The Real Winner of Afghanistan’s Election

Meet Mohammad Qasim Fahim, the unsavory Tajik warlord whose grip on Afghanistan just got a whole lot tighter.


The real winner of Afghanistan’s presidential election will not be Hamid Karzai or his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. It’s a man named Mohammad Qasim Fahim. He is Afghanistan’s senior-most military commander, with the lifetime rank of marshal, and was Karzai’s running mate during the campaign. Whether Karzai or one of his opponents wins, Fahim will hold and exercise extraordinary influence over the country’s military and security apparatus — more so than the elected president.

This means the real loser of Afghanistan’s presidential election — besides the Afghan people — will be the United States’ long-standing ambition to train and equip enough Afghan forces to allow for an eventual withdrawal of the U.S. military. Building up the Afghan military and police is at the heart of Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s latest assessment for Washington of what needs to be done in Afghanistan. But McChrystal’s forces will be training Afghan soldiers and police to work for Fahim: a human-rights-abusing, drug-trafficking warlord who might also have had a role in al Qaeda’s  assassination of his political godfather, Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, on Sept. 9, 2001 — an operation widely viewed in retrospect as a precursor to the terrorist attacks in the United States two days later.

The story of Fahim underscores the implausibility of U.S. President Barack Obama’s plans for the “Afghanization” of the conflict — the shifting of security responsibility to Afghans, the only exit strategy that either the Obama administration or the George W. Bush administration before it has ever put forward. Fahim was born in 1957 to a prominent Tajik military and political family. After completing traditional training in Islamic law and theology in the late 1970s, he joined militia forces commanded by Massoud, the legendary “Lion of Panjshir” who was the pre-eminent mujahedeen commander in northern Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion.

Some accounts of Fahim’s career say that he affiliated with Massoud’s forces in the early days of the Afghan jihad and fought against the Red Army during the 1980s. Others say that Fahim actually worked in the intelligence services of the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul, only siding with Massoud after it was clear that Soviet forces were going to withdraw. Fahim’s continued close ties to Russia suggest, at minimum, that he is capable of playing many sides of Afghanistan’s complex political chessboard.

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Following the Red Army’s withdrawal in 1989 and the collapse of the nascent Afghan government in 1992, the new president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, installed Fahim as the head of intelligence. By 1996, internecine struggles among former mujahedeen commanders — as well as rampant corruption and brutality toward the people living under their purview — created an opening for the mostly Pashtun Taliban to expand from their base in southern Afghanistan and capture Kabul. Subsequently, Massoud, Fahim, and other non-Pashtun warlords joined together to form the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, usually referred to as the “Northern Alliance.”

When I joined the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) staff in late 2001, senior Bush administration officials were already developing an opinion of the Northern Alliance as a cohesive group of heroic and relatively moderate regional commanders who united to combat the rigidly Islamist Taliban. This assessment continues to influence much Western discussion of Afghanistan. It is also, to be blunt, a myth.

The Tajik, Uzbek, and Hazara warlords who nominally came together under Massoud’s umbrella barely tolerated each other for five years (from 1996 to 2001) and only to resist territorial encroachment by the Taliban. Each warlord had his own individual agenda to consolidate power in particular areas of Afghanistan — and ultimately those individual agendas trumped the alliance’s “shared” goal of fighting the Taliban.

Within the Northern Alliance’s command structure, Fahim became Massoud’s intelligence and security chief — a position that Fahim held at the time of 2001 Massoud’s assassination. Although CIA analysts later raised the possibility of the warlord’s complicity in his patron’s death, senior Bush administration officials were never willing to investigate that possibility seriously because they had already decided to make Fahim a critical player in their strategy for “managing” post-Taliban Afghanistan.

Massoud was assassinated two days before the September 11 attacks. Two al Qaeda operatives of Tunisian origin posing as Moroccan-Belgian journalists met with Massoud to “interview” him. A camera was stuffed with explosives, which the operatives detonated, killing Massoud. Four days later, Fahim took over as the effective leader of the Northern Alliance.

In the years following Massoud’s death, Belgian and French authorities arrested and tried various individuals for their contributions to the assassination — such as stealing passports and providing the camera that would later be turned into a bomb. But these European investigations did not address critical questions about how the operation played out on the ground. How did the two al Qaeda operatives get through the security screening normally required to reach Massoud? How did they maintain their cover while spending several days at one of Massoud’s compounds before the actual interview? How did they get explosives through various layers of physical screening and bring them into Massoud’s presence?

