|History and Biodata
A large number of people gathered in a Kabul hotel on 28 July 2017 for the fourth “consultative gathering for a legal relaunch of Hezb-e Watan” (Homeland Party). Hezb-e Watan is not just any political party in Afghanistan. It is the reincarnation of the Soviet-backed Hezb-e Dimukratik-e Khalq-e Afghanistan (People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, PDPA) that ruled the country after a coup in 1978 and under the Soviet occupation (1979-89) until 1992, albeit, since 1990, under its new name Hezb-e Watan.
The party was banned and dissolved by the mujahedin government in 1992. Several attempts to officially revive it after 2001 have been rejected by the Ministry of Justice (under which all parties have to register). The conferences, that still did not officially declare the “existence” of the party, are a way to explore how this could work.
The convener of the conferences was Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, a former MP, who relinquished his seat to become the president’s envoy for security affairs in Helmand in January 2016; a position he left after three months.
Emal Layan, a member of its leadership, said the new Hezb-e Watan sees itself today as “centre-left.” This meant, he explained, that “moderate and inclusive policies for people from all walks of life lie at the heart of the party’s policies, including activities in favour of the rights of the toilers (zahmatkashan), including workers and [other] ordinary people.” He particularly pointed to the need for an insurance system.
After the ban of Hezb-e Watan in 1992, most of its leaders went into exile, where some continued to be politically active. The party fragmented into a plethora of groups that first re-emerged among the diaspora, but increasingly also had a presence inside the country. By 2016, there were at least nine registered political parties that had some link to the former PDPA or Hezb-e Watan, and many more without registration – altogether over twenty.
Most of the small post-PDPA parties are led by individual former Khalq and Parcham leaders. They are negatively associated with, either the extremely repressive Tarakai/Amin period, or with Karmal, who was brought in and propped up by Soviet troops. By comparison, the brand “Hezb-e Watan”, and the name of its late leader Najibullah, today ring more positively, and not only among its own activists. A growing number of Afghans seem to, retrospectively, consider Najibullah to have at least been a shrewd politician, a good organiser and a commander of a functioning security apparatus—particularly when compared to more recent government leaders. Some seem willing to now overlook the atrocities committed by the KhAD, also in Najib’s time. For those who had not been directly affected, this may seem a long time ago while those committed under the mujahedin and Taleban regimes are often still more present. As an Ahmadzai Pashtun born in Sayyed Karam in Paktia province, Najibullah is particularly popular in Afghanistan’s southeast. Posters with his portrait have regularly turned up at Kabul street corners. There have even been banners at the international airport for a while and his speeches are sold on DVD in the bazaar.
The leader of the latest incarnation of Hezb-e Watan, Abdul Jabbar Qahraman, also came to prominence under Najibullah’s government. Qahraman, a Nurzai Pashtun from Spin Boldak in Kandahar province, led a pro-government militia in Maiwand district in his home province as part of Najibullah’s extensive militia programme. In the early 1980s, he studied at Kabul’s military academy. Under this programme, which was strongly supported by the Soviets, army officers, such as Jabbar, were allowed to decommission and start militias in their home provinces. (There are a number of remnants of this programme among Afghanistan’s current militias.) In Maiwand, Jabbar got his nickname Qahraman (which means “hero”) for his success in pushing back the local mujahedin. Later on, his militias, like other militias, received the same status (and even better pay) than regular army units. Jabbar received a general’s rank and a division’s status for his militia. His group was often sent into other hotspots of fighting, similar to Dostum’s militia from the north.
