Afghan Princelings: Are the Children of the Mujahedin Ready to Rule?

Educated in some of the best schools in the world, the scion of commanders involved in four decades of war return to a country at the crossroads. Can they transform the future of Afghanistan?

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Former Afghan "mujahedin" attend a function in Kabul on April 28, 2012, marking the anniversary of freedom fighters' victory against Soviet forces

War made Abdul Mutalib Bek one of the most powerful men in the northern Afghan province of Takhar. In the 1970s, the conscript with little more than a mosque education abandoned his duties to join guerrilla fighters who — eventually with tremendous CIA backing — would force the mighty Soviet Red Army out of Afghanistan and topple the Kabul government propped up by Moscow. Bek survived subsequent power struggles with other commanders as the victorious mujahedin fought one another in a bloody civil war; then in his northern redoubt, he outlasted the Taliban, becoming an influential part of the new regime that took shape after the U.S. invasion of October 2001 overthrew the radical Islamists.

Bek’s son Matin has a different story. Sent to study in India, he engaged in debates over ideas he found in Plato, Hobbes, Locke and other major Western thinkers as well as Indian giants like B.R. Ambedkar, who championed the cause of the untouchables. The education, says Matin, 26, “gave me the strength to analyze and understand politics … In the campus where I lived, there were always rallies, speeches, discussions. I learned the power of youth — that was always a model in my mind.” Three years ago, after completing his master’s in political science, he returned to the politics of patronage in his father’s fief of Takhar to run the commander’s campaign for a seat in parliament. School, Matin says, taught him how to run a campaign but he admits to the “struggle of reintegrating” upon his return. To escape the stress of managing his father’s election, Matin would often sneak away from the old guerrilla’s gaze to light a cigarette on the rooftop of the family home. More importantly, for two hours a day, he would sit in a garden rocking chair to read.

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The Beks are only one example of a generational transformation among the Afghan elite. As the mujahedin commanders assumed feudal powers in the post-Taliban era, their children went abroad to get degrees. Salahuddin Rabbani, son of Burhanuddin Rabbani, earned two master’s degrees, one from Kingston University in London and the other from Columbia University in New York. His sister Fatima Rabbani recently completed a master’s degree at the University of London. Adib Fahim, son of current Afghan Vice President and former commander Mohammad Fahim, got a master’s from New York University. Batur Dostum, son of General Abdul Rashid Dostum, earned a master’s from Gazi University in Turkey. The list goes on and on.

Having completed degrees in the most prestigious universities around the world, the younger generation is being groomed to inherit the legacies of their fathers. This passing of the torch is taking place at a critical if not tumultuous juncture. Will their Western, liberal education change the trajectory of the country’s future as NATO prepares to withdraw its troops by 2014 and as the resurgent shadow of the Taliban and their allies loom?

The preordained nature of the succession has already led to sarcastic responses in local social media. “Get to know your future leaders,” went one remark after a video of a meeting involving a mujahedin scion circulated.

That has not made the children of commanders any less shy about their political ambitions. Batur, 25, established a foundation in his powerful father’s name, which provides charity, emergency aid, as well as cultural and educational programs. The Dostum Foundation is an effort not only to soften the public perception of General Dostum, who has been accused of many atrocities, but also to launch Batur into the public arena. Ayna TV, also affiliated with the general, often runs reports on Batur’s meetings. One such report shows a statesman-like meeting between Batur — and his younger brother Babur — and the sons of Hazara commander Mohammad Mohaqiq. Cameras flash and notes are taken as the neatly dressed young men exchange thoughts.

Twenty-seven-year-old Adib Fahim, the Vice President’s son, is one of the few who, despite being actively involved behind closed doors, has yet to take a public role in legacy politics. But he has no illusions that it awaits him in the future. Having completed his master’s in public policy at NYU, Adib returned to Afghanistan to take up a job at the national security council — on the advice of President Hamid Karzai, an ally of his father — and then moved on to the Foreign Ministry. “There is no need for a discussion,” says Adib, when asked whether his father had told him of his political legacy — and inevitable responsibility. “There is a very strong understanding there.”

