Accessibility links

Breaking News

New Afghan Defense Minister Expected To Remain Mired in Controversy

Afghan army soldiers stand guard on a roadside in Kabul in April.
Afghan army soldiers stand guard on a roadside in Kabul in April.

With the appointment of a defense minister, the cabinet of Afghan President Ashraf Ghani's national unity government is complete seven months after it assumed office.

Last week's selection of Masoum Stanikzai, the former head of the Afghan High Peace Council secretariat, as the new defense minister, however, is not without controversy.

His appointment was publicly opposed by Atta Mohammad Noor, a powerful provincial governor in northern Afghanistan who is allied with Abdullah Abdullah, Afghanistan's chief executive and Ghani's partner in the administration.

Even the Taliban seem disappointed. Pro-insurgent observers are raising questions about why the main interlocutor for peace overtures with insurgents has suddenly been appointed as a key figure in leading Kabul's war against them.

Stanikzai, the humble and prudent bureaucrat, is now seen as facing an uphill task even if he manages to secure the mandatory parliamentary confirmation.

"I would argue that even before presenting him [for the parliamentary confirmation vote], the problems between Stanikzai and Atta should be addressed," Afghan security affairs analyst Javed Kohistani told RFE/RL's Gandhara website. "This will help him perform his job well because the Afghan Defense Ministry is still under the influence of mujahedin leaders."

Heading Afghanistan's Defense Ministry is a key posting, overseeing the Afghan Army and leading the fight against the insurgents. With more than 200,000 soldiers and civilians, the Defense Ministry is a major employer and claims a large portion of the national budget and international assistance.

Since the collapse of the Taliban regime, Afghan security forces -- including the army, police, and intelligence -- have been dominated by leaders and cadres from anti-Taliban factions who mostly refer to themselves as mujahedin for also having fought against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Masoum Stanikzai
Masoum Stanikzai

​Stanikzai is known to be a tough financial manager, and Ghani is already boasting about his anti-corruption initiatives. In February, Ghani canceled an $800 million contract for supplying fuel to the Afghan Army for three years.

Stanikzai's appointment, Ghani's supporters argue, is a continuation of the same efforts.

But even before his formal appointment last week, some mujahedin leaders vocally opposed him.

Noor, the acting governor of Balkh Province, and a leading figure of the mujahedin Jamiat-e Islami party, warned against Stanikzai's appointment.

In a message posted on his official Facebook page, Atta linked Stanikzai to the killing of Burhanuddin Rabbani, a former president and founder of Jamiat-e Islami. Rabbani led the Afghan High Peace Council at the time of his assassination by a Taliban suicide bomber in September 2011.

"The nomination of Masoum Stanikzai, who is considered the killer of the noble leader of Jamiat-e Islami, for a key post is nothing less than a trampling on national values and disrespecting the sacred blood of our martyred leader," the statement said. "How can the leaders of the national unity government give themselves the right to even think such a futile thought and play with the blood of the martyred leader?"

Stanikzai, however, was seriously injured in the attack on Rabbani and has always rejected such claims as being baseless, personal views of Noor's.

Observers say Noor's strong stance might rope in Rabbani's powerful successor into the controversy. Salahuddin Rabbani is currently foreign minister and the senior leader of Jamiat-e Islami.

The minister, however, has made no comment on Noor's accusations. As the former head of the Afghan High Peace Council, he has worked closely with Stanikzai, who led the organization's secretariat and controlled its finances since its foundation in 2009.

The analyst Kohistani, however, says Noor is still a very powerful figure within Jamiat-e Islami and Kabul needs to convince him to back Stanikzai.

Atta Mohammad Noor
Atta Mohammad Noor

​"This is a very important controversy. If it not addressed, it will prove challenging for Stanikzai in the future because Atta issued his statement as a leader of Jamiat-e Islami," he said. "It will help him perform his duties peacefully because we know that cadres of the Defense Ministry are still being influenced by the mujahedin."

Rohul Amin, a security analyst based in Kabul, said Stanikzai’s nomination for the position of defense minister sends a message of submission to the enemy.

"Stanikzai'a reputation does not enable him to be in charge of the Defense Ministry and to instill fear in the hearts of the enemies of the country," he told Gandhara. "His job at the Afghan High Peace Council was to get in touch with the Taliban and talk to them. This will negatively affect the prestige of the ministry and the morale of the soldiers."

Nazar Mohammad Mutmaeen, an Afghan writer who previously served as a Taliban official, said Stanikzai's appointment shows that Ghani's administration is not committed to peace.

"The man who worked several years at the peace council and was in a position of having very secret information about peace-related meetings and secret talks suddenly was appointed defense minister," he recently wrote. "What's the meaning of this?"

Afghanistan's national unity government, however, is adamant that Stanikzai is the right person for the job.

Javid Faisal, a spokesman for the Afghan chief executive, told Gandhara that Abdullah and Ghani agreed on Stanikzai as the nominee for the defense minister position.

Political observers in Kabul, however, are closely watching whether Stanikzai is confirmed.

In a telling sign of the uncertainty surrounding his confirmation, scores of normally vocal lawmakers refused to comment on his nomination.