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Revisiting Afghanistan: A Conversation with Najibullah

ISSUE:  Winter 2008

Those of us serving with the United Nations in Afghanistan first heard the word “Taliban” around the middle of 1994. The group, headed by a shadowy, one-eyed “Mullah Umar,” appeared mysteriously on the scene in Kandahar, southeast Afghanistan’s major town.

I was planning officer and deputy head of office for UNICEF Afghanistan at the time, though the periodic outbreaks of war between factions occupying the capital Kabul had prevented my ever taking up residence in that country. From an office across the border, in Pakistan’s Northwest Frontier Province’s ancient city of Peshawar, a place bustling with refugees and intrigues, I had been working since March 1993 on delivery of humanitarian assistance to Afghanistan’s children and women.

In that “failed state,” most regions of the country were fiefdoms controlled by different warlords. I had visited most of them for weeklong missions to work with our local officers there, but I had never been able to get to Kandahar. The ever-turbulent security situation in that corner of the country had prevented us from establishing a sub-office there, and several planned visits were cancelled at the last minute by the UN security coordinator.

The Taliban—meaning “students” or “scholars”—represented a new force, and in the initial stages, they presented a confusing profile. Mullah Omar and his top aides appeared rigidly fundamentalist and particularly unbending on issues relating to women, even foreign women, with whom they avoided public contact. Their foot soldiers, the “cannon fodder” of the offensives they would eventually launch, were youngsters in their teens and early twenties, most of whom had grown up in the Afghan refugee camps on the Pakistan side of the border. There the West had for fifteen years supplied food to provide 2,000 calories a day to nurture bodies. Meanwhile, in the local Madrassas, increasingly infiltrated by Islamist teachers, boys chanted verses and honed their spirits for jihad, with the blessings of western intelligence agencies that prayed in their own fervent way for the end of Communism. Most of these madrassa “scholars” received about three years of such education, until as teenagers they took up one of Afghanistan’s ubiquitous AK-47s as their contemporary Sword of God.

A group of long-bearded mullahs presiding over brainwashed teenagers seemed an unlikely recipe to conquer and reunify Afghanistan, yet in the second half of 1994, the Taliban achieved one military success after another as they consolidated their control over the southeast quadrant of the country. That kind of organized campaign required a level of strategy, money, and logistics beyond the capacity of a local mullah, however courageous and charismatic he might appear to his followers. When the Taliban began using tanks and jet fighters left over from the Communist regime, the mystery deepened.

Communist factions had taken over Afghanistan in the mid-1970s, overthrowing King Zahir Shah and establishing a People’s Republic. But as these Soviet-educated Afghans tried to centralize power, accelerate modernization, and introduce secular education (including for girls) throughout the country, they quickly made enemies of locally powerful feudalist and fundamentalist families and clans. Even under its monarchy, Afghanistan had never fully coalesced as a centralized nation-state in a country with a 5,000-year history of fierce independence of local tribes and clans.

By the late 1970s, as opposition in the rural areas expanded and Communist factions themselves began to conspire against one another, events had begun to spiral out of control. Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet Union, captive to an internationalist ideology that the path of revolution was “one way” only, could not accept that a country that had had a Communist revolution could then shift this inevitable process of history into a reverse gear. In 1979 the Soviet Union intervened to support an internal coup d’etat, and to respond immediately to the new leader’s call for Soviet military support. Thus, in 1979 began the Afghan War.

By the time I arrived in Peshawar and began my work in Afghanistan in March 1993, all that was history. The last Communist president, Mohammed Najibullah, was trapped in a UN residence in Kabul as the putative “guest” of the Special Representative of the United Nations, while three mujahideen factions, no longer united by their common enemy, fought over control of the divided city around him. The West, which for fourteen years had funded resistance to Communist rule, was increasingly washing its hands of any further responsibility for the mess left behind. And nothing called the “Taliban” had yet entered the equation, until their sudden appearance in Kandahar in mid-1994.

Later in 1994, a Nepali colleague of mine visited Kandahar to try to organize a national measles vaccination campaign and came back to say that he met an Afghan pilot there whom he had known in Kabul during the period of Communist rule. The man was a sophisticated Air Force officer who had been trained to fly MiG-17’s in the Soviet Union. Now he was flying for the Taliban, along with a number of other former military officers from various Pashtun clans who had taken up positions with the Taliban.