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Even as a child, Adib’s father brought him along to important meetings with commanders. Now the son is regularly at the father’s side during meetings with diplomats and officials, or on official trips abroad. “Occasionally, he has told me that, being his oldest son, I have to work on the legacy in the future. But there has been no need for him to even say that. It’s a natural process for me.”

Sometimes the succession comes through sudden tragedy. Burhanhuddin Rabbani, who served as Karzai’s chief peace negotiator with the Taliban in his final days, was killed by a Taliban turban bomber last September. His son Salahuddin left Turkey, where he was the Afghan ambassador, to lead his father’s political party, Jamiat“Salahuddin’s decision to take over Jamiat was a very given; I don’t see why it should have been a surprise for anybody,” his sister Fatima says. “My father had worked for Jamiat most of his life. It is only natural for his son to take it up. Who else should have taken over Jamiat, if not his own blood?” Months later, after a public jostling for the late Rabbani’s official position, Salahuddin was declared his father’s replacement to lead the peace efforts. Many among the old mujahedin guard publicly criticized the move, calling him inexperienced and young. Others, however, pointed to his multiple degrees from abroad.

In the south of the country, where fighting still continues with the Taliban, the children of the same generation of commanders are also inheriting their fathers’ political legacies, but they have lagged behind in education. For example, Kalimullah Naqib, 30, has only “six or seven years” of formal education and several years of religious schooling at Kandahar seminaries. After years as a highway contractor, he now fills the shoes of his late father, Haji Mullah Naqib, who was one of the most powerful men in southern Afghanistan before and after the fall of the Taliban. Mullah Naqib succumbed to a heart attack in 2009. Karzai attended the funeral, where he crowned Kalimullah to replace his father as chief of the Alkozai tribe. Protected by 22 security guards, Kalimullah meets with elders all day in his house in the suburbs of Kandahar, mostly to resolve disputes. “In Kandahar, people’s education is much less than the rest,” he admits, citing the constant violence as the reason. “In the north, most of their children got their education abroad. But for our people, if the opportunity came to educate their children right there next to them, they would do it. But they would not send their children abroad.”

Outside the southern provinces, however, the pedigree of education continues to count for a lot. In the late 1990s, when the Taliban ruled most of the country, Bek ensured that the schools remain open in the area he controlled and hired private tutors for his children, including Matin, one of 29 Bek offspring from four wives. Matin’s campaigning for his father’s parliamentary seat paid off in 2010. With 9,411 votes, Abdul Mutalib Bek was the third highest vote taker in the province, securing himself a seat in parliament.

Today, the father’s networks, cash and legacy prop up the son; and the son’s liberal education and perceived open-mindedness soften the father’s controversial image. “The force I worked with, [the young voters] were the real target of the voting, and they delivered,” says Matin. “I spent $30,000 maybe but I brought a huge vote for him.”

Matin too would inherit his father’s mantle earlier than he had expected. Less than a year into his term in parliament, Abdul Mutalib Bek was killed during a bomb attack at a funeral in Takhar. At his burial, young Matin was crowned his successor as the tribal chief. Then, the mujahedin commander’s old comrades called on the government to appoint the younger Bek to an important government post. Karzai — who was himself educated in India — obliged. Matin is now the youngest deputy minister in the government today. His organization is responsible for appointing all the governors and district governors — though a large number of positions are still handed on quotas to power brokers. Gone are the dark curls and scruffy look he wore while acting as his father’s campaign manager. Sporting well-fitted suits, he is driven around in armored vehicles. His BlackBerry rings constantly, with governors on the line. The question remains: Will the heirs of the mujahedin be able to transform the legacy of their fathers — and Afghanistan?

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