Afghan Elections: The Warlords Are Back

As the country gears up for presidential elections, prominent warlords are throwing their hat in the ring—including Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the onetime mentor of Osama bin Laden. By Ron Moreau and Sami Yousafzai.

Omar Sobhani / Reuters

He was patron of, and mentor to, a who’s-who of the most notorious terrorists in the 1980s and 1990s: Osama bin Laden, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef. Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf, a militant Islamic scholar and rich and powerful Afghan warlord, ran one of the most effective and wealthy jihadi groups doing battle with the Soviet occupiers. Largely because of his hard-line Wahhabist religious views, he was a darling of Saudi Arabia and attracted not only millions in petrodollars but also thousands of Saudi and other Arab volunteers to the Afghan jihad—the most prominent being the young Saudi prince bin Laden. Born Abdul Rasul, he followed the suggestion of another admiring Saudi prince and changed his last name to Sayyaf, which in Arabic means “the person who is skilled with the sword.”

Bin Laden first sought out Sayyaf in the mujahideen’s main rear base of Peshawar in 1986, when the Saudi decided to move his anti-Soviet operations inside Afghanistan from Pakistan. Sayyaf, now 67, knew a good thing when he saw it. He put one of his top military commanders in charge of bin Laden, instructing him to take the prince and his followers to the group’s training camps and resistance areas in the Khost region of eastern Afghanistan. In an exclusive interview with The Daily Beast, the commander said that Sayyaf pointedly told him: “This is my golden chicken. Take him to Khost and make sure you bring him back safely.”

Now nearly three decades later, Sayyaf, who is arguably more wealthy and influential than ever, is running for president of Afghanistan along with some 25 other candidates. And he has chosen a rich and powerful former warlord from western Afghanistan, Ismael Khan, as his vice presidential running mate. Clearly, the warlords are making a comeback. Their return to prominence is a disturbing sign of how little things have changed over the past 12 years since the U.S. invaded Afghanistan, ousted the Taliban and tried (so far, unsuccessfully) to graft a multi-party democratic system onto this traditional, tribal society. The upcoming April 2014 presidential election will be the country’s most crucial to date and may determine if Afghans can begin building a stable future on their own.

The warlords really never left the scene. Rather than secure the country with American boots on the ground after the Taliban’s overthrow in late 2001, the Bush administration relied on the warlords—whom the Taliban had overthrown as a result of their egregious excesses—to take back control of their respective fiefdoms in order to fill the security vacuum and provide stability. The new president, Hamid Karzai, who had no political party or men with guns, was forced to reach accommodations with the warlords, largely by giving them plum positions and the freedom to wheel and deal as long as they didn’t rock the ship of state. As part of the deal, Sayyaf and other warlords reluctantly agreed to disarm their militias, though they continue to wield influence over security forces in their areas. Now with the deadline looming for the 2014 withdrawal of U.S. and allied combat forces, these local strongmen openly talk of rearming their militias in preparation for a possible Taliban comeback or civil war.

Even the so-called liberal candidates are fielding running mates who were, or are, closely affiliated to powerful militarymen. Abdullah Abdullah, a former medical doctor and the runner-up to Karzai in the disputed 2009 election, selected a senior member of renegade warlord Gulbuddin Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i-Islami organization as his number two. Ashraf Ghani, a smart, urbane, Western-educated, former international bureaucrat, surprisingly tapped the notorious warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum as his vice presidential candidate. Dostum recently headed the Afghan military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff, and infamously smothered hundreds if not thousands of Taliban prisoners in metal shipping containers in late 2001.

Afghan analysts and Western diplomats in Kabul give Abdullah, who served as foreign minister under the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance militia alliance and then under Karzai, a fighting chance to prevail, though he is not popular in the key Pashtun belt of eastern and southern Afghanistan. Zalmai Rassoul, a physician and Karzai’s latest foreign minister and former national security adviser, is also said to have a chance even though he is colorless, has no name recognition and no popular backing. The president’s elder brother, Qayyum, 57, a businessman who owns restaurants in Baltimore, is also a dark horse. Sayyaf is not seen as a serious contender for now, but he and other former warlords will make their presence felt between now and the election.

Unfortunately for Afghanistan, the country and the electoral process are both largely a one-man show. Karzai, who won the elections in 2004 and 2009 and who has served as the country’s chief executive since late 2001, is the ringmaster. He has personally appointed all nine officers on the country’s important electoral commission. They, like nearly every other Afghan official from district chiefs to provincial governors, senior police and military officers and cabinet officials, all owe their jobs, power and wealth to Karzai. The president has done a masterful job of keeping the former warlords, tribal chieftains and rival ethnic groups largely under his control inside his “big tent.” He keeps order chiefly thanks to the patronage that he can grant and withdraw according to his discretion and whim.

