A contemporary history of the Muslim world: contents


Part 1: The post WW1 carve-up, Arab nationalism in Egypt and Syria

Part 2: Palestine-Israel, political Islam in Egypt and Syria

3. Iran: Revolution #1

4. Iran: Revolution #2

5: The Lebanese civil war #1

6: The Lebanese civil war #2

7: The Lebanese civil war #3

8: Afghanistan #1

9: Pakistan to 1979

10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2

11: Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban


A contemporary history of the Muslim world: contents

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 11. Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban


Whereas the Mujahideen’s war against the communist government and their Soviet backers was one largely fought for control of the countryside, the civil war which followed from 1992 onwards was fought for control over the cities, primarily the capital Kabul, which had hardly been contested during the earlier period. Now it was all about Kabul. At the end of the last post I briefly described attempts by the various groups in April 1992 to reach an accord that would enable them to form some kind of interim power-sharing government. The plan was for the relatively-conciliatory figure of Mojaddedi (for an explanation of who all these dudes are, please see the last part) to become president for two months, and then Rabbani for four months, after which a council would be formed to stage elections. Each of the Mujahideen factions was offered a ministry: defense would go to Massoud and the Jamiat, Gailani’s group would get foreign affairs; Hekmatyar was offered the post of prime minster. The latter, however, backed to the hilt by Pakistan, had no interest in sharing power. Unhappy with offer of prime minister, he set out to wreck the agreement, denouncing the deal as ‘communist’.

Some of Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami had already made their way into parts of Kabul, but several factors told against them. Massoud had taken the surrender (and confiscated weapons) of government forces. He also had the backing of all the other major factions for the Peshawar accords’ power-sharing agreement; particularly important was the powerful Junbish-i-Milli of Abdul Rashid Dostum, who joined him in the push to expel Hekmatyar’s forces from the capital. Assisted by the Ittehad-e Islami of Sayyaf and the Hazara Hizb-e Wahdat led by Mazari, these groups took most of the key positions in the city and drove Hekmatyar’s forces out of Kabul by the end of April, but not so far away that they could not use their artillery to mercilessly shell the city, killing untold thousands of civilians. This horror went on throughout the remainder of 1992. It was complicated by the fact that it wasn’t just Hekmatyar against everyone else. In the summer, fighting between the Sunni Ittehad-e Islami and the Shia Hizb-e Wahdat descended into all-out war, with Hazara’s faction eventually going over to Hekmatyar’s side and abandoning the ‘Islamic State of Afghanistan’ which was the nominal state which the Peshawar accords had founded. Several horrific massacres of innocent civilians would follow. Especially vulnerable were the minority Shia Hazara in the capital. In February 1993, about 700 were killed in cold blood by either Massoud or Sayyaf’s forces. Responsibility is disputed to this day. Mass rape no doubt took place, although numbers are very difficult to come by, partly because the shame attached to the women meant that they often didn’t report what was done to them.

Kabul street scene, c.1992

A major problem was that there were too many actors involved who had no interest in seeing state institutions develop from the anarchy. This is true not just of Hekmatyar but Dostum, who wanted to rule an independent fiefdom in the north; the Hezb-i-Wahdat certainly didn’t want to see the emergence of a strong state dominated by Sunnis. Wars within wars. Having seen the Soviets withdraw, the outside world was now indifferent to what was going on in Afghanistan. Pakistan’s method of distributing aid to the Mujahideen groups contributed to the disunity; instead of encouraging a unified movement, the ISI preferred to finance the groups separately, keep them fighting each other. On top of all this, the humanitarian disaster was worsened by the return of roughly 1.5 million refugees, who were being sent back to the country on the understanding that war was over and the reconstruction would soon begin. Sadly, nothing could have been further from the truth.

The new state negotiated a truce, brokered by Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, with its enemies in March 1993. By this, Massoud agreed to relinquish the post of defence minister in order to get Hekmatyar onboard. This agreement broke down within a few months, however, and everyone went back to the way they were. It proved impossible to hold elections, and Rabbani extended his presidency beyond its initial term, leaving himself open to accusations of abusing power. Even worse was to follow for the government’s forces when, in early 1994, Dostum’s faction abandoned the coalition and went over to Hekmatyar’s side. The reasons for this appear to be as much to do with a power-struggle between Dostum and Massoud as anything else. Along with the Hazaras of Hezb-i-Wahdat, this coalition now appeared to pose a considerable threat to the newly-established Islamic State. Even the UN pulled out most of their staff: always a sign a government’s days are numbered. Once again, however, Massoud’s enemies underestimated his military genius, and by the summer, he had expelled Dostum’s forces from large areas of Kabul. This did not mean the government was saved. This year, 1994, saw the emergence of a new force in the south of the country who will very soon render this conflict between Massoud and Hekmatyar’s allies irrelevant and eventually drive them both out of Kabul. They were called the Taliban.

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The word ‘Taliban’ means a religious student, applied to the movement on account of the origins of many of its members in the religious madrasas run by the Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam over the border in Pakistan. This group, a more conservative, clerical-aligned rival of the Jamaat-e-Islami discussed in part 9, were inspired by the Deobandi movement of Sunni Islam, stressing orthodoxy and adherence to a strict Islamic legal code as interpreted by religious scholars. The Taliban took this fundamentalism a step further, however, and developed an idiosyncratic interpretation of sharia law that essentially sought to return Afghanistan to a state approximating the way the world looked at the time of Islam’s beginnings. These Deobandi madrasas had been around for decades, but their numbers really exploded in Balochistan and the Northwest Frontier Province (today named Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) with the influx of refugees from Afghanistan. By 1988, there were approximately 8,000 schools receiving government funding and, even more significantly, around 25,000 unregistered ones. Operating with little outside oversight, these madrasas  picked up the slack left by the inadequate state education system and were free to mould young men however they saw fit. Many of the teachers were themselves poorly-educated and taught a creed which deviated strongly from Deobandi orthodoxy in many ways. The ethos imbibed by the young Taliban, indeed, had as much to do with the collection of social mores and practices known as Pashtunwali, operating from time immemorial among the Pasthun and particularly strong in the conservative rural areas-as any set of religious precepts.

Religious schools alone, however, do not churn out fanatically-committed military movements who can conquer a country in little more than two years. The fact that a huge number of Taliban fighters were fairly young men, often orphans, who had passed through these religious schools, is, I think, key. These were Afghan refugee children in Pakistan who had never known peace. It is worth imagining for a moment what it must be like to grow up in a country like Afghanistan, which has basically been at war now (2017) for almost 40 years. An entire generation has lived and died without ever knowing anything but fighting. The brutalising effect this has on people is profound. These children, whose only education came from these madrasas, were often completely unsocialised in other ways, lacking, in their refugee camps, any semblance of a traditional social order from which to imbibe values and norms of behaviour. This heady mixture of religious fundamentalism and omnipresent violence lie at the heart of the Taliban’s story. But while they may have given the movement an edge and, even more importantly, a sense of mission, these factors alone do not account for the Taliban’s extraordinarily rapid progress across the country when they burst on the scene in 1994.

To understand how this initially small and poorly-armed group became so powerful so quickly, it must first be remembered the state of the country, and particularly the south of the country, at this time. After the failure of the Peshawar Accords, the Islamic state failed to make its writ run in large areas of the national territory. There were few means for any centralised government, even if they had been able to agree on one, to take back power. If you look back at the map near the end of the last post, you will notice that much of the country is coloured white, meaning no particular faction had control, neither government nor Mujahideen. By 1994, then, huge swathes of territory were under the control not of actors in the civil war, but warlords with their own private armies, who had little or no pretense of ideological commitment other than enriching themselves and bolstering their power. This was medieval-style anarchy. The warlords ostensibly took over many functions of the state, collecting taxes from their areas, providing rudimentary and arbitrary policing and social services. Mostly, there was fighting, and rape and death and no overarching authority to appeal to for help or justice.

This was particularly true of the south: Kandahar province, for example, where the Taliban would first emerge, led by an enigmatic Mullah (a term loosely describing an Islamic cleric or mosque leader versed in Quranic law) named Mohammed Omar. Omar had fought with the Hezb-e Islami of Maulawi Khalis during the war against the Soviet Union. Towards the end of the 1980s he was seriously injured, losing an eye, and he reportedly played little part in the civil war which followed, retreating to his village in Kandahar to focus on religious instruction. The brutality of the warlords and the exploitation (often sexual) of the local population, enraged him and his followers, and they decided to do something about it. Initially, this small armed group concentrated on protecting civilians from the criminal gangs who were employed by the warlords, who had hitherto acted with impunity. There are a number of stories of their valorous deeds doing the rounds which I won’t go into the details of, mainly because I’m not sure how authentic they are. The broad outlines of the story, however: that the Taliban won support because they offered protection from the lawlessness and random violence of the warlords, seems plausible.

It is often forgotten now, in the light of their later unpopularity, but many at the time welcomed the Taliban as better than the alternative of Hobbes’ ‘war of all against all‘. People in the west often talk about countries like Afghanistan as if the people are free agents with compete control over their destiny. This is profoundly mistaken. The choices of the civilian population in Afghanistan, like that of unarmed civilian populations everywhere in wartime, were severely circumscribed. For women, who were to suffer most under their rule, it is not dramatising too much to say that the alternatives on offer can be boiled down to a choice between being raped or forced to wear the burqa. For my part, I know which I would choose. For all that can be said about the Taliban, as they fanned out across the country conquering territory, practically no rape and little looting took place. This was in marked contrast to their adversaries conduct.

As their reputation grew throughout 1994, thousands more Taliban flooded in from the schools in Pakistan, swelling the numbers of the group. It also attracted members of the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami of Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi (see previous post) which had been powerful in the south and was now to be eclipsed by the new, more radical movement. It would appear likely the Taliban were already receiving some support from the ISI at this stage. The movement’s credibility was boosted further when a group of Taliban protected a Pakistani trade convoy on its way through the country in autumn of that year. This is a crucial moment, and gives the clearest indication of what it was that would make the Taliban such an attractive proxy force for Pakistan in Afghanistan, soon to replace Hekmatyar’s Hezb-i as the recipient of their king-making patronage. This was, let us remember, not long after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of a number of central-Asian republics bordering Afghanistan, namely: Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and Tajikistan (see the map in part 8). It was also a time when Russia under Yeltsin was in turmoil and fairly weak compared to what it had been, and what it is nowadays under Putin. Pakistan sought, therefore, to increase its influence in central Asia, both economically and otherwise, and Afghanistan was central to these plans.

First and foremost, trade (and the improved transport and communications which facilitate it) would be impossible without some degree of stability and maintenance of infrastructure, which at that moment was entirely lacking. The Taliban’s assistance in getting a trade convoy through the country gave some indication of their potential utility to the Pakistanis. But why, you might ask, not just turn to the already-established government in Kabul to perform this function? Well, they had been backing Hekmatyar for years against the government, and saw the state run by Rabbani and Massoud as inconveniently independent and, moreover, dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks rather than the Pashtuns. While the Taliban was clearly a Pashtun movement, moreover, its focus was overwhelmingly religious rather than national, so they showed little interest in Pashtun nationalism and a potential ‘Pashtunistan’ straddling the Durand line, something which further endeared them to Pakistan. As usual, Pakistan’s internal politics played a decisive role in what happened in Afghanistan. The Jamiat Ulema-e-Islam (JUI) had not been hitherto very influential in the corridors of power, especially since the Islamist regime of Zia had been replaced by Benazir Bhutto (see last post) in 1988 and, after further elections, a more conservative government led by Nawaz Sharif. In 1993, however, another election was held in which Bhutto was re-elected.

Bhutto campaigns in Punjab Province, October 1993. Credit: A. Abbas/Magnum Photos

Seeking to expand her power base, Bhutto had been obliged to reach out beyond the PPP’s traditional support of proletariat and left-intellectuals, to build bridges with more conservative Islamic elements in the country. Among these was the JUI, who lent their support to her campaign and were rewarded with influential positions within her government after 1993. They were therefore well placed to push the interests of the Taliban educated in their schools at the very time it was becoming more and more apparent that Hekmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami was not going to fulfill the hopes Pakistan had placed in it. A key figure in increasing aid to the Taliban was Naseerullah Babar (below), who had been a long-time supporter of the Bhuttos and involved in training the original generation of Mujahideen in the 1970s as a general in the army under Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. He was rewarded for his loyalty by Benazir with the post of minister of the interior in 1993. Throughout 1994-5, as the Taliban conquered Kandahar and made rapid progress through the south of the country, Pakistan gradually devoted more and more resources to the movement, and began to withdraw support for Hekmatyar.


There is something of an irony in the fact that it was a female leader who played a role in facilitating the rise of the Taliban, who became so notorious for their treatment of women, but we should not fall prey to exaggeration here. I have read accounts of how Benazir Bhutto ‘created’ the Taliban, and stuff like that, which is clearly overemphasising the extent of her influence in this respect. This being Pakistan, you have to question how much control the civilian leader really had over the military/intelligence establishment, and what scope she would actually have had to prevent the ISI and the army aiding the Taliban. Likely none. She would probably have ended up like her father if she had attempted it.

Anyway, back to the war.

Another factor that played into the Taliban’s hands was timing. It was just at the moment they were emerging that Massoud was defeating the forces of Hekmatyar, Dostum and Mazari ranged against him. Having already been driven from Kabul, Hekmatyar found himself in February 1995 on the outskirts of the city with the Taliban fast approaching from behind. He fled, and that, essentially, was the end of him as a viable alternative to the Islamic state. He had, however, left his artillery behind, which the Taliban used to start shelling Kabul themselves. To some it seemed that the Taliban were poised to overrun the Islamic State but at this point, the government rallied. Already involved in bitter battles with the Hizb-e Wahdat, the latter, who were now without their ally Hekmatyar, negotiated an ad-hoc alliance with the Taliban so they could escape Massoud’s clutches. The government’s forces inflicted a heavy defeat on both the Hizb-e Wahdat and the Taliban, however: the movement’s first serious setback. Suspecting they had been betrayed by the Hizb-e Wahdat’s leader Mazari, incidentally, the Taliban had him tortured and killed shortly after this.

March to October 1995 was an interlude of relative peace, as the government appeared to have shrugged off the threat of the Taliban and many outside observers concluded they were a spent force. Indeed, many of the Taliban’s military advances had been made not in the heat of battle but against jaded warlords who submitted without a shot being fired, recognising the way the wind was blowing. That the Taliban had been defeated by the first serious opposition they encountered was said to be indicative that they had appeared more formidable than they actually were. In the west, however, the Taliban showed they were no mere flash in the pan. A second major front was opened up against the forces of powerful Jamiat warlord Ismail Khan, aimed at advancing north towards Herat. Fierce fighting took place, as Khan received increased aid from Iran, who were concerned at the growing power of the Taliban, whose Sunni fervour could only be bad news for Afghanistan’s Shia population. By May, the Taliban had been pushed back to Helmand province, but in the months that followed, a breakdown in negotiations between the government and Dostum left Massoud hampered in his efforts to assist Khan in the west. The latter’s forces were decisively defeated attempting to defend the airbase at Shindand and Herat fell to the Taliban on September 5.

The winter of 1995-6 belied expectations that the Taliban was finished. In fact, it became increasingly clear that the movement had little or no interest in reaching accommodation with any of the extant forces fighting in the country, and would not stop until they had taken control of the entire country. The way they ran Herat after they took over gave some idea, for the first time, of what kind of regime they would establish, shattering the illusions of many Afghans that they would act as a relatively benign kind of peacekeeping force to bring stability. In Herat, the Pashtun Taliban almost immediately went into action imposing their own interpretation of sharia law, heavily influenced by Pashtun custom, upon the mostly non-Pashtun, Persian-speaking population. It became abundantly clear that the Taliban just didn’t do compromise. Part 4 of the John Simpson reports below (about 5:00 in) gives some idea of the shock of Taliban conservatism and fundamentalism upon relatively-cosmopolitan Herat. Women were suddenly told to stop coming to work and stay at home, or if they did leave the house, to cover themselves up from head to toe. Men had to wear beards, and a range of activities, from playing music to flying kites, was suddenly forbidden by edict.

A kind of panic can be detected in all quarters during the spring and summer of 1996, as a resurgent Taliban once again began to advance on Kabul, with the help of resurgent Pakistani support. Aware of this, protesters attacked the Pakistani embassy in Kabul in retaliation for the takeover of Herat. In October 1995, the Taliban had once again returned to the outskirts of the capital and started shelling it. The following film was shot during this period, possibly the lowest point in Kabul’s bitter experience of civil war, having been without electricity for three years and facing a Taliban bombardment as indiscriminate as anything Hekmatyar ever launched on the city.

In April 1996, Mullah Omar was declared the Amir, or leader of all Muslims everywhere, and a holy war was declared on the Kabul government. To mark the solemnity of the event in Kandahar, Omar got up on a building and displayed the cloak of Mohammad to his gathered supporters. The cloak is an object of veneration in Islam that is usually kept hidden in a mosque in the city, only being revealed at times of national crisis. This was the first time it had been shown publicly in 60 years. The title given to this image of the rare event: ‘Mullah Omar reveals the prophet’s cloak’, does indeed sound like something out of Game of Thrones.


Suddenly foreign governments like India, Russia, Ukraine started to take an interest in preserving Rabbani’s government and send serious aid to the government. It was all too little, too late. The desperation is palpable in the agreement made by Rabbani to bring Hekmatyar into the government as prime minister in June 1996. Bad idea. While Rabbani may have thought it would broaden his base of support, Hekmatyar was widely hated because of the carnage he had previously unleashed on Kabul. When he arrived he started issuing fundamentalist decrees about women’s dress etc. that pissed even more people off. On the whole, these efforts to co-opt the dwindling support of the Hezb-e actually damaged Rabbani’s reputation.

There was also the fact that many of Hekmatyar’s troops could not be trusted, many of them being Pashtun and sympathetic to the Taliban. These botched efforts by Rabbani to out-Taliban the Taliban are illustrated well in the botched public hanging which appears near the end of part one of the John Simpson films here. These are a series of reports Simpson made in 1996 when the Taliban were on the verge of taking power, and really give a good sense of what life was like for ordinary Afghans in that terrifying period. In our own time, an era of ’embedded’ journalists, the majority of whom are little more than ‘stenographers to power’, it is instructive to remember what real journalism looks like: someone taking the trouble to go to the centre of the action independently and really try and understand the country in its own terms. Here are the three films broadcast on Newsnight at the time, spread out awkwardly over 6 youtube clips for some reason:

Following Mullah Omar’s dramatic declaration at Kandahar, the Taliban advance once again gathered strength. Government-led attempts to re-take Herat failed, as well as efforts to push them away from Kabul’s southern suburbs. Increasingly clear that the Taliban was being provided with sophisticated arms and training by Pakistan, Massoud, who led attempts to defend the government in Kabul, realised that its capitulation was inevitable and his forces bound to be encircled if he did not take action. In the event, Taliban victory came swiftly and with little actual fighting. Jalalabad was taken on the 11 September 1996 and on the afternoon of the 26th Massoud ordered the evacuation of the capital. The Taliban took possession of the city on the following day. The first thing they did when they got there wraps up the story of Mohammad Najibullah, the ex-president who had been hiding out in the UN compound since the Mujahideen took Kabul in 1992. Rabbani’s regime, while it would have liked to put him on trial, did not dare to abduct him from UN property for fear of alienating foreign public opinion. The Taliban make it clear from the very start of their reign that they couldn’t care less about such diplomatic niceties. They entered the property and took Najibullah and his brother to the nearest traffic island where they were unceremoniously lynched.


Massoud, as well as Dostum and some other leaders, managed to escape from the Taliban’s clutches and retreat to the north of the country. In both cases, they were pursued northwards and in both cases they kept the Taliban at bay by destroying the entrance to the Panjshir Valley in Massoud’s case, and the Salang Tunnel in Dostum’s. These groups, who would in time come to form an anti-Taliban front known as the ‘Northern Alliance’ therefore survived to fight another day, and the share of territories in the country ended up something like this in the aftermath of Taliban victory in 1996:


And so begins the five-year rule of the Taliban in (most of) Afghanistan. It is the nature of this rule, and the very specific interpretation of sharia law which the Taliban enforced, which they are best known for. For good reason. What is often missed when discussions of the Taliban are folded into broader discussions of modern political Islam is just how anomalous the Taliban were in relation to other Islamist groups like the Muslim Brotherhood or the Shia revolutionaries in Iran. While modern political Islam is infused with radical political ideas and the aspiration to further Islam through the apparatus of a modern state and technology, the Taliban saw this as a corruption of the purity of Islam in the time of the prophet. The Taliban, in fact, wanted to have as little to do with politics as possible. Their vision was religious, and their goal to bring Afghanistan back to some imagined utopia of the past, free of televisions and recorded music, although it must be said the animus towards technology did not extend to giving up their modern weapons. The Taliban made Saudi Arabia seem positively liberal. There is a tendency among many westerners to think of conservative groups like the Taliban as somehow representative of Islam. It cannot be stressed enough how mistaken this is. The Taliban were at this time a very idiosyncratic sect within Islam, and to see them as representative of that religion on the whole is, quite frankly, as mad as thinking the Westboro Baptist Church somehow represent Christianity.

