Mohammad Haneef Atmar: The Silent Unifier
At first encounter, he is polite, cordial, and a good listener. He counts his words wisely and delivers his sentences with pauses, but in a calculated manner to make his point. Meet Mohammad Haneef Atmar, the powerful former Afghan National Security Advisor of the National Unity Government and currently the most formidable candidate challenging the incumbent, President Ashraf Ghani, for the presidency. He is considered to be a unifier, strategist, kingmaker, and a patient politician—as opposed to his opponent who is regarded as divisive, impatient, and sidelined.
In fact, Mr. Atmar played a key role in the election of his former ally and current opponent, Mohammad Ashraf Ghani, often referred to as “the Shadow President” during his tenure because of his enormous influence and clout within the Afghan political elite and the international community. He was the moderator, the glue, and the firefighter of a fragile unity government that was often at quarreling with itself. His moderation, inclusivity, wide consultative approach, and farsightedness combined with patience to Afghan politics is well-known within the Afghan political scene. He is a man to rely upon during crises and hardship—a crisis manager in turbulent times. In short, an all-weather friend of the international community and a man for all seasons for the Afghans.
Mr. Atmar served as Afghanistan’s Interior Minister, Minister of Education, and Minister of Rural Development after years of service in the development and non-governmental communities. during the tenure of former President Hamid Karzai. Mr. Atmar is credited with many institutional reforms and large-scale poverty reduction programs—such as the National Solidarity Program (NSP). He signed the controversial Bilateral Security Agreement (BSA) with the United States to ensure sustained U.S. financial and technical support for the Afghan security forces. He also kept intact a shaky regional consensus on the Afghan war and peace efforts which broke down immediately after his departure from the National Unity Government due to the region’s lack of trust on his replacement and the incumbent President.
Mr. Atmar is a mixed Kandahari-Laghmani. He has lived an eventful life, having started his career with the former Afghan communist regime’s intelligence service an intelligence officer. He was subsequently injured during the famous battle of Jalalabad fighting Arab-Punjabi anti-communist jihadists who were attempting to take controls of Jalalabad city. He then left the service and started his career in the NGO community, heading several well-known non-government organizations that delivered aid and humanitarian assistance to communities across Afghanistan. During this time, he traveled through some of the most hostile environments in the country.
Mr. Atmar was a key participant in the first Bonn conference representing the Afghan community and NGOs. Later on, he was appointed to be Afghanistan’s first Minister of Rural Rehabilitation and Development by President Karzai. During his tenure as the Minister of Rural Development, he made a name for himself as a reformist, a builder of institutions, and as a service provider. He rolled out some of the most ambitious rural development programs in the history of the country such as the National Solidarity Program, microfinance initiatives, and National Area Based Development programs, among others.
His name was known in every Afghan village—more than 3,000 of them then—because of his community-driven, bottom-up approach to development. President Karzai, for political reasons as well as the desire to replicate his success in other ministries, asked to move and reform the Afghan Ministry of Education, he agreed and enacted similar reforms and institutional development measures on a vast scale.
Subsequently, again on political advice and given Mr. Atmar’s security background, President Karzai appointed him as the first technocrat Minister of Interior Affairs of Afghanistan in charge of local governance and the Afghan police. He designed and rolled out comprehensive reforms and institutional development measures in the Afghan police force, the ANCOP, the APPF, the ANTIC, and others.
At the time, many western and American officials even dubbed him as Afghanistan’s next president. He left the government over political differences with former President Karzai and launched his own political party, the Right and Justice Party, along with a successful business. During his time out of the government, Mr. Atmar and his party members adhered to strict political discipline and refrained from public accusations and playing dirty politics —engaging in amoral and unethical politics—with his opponents, winning him respect within the Afghan political class.
Mr. Atmar made a comeback with the election of Mohammad Ashraf Ghani as President of Afghanistan. Many credited Atmar for being the architect and brain behind Ghani’s election. He took the job of National Security Advisor, responsible for overseeing various domestic and foreign policy matters. During his tenure, he was the point person for and architect of many of the war and peace initiatives of both President Ghani and the international community, including the 4-year ANDSF development roadmap, negotiations with Hizb-e-Islami, regional security, and military diplomacy with Afghanistan’s neighbors.
Often referred to as the “Shadow President,” he was also subjected to a lot of criticism and attacks as the center of gravity of the national unity government. In Machiavellian form, the incumbent president used him as a scapegoat for his political and security failures while the Afghan opposition targeted him due to his serving as the center of gravity holding the government together. However, Atmar maintained his patience and ethical mindset. Many of his former critics, after witnessing his ethical behavior, are now his allies in his quest for high office. Mr. Atmar resigned his post to run for the presidency upon realizing the divisive, conspiratorial, and crisis-manufacturing actions of the incumbent, who is often surrounded by inexperienced Afghans with little affinity to the country and in pursuit of sectarian agendas.
A famous saying used to circle within the diplomatic community in Kabul which demonstrates the extent of Atmar’s influence and credibility: “If you want a lecture, go to the president. If you want to keep abreast of the latest fashion, go to the Chief Executive’s office. If you want to get things done, go to National Security Advisor Haneef Atmar’s office!” Today, history once again has a calling for Haneef Atmar: to unite Afghanistan and put an end to politics of division, crisis manufacturing, ethnic politics, grudge, and humiliation and lead Afghanistan out of its current crisis. He has proven he is up to the task, so long as the people of Afghanistan give him the chance to take it on.
Tamim Asey is the Chairman of the Institute of War and Peace Studies (IWPS). Previously, he served as Deputy Minister of Defense of the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan. He is a Fulbright scholar and a graduate of Columbia University. He is on Twitter @tamimasey.