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Ustad Abdul Rasul Sayyaf

In mid-August 2013 President Hamid Karzai reportedly recommended the infamous Northern Alliance warlord Abdul Rab Rassoul Sayyaf, a powerful ex-jihadi leader, to be declared a candidate in the presidential election slated for 05 April 2014. Mohammad Daud Kalkani, a leader of the Sayyaf party, also confirmed the meeting, but denied Sayyaf had been discussed. He said Sayyaf only talked about a grand meeting his party planned to organise in Kabul on how to forge a national consensus ahead of the elections.

Also known as Abd-i-Rab Rasoul Sayaf and originally named Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, Ustad Abdul Rasul Sayyaf is a Wahhabi Pashtun warlord who led a Pashtun militia that was allied with the United Front (Northern Alliance). He was backed by Saudi Arabia and was the only anti-Taliban Pashtun leader that was allied with the United Front prior to the fall of Kabul. Called "ustad" or teacher, for his credentials, the Abu Sayyaf group, a terrorist group in the Philippines, takes its name from him.

Sayyaf is a trip through the last three decades of Afghan history. At the center of many of the country's major political events, Sayyaf's role has been a controversial one, and he is allegedly the perpetrator of many of the country's worst human rights abuses. The picture he chooses to present today is that of the venerable and wise old politician who wants to continue his service to the nation, even as a simple MP.

Abdul Rasul Sayyaf is one of Afghanistan's more controversial political leaders, with a reputation for excess and brutality throughout many years of conflict against the Soviet occupation and the Taliban. It almost wasn't so, and one can envisage Sayyaf as the statesman and scholar he apparently sees in himself. His education includes two years in Cairo's Al Azar University, and he speaks Arabic fluently. His English is also very good. An accident of timing was all it took to set him on the path of political violence. In 1974 he studied English in order to be able to continue his legal studies in the United States, and was actually en route to the Kabul Airport to start his student life in America when he was arrested by President Daoud's security forces. He stayed in jail for six years, and was actively involved in the conflict in Afghanistan from his release until the departure of the Taliban.

Sayyaf was prominent in the mujahideen war against the Soviet occupation as a leader of the Itihad-i-Islami Baraye Azadi Afghanistan (United Islamic Front for the Liberation of Afghanistan). He was an active member of the mujahideen coalition "Unity of Seven." He is described as conservative, "anti-West," "anti-American" and a hard line Islamic fundamentalist. He holds a degree in religion from Kabul University and a masters from Al-Azhar University in Cairo, Egypt. He was also a member of the radical group Akhwan-ul-Muslimeen (Muslim Brotherhood) founded in 1969 by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Dr. Syed Burhanuddin Rabbani. Based in Afghanistan, this faction had strong links to the better known Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. This group was known to engage in radical Islamic practices, such as throwing acid in the faces of unveiled women. He taught for a short time at a small Islamic university called The Shariat in Kabul. His tenure ended in 1973 when he plotted with Burhanuddin Rabbani, Ahmed Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar to overthrow President Daoud Khan from the Panjshir Valley, a coup that failed miserably and forced the future-mujahideen leaders to flee to Pakistan.

Sayyaf, a Wahabi Muslim, had a close relationship with Osama bin Laden during the jihad against the Soviets. Together they established a network of training camps, bunkers and emplacements in the Jalalabad area. The facilities were later used by Al-Qaeda personnel. ("Former bin Laden mentor warns the West," Telegraph 03/12/2001)

In 2001 Sayyaf was the only Pashtun member of the Northern Alliance, although few of their fighting forces were Pashtun. He did not have many forces under his command and was under suspicion when he allegedly arranged the interview in which Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated. Hekmatyar and the Taliban commanded most of the Pashtun support in Afghanistan. Pashtuns comprise approximately 40% of the Afghan population, and are the traditional rulers of Afghanistan. Therefore Sayyaf wielded little clout as a military leader since most of his commanders had joined sides with the Taliban during the civil war. Ustad (Professor) Sayyaf, fluent in Arabic, had a substantial amount of men under his command because he was able to pay them with donations he received from wealthy Arab benefactors. Despite Sayyaf's presence in the Northern Alliance, the allied group did not represent a nationwide coalition of Afghanistan's numerous ethnic, religious and linguistic groups.

In 2003 Sayyaf was elected to be one of the 502 representatives at the Constitutional Loya Jirga in Kabul. The convention faced much contention and deadlock, and as a former mujahideen leader Sayyaf heavily influenced the future constitution by chairing one of the working groups at the Loya Jirga. Critics feared at the time that the other delegates would be intimidated by the mujahideen leaders' power and would be afraid to disagree with them in committee. Dr. Farooq Wardak, head of the Constitutional Commission's secretariat, said the organization originally wanted to divide the 502 delegates randomly among 10 working groups. But Abdul Rasul Sayyaf had objected, suggesting that the delegates should be divided among the groups to ensure an equal distribution of professional expertise, provincial origin, gender and other criteria. "Those who know the constitution, the ulema [Islamic scholars], and the lawyers should be split into different groups so that the results of the discussion and debate will be positive, and closer to each other," said Sayyaf.

During gridlock over the draft constitution in January 2004, Karzai was forced to compromise with hard-line Islamic fundamentalists like Sayyaf to include an ambiguous clause prohibiting any law from offending Islam. Critics claimed that although the constitution paid lip service to democratic rights such as equal status for women, such a clause would allow reactionary Islamic beliefs to prevail. Sayyaf's influence in the convention was felt further when his ally Fazal Hadi Shinwari was appointed by Karzai as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. In violation of the constitution, he was over the age limit and had training only in religious, not secular, law. Shinwari went on to pack the Supreme Court with sympathetic mullahs, called for Taliban-style punishments and renewed the Taliban's dreaded Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, renamed the Ministry of Haj and Religious Affairs. It deploys squads to prevent public displays of "un-Islamic" behavior among Afghan women.