Neither were the Taliban internationalists in the sense that other Islamist groups were. Their offer of sanctuary to Osama Bin Laden and his followers is often interpreted as a sign that the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan (as the state was officially known under the Taliban) was a hub of international jihad. The presence of Bin Laden, however, had as much to do with a feeling of commitment to someone who was believed to have played a key role in defeating the Russians, as anything else. There was also the much-needed funds that the wealthy Bin Laden also brought into the country. The presence of Bin Laden, and other foreign fighters in the Mujahideen, will be discussed in greater detail in another part. It was only, ultimately, the presence of foreign jihadists on Afghan soil, and their attacks on Nairobi, Dar es Salaam and New York, which prompted the west to move against the Taliban.

As Simpson noted in his reports, nobody in the west gave a toss about Afghanistan by 1996. If the country had continued tearing itself apart without American or European lives being lost, there is every reason to believe the outside world would have been content to leave them to it. In likelihood, a complete Taliban victory would have been welcomed by the Americans for the stability and economic opportunities it would offer. Not only were the Taliban financed and trained by Pakistan, but it could be argued that the United States by extension also assisted their rise to power. This is unsurprising, given that the Taliban was from the start seen as anti-Iran, which the US was primarily interested in opposing. There are good reasons for believing that American diplomats saw the Taliban as a nascent version of the Wahhabists who they had helped install in Saudi Arabia. A number of quotations from the US state department from around the time the Taliban seized power are instructive here:

‘The Taliban will probably develop like the Saudis. There will be Aramco, pipelines, an emir, no parliament, and lots of sharia law. We can live with that’.

Cited in Ahmed Rashid, Taliban: Militant Islam, Oil, and Fundamentalism in Central Asia (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000), p.179.

‘The United States finds nothing objectionable in the policy statements of the new government, including its move to impose Islamic law’.

State Department spokesman, Glyn Davies, Voice of America , 27 September 1996.

‘We have no quarrel with the Taliban in terms of their political legitimacy or lack thereof’.

Assistant Secretary of State for South Asia Robin Raphel, BBC Newshour , 3 October 1996.

Given such statements, therefore, it is somewhat ironic that the Americans later reinvented themselves as the Taliban’s arch-enemy.

The Aramco mentioned in the first quote above, incidentally, is the main Saudi oil company. Between 1994 and 1998, multinational fuel concerns were actively pursuing collaboration with the Taliban, with assistance from the US government, seeking to develop Afghanistan for the transportation of natural gas through the country from Turkmenistan to Pakistan. Unocal (now owned by Chevron) announced in 1997 they were investing heavily in such a project, as did an Argentinian company called Bridas. The visit of a Taliban delegation to the United States in 1997, in which the plight of women or the Afghan population in general appears to have been conspicuously ignored, must be seen in the light of these negotiations. Claims that later interventions were motivated by such considerations should therefore be taken with a hefty pinch of salt.

Abdul Salam Zaeef (seated) ambassador of Afghanistan to Pakistan, and some other Taliban members

There is an elephant in the room which I have largely ignored here, because I will devote an entire post to the subject. This is the other major factor which gave the Taliban an edge against its enemies within the country, but which would ultimately lead to their downfall. I speak of course of Osama bin Laden and his followers. To understand him, we have to go back to the 1980s and explore the whole issue of foreign, predominantly Arab, fighters in the country during the jihad against the Soviet Union.

Featured image above: Eyes of Mullah Mohammed Omar.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 11. Afghanistan #3 : Enter the Taliban

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2


Before our detour to Pakistan last time, Afghanistan had just been invaded at the invitation of Babrak Karmal, its new pro-Soviet president after the removal of Amin. It was December 1979. The Soviets envisaged a short campaign to bolster the government and stabilise the country, after which they would depart and leave it in the hands of a regime favourable to themselves. The task facing them appeared fairly straightforward. They were one of the world’s two superpowers and Afghanistan was one of the world’s least economically and technologically developed countries. They were, however, to remain mired in the ‘bear trap’ for almost a decade and lose almost 14,000 soldiers in that time. The story of the Afghan war in the 1980s is often seen in terms of ‘what went wrong’ for the Soviet army, forming as it does part of a broader story of decline that would lead to the collapse of the communist regime in 1991. But it is more than a story of Soviet failure, because the Islamists victory was also a victory, if largely clandestine, for the Soviet Union’s enemies: the United States and their local proxy, Pakistan, not to mention the oil-rich states of the Persian Gulf. Nor should the role of the Afghan guerrilla fighters, the Mujahideen, be played down. Whatever we may think of Islamists and their ideology, they displayed tremendous personal bravery and tenacity in facing down the Soviet Goliath and ultimately forcing their withdrawal.

In the immediate aftermath of the Soviet invasion, such an eventuality was unthinkable. Shrewd observers, however, saw the warning signs that things were not going to be straightforward from the very start. It had been hoped that the replacement of Amin with Karmal (these two rulers represented rival leftist factions, the Khalqis and the Parchamis: see part 8) would begin to rehabilitate the regime in the population’s eyes. Amin had pushed through reforms with reckless disregard to popular resistance and had imprisoned and tortured thousands of individuals he perceived as standing in his way. It was this that had spurred the initial armed insurrection. This is important to state, as many seem to be under the impression that the Soviet invasion provoked it; it didn’t, it merely intensified the resistance and dragged in other outside forces. The animus to any Marxist regime had gone so far, however, for the Karmal regime to be acceptable. Its deep unpopularity was apparent to anyone who took even a casual glance behind the veil of propaganda to view the country as it really was, especially outside the urban areas, which were the only areas where the government had anything resembling popular support. Here is Karmal and some of his soldiers, pretending everything is great:


Karmal made efforts to undo some of the damage done to the state’s credibility by the Amin regime. The notorious Pul-e-Charkhi, where political prisoners had been kept, was opened and its victims disgorged to their waiting relatives with blood-curdling stories of the torture and extrajudicial executions that went on within its walls. The new president attempted to slow or tone down the more provocative reforms to win back some love. In an attempt to assuage the religious sentiment of the country, he also set up a Department of Islamic Affairs, thus making the Islamic clerics the employees of a communist government. But, if we remember from last time, the Islamist movement which led the jihad against the government and their Soviet backers were (mostly, though not exclusively, as we will see) not representatives of the traditional religious establishment. This was a modern, revolutionary movement, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood in the Arab world and Maududi’s Jamaat-i-Islami in Pakistan (see the previous post), and in many respects a reaction to the conservative religious hierarchy of the countryside which it saw as corrupt, entrenched and insufficiently fervent. The Mujahideen and their allies saw Karmal’s attempts to co-opt religion in the state’s interests as, at best, interference and at worst, blasphemous.

One of the most obvious manifestations of this unpopularity was the Allah-u-Akbar (God is great) campaign launched against Karmal’s regime after only a few months. People would gather on rooftops at night and sing the call to prayer as a symbol of non-violent resistance. This was accompanied by plenty of violent resistance as well, much of it unpredictable guerrilla-style warfare which was almost impossible to confront head-on, which demoralised government forces no end. After the Soviet invasion, instead of bolstering the Afghan state’s army, morale sank to a new low. Within a year, through desertions and defection to the Mujahideen, the army was only a third of its former size. Many Afghan soldiers, both proud of their independence from traditional enemies like the Russians, and deeply religious, saw the Soviet forces as an offense on both counts and wanted nothing to do with them. On top of this, Amin’s removal did not end the infighting within the PDPA. Despite Soviet attempts to promote unity (or at least the show of it), Karmal’s enemies within the party (the Khalqis) sowed dissent. A big row broke out over (of all things) the design of the new national flag. These rivals began to express unease about the Soviet presence in the country which, it was becoming clear, was not going to be just a short-term thing. Karmal could not even trust his own minister of the interior, and broke off responsibility for intelligence to another organisation, the KHAD (Khadamat-e Aetla’at-e Dawlati or State Intelligence Agency) handing it to one of his loyalists, Mohammad Najibullah (below), a suitably ruthless and efficient character who ran this notorious institution, which began to arrest Karmal’s left-wing opponents as well as Islamists, and fill the prisons he had emptied when he came to power up again. Najibullah will become important later on, so remember that name.

Mohammad Najibullah

The rival Khalqis had their own factional militia within the army, called Sarandoy (Defenders of the Revolution), who frequently clashed with the KHAD and sabotaged each other’s operations. So, it is no surprise they were losing the war.

But if the government forces were disunited and working at cross purposes, this is nothing to the factionalism among the Mujahideen. The complexity of the various sides fighting the war against the Soviets (and later each other) is often one of the biggest stumbling blocks for outsiders trying to understand Afghanistan’s wars. For the purposes of administering their aid, the Pakistani authorities set up an umbrella organisation for the insurgents (the Sunni ones anyway) which became known as the Peshawar Seven, because there were seven member groups and Peshawar, near the Afghan border in Pakistan (see the map in last post) was where these groups were based. They were co-ordinated and assisted by Pakistan’s secret service, the ISI, led by Akhtar Abdur Rahman Khan (below), who answered directly to Zia and whose covert operations, funded by the US, Saudis and others, were a secret even to other parts of the Pakistani state apparatus.

Akhtar Abdul Rahman Khan

Here is a brief summary of each of these groups.

We have already encountered in part 8 the leading figures in the Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic Society), Burhanuddin Rabbani and Ahmad Shah Massoud, its leading political and military figures respectively (left and right below).


The Jamiat was led by Rabbani and influenced by the ideas of Pakistani Islamist Abul Ala Maududi, discussed in the previous post. An affiliated group, the Shura-e Nazar (Supervisory Council of the North), was an extremely effective alliance of over 100 commanders in the north of the country under the command of Massoud, whose resistance to the Soviets became legendary. Both Massoud and Rabbani were Tajik and although this was the dominant ethnic group in their movement, Massoud in particular made strenuous efforts to create a pan-ethnic alliance that would one day embrace the whole of Afghan society and form the nucleus of a state to run the country when the Communists fell from power. Their ideology, while seeking to run the country on Islamic lines, saw persuasion and the assumption of power through ground-roots activism, as opposed to the violent takeover and imposition of their religious beliefs on others, which was a hallmark of the Hekmatyar and Khalis groups (see below). The Jamiat were also seen as more willing to work with non-Islamists to achieve their goals.

Massoud, ensconced in the Panjshir valley north-east of Kabul, proved such a tough nut to crack for the Soviets that they called a truce with his forces in 1983. When this period ended and the Soviet army attacked again, they found that Massoud had cleverly used the truce period to consolidate, reorganise and move his army to more defensible locations, and he proved essentially invincible for the remainder of the war. He was also less inclined to follow Pakistani direction and able to operate more independently from them on account of the further geographic distance from the border. The down-side of this was that the ISI, mistrusting him, provided him with much less material support than the other, more fundamentalist, groups. While Hekmatyar was content to see the areas under his control denuded of their population so he could have a clear field for fighting the Soviets, Massoud sought to create in his enclave a functioning alternative state with a settled population and institutions integrated into his military administration. Many believe that if Massoud had been given more support by the west, a great deal of the tragedy that was to follow in Afghanistan might have been avoided.

Two groups describing themselves as the Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party) existed, one led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and the other by Maulawi Khalis. Like Massoud, Hekmatyar had emerged from the associations of radical Muslim students in the early 1970s, having flirted with the left and been in jail for his political activities in the early part of the decade. While originally part of the same movement as Rabbani and Massoud, Hekmatyar founded Hezb-e Islami as a split-off group in 1975. The basic difference is that Hekmatyar foresaw the Islamic revolution as being orchestrated by an elite vanguard of activists using violence to seize the state institutions and harness them to their ends, unlike Rabbani’s followers, who wanted change to come through a mass movement creating pressure for change from the bottom up. I am wary of analogies, but it is somewhat reminiscent of the Bolshevik-Menshevik split that characterised the Russian communists in their early years. Except Hekmatyar was no Lenin…


As Afghanistan came under control of the PDPA and its Soviet allies, Hezb-e Islami began to receive more and more aid from the Pakistani-American-Saudi cabal. In fact, it became by far the largest recipient of such aid, and represented the kind of theocratic fundamentalist strain of Islam which the Saudis and Pakistanis wanted to see emerge in the event of communist collapse. The Americans, it appears, didn’t care-so long as they were fighting reds. These were people who went around throwing acid in women’s faces for not wearing the veil. They were received in Washington and London as the vanguard of the freedom fighters. Hekmatyar received a personal invitation to meet Thatcher in Downing Street.

While lacking the mass support of Jamiat, the fact that Hezb-e was the best-equipped and funded group active in the resistance had major consequences. The weight of this support did not necessarily translate into success on the battlefield, however. The lack of any significant base among the population meant that Hekmatyar was almost entirely dependant, and controlled by, Pakistan’s ISI. By common consent, he was a far less effective commander than Massoud, and spent an inordinate amount of time fighting other Mujahideen groups, apparently more concerned with strengthening his position in post-Soviet Afghanistan than actually helping defeat them. There was also a split within his own ranks, as more conservative, traditionalist elements associated with the rural clergy, the ulema, broke off and founded their own Hezb-e Islami in 1979 under the leadership of Maulawi Khalis. While there were some ideological differences between the two factions, in all of this we should bear in mind that rival groups were often based more on the personal rivalries of powerful warlords linked to specific geographic areas and/or ethnic groups. Ideology often played little or no role.

Maulawi Khalis and his Hezb-e had their power base in the province of Nangarhar and the city of Jalalabad, more or less halfway between Kabul and Peshawar, a pretty vital spot to occupy. Here is Khalis on a visit to Washington to meet Reagan in 1987. He’s the one on the right with the beard:


Also representing a more traditionalist strain was the Harakat-i-Inqilab-i-Islami (Islamic Revolution Movement) led by Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi (below), which had its power-base in the southern half of the country, with Mohammadi coming from Logar province, just south of Kabul. Mohammadi was one of the earliest religious clerics active in parliament and had, since the early 1960s been preaching against encroaching modernisation and secularism, especially in its Marxist form. He was one of the few Islamists elected to parliament during Zahir Shah’s experiments with elections in the 1960s, but things got progressively less comfortable for men like him in the 1970s (his brother was killed) as the left manoeuvered itself into power. When the PDPA took over in 1978 he escaped to Pakistan, where he hooked up with other leaders like Rabbani and Hekmatyar and tried to foster unity between different groups. Unable to convince the latter to agree to anything, a separate faction, the Harakat, was formed, attracting many from the south whose motivations leaned closer to religious than political. Mohammadi, as close to a conciliatory, unifying figure as you might get among the Mujahideen leaders, was elected as its head.

Mohammad Nabi Mohammadi

Two groups were connected to the Sufi religious orders. The first of these, Mahaz-i-Milli Islami ye Afghanistan (National Islamic Front of Afghanistan) was led by Ahmed Gailani, a leader of the Qadiriyyah Sufi order. They were royalists originally (for this, they were particularly favoured by British secret services-yes, they had a finger in the pie too) and advocated a fairly liberal and open society compared to the other Islamist groups, with which they were nonetheless united in their anti-communism. While they enjoyed popular support, especially among refugee groups, they were less lavishly funded by the ISI and therefore less of a military power than they could have been. Their vision is the one that will be promoted by western powers seeking to remodel the country after the fall of the Taliban. It is fitting, therefore, that a young Hamid Karzai, who will later become president, is seated on the right of Gailani in this picture from the early 1990s.


Another religious scholar who became active in politics was Sibghatullah Mojaddedi (below) of the Sufi order or Naqshbandiyah. Mojaddedi had been around long enough to have been accused of plotting to assassinate Nikita Khrushchev back in the mid-1960s. He spent some time in prison and then escaped abroad during the 1970s. As war loomed, he founded the Jebhe-ye Nejat Milli (Afghan National Liberation Front) which, again, was not funded as generously by the ISI as groups like Hezb-e Islami. While consequently not as militarily dominant, Mojaddedi and his movement were nevertheless seen as bridge-builders and honest brokers. They will, therefore, play an important role when peace agreements are being mooted.

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Mojaddedi in 1993

One character who has definitely not been seen in neutral terms is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (below), who headed the Ittehad-e Islami (Islamic Union for the Liberation of Afghanistan).  Sayyaf is one of the most interesting and resilient characters to emerge from the Afghan war(s). Sayyaf is another of those whose thought was forged in the crucible of Kabul university in the 1960s. He also received a masters in Cairo and had strong associations with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt. Of all the Mujahideen commanders he had the strongest links with the Arab world, being a fluent Arabic-speaker and enjoying close ideological ties with Saudi Arabia and the Wahabbi school of Islam. This is another aspect to note: Afghanistan is most well-known as a proxy war between the United States and the Soviet Union; less recognised is that it was also a field for the rivalry which had arisen since the Iranian revolution between their Shi’ite state and Sunni Saudi Arabia. Sayyaf was one of the  most virulently anti-Shia elements within the movement, and his group (in black on the maps below) found itself involved in intense fighting with Hazara Shia groups in central Afghanistan.

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Sayyaf in 1984

By virtue of his Arab links, Sayyaf also happened to be a major connection to the foreign fighters in Afghanistan, which we often hear about, and who will become an important of the story in the 1990s when Salafist Islamism, having faced down the Soviet threat, finds itself in conflict with America and ‘the west’. I am going to explore these groups and their involvement in Afghanistan in more detail in another post, so I won’t go into too much detail here. Suffice to say, Sayyaf was one of the Afghans closest to Osama Bin Laden, with whom he established a training camp in the Jalalabad area during the war. He is also said to have been instrumental in negotiating his flight from Sudan back to Afghanistan in 1996, but we’ll get to that another time. The non-Afghan fighters recruited by the Maktab al-Khidamat (usually known in English as the Afghan Services Bureau) in Mosques around the world will have a fairly minimal influence on the war in terms of numbers of soldiers, but their financial support and the longer-term ideological significance of their involvement will become one of the defining stories of our age.

As noted above, all of the above groups who received help from Pakistan and the US were Sunni. Revolutionary Iran was, throughout the Afghan war, not disinterested in what was happening on its eastern borders. Although distracted by both internal turmoil as the Khomeini regime sought to quell domestic opponents, as well as the devastating war with Iraq, Iran was solicitous to assist the Shia minority (about 10%) in the country, the Persian-speaking Hazara, who are most-densely concentrated in the central uplands. These people had been, since the 19th century, an embattled and neglected group in Afghan society, suffering discrimination and poverty, which led to many of them moving to Kabul, or abroad, working in poorly-paid jobs under difficult conditions. When radical movements, both left-wing and Islamist, began to emerge in the 1960s, they were one of the groups most attracted to messages of social liberation and equality. Led by Shi’ite clerics trained in the holy cities of Qum (Iran) or Najaf (Iraq), they were one of the first to rise against communist rule and kept their region (the green bit on the maps below) largely free of outside interference throughout the 1980s. Unfortunately, the various Shia groups spent a great deal of time fighting each other and, while space doesn’t permit going into these internecine conflicts, by 1989, Iran had finally convinced them to form an alliance for the mutual defense of the Hazara community. This group was called the Hizb-e Wahdat-e Islami (the Islamic Unity Party) and its first leader was Abdul Ali Mazari.


These are the major players on the anti-communist side. The pattern of the war was, in these early years, fairly predictable. The Soviet army controlled the cities, the insurgents controlled the rural 80% of the country. The Soviets attempted to use their air superiority to strike terror into the civilian population by bombing villages in the hope that they would refuse to help the Mujahideen. Did this work? Have a guess. The major effort was focused on the east of the country close to Pakistan, where the Mujahideen were coming in. Beyond this, however, the Soviets appeared to have no overall strategy to take control of the rural areas controlled by the Mujahideen. Even when they did cow an area into submission, as soon as they turned their backs, the insurgents slipped back into control. It was all eerily familiar to the difficulties the Americans had experienced trying to fight a guerilla war in Vietnam.

