Khalilzad’s Memories of Fahim

By: Mehran Muwahhid

During the lifetime of Ahmad Shah Massoud, Mohammad Qasim Fahim was a prominent and well-known military figure on the resistance front. It was unlikely, however, that he would become the leader of the anti-Taliban forces before the assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud. Following the assassination of Massoud by two Arabs who had presented themselves as journalists, Fahim’s star began to rise. Several people in the circle decided to accept him as Massoud’s successor in order to keep the members of the front line united, integrated, and strong. Whether this decision was beneficial or not is a matter of opinion. Zalmay Khalilzad, the special representative of the U.S. president in Afghanistan and then the U.S. ambassador to the country, spoke of Fahim after 9/11 in his book “The Envoy”. He described Fahim as a person who challenged Western plans in the field of state building, and thus Khalilzad and his other international colleagues attempted to sideline him and downplay his role. This essay will discuss the issues on which Khalilzad acted as a judge in his book The Envoy (translated by Harun Najafizada,  First Ed, Azam Publications, 2015).

Khalilzad’s Doubts About the “Northern Alliance”

At the time of the 9/11 incident, Khalilzad was serving as a high-ranking official in the United States National Security Council. In his book, he recounts that he had called for the formation of a Pashtun front against the Taliban and the ‘coalition’ prior to the 9/11 incident. He was skeptical of the “Northern Alliance” and stated that his research into Afghan history had led him to the conclusion that a broad-based opposition group was necessary to replace the Taliban, as the Pashtuns, the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan, had been the dominant political force since the 17th century and almost all Afghan leaders in the last three centuries had been Pashtuns. He was concerned that the U.S.’s strong preference for the Northern Alliance would impede efforts to rally the Pashtun opposition, as the Taliban had come to power with the support of the Pashtuns. (pp.105)

According to Khalilzad’s report, the 9/11 attack did not alter the fact that the United States was still not particularly interested in bolstering the Northern Alliance and desired the formation of a powerful Pashtun front against the Taliban. On the eve of the fall of Kabul by the forces of the United Front, the American government asked these forces, who had advanced to the vicinity of Kabul, not to enter the city. Paul proposed two options: either the United States would give the administration of Kabul to the peacekeepers of the United Nations or the Organization of the Islamic Conference, or they would alter the strategy of the war so that the northern coalition and the reinforced Pashtun forces would liberate the city simultaneously. Paul was concerned that the occupation of the capital by the Northern Alliance would marginalize the Pashtun opposition forces. (pp.119)

On November 13, the Taliban withdrew from Kabul, leaving the forces under Fahim’s command uncertain as to whether they should enter the city or leave it in a state of insecurity. Ultimately, they chose to enter Kabul, disregarding the advice of the Americans.

Fahim’s Potential Coup Against Karzai

Khalilzad discusses the rumor or the potential for Fahim to stage a coup against Karzai or to assassinate Karzai in July 2002 and the subsequent months. He states that the murder of Abdul Rahman and Haji Abdul Qadir caused George W. Bush to be concerned for Karzai’s safety. Bush believed that if Karzai were to die, America’s accomplishments in Afghanistan would be lost (pp. 139-140). Is the killing of Abdul Rahman or Haji Abdul Qadir sufficient evidence to support this possibility, or did Fahim have too much to lose by killing Karzai?

I believe that there are two main reasons behind the raising of this rumor that Khalilzad did not talk about. The first is that the Americans wanted to leave Karzai’s security protection to their own soldiers, so they created gossip about Fahim’s intention to assassinate Karzai in order to reduce Fahim’s influence on Karzai’s decisions. Before 50 elite American soldiers took over Karzai’s protection, Ahmad Shah Massoud’s bodyguards, known as ‘Commando Boys,’ were responsible for his protection, and those guards had a close relationship with Fahim. The second reason is that, due to his immaturity, naivety, or deceptive pride, Fahim had made several meaningless statements and slogans in those months to show that he was the one making the decisions and Karzai was only a puppet in his hands. For example, he used to say, “if I wanted to, I would kick Karzai out of the Arg simply by making a call,” or “if I want, I will order Samad (commander of Karzai’s bodyguards) to kill Karzai.” It is likely that these words had reached the Americans through listening devices or their spies, making them think that Fahim was trying to eliminate Karzai. However, the reality was that Fahim never had such an intention. Instead, he faced challenges and opposition from his fans due to his excessive defense of Karzai.

