Marshal Fahim, the first Vice President of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, died of a heart attack Sunday March 9, 2014. In these times of uncertainty, his death raises important questions and is likely to impact the future of Afghan politics. The man controlled one of the most extensive patronage networks in Afghanistan. With the upcoming presidential election and the U.S. withdrawal scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, these networks are becoming high commodities. Patrons control commanders. Commanders control votes. At least they have the ability to tweak the results. The fact that the main powerbrokers and former mujahideen start remobilizing and rearming their followers should things go South after the departure of U.S. and NATO troops make these networks even more valuable. No question Marshal Fahim’s death will shake things up among the former followers of late Commander Massoud, some of whom sit on opposite sides in the upcoming election (Dr. Abdullah and Ahmad Zia Massoud among others).
Marshal Fahim was never really meant to become such an important character of Afghan politics. Like Henry Chinaski’s career, “It began as a mistake.” His rise to power owes much to contingency. After Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated in northeastern Afghanistan on September 9, 2001, Fahim inherited the leadership of the Shurah-e Nazar, the organization that Massoud had created during the Soviet-Afghan war. After the 1978 communist coup against President Daoud, Fahim was one of the first to join Massoud in the Panjshir Valley to start the resistance. Yet, he was never known for his bravery in combat: “He has never shot a bullet,” one of Massoud’s former commanders once told me. Fahim did not draw his power from his ability to fight, but rather from the inheritance of an already functioning organization. Contrary to media reports though, Fahim was neither a close friend of nor a hand-picked successor to Massoud. His relationship with the charismatic commander was complicated and at times very tense. People say he was just at the right place at the right time.
Fahim’s newly acquired positions of both Minister of Defense and head of the Shurah-e Nazar, combined with the American decision to rely on local forces to overthrow the Taliban regime, gave Fahim the opportunity to interact with U.S. Special Operation Forces and made him a beneficiary of U.S. largesse. He received millions of dollars as a way to convince him to cooperate with the U.S. Yet, Fahim defied the Bush administration’s order not to move his men into Kabul and began a process of state capture, packing the government with his own people. His control over the security apparatus allowed him to maintain his military might while Washington’s focus on short-term stability gave him the ability to convert his military power into political power and to shape the state-building process to suit his interests (in particular his economic interests).
In the words of journalists James Risen and Mark Landler, Fahim was “built like a fireplug and with a face like a boxer.” He also had the reputation of lacking charisma, as opposed to President Karzai, whose manners and diplomatic skills (at the time) charmed the international community. Fahim tried to give himself a modern face and appear as a modern leader but he failed to do so. In the years that followed, he had to comply with new externally-imposed rules and norms about the organization of governance. Although he tried to resist, Fahim quickly understood that the international community would not permit him to keep his newly acquired military power. As Minister of Defense Fahim still heavily instrumentalized the disarmament process, which he used as a new source of patronage.
The 2004 presidential election was a turning point for Fahim, who was expected to be included on Karzai’s ticket. Under a lot of pressure from foreigners eager to put an end to the warlord strategy President Karzai dropped him from the ticket instead. Military officials and foreign diplomats were concerned at the time that Fahim would react negatively to this decision and destabilize Kabul’s security situation. Nothing happened. Karzai’s decision was a clear turning point in Fahim’s post-2001 trajectory. It considerably weakened him. His failure to develop his own diplomacy and build on Massoud’s charisma had made him vulnerable to international pressure.
Yet, less than five years later, he was reappointed first Vice President of Afghanistan. On May 4th, 2009, President Hamid Karzai announced that he had chosen Marshal Fahim, former Vice President and “ex-warlord” as his running mate. It surprised most observers, for Fahim had been getting no media attention since he had lost his position in 2004. To most, he seemed like nothing more than a remnant of Afghanistan’s darkest times.
Clement of Rome, in the First Epistle to the Corinthians, wrote that the phoenix, when “the time of its dissolution draws near that it must die…builds itself a nest of frankincense, and myrrh, and other spices, into which, when the time is fulfilled, it enters and dies(…). Then, when it has acquired strength, it takes up that nest in which are the bones of its parent, and (…) flying in the sight of all men (…), hastens back to its former abode.”
Fahim was a phoenix. His phoenix-like trajectory owed much to his his ability to “build [himself] a nest” of money and networks and “[acquire] strength” before he was able to return in the lime light and “[fly] in the sight of all men” once again. Fahim managed to mobilize his military might to accumulate other forms of power. He became involved in all kinds of business activities. In turn, this process of accumulation gave him the ability to maintain his patronage networks, which later allowed his comeback (along with Karzai’s attempt to create division among the Shurah-e Nazar).
If Marshal Fahim failed to convince the international community that he could play a positive role in a peaceful post-Taliban environment, the uncertainty that has surrounded Afghanistan in the past few years had made him relevant once again. As NATO troops prepare to leave and the negotiations with the Taliban gain momentum, the demand for local leadership will grow stronger. In Afghanistan, whether they operate as patrons of war or patrons of business, warlords represent important elements of political continuity. In the coming years, people will tend to rely on those who can protect them, and who will stick around if and when things go bad. Because they have managed to transform their power, warlords like Fahim have the ability to deliver economic opportunities and protection, as well as act as mediators between the local level and the central state. Now that the phoenix is dead for good, it will be interesting to see how other powerbrokers will fight for his networks. This will certainly affect not only the already fragmented Shurah-e Nazar but Afghan politics in general.