A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

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We have already looked in previous posts at the war in Afghanistan from its beginnings in 1979, beyond the Soviet pullout and into its civil war phase, up to the Taliban’s conquest over much of the country in 1996. This gives us, in a fair amount of detail, a good understanding of the heterogenous groups first fighting the Soviets in a loose coalition, and then each other, providing the background for the story we have to tell here, of another group which assisted in the jihad of the 1980s, those who volunteered from other countries throughout the Muslim world to help their Afghan brethren defeat the invaders. While these ‘Afghan Arabs’ (yes, the term belies the fact that these were not Afghans and sometimes not Arabs either, but it’s the term people use) were a small minority of those who fought the Soviet Union, and the importance of their contribution is debated (even bin Laden acknowledged that the war was won by ‘poor, barefoot Afghans’) their status and reputation was legendary among Muslims. There is another reason why they are a focus of interest, and that is in the widespread perception that Afghanistan provided the breeding/training ground for the internationalist strand of jihadism that would emerge in the 1990s, often (clumsily, I will argue) lumped together under the label of al-Qaeda.

This post will be an attempt to trace the participation of these non-Afghan fighters in the Afghan war, then look at their evolution as the war was winding down into something else, which will turn against the sole remaining superpower which had helped in the jihad against the Russians. Essentially, we will try and trace the roots of al-Qaeda, but it should be noted at the outset that looking into the genesis of al-Qaeda is a minefield. You quickly realise there are numerous different accounts of its early years, different opinions as to when it was ‘founded’ (if this word even has any real meaning here) and what we even mean when we use the term al-Qaeda (a word meaning, the ‘base’ or ‘foundation’ in Arabic). Rather than favour any single one of these accounts, I am going to try and synthesise what seem to me the more reputable of them, and by necessity keep things somewhat vague where there is absolutely no consensus on an issue.

So there is going to be a lot of ‘in the late 1980s’ and so forth in what follows, at least up until 1998, and the aftermath of the US embassy bombings in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam, when something called al-Qaeda begins to emerge from the mists of obscurity in contemporary documents. I think it’s interesting, for a multinational organisation that some claim had existed from the late 1980s onwards, that I can find not a single reference to the name al-Qaeda in any of the major western newspapers until 1998, and the American president Clinton continued to use the term ‘bin Laden network’ for the group even after 1998. This is worth bearing in mind. If anyone out there has fluent Arabic and can do a text search of some database with all the major Arabic-language newspapers and journals, I would be very interested in seeing what the earliest reference to the ‘organisation’ they can find.

Before we get to al-Qaeda, however, it is important to remember that such an organisation did not exist during the war against the Soviet Union. The main organisation for funneling Muslim recruits and money into the country from outside was the Maktab al-Khidamat (MAK), usually known in English as the Afghan Services Bureau. This was basically a guest house in Peshawar where Muslims from outside could stay on their way to the battlefield, receive training and indoctrination. It also acted as a publishing centre for theological works, primarily those written by the founder of the MAK, Abdullah Azzam, a Jordanian-Palestinian scholar and jihadist who was the ideological driving force behind the development of an internationalist and militant Islamist movement towards the end of the war, anxious that the momentum should not be lost and the foreign fighters disbanded.

Although bin Laden is often represented as the mastermind behind these developments, in many ways this is anachronistic, a result of the prominent role bin Laden assumed in the 1990s. In fact, it was Azzam (below) who was bin-Laden’s elder mentor for much of the 1980s and some even credit him as coming up with the term al-qaeda al-sulbah (the solid base) in a magazine article he wrote, to refer to the revolutionary vanguard he argued was necessary to lead the Muslim world into rejuvenation and a resurrection of the Caliphate. While this might be an accurate explanation of the origin of the term al-Qaeda, this sounds a little bit too neat to me. Bin Laden himself is supposed to have said the name came about more or less by accident as a result of the term ‘base’ being used to refer to the Salafist training camps in Afghanistan, from which the name stuck. Either way, perhaps the best way to explain the evolution of this movement is to look a bit at the personal histories of the three figures so instrumental in its foundation and development: Azzam, bin-Laden, and Ayman al-Zawahiri, whom we have already met in part two of this blog.