My colleague also saw a pervasive Pakistani presence in Kandahar. The Inter-Services Intelligence agency (ISI), Pakistan’s “government within the Government,” which had been a close partner of the CIA in the fight to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan, was deeply involved in planning, funding, and logistic support for the Taliban movement. The “Great Game” that the British had played out in the nineteenth century to secure influence in Afghanistan and Central Asia was flourishing anew.

It will be some years before the archives of the US Government are opened, but my guess is that the CIA and the US State Department were at least informed, if not consulted, regarding Pakistan ISI plans to create this new force called the Taliban. The decision point for the ISI could have been an incident in the first half of 1994, when Pakistan planned the movement of a convoy that would go from its provincial capital Quetta through Kandahar and southern Afghanistan to Herat, then north to cross the international border with Turkmenistan. This was to be a high-profile demonstration of the opening up of new routes linking the Central Asian States, newly liberated from the Soviet Union, with Pakistan. One heard talk of this as a “first step,” with oil and gas pipelines to follow, bringing those Central Asian resources to the growing markets of South Asia.

Just as we in UNICEF needed to do to move our vaccines and high-nutrition biscuits, so the Pakistanis would have to make arrangements with all the Afghan local “commanders” who controlled the road along the way. They must have been confident that they could do this, because they publicized the departure of the trucks in the national and international press. But the convoy had only just crossed into Afghanistan from the Pakistan border province of Baluchistan when it was stopped and held by a local Afghan warlord known as “Commander Rocketi.”

Clearly “Rocketi” was not an Afghan name. The commander got that nickname based on the number of Stinger missiles in his possession during an earlier dispute he had with Pakistani authorities who seized them. Back in 1986, those sophisticated, shoulder-fired American anti-aircraft missiles had been given to mujahideen forces, along with training in their use, by undercover American CIA and Military Intelligence Teams operating along the Pakistan border and in the nearby mountains of Afghanistan. By 1993, their jubilation over that seeming coup for offsetting Soviet control of the air had given way to second thoughts about the proliferation of such a small and easily smuggled weapon with the capacity, in unfriendly hands, to bring down commercial airliners. The CIA had therefore offered to buy back the Stinger missiles from the Afghan warlords, initially offering $25,000 and, when there was little response to that, raising the price to $80,000. It seems that was enough to entice Commander Rocketi to make arrangements to bring his half-dozen or so missiles across the border to collect payment. Once his men had crossed into Pakistan, however, Pakistani forces ambushed them, and his rockets were “stolen.” I’m not sure what was behind this, but I suspect it was just some local Pakistani military or ISI guy who saw a chance to make a quick buck.

The outraged Commander Rocketi escaped to his hideouts in Afghanistan and proceeded to make life miserable for the Pakistanis by staging cross-border raids. At one point, he even attacked a Chinese development project in the Baluchistan province, carrying away three unfortunate Chinese technicians and holding them hostage for the return of his rockets plus an appropriate ransom. It was Commander Rocketi, I believe, who intercepted the Pakistani Grand Convoy to Central Asia, deeply embarrassing certain powerful Pakistanis in the ISI. By the time the release of the convoy had been negotiated, the spin on the planned “good news” story of reopened trade routes through Afghanistan had been irrevocably reversed.

Pakistan was already getting fed up with the inability of its mujahideen clients to come to terms with one another and get on with their patron’s plans for them, and the Rocketi incident seems to have been the last straw. The ISI’s major proxy in Afghanistan had up to that time been Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and his Hezb-i-Islami group, purported to represent the interest of the Pashtun people. Based on a late-1993 power-sharing agreement, “Engineer” Hekmatyar was nominally the Prime Minister of Afghanistan, with the Tajik Burhanuddin Rabbani as President. Before the ink dried on their agreement, Hekmatyar broke it by refusing to go into Kabul. Instead, his forces remained in their headquarters in Charasayab to the southeast of the city and periodically shelled the areas to the north, including buildings of the government of which he was nominally prime minister.

