Qanuni, Yunus (1957–)

views updated

Qanuni, Yunus

Mohammad Yunus Qanuni (Qanouni, Qanooni) is a central figure in the political history of modern Afghanistan. A Tajik by ethnicity, Qanuni was the main opposition candidate to President hamid karzai in the Afghan elections of 2005. Qanuni is the most well-known pro-tégé of the famous Tajik leader and resistance fighter Ahmad Shah Masoud. Qanuni actively served in Masoud's resistance militia operating from the Panjsher valley, first against the Soviets and then against the Taliban forces. Since Masoud's assassination in September 2001, Qanuni has remained the most influential and well-known Tajik politician in Afghanistan.


Qanuni was born in 1957 in the Panjsher Valley in Northern Afghanistan. After completing his basic schooling, he ventured to the capital city Kabul to pursue his higher education. One key variable in understanding Qanuni's role and influence in Afghanistan is ethnicity, which arguably represents the most pivotal factor in making sense of the power dynamics in Afghanistan at any particular moment in history. Qanuni belongs to the Tajik ethnic group which composes roughly 20 percent of the Afghan population. The majority of the population is Pashtun (also Pakhtun, around 70%), with the rest being Uzbeks, Hazaras, and other ethnicities. Situated in close proximity to the Central Asian countries of Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, Afghanistan's narrative of nationhood has always been wrapped in the politics of ethnicity. Moreover, the story of Afghanistan's political history has been most impacted by the continuous tussle for political and cultural authority between the Tajiks and the Pashtuns. The formation, development, and evolution of Qanuni's political career each represent a direct product of this ethnocentric struggle for power, which has dominated the political and indeed the cultural landscape of Afghanistan for at least the past five decades.

The other key variable in understanding Qanuni's contribution to Afghan society relates to his close association with the late Tajik leader and resistance fighter Masoud. Masoud was the biggest influence on Qanuni's development as a politician, soldier, and social critic. The Lion of the Panjshir, as he was popularly called, Masoud was a resistance fighter against the Soviets in the 1980s and again against the Taliban in the mid- and late 1990s. Masoud trained and groomed a new generation of Tajik leaders and resistance fighters who were charged with the mission of advancing the interests of the Tajik population in Afghanistan both politically and militarily.


Name: Yunus Qanuni (Qanouni, Qanooni)

Birth: 1957, Panjshir Valley, Afghanistan

Nationality: Afghan (ethnic Tajik)

Education: Graduated from the Faculty of Islamic Law, Kabul University, 1980


  • 1993: Appointed minister of the Interior of the government headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani
  • 2001: Head of the party delegation at the UN Talks on Afghanistan held in Bonn, Germany; confirmed as Interior minister of the Afghan Interim Administration
  • 2002: Named education minister and adviser on internal security to the presidency in the cabinet of the Transitional Administration
  • 2004: Comes in second in the Afghan presidential elections, losing to Hamid Karzai

Qanuni's Political Journey: From 1979 until September 2001

The conditions of political and ethnic relations that have allowed Qanuni to rise in stature both as a politician and as a social activist can reasonably be dated back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. It was following this invasion that Qanuni returned to the Panjhir Valley from Kabul and joined Masoud's resistance forces. The next most important juncture in Qanuni's career came in 1993 when the Mojahedin (Resistance Fighters) forces came to power in Afghanistan. As a result, Qanuni became joint defense minister in the government led by his fellow Tajik Burhanuddin Rabbani. The ensuing civil war between Afghan's warring factions (mostly along ethnic lines) directly affected Qanuni when his car was blown up near Kabul in 1993 and he was seriously wounded. After the fall of Kabul to the Taliban three years later, Qanuni helped found the Supreme Council for the Defense of the Motherland, and later the United Islamic and National Front for the Salvation of Afghanistan. He headed several Afghan delegations for talks with exiled leaders in Europe, including former king Zahir Shah in an attempt to unite all anti-Taliban factions.

Ahmad Shah Masoud's Assassination and the Impact of 9/11

The most transformative event in Qanuni's career was the sudden assassination of his longtime mentor Masoud in September 2001. Because Qanuni's political life was so strongly influenced by his close relationship with Masoud, the latter's sudden death naturally represented a major turning point in the former's career. Masoud was assassinated by suicide bombers disguised as journalists, just a few days before the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. After the attacks and the ensuing U.S. war on the Taliban, Qanuni's political prominence rose exponentially as he emerged as the obvious political and military heir to the late Masoud, and was widely recognized as the new leader of the Tajik community in Afghanistan.

The Fall of the Taliban and the Bonn Conference

Qanuni was a major player in the U.S.-backed Northern Alliance that helped depose the Taliban in late 2001. After the fall of the Taliban and the subsequent severe power vacuum in Afghanistan, Qanuni's position in the political milieu of the country again rose significantly. The United States and United Nations were keen to address this political vacuum by facilitating the creation of an immediate interim Afghan government. In late November, various Afghan factions assembled in Bonn, Germany, to discuss the formation of this new government. Qanuni is said to have impressed several attendees (both Afghan and non-Afghan) at the conference by his skills of argumentation and political maneuvering, and more importantly, he also managed to secure a major position in the newly formed Afghan cabinet, that of the interior minister. The achievement of this cabinet position has been Qanuni's biggest political victory to date.