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Abdullah Azzam was born in what is now the West Bank, Palestine, in 1941. The 1967 war forced him and his family to flee to Jordan when he was twenty-five years old. He secured a job as a teacher in Jordan (he had already begun his life-long study of Islamic jurisprudence) but abandoned what might have been a relatively-secure (given the circumstances) existence to join the Fedayeen fighters against Israel. While, as we have seen in previous posts, the Palestinian resistance to Israel, led by the PLO was overwhelmingly secular (Hamas would not be founded until 1987), Azzam was unusual in that he combined his attempts to liberate his homeland with membership of the Muslim Brotherhood, at the same time developing militant ideas about reviving Islam that were at odds with the Brotherhood and had more in common with Salafist ideologies. Indeed Azzam found himself at odds with the PLO and was reportedly once brought before a tribunal, accused of insulting Che Guevara, to which he replied that Islam was his religion, and Che Guevara under his foot.

At this stage in the early 1970s, the left-wing umbrella-organisation, the PLO, was the only show on the road as regards resistance to Israel and, feeling such groups dishonoured Islam and neglected the broader cause of Islam in pursuit of Palestinian goals (although these should be central to a wider struggle), Azzam abandoned the fight and returned to his academic work in Egypt and Jordan. Having been fired for his continuing political activism in Jordan, he moved to a university position in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia in 1981. It was not long before Azzam, who seems to have been a somewhat restless figure, began to feel disenchanted with those around him who, while they may have agreed on much ideologically, did little or nothing to put their ideas into action. The perfect opportunity was arising far to the east, however, where the war in Afghanistan was intensifying, and he perceived clearly that, while Palestine would always been the more important long-term goal for him, Afghanistan was the more immediate and pressing business at hand. He managed to get himself transferred to a university in Islamabad, Pakistan, from which he began to regularly visit Peshawar, the gateway for foreign jihadists into the Afghan war, a city he often referred to (here’s that term again) as al-qaeda al-sulbah.

He met Osama bin Laden (below) on one of his many return visits to Jeddah in 1984. Bin Laden’s family owned the guest house where Azzam would stay, preaching and raising money for the cause in Afghanistan and the younger bin Laden was profoundly influenced by Azzam. At this stage, the jihad had the full support of the Saudi state, and Azzam’s call for an influx of Muslim fighters into Afghanistan had been endorsed by the Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia, effectively the seal of approval from the king himself.

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Bin Laden in Afghanistan in the 1980s.

Osama bin Laden was born in 1957, one of over fifty children of the Yemeni construction magnate Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden who died in 1967 in an airplane crash. His mother was a Syrian of Yemeni descent, Hamida al-Attas, who divorced Mohammed soon after Osama’s birth. It is sometimes claimed that she belonged to the Alawite sect, and even that she wasn’t really married to Mohammed bin Laden, being merely his concubine or ‘slave wife’, but this seems to be a fairly crude attempt to denigrate Osama bin Laden himself, and there is no evidence he was treated as a ‘lesser’ member of the  extended family, which he surely would have been if this was the case.

Although there is no direct evidence for it, bin Laden’s first meeting with Azzam may have been in the late 1970s, as he attended the University of Jeddah to study business, and probably received religious instruction at the same time Azzam was working there. Most accounts of bin Laden in these years describe a hard-working, conscientious young man, modest almost to the point of shyness, and dedicated to his family, its construction business, and his religious faith. He worked for his father’s company, and not just in the token way the kids of rich people sometimes work, but actually worked on the sites, operating machinery, eating with the workers and earning a reputation for quiet generosity and for helping those less fortunate than himself while, although insanely wealthy, living a markedly austere lifestyle himself. There is no reason to doubt any of the many positive descriptions of bin Laden’s character that come down to us from those who knew him, especially those who have no ideological reason to eulogise him, and indeed have come under significant pressure to disparage and condemn him. There must, after all, be some reason for the tremendous personal loyalty he inspired in those around him, and we don’t need to buy into the simplistic image of an irredeemable monster that is peddled by the tabloid media. The overwhelming evidence is, unsurprisingly, that he had some admirable qualities, and this  does not imply sympathy for his ideas or actions.

Another notable aspect of bin Laden’s character was the synthesis of word and deed. Like Azzam, bin Laden knew his theology and, like Azzam,  knew that book learning alone was worthless unless acted upon. Conversely, he had tremendous respect for religious scholars, recognising that action without the wisdom to guide action alone was worthless too. If Azzam had been the kind of stay-at-home religious scholar that bin Laden would later criticise for not travelling to Afghanistan and joining the fight, their relationship would not have been as profound as it was, but his equal dedication to lecturing, writing and to fighting on the battlefield was one of the reasons the younger man admired him so much.