I visited Hekmatyar’s headquarters at Charasayab, in April 1994. Hekmatyar and his allies had been blockading Kabul since the start of their offensive in December. The 125,000 people who had gotten out to Jalalabad to become internally displaced persons were the lucky ones, at least receiving food. Within Kabul, another 250,000 were displaced, mostly from the poorest and most vulnerable populations with no resources to make a journey out of the city. They then found themselves caught in the stranglehold that Hekmatyar had placed around the capital. As food supplies dwindled, prices skyrocketed and serious forms of malnutrition like marasmus and kwashiorkor increasingly appeared in small children.

In April, Ambassador Mestiri, a Tunisian newly appointed as special ambassador of the UN Secretary General, had negotiated a temporary ceasefire for him to make a four-day visit into the capital. UNICEF sought to take advantage of this respite to move six truckloads of high-protein biscuits across the lines and into Kabul, for distribution to families with small children. We had negotiated safe-passage for the supplies, and together with CARE had carried out neighborhood surveys to determine where they should go.

Then word came that, at the last minute, Hekmatyar’s forces had reneged on their promises and seized the first two trucks carrying the biscuits. I was in Kabul with our team of national officers at the time and quickly drafted a strongly worded letter. It highlighted the crisis created for innocent children by the long blockade and threatened to bring down the full power of public opinion on those blocking these shipments.

Rather than send it, however, we decided first to seek a meeting and eventually got word back that we could meet the Secretary of the “Supreme Islamic Council,” Engineer Homayoun Jaril, who also happened to be Hekmatyar’s son-in-law and was based at Charasayab.

I kept the letter in my pocket, as a “last gambit” in the event we failed to secure release of the trucks. My adrenaline was running, and I wanted movement of my nutritional supplies now, with no more delays. But when I look at that letter today, I can see clearly how risky it would have been to deliver it. It was a sign that I had already been too long in Afghanistan and become too passionately engaged, at the expense of my personal judgment and security.

At the same time, I suspect the letter, or my belief in its potential effectiveness, contributed to the aura of confidence and decisiveness with which we approached our negotiating mission. “Who are these people who dare come into our den like this?” must have been the thought of those we visited. “Fools” was perhaps the proper answer. But the commanders, virtually all of them, were first and foremost bullies, for whom the smell of fear was a sign of weakness that invited exploitation. Those words on paper in my breast pocket, addressed to Engineer Hekmatyar himself, were serving as my talisman, and so long as I believed in them, we maintained an aura of seeming invulnerability.

I suppose that we were also not important enough to kill, since such things inevitably would have complications, however minor they might be.

I was traveling with one of my smooth-shaven Afghan colleagues from the UNICEF Kabul office. As we crossed the lines and moved deeper into Hezb-i-Islami territory, I think he felt as out-of-place as I—and perhaps more worried since he knew better than I the people we were dealing with.

My contacts with “Hezb” up to that time had been mainly through its representative who served as Afghanistan’s Deputy Minister of Health. He was a Pashtun who had trained as a doctor in the United States and married an idealistic American from the Midwest. They had abandoned the comforts of American life to return, together with their three small children, to fight for his country’s independence from Soviet domination. Still, he was a pragmatist, who I had the feeling had taken the road of compromising some of his personal principles in order to serve his Pashtun people, in an organization whose values and actions both he and his wife must have had increasing reservations about, as the mujahideen “revolution” began to eat its own.

When we reached Hekmatyar’s headquarters at Charasayab, we were sent into a waiting room in a squat, cement-block building. There I got a more troubling view of Hezb-i-Islami than what I had gained from the good doctor. There were about fifteen people hanging about there, and they were not the types one would want to meet on the dark side of the street. The AK-47s those young men carried into the waiting room and the grenades clipped to their waistlines didn’t frighten me nearly so much as their eyes; only three pairs out of the fifteen gave the impression of even a spark of humanity or curiosity behind them.

I tried to offer a tentative small smile to one of them, to strike up a connection, but the only response I got was an increased unanimity of fierce glares. Clearly, we were the Enemy, not only myself, but also my Afghan colleague, whose clean-shaven cheeks marked him as an apostate. I was looking, for the first time in my life, into the eyes of fanaticism, and we spent a very uncomfortable forty-five minutes of waiting under that gaze.

