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Afghanistan’s Strongmen

Abdul Rashid Dostum

The protracted dispute over Afghanistan’s presidential election has yet to produce a winner among the two contenders, Ashraf Ghani and Abdullah Abdullah.

But regardless of who emerges victorious, the country’s destiny rests largely in the hands of influential powerbrokers in their rival camps. These include former communists and their erstwhile Islamist mujahedeen enemies who rose to power during the past three tumultuous decades in Afghanistan.

Abdul Rashid Dostum

An influential former communist warlord, Dostum heads the Junbish-e Milli party, which attracts a loyal following from among his fellow Uzbeks in northern Afghanistan. He is poised to become the first vice president (Afghanistan has two) if Ashraf Ghani wins the election.

Dostum has a checkered past and has been accused of grave human rights violations. After failing to successfully challenge President Hamid Karzai in the 2004 election, Dostum played a king maker’s role during the 2009 presidential election, using his clout to garner nearly a million votes for Karzai.

During Karzai's 13-year stint in power, Dostum served as the largely ceremonial chief military advisor to the president. In the 1980s, Dostum rose from the ranks of the Afghan communist military to become one of its most ferocious commanders. He was a key figure in bringing down the regime of the last Afghan socialist leader, President Najibullah, in 1992. In the subsequent civil war, he was a permanent fixture among the rapidly changing military alliances.

Dostum allied with Ahmad Shah Massoud and other commanders under the umbrella of the United National Resistance Front, commonly called the Northern Alliance. He left Afghanistan after the Taliban overran his headquarters in the northern Afghan city of Mazar-e Sharif in 1998. Three years later, he recaptured the city with the help of U.S. Special Forces and precision bombing.

Atta Mohammad Noor

Dostum’s ethnic Tajik rival Noor kept him from reclaiming Mazar-e Sharif in 2001, which is the capital of the northern province of Balkh. Noor carved out a fiefdom in Balkh in subsequent years, and has been its governor for more than a decade. Kabul has so far failed to mount a serious challenge to his power there. But his control over the region also saw it prosper. Today, Mazar-e Sharif is one of Afghanistan's most vibrant cities with a booming economy.

Atta Mohammad Noor
Atta Mohammad Noor

Noor is also considered one of the most influential figures in Abdullah's camp. Just recently, an English-language statement on his Facebook page called on his supporters to prepare for launching "Green and Orange" movements.

"It is to be noted that the national and international institutions would be accountable for any consequences, despite our previous warnings which have been ignored by them," his statement read. "Those who ridiculed the election process with industrial-scale fraud and are attempting to grab power by legitimizing their fraud, would be accountable."

Noor fought against the Soviet occupation in the 1980s and the Taliban in 1990s for the Islamist Jamiat-e Islami led by Ahmad Shah Massoud and Buhannuddin Rabbani.

Juma Khan Hamdard

​An ethnic Pashtun strongman, Hamdard is now seen as Noor’s main rival in their native Bulkh province. Hamdard has reconciled with his longtime rival Dostum, and is one of the major figures in Ghani's camp. Once a senior commander of Islamist Hizb-e Islami, he joined the Karzai administration in 2001 and distanced himself from Hizb-e Islami leader Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, whose followers are still fighting Kabul.

Juma Khan Hamdard
Juma Khan Hamdard

​He enjoys considerable support among the Pashtun communities in northern Afghan provinces, particularly in Balkh and Kunduz. He has served as the governor of several provinces, and has been the governor of the southeastern province of Paktia since 2007.

Mohammad Mohaqiq

A former lawmaker and a key leader of the predominantly Shi'ite Hazaras in central and northern Afghanistan, Mohaqiq is Abdullah's running mate for the position of second vice president. He currently leads the People’s Islamic Unity Party--an offshoot of the Hizbi Wahdat-e Islami or Islamic Unity Party. The faction fought against the communists, various mujahedeen factions, and the Taliban during the past three decades.

Mohammad Mohaqiq
Mohammad Mohaqiq

Mohaqiq has also been accused of human rights abuses. A key figure in the ongoing election impasse, he recently warned, "We have told the United Nations that announcing a fraudulent result endangers the whole political and technical process, and takes the country deeper into crisis."

Abdul Rab Rasul Sayyaf

An ethnic Pashtun, former mujahideen leader, and at one time perhaps the most prominent Afghan Islamist leader to embrace Salafism -- a hardline Sunni Islamic sect also espoused by the Islamic State fighters in Iraq. He was once a close ally of Arab radicals fighting in Afghanistan.

"Not only Osama, but thousands of Arab people came during the period of our struggle against the Soviet Union," he told "The Economist in January.

Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (C) sits with Ismail Khan (L).
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (C) sits with Ismail Khan (L).

Sayyaf failed to secure enough votes in the first round of this year's presidential vote. His faction is now seen as backing Abdullah without endorsing him officially.

Though he rebranded his Ittihadi Islami faction as the Islamic Dawah Organization of Afghanistan, his followers were among the major factions involved in the civil war in the 1990s and fought against the Taliban in 1994. He is accused for the crimes committed during those wars.

Ismail Khan

Khan is another major actor from the anti-Soviet struggle. A former officer of the Afghan army, Khan joined the mujahedeen in the early 1980s and emerged as a key mujahedeen commander in the 1990s.

During the civil war he gained control of many provinces around his Herat base in western Afghanistan. He was called the "Amir," or leader of the region, and his fiefdom was considered the most stable corner of Afghanistan before the emergence of the Taliban in 1994. By late 1995, the fundamentalist militia had overrun his territory and he was captured in 1998. He too is accused of rights abuses.

Khan escaped from the Taliban the next year and reclaimed Herat after the fall of the Taliban regime in late 2001. He was appointed as the energy minister in 2005. He was Sayyaf's running mate in the first round of the presidential elections and backed Abdullah for the second round.