Although the precise date of his arrival in Afghanistan is debated, Osama bin Laden traveled to the war zone within months, perhaps weeks (some even say days but this is probably an exaggeration) of the war’s outbreak in December 1979. In these first few years. he acted mainly a conduit through which money passed from Saudi supporters to the Afghan Mujahideen. He recognised that his family’s financial resources, and those of other Saudis, were the greatest gift he could bestow on the cause at this juncture, and spent his time fundraising among his fellow Saudis and managing the disbursal of these resources back in Afghanistan-Pakistan. As time went on, however, he gradually assumed a more hands-on role as he developed a network of contacts, with the help of Azzam, and honed his military and organisational skills, taking a more and more prominent role in the operations of the MAK. For most of the 1980s, the Saudi government worked hand in glove with bin Laden and the Afghan fighters. Bin Laden’s main point of contact with the Saudi state was Turki al-Faisal, the son of King Faisal (see part 12), the head of its intelligence service, the Al Mukhabarat Al A’amah (General Intelligence Directorate) from 1979 to 2001. This is he in 2002 (for such an important dude, he seems to have been surprisingly camera-shy throughout the 1980s-1990s; I can find no images of him in that period whatsoever):

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Bin Laden’s deteriorating relationship with the Saudi state in the early 1990s will be key to understanding his evolution from a jihadist against the communist enemy in Afghanistan, to declaring war on those governments in Muslim countries who he saw as inimical to Islam, and their chief enabler: the United States. Throughout the 1980s, however, he and the Saudi regime were rock solid in their support of the Afghans. You might want to return and look at part ten to refresh your memory as to the various factions fighting the war. Most of the resources from bin Laden and the Saudis were funneled into the factions of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar and Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, that is, those with the most fundamentalist and intolerant vision of Islam (and that is saying something, given the competition they were up against). Sayyaf, who had the closest links of all with Saudi Arabia, was the main facilitator in bin Laden building his ‘Afghan Arab’ unit, an objective which indicates something of a rift growing between bin Laden and Azzam from around 1987 onwards, as the two men began to grow apart on these subtle ideological differences.

Azzam had always a champion of promoting unity among the Ummah (the community of all Muslims) and wanted to disperse the non-Afghan volunteers out among the various Afghan groups as a way of fostering this. Bin Laden, however, was keen to found a separate unit of foreign fighters, believing this would better prepare them to return to their own countries after the war and wage war against the secular authorities there. There was also a perception that the ‘Afghan Arabs’ were being used by Afghan commanders as cannon fodder, although I have conversely read in places that there was an opposite concern, that the Afghans were treating the foreign volunteers as guests and refusing to put them in danger, depriving them of valuable combat experience. There was also a concern among Afghan commanders that the foreign volunteers were overzealous in seeking martyrdom, disrupting Afghan units with their recklessness. While prepared to die for the cause if necessary, Afghans were fighting a war to liberate their country and trying not to get themselves killed.

Another potentially-more troublesome rift was that Azzam championed Massoud (whom he described as the best Mujahideen commander) and this led to tensions with bin Laden and his allies. Perhaps the word ‘allies’ is putting it a bit too strongly. We should not exaggerate the differences he had with Azzam. Both men were concerned with preserving the unity of the Afghan forces and tried to avoid taking sides. Bin Laden would continue this attempt during the collapse into inter-factional fighting that followed the defeat of the communists.  Azzam and bin Laden remained friends and comrades, and there is certainly no evidence to suggest that bin Laden was involved in the conspiracies that grew up among Azzam’s enemies and eventually led to his assassination in November 1989, only months after the Soviet withdrawal, but before the Afghan communist regime had been defeated.

But before we get to Azzam’s death, however, there is one more faction among the ‘Afghan Arabs’ that we should examine, that led by the Egyptian Ayman al-Zawahiri.

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Zawahiri at some point in the mid 1990s.

We have already briefly examined the early career of al-Zawahiri way back in part two when he was among the hundreds of Egyptian Islamic Jihad (EIJ) members rounded up and arrested in the aftermath of Sadat’s assassination in 1981. Following this, he was imprisoned and tortured in Mubarak’s prisons for three years, leaving Egypt upon his release in 1984, first for Saudi Arabia and then to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where he had already worked as a relief worker prior to his arrest in Egypt. It was here that he met Azzam and bin Laden. Al-Zawahiri was one of many members of EIJ who left Egypt during the years after Mubarak’s crackdown, as hopes for a religiously-inspired uprising of the people in their country were disappointed.

