Conservatism by Default: Badakhshan’s Jamiat after Ustad Rabbani

posted: 21-10-2012 by: Fabrizio Foschini

Politics in Badakhshan sometimes seem to follow a separate course than Afghanistan’s mainstream, as is the case in other peripheral areas. Powerbrokers in this remote province – usually former jihadi commanders, most of them linked to the Jamiat-e Islami party – are struggling for control of trafficking and extracting resources from the province and appear to be oblivious of the rest of the country. However, a clear link exists between politics in the province and on the centre stage in Kabul. Over the past decades, this link was embodied by the late Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani. Following his death and the succession of his son Salahuddin to the helm of the family and of Jamiat, changes in the internal equilibrium of power in Badakhshan and its connection with national politics are now possible. This is the first part of AAN’s Fabrizio Foschini’s report following a recent trip to the northeastern province.

One year has passed since a major succession happened at the head of Badakhshan’s most influential family, the Rabbanis. After the patriarch, Ustad Burhanuddin Rabbani, was slain in a suicide attack in Kabul on 22 September 2011 (read the first of a series of AAN blogs on the subject here), his son Salahuddin Rabbani not only replaced him as the family’s elder but also as head of the High Peace Council (HPC) and of the Jamiat-e Islami party.

Burhanuddin Rabbani had by far been the major political player to come out of the peripheral Badakhshan province in recent Afghan history. Serving as the country’s president during the mujahedin rule of Kabul between 1992 and 1996 – notwithstanding the continuing controversy about this period of internecine fighting – and then until 2001 during the ‘resistance’ against the Taleban (although the territory controlled by his Islamic State of Afghanistan was reduced to only a couple of provinces), clearly projected him outside of the narrower political game of Badakhshan. Initially less visibly, at least for the outside world, he had also led Jamiat-e Islami since the mid-1970s, when it still was the umbrella organisation of the Muslim Brotherhood-inspired part of Afghanistan’s movement of political Islam.

Not least because of his and the Islamic State’s period of protracted presence in Badakhshan – its provincial centre of Faizabad even became the capital of the non-Taleban Afghan state (the only one recognised by the UN) in 2000-2001, (1) – Rabbani’s contacts with his home province were all but weak. In addition to being elected as a member of parliament from his province in 2005, he maintained a vast network of interests and supporters in Badakhshan. His position as head of the Jamiat-e Islami – the major jihadi party in the northeastern province – only sanctioned this role further.

Assessments about the role played by Ustad Rabbani in his home province’s politics varied from a thorough control exercised through his nephew, the evergreen Deputy Governor Shams-ur-Rahman (holding his position since at least 2004), to an almost complete absence after moving on to the capital’s political stage.

The official position of many Jamiati public figures is that Ustad Rabbani mainly played a national role, well above the local, petty squabbles frequent in Badakhshan province, which notoriously hosts a large number of commanders whose armed retinues, in the absence of an organised insurgency, have long constituted the major concerns for security. In the past, this absence from Badakhshan might even have drawn some criticism from Badakhshis – especially as the province is huge, remote, and under-funded. At a more political level, many grassroots Jamiatis, under a façade of acceptance, had become increasingly wary of the honours that Ustad Rabbani had recently been receiving, and accepting, at the hands of the central government. In particular, they assumed that this was part of a political deal with Karzai that could have been detrimental to Jamiat and to the former mujahedin as social bloc. Rabbani’s standing among the ‘Northerners’ more opposed to the government particularly suffered when he ‘went over to the government’ by becoming the chairman of the High Peace Council (HPC).

Paradoxically, this has been completely redeemed by his death, which occurred while carrying out his duties as the head of the HPC. The Peace Process, until then a completely government-owned process, suddenly became something the ‘Northerners’ could claim as their own – in the end it was one of their top leaders who paid the highest price. The memory of the shahid-e solh (‘Martyr of Peace’), as Rabbani was soon called, became an effective unifying factor for a vast political bloc like Jamiat – otherwise crossed by many divisions – which could now, while still harshly criticising efforts at reconciliation on some occasions, play a more pro-active role in trying to influence the whole process and gain political dividends from it.

After his death, Ustad Rabbani also became a symbol to be commemorated more physically, for example by adding his martyrdom to that of Ahmad Shah Massud to create an institutionally sanctioned ‘Week of the Martyrs’ (in mid-September; Massud was assassinated on 9 September 2001), and thus strengthening the already existing occasion for political mobilisation and display of strength by the former Northern Alliance and Jamiat-e Islami specifically.(2)

Some doubts remain, though, as to who is better positioned to make use of the political capital left behind by Ustad Rabbani and inscribed in the legacy of his death. Notwithstanding the presence of several would-be leaders for the political constituency roughly identifiable with Jamiat-e Islami, the major competitors in this field seem to be Salahuddin, Rabbani’s son and successor who still is Jamiat’s interim leader, and the Jamiati political heavyweight Muhammad Atta Nur, the long-time governor of Balkh.

In the event of a political confrontation between the two, people in Badakhshan seem divided as to the possible outcome. (After a hasty election of Salahuddin to the party leadership for an initial two months in the aftermath of his father’s death, a congress of Jamiat-e Islami was to decide on the issue after this interim period, which is long overdue.) Salahuddin Rabbani is young, educated, and cosmopolitan. He studied at King Fahd, Kingston, and Columbia universities and was ambassador to Turkey. For these very reasons he is considered by many Jamiati veterans in the province as lacking the necessary experience to lead the party, especially in ‘reading’ the nature of Afghan politicians, friends, and foe, and dealing with unruly commanders – something that his father mastered. Although he can count on his family’s name and support, he has less direct personal links to Badakhshan than his father.