The Soviet forces were trained and equipped to fight a war against a conventional army in Central Europe, not a guerilla war against an enemy who could strike at them and disappear in the blink of an eye. The tide began to turn when outside aid started reaching the Mujahideen in serious quantities. In 1984, the Americans authorised the passing of Stinger missiles to the insurgents. This clip gives some indication of the profound impact this had on the balance of power. I have no idea where it’s from; in many ways it’s like an advert for Stinger missiles:

The fact that the Afghans (until then virtually powerless to do anything about the Soviet’s ability to hit them from the air whenever and wherever they wanted) could now shoot them down out of the sky, was a real game-changer. The Soviets were looking at an interminable war which neither side could conclusively win, and they knew it. But where, exactly, was all the money for this coming from? If you know anything about the Afghan war and America’s covert role in it, you will probably have heard of these characters: Charlie Wilson and Joanne Herring (below):


Wilson, as a Democratic member of congress, and Herring, the socialite wife of a real-estate millionaire, were  rather unlikely allies of the Jihadists in Afghanistan in one way. In another, it made perfect sense. Both saw the Mujahideen’s struggle as part of a broader struggle against communism, and apparently gave little thought to the forces they might be unleashing by placing advanced weaponry in the hands of religious fundamentalists. Herring was herself deeply religious and virulently anti-communist. Essentially, she saw any enemy of the Soviet Union as a friend and it was through her close personal connection to General Zia that Herring opened the doors to an exponential increase of funding for the insurgents. By 1985, this aid had bloated to almost $300 million. The Saudis promised to match dollar for dollar the Americans’ contribution. Arms dealers were of course attracted like flies on shit. To cover their tracks, the Americans and Pakistanis procured Warsaw Pact weapons, for example, stockpiles of old Soviet weapons from Egypt. Israel helped out, as did China. There were even factories in America producing copies of Soviet weapons for the Mujahideen to fire at the Soviets. It wasn’t just weapons; there was a huge training camp outside Rawalpindi in Pakistan, which churned out thousands of skilled jihadists every year.

There is, by the way, a film about Wilson and Herring called Charlie Wilson’s War, starring Tom Hanks and Julia Roberts, which I watched out of curiosity while writing this. Few things stand monument to the unshakeable hubris and pig-headed unwillingness of Americans to learn from the past, or even acknowledge their mistakes. It’s rare a movie is so bad as to actually make my jaw drop at the sheer stupidity of it, especially given that it was made after 9/11, and the so-called ‘war on terror’ and after everything we (should) know about the folly and short-sightedness of ploughing money and arms into Afghanistan. There is a sort of coda at the end where they recognise that the United States completely lost interest in Afghanistan when the Soviet Union left, and that maybe if they had built some schools and infrastructure, maybe the Taliban, al-Qaeda and all the rest of it could have been avoided. Maybe. Anyway, I watched it, so you don’t have to. With mass-media like this, it is really no surprise the Americans appear to learn nothing from their mistakes.

Anyway, back to the show. The initial Soviet belief that it could quickly reassert control over the country and get out began to fade. It became obvious that this was not going to happen, and that other political strategies would have to be explored. The most obvious one was to get rid of Karmal. Who better than Najibullah to take his place? Here’s how it went down. When Gorbachev came to power in 1985, he let it be known that the Soviets wanted out of Afghanistan, but that they would make sure they established a viable and friendly government there before they  left-easier said than done. By 1986, they had decided to replace Karmal, who went to Moscow for what he thought was a routine visit. The Russians told him he had to resign on grounds of ill-health, although one of their doctors confusingly told him he was fit as a fiddle (this is curiously reminiscent of their attempt to poison Amin, after which one of their own doctors resuscitated him). Karmal resigned and was kept around for another few months to make the whole thing look less like a coup. After he used his time plotting and trying to undermine Najibullah, however, they had him moved to Moscow where he was given an apartment and told to keep out of Afghan business from now on.

Najibullah knew that some attempt would have to be made at reconciliation with the Mujahideen groups. Offers were made to give the Islamists freedom to operate politically and to participate in running the country. A new constitution of 1987 established Islam as the state religion and offered the prospect of parliamentary democracy. All of these overtures were rejected by the Peshawar Seven, who were by this stage scenting outright victory. The bickering and infighting among them, however, did not bode well for prospects of them sharing power when the Soviets did finally leave their country. The Geneva Accords were signed in 1988 by the Afghan and Pakistan governments, with the US and USSR as guarantors. These did not take seriously into account those actually fighting the war-the Afghans themselves. Mujahideen groups were not invited to the talks, so they didn’t accept the agreement. These negotiations saw the Afghan war in terms of a proxy Cold War conflict, but to the Afghans it was a war of national liberation and religion. The fact is the Afghans didn’t care about the Americans’ war against the Soviet Union, and the Americans didn’t care about the Afghans’ war either. Nevertheless, a timetable was laid out for Soviet withdrawal. They would all be gone by 15 February 1989. Here is the last tank and the last soldier walking across the ironically-named Friendship bridge between the two countries:

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Gorbachev’s attempts at both saving face and leaving behind some semblance of stability were, however, wrecked by the Americans and Pakistan. Not to suggest that the Soviet Union were anything less than a brutal army of occupation and ruthless in their conduct of the war, but the fact remains that if honest efforts had been made by the US to support a government of reconciliation between the government and the more tractable of the Islamists, there is every reason to believe that Afghanistan might have found something resembling peace after the Soviet withdrawal. Gailani’s Mahaz-i-Milli, based around Kandahar and in the east, put feelers out for a peaceful transfer of power and the return of the king, Zahir Shah, who had been exiled since 1973 (see part 8). His movement enjoyed popularity among the Afghan people and refugees, but this popularity was not translated into power because the US-Pakistan favoured instead groups like Hakmatyar’s Hezb-e Islami. Hardliners in the Reagan and Zia regimes chose to stymie efforts at reconciliation and instead push for total victory and humiliation of the USSR.

In the short term, ordinary Afghans paid the price; in the longer term, the west would also have cause to regret this. The Americans had originally committed themselves to cease arming the Mujahideen when the Soviets withdrew, but after withdrawal they went back on this promise and instead raised the bar for their compliance, demanding the Soviets cease sending any aid to the Najibullah regime. The Pakistan foreign minister described the Geneva Accords, which his own government had signed, as ‘an inconvenient episode that interrupted play’. Arms continued to flow in, and instead of going to factions who were prepared to compromise to put an end to the bloodshed, the money raised by Wilson and Herring went to those groups who sought nothing less than to impose a theocratic autocracy on the country. It is here the seeds of Afghanistan’s tragedy in the 1990s were sown.

Here is a map of how things stood when the Soviet Union pulled out:


Basically, Najibullah’s government controlled little more than the big cities and roads, the bits in red. His regime was expected to fall to the Mujahideen within weeks or months. In fact, it lasted far longer than many experts expected it would without outside help. They had had time to prepare a defensive war against the Islamists, who were nowhere near as effective fighting an offensive, conventional-type war that took on armies in the field and  actually had to take territory instead of just frustrating and wearing down another army. The difficulty became apparent when they attempted to take Jalalabad in March 1989. The plan, heavily urged on the Mujahideen by the US and Pakistan, was to capture the city, which was to become the capital of a government-in-waiting, led by Hekmatyar as Prime Minister and Sayyaf as Foreign Minister, which would then use it as a base to extend its rule over the whole country.

I should mention at this moment that by this point Zia and Rahman Khan were dead, having been killed in 1988, in a mysterious plane crash/explosion in which the US ambassador and several high-ranking generals were also killed. The identity of the perpetrators was never established. Pakistan was now led by Benazir Bhutto (below), and I really can’t pass this by without some tangent explaining how, after years of Islamic rule and conservatism under Zia’s military rule, this came to be the case.

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The closer Zia’s Pakistan allied to the U.S., the more he came under pressure to cloak his regime in at least the appearance of legitimacy. His first nod to this expedient was to hold, in 1984, a referendum on his measures to Islamise the administration. His proposals were approved with 98.5% of the electorate voting yes, which tends to happen in cases like this. He held elections the next year which took place under such strict constraints (parties were forbidden and everyone had to run as an independent) that boycotts were called from many of the big political groupings. A technocratic government was nevertheless formed and martial rule officially ended, although not before Zia passed a series of laws making it impossible for anyone to prosecute him for anything he had done while he was dictator. Notwithstanding this, Zia became unhappy with the resulting government anyway, which he denounced as corrupt three years later, promising to hold new elections, with similar limitations.

But Pakistani politics had gotten a lot more interesting since the 1985 elections, with the return to the country of Bhutto, the daughter of Zulfikar Ali discussed in the last post. Benazir was as charismatic as her father and, along with her brothers, was repeatedly arrested and held in dreadful conditions in years following Zulfikar Ali’s hanging. Such were the effects on her health of being kept in solitary confinement in the desert, Zia bowed to outside pressure and allowed her to leave the country in 1984. From London, she led the PPP in exile, helping to orchestrate the pressure that prompted Zia’s holding of the referendum and elections. Bhutto called for a boycott of the new elections Zia planned to hold in 1988, but when Zia was killed that August, only two months before said elections, they suddenly became far more meaningful. Bhutto led the PPP to victory that November, becoming the Muslim world’s first female leader.

Hopes were high that Benazir Bhutto’s term as prime minister would usher in a new more enlightened era in Pakistani politics, and while this isn’t the place to go into its domestic consequences, in relation to the Afghan war, little changed. Despite her hatred of Zia and the ISI who had tormented her family for more than a decade, she retained his advisers and did not radically alter his policy towards the war. So, by the time the Mujahideen assaulted Jalalabad in March 1989, on the Pakistani side, nothing had changed, while everything appeared to have changed. The Mujahideen offensive was a failure and the government forces there held firm, putting up much fiercer resistance than expected. Unlike earlier in the war, mass defections did not take place. No doubt the defenders realised there would be no quarter given them if they lost. Having seen how the insurgents treated surrendered soldiers, they probably figured they might as well fight to the death. Khalis’ group, for example, had killed 70 army officers after capturing nearby Samarkhel.

Najibullah’s plan now was to dig in and appeal to more moderate elements among the Mujahideen to form a government of reconciliation, hoping that he would eventually wear them down. In a sense the tables were now turned. The government could appeal to Afghan nationalism and the claims of loyalty to the qawm, arguing that they were defending the country from forces who were being orchestrated by a foreign sponsor. Their forces showed more fight in these years, especially those led in the north of the country by Abdul Rashid Dostum (below), whose militia was drawn mainly from the Uzbek community and initially was chiefly responsible for defending the oilfields in the province of Jowzjan. As time went by, Dostum capabilities and the swelling ranks of his militia by disaffected from other groups (including Mujahideen), made this the most effective force at the government’s disposal and the only one really capable of moving around the country to plug holes in its defenses. With the departure of the Soviets, it took up much of the slack.

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While the government was able to hang on in Kabul until 1992, however, Najibullah’s strategy was doomed for a number of reasons. Firstly, the Americans and Pakistan had no intention of allowing some kind of negotiated peace to put an end to the war; they wanted total victory; secondly, Najibullah faced plotting and conspiracies among his own party, and in 1990 was almost overthrown in an attempted coup by the rival Khalqis (yep-that is still going on); thirdly, while the Afghan government continued to receive aid from the Soviet Union even after the latter’s troops pulled out, as we all know, the period from 1989 to 1991 saw the collapse, breathtaking in its rapidity really, of first the eastern European satellite states and then the USSR itself. All assistance to the government, therefore, came to an end at this point. All he could do was sit in Kabul and wait for the Mujahideen to come rolling into town. The final nail in the coffin was the defection of Dostum’s militia, now known as the Junbish-i-Milli Islami (National Islamic Movement of Afghanistan), as the insurgents closed in on Kabul in March 1992. This was less for ideological than pragmatic reasons. The writing was already on the wall, and the loyalty of the various local militias was very much linked to whether or not the government could supply them with enough arms to maintain their power in their area. Leaders like Dostum were effectively turning into local warlords, a signs of things to come for Afghanistan in the years ahead, where keeping power was an end in itself as any kind of centralised state collapsed and was replaced by a series of de facto independent fiefdoms.

Junbish therefore, became one of the factions now moving in to fill the power vacuum as the government collapsed, working initially with Massoud’s forces, who were also among the first to reach Kabul. Najibullah resigned on March 18 (he was prevented from escaping by Junbish and forced to seek refuge in the UN compound) and the few government forces remaining capitulated in the weeks that followed, setting up an interim authority to hand over power to Massoud’s forces, who were approaching from the north. Massoud, however, was reluctant to enter the city without reaching a power-sharing deal with the other factions beforehand. He hesitated, therefore, and put out feelers to the other groups. Here is the situation in the country as a whole around the time the various factions were closing in on Kabul in April 1992 (most of the groups also had forces around the capital):


Massoud’s overtures resulted in an agreement to form an interim power-sharing agreement with the various groups. It would be nice to report that everyone got together and buried their differences in the interests of national salvation, and that the story ends there. As you probably already know, this isn’t what happened. Hekmatyar, urged on by Pakistan, refused to accept the post of prime minister and instead, dug in on the southern outskirts of the city with heavy artillery and urged his Hezb-e Islami on to outright victory. This should really come as no surprise. Massoud and Hekmatyar’s forces had effectively been at war for several years already, frequently attacking each other, and Pakistan were not keen to see Massoud and his followers assume positions of power in a postwar Afghanistan. He had all along acted largely independently of the ISI and frequently disparaged their strategic choices, being a vociferous critic of the Jalalabad offensive for example. I will leave it to another post to relate what happened next. I wrote something a while back about trying to make my posts shorter from now on; yet this one is already over 6000 words and, it will come as no surprise to hear, this story is far from over.

Featured image above: Ahmad Shah Massoud and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar attend talks outside Kabul in 1992 to end fighting between the Mujahideen factions.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 10: Afghanistan (and Pakistan) #2

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 9: Pakistan to 1979


While the last post took the story up to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, before continuing that story, I thought it would be useful to examine the history of Afghanistan’s near-neighbour, Pakistan, since it achieved independence in 1947. This is because Pakistan will play such a central role in the Afghan war which rages to this day, even if they were never formally a party to the conflict. Pakistan is also important in its own right. Its conflict with India over Kashmir, and a complicated relationship with the United States, which has acted as its patron and largely bankrolled its highly-militarised regime, is a  vitally important dynamic in the west’s relationship with the Islamic world as a whole in the last century.

Pakistan is a modern creation (the name means ‘land of the pure’), an idea created in the twilight years of British rule in India, when the sub-continent’s 80 million Muslims feared domination by the Hindu majority that would inevitably emerge when the country gained independence. To understand why this fear existed, we would have to go back and look at the history of the sub-continent since the Mughal invasions of the sixteenth century. Space does not permit such a detailed examination here. Suffice to say, the history of Muslim rule over large parts of India had been punctuated by episodes of violence and oppression, and it would be misleading to claim that animosity between the two communities was purely a product of the period of British rule. The British ‘Raj’ had its beginnings in the 18th-century rule of the British East India Company over parts of Bengal, to gradually spread over the whole sub-continent, reaching its greatest extent in the years after the state took over control from the company following the 1857 uprising of Indian soldiers against their British officers.

While it would be simplistic to claim that both religions co-existed without any tension whatsoever before the arrival of the British, it would be equally simplistic to posit an unbroken tradition of enmity between the two stretching back centuries. A highly-syncretic civilisation had emerged in India in which Hindus and Muslims lived side by side, adapting elements of each others’ faiths; ethnic boundaries were fluid and there is little evidence to suggest that the two communities thought of themselves as different nations until the tensions leading up to independence in the twentieth century. What happened, then? There are many indications that Hindu-Muslim tension was deliberately stoked by the British, especially in the decades when it was losing its grip on the colony, in a classic imperialist strategy of divide and rule. Attempting to play the Muslims off the Hindu majority, the  British increasingly favoured Muslims in an attempt to siphon away support for the independence movement, the Indian National Congress party, led by Gandhi and Nehru.

To some extent, this policy paid off, for a time. While both communities had supported Britain in World War One, the Second World War was a different matter. Congress, exasperated by what it saw as broken promises and the lack of consultation when bringing India into the war, refused to support the British and demanded independence. Other groups, such as the Indian National Army led by Subhas Chandra Bose, actively worked with the Axis powers to drive the British out. The one group who wholeheartedly supported the Allied war-effort was the All India Muslim League, led by Muhammad Ali Jinnah (below). This represented the interests of the Muslims of India (although there were many Muslim members in Congress and indeed Jinnah had once been a member), although it had not always had as its explicit object an independent Muslim state. Some in fact argue that the idea of Pakistan started out as a position taken by the All-India Muslim League to secure better conditions within India, that they did not necessarily intend to achieve a separate state but that it came to be expected by their followers. This is why so little preparation seems to have been done to rule this new state.


After the war, it became clear that a financially hollowed-out Britain would have to grant India independence. Some such as Gandhi, argued for a united independent India encompassing ethnic and religious differences, but the momentum had swung the way of those advocating partition. The British, grateful for the Muslims’ loyalty in the war, were predisposed to give them their wish. In June 1947, the last British viceroy, Louis Mountbatten, shocked all parties to the negotiations by unilaterally announcing that power would be transferred to an independent India and Pakistan by August 15, 1947, that is: he gave them less than three months to sort out the fate of millions of people on either side of the new border. This clumsy British withdrawal, chiefly designed to serve their own interests in the region, should sound familiar: look back at post 2 and recall the effects of their hasty withdrawal from Mandate Palestine, leaving the Arabs and Jews to fight it out for territory. The British left India then, with barely a shot fired in anger, after ruling it for 300 years and causing untold millions of casualties. But if anyone believed partition was going to occur painlessly, they were tragically mistaken.

When the country was divided in August, the border left millions of Muslims ‘stranded’ in India and millions of Hindus in Pakistan. This is not to mention the fact that the new border cut right across the Punjab, dividing that land in two and leaving millions of Sikhs on either side, most of whom fled to India. The carnage was unbelievable, as people left areas in which they had been settled, often for centuries, and scrambled over to the ‘right’ side of the border. Inter-communal rioting occurred which ultimately left 1-2 million people dead, 15 million displaced, and saw the rape of perhaps 75,000 women. Those who claimed Hindus and Muslims were intractable enemies used these events (which they had done much to orchestrate) as evidence that their warnings had been prescient. In fact, none of this was inevitable and the tragedy of partition is that it was a specifically modern, 20th century, creation, and not the result of some age-old animosity. If anything, it was the inevitable consequence of applying a concept of European-style ‘nationalities’ living in ethnically-homogenous territorial ‘nations’ which was really a totally inappropriate model for the sub-continent.

India emerged as a multi-ethnic nation with a loosely-defined national identity, while Pakistan defined itself by its religion. In fact, both ‘nations’ shared a great deal in common with each other while at the same time being internally very diverse. Islam has not always been enough to pull together Pakistan’s disparate ethnic groups. The issue of language is telling: Hindu and Urdu, which became the standardised ‘national languages’ of India and Pakistan, are basically dialects of the same language with different alphabets which, like Serbian and Croatian, are regarded as separate languages for political reasons. Urdu, while a lingua franca throughout the country, is actually only the first language of about 8% of Pakistan’s population, most of whose people speak either Punjabi (44%), Pashtun (15%), Sindhi (14%), Saraiki (10%), Urdu (8%) or Balochi (3%). At independence, of course, these figures looked very different. Pakistan consisted of two parts, separated by thousands of miles, like this:


Taking the eastern part into account (the eastern half of what had been the Indian province of Bengal) Bengali was the largest language in the country, spoken by 54% of the population, but Urdu was made national language. Given that other unifying factors were somewhat lacking, therefore, a kind of national identity based on religion was very important in giving Pakistan some sense of cohesion. This is somewhat ironic, given that Jinnah and many of his colleagues were secularists, and resented the way Gandhi had brought religion into politics. Jinnah himself was a non-observant Muslim who drank alcohol and reputedly ate pork. As noted above, he had not always been an advocate of a separate Muslim state, and only gradually became convinced, likely through the influence of the poet and philosopher, Muhammad Iqbal (below), with whom he held a lengthy correspondence, and who is considered the spiritual father of Pakistan.


Iqba, whose poetry in both Urdu and Persian is famous throughout the Muslim world, had been educated in Europe and knighted by the British. While studying law in England, he had become a member of the Muslim league, and became convinced that the rights of Muslims in India could not be secured without their own state. He developed in tandem with his political ideas an interpretation of Islam as a force for social renewal and liberation, anti-imperialist and critical of capitalism, somewhat anticipating the ideas of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Sh’ia revolutionaries in 1970s Iran. His vision of Islam, however, was more attuned to a conception of the Ummah or community of all Muslims throughout the world rather than a narrow nationalistic focus on the nascent Pakistan, nor did it advocate fundamentalism or a return to some imagined ‘purity’ of the past.

