Mafia politics threaten Afghan security as much as insurgency does
The dangerous ongoing showdown between the Kabul government and Atta Mohammad Noor, a warlord-turned-governor of Balkh province, is inescapably about two things: money and muscle.
Although this explosive combination of vying fiercely for power and money has been the cornerstone of Afghan politics for decades, this time it could threaten the current U.S. military campaign and undermine Afghanistan’s fragile security.
By any measure, Afghanistan’s stability hangs as much on the toxic internal power struggle among the country’s many strongmen as it does on the externally enabled insurgency.
The internal challenge is that the country is politically and factionally divided between the warlords and local strongmen on the one side and the educated reformist technocrats on the other. The contest epitomizes a clash of ideas, with each side promoting two fundamentally different paths for Afghanistan’s future.
How did Afghanistan get here?
Afghanistan’s current predatory political system, operated by an active Afghan political mafia, is the consequence of the post-9/11 Western intervention that helped create and underpin the system. In many ways, the system is analogous to a puppy, rescued and brought up with an abundant supply of food and unconditional support.
The Afghan system was developed with enormous international support — financial and otherwise — that was injected unconditionally into Kabul since 2001, only to nurture a small cadre of a dominant, affluent, yet inept political class.
However, after 16 years, the puppy has grown into a big, aggressive bulldog, which the rescuer is either no longer able or willing to provide for the same way it did in 2001. Surely, the dog would show some aggressive reaction.
Today, the Afghan warlords, former jihadi leaders and regional strongmen who emerged from the ashes of the Taliban regime as the 9/11 profiteers, broadly constitute the country’s influential political elites.
These elites have effectively criminalized the Afghan politics with many involved in illicit activities, including narcotics, smuggling, extortion, illegal mining, kidnapping, torture and arbitrary detention. Many of the strongmen control their own armed militias and are complicit in serious human rights violations.
However, the gravy train has ended over the last two years, disturbing the personal fortune and muscle of the Afghan political mafia. Unsurprisingly, nearly all members of the Afghan mafia have expressed reactions, often with a threat of violence.
For instance, the ongoing showdown between Atta Noor, President Ashraf Ghani and chief executive Abdullah Abdullah after Ghani fired Atta Noor from his position as governor, has all the signs of a mafia politics.
Not only has Noor refused to leave his seat, which he has held since 2004, he has also unleashed his inner warlord by going after Abdullah, a former ally who is the leader of Noor’s party, Jamiat-e-Islami, calling him a “snake up our own sleeve.”
Noor is clearly defiant for a reason: He fears giving away his power that came with an unfettered access to cash from Afghan customs, the drug trade and the smuggling rings he controlled as governor for 13 years.
In a brazen public message to his superiors in Kabul, Noor recently told an audience that “no matter what they will do, I’ll break their teeth.” However, Noor is not the only criminal in the room.
In May, Afghanistan Vice President Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum fled to Turkey on charges of kidnapping and raping a political rival. And, Gen. Abdul Raziq, the prominent Kandahar police chief, is unwilling to step down, saying that the government cannot remove him.
Such confrontations between regional strongmen and the Kabul government have turned Kabul into a zero-sum place and Afghanistan into a Shakespearean tragedy. It is almost like there is a finite pool of power that makes local strongmen overprotective of their turfs.
Police chief of #Kandahar, General Abdul Raziq, says Atta Mohammad #Noor is the incumbent governor of Balkh and that government cannot remove him from his post. #Afghanistan pic.twitter.com/HfWHcKRUxD
— TOLOnews (@TOLOnews) January 4, 2018
Today, one political leader assails another, each supported by his retainers, most of whom do not submit to authority. Every strongman’s hand is against the other, and many have personal vendettas among themselves, mainly centered on power or authority.
Every influence that incites the spirit of accruing more money and muscle compels these strongmen to the deeds of violence. Amid these schisms, Afghan politics has lost political civility, morality and decency.
Meanwhile, in this bloodsport, not only have people been destroyed as part of a process, but warlords’ hatred of control has arrested the further progress of Afghanistan’s development.
More crucially, upstream political tensions often have downstream effects. The political wrangling has left the country ideologically divided. Local strongmen openly promote factional, ethnic and identity politics, stoking dangerous sectarian tendencies and polarization.
The chaos has led many Afghans to raise questions about a common Afghan identity. At the same time, Afghan leaders have entirely different realities across the board, often rooted in their personal biases and grievances.
Most Afghan leaders resemble mad men pretending they are leading the blind. They campaign in poetry, using appealing slogans, but once elected, there are no tangible results.
Many of these strongmen have entangled their communities in ineffective political ideas and have embraced a passionate love for dead leaders, as an important campaign tactic to mobilize masses.
Unfortunately, this is a hopeless legacy of the previous Afghan government under President Hamid Karzai, who wittingly fostered predatory politics by supporting criminal patronage networks, empowering regional strongmen through lucrative political and financial deals that spread formal corruption, without paying attention to governance deficiencies.
Consequently, today, whether a leader or a party is in power or not, the business of corruption continues. If the government is the contractor, the local strongmen, who masquerade as the political opposition, see themselves as the prime subcontractors. Hence, there is enormous resistance to the new anti-predation reforms that are employed by the Ghani government.
In the end, Afghanistan’s mafia politics are a powder keg and pose as much of a threat to Afghan instability as does the insurgency. Political infighting in Kabul could undercut Afghan security, including fracturing or dangerously politicizing the country’s security forces ahead of the planned parliamentary election in July and the presidential vote in 2019.
At a minimum, the United States, perceived widely as the kingmaker in Afghanistan, can use its influence to shape the Afghan political scene by holding Afghan warlords and other undesirables accountable for their nefarious actions within and outside the Afghan government.
The gradual and steady marginalization of Afghan strongmen, who engage in criminal politics, could prove to be a critical factor in determining the long-term effectiveness of Trump’s new strategy for Afghanistan.
Javid Ahmad is a fellow at the Atlantic Council and a non-resident fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point. The views expressed here are his own. Follow him on Twitter: @ahmadjavid