In April 1992, the Afghan Mujahideen triumphed over the Soviet-installed regime in Kabul. It was one of the most important but least understood events in contemporary Muslim history. Despite the high hopes and euphoria, it soon enough degenerated into a brutal civil war that levelled the Afghan capital. Buried amongst Kabul’s rubble was the notion that the much-acclaimed Afghan insurgency of the 1980s would herald the wave of a bright post-Cold War Islamic resurgence across the region; instead, military triumph was largely wasted because of political fragmentation and factionalism, the resultant discord eventually ushering in another occupation by a superpower.
It thus becomes necessary to trace the contours of the Afghan Mujahideen to 1992. To understand how the idea of cross-factional Islamic solidarity, so bright against foreign occupation, was betrayed by intra-Mujahideen fragmentation as well as the regime that it replaced.
A Fragmented insurgency
The recent Taliban insurgency was largely monopolized by a single, reasonably cohesive, and disciplined group. The Mujahideen insurgency against the communists that began in the late 1970s, though, was a decentralised and uncoordinated affair. Though foreign support did not take long to arrive, the uprisings across far-flung regions from Nuristan to Herat were largely spontaneous reactions to the communist regime’s brutal attempt to impose a foreign ideology on the Muslim Afghans. Even before the Soviet invasion to rescue the communist ‘revolution’ in December 1979, large parts of the Afghan periphery, including Panjsher, Kunar, Loya Paktia, and the Hazarajat were out of regime control. This was in stark contrast to another insurgency, mounted in 1975, by revolutionary Islamist activists and intellectuals against Daud Khan, the communists’ enabler-turned-victim. That insurgency had aroused little enthusiasm and been summarily dispersed.
Nonetheless, the revolutionaries – including Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who formed the particularly centralised and disciplined Hizb, and Burhanuddin Rabbani, who formed the more federated but influential Jamiat – were best positioned to assume overall political command over the Mujahideen, with strong international links and functional party groups. Yet they never quite escaped mutual rivalry or the fact that several other large groups emerged.
Amongst the Shia minority, which was mostly confined to the Hazarajat during the Afghan occupation, Asif Muhsini’s Harakat had to deal with a number of more radical, mostly Iran-backed militias that did not coalesce until after the Soviet withdrawal. Amongst the Sunnis, there were seven officially recognised organisations and several more unrecognized groups; however, few were widespread or organised enough to pose a threat in themselves. The preacher-parliamentarian Muhammad Muhammadi, for instance, founded the Harakat group largely amongst rural preachers. They were traditionalist Islamists insofar as they did not want a state-directed revolution of Afghan society. Harakat’s sprawling size, however, was wasted by a total lack of organisation. The royalist Mahaz group founded by Pir Sayid Ahmad Gailani was, by contrast, limited in popularity to mostly Durrani Pashtuns. Their monarchism was rejected by most other groups.
Moreover most groups, with the exception of Hizb, struggled to coordinate their Peshawar headquarters with the Afghan battlefield. They were essential only insofar as they could coordinate supplies distributed by Pakistan or, less commonly, by the clerical regime in Tehran. The multiplicity of groups meant that one district could contain several different militias with different approaches. Jamiat solved the problem by outsourcing decisions to leading field commanders. These included Ahmad Shah Massoud in Panjsher and Ismail Khan in Herat. Massoud’s Shuraye Nezar (Supervisory Council) in northeast Afghanistan set up a regional coordination, occasionally at the expense of dissenting fronts particularly but not exclusively from Hizb.
Hizb Islami, the only party that centrally controlled operations, was widely resented by its rivals, partly because of Hekmatyar’s overbearing ambitions but also because of the severe party loyalism it imposed. As the war wore on and Peshawar’s relative insignificance became clearer, several other commanders, Jalaluddin Haqqani at Loya Paktia and the Arsala brothers in eastern Afghanistan also tried to coordinate regional fronts even as they paid formal homage to their party leaders.
It was not until the Soviet withdrawal was imminent that the Peshawar leaders were able to form a makeshift coalition. They formed a shadow ‘interim’ government, led by Sibghatullah Mujaddidi. Mujaddidi, was a compromise candidate for his stature as the hereditary head of the Naqshbandi Sufi order. His group was the also smallest, making him more pliant. Nonetheless the shadow government proved entirely ineffective. Its overwhelmingly Sunni composition provoked a merger of revolutionary Shia groups into the Wahdat party led by Abdul-Ali Mazari. Separate axes of power – Hizb Islami party in Peshawar and the Shuraye Nezar in the northeast – act largelyed independently.
If the Mujahideen could be excused for a lack of organisation because of its broad roots, the same could not be said for the small but bitterly fractious communist movement. The April 1978 coup against Daud had been led and soon monopolised by the Khalq faction. Their leader Hafizullah Amin had so ruthlessly antagonised his colleagues that the Soviets eventually invaded and imposed Babrak Karmal, who led the rival Parcham party, to lead an uneasy communist coalition. The army that comprised Khalq’s base was marred by defection. Karmal – whose own following was largely limited to a coterie of Kabuli Farsiwan leftists – increasingly relied on his resourceful spymaster Muhammad Najibullah.
