Former Afghan security chief considering bid for presidency

Hanif Atmar met opposition members in Dubai to seek support

FILE PHOTO: Afghan national security adviser Hanif Atmar (R) and U.S. Ambassador James Cunningham sign the bilateral security agreement in Kabul September 30, 2014. REUTERS/Mohammad Ismail/File Photo
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Former Afghan national security adviser Hanif Atmar met in Dubai recently with the opposition Jamiat-e-Islami party to seek backing for a presidential bid next year, The National has learned.

Mr Atmar resigned from his post last week citing concerns over the security situation and political stability in Afghanistan, which will hold parliamentary elections in October and a presidential election next April.

The exact timing of his meeting with Jamiat-e-Islami in Dubai is not clear, but a well connected Afghan political analyst who asked to remain anonymous and sources in the party told The National it was held in the past two months.

Mr Atmar asked Jamiat representatives to support his candidacy in the presidential election, the analyst said. “But he wasn’t happy with the results and couldn’t get the support of Jamiat.”

The Jamiat sources confirmed the meeting took place but did not reveal the agenda or the outcome.

Mr Atmar's background worked against him, according to the analyst. In his youth Mr Atmar, 49, worked with the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan as a member of KHAD (Khadamat-e-Aetlat-e-Dawlati), the former Afghan intelligence agency that was controlled by the Soviet Union's KGB spy agency.

On the other hand, Jamiat is comprised mostly of former members of the Afghan mujahideen that fought against the Soviet invasion.

“Jamiat members, Dostum and Muhaqiq; they all see him as someone who has tried to kill them,” the analyst said, referring to Rashid Dostum, a former warlord from the Uzbek ethnic minority, and Mohammed Muhaqiq, a leader of the Hazara minority. Both men also fought against Soviet forces and are part of Afghanistan's political opposition. Indeed, Mr Atmar lost a leg while fighting alongside Soviet forces against the mujahideen in Jalalabad in 1987.

However, Mr Atmar’s past affiliations have not stopped him from consolidating political power since his return to Afghanistan from Britain following the US-led invasion in 2001. Starting as a minister for rural development and rehabilitation in Hamid Karzai's transitional government in 2002, he rose in the cabinet despite strong differences with the post-Taliban political elite, becoming education minister in 2006 and interior minister in 2008.

As national security adviser under President Ashraf Ghani since 2014, he was widely considered the second most powerful man in Afghanistan.

“He had greater autonomy in everything as the NSA. Under Mr Atmar, the office of NSA became important to the point that it sparked concerns among the president and his circle,” the analyst said.


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Mr Atmar comes from an aristocratic family in Laghman province and has strong tribal ties, a prerequisite in Afghan politics. He has also cultivated a loyal following within the ranks of the security agencies.

“He was effective. People working for him admire his service. He played a crucial role in appointing all security ministers, except the NDS chief,” the analyst said, referring to the National Directorate of Security, Afghanistan's intelligence agency.

Mr Atmar was known for making his ministries more efficient, said Ejaz Malikzada, a member of the Afghanistan Green Trend grassroots political movement led by former spy chief Amrullah Saleh.

"He is known to have created better systems and management when he was at the ministries. He assembled a team many members of which are now part of the 1400," Mr Malikzada said, referring to the group of Afghan professionals and academics working towards political, social and economic development.

However, Mr Atmar faces several handicaps in a bid for presidency besides his Soviet-era affiliations, including his poor record on security at a time of increasingly brazen attacks by the Taliban and ISIS.

“The public perception of him isn’t very positive. Several grievances and allegations have been raised against him related to the deteriorating security," said Mr Malikzada, recalling protests against Mr Atmar after the deadly May 31 truck bombing in Kabul last year.

And Mr Atmar's relations with the United States, which still holds considerable influence in Afghan politics, are not the strongest. “I also don’t think he is on good terms with the US, despite having signed the Bilateral Security Agreement,” the political analyst said, referring to the strategic document signed in 2014 that allowed the US troops to remain in Afghanistan with a limited role.

According to the analyst, Mr Atmar practised divisive politics in Afghanistan's multi-ethnic society, something that is "not welcomed by the US for obvious reasons”.

Although fate of his presidential bid is uncertain, Mr Atmar will remain a player in Afghan politics in the years to come, the analyst said.

“During the elections, alliances become quite unpredictable. If Ghani needs him and offers him something [a new role], they could become allies again.

“There are more uncertainties and many questions. We need to wait and see who runs for elections eventually."