We were called at last to another building. In the entrance hall we were told that Engineer Homayoun was not available. I explained our mission to two of his aides. They, of course, knew already what we had come for. During our wait, I suspect they also had been in touch with the doctor, their man in the Ministry of Health. Perhaps it was he who convinced them, or perhaps it was the Afghan officer from CARE who had been working behind their lines and who met us at Charasyab and explained about the survey we had done and the plans for distribution.

They promised to resolve the matter. They would send orders to release the trucks and would cooperate to facilitate the distribution of supplies in areas they controlled. Thankfully, I could keep my letter in my pocket, and even before we had returned across the front-lines en route to our UNICEF office in Kabul, word came on the shortwave radio that the trucks were on their way again. Over the coming days, food started reaching malnourished children, though within a week further roadblocks arose for remaining trucks, requiring further negotiations for their release.

We used the BBC’s Pashtun and Dari language services to make public service announcements about the distribution plans for the high-protein biscuits and to give instructions for their use. To the message that the biscuits should also be eaten by women who were nursing infants, to increase their milk, I instructed my colleagues to add a cryptic statement that males above the age of puberty should avoid the biscuits. My hope was to sow rumors that the biscuits might have certain unwanted side effects in adult males with guns, who had become unwanted competitors for these supplies.

My last memory of that late 1994 trip into Afghanistan was Ambassador Mestiri sitting with the Mayor of Kabul and his entourage in a meeting room in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel. He was reporting to the Mayor on the results of his travels about the country and his consultations with the Afghan people. I had observed one of the Ambassador’s sessions at a community gathering in Logar province a few days before, where he asked a set of standard questions. As to “what Afghans wanted,” the peasants of Logar had replied “peace.” To “who they wanted it from,” he got certain variations that could best be summed up as “anyone but the present scoundrels.” And to his question of how they thought they might get it, they had answered, “Allah should kill all the leaders.”

For the sake of the mayor of Kabul, Ambassador Mestiri was rendering this into the language of diplomacy. The room was chilly, as nearly all the windows in the six-story edifice of the Kabul Intercontinental had been blown out by the factional rocketing of the past twenty-four months. In the midst of the Ambassador’s report, a freak April storm suddenly blew up, and a swirl of large snowflakes filled the room. These gradually began to settle on the Ambassador’s eyebrows and the shoulders of his suit coat. He continued talking, as if this was nothing new in a normal day’s work.

A few short months later, the Hezb-i-Islami organization collapsed, virtually overnight. The Taliban were on the move. As soon as it became clear that Hezb’s Pakistani patrons had withdrawn their support in favor of the Taliban, the organization melted away. And I have no doubt the young men we had met at Charasyab with such fierce hatred in their eyes found a welcoming new home with Mullah Umar’s legions.

Many others, less fanatic, did so as well. In those final days of 1994, Afghans were fed up with war and warlords. They wanted stability, roads open, and opportunities to trade. They wanted justice and accountability and an end to bribery and extortion by those who purported to lead them. They wanted safety for their families and an end to the kidnapping and rape of their daughters by local commanders. They wanted a chance just to get on with life.

The Taliban were offering them all of that through the institution of Islamic courts—a return to ancient values and punishments for those who had exploited them. Most Afghans did not welcome the strong xenophobia and pre-Islamic attitudes toward women that the Taliban also brought with them from their tribal heritage, but many were ready to accept those drawbacks as the price to pay for an end to the fighting and the imposition of order and stability.

In the second half of 1994, the Taliban with Pakistani support began a relentless offensive that took them out of Kandahar and northward towards Kabul. Their rapid success did not require battles at every stage of the way. Afghanistan is a nation made up of local fiefdoms, where the concept of “family honor” coincides with a pragmatism that embraces shifting alliances in the interests of gain or survival. By the first quarter of 1995, local leaders previously aligned with Hezb-i-Islami were rapidly shifting their allegiances to the Taliban. In this way the “scholars” swept northward, taking over province after province and beginning to sound the battle cry for the Pashtun people to retake and reunify Kabul itself. Young Pashtun clansmen mobilized for this battle not only from the refugee camps, but also from Pakistani villages of the Northwest Frontier Province.

