Here is a fascinating interview with Mohammed Najibullah, President of Afghanistan from 1986 – 1992. See his Wikipedia entry for more information. The full article is worthwhile reading!
“Revisiting Afghanistan: A Conversation with Najibullah“, Alan Brody (22 years with UNICEF), Virginia Quarterly Review, Winter 2008 — Powerful insights about the Taliban and Afghanistan, from someone with great experience in failed states (although not an area expert). This interview takes place in March or April 1995, as the Taliban sweep to power in Afghanistan.
When reading this, think of “A Feminist Case for War?”, Michelle Goldberg, American Prospect, 27 October 2009 — she advocates war to protect Afghanistan’s women, what Bernard Finel calls “the Strongest Case for the Afghan War” (note his reply here). Steve Coll also considers this pernicious nonsense a valid casus belli. America, the mega-rogue state of the 21st century: we destroy their rights, than fight to restore them — wrecking the nation not once, but twice!
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.
… 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.
… 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.
… During the 2 years I worked 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.
… 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 4 decades, perhaps nowhere more so than in Afghanistan.
… I can remember clearly the remarkable conversation we had that night.
… 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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