In this, Iqbal differed from another of Pakistan’s spiritual precursors, and one of the founding intellects of political Islam in the twentieth century, Abul A’la Maududi:


There would always be a tension in Pakistan, to this day, between those who want religion to play a greater role in the political life of the country, and those who don’t. Maududi very much represents the former camp, and would linger on the margins of Pakistani politics until late in his life, when his ideas’ time finally came in the late 1970s. While the founder of Jamaat-e-Islami, one of Pakistan’s largest conservative, Islamist political parties, Maududi does not fit neatly the definition of ‘politician’, being rather a theological scholar active in politics. He initially opposed the idea of a state for Muslims as envisaged by Jinnah, who had declared before the newly-constituted assembly in 1948:
‘You may belong to any religion or caste or creed. That has nothing to do with the business of the State’.
Maududi and his followers, on the other hand, believed that such a state should only be founded if it was ruled according to the precepts of the Qur’an. They did not, initially at least, get their way. Pakistan, for the first few decades of its existence, was dominated by a secular ruling class and, while ostensibly Muslim in character, could certainly not be described as theocratic in any way. If any caste could be said to have ruled the country, it wasn’t the clerics, or even the capitalists, but the military. It took almost a decade for the Pakistani ruling elite to agree to a constitution, which was promulgated in 1956. This gave some concessions to the Islamists, that no laws would be made contrary to sharia, for example. This constitution would, however, be scrapped when the head of the army, Ayub Khan, seized power two year later, and replaced it with a more secular one which was in effect throughout the military dictatorship which followed. In fact, in the 70 years since it achieved independence, Pakistan has been under military rule for almost half that period (1958-1971, 1977-1988, 1999-2008). It might reasonably be asked, given that neighbouring India developed fairly robust civil institutions and maintained civilian rule for most of its history, how did the Pakistani army grow so strong? The origins of this dominance can be summed up to a large extent in one word: Kashmir.
Kashmir is the area in grey on the above map, and is shown in more detail below, which shows the areas under the control of the respective actors in this conflict at the present day. The enmity with India has been, along with religion, the other great unifier for Pakistanis, and while not the only source of conflict, disagreement over to whom belongs Kashmir has been at the heart of their rivalry.


This conflict began as partition was being thrashed out in the 1940s. The territory over which the British ruled in India consisted in many cases of what were known as ‘princely states’, areas ruled over by nominally-independent local sovereigns, known as Maharaja or Raj (often used for Hindu rulers) or Nizam or Nawab (for Muslims). The British called them all ‘princes’ to emphasise their inferiority to their own king or queen, and they were ruled by the British, but more indirectly than the other areas provinces. In the years before independence, these princely states (there were almost 600 of them, covering about 40% of modern India’s territory) were pressurised into integrating into a more closely-knit Indian federation, which most of them agreed to, if reluctantly. One ruler who held out the longest was the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir, Hari Singh (below). A Hindu, Singh ruled a predominantly Muslim state, but resisted pressure to join his territory to either India or Pakistan even as those nations became independent, hoping to play both off one another and maintain his own independence.

Hari Singh, the last ruling Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir.

His hand was forced by an invasion of Pashtun militia from eastern Pakistan, widely-believed to be backed by the new Pakistani state. This, along with an uprising by Muslims in Kashmir who were demanding that the Maharaja recognise the religious allegiances of the majority and accede to Pakistan, pushed Singh into the Indian camp, despite his dislike of the Congress party. In return for Indian military assistance, he signed the Instrument of Accession in October 1947, Jammu and Kashmir became (on paper) a part of India, and the Indian army invaded Kashmir. In response, the Pakistani army piled in too and the first Indo-Pakistan war (1947-8) occurred, with inconclusive results. The ceasefire line agreed to at the end of the war followed roughly the ‘line of control’ which divides the two armies in Kashmir to this day, although there would be a further three wars, besides constant tension, to follow, and that is only so far. We can’t go into the ins and outs of the Kashmir conflict here. Suffice to say it has been devastating for the region. What is germane here is the effect this overwhelming obsession with the threat from India had on Pakistani society.

Pakistan survived barely ten years after independence under civilian rule. A huge vacuum was left after Jinnah’s untimely death in 1948. Few of his peers were able to fill his shoes such was his charisma and stature. The prime minister, Liaquat Ali Khan (below), provided a measure of continuity, having been a close associate of Jinnah and first foreign minister as well, attempting to lead Pakistan in a non-aligned direction, although finding himself compelled to lean towards the United States and the west instead of the Soviet Union (this was during the Cold War, when it was pretty difficult for a country in Pakistan’s position to sit on the fence), which had been advocated by leftists in the country, who attempted to seize power in a failed coup (the first of many) in 1951. Later that year, Khan was assassinated at a rally and his assassin killed, the motive and backers of this assassination remaining somewhat mysterious to this day. The assassin was an Afghan Pashtun, leading some to suggest that it was a part of the Pashtun struggle for an independent state carved out of Afghanistan and Pakistan (see the previous post); others, meanwhile, have speculated that the Americans had Khan killed because he refused to allow the CIA to establish bases in the country or help with American efforts to secure control of Iran’s oil-fields.


This complicated (and frankly unhealthy) relationship with the United States will dominate Pakistan’s history for the next seventy years. While Liaquat Ali Khan had been hesitant about committing Pakistan to the American side, his successors became less and less so, binding their country in dependency to the Americans and attempting to exact as much as possible from the relationship, while at the same time seeking to commit as little as possible to the Cold War conflict, so as to maintain the focus on what really concerned them: fighting India. The Kashmir conflict, as well as worries over Pashtun, Bengali and  Baloch separatists, allowed the state to justify retaining a ridiculously large army. 75% of the budget was going to the military in the first year of its existence and they only became more powerful, especially as the Americans, who were holding the purse strings, came to favour military figures over civilian ones as time went on, the former generally being more fervently anti-Communist.

The Americans became such domineering benefactors of Pakistan somewhat by default. Immediately after independence, they had attempted to woo India (the world’s second-most populous country after all) into their sphere of influence, but the Indians under Nehru were committed to a policy of non-alignment and were reluctant to take sides in the Cold War. This irritated the Americans no end. Pakistan became more important under Eisenhower’s regime, and especially under the secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who was convinced that Nehru’s India was under Soviet influence. Dulles’ ignorance of the region is attested by the fact that he thought the Gurkhas (a Nepalese, mostly-Hindu people) were Muslims from Pakistan. This ignorance helped the Pakistanis convince the Americans they were far more committed to the anti-Communist cause than they really were. They were almost too successful in this: when Nixon came to visit as vice-president in 1953, they were so convincing that he concluded they would never go communist, even if they were left without American support.

In 1954 a mutual defense agreement was signed, which displeased Islamists, who wanted closer ties to the Muslim world, and those on the left who did not want such close alignment with west and were worried that militarisation was being pursued at the expense of development at home. Pro-western elements in Pakistan in turn used the threat of these elements taking over to get the Americans to send more money. The more American money was sent, the stronger the army became at the expense of the rest of the country. By the late 1950s, even the American ambassador was expressing concern at this trend. By then, any pretense of civilian government was abandoned. As mentioned above, a military coup in 1958 deposed the president, an office instituted by the new constitution two years earlier. The new ruler, Ayub Khan (below), had been commander-in-chief of the army since 1951, leading a faction who sought an end to what they saw as the instability of party politics and believed the army were better placed to manage relations with the United States.

Mohammed Ayub Khan

The Ayub Khan years saw a deepening of dependency on the Americans. At the same time, military rule (Khan had himself legitimised by some plebiscites but lets not kid ourselves) did little to stabilise the country or improve the lot of the population. During Kennedy’s presidency, the Pakistanis were perturbed by the Americans’ attempts to improve relations with India, seeing this as a threat to their own interests. What they never really grasped was that the Americans were never interested in their conflict and saw nothing mutually exclusive about alliance with either India or Pakistan. War over Kashmir erupted once again in 1965, after Ayub Khan sent in infiltrators to the area to foment an insurgency. India responded with overwhelming force and are generally agreed to have had the upper hand when a United Nations ceasefire was mandated after a few weeks of fighting. While claiming victory, his obvious failure undermined Ayub Khan in a number of ways. Seeing the Tashkent agreement which ended the war as a climbdown, Ayub Khan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs, Zulfikar Ali Bhutto,who had been a chief architect of the war, resigned and publicly opposed the president, forming an important new locus of power in the country. That name, Bhutto, is one to remember.

Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

The government had also encouraged a wave of jihadist enthusiasm to boost morale for the war. Not for the last time, a ruler who was not particularly interested in religion, but used it for cynical opportunistic reasons, found himself unable to control the forces he had unleashed once the genie was out of the bottle. The war also intensified unrest in East Pakistan, which had been left undefended, and where the Bengalis had long been resentful of the western part of the country’s domination. This was evident from the very start, when, as noted, above, Urdu was made the country’s national language despite the fact that Bengalis were a majority. Disaffected Bengalis’ organised themselves into the Awami League, which initially led a campaign to secure greater rights for Bengalis within Pakistan but, when these were met with intransigence by the regime, found itself spearheading an independence movement. Along with the Pakistan Peoples Party, which had been founded by Bhutto, now a fierce critic of Ayub Khan’s regime, they led protests against his rule which eventually led to his resignation in 1969, to be replaced by another military leader, Yahya Khan.

Screenshot from 2016-12-25 20:33:12.png

The Bengali struggle for independence becomes crucial here. Since independence, a concentration of power in the western part of Pakistan went deeper than simply language rights. East Pakistan received proportionally less investment, and partition had affected its economy particularly severely. This area, after all, constituted the eastern part of what had been one province of Bengal under British rule. The rapid deterioration of relations with India cut off many Bengali traders from their traditional markets across the border. A devastating famine in the middle of World War Two killed approximately 3 million people. The British no doubt exacerbated this by refusing to take measures to check inflation of food prices and provide aid to meet the shortfall, choosing instead to prioritise the war effort and ship food to their troops. The attitude of British prime minister Winston Churchill towards the victims can be imagined, given that he told the Secretary of State for India: “I hate Indians. They are a beastly people with a beastly religion.” The famine was their own fault, he declared at a war-cabinet meeting, for “breeding like rabbits.”

By the 1960s, the British were long gone but the Bengalis in East Pakistan had a mounting list of grievances that found voice in the Six point movement, led by the Awami league and its leader, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman (below). The growing power of the Bengal national movement, as well as its cultural wing, advocating a sense of Bengali national identity that overrode any common Islamic identity with the western half of the country, became an important part (along with Bhutto’s PPP) of the growing calls for a return to civilian rule and representative democracy. The incompetent response of the government to the 1970 cyclone which hit Bengal, killing 3-500,000 people, also fueled the flames and the military rulers were forced to concede elections in 1970, the first, incidentally, to be held in Pakistan since independence over 20 years earlier.

Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

In these elections, the Awami league won 167 of the 169 seats in the east and a majority of the seats in parliament overall. The PPP was the second-largest party and Bhutto refused to accept Rahman’s right to form a government, being steadfastly opposed to the Six Points and any move towards greater autonomy for the Bengalis. An agreement was reached whereby the two would share power, but the army concluded the Bengalis had already set their stall out for independence and launched an operation (named ‘Searchlight’) in March 1971  to smother the secessionist movement. Having secured control of all the cities and towns, transport and communications infrastructure, the Pakistan army proceeded to carry out a series of atrocities which resulted in the deaths of millions (figures are hotly-disputed), as well as the systematic rape of women on a huge scale. Bengali intellectuals were deliberately targeted, but in general, being an able-bodied Bengali male was enough to get you killed. The atrocities provoked an international outcry, although the Nixon government declined to criticise their allies in West Pakistan. Despite the somewhat bizarre belief that all of this would somehow help Pakistan stay united, the possibility of a negotiated maintenance of Pakistan’s unity was now gone. The independence of Bangladesh was declared and, by December 1971, with millions of refugees having fled into their country, India finally decided to intervene, defeating Pakistani forces in only 13 days.

Bangladesh liberation flag

 This humiliating defeat not only led to the splitting off of East Pakistan as the new nation of Bangladesh; it also sounded the death-knell of Yahya Khan’s rule. While Bhutto had been opposed to the breakaway of Bangladesh and supported military intervention, he distanced himself from Khan as things went wrong and criticised his government for mishandling the war. By the time Khan resigned in December, with the Pakistani army facing defeat, Bhutto was ready to assume the role of president and for the first time Pakistan had a left-leaning, elected civilian leader. He was actually in New York at the time, where he was busy making this rabble-rousing speech at the UN security council:

Despite reasons for optimism among the masses at his promises to engineer social justice and reform, Bhutto inherited a Pakistan which was in a dire position, both diplomatically and psychologically. Perceiving itself as having been abandoned by its American (and Chinese) allies, the country saw itself facing an existential threat from India, and other independence movements in the country who took heart from the Bengalis’ achievements. A paranoia (not entirely new and not entirely unjustified, it must be added) took hold, which accelerated Pakistan’s drive to obtain nuclear weapon capability, of which Bhutto was the most enthusiastic proponent. The perceived necessity of this only became more acute in May 1974, when India tested its first atomic bomb in the deserts of Rajasthan, just south of the Pakistan border. Pakistan would not successfully detonate its first nuclear device until 1998, but much of the groundwork was laid in the Bhutto years. Having secured a new constitution in 1973, Bhutto shifted from president to prime minister in that year and led a series of land reforms and campaigns against corruption, seeking to create a robust parliamentary democracy and introduce widespread nationalisation of key industries.

Bhutto’s programme for transforming Pakistan into a modern socialist state was, with hindsight, probably too ambitious and not shared by sufficient numbers of the ruling elite to be carried out effectively. Despite attempts to root it out, corruption remained endemic, the nationalisations were successful in some sectors but ruined many small businessmen, efforts to reform the army provoked an attempted coup which, although it was suppressed, merely postponed the problem rather than dealt with it. As time went by, Bhutto was also seen by many of his socialist allies as having compromised on key points of principle and abandoned by them. By the next elections in 1977, he faced stiff opposition from an alliance of conservatives and leftists, as well as Islamists, and attempted to have many of these tried on charges of treason (always a sign of desperation). While the opposition failed to achieve an outright majority in the election, Bhutto was widely believed to have rigged the results. In the face of protests, negotiations took place with the opposition to arrange new elections, but before this could be done he was arrested and deposed on the orders of one of his favourite generals, Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, who we have already come across in the previous post. Here’s another picture of the dude, because he is so darn handsome:


This was July 1977. Although General Zia said he would hold elections within a few months, he did not (surprise, surprise). Bhutto was released from captivity after a period but began canvassing up and down the country for his political comeback. He was arrested on charges of having a political opponent murdered in September and this time, the military government were determined to nail him. The trial and appeals were widely condemned by those present as a kangaroo court, and leaders around the world pleaded with Zia for clemency, but to no avail. Bhutto was hanged in Rawalpindi in April 1979. This is not the last, incidentally, we will hear of the Bhutto family.

One country conspicuously absent from the list of Bhutto’s mourners was the United States, and it is widely suspected that they engineered his deposition and judicial murder in order to see a more anti-Communist regime in Pakistan. They got this in Zia, who initiated a series of reforms aimed at the Islamisation of the country, specifically, applying sharia law. This could mean cool stuff, like preventing banks from charging interest and making everyone give 2.5% of their income to charity, but also less cool stuff like new blasphemy laws and whipping, amputation, and stoning to death as punishment. All this, remember once again, took place with the blessing the good old US of A, just as they bankrolled similar fundamentalist Islamic regimes in Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf. But there has always been, even back then, an ambiguity in America’s alliance with Islamists. Even while supporting them in Pakistan, there was (and still is) an undercurrent of anti-American rhetoric on the ground in Pakistan. The American embassy was burnt down by Islamists in 1979 just at the time they were funding the jihad in Afghanistan.

Zia took power just in time to become a crucial player in the mujahideen’s war against the Soviet Union, which brings us neatly back to the point at which the last post ended, at the start of that war. For years, Pakistan had tried to convince the United States of its position on the front line of the Cold War in the hope of securing financial aid, not entirely successfully. With the communist takeover in Afghanistan, this boast suddenly became a reality, and with the Americans unwilling to openly aid the Islamists there, but eager to help them secretly, they would rely on Pakistan, and its shadowy ISI (the Inter-Services Intelligence) intelligence agency, to execute (something approximating) its wishes on the ground in Afghanistan. The interplay between the forces at work there will have profound consequences for the relation between political Islam and the west for decades to come.

Featured image above: Muhammad Ali Jinnah towards the end of his life.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 9: Pakistan to 1979

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 8: Afghanistan #1



With this first post on Afghanistan’s troubled recent history, I am slightly concerned that this blog is going into a bit too much detail. I mean, if it took three lengthy posts to get through the Lebanese civil war, how long is it going to take to explain the almost forty years of war that have ravaged this central-Asian nation? I started this blog as a kind of primer for newcomers, to the historical background of present conflicts in the Muslim world, not as a comprehensive history in any sense. On the other hand, my objective has also been to get past the kind of superficial understanding most people in the west have of these conflicts, and put names and faces to many of the events and individuals which are so often vaguely alluded-to but rarely understood. With that in mind, I will press forward and try to strike a balance between brevity and coherence, encompassing enough facts to make an interesting narrative without drowning that narrative in so much detail that we lose sight of the wood for the trees.

With that invocation to the spirit of brevity, let’s look at the background to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan by going back to the 18th century. This is when the first political entity which can be regarded as the forerunner of Afghanistan was founded by a Pashtun soldier, Ahmad Shah Durrani, who became emir in 1747 after the death of the Persian shah whom he had served. The empire carved out by Durrani and his followers would come to stretch over an area covering not only modern-day Afghanistan but parts of northeastern Iran, eastern Turkmenistan, as well as much of Pakistan and northwestern India. Here is a map of the region, with the borders as they stand in 2016:


Bear in mind that in 1979, all those countries (in pink) to the north of Afghanistan were part of the Soviet Union, and if we go further back in time to the 19th century, the Russian empire. Not only did the Afghans have an empire to their north, they also had British India to their south, where Pakistan is today. With Persia to their west and China to their east, Afghanistan has never been short of powerful neighbours and potential invaders. In the 19th century the British (rather absurdly for a tiny island nation on the other side of the world) felt their ‘interests’ threatened by the burgeoning power of Tsarist Russia. If the Russians succeeded in imposing some kind of domination over Afghanistan, it was argued, they would have a vassal state right on the northern borders of India, British control over which was believed to be the key to the vitality of their empire and status as the world’s greatest superpower. With this in mind, the British sought to replace the Afghan emir, Dost Mohammad (below), who they believed was susceptible to Russian influence, with a puppet ruler of their own choosing.


The British invaded in December 1838 and by the Autumn of the following year they had taken Kabul and enthroned their appointee, Shuja Shah, who was incidentally a descendant of the Ahmad Shah Durrani, mentioned above, whose dynasty had been replaced by the Barakzai dynasty to which Dost Mohammad belonged. Although the British had had little trouble conquering and occupying Afghanistan, they (and they would not be the last) found the task of consolidating control over the country altogether more difficult. The Afghans did not accept Shuja Shah as a legitimate ruler and saw him as a puppet of foreign occupiers. While the British withdrew some of their forces, their soldiers stationed in Kabul brought in their wives and children, giving the impression they were settling down for a permanent occupation. Not only that, but many of the soldiers clearly regarded the whole campaign as an extended holiday against a foe they had no respect for from a military standpoint. Anecdotal evidence tells of soldiers arriving with camel trains loaded with food, fine wines and silver dinner sets, not to mention fox hounds for hunting.

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They were rudely awakened from this delusion by the hostile reception they received from the Afghans. Dost Mohammad led an insurgency against the occupiers, and although he was captured and exiled to India in late 1840, his son Wazir Akbar Khan carried on the struggle. By late 18141, the British position in Kabul had become practically indefensible, and they were looking for a negotiated way of extracting themselves from the country without sacrificing all of the gains of their initial conquest. Even this effort collapsed when the negotiators were killed by Akbar Khan and discipline began to break down amongst the soldiers and their camp followers in Kabul. The British general Elphinstone managed to secure the agreement of the Afghans to allow the British to evacuate Kabul and make their way towards the garrison at Jalalabad, about 100 kilometres to the east. This retreat was a disaster for the British. The party of 16,500 struggled through the snowbound passes and were massacred by the Pashtun warriors until only a single survivor made it alive to Jalalabad.


