Traditional Political Leadership
In previous resistance movements, leaders had usually been local magnates who could muster support and who had established either a feudal relationship as khans with the central government or who had served as military officers. Spiritual persons and the ’ulama provided them with religious blessing by issuing fatwas (rulings) and preaching for wars as sanctioned by Islam and tradition. The mullas incited the people. As charismatic leaders, some distinguished spiritual persons also led the faithful. But as a rule, in this combination of secular and spiritual forces the former led while the latter sanctioned, because the former had the labor and material means at its disposal, and the latter had the monopoly of spiritual power in a predominantly Sunni society, a society shaped more by traditional and conventional values than religious values. This is evident from the fact that Islamic Afghanistan had no theocracy. The anthropologist Fredrik Barth notes that “among the Afghans, Islam has never been the basis for a permanent, formal and hierarchical religious or political organization.” However, as Barth also states, in the time of resistance “Islam is needed as a unifying symbol and emotive force.”
This situation changed, though, as the spread of communism, the Soviet invasion, the imposition of a client regime, and the Soviet massacres led to the rise of mullas and Islamists. These could not have risen to become leaders at the expense of traditional leaders had they not been part of the jehad organizations, supported by outside powers that provided weapons, logistics, and money. Traditional leaders did not have such support, nor was their bastion of power able to sustain them as it had in the past. With the disruption of the political system, they had also lost their influential position as intermediaries between the local government and the people. Having moved either to cities or Pakistan, they had been deprived of the produce of their land and of the support of local people, who had also moved out of most areas. It was beyond the means of traditional elders to obtain the weapons needed to oppose the army of a superpower. In the beginning a number of commanders rose from among the traditional leaders, but over time they either affiliated themselves with the jehad organizations or were forced out.
Also important was the attitude of the Islamists, who disparaged traditional elders and tribal organizations. Another influence that worked against traditional leaders was the rise among their relatives of Khalqis and Parchamis, whom the mujahideen hunted down. In line with its dogma the regime issued propaganda attacking traditional elders as feudal, reactionary, and so on; nevertheless, it tried to win them over to its side. But ultimately the local leaders were reduced to insignificance because of the animosity showed them by the new leaders—the mullas, field commanders and Islamist organizations.