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Mainstream, Vol XLVII No 11, February 28, 2009

Tragic Finale to a Courageous Nationalist

Monday 2 March 2009, by Nikhil Chakravartty


[(Following their capture of Kabul more than 12 years ago the Taliban goons had massacred—on September 27, 1996—one of the noblest sons of the Afghan people, Dr Najibullah, who courageously steered the country as its President at a crucial period in its history. Now that the Taliban are once again on the offensive as seen from the Pakistan Government’s deal with fundamentalists in the Swat valley, we carry the following piece by N.C. (that appeared shortly after Najibullah’s death) as our sincere tribute to the abiding memory of that immortal Afghan leader and also to once again unmask the savage face of the Taliban. —Editor)]

It was sometimes in September 1984, I was in Kabul trying to understand the intricacies of the Afghan situation. As part of that assignment, I had drawn up a list of dignitaries whom I should interview—the President, the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and other party leaders. My host in Kabul was our Ambassador, J. N. (Mani) Dixit. He was insisting I should also try to meet Dr Najibullah, the head of the security. I was not so convinced about the idea as the security chiefs seldom talk frankly because of the very nature of their work, and also Najibullah had not figured uptil then in my appraisal of the Afghan crisis. Secondly, I was almost sure that being the security chief, Najibullah would decline to grant the interview on the usual plea of pressure of work. However, I put in my request with the authorities for an interview with Dr Najibullah, as advised by my friend Dixit.

Very promptly the response came and I was to meet him next day about half-an-hour before lunch: actually, I could return from Dr Najibullah’s interview about two hours after lunch. It was the most rewarding interview of my entire trip providing me with an insight into the Afghan crisis. Stout, well-built but not very tall for an Afghan, Dr Najibullah spoke softly with an alert mind which did not just repeat answers from a prepared script. He made a tour de horizon of the Afghan situation going back to some of the landmarks in the history of his country, making it amply clear that he had a grasp over the difficult situation there.

Born and educated in Pakistan, he gave me his understanding of the role the USA was playing in supporting and arming the mujahideen groups located in Pakistan, whom the Pakistan Army authorities helped to train as armed contingents. Najibullah was clear that within the mujahideen camp, Hekmatyar, who is a Pakhtoon leader, had the closest links with the Pakistan military junta, embodied in the Inter Services Intelligence (ISI).

Taking to his map room, Najibullah gave me an objective account of the grave situation at the front. He pointed to the concentration of Soviet forces in different theatres, and also to those of the indigenous Afghan Army. He made it clear that he himself had an independent assessment of the military situation different from what the Soviet command held. At one stage, he said: “With all the help they are giving us, they are stranger to this land of ours and that makes it difficult for them to assess the situation with any clarity.”

Over and over again, Najibullah’s point was that Afghanistan was no battleground for positional warfare. The terrain and the social system prevailing down the ages was that of the tribal community. Both these made the guerrilla action as the only mode of successful military operation. He emphasised that a guerrilla band even without a base could disrupt the enemy’s communication and supply line. This makes it difficult for conventional military functioning to be sure of liberating any area.

An interesting point Najibullah pointed out was that the British when they arbitrarily drew the Durand Line saw to it that the line itself would cut major tribes into two with their bases split, with one end inside Afghanistan and the other end jutting into Pakistan (that was the old Indian Empire held by Britain when the Durand Line had been drawn). According to Najibullah, the major supply lines for the mujahideen guerrillas were through these tribal channels. The guerrillas were being formed as per the lines of tribal territory. In other words, there was very little scope for a positional war by the Afghan Government, as also for its backers, the Soviet military command, as the guerrilla formations were largely along tribal lines.

This has been the central point of Afghan history throughout. The country has hardly developed a strong national identity, like its neighbours. It has remained throughout the ages as a cluster of tribes. Obviously, this had not been understood by the Soviet Government or its military experts. When the Soviet troops marched into Afghanistan in December 1979, they took it as just another military operation in the conventional sense. They suffered heavy casualties and could bring no political cohesion in that country. It was as much a disastrous mistake for Moscow as the one that beset the Americans in Vietnam.

An interesting side story about the Soviet troops’ march into Afghanistan could be gleaned from one of the last interviews that the well-known Soviet spy, Kim Philby, had given from his exile home in Moscow to a British newspaper. He was asked if the Soviet authorities ever consulted him in their foreign policy undertakings, particularly the decision to invade Afghanistan. Philby replied that the Soviet authorities had not consulted him at all before sending their forces to Afghanistan, and he added that if they had asked him he would certainly have advised them against such an adventure, because he knew that the British Government had tried thrice in the nineteenth century to send its army and had to face a disaster every time. What Kim Philby was trying to convey was that in a tribal country, the rules of conventional military operation do not work at all.

Talking to Dr Najibullah in his office in Kabul on that September afternoon 12 years ago, I could sense that he too had the same assessment about the fate of the Soviet military forces then engaged within Afghanistan. What marks out this sound approach of Dr Najibullah from that of the other Afghan leaders of his time was his understanding of the terrain and characteristic of confronting tribal adversaries. I had a long interview with Babrak Karmal who was extremely warm and articulate, but never did he give me any indication of the peculiar, almost insurmountable, problems entwined in a tribal society.

It is worth noting that by the time the Soviet forces had withdrawn in 1989, Babrak Karmal and the whole lot of his fellow-VIPs had already withdrawn into the shelter of the Soviet Union. It was Dr Najibullah who did not run away. He stood his ground till the end against the mujahideen groups, who came from Pakistan and were given US arms. He desperately tried to set up a national alternative against the invasion from the direction of Pakistan, particularly against Hekmatyar’s columns. When the invading forces overpowered the effete rump left behind by the Soviet troops, it was a desperate move undertaken by Dr Najibullah to invoke the leaders for a truly national government. With the withdrawal of the Soviet troops, it was too late in the day. Besides, Najibullah and his followers were still regarded as having cooperated with the Soviet troops and, therefore, were marked out of court by the nationalists.

The government that followed was effete from the beginning. While Burhanuddin Rabbani seemed to have been in favour of an all-party coalition, Hekmatyar hardly cooperated with Rabbani’s government, planning his own version of Pukhtoonistan, which would have split Afghanistan’s integrity. It was in this crucial period, that Pakistan’s ISI worked out a new model of intervention—that was the entry point for the aggressive Taliban into Afghan politics.

As for Dr Najibullah, he had taken shelter at the UN premises in Kabul. He did not run away, perhaps expecting a turn in the tide of fortune of war which might provide him with an opportunity to play an important role. However, things went from bad to worse for Najibullah and finally the Taleban ferocity violated the sanctity of the UN premises and he was hanged with two of is colleagues in Kabul. Indeed a tragic finale to a courageous Afghan leader. He had the misfortune having been caught in the web of the Cold War, in which no room was left for the nationalist, as the predominance of tribal barbarism had once again raised its head, which the contenders in the Cold War could not overpower.

(Mainstream, October 19, 1996)

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