The First Anglo-Afghan war is chiefly remembered for this debacle in English-language sources. It is often presented in the folklore of empire as a humanitarian tragedy in which the British were victims of a cruel and barbaric enemy. The fact that the British were the invaders of a country halfway around the world and were, by any definition of the term, the aggressors in this conflict, is ignored in most accounts. This regional rivalry between the British and Russians was known by the British as the ‘Great Game’, although it was hardly a game for the Afghans caught in between. For the First Anglo-Afghan war, practically no mention is given to Afghan casualties. Indeed, if you a do a search for such a figure you are confronted at every turn by discussion of British casualties. It seems, just like general Tommy Franks in the aftermath of the 2001 invasion, the Afghans were not deemed worthy of a body count in the 1840s either. It seems to me that this re-framing of the war in which the British were passive victims, ‘defending’ ‘their’ India from Afghan aggression, is a perfect example of history (and this is why history is important) as indoctrination, as laying out a narrative into which current and future events can be made to fit. Thus the attempt to conquer, or at least impose vassalage upon, a poverty-stricken nation half a world away, is somehow made to appear defensive in nature. Does this sound familiar? It should.

An unfortunate consequence of such distortions is that we don’t learn our lesson from events. Afghanistan is the place where western empires go to not learn their lessons. The Victorians in Afghanistan were really good at this, although the opposite appeared to be the case in the immediate aftermath of the war. While the British sent their troops back into Afghanistan to exact revenge (as I say, it’s almost impossible to know how many they killed) and retook Kabul in September 1842, they did realise that occupation of the country was more hassle than it was worth and agreed to the return of Dost Mohammad as an ally instead of enemy. They had their buffer state. This policy was indeed successful enough in the next few decades that the Afghan emir did not intervene in 1857, despite pleas for help from the Indians, when the Indian rebellion against the British took place. Lessons, if learnt, however, were soon forgotten. In 1878, the son of Dost Mohammad, Sher Ali Khan (below left), reluctantly accepted a Russian diplomatic mission (he was left with little choice, they just turned up on his doorstep) and when the British insisted on sending their own, the emir warned them not to, and that they would be forcibly expelled if they tried to enter the country without permission.


The British ignored his warnings and invaded the country, once again overrunning large swathes of territory with little difficulty. When the emir died the following year, his son, Mohammad Yaqub Khan (above right) attempted to negotiate an agreement allowing a British presence in the country, territorial concessions, and British control over Afghanistan’s foreign relations. While this kept the British satisfied for a while, an uprising in Kabul brought the army back in again and a more destructive series of battles finally led to another agreement between the emir and the British similar to the last. Although the diplomatic mission withdrew from Kabul, and Afghanistan would essentially be in control of its own internal affairs, the British would take responsibility for its external relations. It would be almost 40 years between the end of this war (1880) and the Third Anglo-Afghan war in 1919, when the Afghans used British disarray after the first world war to wrest back control of their foreign affairs and become a truly independent nation. One major concession the British did win, however, was the Afghan emir’s acceptance of the Durand line as the border between Afghanistan and British India.

It is worth considering the Durand line for a minute. It was agreed in the 1890s by the emir and a British civil servant called Durand. It represented the furthest possible limit which the British could practically expect to establish their authority without getting bogged down in the kind of interminable conflict which we have seen above. The fact that the border bore no relation whatsoever to ethnic, linguistic or political realities on the ground seems to have had zero bearing on their calculations. This is not just a piece of historical trivia; it will have very real and dangerous consequences for the future. The border in fact cut right through an area in which the largest ethnic group in Afghanistan live, the Pashtun, leaving half the Pashtun community in Afghanistan and the other half in what would in 1947 become Pakistan. To this day, this border between Afghanistan and Pakistan is little more than a line on a map in many places and people pass back and forth freely as if it didn’t exist. This will become a huge factor in facilitating the resistance to Soviet and later American occupation. The fact that the Pastuns were divided between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and the Pastun’s dream of an independent homeland carved out of the two countries, would also lead to tension between the two countries. This ‘Pashtunistan’ would continue to exercise a hold over some politicians until at least the 1970s, although in recent years it has receded in importance as a bone of contention.

While we are on the subject of Pashtuns, it should be noted that these were only one of many ethnic groups in the country, the other major ones being the Tajiks, Hazaras, Uzbeks, Aimaqs, Turkmens, and Baluchis. As will be seen, however, most Afghans loyalties operated on a much more local level than national identity would suggest. These ethnic groups do not, therefore, equate with politically cohesive nationalities. Hence, despite all its troubles in the last 40 years, there has never really been a serious threat of the Afghan state breaking up along ethnic lines as happened, for example, in Yugoslavia. Despite all their disagreements on other matters, Afghans seem broadly comfortable with and accepting of a multi-ethnic state. These ethnic identities nevertheless did at times provide the lines along which alliances were made and rivalries forged, and sometimes it seems that the Afghans embraced jihad so fervently because they had so little else to unite them against foreign aggressors. What we see in Afghanistan is really multiple lines of division intersecting and overlapping. One major one which will emerge is the gulf between rural and urban Afghanistan. Indeed, the longer I write this blog, I more I find the great opposition emerging in all these stories is not between Islam and the west, or communism versus capitalism, or good versus evil, but rural versus urban-the modernised and wealthy against the left-behind.

Afghanistan faced the future after its third war with Britain as a forward-looking, modernising kingdom (the emir became a king after 1926), or at least its leaders did, and this distinction is important to make, because the efforts of Amanullah Khan (below left), who had led the Afghans to (a kind of) victory against the British in 1919, to modernise his country along western lines is a forerunner of the kind of narrative that will be played out again as the country descends into violence near the end of the century.


Amanullah Khan was influenced by an intellectual named Mahmud Tarzi (above right) who in turn sought to emulate in Afghanistan the transformation of society which Kemal Ataturk had carried out in Turkey, where a traditional Islamic society had self-consciously adopted all that it thought advantageous in western society (e.g. technology, dress-codes) while seeking to retain its Islamic character. Amanullah Khan visited Europe often, loved European culture and fast cars, and (most shockingly) allowed his queen Soraya, who was Tarzi’s daughter, to go around without a veil.


Soraya was made minister of education and encouraged girls to get an education and to dispense with the veil themselves. A campaign of westernisation was pushed on all fronts that was really only welcomed by a small elite in Kabul and perhaps some of the other cities. The vast majority of Afghans’ reality was quite different. For starters, most people lived in rural areas, which in a country as mountainous and (in many places) geographically inhospitable as Afghanistan, meant isolated rural communities, villages or fortified settlements, little touched by centralised state rule of any form and ruled over by the twin powers of the malik, or chief, who were chosen generally by consensus, and the mullah, who were religious leaders and advisers, although once again these figures usually emerged from their own areas as a result of local patronage or theological knowledge. The political unit which really mattered for most people in Afghanistan was the qawm which has been defined by Angelo Rasanayagam as:

‘. . . an autonomous and somewhat elusive network of relationships, in the eyes of which the state was an intrusion. This vast rural space is Afghanistan proper, and could be described as a community of interests, local and traditional, which, along with the multi-ethnic composition of the population, inhibited the development of a modern nation-state. The interaction of the competing forces of the state, symbolized by Kabul and its bureaucracy, and the qawm would constitute the political history of twentieth-century Afghanistan.’

The conservative Afghanistan of the rural qawm chafed under the king’s attempts to drag their society into a future they were far from sure they wanted. Amanullah promulgated a constitution (in itself a radical act) discouraging the veil, guaranteeing freedom of worship and education for girls; torture and slavery were abolished, all of which is great, but then you have more peculiar preoccupations making their way into the prescribed new order: men with beards would not be allowed to work for the government, for example, and would have to dress in a western-style suit and tie. The reforms were a particular threat to the influence and livelihood of the mullahs and, after the king visited Europe in 1927, photographs made their way back home of Queen Soraya without her veil, fraternising with European men. All sorts of wild rumours about the king drinking alcohol and abandoning Islam began to spread among the population and by 1928 large parts of the country were in armed revolt against the king. Some authors, such as Tamim Ansary, whose suspicions have been alerted to the presence of T.E.Lawrence (‘of Arabia’) in Peshawar, have surmised that the British deliberately facilitated distribution of such pictures, and helped fund the Islamic fundamentalist movement which overthrew Amanullah in 1929. It would certainly not be the last time a western power backed the most reactionary, conservative forces in Afghan society to combat more progressive elements.


The new king was the above character, Habibullah Kalakani, a Tajik bandit who just happened to find himself in the right place at the right time, leading the forces that took Kabul at the time the king fled the country. He must go down as one of history’s unlikeliest kings, completely illiterate and the son of a water-carrier, his Tajik ethnicity, however, was the biggest drawback in the eyes of the country’s Pastun majority, and his reign lasted only nine months, a period marked by policies the opposite of Amanullah but just as intolerant, forcing men to wear beards, women to wear the veil, and abolishing education for girls. Kalakani was dethroned as king by Mohammed Nadir Shah, a descendant of Dost Mohammad, who had quite cleverly ridden out the last turbulent years of Amanullah’s reign by keeping a low profile, disassociating himself from the king whom he served as ambassador in faraway France, and all the while reminding the British of his readiness to step in and replace the king. Nadir Shah took the country by force after the short reign of Kalakani, although was assassinated four years later in what appears to have been revenge for the killing of a supporter of Amanullah.

His son, who succeeded him, Mohammed Zahir Shah (below), was to reign for forty years.This was to be a period of almost unprecedented peace and development of sorts. The king and his prime minister from 1953-63,  Mohammed Daoud Khan (below right), were adept at playing the two Cold War rivals against each other, securing funding for development projects such as dams and schools, from both the United States and the Soviet Union, who both courted Afghanistan as an ally.

zahir shah.JPG

Daoud, who was both related to the king by blood and married to his sister, caused tensions with Pakistan and the non-Pastun groups in Afghanistan by pushing the Pashtunistan issue too much and seeking to strengthen the Pastuns at the expense of other minorities. The king removed him from power in 1963, and proceeded to introduce a series of reforms introducing elections and womens rights in the following years. While a step in the right direction, these reforms disguised a lack of real material progress in the Afghanistan where most people lived. Once again, we see an urban elite thriving and dictating to the ‘backward’ rural masses and once again, for all their progressive good intentions, the masses resented this. These years are nevertheless looked back upon as a golden era, which is not surprising when you consider what followed.

Daoud, who cultivated links with Marxists within the country and the Soviet Union, plotted a takeover and in 1973, when the king was abroad on holiday, took control with the help of the army, who was coming increasingly under the influence of Soviet advisers and Marxist intellectuals. Instead of declaring himself king as all previous usurpers had done, Daoud abolished the monarchy and made himself president of a new Afghan republic. Instead of placating the more progressive elements of Afghan society, however, these developments merely emboldened those on the left to push ahead with an agenda which (considering how far Afghanistan was from meeting the conditions traditionally identified by Marxists as making a country ready for communism) can only be described as revolutionary. The years that followed were marked by unrest and jockeying for position among the various left-wing factions in Kabul and other urban areas. Many young men and women who had been trained in the Soviet Union were returning home, impatient to put their revolutionary ideals of a better society into practice. At the same time, opportunities for these educated young people were diminishing due to rising unemployment  and corruption within the state. The late 1960s had already seen student and workers strikes and the corresponding rise of the Soviet-backed People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA), who helped Daoud seize power.

Emblem of the PDPA

Actually, it was only one PDPA that assisted Daoud, because since 1967 there had been two rival parties using the same. A time-honoured tradition of the left, the bitter factional rivalry, had developed between two groups: one called the Parchamis (banner) and another called the Khalqis (the masses). The Parchamis, led by Babrak Karmal (below, far right) had helped Daoud. Recognising that Afghanistan was far from ready for Soviet-style communism, Karmal and his faction argued for a more gradualist approach, building mass support for a revolution from below. Hence their pragmatic support for Daoud, who was far from being a communist. The Khalqis on the other hand, who were led by Nur Muhammad Taraki and Hafizullah Amin (below far left and middle respectively), argued for a Leninist-style takeover, orchestrated by a small but tightly-disciplined vanguard.

Left to right: Nur Muhammad Taraki, Hafizullah Amin and Babrak Karmal.

The Parchami’s support for Daoud’s government was downplayed by Karmal and his allies, who saw it as potentially damaging to their socialist credentials. They were already being denounced as sellouts by the Khalqis. The honeymoon between the government and its socialist supporters didn’t last long in any case. Resenting Soviet high-handedness, and pursuing his own policy towards Pakistan in relation to Pashtunistan, Daoud began to attempt to steer his regime away from Soviet dependency. The United States, Iran and other oil-producing nations were courted in an effort to fill in the potential gaps in foreign aid (on which Afghanistan was heavily dependent). By 1975, many Pachamis had been removed from the government and Soviet advisers dismissed. The seeds of a takeover of power by the PDPA with Soviet backing were sown. All they had to do was stop bickering amongst themselves.

They managed this for long enough to remove Daoud from power with the help of the army, although they had a few lucky breaks along the way. The Saur (the month of the Persian calendar in which it took place) revolution of 1978 was precipitated by the government’s extrajudicial killing of a PDPA notable. His funeral was the scene of an impressive demonstration of numbers by the left. Daoud next had Taraki and Karmal arrested but not Amin. This was the first of a series of cock-ups by the Daoud security forces without which the coup may not have succeeded at all. Amin was able to hide plans for the revolution (which the PDPA had been planning, but for later in the year) under a mattress in his kids’ room. Kept under house arrest, the police allowed one of his accomplices to come and visit  him thinking it was his brother, and Amin was thus able to issue instructions to his allies in the army. As if this was not bad enough, the government issued orders to the army to arrange dancing for all the soldiers in order to celebrate the arrest of the communist leaders.

The next day saw the Daoud regime crumble. The depth of support for the PDPA in the army, as well as official incompetence, swept the communists to power, with Taraki as new leader of the country. Daoud was killed when he drew a revolver at the soldiers who had come to arrest him. Despite what was widely believed in the west at the time, the Soviets seemed to have been surprised as anyone else at this turn of events, but welcomed their new ally to the south with cautious optimism. Once again, however, it is crucial to remember that this ‘revolution’ bore little relation to the everyday reality of the vast majority of Afghans, whose lives the state had hardly touched up to now, or who were left out of the grandiose plans of urban intellectuals. Politics in the 20th century had been marked by intermittent plans and idealistic constitutions. You can write all the idealistic constitutions you want, however, but they are not worth the paper they’re written on if you can’t create institutions to put them into execution. The following video is just a series of images with some nice music that gives some idea of the atmosphere in Kabul after the revolution. Most people just seem to be standing around nonplussed, probably wondering what is going to happen next and hoping the politicians will just stick to killing each other and leave them alone.

Unfortunately for everyone, the politicians will not restrict themselves to  just killing each other in the coming years. The reality was that the communists did not have widespread support outside the army, and a small group of urban intellectuals and workers. They had made their revolution by infiltrating the army, in fact ‘revolution’ is a misleading word; it was really little more than a coup. Once they had power, the PDPA was intent on making their vision for a better future more than merely idealistic sentiments written on a page. They began sending their cadres out into the countryside to put their blueprint for progress into action. This involved education for all (including women), unveiling, banning child marriage, and introducing land reform, canceling the mortgages that held much of the rural poor in debt slavery, and giving equal status to the ethnic minorities…all of which, once again, sounds great, and all of which, once again, was resented deeply, especially by the traditional landlord and clerical class whose power was threatened by these measures.

The manner in which these reforms were executed did not help. As Robespierre said (although I’m not sure he took his own advice) ‘No one loves armed missionaries; the first lesson of nature and prudence is to repulse them as enemies.’ This is also the case, it might be added, even when intentions are good. Those sent out of transform Afghan society were often young and inexperienced, if idealistic, and treated the locals in a high-handed manner, riding roughshod over centuries-old traditions. History tends tends to record the backlash against this treatment, and I have no doubt there were many who welcomed these reformers, but the influence of the mullahs and maliks was decisive in co-ordinating resistance. Nor did this resistance take place in an ideological vacuum, because the left were not the only movement to have been emboldened by the tumult of the 1960s and 70s. There were also the Islamists. Again, it has to be borne in mind that we are talking here about a modern political movement and not the religion of Islam.

Political Islam had its beginnings in Afghanistan in the mid-1960s, when a group of academics in Kabul founded the Jamiat i-Islami (Society of Islam). It is important to note that this movement had little connection with the rural clerics, but saw itself as a modern force of renewal through the introduction of Islam into political life. It had more in common with the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Syria which has already been discussed in previous posts, in that its ideology was fired by the notion that Muslims must adapt the material advances of the west in order to strengthen Islamic society. We must therefore be cautious about using the term ‘fundamentalist’ here, in the way we might use it about the Taliban later on. Unlike the Taliban (who wanted to ‘return’ Afghanistan to how they imagined the world was in the time of Muhammad), these Islamists had no problem with modernisation and technology; in fact, they saw it as essential if Islam was to compete with the west. They were cautious, however, of repeating the past mistakes of Amanullah and Ataturk, of neglecting the Islamic principles of society.

Initially, the Islamists had little direct impact of politics. It was a movement that grew within the university of Kabul, and was opposed to both the burgeoning left as it seized control over the state, and the traditional religious hierarchy of the countryside. There were fissures within Islamism in Afghanistan, just as we have seen elsewhere, from the very beginning. Some, such as the theologian Burhannudin Rabbani and his young follower, Ahmad Shah Massoud (both Tajiks) favoured a more long-term strategy for the Islamification of the state, whereas other more radical Islamists like the Pashtun, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, favoured an immediate overthrow of the corrupt order. Rivalries within the ranks were as much ethnic as ideological, with followers tending to gravitate towards leaders of their own ethnic group; this, incidentally, could also be said of the rivalries within PDPA. Both Massoud and Hekmatyar were engineering students and members of Muslim student groups which were organising opposition to the growing Soviet influence in their country. Finding the Islamists of the Jamiat too inclined to compromise, Hekmatyar in 1976 founded the  Hezb-i-Islami (Islamic party). Here are the dudes in question:

Left to right: Rabbani, Massoud and Hekmatyar.

In the aftermath of the Saur revolution of 1978, in any case, the only question seemed to be which faction of the left would control the country. The Islamists seemed a politically-insignificant throwback to the past, and few expected them to play any important role in the country’s future.

A number of things happened in 1978-9, however, to escalate the situation rapidly. Firstly, the government responded to resistance against its reforms by pressing ahead with an even more radical agenda and imprisoning/torturing/executing those who opposed them. It doesn’t take a genius to predict (although it is amazing how often this mistake is made) that this did not have the desired effect of cowing the population but instead provoked more stubborn reaction, pushing many who might not have sympathised with them into siding with the hardcore Islamists, whose campaign against the government began to take the form of armed struggle. Many refugees from the government’s reforms fled across the border to Pakistan, where they were welcomed by the regime of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq (below), a general who had taken power in a coup in 1977, and was virulently anti-communist. The Pakistans gave the Afghans a stipend, set up training camps to turn them into insurgents, and sent them back into the country to fight the government. Pakistan is going to play a key role in the Afghan war and I will go into more detail about the situation there in a subsequent post.


The first months of 1979 saw the Islamists under Hekmatyar sieze an important military post in the area bordering Pakistan. On the other side of the country, the province of Herat bordering Iran (at that time undergoing its own revolution, see posts 3 and 4 of this blog) was rocked by an insurrection of Shia, a religious minority in the country and destined to suffer much in the decades that followed. Most worrying for the Afghan government was the collapse and demoralisation of its own troops, who showed little stomach for fighting their own people, and in some cases went over to the insurgents. Indeed, some of the army commanders who abandoned the PDPA government would later become leaders of the mujahideen.

It should be remembered that the Islamist insurgency was provoked by the pace of reforms imposed by the PDPA and not the Soviet invasion itself, as is often portrayed. The Soviet leadership were in fact acutely concerned at this stage that the Afghan regime was being reckless in the speed with which it was attempting to ‘modernise’ the country, and warned their protegés to slow things down, to win over the population with economic and political measures instead of simply imposing them by force. This concern in Moscow, and the fact that the Afghan government ignored them, attests to how little control the Soviet Union had over developments at this stage. Western propaganda at the time encouraged the belief that the Russians were pulling all the strings and that Taraki and co. were merely their puppets. In fact, the Soviets were very reluctant to get involved initially, knowing full well the fate that awaited those who attempted to interfere in Afghan politics. They could not help being concerned, however, that the coup in Kabul was largely outside their control and that its leaders, who saw them as re-enacting the legendary heroics of Lenin and Trotsky, seemed oblivious to their warnings.