Najibullah largely bypassed the army by forming a powerful intelligence apparatus. He also outsourced Kabul’s counterinsurgency to autonomous and largely thuggish militia commanders. The most effective of these was Uzbek adventurer Abdul-Rashid Dostum. Moscow, which was now set on a face-saving exit plan, was impressed enough by Najib. He was duly installed in the place of an indignant Karmal during 1986. Najibullah emphasised the regime’s official respect for Islam and announced a ‘national reconciliation’. In practice, this meant buying off Mujahideen commanders to join the regime militias in return for their own fiefdoms. Fazal-Haq Khaliqyar, used this tactic to some effect in Herat, would become his prime minister under a nationalist Watan party.
These tactics, and the accompanying fragmentation of the Pakistani regime after the mysterious death of Zia ul-Haq, helped Najibullah survive the Soviet withdrawal. The withdrawal did not extend to aerial bombardment that supported Kabul’s operations. The Mujahideen mounted, with Pakistani encouragement, a hasty frontal attack on Jalalabad. Ill-prepared, the offensive was badly battered, and divisions amongst the Mujahideen and within Pakistan only deepened.
Yet the regime was by no means united. The Khalqis resented Najibullah on party grounds and for his reliance on militias that undercut their predominance in the army. To placate them, as well as to interdict Mujahideen routes through mainly Pashtun territory from Pakistan, he played up his Pashtun background. The result was that he irritated the non-Pashtun militias and especially the Parchamis who still resented his ouster of Karmal. These splits on both regime and oppositions sides would, in the 1990s, explode and spiral to civil war.
The Endgame – Mayhem in the 1990s
In spring 1990 Hekmatyar, with Pakistani army commander Aslam Beg’s assistance, reached out to Khalqi defence minister Shahnawaz Tanai, a hardline critic of the regime’s direction, and Tanai attempted a coup. It was only narrowly thwarted with the help of loyalist Khalqis like Tanai’s predecessor Aslam Watanjar and northern militias. Even as Tanai fled into Pakistan, Hizb’s rival parties at Peshawar were galled. Hekmatyar, they claimed, had tried to snatch power behind their backs. They thus relied more heavily on the field commanders.
Najibullah, meanwhile, had to placate both the northern militias and the Khalqi loyalists, and he swung increasingly toward the latter. In autumn 1990 the unruly militias were expelled from Kabul. Then, in early 1992 Juma Asak, a swaggering Khalqi centralist, was promoted to northern governor-general. This aggravated the militias and the Parchamis alike. It was the beginning of the end.
Dostum, the Ismaili leader Jafar Naderi, and other commanders turned over Mazar Sharif to Jamiat commanders Muhammad Alam and Ata Muhammad Noor, hitherto their sworn enemies. This started an on-off alliance, so prominent since, called the Northern Front. Massoud’s aide Doctor Abdul-Rahman, a skilful negotiator, contacted Parchami leaders; by April 1992 he had cut a deal with foreign minister Muhammad Abdul-Wakil, defence minister Muhammad Nabi Azimi, and army commander Asif Dilawar, who moved to oust Najibullah and purge the Khalqis.
The regime ended in a panicked race. Najibullah fled for the airport, hoping to make his way to India. Instead, he was barred entry. He eventually escaped to the compound of the United Nations, who would attempt, with customarily impotent urgency, to mediate between the different groups. In his wake, his spymasters Farouq Yaqubi and Major-General Abdul-Baqi were killed, showing how close he had come to death. Abdul-Wakil announced an interim government led by the non-party man, Abdul-Rahim Hatif. The government would never get off the ground.
The Parchamis, meanwhile, moved on their Khalqi rivals, targeting Watanjar, his predecessor Muhammad Rafi, and interior minister Raz Paktin. The split had a definite ethno-regionalist element; the targets were almost uniformly Pashtuns, and certainly amongst the northern militias dislike of Pashtun leadership was rife. Much as the Parchamis had rallied to Massoud, such Khalqi rivals as Rafi and gendarme commander Manokai Mangal would side with Hekmatyar.
Meanwhile the main actors on the opposition side – Hizb and the northern coalition – sped for the capital. A string of Parchami defections handed over Charikar and Bagram, just north of Kabul, to Massoud. It was only a four-pronged Hizb force led by Abdul Saboor Farid that beat back Massoud from Kabul’s gates. No sooner had Hizb announced their takeover, however, than they were rudely ejected by the Parchami-militia coalition. A short but sharp fight for the capital’s strongpoints ended with a ringing Hizb defeat, the party pushed out to the south from where it would make repeated vain attempts to storm Kabul over the next few years.
Mujaddidi’s shadow government had been watching these developments quite helplessly, but greeted the victory of Massoud and Dostum with some relief. Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif hurriedly hammered out the Peshawar Accord. In the Name of Allah, it proclaimed, various Mujahideen groups would share power in an interim cabinet led by Mujaddidi for two months before an election.
Yet Mazari, who wanted more Shia representation, and Hekmatyar, who felt sidelined by the Accords, immediately opposed the deal. Mujaddidi himself scoffed at the idea of election within two months. This irritated both Hizb and Jamiat, and when the two-month term expired they forced him out of Kabul. Rabbani took over instead, with Hizb commander Farid as prime minister. Yet before the summer’s end, Kabul would again enter war. Hekmatyar, pointing out the regime’s heavy reliance on the ex-communist Dostum, bombarded the capital. Segments of the capital were taken over by the militias of Mazari and Abdul Rabb Sayyaf, who would engage in ferocious sectarian warfare even as they backed different sides in the Kabul conflict. Over the next four years dispute after dispute would preclude any effective Afghan government, as the periphery fragmented.