help convince the Taliban to join the peace process as well.
That is a formula for a paralyzing tug of war.
But the consensus is that there will be no peace without serious reforms. On one side, Ghani has proved the president many feared he would be: a professorial micromanager wary of delegating responsibility. At the same time, Abdullah is facing pressure from his northern supporters, who still believe he was robbed of the presidency, to claim his fair share of influence in the unity government. That is a formula for a paralyzing tug of war.
“The government has become very fragile,” Mir said. “It wasn’t built on a vision for the country; it was based on pure power sharing. It hasn’t come together on a specific agenda. People in government want to preserve their own interests.”
Before Massoud left Baghlan, the provincial police chief delivered some good news. Over a breakfast of bread, tea, and deep-fried fish, he reported that security forces had pushed the Taliban back, so engineers could finally repair the destroyed electricity towers. Massoud’s convoy drove to a snow-speckled mountaintop, which constituted the front line, to look at the pylons from afar. It was impossible to make them out, but the army commander said engineers were working away. While he and Massoud pored over a map, canon gunners blasted three shells from a 122 mm howitzer in the supposed direction of the Taliban. A week later, after Massoud had safely returned to Kabul, electricity had still not returned. The Taliban fired back and hit the governor’s compound with a rocket, killing one employee. Government forces later retook the district but not without U.S. planes raining bombs on the insurgents. It confirmed the often painful view of many Afghans that, politically and militarily, their government is still beholden to the United States.