The Soviet government became even more concerned in September 1979 when Amin had the more pro-Soviet Taraki removed from power and killed. Seeking to follow a course more independent of Moscow, Amin sent out feelers to Pakistan for a deal which would end their support for the mujahideen, and even made overtures to the Americans. In the meantime, the repression within the country was ratcheted up a notch, as enemies (real or imagined) of Amin were locked up in the notorious Pul-e-Charkhi prison outside Kabul, where many thousands would be tortured and executed. It is in this period that the Soviets appear to have moved towards the decision to intervene militarily. Despite an awareness of the risks involved and the international condemnation that would meet such a move, the imperative not to ‘lose’ Afghanistan had come, in the groupthink at the politburo, to override all other considerations. A cornerstone of this plan would be the removal of Amin and his replacement by a more Soviet-friendly alternative.

Babrak Karmal’s parchami faction were perfectly placed to fulfill this role. They had been ousted by Amin and Taraki shortly after the Saur revolution and their plans for a counter-coup exposed. Karmal, who had already been gotten out of the way by being sent to Czechoslovakia as ambassador, refused to return and instead plotted against his rivals. His moment had come in the winter of 1979 as the Soviets sought for a compliant alternative to Amin. On the 27 December, the KGB went into action. At first they sent in a cook to Amin’s residence at the Tajbeg palace, where he was hosting a banquet, to put poison in the food. While Amin (and apparently many of his guests) were slipping into comas, Soviet doctors who were not aware of the plan to kill him, helped pump his stomach and revive him. At this point the building was stormed by troops who killed Amin with a grenade. Up to the very end, he reportedly believed the Soviets were on their way to help him, rather than the ones carrying out his assassination. The next morning, Babrak Karmal was announced as the new president of Afghanistan and a formal request for Soviet military assistance made. At the same moment, 80,000 troops were making their way into the country by land and air.

It should be noted that the United States already had a covert program to assist the Islamist forces before the Soviet invasion. Accounts differ, but key figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Robert Gates openly admit that the purpose of such aid was to provoke Soviet intervention and to lure the Russians into their own version of Vietnam. If this was the case, they were to be successful beyond their wildest dreams. After the Soviets fell for this ‘bear trap’, American aid, channelled via Pakistan, was increased by several orders of magnitude. It is hard to ignore the irony that, just at the time when the United States was at loggerheads with an Islamist regime in Iran, often portrayed as part of some ‘clash of civilisations’, they were financing the same fundamentalists with whom they will claim to be mortal enemies within twenty years. Just to outline the point, here is footage of Brzezinski, who was Carter’s national security adviser at the time, meeting the mujahideen on the Pakistani border and telling them: ‘your cause is right and God is on your side’.



I couldn’t resist adding this:


Featured image above: Mujahideen stand atop a downed Soviet helicopter, 1980s Afghanistan.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 8: Afghanistan #1

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 7: The Lebanese civil war #3


The last post ended on the eve of possibly the darkest hour (among many dark hours) of the Lebanese civil war. After the invasion by Israel, the evacuation of the PLO from Lebanon had just been completed and the Israeli-backed Christian leader Bashir Gemayel elected president, only to be killed by a remotely-detonated bomb on the 14 September 1982. The fanatical devotion of the Phalangist miliamen to Gemayel has already been noted, and their fury in the aftermath of his killing was unleashed on the largely-defenseless (especially since the Multinational Force which could have protected them withdrew from Beirut two weeks before schedule) civilians left behind in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila. Between the 16 and 18 September, the Israeli army surrounded the camps and admitted the Phalangist militia, as well as some of Haddad’s SLA troops flown in for the occasion, who massacred between 1000-3000 men, women and children (casualty figures are still debated) in cold blood.
Image: Robin Moyer
There is nothing quite like the power of eyewitness testimony. The American reporter Janet Lee Stevens, who saw the aftermath, gives an idea of the horrors:
‘I saw dead women in their houses with their skirts up to their waists and their legs spread apart; dozens of young men shot after being lined up against an alley wall; children with their throats slit, a pregnant woman with her stomach chopped open, her eyes still wide open, her blackened face silently screaming in horror; countless babies and toddlers who had been stabbed or ripped apart and who had been thrown into garbage piles.’
The following documentary made by Al-Jazeera includes the testimony of survivors. In this sense it is vital, but also one of the most harrowing hours of television I have ever seen:
Even in the midst of the horrors of the Lebanese war, the Sabra and Shatila massacre was shocking in its brutality, cowardliness and senselessness. Many of those who physically carried out the murders were wayward members of the LF who had been active in the movement earlier in the war but released from service when the militia became more disciplined and professional under Gemayel. Deemed unfit for service due to indiscipline and drug-abuse, they were formed into a special regiment under the command of Elie Hobeika, the Phalangists’ liasion officer with Mossad, who kept the unit in reserve for tasks such as this. This is Hobeika on the right, along with another Phalangist commander Samir Geagea on the left, who will also be prominent in what lies ahead:
Geagea and Hobeika. Image: Histoire des Forces Libanaises

While the Phalangist militiamen were the ones who went into the camps and slit the women and children’s throats, the question of broader responsibility for the massacre would assume even greater political significance. In terms of negligence, certainly the MNF which pulled out early bears some share of blame; Arafat had begged them to return, citing the danger in which Palestinian civilians were under after the murder of Gemayel. Israel, which was in control of the area in which the camps lay at that time, obviously bears responsibility for failing to prevent the massacres. Even their own investigation held Ariel Sharon personally responsible for failing to intervene to stop the Phalangists and forced him to resign as defense minister the following year. Many observers, however, have argued that Israeli responsibility went beyond negligence and failing to prevent the massacre, to claim that they deliberately facilitated it. Certainly there is no doubt that the Israelis sealed off the camps and sent the militias in, as well as helpfully illuminating the area with flares for the next two nights while they did the killing. It has always been argued that the Phalangist militia was sent in to root out ‘terrorists’, although by this stage it seems to have been widely believed by both the Phalangists and Israelis that all Palestinians-man, woman and child-could be categorised as ‘terrorists’. Certainly they had made little distinction between combatants and civilians in their bombings of the previous months.

The massacre resulted in a rare flurry of international activity on Lebanon’s behalf, even if it was ultimately to little avail. Unusually, even the Americans were critical of the role Israel had played, with Reagan’s representative to Lebanon telling Sharon he ‘should be ashamed of himself’. Belatedly realising the catastrophic consequences of their hasty withdrawal, the MNF returned on the 20 September. The following day, Bashir Gemayel’s brother Amine was elected President with American backing. Beyond protecting civilians, the mission of the MNF was now to assist the Lebanese state to restore sovereignty and authority over its territory. Amine Gemayel enjoyed a reputation as a more moderate and consensual politician compared to his late brother, a builder of bridges between the different sects. He declared himself to be taking power in the name of all the people, and the Lebanese army were once again deployed to the streets of Beirut to restore law and order. It soon became apparent, however, that Gemayel’s power was being wielded in the interests of his own community under the guise of reconstructing the state. The Muslims in west Beirut were subject to constant harassment and arrests by Gemayel’s army, who worked hand in glove with the LF, who behaved as conquerors. People were arbitrarily detained and in some cases disappeared, never to return.

While the MNF expressed concern about this turn of events, their role as supporting Gemayel’s regime essentially turned them into collaborators with it. They were blissfully unaware, or unwilling, to see that they had become partisans in the war rather than a neutral force. This disjoint between self-image and reality is evident in the following short video about the U.S. Marines’ presence in Lebanon in 1982. You can either turn the sound off or listen to the audio with propaganda sensors on full power. The narrator typifies the attitude of many Americans, oblivious to (and not very interested in) what the war was about, and the delusion that they stood aloof, keeping the warring parties apart. The litmus test for such a claim is, did the Marines confront the IDF or their Christian allies? Not likely.

It was obvious to the Muslims of Lebanon that the MNF were there to foist a Christian Gemayel government upon them. Of Lebanese communities, the Shia had borne the brunt of Israeli bombings in the south, the massacres at Sabra and Shatila, and now of Gemayel’s persecution. It was thus from this community that resistance began to form against the MNF. While this also consisted of French and Italians, it was the Americans-already figured as the ‘Great Satan’ in the demonology emanating from revolutionary Iran-who were seen as chiefly responsible. The Americans’ belief that they somehow stood outside the conflict was brutally shattered in April 1983 when their embassy was blown up by a suicide bomber driving a truck laden with explosives. 63 people were killed, including senior members of the CIA’s staff in Lebanon. Six months later, the barracks of American and French troops stationed in Beirut were also bombed, killing 241 Americans and 58 French paratroopers.
United States embassy (left) and barracks (right) after 1983 bombings. Images: Marine Corps.

The barracks bombing was the biggest single attack on the U.S. military since Iwo Jima, and the biggest loss of life of Americans in one attack until 11 September 2001. These attacks were some of the first instances of suicide bombings in the modern era. Attacking the enemy without being hampered by any regard for your own survival is, of course, nothing new. The Japanese kamikaze pilots most famously adopted it in the Second World War. Until its emergence in Lebanon in the 1980s, however, it was rare for non-state actors in conflict to employ it. It would become all-too common in the decades that followed up to the present day. The standard explanation is that this dramatic rise in suicide attacks was due to a new religious fanaticism colouring conflicts in the middle east. Of course, this cultural dimension to the act cannot be entirely dismissed. The emphasis on death over dishonour in traditional samurai culture no doubt played into the willingness of Japanese soldiers to take their own lives, just as the cult of martyrdom in Shi’ism influenced the ‘human wave’ attacks of Iranian soldiers after the revolution. More than a readiness to commit suicide in killing the enemy, I think it is the celebration of this sacrifice that really  characterises these cultures. When you think about it, there have been many circumstances where soldiers from European armies were sent into certain death (the columns of soldiers in World War One marching across no-man’s land towards machine-gun fire armed only with batons springs to mind), but these were not explicitly celebrated as suicide attacks, even though they basically were. Beyond the cultural dimension, I think it is worth considering something the author J.M. Coetzee has observed of suicide bombers, that they may be ‘a response, of a somehow despairing nature, against American and Israeli achievements in guiding technology far beyond the capacities of their opponents’. That is, they are a function of the asymmetry of wars which have become so unequal that the weaker party have few means of retaliation left open except to take their own life.

But I digress.

The result of this bombings was that the MNF withdrew in the Spring of 1984. The Americans essentially washed their hands of Lebanon and despaired of re-establishing state control over the country. This American withdrawal might seem surprising to us who have lived, post-2001, with a United States that has not been shy to retaliate with overwhelming and disproportionate power to attacks on its citizens, even against people who were not responsible for those attacks. In the 1980s, however, it was less than a decade since the humiliating retreat from Vietnam, and American public opinion was less than enthusiastic about foreign adventures, especially in wars they didn’t understand, or want to understand. The United States regime knew this, and contented itself with either fighting through proxy armies like the Contras in Nicaragua, or wars in which they would meet no significant opposition, such as the tiny island nation of Grenada, which was invaded just two days after the barracks in Beirut were bombed.

Who were these new actors in the Lebanese civil war, who had declared war on the American superpower in their backyard and succeeded in frightening them away? The bombings were claimed by the ‘Islamic Jihad Organization’, a shadowy guerrilla movement which was so shadowy that its existence was only attested by the telephone calls made to claim responsibility for bombings. Many observers, indeed, denied that the organisation even existed in any real sense, and that it was merely a front used by the Islamist militia in order to avoid directly associating themselves with certain acts. This movement, growing in strength at this time, funded by Iran and trained by its Revolutionary Guards, was Hezbollah.

Flag of Hezbollah.

We have already encountered a Hezbollah (The Party of God) in revolutionary Iran, and this Lebanese version, though it would be oversimplistic to describe it as a foreign branch of the Iranian, was profoundly influenced and guided by the latter. It had been active since the Israeli invasion of 1982, when Iran sent 1500 Revolutionary Guards to Lebanon with Syria’s consent. It was only gradually, however, that the outside world was beginning to realise there was a new Islamist grouping in the conflict. We have already examined the situation of the Shia in the last post, as well as the Amal movement, which had emerged to defend their interests and fought the Palestinians in the south, who were blamed for bringing the wrath of Israel upon the area. Amal, although founded by a Shi’ite cleric and characterised as a Shi’ite group, had secular features in that it reached out to all sectors of the community and did not aim at the establishment of an Islamic state (for which reason it had poor relations with the Iranian revolutionaries). Hezbollah was different in that its aims were explicitly non-secular, aspiring towards a theocracy such as that established by Khomeini in Iran. Its immediate aims were the expulsion of foreign armies (except the Syrians, who supported it) from Lebanese territory and the reform of the Lebanese political system to reflect more fairly demographic realities.

Hezbollah gunman, 1980s Beirut, note the picture of Khomeini on the rifle-butt. Image: Al-Jazeera.

With the occupation of the south by Israel, the population of poor urban Shia in Beirut was increased by refugees from that area. Some of these lived in the Palestinian refugee camps and formed  a significant proportion of the victims of the Sabra and Shatila massacres, not to mention the repression carried out by Amine Gemayel. There was therefore no shortage of grievances to push people into supporting either Amal or Hezbollah. Notwithstanding their common enemy, conflict between the two factions was probably inevitable given they vied for the same constituency. Indeed, this last decade of the civil war will be marked by as much by intra-sectarian fighting as inter. Amal, after the disappearance of Musa al-Sadr in 1978, was led by his colleague Hussein el-Husseini, who resisted committing the movement to military engagement in the civil war beyond fighting the Palestinians in the south (see last post), whom they also regarded as interlopers. This more moderate leadership was ousted in 1980, however, by Nabih Berri (below), who represented the more militant grassroots of the movement.

Image: Sahm Doherty

Tensions began to emerge within Amal about the role Islam was to play in the movement, and a breakaway faction known as Islamic Amal, was formed in 1982, which would eventually be absorbed into Hezbollah. Amal’s involvement in the war gradually extended to fighting not only the Israelis, but the Gemayel government as well. At the same time, they would find themselves embroiled in a conflict with Hezbollah for the allegiance of the Shia community. These two conflicts, which dominate the middle of the 1980s, are known respectively as the ‘Mountain War’ and the ‘War of the Camps’, and involved numerous other actors besides the two Shi’ite factions. To explain them illustrates well how smaller conflicts in Lebanon became entangled within larger ones, and necessitates broadening the canvas once again to the national stage.

In the Mountain War, the mountains in question were those of the Chouf region, dominated by the Druze and their leader, Walid Jumblatt, who narrowly avoided being killed by a car-bomb in December 1982. A significant Christian minority lived in the Chouf, however, and its return to the control of the state was a priority when Amine Gemayel came to power. Gemayel’s attempt to subdue the area was carried out not only by the Lebanese army, but also by the LF, who were in no mood to magnanimously establish a power-sharing regime with equal regard for all sides. These forces were led by the above-mentioned Samir Geagea, who established an LF presence (with Israeli approval) in the west of the Chouf in early 1983. The incursions were resisted by a coalition of Jumblatt’s PSP, along with the Communist party and the SSNP, essentially the core members of the LNM, which had dissolved following the Israeli invasion of 1982. This new coalition was known as the Lebanese National Resistance Front (LNRF), and while not members, was allied with Amal and also PLO elements who were beginning to re-emerge in the country following that organisation’s official withdrawal. The LNRF operated under the wing (I think this is an appropriate image) of Syria, just as their opponents were sanctioned by Israel. We need to constantly bear in mind this proxy war nature of the conflict as we go forward…or round and round in circles as the case may be.

Of course, this sub-war was not just about control of the Chouf. Fighting spread to the suburbs of Beirut and the whole thing took place against the backdrop of the American-led intervention and subsequent withdrawal, and the growing realisation by Muslims that the Gemayel government had little intention of reforming the political system in any serious way. Furthermore, Gemayel was proving reluctant to sign an accord (the so-called ‘May 17 agreement’) with Israel that would have given the Israelis a massive say in Lebanese affairs and alienated Syria. In order to twist his arm, Israel began to withdraw their support for the Christian forces in the Chouf, and without this support, the LNRF overran the army/LF positions in September 1983. The latter were forced to retreat, along with many Christian civilians, to the town of Deir el Qamar, where they were besieged until December. Those Christians in the Chouf unlucky enough not to escape were attacked by the Druze militia and a massacre of around 1,500 civilians in the area took place, not to mention the displacement of many thousands more from their homes.

At the same time, in west Beirut, Amal were fighting for control of sections of the city against Gemayel’s army, which was backed up by the MNF. American battleships in the Mediterranean fired shells at LNRF positions (although often missed and killed many civilians) and Reagan sent in extra troops, making increasingly belligerent statements about teaching Syria a lesson and unconditionally backing  Gemayel. It is here you begin to see why they weren’t regarded as neutral peacekeepers by the Lebanese Muslims. The Americans’ French and Italian allies even expressed their concern that the MNF was coming to be seen as just another hostile foreign presence in the country, partial and combatant. It is against this backdrop that the suicide bombings discussed above occurred. By December, the Israelis had rescued many of the Christian fighters in the Chouf and Amal and its LNRF allies were proving more than a match for the Lebanese army in west Beirut. By early 1984 they had essentially driven Gemayel’s forces out of their part of the city and taken over. Berri even managed to convince Shia  elements of the army to defect to Amal.

West Beirut came under the control of a number of different militias, who sometimes fought each other. It is basically in this period after the withdrawal of the MNF that Lebanon’s image in the west as an incomprehensible violent maelstrom of chaos really begins to approach the truth. A series of wars within wars within wars, as the various sects, once they had established control over their own areas, began fighting amongst themselves over the spoils of power. Law and order was replaced by the rule of brute force, protection rackets and summary executions. Any ideological or even sectarian dimension to the violence was often lacking and it becomes difficult at times to distinguish what was going from simple turf warfare between gangs.


The ‘War of the Camps’ was primarily between Amal and the PLO, as the Palestinian refugee camps in west Beirut were surrounded by Amal forces. These were heavily supported by Syria, who wished to prevent the PLO under Arafat from once again establishing itself as a major player in the war. The irrepressible Arafat, having fled the country in 1982, was back in Lebanon and Assad was haunted by the same old concern that it would provoke an Israeli invasion that would damage Syrian interests, and that it would become a rival locus of power. Using a number of anti-Arafat Palestinian factions who I won’t go into here (the last thing we need is more acronyms) Arafat’s partisans were attacked in their new headquarters in Tripoli in the north of the country, and their leader was expelled from the country for the second, and last, time, in December 1983.

This was not the end of the PLO’s resistance, however. In Beirut, Amal was not only supported by the Syrians but even a part of the Lebanese army commanded by Michel Aoun (more of whom later). Fighting centred around control of the Sabra and Shatila and Burj el-Barajneh camps and lasted sporadically between May 1985 and July 1988. The Palestinians were supported by a local Sunni faction which I haven’t mentioned yet, named Al-Murabitoun (‘The Steadfast’) and, belying any image of this as simply a Shia-Sunni conflict, Hezbollah who, in its rivalry with Amal, also took the side of the PLO. In the early stages of the conflict, Jumblatt’s PSP and its LNRF allies helped Amal defeat Al-Murabitoun, but were less enthusiastic about fighting the Palestinians, with whom they had a long tradition of comradeship. By the end of the conflict, they were in fact fighting alongside the PLO and Hezbollah against Amal. This seemingly-interminable conflict was only brought to its inconclusive end with the Syrian army’s direct intervention and occupation of west Beirut in 1987.

Despite the Syrian support for Amal, however, Hezbollah emerged ultimately stronger from the power struggle. In the west, its profile was raised by its association with numerous kidnappings of westerners in Lebanon from 1982 onwards. Like the embassy and barracks bombings, these were often carried out under other names such as Islamic Jihad in order to avoid direct responsibility, but it is generally accepted Hezbollah were behind them. Indeed many observers believe that Iran was ultimately pulling the strings. It is difficult to discern any other concrete motive to the kidnappings. The MNF had, after all, departed in 1984 and yet the seizure of Americans and European individuals continued unabated. Some have suggested that Hezbollah saw the kidnappings as insurance against renewed foreign intervention in the country, others that the Iranians saw them as a means of gaining leverage in backstairs diplomacy with the west. This latter objective can be seen in the secret Iran-Contra deals described in an earlier (part 4) post. The Iranians were ultimately responsible for getting Hezbollah to release many of the hostages, with the last, American journalist Terry Anderson, being let go in December 1991. This BBC documentary about Iran gives a good account of the whole affair. The bit about the hostage situation starts at 8:20.

