In Proud Corners of Afghanistan, New Requires Autonomy
BAZARAK, Afghanistan – His face protrudes along the single-lane roads carved into the remote and forbidden Panjshir Valley, protruding above twisted piles of Soviet tanks and the patchwork of grain fields. Billboards seemingly everywhere carry the image of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the admired and murdered military commander from this region, and quotes that testify to Panjshir’s pride and willingness to go it alone. One reads: “Addiction is a shame.”
Known for holding off the Soviets in the 1980s, protecting their remote and forbidden valley from the Taliban in the 1990s, and waging the opening volleys of the US invasion in 2001, the Panjshiris are once again drawn to defiance. This time the battle against national leadership is in Kabul, although Panjshir is linked to the capital by both money and power.
While the Afghan government is holding peace talks with the Taliban in Qatar, one of the main issues has been how broken their side is, which has led many to wonder whether government negotiators can really speak for much of a country ripped by political discord and want Belief in the system.
The unrest in Panjshir, where many are outraged by efforts to make peace with the Taliban, raises fears that, in an echo of Afghanistan’s early days, the province and other regions might take up arms and try to gain more autonomy for themselves to force warlord era. Some factions are openly calling for the restoration of the Northern Alliance, the armed coalition that helped the United States overthrow the Taliban in 2001.
There are also growing concerns that as in the past, Panjshir and other breakaway places will be more actively asking for money from regional actors like Russia, India and Iran if the government in Kabul appears to continue to weaken.
Panjshiris “no longer see themselves in government,” said Mohammad Amin Sediqi, the deputy governor of Panjshir, from his desk in Bazarak, the provincial capital. “We fought for a better Afghanistan and now we step back and watch history repeat itself,” he added, a reference to Afghanistan’s rupture and the bloody civil war that followed the Soviet withdrawal in 1989.
The people of Panjshir, who are mostly from the Tajik minority, “just don’t trust the government anymore,” said Mohammad Alam Izedyar, the deputy head of the Upper House of Parliament representing Panjshir. “The government will not be able to resist and defend its people for long.”
These feelings came to a head in Panjshir late last month after a failed government operation to arrest the powerful former chairman of the Afghan Football Association, Keramuddin Keram. He was also the governor of Panjshir and still claims many loyalists there.
Mr Keram has been charged with the sexual abuse of female gamers, many of whom make appalling allegations of being attacked and threatened by him. He has denied the allegations. The Afghan attorney general issued an arrest warrant last year against Mr Keram who was banned from football for life by the global governing body of sport, FIFA, and fined around $ 1 million.
In Panjshir, Mr. Sediqi said the national government in Kabul had refused to coordinate with the Panjshir authorities. Panjshiri officials have not yet handed Mr. Keram over to the Kabul authorities, despite pressure from local parishioners.
Weeks after the failed arrest attempt, Mr. Keram spoke to a crowd in Panjshir and broke months of silence to deny the government’s charges against him.
“I am neither volatile nor a criminal,” said Mr Keram. He added that ordering his arrest from Kabul was tantamount to “sending thieves to someone’s home”.
Panjshir isn’t the only region that cooks. Other powerful regional figures have grown accustomed to President Ashraf Ghani’s government, and clashes between federal and local officials have at times turned into violence.
“There is a double standard in government,” said Rahela Ataee, a member of the Panjshir provincial council. Ms. Ataee pointed out the efforts to arrest Mr. Keram and the resources federal officials will need to enter Panjshir to carry out the raid. She claimed that there was no evidence of Mr. Keram’s wrongdoing.
“Our government should be decentralized,” said Ms. Ataee. “It would be better if we could decide our own future.”
There is, however, a contradiction in Panjshiris’ unrest. Although they say the national government does not represent them, they have made up a large part of Afghanistan’s political and security elite for years. For example, a Panjshiri figure, Amrullah Saleh, who worked with Ahmad Shah Massoud during the civil war years, is the country’s first vice president.
The Panjshiri leaders were important pillars in the creation of the Afghan government after the Taliban’s withdrawal in 2002. Former Vice President Muhammad Qasim Fahim was born in Panjshir and headed the Northern Alliance, a group of militias that were welded together after the Massoud assassination attempt just two days before the September 11, 2001 attacks in the United States.
Considered the leading leader of the Tajiks in the country, Mr Fahim helped rally the northern provinces behind then-President Hamid Karzai in the early years of the war. He calmed tensions between the ethnic minorities and the political figures of the Pashtun majority in the country. Mr Fahim, charged with human rights abuses and corruption, died of a heart attack in 2014, and many of the northern provinces felt they had lost one of their most staunch supporters.
Mr Saleh, the first vice president, is today viewed as suspect by some Panjshiris for his prominent role in the administration of President Ghani. Mr Saleh openly criticized Mr Ghani in his first term and then joined his side as his vice-president for the second term; Some Panjshiris have accused him of yielding to Mr. Ghani in return for power.
But while the Panjshiri leadership has been comfortable for the time being, remotely criticizing the Kabul government and protecting Mr Keram, Shamsudin Hamid, 57, a former fighter who worked in both the Soviet-Afghan war and the civil war under Mr Massoud has fought, done other plans.
In his office at a government-funded education center in Bazarak, Mr. Hamid sketched a gray Czech pistol on his hip and re-sketched the effort to bring the Northern Alliance back. It is headed by Mr Massoud’s protégés, including Mr Massoud’s son Ahmad Massoud, a 31-year-old who did his bachelor’s and master’s degree in London and has little military experience.
Mr. Hamid lived well, as did many of his countrymen who became warlords during the Civil War and after the American-led invasion. Mr. Hamid sent five of his daughters to university and got a well-paid government job as director of the Panjshir Teacher Training Center.
Still, he says his generation will lead the renewal of the Northern Alliance, also known as the United Front. Demands for the return of independent militias have been publicly condemned by officials in Kabul, although some privately believe their return may serve a purpose in the coming months.
“We are the second generation,” said Hamid. “There are thousands of people who want to reform the United Front.”
Frustration in the north has often subsided, but there has rarely been as much fuel as there is now as the government and other Afghan factions negotiate with the Taliban in Qatar, which could result in a government-sharing insurgency.
Mr Hamid and other Panjshiri figures accuse the United States of ceding the country to the same forces they fought a generation ago and swear they will not do without a new fight.
“This peace process is an American project,” said Hamid. “The Americans want the Taliban to return to the country. But we will fight them. We’re not going to sacrifice the last 19 years of progress – it’s non-negotiable. “