In a major setback to his political career, however, Qanuni resigned as interior minister during the emergency Loya Jirga (consultative assembly) in 2003, a move he hoped would win him an even higher position in the cabinet. Exactly the opposite happened, as President Karzai offered him only the ministry of education. Agitated by this treatment at the hands of a Pashtun leader, Qanuni threatened to resign altogether but was persuaded to stay in the cabinet after he was appointed special presidential adviser on security issues. In the 2004 elections, Qanuni ran against Karzai for the presidency of Afghanistan but was heavily defeated. Following this defeat, Qanuni was elected in the 2005 Afghan parliamentary elections, placing second in the Kabul province. In addition to establishing a political party of his own, Mehez-e-Milli (Afghan National Party), Qanuni has formed an alliance of several parties opposed to the current government called the Jabahai Tafahim Milli (National Understanding Front).


Qanuni is seen by the world as Karzai's main political rival in Afghanistan. More generally, he is regarded as a moderate, intelligent, and battle-hardened politician. Qanuni's global stock has somewhat fallen since his unsuccessful campaign for the presidency, but he nonetheless remains a major figure in the political whirlpool of Afghanistan, primarily because of his loyal following in a large section of the Tajik community who regard him as the heir apparent to their political and military hero, Masoud. Countries directly invested in the future of Afghanistan—the United States, Russia, and the Central Asian Republics—are mindful of Qanuni's importance when determining the ethnopolitical climate of the country. From their long and often tumultuous engagement with Afghan society, these foreign countries are well aware of the central role that ethnicity plays in shaping and sustaining the contours of Afghanistan's social, political, and cultural structures.

Qanuni's image in the eyes of the world, however, varies considerably from country to country. Because Qanuni is ethnically a Tajik, he is looked upon most favorably by Tajikistan. Uzbekistan, on the other hand, does not hold a very positive image of Qanuni because its vested interest lies in supporting the most influential Uzbek leader in Afghanistan, Rashid Ahmad Dostum. Pakistan has traditionally harbored the most hostile attitude toward Qanuni and toward Afghan Tajik politicians in general. All Tajik leaders, including Qanuni, his mentor Masoud, and his close associate Rabbani, have been staunch opponents of Pakistan's involvement in Afghan politics. Pakistan's consistent support and preference for rival Pashtun leaders such as Gulbaddin Hekmatyar is the main reason for this strong opposition. Moreover, Pakistan's central role in the creation and training of the Taliban further exacerbated these sentiments. Naturally then, Qanuni is not seen in a positive light by Pakistan. The United States and Russia have adopted a more fluid attitude toward Qanuni and other Afghan politicians, as self-interest, more than anything else, has determined these two countries' stance. For example, although Qanuni was generously supported by the United States immediately after the fall of the Taliban, U.S. support for him dwindled significantly in the 2005 Afghan elections when the trusted U.S. ally Karzai was favored to hold on to the presidency. Although all countries of the world with a vested interest in Afghanistan regard Qanuni as an important and indispensable figure in the geopolitics of Afghanistan, their individual attitude toward him varies considerably according to their specific foreign policy goals.


Qanuni's legacy will invariably be connected to his ethnicity. He will be remembered as a major Tajik leader who resisted both internal and external hostile forces and who doggedly fought for the political and social advancement of his community at a critical juncture in Afghanistan's history. Though his political career is far from over, the contours of Qanuni's legacy will be most strongly influenced by three major periods of his life: the period of armed resistance against the Soviets that saw Qanuni's military and political training at the hands of his mentor Masoud; the period immediately following the fall of the Taliban that included Qanuni's sterling performance at the Bonn Conference and during which a new Afghan government was established; and the Afghan elections of 2004 when Qanuni ran unsuccessfully against his former boss Karzai.

The direction of Qanuni's legacy in the future depends most heavily on the success of the current Karzai government in curbing the influence of the Taliban and in fulfilling Karzai's promises of economic growth and development in this war-torn nation. Intense dissatisfaction with the current government may lead to a political opening for Qanuni. But given the current state of affairs, with strong U.S. backing for Karzai and a general desire for stable government pervading the country, the possibility of such a development is slim. Due to his strong standing among the Tajik community of Afghanistan, however, Qanuni is likely to remain a major player in the political sphere of Afghanistan for a considerable amount of time.


Entekhabi-Fard, Camelia. "Qanooni's Rejection Ends Afghan Council on a Bumpy Note." Eurasianet. Updated 20 June 2002. Available from

Ewans, Martin. Afghanistan: A Short History of Its People and Politics. New York: HarperCollins, 2002.

"In 'Mostly Fair' Afghan Election, Karzai Appears Likely Winner." Online Newshour Update. Updated 11 October 2004. Available from

Qanooni, Yunus. "Departing Afghan Interior Minister Won't Seek New Government Post." Interview by Camelia Entekhabi-Fard. Eurasianet. Updated 13 June 2002. Available from

                                            SherAli Tareen