Kabul itself, since August 1992, had been a divided city. Hekmatyar controlled lines that cut across the southeast quadrant of the city and was allied with the Hazara warlord Abdul Ali Mazari whose Shiite group Hizb-e-Wahdat controlled the southwestern corner of the city. The center of the city with its Government buildings and airport and the northern suburbs and military base at Bagram were controlled by the Jamiat-i-Islami forces of Ahmed Shah Masood, the Tajik general from the Panjshir region northeast of Kabul, who under the title of “Lion of the Panjshir” had been a favorite of the Western press throughout the 1980s.

Masood was a colorful figure and a brilliant military tactician, who more than any of the other mujahideen leaders had the understanding and ability to interact with the West. The Afghan Tajiks, while they were Sunni Muslims, spoke the Dari language. That was very closely related to the Iranian language of Farsi, and they had come under the urban and artistic influences of Persian culture. They were by and large more sophisticated, less fundamentalist, and more pragmatic than the Pashtun, and less imbued with the fanaticism of the Islamist movements. Masood himself survived revolution, war with the Soviets, arrest by the Pakistanis, and civil war among the mujahideen. For nearly five years after 1996, he led the last-ditch resistance of a “Northern Alliance,” holding out in a few northeast provinces to prevent a Taliban takeover of all of Afghanistan. But he did not survive an assassination attempt on September 9, 2001, when two al Qaeda operatives posing as journalists detonated explosives in their camera, taking his life along with their own.

In February 1995, as the Taliban moved inexorably northward, Pakistani informants warned our UN security people of the inevitable battle and fall of Kabul. A steady shelling of the city began, and the UN pulled all its international officers back to the UN Afghanistan offices in exile, in the Pakistani capital of Islamabad. Only two UN police officers remained in Kabul, to guard the building there that housed “the guest.”

For two years I had been hearing about this person, always mysteriously referred to in the UN shortwave radio communications by this mysterious moniker. He was ex-President Mohammed Najibullah, who had taken power in 1986 and led Afghanistan during the period when the Soviet Union pulled out. To the surprise of many, he hung on to power for three more years after the 1989 Soviet withdrawal. But by March 1992, his support was unraveling, and mujahideen forces surrounding Kabul on three sides were steadily raining rockets on the city. That was when the UN special representative, Benon Sevan, negotiated safe passage for Najibullah out of Afghanistan, in return for his agreement to save Kabul from the destruction of a last-ditch fight.

As word of this agreement leaked out, army commanders negotiated their own deals with the mujahideen, including the Uzbek general Rashid Dostum, in control of the northeast defenses of the city, who switched sides. The defense of Kabul collapsed more quickly than anyone had expected. The city was divided among the conquering mujahideen factions together with Dostum, who had made a temporary alliance with Masood. Najibullah found himself stranded. His wife and children had already left for India, but the mujahideen who now controlled access roads to the airport refused to grant safe passage to the ex-President. Najibullah, thus, found himself stranded as “the guest” of a UN that had no soldiers to protect him, safe only so long as the mujahideen chose to respect the diplomatic sovereignty of the UN representative’s official residence, where he stayed on even as the UN staff departed.

He was still there nearly three years later, in late February 1995, as the Taliban swept north towards Kabul. Hekmatyar’s forces had for several years controlled the front lines in southeast Kabul, and we were wondering how the Taliban would interact with them, when suddenly news came that Hekmatyar had fled, and the Taliban were taking over his positions. An agreement also was apparently reached between the Taliban and the Hazara leader Mazari for Taliban troops to take over from the Hazara soldiers who since 1992 had been dug in to trenches on the frontlines of southwest Kabul.

That was their plan, at any rate. General Ahmad Shah Masood, the wily “Lion of the Panjshir,” who controlled the northern side of those lines, had other ideas. He had been watching the Taliban consolidate control and expand northward and westward for six months, and during that time he seemed to project an image of powerlessness to withstand this new force. What he was actually doing, it appears, was waiting for the right moment to engage them on ground that he knew best.