A potted history of EIJ might be in order here, seeing as they are going to be folded into the broader story of Salafi jihadism as it evolves in the 1990s. For the background to the Egypt of the 1970s in which EIJ had it roots, see part two. As we have seen, al-Zawahiri had already been involved in underground Islamist activity since the death of Sayyd Qutb in 1966. The individual who provided the catalyst for the formation of a jihadist organisation, however, was Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj (below left), an engineer and university administrator who wrote a widely-read pamphlet entitled The Neglected Obligation (in English sometimes translated as the ‘The Neglected Duty’, the ‘Forgotten Duty’ or variations thereof), which argued that, not only did the defense of Islam justify the taking up of arms against unjust rulers who were hostile to it, but that this was in fact a duty of all true Muslims. It was a key text in the development of modern jihadism and Faraj further argued that the ‘near-enemy’ (that is, hostile secular regimes in their own countries) were the enemy to be prioritised. An engaging speaker, Faraj soon attracted a cadre of followers recruited from his sermons in mosques. They included al-Zawahiri and, as fate would have it, an army lieutenant named Khalid Islambouli (below right).

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Muhammad abd-al-Salam Faraj (left) and Khalid Islambouli (right), on trial for the killing of Sadat.

Islambouli told Faraj about a military parade planned for 6 October 1981 which President Anwar Sadat would be attending. Hated by the Islamists for the oppressive secular regime he ran, this hatred had intensified since the 1979 peace treaty with Israel. Islambouli and other sympathetic army officers attacked Sadat on the appointed day, killing the president but failing to kill vice-president Mubarak, who would go on to rule the country for three decades. The ensuing trial gave Faraj and Islambouli an opportunity to promote their ideology from the dock, following which they were executed, no doubt satisfying a desire for martyrdom in the process.

As previously mentioned, many members of EIJ were imprisoned and rounded up in the period following the assassination, al-Zawahiri among them, but EIJ was not the only jihadist organisation active in Egypt at the time. Another branch (no doubt there was some overlap) developed in the 1970s called al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya (‘the Islamic Group’) particularly among students. Such Islamic groups had initially been tolerated, even encouraged, by Sadat as a counterweight to his enemies on the left. When he perceived that he had let the religious genie out of the bottle and turned on them, they hated him all the more for it. Some (including al-Jama’a itself) have claimed that they were responsible for Sadat’s killing, and personally I cannot conclusively say who did it. Both EIJ and al-Jama’a were inspired by the teachings of a blind religious scholar, Omar Abdel-Rahman (below), who would become particularly associated with al-Jama’a, and was considered by many to be its leader, perhaps more of a spiritual leader after his arrest and imprisonment in the United States in 1993, implicated in a supporting role for the bombing of the World Trade Centre in February of that year, but that is a story for another post.

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Omar Abdel-Rahman in 1988

The 1980s were a decade of dispersal and defeat for the Egyptian jihadists. Bearing in mind this is something of a simplification, many in the EIJ went to Afghanistan while al-Jama’a, once it had regrouped, became more synonymous with the war at home against the Mubarak regime. Loosely organised in the towns and villages among the poorest sections of society, the al-Jama’a was extremely difficult for the Egyptian state to prosecute. Having spent some time in jail after Sadat’s killing, Omar Abdel-Rahman was released in the mid-1980s and provided a talisman for the movement, even after he left for the United States in 1990. They set in motion a cycle of violence in which they provoked the Egyptian state (always happy to oblige) into more and more repressive measures, thus acting (hopefully) as a recruiting tool for their movement. In the early 1990s, hundreds of those considered blasphemous or hostile to their project were assassinated, the most famous example being the writer and critic of armed jihad, Farag Foda in 1992.

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al-Jama’a al-Islamiyya

The armed campaign within Egypt began to have counter-productive results, however. While repressive measures may have alienated some towards the government, on the whole al-Jama’a‘s actions merely alienated the population towards it. In 1993, a bomb attack blamed on them killed seven and wounded twenty in a poor suburb of Cairo, an area supposed to be their natural constituency. Attacks on tourists damaged the heavily tourist-dependent economy, the most notorious of which was the killing of sixty-two people (all but four of which were tourists) at Luxor, which may have been carried out  by a faction within al-Jama’a who wished to scupper attempts by others within the movement to declare a renunciation of violence.