Massoud’s assassination has been widely interpreted as an important precursor to the 9/11 attacks. As the 9/11 Commission documented, al Qaeda’s killing of Massoud was coordinated with a Taliban offensive to destroy the Northern Alliance once and for all, and both might have been linked to al Qaeda’s plans to attack the United States at roughly the same time. The idea was to eliminate Massoud, the Northern Alliance’s most capable leader, destroy the Northern Alliance as an effective fighting force, and enable the Taliban to take full control over all of Afghanistan. This would have made it harder for the U.S. military to respond to the 9/11 attacks by using the Northern Alliance to go after al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

But this strategic logic could also take in personally ambitious figures in the Northern Alliance willing to cooperate with al Qaeda to advance their own agendas. We know the Northern Alliance warlord Abdul Rasul Sayyaf facilitated the assassins’ entry into Northern Afghanistan. But what of Fahim? It was his job to vet foreign visitors. So how would he explain the fact that two fake journalists from Tunisia, posing as Moroccans, with Belgian passports — along with their equipment, including the camera that they proposed to use to record their interview with Massoud — were never physically screened?

U.S. officials dealing with Fahim should have asked him this question. They didn’t. After Massoud’s death, any potential loose ends that might have led inquiring minds to focus on other Northern Alliance figures were tied up. Although one of Massoud’s assassins died when the camera exploded, the other survived and was captured before he could escape from the compound. But the captured assassin was himself shot and killed later that day while allegedly trying to escape, apparently before being interrogated.

Fahim’s behavior after Massoud’s assassination also should have compounded suspicions about his possible collaboration with al Qaeda and the Taliban. As U.S. intelligence and military officials scrambled in the wake of the 9/11 attacks to establish robust operational channels to the Fahim-led Northern Alliance, he failed to lead his forces into battle against the advancing Taliban, though he had promised to do so. Indeed, in October 2001, as the United States was launching Operation Enduring Freedom, Fahim left for Tajikistan. In the end, the senior Bush administration officials with whom I worked turned a willful blind eye to Fahim’s bizarre behavior, ultimately dismissing it as that of a formerly staunch anti-Taliban leader who had just gotten lazy. The CIA continued providing him with millions of dollars in funding, though it soon became clear that he was skimming substantial portions for his personal enrichment.

Following the expulsion of the Taliban from Kabul and other major cities, Fahim became Karzai’s defense minister and then also his first vice president. As James Risen recently reported in the New York Times, the Bush administration began receiving intelligence reports in early 2002 describing Fahim’s ongoing involvement not only in unsavory human rights practices, but in Afghanistan’s resurgent drug trade. But by then, the White House had largely abandoned the goal of creating a genuinely national military and security apparatus for the Karzai government. Instead, it shifted to an exit strategy contingent on turning over security responsibilities to regional warlords, such as Fahim. (My dissatisfaction with this approach prompted me to stop working on Afghanistan policy at the NSC and to focus instead on the Iranian and Persian Gulf parts of my portfolio.)

U.S. law prohibits the provision of military aid to figures known to be involved in narcotics trafficking. How could the Bush administration square this legal constraint with its interest in continuing to funnel assistance to Fahim and others? Then-Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley (who became national security advisor during Bush’s second term) ordered that any discussion of the issue be limited to a so-called “restricted deputies committee.” The White House said the United States provided support to Afghanistan’s Defense Ministry, but never explained that its assistance then trickled to warlords. And, no less than Lt. Gen. Karl Eikenberry, who oversaw military assistance programs in 2002 and 2003 and is now ambassador to Afghanistan, has said on the record that the Bush administration never placed any restrictions on his dealings with Fahim.

Washington’s Fahim problem seemed to subside in 2004, when Karzai decided not to have Fahim as his vice-presidential running mate. In recognition of Fahim’s “services,” though, Karzai bestowed a lifetime military rank of “marshal” on him, thereby acknowledging Fahim’s continuing influence over Afghanistan’s evolving military institutions. By 2006, Karzai judged that he needed to designate Fahim formally as a “senior advisor.” And, when the Obama administration came to office at the beginning of this year publicly questioning the desirability of Karzai’s continued service as president, Karzai once again turned to Fahim — with his control over significant armed cadres and ability to turn out votes in Tajik areas — to stand as his running mate.

There was a brutal logic to Karzai’s choice of partners. Even if the incumbent president does not technically win re-election, Fahim provides Karzai with the armed muscle he would need to challenge the published results. Furthermore, “Marshal” Fahim does and will continue to exercise more influence over Afghanistan’s military and security forces than whoever ends up the winner of the presidential election. That reality underscores the flawed logic of the ambition to bolster Afghanistan’s military and police forces as an exit strategy. There is no reason to think that Fahim’s military, even with U.S. training, would be a reliable bulwark against an al Qaeda resurgence in Afghanistan. That leaves General McChrystal — and President Obama — without a strategy for extricating the United States from its deepening Afghan quagmire.

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