After his return to Afghanistan in 2007, Qahraman successfully ran for parliament in Helmand in the 2010 elections. When the current government lost control to the Taleban in 2015 over an increasing number of districts in Helmand, President Ashraf Ghani decided to employ his experience and made him special security envoy for Helmand in early 2016. (In 2010-11, Qahraman had already advised the US army on the defence of his former stronghold Maiwand, according to sources familiar with the local situation.) The envoy position gave Qahraman, as “operational commander” – at least in theory – control over the security forces in the province. He tried his 1990s recipe again, employing a mixture of talk offers to the Taleban and the use of irregular forces. However, after three months, Qahraman stepped down from the post claiming that widespread corruption had made his mission impossible. Incidentally, the police chief for Helmand from that time, has just been given a three-year jail term for corruption and nepotism by an anti-corruption court in Kabul.
His return to Helmand gave Qahraman significant political clout and access to senior government officials, including the National Security Council. Former Hezb-e Watan members, who are carefully watching his current party project, in Kabul and from abroad, speculate that it is this access that might have helped him to secure the necessary resources for such a costly exercise, involving several large conferences.
After political parties were allowed once again under the 2004 constitution, several groups have attempted to relaunch Hezb-e Watan in the Afghan diaspora and in Afghanistan. As a result, there are now several Hezb-e Watans competing for its political legacy. In addition to Qahraman’s faction, there are two other Hezb-e Watans that have been officially launched and still exist.
The first emerged in 2012 after eight years of talks between various Najibist groups. Some of them joined a party congress symbolically held in Kabul on 27 September, the anniversary of Najibullah’s death. They consulted the Najibullah family hoping one of them would take the lead. This led to Ms Najib’s statement that she would not participate in any attempt to relaunch the party. Mir Afghan Bawari was then elected its leader. The new party described itself on its website as “national and democratic, progressive and reformist.” Qahraman was not part of this group.
However, the party’s application for registration with the Ministry of Justice was rejected. The ministry urged them to choose another name, as this one had been banned in 1992. The party instead chose not to officially register, but is still active. Bawari recently told an Afghan news website that they had 13,000 members with a presence in 30 Afghan provinces. Faqir Muhammad Wadan, one of the party’s leading members who lives in Germany, said that there were also party structures in Western Europe, former Soviet countries and Australia.
One faction of this party led by Sherullah Jabbarkhel took up the MoJ offer and registered under the altered name Hezb-e Melli-ye Watan (National Homeland Party). It also started a Najibullah Foundation to the indignation of the family who had not been consulted.
The groups led by Bawari and Jabbarkhel did not attend Qahraman’s conferences, but also did not seek to undermine his efforts. Bawari said that they did not have a negative view towards this new initiative, “but we talked to him two months ago and told him we already had an existing organisation” and urged him join. Jabbarkhel took the same line: “We did not participate in the gathering because we are an already constructed house, and he is just designing a house.” Layan, from Qahraman’s group, said that they hope their new party will be: “at the centre of all factions that have branched out of [the old] Hezb-e Watan.”
So far, the new Hezb-e Watan seems to be targeting mainly its 1990s predecessor’s members. They may hope to become a gathering point for former leftists and the newly interested but, so far, there are few indications that they will be able even to unite the ‘Najibist’ spectrum of the former pro-Soviet Afghan left. One of the obstacles, other than the general difficulty of getting political leaders to unite (and give up the claim to be number one), are current political differences: While Qahraman’s group sees itself as an ally of Ghani, Bawari said: “We supported Dr Ashraf Ghani in the last elections, but the president failed to deliver on the promises he made to the people. I do not think we will support Ashraf Ghani again.”
Other – non-Najibist – post-PDPA parties are not interested in joining forces with the Najibists, as Liaqat Ali Faramarz, a member of the leadership council of Hezb-e Mutahed-e Melli-ye Afghanistan (National United Party of Afghanistan, NUPA), said. Faramarz’s party is led by former PDPA general Nur-ul-Haq Ulumi, a former Parchami (he served as interior minister in the National Unity Government under Ghani and Abdullah; and is part of the coalition that supported Dr Abdullah in the 2014 presidential election. It defines itself as “non-ideological” and “pro free market.” NUPA and several other post-leftist parties, in June 2017, have just finalised their own, multiple-step unification process that has taken several years to achieve.