The reason some within al-Jama’a were prepared to do this was because the movement had already been battered hard by the state, thousands of its members having been thrown in jail and the public mood turning against them. The Luxor massacre only intensified this revulsion, which in turn allowed the government to enact much harsher measures against them, which really went into overdrive following a failed assassination attempt on Mubarak in Ethiopia in June 1995. Responsibility for this attempts was also claimed by EIJ, and even bin Laden may have been involved. By this time, al-Zawahiri and bin Laden were in Sudan, and known to be funding and assisting EIJ members who had been exiled. What had happened in the interim to al-Zawahiri and his fellow Egyptians? According to Faraj’s creed, having killed Sadat, the people were supposed to rise up spontaneously and topple the existing order, replacing it with an Islamic state and the imposition of shari’a. When things didn’t pan out this way, and after having spent a few years in prison, many Islamists went to Afghanistan, al-Zawahiri among them. Here, they linked up with the foreign fighters’ being organised by Azzam and bin Laden, al-Zawahiri becoming a sort of counter-influence with bin Laden and no doubt a factor in his shifting away from his mentor and taking his own initiatives.

The Egyptians, many of whom were well-educated (doctors, lawyers, teachers, etc.) became known as the ‘brains’ of the operation and quickly rose to prominent positions in the non-Afghan units. As al-Zawahiri’s importance as an advisor to bin Laden grew, so the ideological fissures in the jihadist movement as a whole become more acute. Azzam had been a great proponent of Muslim unity, to the point that he disapproved of wars against other Muslims, even those regimes in Egypt and Algeria who had shown themselves hostile to Islamists. Azzam’s priority was the building of a new Islamic society based on Koranic models and the worldwide revival of Islam through defensive jihad. So, while in the long term they no doubt looked forward to a distant time when the whole world would convert to Islam, in practice they were not interested in aggressively spreading the religion, merely recovering to the fold of true Islam what they saw as areas that belonged rightly within it. It should be noted that although scholars call this ‘defensive’, it meant to people like Azzam and bin Laden, places like Andalucia in Spain and Mindanao in the Philippines.

In the question of who should constitute the enemy, the influence of Qutb was therefore far less marked in Azzam and, by extension, bin Laden, than in the case of al-Zawahiri and the other Egyptians, who vied for influence over bin Laden (who was, after all, the one holding the purse strings) as the Afghan war grew to a close. This contest culminated in a series of bitter disputes in 1989, as the al-Zawahiri faction accused Azzam of various misdemeanours, ranging from the specific (misappropriating funds) to the outlandish (that he was working for the CIA). Resentment at his support for Massoud and his closeness to bin Laden no doubt played a role too. Warned that his life was in danger in Peshawar and that he should leave town, Azzam ignored this advice and was killed (along with his two sons) by a roadside bomb on the 24 November 1989. Although the context in which I place this event here might suggest al-Zawahiri’s faction had him snuffed out, really pretty much anyone could have done it: al-Zawahiri, Mossad, the Iranians, the Pakistani ISI, the Afghan or Jordanian secret secrvices, you name it, they’re all suspects, and I’m not in a position to determine which of these claims is the more credible. I really do want to try and avoid flirting with conspiracy theories on this blog, so I will leave it at that. He was killed. We don’t really know who did it because the Pakistani authorities didn’t release any of the forensic evidence.

With Azzam gone, you might imagine that the way would now be clear for al-Zawahiri and the Egyptians to exert more complete control over bin Laden and his money, but by now, the Saudi had matured and was very much his own man. Although he would show influences of the Egyptian doctor in his thinking over the coming years, in many respects he would keep alive the ideological legacy of Azzam, especially in concentrating his mind, long-term, on the ‘far enemy’ and the transnational jihad which would be necessary to confront it. The Egyptians, on the other hand, may have fled abroad, but that does not mean they had given up the struggle against the ‘near enemy’ at home. This would be evinced by the 1995 bombing of the Egyptian embassy in Islamabad by EIJ, of which bin Laden reportedly disapproved. As already noted, there was the attempt to assassinate Mubarak in this year too, and in the early 1990s, an observer might be forgiven for thinking that the future of jihad lay in these localised national struggles in Egypt, Algeria, Chechnya, Bosnia, etc. and the attempt to build an Islamic state piece by piece.