His military intelligence got to know the exact time when the Hazara soldiers withdrew from their frontline trenches, and he chose that very moment, when Taliban troops were taking up those positions, to launch a major offensive. The Taliban, unfamiliar with the trenches and territory of southern Kabul, were swept away. The break in those lines allowed Masood’s forces to attack positions in southeast Kabul on two flanks, smashing the newly established Taliban forces there, and pursuing them all the way to the hills of Charasayab and nearly twenty miles to the south.

The carefully nurtured myth of Taliban invincibility had been exploded, and Pakistani plans to install a client regime in Kabul appeared lost. On the contrary, Kabul was reunited for the first time since the fall of the Communist regime in 1992, and under control of the one mujahideen group over whom Pakistan had the least influence.

During the heavy fighting in February and March, UN international personnel remained in Islamabad, Pakistan. By mid-March, however, this UN Afghanistan contingent in comfortable exile found itself in a new situation, with Kabul suddenly undivided, peaceful, and apparently secure, under the control of the mujahideen faction whose political leader, Burhanuddin Rabbani, was the UN’s officially recognized president of Afghanistan. The UN leadership approached these seeming new opportunities with great caution, however. They expressed worry over a Pashtun backlash if they appeared to be too supportive of the group that now controlled Kabul, dominated by the Dari-speaking Tajiks, though I suspect the real pressure on them was coming from the hosts during their exile in the Pakistani Government.

Thus, they decided not to send in a high-level delegation, fearing that might be misconstrued as a too hasty “recognition” of the Masood faction in control of the capital. Still, with Kabul now at peace, there was no excuse for the UN agencies to be sitting in Islamabad collecting generous allowances in the midst of a post-war humanitarian crisis in Kabul. So after joint discussions, the UN political and humanitarian wings agreed to send in a group of “technocrats” to assess the new situation and make proposals for a UN emergency response program. Each of the humanitarian agencies was asked to identify one officer to go in, and I volunteered from the UNICEF side. In this way I found myself, as the most senior member of that group of technocrats, for the first time in the role of United Nations acting Head of Mission in Kabul.

In that new and temporary role, I realized I, at last, had a good reason to call on “the guest,” Mohammed Najibullah, in order to see how he had weathered the Battle of Kabul.

During the two years I was working in Afghanistan, I had become fascinated by the story of Najibullah. Here was a man of great intellect, educated as a doctor and pediatrician to “do no harm.” He was at the same time a political activist who received training in the Soviet Union. In 1981, he returned to Afghanistan to head the KHAD, a Secret Police organization notorious for torture and executions. Five years later, he emerged as president of his country during times of vicious conflict. Undoubtedly, there was blood on his hands.

Yet many people described him as enlightened. My colleagues who had worked with the Najibullah government from 1986 to 1992 spoke highly of his leadership and support for the country’s social development, especially public health and education. It was an anomaly, throughout the 1980s, that the West was empowering mujahideen groups who were burning down schools, banning girls from being educated, trying to cut women off from basic opportunities or even health care, and preaching ideologies of xenophobic hatred. The CIA and others did all of this in the interest of bringing down a government that, in the areas of social development at least, stood for secular and progressive Western values. The fight against Communism made for many strange bedfellows for more than four decades, perhaps nowhere more so than in Afghanistan.

For a long time, I had harbored a curiosity about Najibullah and what changes might have occurred in him as he sat in that UN house in Kabul with nothing to do except read and reflect. Did such reflection give him second thoughts about the life he had lived and the things he had done?

The nature of my own assignment had given me no chance to satisfy that curiosity. As deputy head of UNICEF’s program, dealing with humanitarian assistance, I had no legitimate business with Najibullah, who was “guest” of the other, political wing of the UN. There was no valid reason for me to meet him and, had I tried to do so, my behavior could have been misinterpreted by those who watched such things.

But as the UN plane dropped us in Kabul the afternoon of the Afghan New Year’s Eve, I decided that, out of fundamental courtesy—very much an Afghan trait—I had every reason to call on our guest. And so, as we settled into the facilities of the UN Club where for security we were all required to stay, I turned to a young Ethiopian colleague and friend, who was representing the UN Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. “Don’t you think,” I said, “that it would be appropriate for the Head of Mission to pay a courtesy call on our Guest to wish him a Happy New Year?”