If you keep watching to around 35:00 you realise the somewhat shabby treatment of Iran by the Americans. Having helped get their men released, the United States government then reneged on an promise to improve relations with Iran in return. Also, don’t miss the skulduggery of the French opposition, who apparently scuppered negotiations to release French hostages and paid Hezbollah to keep them until after the French election in order to help Jacques Chirac win.

Certainly these were not acts of random or mindless vengeance. To capture, keep hidden and keep alive a western civilian for years on end in war-torn Lebanon required a level of planning and military discipline that suggests a determined purpose. While it cemented Lebanon’s reputation in the west as a lawless hellhole, among the Lebanese Shia (and indeed across the Muslim world) it contributed to Hezbollah’s growing prestige as the true face of Islamic resistance to the west. Allegiance to Hezbollah was no doubt bolstered by the Israelis’ indiscriminate bombing of Shia villages in the south, and the continued covert involvement of the United States. The most notorious of these incidents was a car-bomb in March 1985 intended to kill the cleric, Mohammad Hussein Fadlallah, who was (wrongly) believed to be the leader of Hezbollah, for which the CIA and British intelligence are believed to have been responsible. It killed 80 civilians, mostly women and schoolgirls, and Fadlallah escaped with minor injuries. Such actions only fueled support for Hezbollah’s more radical message of resistance to Israel and the west.

Hezbollah’s prestige was probably most augmented by their leadership of the fight against the Israelis in the occupied south. While Israel had not withdrawn by the end of the civil war in 1990, Hezbollah effectively bogged them down in an unwinnable war of attrition which, for the first time, inflicted what could be described as a defeat on the IDF. Israel would finally withdraw in 2000. It is interesting to reflect that senior figures on both the Lebanese and Israeli side credit the Israeli invasion with the genesis and growth of Hezbollah. It’s current leader Hassan Nasrullah has said that, had Israel not invaded, ‘I don’t know that something called Hezbollah would have been born. I doubt it.’ The former Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak, one of the more reflective of the political class there, also stated: ‘When we entered Lebanon … there was no Hezbollah. We were accepted with perfumed rice and flowers by the Shia in the south. It was our presence there that created Hezbollah’. This attests to a phenomenon which will be seen time and time again with other groups like the Taliban or Islamic State, which is the expansion of a small group of fundamentalists to a major actor in the conflict, not so much as the result of some homegrown rise in religious fervour as a response to the destabilisation of their country by outsiders.

While the Muslim groups were busy shooting at and blowing each other up, the Christian militias were showing they were every bit as capable as their Muslim opponents of internecine conflict. The agreement which would eventually bring the Syrians into Beirut again had been signed by the LF leader Elie Hobeika, but Samir Geaga didn’t support it, nor did Amine Gemayel, who was leader of the Phalangist party as well as being president. The LF split up into two factions, led respectively by Hobeika and Geagea, and fought a bloody and destructive conflict over whether to accept the accord or not. Geagea, who had the support of the Lebanese army and also maintained close ties to Israel (while Hobeika sought to break these ties) eventually emerged dominant and Hobeika fled to the city of Zahlé  in the Beqaa, forming a rival LF under Syrian patronage.

Gemayel, meanwhile, was nearing the end of his term as President in September 1988. This being Lebanon, however, it wasn’t simply a case of the parliament meeting and electing a successor. The Syrian-approved candidate was the former president Suleiman Frangieh (yes, he’s still around; he was old the first time around, now he’s 78!) but he was unacceptable to Geagea’s LF faction (not to mention the Americans) and nobody could agree on an alternative. When a session was arranged to elect (i.e.crown) Frangieh, the Lebanese army under it’s commander Michel Aoun (below) was accused of preventing the delegates from east Beirut from attending, and thus preventing the session from reaching the quorum necessary to validate the election.

Michel Aoun. Image: Lebanese army.

Rather amusingly, Aoun denies he prevented them, suggesting in interviews that they called him and asked him to prevent them from attending. The haggling went on so long that Gemayel’s term ran out without a successor being elected, so the latter appointed a military government headed by Aoun, who himself had wanted to be president but was opposed by the Syrians. He now became acting Prime Minister, or I should say at least one of the acting Prime Ministers, because Gemayel’s Prime Minister Selim Hoss refused to accept his dismissal, citing the National Pact, which reserved the post to a Sunni (Aoun is a Maronite) and set up its own rival regime in west Beirut with the support of Syria, dismissing Aoun from his position as commander of the armed forces. Aoun on the other hand had the support of most of the army, Geagea’s LF and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, which was seeking to extend its influence over the middle east (the invasion of Kuwait was less that two years away) where the local Ba’ath party were deadly rivals of the Syrian Ba’ath party. This alliance incidentally would alienate the Americans from Aoun when they became enemies with Saddam Hussein, and pushed them into supporting the Syrians’ role in the country.

The stage was set for the last major showdown of the civil war. Aoun declared a ‘War of Liberation’ from the Syrian occupation in March 1989 and a campaign of shelling between east and west Beirut followed in the next few months which was more destructive than anything yet seen in the war, which for Beirut is really saying something.

Beirut skyline during the artillery bombardments of 1989. Image: Al-Jazeera.
These horrors, and moreover the fact that the two regional powers of Syria and Iraq were now fighting a proxy war in Lebanon, raised concerns among other Arab states of the Lebanon conflict spiraling into a more widespread war. This finally focused minds on finding a negotiated settlement to the civil war. In October 1989, Lebanese parliamentarians from all sides convened in the Saudi Arabian city of Taif and signed an accord which would ultimately put an end to the war by providing for political reform recognising the increased numbers of Muslims in the country, and a ‘special’ relationship with Syria which would give the latter a profound role in Lebanon’s security affairs. Fawwaz Traboulsi has, I think accurately, described post-war Lebanon as a Syrian ‘mandate’, which is also kind of neat, as when we started this story it was a French mandate.
The accord was ratified in November and René Mouawad elected as Lebanon’s new President. That the war was not yet at an end, however, was made painfully clear as Mouawad was killed by a car-bomb seventeen days later. Michel Aoun, still ensconced in east Beirut, and still enjoying the support of large sections of the population (both Christian and Muslim) was the primary remaining obstacle to the establishment of a ‘Pax Syriana’, although it was never conclusively proved that he was responsible for the assassination of Mouawad. Aoun made a final push to shore up his power during the Summer of 1990, now fighting Geagea’s LF as well, who were positively disposed towards the Taif accord. A huge part of the reason that a Syrian-dominated peace became possible was Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait in August 1990; with the Americans keen to attract Syrian involvement in their war against Iraq, the price was allowing Assad to throw all his might against Aoun and end the situation where there were two government’s claiming legitimacy. It is truly remarkable, incidentally, how every time you think the Assads have manoeuvred Syria into the position of pariah state, they somehow manage to make themselves indispensable and ingratiate themselves with the west once more.
The end came in October, when Syrian troops entered east Beirut and took the surrender of Aoun’s forces. Sadly, there was to be one final bloodstained chapter in the war, as the Syrian soldiers executed around 250 Lebanese soldiers after they had already surrendered, many of whom shot at point blank range. Aoun, meanwhile, whose personal ambition had contributed greatly to this bloodbath, was given refuge in France, where he would live for the next fifteen years. He would finally be able to return in 2005 because the Syrians would finally withdraw their army from Lebanon in that year. At the time of writing (2016), he is jostling for position to finally realise his ambition of becoming President, with the support of Samir Geagea, who he has patched things up with. But all of these events are beyond the scope of this post, which will close with the exhausted agreement of all parties in the civil war to stop fighting. The Christians and Muslims now had equal numbers in parliament, the Muslim Prime Minister’s powers were increased relative to the Christian President, and the militias began the process of disarming and handing over power to the Lebanese state. The only group which was not obliged to disarm was Hezbollah, in recognition of their role defending the south against Israel.

The Lebanese civil war lasted from 13 April 1975 and ended on 13 October 1990, that is, 15 years and 6 months. The death toll is often given at around 250,000 victims, although more recent research has greatly reduced this. I have seen estimates as low as 40,000, and am frankly at a loss as to how they can vary so wildly. Given the massive upheaval and suffering it involved, as well as its longevity, it is alarming how little really changed after all this. There was some slight reform to the political system as has been seen, but sectarianism remained a cornerstone of politics and Syria remained entrenched in Lebanese politics. The emergence of Hezbollah is of course a vital episode in the emergence of Islam as a force in middle-eastern politics, but once again we should reflect upon how little role religion played in the genesis of the war. It was only after years of suffering and, even more significantly I think, hopelessness, that an anti-western religious fervour was kindled, but this cannot be said to characterise the war as a whole, which had far more to do with problems specific to Lebanon than any broader conflict in the middle east as a whole. Because I think a picture says a thousand words, I will end this series on Lebanon with this picture of a man praying in the rubble of his own home in southern Lebanon, 1993, where the war against Israel continued sporadically to the present day.

Screenshot from 2016-05-16 03:08:22.png
Image: Al-Jazeera.


Featured image above: Amal militia members attacking the church of St.Michael, Beirut, 1984.


End of part 7

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 7: The Lebanese civil war #3

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 6: The Lebanese civil war #2


When we left Lebanon at the end of the last post, it was enjoying an interlude of uneasy peace (although they didn’t know it was merely an interlude) between the autumn of 1976 and the spring of 1978. Syrian forces had occupied the country (except for the far south, which was too close to Israel for comfort) in order to protect the Christian Maronites from succumbing to overwhelming military defeat from the alliance of (mostly Muslim) left-wing groups known as the LNM, not to mention to prevent the Palestinian factions from becoming too powerful. This is not to say that Hafez al-Assad’s government wanted the Christians to win the war either. A fragile, weakened Lebanon at uneasy peace with itself, dependent on Syria to secure this peace, suited the Syrians just fine. This state of affairs, however, was not destined to last. When hostilities broke out again in 1978, it was the Christian Phalangists and Syrians who would be fighting each other. Before we find out what changed in the interim, it should first be noted that this period of ‘peace’ was not without its violence. For starters, the conflict between the Palestinians and Israel, which had become a part of the Lebanese war, did not cease. Palestinian fedayeen attacks continued upon the north of Israel.

Secondly, one of the leading figures in the conflict, Kamal Jumblatt, was killed in March 1977. It has never been definitively established who killed Jumblatt, but the overwhelming likelihood is that it was the Syrians. As seen in the last post, his relationship with Syrian President Assad broke down in the lead-up to Syria’s intervention in 1976. Often admired by the left and certainly by the Palestinians, to whose cause he was deeply committed, Jumblatt was intransigent and implacable in pursuit of victory over the Phalangists and a non-sectarian Lebanon, an intransigence that simply did not fit Syria’s plans. The message in killing Jumblatt, who was shot in the head as he sat in the back of his car, could not have been clearer: refuse Syria’s help at your peril. The following striking poster bearing Jumblatt’s face surrounded by flames was produced by the PLO after his death and reads ‘Martyr of the Palestinian revolution, and the Lebanese National Movement: The great teacher Kamal Jumblatt’.

Image: Signs of Conflict Archive (Lebanon)

His assassination provoked a spate of killings of Christians in retaliation. Bear in mind, all of this occurred in the ‘peaceful’ interval between bouts of war in 1977, so perhaps it would be more accurate to describe this as a less intense period of conflict.

Jumblatt was not merely the leader of the PSP, but the leader of the Druze community in Lebanon, who were native to the Chouf, a mountainous area just south of Beirut. He was succeeded in these roles by his son, Walid, who would prove to be every bit as wily and capable a leader as his father, and remains active in Lebanese politics to this day. Here is Walid Jumblatt in 1982, looking spaced-out next to Yasser Arafat.

Image: Gilles Peress

1977 saw a deterioration in relations between the Christians and the Syrians who had saved them from defeat. The reasons for this are complicated, but a major turning point was the peace process between Israel and Egypt, under the sponsorship of American president Carter. I briefly looked at these Camp David Accords, which would be signed in September 1978, in part two. Following Sadat’s historic visit to Jerusalem in November 1977, Assad began to reassess his attitude to the Palestinians, whose power in Lebanon he had been trying to contain. This is a good example of the way the Lebanese war was increasingly being drawn into the wake of other conflicts, not only Israel-Palestine but also the rivalry between Syria and Egypt, and specifically Assad’s ambition to become Egypt’s replacement as the leader of the Arab world against Zionism. With Sadat’s repudiation of this role, Syria once again began to turn towards the Palestinians in Lebanon, at the same time that they and the Maronite Christian factions were feeling increasingly disenchanted with one another.

Having saved them from defeat, the Syrians expected allegiance from the LF, but found their clients less than grateful for their help, especially when it became clear they were not going to eliminate the Palestinian threat altogether. Leading the opposition to Syrian intervention among the Christians was Bashir Gemayel, son of the Phalangist founder, who I introduced in the last post. Gemayel will become an increasingly central figure from 1977 onwards. In contrast to his later incarnation as a besuited politician, at this stage, he promoted a military, tough-guy image, which endeared him to the foot-soldiers of the Phalangist militias. Something like this:

Image: Tore Kjeilen/LookLex

Gemayel in fact inspired an intense personal devotion from the men under his command. What can only be described as a cult of personality grew up around him. The following lines from the animated film, Waltz with Bashir, are the observations of an Israeli soldier present during the 1982 occupation, who witnessed the Phalangist soldiers’ reverence of their leader at first hand:

‘They carried body parts of murdered Palestinians preserved in jars of formaldehyde.
They had fingers, eyeballs, anything you wanted.
And always pictures of Bashir.
Bashir pendants, Bashir watches, Bashir this, Bashir that…
Bashir was to them what David Bowie was to me.
A star, an idol, a prince, admirable.
I think they even felt an eroticism for him.’

Waltz with Bashir (2008), by Ari Folman.

Even today, the extent to which he was implicated in the more gruesome of his soldiers’ atrocities is hotly debated. If you research him online you will find no shortage of people lionising him, claiming he was unaware of the horrible things being done in his name, how he attempted to prevent killing of civilians etc. It is not always easy, from this distance, and given the wildly conflicting accounts, to determine the truth in each individual case. Personally, I cannot help but conclude that militias under his command were involved in too many massacres of civilians for him not to have been aware and, indeed, responsible, for these crimes. For all his film-star looks and polished rhetoric, and the fact that the Americans would come to regard him as the answer to Lebanon’s woes, he was one of the more ruthless in a war that brought more than its fair share of cruel, ruthless men to the fore.

When the LF agreed to Syrian intervention in 1976, Gemayel attempted to resign his positions within the movement. He was instead given funds to found his own military organisation within the movement, with its headquarters at Karantina, which had been the site of the massacre of Muslims the year before. This independent command made him one of the most powerful militia leaders on the Christian side. Furthermore, even as the Syrians were entering Beirut to prevent the Christians from being overwhelmed by the LNM and Palestinians, Gemayel was already in touch with the Israelis, whom he saw as a far more promising ally in what he clearly saw as a conflict that was far from over. Others in the Christian camp were similarly disposed to Israel, but there was also a powerful faction, which included the current president Sarkis, who continued to be staunch allies of Syria. Then there was the former president Frangieh and his Marada movement, which would become one of the first victims of Bashir Gemayel in his rise to dominate the Christian factions. In fact, if you thought the multitude of warring groups discussed last time was confusing, you are in for a treat, because internecine conflict now breaks out within the militias.

The Frangieh family and the Marada had their power-base in the Zgharta region in the north of Lebanon, and specifically the town of Ehden. The Marada had co-operated in the earlier stages of the war with the Phalangists, but this co-operation had led to a growing Phalangist presence in the region, where they had not traditionally been strong. They began to threaten Marada dominance and muscle in on their protection rackets (I did liken them to gangsters in the last post). The pulling-apart of the Christians into pro-Israeli and pro-Syrian factions brought the rivalry to a head in 1978. The Marada leader, Tony Frangieh (son of Suleiman) attempted, by both negotiation and force, to get the Phalangists to leave the area now that the war was ‘over’. Bashir Gemayel had by now settled on a strategy of removing his rivals among the Christian militias before attempting the takeover of the state. Accounts differ as to what exactly happened. Those who seek to defend Gemayel’s reputation suggest that the initial intention was merely to kidnap Frangieh, but whatever the intention, a gunfight broke out in which Tony Frangieh, his wife and three year-old daughter were killed, along with 32 of his associates. Those sources less keen to preserve Bashir Gemayel’s reputation claim the murders were planned in advance; I have even read claims that the couple were forced to watch their toddler shot before they too were killed. Given the kind of things that were later to occur, I do not think that it was beyond the capacity of the Phalangist gunmen to do such a thing.

Aftermath of massacre at Ehden. Image: Al-Jazeera

Meanwhile, in the same Summer of 1978 that the Ehden massacre took place, outright hostilities broke out between the Christians (excepting of course the Marada brigade) and the Syrians, who were now regarded as an army of foreign occupation. There was now no pretense that the war was not back on. This period of conflict (sometimes referred to as the ‘hundred days war’) began when the Syrians came into conflict with the Christian breakaway faction of what had been the Lebanese national army in Beirut. The Phalangists and Tiger militias were quickly drawn into the fighting, in which the Syrians shelled their positions within the city, showing scant regard for civilian lives. The area of Achrafieh (there is a map of Beirut in the previous post) in east Beirut was the stronghold from which the militias withstood severe Syrian pressure and, by the autumn, essentially forced the Syrians to withdraw from Christian east Beirut. This victory cemented Bashir Gemayel’s reputation as the champion of the Christian Lebanese. Although not everyone was sure they wanted him as their champion, you only had to look at what happened to Tony Frangieh to figure out where that got you.

The following years saw the permanent decline of the Marada movement and the Frangieh dynasty. Gemayel soon turned his attentions to those allies who had helped him fight the Syrians. As I noted in the last post, the Tigers militia were the military wing of former president Camille Chamoun’s National Liberal Party. While small compared to the Phalangists, they were known as fierce and well-equipped fighters, and made an important contribution to the LF campaigns discussed up to now. They had suffered a number of setbacks since 1976 however. First was the Palestinian takeover of the coastal village of Damour, where Chamoun lived and directed the defense, before fleeing by helicopter. In common with much of the political leadership of the Christians, Chamoun then acceded to Syrian intervention as the only means of saving the Christians from defeat. This move provoked a split between his NLP and the Tigers militia, which was led by his son, Dany:


The fact that the Tigers leaned towards opposing the Syrian presence in Lebanon might be thought to make them natural allies of Bashir Gemayel, and in 1978 they were. But there was more at stake here than what foreign power you aligned with. Gemayel was determined to consolidate all Christian militias under his rule. Some who knew him, such as the Israeli journalist Ehud Yaari, claim that  he was consciously imitating the Zionist underground movement during the British mandate period, in which all opposition was ruthlessly suppressed to create a single, disciplined and unified structure. Gemayel’s secret contacts with Israel were becoming more and more significant, and less secret, and by June 1980 he was ready to make his move. The Tigers’ base at Safra, north of Beirut, was attacked and over 80 members were killed, basically decapitating and finishing the movement as a significant factor in the war. Dany Chamoun, however, was allowed to escape, and went into exile, and he will be back in Lebanon later on; the civil war is not finished with him. The LF from then on was reconstituted with Bashir as its unquestioned leader.

But we need to backtrack a bit to explain why Israel was playing such an important role in Lebanese politics by 1980 (there are even claims that Mossad orchestrated the Ehden massacre), because I forgot to mention that they had invaded the south of the country two years earlier. So, back to March 1978, that is, before the aforementioned ‘hundred days war’.

The Palestinians had, of course, been using southern Lebanon as a base from which to launch attacks on Israel for years. What is less well-remembered is that Israeli had also been shelling the area for a long time. These bombings had inflicted massive civilian casualties. In many villages, almost the entire population had either been killed or fled, and it was suspected in some quarters that the Israeli government’s objective was to effectively depopulate the area, widespread burning of crops and infrastructure accompanying the killings. A particularly nasty Palestinian attack took place along the coast that month, killing of 38 civilians (plus the nine attackers, who were killed by the Israelis) near Tel Aviv. This was, ostensibly, the reason for the Israeli government’s invasion of Lebanon, whose avowed intention was to push back the Palestinians back away from proximity to Israel and beyond the Litani river, about 30km north of the border, creating a ‘security zone’.

