The recent death of Afghanistan’s Vice President Mohammad Qasim Fahim has left a leadership vacuum only weeks before the country holds a crucial poll to elect a new president on April 5.
Afghan law requires that Fahim be replaced in the Afghan presidential chain of command. But politics require that the succession reflect the former commander's status as the country’s most senior ethnic Tajik politician and a leader of a former armed faction.
Four senior Tajik figures in the government and opposition are seen as leading contenders to assume his traditional powerbase and take his place on the national stage.
They include Afghan Defense Minister Bismillah Khan Mohammadi, former parliament speaker Yonus Qanuni, and Ahmad Wali Masoud, the younger brother of the late guerilla commander Ahmad Shah Masoud. Presidential frontrunner Abdullah Abdullah is also viewed as a possible political successor to Fahim.
Afghan political analyst Ahmad Idrees Rahmani believes that Mohammadi is Fahim’s most likely replacement, as he is close to Afghan president Hamid Karzai and is regarded as a capable Tajik politician. In addition, Mohammadi has strong military credentials, having fought both the Soviet Red Army and the Taliban, and served as minister of both the interior and defense.
Like Fahim, Mohammadi is from the Panjshir Valley and was a senior military aid to Ahmad Shah Masoud. His succession is likely to appeal to Fahim's traditional powerbase in the Panjshir Mountains.
But according to Rahmani, former foreign minister Abdullah is well-positioned to attract a majority of Fahim's followers. Abdullah is now the most prominent politician among Masoud's senior aids. "Whether Fahim wanted to back him or not, Abdullah now is poised to inherit his [political] role," he said.
Fahim was the leader of Shura-e Nazar, the former military wing of the Islamist Jamiat-e Islami political party popular among Afghanistan's Tajiks. He formally assumed the leadership of this military council after Masoud's assassination in 2001. Abdullah is now positioned to assume that role, but as a presidential frontrunner he would be unlikely to accept the office of vice president for a few months.
Omar Samad, a former Afghan Ambassador to France and Canada, agreed that while Fahim had not backed any candidate officially, he had shown some inclination towards Abdullah, "but was waiting to have a discussion with Karzai as well."
Ahmad Wali Masoud, reflecting the view of many senior Tajik politicians, recently wrote (http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2014/03/fahim-death-leaves-void-201439124129524271.html) that Fahim had endorsed Abdullah.
But in an interview with Radio Free Afghanistan, he was vague and declined to comment on whether he himself was being considered to replace Fahim. He said that the other three Tajik leaders are able figures, but their supporters would "need thorough consultations to move towards building a consensus [on Fahim's succession]."
Masoud, a former Afghan ambassador to Britain, said that Fahim's replacement "should come from within the cadres he rose from" -- the leaders of the resistance led by Jamiat-e Islami against the Taliban in the late 1990s --"because they are capable of playing a key role."
Waliullah Rahmani, the head of the Kabul Center for Strategic Studies, says Fahim’s death might prompt new competition among Tajik powerbrokers. He says that while Fahim could influence Karzai's decisions, he also sheltered him from powerful Tajik politicians. "The dynamics of political power in Kabul might change rapidly after Fahim's death because the figure who balanced things no longer exists."
Among his 12 children, Fahim had groomed his eldest son, Adib Fahim, a low-profile western-educated diplomat, to succeed him. But being in his late twenties, he is deemed too young by Afghan law to become vice president.
On the likelihood that Qanuni would replace Fahim, Rahmani pointed out that he had lacked a prominent role in government during the last five years and so would fail to attract support.
Surveying the field, Samad said, "This issue [of succession] could become politicized in the coming days as different factions try to influence the decision. The choice essentially is between a prominent military or civilian figure among Afghanistan's Tajiks."