Fahim’s Lack of Ambition

Khalilzad‘s memoir demonstrate that, despite Fahim‘s initial reluctance to reform the Ministry of Defense, Khalilzad‘s arguments persuaded him to alter his approach and focus on his Tajik soldiers in order to create a truly national army. According to Khalilzad, Fahim was naive and did not have grand aspirations. He recounts a conversation between Fahim and Massoud in which Massoud asked Fahim what political arrangements could ensure stability in Afghanistan, to which Fahim avoided answering. Later, Fahim responded by saying that in order for Pashtuns to join forces with them and share power, a Pashtun must become a firstrate leader, but Massoud did not want to be number two. Massoud acknowledged that he wanted to be the senior leader, but noted that nothing was stopping Fahim from accepting number two for the country‘s national interests, which is what Fahim eventually did when he surrendered to Karzai.

Fahim‘s Unrefined Thinking

Khalilzad paints a picture of Fahim as a politician with a rudimentary understanding of international relations. After a few days spent in America, however, Fahim‘s opinion of the country changed. He was surprised to find that it was not the dark and dangerous place he had expected, based on his viewing of action movies, but rather a clean and beautiful place. Upon his return, he told his senior aides that he had seen how the Americans lived in spacious villas and was convinced that they were there to help them. (pp. 195)

Abdullah and Rabbani‘s Collaboration

At the time of Afghanistan‘s first presidential election in its history, Karzai was the sole candidate. Fahim had expected Karzai to select him as his deputy, however, external pressures, including those of Khalilzad, the United Nations Special Representative for Afghanistan, Jean Arnoult, and Japan‘s ambassador to Afghanistan, prevented this from happening. Khalilzad and the others proposed that Zia, the brother of Ahmad Shah Massoud, become Karzai‘s deputy in the election. This was due to Zia‘s close ties with Massoud‘s family, making him a suitable alternative to Fahim. Consequently, Karzai asked Zia to return to Kabul and declared his decision in a meeting with the leaders of the Northern Alliance, which included Fahim, Qanoni, Abdullah, and Zia. Upon hearing Karzai‘s decision, Fahim and his group left the meeting.

Khalilzad reported that Fahim and his associates compelled Zia to reverse his decision to join Karzai‘s electoral team. Consequently, Zia informed Karzai of his decision, leaving the KarzaiKhalilzad alliance perplexed. With little time remaining, Karzai became frantic and voiced his grievances about the “foreigners” who had caused him difficulty with their counsel.

According to Khalilzad‘s account, Abdullah Abdullah, who was reportedly from Fahim‘s team, proposed a solution and saved Karzai. Abdullah informed Khalilzad that he could find a way and convince Zia to join Karzai‘s team by contacting Rabbani, Zia Massoud‘s fatherinlaw.

After Khalilzad had visited Rabbani, he promised to resolve the issue. Following Rabbani‘s discussion with Zia, he promptly arrived to register as Karzai‘s running mate in the election. (pp. 228229)

Rabbani, who had been oppressed by Fahim after the Bonn Conference, now had the opportunity to take revenge on Fahim by appointing his soninlaw as Karzai‘s deputy. Despite what his supporters claim, Rabbani was one of the proponents of the post-Bonn trend and gained a portion of power and wealth. Zia was Rabbani‘s key to Karzai‘s cabinet, although he displayed such weakness and incompetence during his tenure as deputy that it likely made Rabbani regret his support against Fahim. Khalilzad and others who wanted Ahmad Zia to be Karzai‘s deputy were cognizant of his incompetence and that is why they proposed him.

A Random Leader

Khalilzad compared Massoud to Fahim, noting that Massoud was an effective resistance leader with a charismatic and televised face, whereas Fahim was a stout man with a stiff and wellgroomed beard and an introverted demeanor. Although Fahim was shrewd, he was not as skilled as Massoud in forming political coalitions. Massoud‘s death and Bon‘s trend were the only reasons that made him a national figure. (pp. 228)