“Most appropriate,” he agreed, with a smile of mischievous complicity.

To prepare ourselves, we went to a shop in the center of town and bought a box of chocolates. The shopkeeper asked, “Would you like that gift-wrapped?”

Here was a city, I thought, which had been under siege for six weeks, yet the shopkeeper had New Year’s chocolates for sale, complete with red ribbon and gift wrap. What a testament to the resourcefulness and entrepreneurial instincts of the Afghan people—and what remarkable things such a people might achieve if only they could enjoy blessings of peace.

We proceeded to the UN house where ex-President Najibullah had just come through the siege, himself one of the targets of Taliban rocketing. There were craters in the garden, and we walked carefully through a hallway in which the windows had been shattered and a hole opened in the roof from a direct hit. In the previous week, he reported, no less than nine rockets had landed in the garden and yard, in addition to the one that destroyed this hallway of the UN residence he was staying in.

To say that this man was pleased and charmed by our arrival would be a grave understatement. Imagine someone of Najibullah’s experience, intelligence, and breadth of mind, locked up for three years with his brother in a house with only two UN policemen for company and an occasional visit from UN bureaucrat-politicians. Imagine living through weeks of uncertainty, as the Taliban mounted their siege, and the explosions of rockets all around. And then, everything is suddenly quiet, it is New Year’s Eve, and two unarmed and friendly strangers appear, an American and an Ethiopian, with a box of chocolates.

We went into a room that was a kind of enclosed verandah. My memories of Najibullah the man, his eyes, his voice, and the remarkable clarity and force of his ideas remain fresh, like yesterday, but other details of the scene are fuzzy. There was furniture made of bamboo frames if I recall, chintz-covered cushions on a couch flanked by two sitting chairs all gathered around a glass-topped table. Trays were brought out with a china teapot and four teacups and saucers for ourselves, Najibullah, and his brother who stayed with him.

I can imagine UN colleagues agonizing over exactly what kind of furniture to order from the Peter Justesen diplomatic shopping catalogue, for shipment out of Denmark to furnish this “guest quarters.” This was the sort of thing for which it was difficult to find precedents, to know what would be appropriate for a “guest” not at all esteemed by donors who had conspired long years to remove him. But he was an ex-President—and one who had in good faith accepted UN promises of safe haven. It was not his fault that he had now become for senior UN officials a kind of an embarrassment, a continuing reminder of their own lack of capacity, or perhaps of will and courage, to fulfill those promises.

But those are only imaginings. What I can remember clearly was the remarkable conversation we had that night. Of course, we first had to introduce ourselves. He was familiar with the work of UNICEF, and I think he realized that I was someone different from the bureaucrats and politicians who usually came to visit him.

Very quickly we formed a bond, that special kind of bond between intellectuals long starved of conversation, who meet in difficult circumstances. Before I knew it, each time he spoke, he would start with the words, “dear Alan.” Over many cups of tea, sitting together on the couch, sharing chocolates from the newly opened box on the table before us, he spoke honestly and freely about what he had been going through, and then his complaints about the UN and how it had betrayed him.

At last I got up the courage to ask the questions that were on my mind. It is not an easy subject to broach, this question of his role as head of KHAD and the blood he must have had on his hands. I approached it in roundabout ways and each time he appeared not to grasp what I was getting at.

Finally, I spoke more directly, turning towards him and asking whether, with all this time to reflect, his conscience didn’t trouble him, and whether he felt remorse for some of the things that, in another time of his life—for example, as head of the secret police—he felt he had to do.

I could see the look in his eye change as my question sank in, and he sized me up. It was like a long moment of transformation, as the world of chocolates and tea at the New Year receded, and the world of Afghan and global politics that all his life he had inhabited came flooding back. Like the flexing of a relaxed muscle, the power and charisma at the core of this man reappeared in sharp relief, and with a loud shout of “NO!” his fist came down with an explosive sound on the table before us, sending teacups flying upward.