The Single Non-Transferable Vote system allows every Afghan to vote once for an individual candidate, and in the case of the Parliamentary elections, one MP per province. Most votes are "wasted" on the most popular candidates, which allows unpopular candidates to win elections with few votes. In Kabul province, for example, in the 2005 elections Lower House Speaker Yunus Qanooni, MP and former presidential candidate Bashardost, and Hazara warlord Mohaqqeq took about 113,000 votes to win seats, while fundamentalist former warlord Sayyaf won with only 9,800 votes. In the Parliamentary elections, he came in as the fifth ranking candidate (out of thirty three winners) from Kabul Province.

In many ways Sayyaf is the perfect example of Afghan warlord against whom there is now so much criticism. At the same time, he has significant popular support. Many people believed that Sayyaf was Karzai's choice to be Speaker in the Wolesi Jirga. In the political rumor mill Karzai is also reputed to have originally supported Rabbani for the position, and then to have met with Qanooni for a pre-selection talk. It is possible that each of the three thought he had the President's support. End note.) Sayyaf was openly supported in his Speaker bid by Hazara leader Haji Mohammed Mohaqiq, himself a would-be Speaker candidate, surprising many observers who had assumed a political divide between these Shi'ite and Sunni leaders. After all, it was the parties represented by these two men which had been mainly responsible for the destruction of Kabul in the 1990s. In the end, Sayyaf lost to Qanooni by a very slim margin, but may have scored a significant victory by showing that he was willing to court Hazara support for his candidacy.

Lower House MP Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf spearheaded both Karzai's agenda in Parliament and the Palace's outreach to mujahideen leaders. Sayyaf's ability to bring out the vote in a popular election may be waning, but he was key to Karzai's outreach to jihadi leaders like Marshall Fahim Khan and Pir Gailani. Sayyaf also provided organizational support to Karzai's 2009 re-election campaign through his Dawat-e-Islami political party, a collection of mostly mid-level Pashtun commanders who served under Sayyaf in the 1990s.

At the seeming twilight of his career, his popular influence had declined over the years, but Sayyaf was still Karzai's strongest ally among mujahideen leaders. Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf is an influential member of Parliament (Kabul, Pashtun), and was disappointed when he lost the Lower House Speaker job to Yunus Qanooni, who received just a few more votes than Sayyaf. Most think Sayyaf was behind the controversial 2009 Shia Family Law [Sayyaf and others reportedly objected to the provisions of the law criminalizing child marriages] and the Amnesty Bill for warlords like himself that quietly passed in 2007.

Several Pashtuns in Karzai's Cabinet played important roles as trusted advisors and de-facto campaign managers. Lower House MP Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf spearheaded both Karzai's agenda in Parliament and the Palace's outreach to mujahideen leaders. Sayyaf's ability to bring out the vote in a popular election may have been waning by 2009, but he had been key to Karzai's outreach to jihadi leaders like Marshall Fahim Khan and Pir Gailani. Sayyaf also provided organizational support to Karzai's campaign through his Dawat-e-Islami political party, a collection of mostly mid-level Pashtun commanders who served under Sayyaf in the 1990s.

In January 2010 The Afghan Lower House (Wolesi Jirga - WJ) voted to accept 7 of 17 Cabinet nominees presented in President Karzai's second tranche of candidates. Ten nominees were rejected. The political winners of the vote include Pashtun and Tajik conservatives, as well as a Counternarcotics Minister associated with the drug mafia. The winners also included one Afghan Millat/former King Zahir Shah candidate (Foreign Affairs), one Hezb-e-Islami Afghanistan candidate (Economy), three candidates either associated with former warlords Marshal Fahim or Professor Rabbani's Jamiat party (MRRD, Labor and Social Affairs, and Counternarcotics), and two candidates associated with former warlord and fundamentalist Ustad Rasoul Sayyaf (Hajj and Justice). At one point, Sayyaf was reportedly applying significant pressure on Karzai to give the the Independent Directorate for Local Governance (IDLG) Ministry job to the previous Border and Tribal Affairs Minister Assadullah Khalid, who is exceptionally corrupt and incompetent.

By 2010 the five major armed groups operating in Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban in late 2001 were now some of the strongest parties: Jamiat-i Milli Islami originally led by Ahmed Shah Massoud (later Rabbani, father then son); Junbesh-e Milli Islami led by Abdul Rashid Dostum; Hezb-e Hawdat-i Islami led by Karim Khalili (there are four or five branches, one of which is led by Mohaqqeq), Harakat-i Islami led by Mohammed Asif Mohseni; and Dawat-i Islami led by Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.

Afghan society still places a significant value on what the candidates did during the war years, including if they fought and if they were in exile. Ittihad-i-lslami was led by Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf, a theologian with strong ideological leanings towards Wahabbi Islam and the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. He began his political career under the tutelage of Rabbani in Kabul and eventually formed his own party while exiled in Pakistan. The party denied any undue loyalty to Saudi Arabia, yet strongly opposed the Shia minority in Afghanistan and fell in line with Saudi Arabia on issues involving Iran.

From the hundreds of resistance groups which emerged to challenge the Soviet invasion, the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) recognised seven Sunni parties through which to channel covert support. Although most of these resistance groups had a strong religious ethos, the groups were organised primarily along ethno-linguistic and tribal lines. Significantly, while three parties were explicitly led by a Ghilzai, all the ‘leaders’ of the Peshawar parties except for one had Ghilzai tribal connections. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Nabi Muhammadi and Abdul Rasoul Sayyaf are Ghilzais.

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Page last modified: 15-08-2013 14:54:17 ZULU