The real winner of Afghanistan's presidential election will not be Hamid Karzai or his main rival, Abdullah Abdullah. It's a man named Mohammad Qasim Fahim. He is Afghanistan's senior-most military commander, with the lifetime rank of marshal, and was Karzai's running mate during the campaign. Whether Karzai or one of his opponents wins, Fahim will hold and exercise extraordinary influence over the country's military and security apparatus -- more so than the elected president.
This means the real loser of Afghanistan's presidential election -- besides the Afghan people -- will be the United States' long-standing ambition to train and equip enough Afghan forces to allow for an eventual withdrawal of the U.S. military. Building up the Afghan military and police is at the heart of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's latest assessment for Washington of what needs to be done in Afghanistan. But McChrystal's forces will be training Afghan soldiers and police to work for Fahim: a human-rights-abusing, drug-trafficking warlord who might also have had a role in al Qaeda's assassination of his political godfather, Tajik warlord Ahmad Shah Massoud, on Sept. 9, 2001 -- an operation widely viewed in retrospect as a precursor to the terrorist attacks in the United States two days later.
The story of Fahim underscores the implausibility of U.S. President Barack Obama's plans for the "Afghanization" of the conflict -- the shifting of security responsibility to Afghans, the only exit strategy that either the Obama administration or the George W. Bush administration before it has ever put forward. Fahim was born in 1957 to a prominent Tajik military and political family. After completing traditional training in Islamic law and theology in the late 1970s, he joined militia forces commanded by Massoud, the legendary "Lion of Panjshir" who was the pre-eminent mujahedeen commander in northern Afghanistan after the 1979 Soviet invasion.
Some accounts of Fahim's career say that he affiliated with Massoud's forces in the early days of the Afghan jihad and fought against the Red Army during the 1980s. Others say that Fahim actually worked in the intelligence services of the Soviet puppet regime in Kabul, only siding with Massoud after it was clear that Soviet forces were going to withdraw. Fahim's continued close ties to Russia suggest, at minimum, that he is capable of playing many sides of Afghanistan's complex political chessboard.
Following the Red Army's withdrawal in 1989 and the collapse of the nascent Afghan government in 1992, the new president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, installed Fahim as the head of intelligence. By 1996, internecine struggles among former mujahedeen commanders -- as well as rampant corruption and brutality toward the people living under their purview -- created an opening for the mostly Pashtun Taliban to expand from their base in southern Afghanistan and capture Kabul. Subsequently, Massoud, Fahim, and other non-Pashtun warlords joined together to form the United Islamic Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan, usually referred to as the "Northern Alliance."
When I joined the U.S. National Security Council (NSC) staff in late 2001, senior Bush administration officials were already developing an opinion of the Northern Alliance as a cohesive group of heroic and relatively moderate regional commanders who united to combat the rigidly Islamist Taliban. This assessment continues to influence much Western discussion of Afghanistan. It is also, to be blunt, a myth.