In the light of this new aggression by the Israeli government, it is worth mentioning that a new prime minister, Menachem Begin, had been elected the year before. Begin’s victory in the 1977 election broke the monopoly of power enjoyed by the Israeli left since independence and marked a distinct right-turn for mainstream Israeli politics. It is ironic that Begin was subsequently best remembered internationally for making peace with Egypt, because by Israeli standards, he and his allies represented a particularly hardline Zionist nationalism that had little time for compromise with the Palestinians or other Arab nations. Begin had been around, in opposition, as long as Israel had existed. Back in the late 1940s, Albert Einstein and other prominent American Jews described his party as a ‘terrorist, right-wing chauvinist organization [. . .] closely akin in its organization, methods, methods, political philosophy and social appeal to the Nazi and Fascist parties.’

Menachem Begin. Image: U.S. Air force

This time, Israel’s incursion into southern Lebanon was to last only a week, but its consequences would last for years. The major strategic goal of expelling the Palestinians was largely achieved, although not without stiff resistance. As usual, it was the civilian population that suffered most, with 100,000 to 200,000 refugees fleeing the area. The Syrians, fearing the Israelis would use the population’s evacuation as an excuse to annex the land, tried to send refugees back southwards, into the war zone. Oddly enough, the outcome of the operation would leave southern Lebanon dominated by two military forces, neither of them Israel or Palestine (although the Palestinians would drift back into the area as well). One was the South Lebanon Army (SLA), which would act as Israel’s proxy in the area after they left, and United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, or UNIFIL for short.

It was noted in the last post that in the spring of 1976 the Lebanese army itself split into Muslim and Christian factions. The Christian side came to be known as the ‘Army of Free Lebanon’ (AFL) and its leader in the south was Saad Haddad:

Saad Haddad. Image: Steve Hindy
By 1980, his part of the army would split off from the AFL and become the South Lebanon Army. I’m just going to refer to Haddad’s forces as the SLA from now on. The SLA was more or less entirely armed and controlled by Israel as a means of allowing them to engage militarily without maintaining their occupation officially. Haddad was a loose cannon, ruling over an enclave he declared to be the ‘Free Lebanon State’ which no-one else recognised. Under his sponsorship, an evangelical Christian radio station was set up, the ‘Voice of Hope’ which broadcast (Haddad sometimes turned up to do a spot as DJ) a mixture of gospel proselythising and political propaganda. The Israelis would also refer to this part of the country as ‘Free Lebanon’, although what exactly it was free from (Lebanese government control?) is unclear.


A part of the UN’s mandate in the area had been to restore Lebanese sovereignty over the area. Despite all the good intentions this, along with the other parts of their mission (to restore peace and confirm Israeli withdrawal) went unfulfilled. Instead, UNIFIL were attacked at will by Haddad’s forces (and by extension, Israel). Instead of exerting any kind of control over the south, the UN soldiers ended up ensconced in isolated posts dotted throughout the country, the limited nature of their mandate effectively barring them from making any serious attempt to challenge the SLA, or any other armed group. UN soldiers were even killed by Palestinians on occasion. It has been argued by some, such as Fawwaz Traboulsi, that UNIFIL has unintentionally reinforced Israel’s occupation. They remain in southern Lebanon to this day (2016), still ‘interim’ after 38 years. In many ways it is a mystery: why did Israel, which had agreed to the original mandate of UNIFIL-which was partly to remove the Palestinian threat to their own northern border-allow (even orchestrate) the SLA attacks on it? I will leave the question hanging there for now, because although the Israelis officially pulled out their own troops after a week, their work in Lebanon is far from finished.
In the wake of this invasion, the Syrians, who had intervened two years earlier to disarm the Palestinians, now began to do the opposite. They and Israelis, although they could sometimes see each other along the Litani, were careful not to engage in any fighting directly, although the Syrians were fighting the Christian militias in Beirut that summer, as seen earlier. Nor were the Palestinians the only opposition in the south. The last thing we need here is yet another faction in this conflict to consider, but that’s what we’re going to get. I have neglected to discuss one group of Lebanon’s population up to now, so as to consider it in the period when their armed militia becomes a significant factor in the war. Most of the refugees fleeing the Israeli invasion, and the majority in that part of the country, were Shia. The Shia were Lebanon’s poorest community, economically and politically underprivileged. Robert Fisk dates this status to the days of Sunni Ottoman rule, when ‘they were treated with contempt, [. . .] neglected and turned into outcasts with much the same arrogance as that shown by the English Protestants towards the Irish Catholics during the same period.’ The ‘National Pact’ I discussed in the last post allocated power in Lebanon on the basis that the Shia were the third largest group in Lebanon, after the Maronites and Sunnis (based on a dodgy census taken way back in 1932). By this period, however, they had overtaken both the others in size and become the largest, without any concomitant increase in representation.
While it might be expected that all of this would make the Shia fertile recruiting ground for the left and radical Palestinian groups, but this is not how things played out. A major reason for this is this man, Musa al-Sadr:

Al-Sadr was an Imam from Iran who had come to Lebanon in the late 1950s, sent by the Iranian clergy to lead the Shia community in the southern city of Tyre. In the following years, he gained a following among Lebanese of all sects as a champion of the underprivileged, regardless of their confession. Sadr was very much a practitioner of an active Shi’ism, blending politics and economics with theology, and he resisted co-option by the various factions of Lebanese politics. He came to be regarded by  as a moderate figure as civil war loomed in the 1970s; while demanding the Christians relinquish some of their power at the same time he was an avowed enemy of Communism. The Americans looked upon him favourably as a bulwark against not just Communism but pan-Arab nationalism as well. For the first time, the most neglected section of Lebanese society was politically organised as a coherent group. This was called the ‘Movement of the Deprived’ and was founded in 1974.

When war broke out, Sadr attempted to hold his movement aloof from the conflict, going on a hunger strike in May 1975 to demand peace and a government of national unity. At the same time, however, the Shia were already forming an armed wing. An accidental explosion at a training camp in July of that year killed over sixty trainees, revealing the militias hitherto secret existence. This militia, the ‘Lebanese Resistance Regiments’ would come to be known by the acronym AMAL (from its Arabic name), by which name the whole movement is better known.

Amal logo

In the early years of the civil war, however, Amal played little role in the conflict and Sadr’s movement as a whole put forward a series of very moderate demands for political reform. Much of this changed in 1978. Firstly, there was the Israeli invasion. The already put-upon Shi’ites of the south were now living under occupation and the often-indiscriminate cruelty of Haddad’s forces. Secondly, and a source of enduring mystery, Musa al-Sadr vanished off the face of the earth on a visit to Libya in August of that year. It would be too much of a tangent to analyse all of the different theories surrounding his disappearance, interesting as they are. He was a guest of Muammar Gaddafi, whose regime claimed that Sadr and his companions departed Libya for Italy. Most believe that Gaddafi had him killed for some reason, possibly at the behest of Yasser Arafat, whose PLO were rivals for power in southern Lebanon with the Shia and close allies of Gaddafi. Then again, it is reported that Sadr and Gaddafi had an argument about religion; maybe Gaddafi went berserk and killed him. Even with the fall of Gaddafi in 2011, it remains unclear what happened to the Imam.

Whatever the reasons, with the occupation of the south and the disappearance of their leader, Amal began to take a more militant turn. The success of their Iranian revolution in 1979 by their fellow Shi’ites only emboldened them. Despite the fact that Amal members were trained by the PLO in its early days, the rivalry with the Palestinians became increasingly violent, not to mention their fight with the Israelis and the SLA. Amal came to see the Palestinians as foreign occupiers who had brought the wrath of Israel down upon their country. Some Israeli strategists argued that they would find far more reliable allies in the Shia of southern Lebanon than the Christians, and that they should seek an alliance with Amal, but such an alliance did not materialise. Support for Amal came increasingly from Syria, and this connection would intensify even further in the 1980s, when Amal will come to play an increasingly important role in the conflict, but will also come to be rivaled among the Shia by more militant, and explicitly Islamic players like Hezbollah. This is just to establish who Amal are and where they stand. They will return to our story later.

As the war in the south raged between the SLA-Israelis, Amal and the Palestinians, relations deteriorated further north between the Christians and the Syrians. 1980-1 saw intense fighting over the city of Zahleh (see map in the previous post), a predominantly Christian city about 40km west of Beirut which Bashir Gemayel’s forces had taken over. The Syrians bombarded the city which in turn led the Israelis to shoot down Syrian helicopters, claiming they were in contravention of an agreement between them that the air force against ground target. The Syrians said they were merely transporting troops and moved surface-to-air missiles into the area. Here is an interesting piece by British television at the time on the battle for Zahleh:

The reporter sums up the fate of the Syrians (and subsequently of anyone else who tried to intervene) very succinctly: ‘The Syrians once tried to restore a semblance of order, but were then themselves swallowed up by the anarchy’. I have heard this said of the Israelis, Americans etc. by several commentators on the Lebanon war, although personally I would add a note of caution to this idea that well-meaning outsiders were sucked into the chaos of Lebanon and somehow corrupted by the country. In many ways, I think it would be just as true to say that it was outsiders who prolonged the conflict with their interventions.

The crisis over Zahleh would be diffused by Philip Habib, a special envoy sent by U.S. President Ronald Reagan.

Philip Habib. Image: University of California Television.

Habib, who had Lebanese ancestry, managed to get the Syrians to withdraw, in return for which Bashir Gemayel promised to withdraw his forces in favour of the Lebanese army. He also made vague promises to cut links to Israel, which he never fulfilled. Just as they had after the ‘hundred days war’, the Phalangists saw the settlement over Zahleh as a victory, and returned to Beirut as conquering heroes. Bashir Gemayel’s stature only rose higher, and it is from around this period that his transformation from local warlord to aspiring president of the whole country begins. Whereas in the first phase of the war the LF had been fighting to preserve the traditional power-sharing structures that favoured the Christians, Gemayel was now, with Israeli and American backing, looking to destroy those power-sharing structures and seize power in order to expel the Syrians. These plans were also backed by Iraq, who had with the Phalangists a common enemy in Syria.

This plan went forward on all fronts; at the same time as his rival Christian militias were being slaughtered, attempts were being made to court western journalists. If you look on youtube for videos of the main figures discussed here, Gemayel turns up far more than anyone else, speaking pretty good, media-savvy English. In this long-term manoeuvering for power, Gemayel was no doubt coached by the Israelis, to whom his ambitions had become inextricably linked. What Israel became more and more convinced of, as the next presidential election approached in 1982, was that Gemayel could not achieve their main goal, of expelling the PLO from Lebanon, on his own. Another Israeli invasion moved inexorably closer. What nobody quite realised was that it would be on a greater and more ambitious scale this time. The architect of this 1982 invasion was a new and hawkish Israeli defense minster appointed in August 1981, Ariel Sharon:

Ariel Sharon in Lebanon, 1984. Image: Max Nash, Associated Press.

It is, in a way, misleading to think of two Israeli invasions punctuated by disengagement. The Israelis were bombing Lebanon most of the time between their withdrawal of ground troops in 1978 and their return in June 1982. Retaliation for PLO attacks on Israel was always used as justification for these air-strikes, which once again claimed many civilian lives. June 17 1981 in particular saw intensive bombing of Beirut which it was claimed was an attempt to eliminate the PLO leadership, although its main effect was to kill perhaps 300 civilians. These atrocities provoked rare criticism of Israel from the United States, if no concrete action, and the truce arranged by Philip Habib mentioned above also put a temporary halt to these. An uneasy and unofficial (because neither side would negotiate directly with one another) truce lasted until April 1982, when an Israeli soldier was killed by a landmine while visiting SLA forces and Israel, with characteristic disproportionate force, bombed Damour, killing 23 people in retaliation, claiming that the Palestinians had broken the ceasefire agreement.

In fact, Arafat had no interest in breaking the ceasefire, and had made strenuous efforts to restrain his forces. He could, however, do nothing about the not-inconsiderable numbers of Palestinian forces outside the control of the PLO. It was the actions of one of these rival Palestinian militias which provided Israel with their excuse for the 1982 invasion. This was the attempted murder in London of Israel’s ambassador by the so-called Abu Nidal Organization, which was a more hardline rival of the PLO, sponsored by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. The attempted assassination of the ambassador was most likely orchestrated by Iraq in retaliation for Israel’s bombing, the year before, of a nuclear reactor the Iraqis were building outside Baghdad. In short, it really had little to do with Lebanon, but was used as a casus belli anyway. It would be naive to take this at face value however. What Begin’s government (which had been re-elected in 1981) really hoped to achieve in invading Lebanon again was to install a puppet government with Bashir Gemayel as President and sign a peace treaty with it, expelling the Palestinian military presence in the country in the process.

On 6 June 1982, Israeli troops crossed the border once again. In line with their government’s publicly-stated goal, many of Israel’s own soldiers believed that the invasion would once again go no further than 40km into Lebanon’s territory, to establish an area under Israeli control, but go no further. Sharon had far more ambitious plans, however, and there is clear evidence (Sharon sued for libel a newspaper who made this claim and he lost the case) that Sharon even misled his Begin and the Israeli cabinet into thinking that he would merely take his troops as far north as the range of the Palestinian rockets and no further. It became immediately clear that this was on a far greater scale. The fact that the United Nations now stood in their way made zero difference; the UNIFIL troops could do nothing but watch as over 1000 Israeli tanks drove straight past them.
Tyre was quickly captured, followed by Sidon. In both places, the Israeli air-force bombed civilian areas indiscriminately. In this kind of dry political and strategic narrative, it is easy to forgot that the real victims of this war were innocent civilians caught in the middle. The British journalist Robert Fisk, who witnessed first-hand some of the worst atrocities of the Lebanese war, visited the site of a school in Sidon which had been bombed by the Israelis, next to which a PLO guerrilla had chosen to operate an anti-aircraft gun:
‘He may have been unaware that the school contained more than 100 refugees, although this is highly unlikely. His disregard was criminal, like that of the Israeli who killed him. For an Israeli pilot had presumably seen the gun flashes and decided to bomb the artillery. The Israeli could not have seen what he was aiming at; he could have had no idea how many civilians were in the area. Nor could he have cared. For if the Israelis were really worried about civilian casualties, they would never have dropped ordnance at night into a densely populated city.’
There is a tendency, which has always baffled me, to feel less appalled by the slaughter of civilians if it is carried out at a distance from the air, as opposed to ground troops armed with guns or machetes. Compare the thousands killed by the Serbs at Srebrenica by gunshot and starvation, rightly infamous in modern history as a genocidal act, to the comparable numbers killed (many from airstrikes) in the opening weeks of the United States’ invasion of Iraq in 2003, the so-called ‘shock and awe’ phase, which was presented in such a clinical and sanitised fashion that it almost seemed like a video game to spectators, was presented as somehow not as bad as the Serbs executing their victims at point blank range or the Rwandan Hutus hacking the Tutsis to death. But it was. Fisk’s book, Pity the Nation, is full of powerful descriptions of the aftermath of such ‘surgical’ bombing, and shows that the result of both massacres are pretty much the same pile of reeking corpses:
‘In the roof of the school there was a jagged hole, like the one we had seen earlier above the door of the municipality building, made by the Israeli bomb. It had not exploded on contact with the roof. The bomb had been designed to detonate only when it could no longer penetrate the hard surfaces that it struck. So it passed through three floors of the building right into the darkened cellar where the refugees were huddled in terror and only then, when it came into contact with the firm, immovable floor, did it blow up. The bodies lay in a giant heap that had left the children on top and the women beneath them. The bomb must have somehow lifted the huddled mass of refugees and sucked the heaviest of them into its vortex. The white lime dust lay more thickly over some parts of the pile than others, leaving the children exposed, their legs splayed open, heads down. [. . .]
An Israeli officer attached to his army’s `press liaison unit’ in east Beirut was to tell me next day that the story of unburied bodies in Sidon was `PLO propaganda’, that anyone who had died in Sidon was a `terrorist’ or – at worst – a civilian who had died at the hands of `terrorists’. The claim that more than 100 people, including children, had died in that school basement was `utter rubbish’. He instructed me to `check my facts’ before I wrote slanderous articles to the contrary. When I told him I had visited the school and seen the corpses with my own eyes, he told me I had received no permission to visit Sidon, that I should have travelled there with an Israeli escort officer and that I should not visit the city again.
Robert Fisk, Pity the Nation
They began to shell west Beirut on the 21 June. The city had already been subjected to bombing from the air which would kill thousands. In Christian east Beirut, however, the arrival of the Israelis was a strange replay of the Syrians’ arrival in 1976; the same people who had greeted Assad’s forces then were now greeting the Israelis as liberators. Even some Lebanese Muslims, especially the Sunni (who had suffered less as the hands of the IDF than the Shia) were not displeased with the arrival of the Israelis, if it meant the expulsion of the PLO. Even Walid Jumblatt, hitherto a staunch ally of the Palestinians, accepted the inevitable Israeli victory and agreed to participate in a cabinet of national salvation with Gemayel’s Phalangists and Amal. This left the PLO and Syrians as the only ones fighting the Israeli occupation.
The siege went on for almost two months, the Israelis bombing, cutting off food, water and electricity supplies, but reluctant to send troops in (apart from some undercover agents sent in to plant car bombs) for fear of the heavy losses they would incur. The Palestinians spoke of turning Beirut into ‘their Stalingrad’, making a last stand with surrender not an option. This prospect no doubt frightened the Israelis (not to mention the Lebanese stuck there with them); an enemy for whom death holds no fear is a far more formidable one that one who hopes to escape. But the PLO leadership, seeing the inevitable annihilation that would result if they remained, began to negotiate for their evacuation behind the scenes. Habib attempted to secure an agreement, to which efforts Sharon merely intensified the bombing. By early August, even the American government’s legendary forbearance ran out and Reagan criticised Israel, resulting in Sharon’s decision-making powers being curtailed by the Israeli cabinet.
Finally, on 18 August, an agreement was reached that the PLO would evacuate their forces from Beirut, to be dispersed throughout several Arab countries (Arafat was to be exiled to Tunisia), this evacuation to take place under the supervision of a ‘Multinational disengagement force’ consisting of troops from the United States, France and Italy. These troops arrived a few days later, and the Palestinians (as well as the Syrians) began to depart. Here is Arafat on board his ship as he departs on the 27 August:
Image: Al-Jazeera
And here is Walid Jumblatt firing a machine gun to give him a send-off:
Image: Al-Jazeera
It really began to look as if the war might be over, but this is Lebanon; there is always a cruel twist in the tale. Events move quickly now. A few days before the departure of Arafat, Bashir Gemayel was elected to the Presidency unopposed. Clear indications that the Israelis and Americans would accept no other candidate had been enough to convince a majority of parliamentary delegates to vote for him, and if that didn’t work, judicious bribes convinced the rest. His supporters celebrated on the streets of Beirut:
Image: Georges Hayek


No doubt the inhabitants of west Beirut greeted news of his election with less enthusiasm. It was clear now that the Muslims, and especially the Palestinian civilians left behind in the refugee camps by the PLO fighters, were at the mercy of the new Israeli-backed president and his militias. The only tenuous protection appeared to be the Multinational Force who were scheduled to stay in Beirut for at least a month. These reboarded their ships on the 9 September, however, after only two weeks in the city. With the Palestinians gone, their job appeared complete, and they saw no reason to hang around.

Gemayel, meanwhile, was having secret meetings with the Israelis on the 1 and 12 September, at which Begin and Sharon demanded he sign a peace treaty with Israeli. The president-elect was reportedly furious at the high-handed way he was treated by the Israelis, however, and demanded that he be given time to build consensus among all the Lebanese for such a treaty. This indicates that, although he had been brought to power by Israel, Bashir Gemayel may have been preparing to distance himself from his patrons now that he was president. It will never be known what exactly a Gemayel presidency would have looked like, however, because he was killed by a remotely-detonated bomb on the 14 September.



Although his killer had been a Christian, probably acting at the behest of the Syrians, this made little difference to the Phalangist followers of Gemayel who, as I noted earlier, were fanatically devoted to their leader and baying for blood in the wake of his assassination, and specifically the blood of Muslims. The PLO had left behind their elderly, women and children in the refugee camps on the understanding (Habib confirmed that this promise was made) that the Israelis would not enter west Beirut after their fighters evacuated. The Multinational Force, as noted, were no longer there to protect anyone. Within days of Gemayel’s killing, the Israelis broke their promise, citing the need to maintain law and order in the area. What was to subsequently happen in the camps of Sabra and Shatila, however, carried out by the Christian militias and overseen by the Israelis, was the very antithesis of law and order.
End of part 6
Featured image above: aftermath of a car-bomb, Beirut, 1980s.
A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 6: The Lebanese civil war #2