We will look at some of these struggles in subsequent posts, because they are absolutely vital (although few in the west appreciate how important they were) to shaping militant Islam in the last few decades. As a general observation, the psychological effect of victory against the Soviet Union should be grasped. Bin Laden’s generation of Muslims was one that had grown up in the shadow of multiple defeats to Israel, the gloss had gone off Nasser’s secular nationalism and the idea that the Muslim world might regenerate itself by adopting the technological innovations of the west and imitating its culture. The pessimism that replaced these hopes had been deep-seated, but the Mujahideen‘s victory in Afghanistan was transformational, seeming to affirm the belief of young men like bin Laden that, instead of trying to copy the west, the way to regenerate the Ummah was to return to the fundamentals of Islam and the example of the prophet Muhammad.

Fighters came home from the glory of victory with their defeatism dispelled and full of hope for the struggle back in their own countries, and the expectation that the oppressed masses (and make no mistake, they were oppressed) would rise up against their corrupt secular rulers. But, as we have seen, in Egypt and elsewhere, this didn’t happen, and disappointment led some to turn towards the ‘far enemy’ or turn towards the civilian population in their own countries in bitterness (we will see a textbook example of this with the Armed Islamic Group (GIA) in Algeria). As popular Islamist uprisings failed to occur, and resurgent secular states turned the screw on the jihadists, it began to appear that Azzam and bin Laden had been right after all: transnational jihad against the ‘far enemy’, the sponsor of their repressive regimes, was the real solution, to confront the real threat to Islam at its source: the United States.

Whether al-Zawahiri and his allies were really thinking along these lines is debatable, however. It was likely pragmatic concerns as much as anything else that dictated they bend to bin Laden’s will as the 1990s went by. Desperately lacking funds, and in the aftermath of increasingly-successful repression by Mubarak’s regime, EIJ deemed it politic to hitch a ride on bin Laden’s project of building up a base for transnational jihad instead of everyone fighting their own individual battles against their respective secular enemies. In 1992, both bin Laden and al-Zawahiri were in Sudan, where they had been given sanctuary by the regime of Omar al-Bashir and the influential Islamic leader Hassan al-Turabi, who was responsible for inviting bin Laden and many other jihadists into the country, both for ideological reasons, and in the hope that some of the wealthier Arabs, mostly Saudis, would invest in the country, which was relatively poor (this was before the discovery of significant qualtities of oil in the late 1990s). We will discuss Sudan in a separate post, but just to note here that many regard al-Turabi as having been not entirely honourable in his dealings with bin Laden (Michael Scheuer, for example, who is very knowledgeable about bin Laden, although I would not always concur with his interpretations), accusing him of draining the Saudi’s bank account and then allowing him to be expelled from the country under pressure from the Americans, having spent a great deal of money to little or no purpose in the country.

What al-Zawahiri was running away from in Sudan is obvious. Not only was Egypt no longer safe for EIJ members, but Mubarak’s security services had their tentacles in all sorts of other countries too, and were getting increasingly effective help from the CIA now that the Americans no longer needed the jihadists to fight the communists on their behalf. Al-Zawahiri’s movements in the early 1990s are a bit mysterious. He traveled around a lot on forged passports. At one point he was arrested in Russia in 1996 and held in prison for six months, but they didn’t know who he really was and released him. Bin Laden’s whereabouts between the end of the Afghan war and Sudan are less mysterious. He had returned to Saudi Arabia a hero, his legend only being burnished by an injury he received at the Battle of Jalalabad in March 1989. He still enjoyed the stamp of approval from the regime and, for his part, appears to have been still been a loyal Saudi subject at this stage.

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Bin Laden’s passport photograph from this period

Tensions soon emerged with the Saudi regime in several areas. First of all, there was their meddling among the Islamist factions in Afghanistan. While bin Laden had tried to use his prestigious position to bring the various groups together in order to prevent a civil war (which would happen anyway) between Rabbani-Massoud on the one hand and Hekmatyar-Sayyaf etc. on the other. Turki al-Faisal, however, strove on behalf of the latter alone, thus perpetuating divisions and hastening the slide to war. Then there was South Yemen where, as we saw in the last posts, the Islamists were emerging as a force to be reckoned with, fighting against the attempts of the southern Marxists to reassert their independence. Bin Laden and other jihadists in Saudi Arabia saw this as a more-or-less identical cause to the one they had fought in Afghanistan: atheistic communists, and camped in the Arabian peninsula of all places. They therefore threw themselves wholeheartedly into fighting them, participating in numerous attacks and assassinations of socialist leaders in the 1990-94 period. To the horror of bin Laden and his followers, however, their own government supported the Yemeni socialists, because they were seeking to undermine Yemeni unity and weaken the northern regime of Ali Abdullah Saleh. For the first time, bin Laden came up against the realpolitick of the Saudi regime when they asked him to stop fighting the socialists in South Yemen. Appalled by this failure to fulfill their religious duty to expel the infidel, he carried on regardless.