Just as he dispenses power and privilege, Karzai could, and is eventually expected to, choose a designated successor. Indeed, in a political system largely devoid of democratic tradition, political parties and constructive and realistic platforms, most candidates are hoping that they will eventually be the president’s chosen one. If someone is so anointed, he would have a tremendous advantage just as Karzai did in the 2009 election with the power of state security, appointed politicians, the bureaucracy and the electoral machinery squarely behind him. So far Karzai has remained aloof and does not seem to favor any particular candidate. But he is not expected to sit quietly on the sidelines until election day.

Rather, he is expected to let the candidates fight it out in the coming weeks and then finally throw his considerable political weight behind the one he thinks would be best for the country and perhaps for his own ambitions. Karzai is barred by the constitution from running for a third term. But no one believes that after 13 years in power the president will quietly retire at the relatively young age of 55 and leave the helm of state in someone else’s hands. Most Afghans and foreign analysts expect that Karzai will favor a relatively pliable, weak man whom he could easily influence. He certainly will be close to whoever wins as he will be living next door to the new president in a European-style mansion that is being restored for him. Many Afghans are betting that the clean-shaven Rassoul, his non-ambitious, loyal, long-time aide, may be Karzai’s eventual choice. Karzai’s brother Qayyum may also get the presidential nod, but sources at the palace say that for now the president has been lukewarm toward his candidacy. Another factor is said to be Qayyum’s reported ill-health; he resigned from parliament citing health issues.

But Sayyaf is not out of the running. The president respects him and has been known to defer to him. Many Afghans like Karzai are said to look up to him as a result of his prominence in the anti-Soviet jihad. He is also a formidable physical and rhetorical presence. He wears large turbans, sports a long and bushy gray beard, is some six-feet three inches tall and weighs a beefy 250 pounds. He is an articulate, gifted speaker in his native Pashto, and is fluent in Persian and Arabic. As a result of his close ties to Saudi Arabia, his religious education at Cairo’s prestigious Al-Azhar mosque and his subsequent ties to the Muslim Brotherhood, he is close to most of the conservative Afghan clergymen who could influence their flocks to vote for him. He is deeply anti-Taliban. Last month, at the first anniversary of the death of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani, who was killed by an insurgent suicide bomber, Sayyaf told the crowd that the Taliban are not Muslims. He quoted a prediction of the Prophet Muhammad that a group of men wearing turbans and pretending to be Muslims will try to destroy the name of Islam. “They are not believers,” Sayyaf roared. “Their palace is in hell.”

The conservative Sayyaf has made his presence felt in parliament. He has consistently opposed women’s rights legislation. He has supported a bill calling for amnesty for former mujahideen, and another that would have prevented them from being tried for war crimes. That’s largely a result of self-preservation. He has blood on his hands, most infamously for his militia’s shelling of, and rampaging through, the largely Shiite neighborhood of Afshar in Kabul in 1993.

Sayyaf may be an ultra-orthodox Sunni Muslim, but he is also an astute politician. When he resigned from parliament earlier this month to run for the presidency, he surprised many by consenting to have his picture taken with a group of women MPs, a move that won him wide praise on Afghan social media. Although he staunchly opposes joint education of the sexes, he has lavishly funded separate girls’ schools and health projects.

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Bin Laden owed much to Sayyaf. Not only did he mentor the prince in the 1980s, he was instrumental in bringing him back to Afghanistan in 1996 when the al-Qaeda leader was expelled from the Sudan. In 1987 Sayyaf also took a young Kuwaiti and would-be jihadi, Khaled Sheikh Mohammed, under his wing in Peshawar and trained him to fight. He subsequently masterminded the 9/11 airplane hijackings. The 9/11 Commission’s report called Sayyaf Mohammed’s “mentor.” Ramzi Yousef, who carried out the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993, studied at Sayyaf’s “Call of Jihad” university in Peshawar which has been labeled a “school for terrorism.”

Now as a presidential aspirant, Sayyaf will have to show a more constructive and moderate side. Given his past, though, Afghans may not think that he’s the right man in 2014 to bring security and stability, curb rampant corruption and spur badly-needed economic development. But then, sadly for Afghans, none of the candidates seems up to the job.