Then began one of the most remarkable speeches I have heard in my life, as Najibullah lectured us on the realities of Afghanistan and of the struggle he saw himself to be a part of. “You do not understand the people we are dealing with,” he said. “You don’t understand the destruction those people want to bring to this country.”

The man was remarkably articulate, even though he was speaking in English, a language he must have been teaching himself during his long stay in this house.

The lecture he gave was about the struggle of Afghanistan with the Islamist movement, a struggle in which the Communists took the lead during the 1970s and 1980s. But he was not just talking about Afghanistan; he was placing Afghanistan’s situation in the context of a global struggle, a clash of values and ways of thinking, for very high stakes.

It is essential for me to highlight here that Najibullah was not talking about Islam. Islam is the religion of virtually all Afghans and has been for centuries. Islam is not the same as Islamism. Islamism is an ideology of state control under the cloak of religion. It is a product of twentieth-century conditions of imperialism, neo-colonialism, emerging Arab nationalism, Zionism, and the yoking of religion to ideology. The ideas were first taught at Cairo University in the 1960s, then adapted to the uses of the Wahabi movement in Saudi Arabia, and much later incorporated into al Qaeda. The Iranian revolution after 1979 became a Shia variant on these developments.

Kabul University, the place where a modernizing Afghanistan sought to train its next generation of leadership, became a center of conflict in the 1960s and 70s, between the Islamists and another faction of the faculty and students of that university who turned to Communism as their modernizing ideology. The United States inadvertently stepped into the middle of this conflict in the 1980s, when it naively saw Islamism as an instrument that could be used against the Soviet Union in the international struggle to contain Communism.

Najibullah saw Islamism as a destructive cancer spreading across countries. He well understood, even then, the dangers of what some are today calling Islamo-Fascism.

“Dear Alan,” he was saying. “Do not be naïve about what you are facing. They will bring a destruction you cannot imagine.”

His message to me, at our New Year meeting in 1995, was one of no regrets for whatever he had done to stand against the Islamists. He was absolutely clear about that; he would do it again.

In the quiet of that evening, he laid out for us what the lines of conflict would be, in a world where Communism was finished. “After the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said, “I wrote to Bush. I explained all of this, I told him that the Reds are finished, and the enemy of the United States is no longer the Reds, it is the Greens. I offered to work together with him.”

The “green” that Najibullah was referring to was the green flag of the Islamists, and the Bush he wrote to was the first President Bush—George H.W. He never received an answer.

The next day, as I traveled around a newly reunited Kabul, I saw how the city had been reduced to rubble by mujahideen factions fighting with one another, all in the name of Islam. As we were crossing over what had been the frontlines in Kabul, we passed the imposing edifice called the Darulaman palace, on a hilltop straddling those lines. That beautifully elegant building still stood, but not a window was intact, rockets had punched holes in the walls, and rubble was strewn across acres of forgotten gardens. But from every broken window and atop the palace’s ruined tower, flying in the wind, we saw those green flags that Najibullah had referred to, emblems of those who assert that values and belief can be imposed on others by force, and are willing to die to prove it.

Najibullah was killed by the Taliban in 1996, after the Pakistanis helped them to regroup and they conquered Kabul. It is reported that he and his brother were tortured before they were executed, his testicles cut off, and his body dragged behind a jeep. I was in China when I saw newsmagazine photographs of Najibullah’s body hanging from a lamppost in a public square filled with jubilating Taliban.

Whatever his sins may have been, I mourned that he ended that way. And I wonder, were he alive today, what the incisive mind that wrote so presciently to George H.W. Bush in 1988 would write to George W. Bush by way of advice today.

Such unsolicited counsel is no more likely to be attended to now than it was twenty years ago, for we remain confused about those who are our adversaries and those who are not. As Islamists and Crusaders vie for the privilege to threaten the peace of the earth, the meek inherit the consequences of their arrogance—in Afghanistan, in Iraq, and among the forgotten in America itself. And in the light of 9/11, of more than half a million deaths in Iraq, and many more in other places yet to come, I can picture Mohammed Najibullah stepping out of that Kabul twilight to say, “Dear Alan, I told you so.”


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