A self-announced bidder for the leadership of Jamiat, Atta has been the most vocal in asking for the prosecution (and execution) not only of the mediator suspected to be involved in Ustad Rabbani’s killing, Rahmatullah Wahidyar, an ex-Taleb (detained in Pul-e Charkhi), but for the prosecution of the head of the HPC Secretariat Massum Stanikzai, too. At a recent commemoration during Martyrs Week, Atta delivered a fiery speech to this effect – sounding quite like he was playing Mark Antony at Caesar’s burial and evidently trying to capitalise on the anger and lust for revenge of the Jamiatis, in order to take upon himself the legacy of Rabbani the Elder. Also, in the eyes of many ordinary Jamiati supporters, he has not (yet) tarnished a sort of ‘northerner purity’ by joining the political circus in Kabul. (Actually his ability to maintain his lucrative feud as a governor of Balkh – one of the few who has not been changed by Karzai in recent years – and a sort of oppositional stance towards the government, while not risking a permanent fall-out with Karzai, has been his major political accomplishment.)(3)

According to different senior Jamiati figures in Badakhshan, though, Atta’s attempts at making inroads in the province may prove difficult.(4) The more politically-minded members of the party may indeed desire a strong leader with ambitions at the national level, and Atta may be able to negotiate some form of support from ‘opportunist’(5) Jamiatis like MP Amanullah Paiman, but the bulk of Badakhshi Jamiatis will not lend him support easily. They are not unflinchingly faithful to the Rabbani family, but there are of course regional issues preventing a smooth acceptance of Atta’s leadership. People from Rabbani’s home district, Yaftal-e Sofla, and to some extent from Faizabad and other districts west of it, have benefited more directly from his influence in Kabul, and they have a vested interest in maintaining connections with the centre through a member of the family.(6) East of the provincial capital, in and around Baharak, sympathies may instead lean more towards Atta, also given the past history of rivalry between the Jamiati commanders of the area, belonging to Massud’s Shura-ye Nazar, and those linked more closely with Rabbani mainly located around Faizabad.

In the long term, alignments inside Jamiat will of course be influenced by the direction that national politics take in this northern province in the run-up to the 2014 elections, and by the role of Marshal Fahim, another pivotal player inside Jamiat-e Islami, and the puller of many strings in Badakhshan itself. For the moment, however, the average Badakhshi Jamiati commander-politician may opt for the status quo. There is an inherent tendency to conservatism by default inside Jamiat, caused by the lack of – or the difficulty to employ – mechanisms of representation to alter the party’s structure. Also, compared to provinces with big cities (Kabul, Mazar-e Sharif, Herat) and massive student populations, there is a very limited amount of dynamism coming from the Jamiati youth in largely rural Badakhshan, which may elsewhere lead to a more ‘ideological’ mobilisation. Altogether many Jamiatis seem quite fine with keeping a not-so-strong leader, as many perceive Salahuddin Rabbani to be, on a largely symbolical saddle, and the blazon of party leadership within their province. Actually, what strongmen in Badakhshan seem more concerned with right now – as ever, one could say – is their internal power struggles over control of poppy cultivation, trafficking, and mine extraction, which often turn deadly.

In fact, one of Ustad Rabbani’s many roles that will be missed the most in his home province is probably his ability to function as a stabiliser – the tallest tree nobody can aspire to overgrow. After his fall, things may take a different turn in the undergrowth.

Second part to follow

(1) One contemporary newspaper article called it the only capital in the world without any asphalted streets.

(2) Also, many different things have been named after Ustad Rabbani in Badakhshan (the recently completed and incredibly functional paved road from Keshm to Faizabad; the bridge connecting the old and the new city of Faizabad) and also in Kabul. The political charge of these re-namings must not be underestimated – the issue of the university to be named after Rabbani in Kabul has become red hot, with almost daily protests and a now two-week long stalemate. If this has been initially thought to have created embarrassment mainly for Rabbani’s family and supporters, with the mobilisation of the students from the campus in Faizabad in favour of the re-naming of the institution on 17 October, it could become a serious headache for the government too, by polarising blocs on divisive ethnic and communal fault lines at what is considered the start of the 2014 electoral campaign.

(3) It came close to it before the 2009 presidential election when Atta supported Karzai’s main challenger Dr. Abdullah and appeared on Abdullah’s election posters.

(4) Atta’s attempts at extending his already broad alliance network in Badakhshan were reported to AAN since the parliamentary elections of 2010, when he was rumoured to have financed the electoral campaign of several candidates in the province, even some not belonging to Jamiat, as indeed he was said to have done elsewhere in the North and North-East of the country.

(5) In the sense of switching between the opposition and the government. Paiman has his own local base in Ragh of Badakhshan (now administratively split into Yawan, Raghistan, and Kohistan districts).

(6) Some sections of society in particular may have benefited from that. To give a somewhat trivial example, the list of Badakhshi delegates to the Peace Jirga in 2010 contained as many as five mawlawi from Yaftal-e Sofla and a higher number of Rabbani clients and supporters. Their strength inside the provincial administration is also evident.