The South Asia Channel

A Shift in Afghanistan’s Balance of Power

Marshal Mohammad Qasim Fahim, Afghanistan's two-time vice president and a once prominent jihadi leader, died of natural causes on Sunday, March 9, 2014, but his death was as controversial as his life, with many people comparing it to the unexpected assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud -- the famous guerilla warrior who fought against the Soviets and the Taliban -- in 2001. After September 11 and Massoud's assassination, mujahideen forces rallied under Fahim's command, and backed by American air strikes, ousted the Taliban, paving the way for the current system. Now, with international troops planning to withdraw and a nationwide election in two weeks, it seems Fahim's death can have a similar significance.

Fahim, who previously led the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, was one of the most influential political figures in Afghanistan, serving as both the First Vice President and Minister of Defense. Ethnically a Tajik, he maintained a close relationship with President Hamid Karzai, even when he was not formally a government official.When he joined the administration for the second time as the First Vice President in 2009, Fahim continued to function as a point of contact between the government and the opposition led by Abdullah Abdullah. His influence over Karzai and his own Tajik politicians was what made him so vital to the administration.

Fahim's sudden death occurs at a very critical time -- Afghans are going to elect Karzai's successor -- and brings crucial change to the balance of power in Afghanistan's highly ethnic political arena. Following the country's constitution, specifically Article 68, which states that the president must name a replacement for Fahim, Karzai announced on Tuesday, March 18, that he had nominated former speaker of the lower house, Younus Qanuni; Qanuni was confirmed by the parliament a week later. Qanuni, also an ethnic Tajik, belongs to Jamiat-e Islami -- a political party widely dominated by Tajiks -- and previously served as the ministers of interior and education, and as vice president to Karzai during the interim government. While he is experienced and politically astute, the elegant, soft-speaking Qanuni has large shoes to fill.

Beyond requiring an official replacement in the cabinet, Fahim's death also creates a power vacuum among Tajiks. When Massoud was assassinated in 2001, Fahim succeeded him as the chief commander of the Northern Alliance and as leader of the Tajiks in a relatively short period of time during volatile circumstances, leading many to praise his charisma and leadership. But now, several prominent Tajik politicians are equally powerful, which could potentially spark a rivalry as each has his own personal legitimacy: Abdullah is the only non-Pashtun presidential frontrunner; Balkh Governor Atta Muhammad Nur is arguably Afghanistan's strongest and most autonomous governor; and High Peace Council Chairman Salahuddin Rabbani is the leader of Jamiat-e-Islami and the son of former president Burhanuddin Rabbani. However, Fahim's death could also unite the ethnic group around Abdullah in the upcoming election, just as Massoud's death united Tajiks in 2001.

Fahim's death also reduces the number of former mujahideen leaders serving in the government. Afghan jihadi leaders and ethnic powerbrokers -- including Fahim during his absence in the administration from 2004 to 2009 -- have long complained about their weak and nominal roles in Karzai's administration. A committed anti-Taliban fighter, Fahim was thought to be the biggest opponent inside the presidential palace of pro-Taliban and Pakistan-tied members of Hezb-e Islami -- the second largest military opposition to the government led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar -- such as Karzai's Chief of Staff Karim Khurram.

But Fahim's power inside the palace was not all used for good. In addition to confronting pro-Taliban tendencies inside the president's office, Fahim took advantage of his position to promote his sympathizers to government positions. After his death, these positions in Afghanistan's foreign service, military, and intelligence -- among other sectors -- are increasingly at stake.

The coming weeks will be full of defining moments, with Karzai introducing Qanuni as Fahim's replacement and the presidential elections on April 5. If the election transpires peacefully and produces a widely accepted result, Afghanistan will be able to mitigate Fahim's loss. But if there are allegations of widespread fraud, and the outcome is not recognized as legitimate by Afghans, the candidates, or the international community, his absence will be keenly felt. For mediating that conflict will prove to be a daunting task -- for Karzai, his successor, and his opposition.

Moh. Sayed Madadi is a Kabul-based Afghan civil activist working on democratic governance and human rights. 

SHAH MARAI/AFP/Getty Images