But worse was to come, far worse.

On 2 August 1990, Saddam Hussein’s Iraq invaded Kuwait. There followed a six-month long standoff in which the United States and its allies (among them Saudi Arabia) demanded that Iraq withdraw or face an international coalition, which would indeed expel the Iraqis from Kuwait in January. The Iraqis let it be known that they would attack Saudi Arabia if they were attacked (which they eventually did) and the kingdom was on high alert, aware that its existing defense forces would be no match for Iraq’s. This was before Iraq was destroyed by two wars and a decade of sanctions; at this time, Saddam Hussein had built its army into a formidable military power, regionally at least. Bin Laden had been warning, both in letters and public talks, about the threat posed by Hussein (whom he regarded as a monstrous secularist) and these warnings had gone largely unheeded. His continuing loyalty to the House of Saud is evinced by his offers to use his family’s resources to construct defensive fortifications and raise a force of veteran jihadists from the Afghan war to man it.

The Saudi government rejected his proposal and, most shocking of all, requested the United States send a force to help defend the kingdom. This is an absolutely crucial moment in understanding the rest of Osama bin Laden’s life and career. Here was the Saudi rulers bringing infidels, armed ones at that, into the land of the holiest sites in Islam, which were supposed to be defended by faithful Muslims alone. Among the Saudi king’s titles is ‘Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques’. This was an egregious violation of everything bin Laden and his fellow fundamentalists held dear, and a shocking betrayal by those whose duty he saw it to uphold the strict Wahhabist conception of Islam he believed in. On top of all this, King Fahd secured theological justification for his decision from the Grand Mufti (the same one who had blessed the foreign fighter’s intervention in Afghanistan), Abdul Aziz bin Baz (below) for the move.

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Up to this point, bin Laden had always deferred to religious scholars, even when their dictates seemed to be guided by the interests of preserving the House of Saud rather than the sanctity of Islam. This critique was implicit in the Islamic Awakening (Sahwa) movement, which bin Laden supported when he returned to Saudi Arabia. This was a peaceful activist group which sought to bring the regime into full compliance with Islamic law and curb its more excessive material excesses. To even suggest that the monarchy isn’t already in complete compliance with Islamic law is, however, deeply subversive in Saudi Arabia, and the movement was met by a mobilisation of theologians and scholars by the state. The establishment of American troops in the kingdom was the straw that broke the donkey’s back as far as bin Laden and his companions were concerned, but it should be remembered that it was only with the utmost reluctance that he ‘went rogue’. Henceforth, he publicly denounced these state-sponsored scholars as corrupt propagandists and his farm was raided by the security services, who disarmed his followers.

Bin Laden became an increasingly dissident figure in Saudi society, dangerous from the point of view of the state because of the respect he enjoyed from his leadership in Afghanistan. It would certainly have been tremendously destabilising to have imprisoned or executed him. It is sometimes claimed that they banished bin Laden in 1991, or even that they let him go on condition that he not direct his activities against them. The most plausible story seems to me, however, is that he escaped. Having had his passport taken from him, he managed to get one of his brothers to acquire a ‘one-time’ passport for him to wrap up some business in Pakistan, after which he promised to return. He never did. In 1994, he would be stripped of his citizenship and disowned by his family. After a brief period in Pakistan, he moved to Sudan where, as noted above, by the time he was finished he had lost a fortune in unprofitable business ventures and payments to the regime in exchange for the sanctuary he gave them.

By 1996, the only country to which he could turn for refuge was Afghanistan, by now coming under the rule of the Taliban (see part eleven), who were soon busy forcing women to stay home, banning music, blowing up Buddhist statues and generally cutting the country off from the outside world. The idea that the Taliban and bin Laden and his movement shared the same goals and ideology, however, is very mistaken (although seems to be widespread). While they gave bin Laden and his followers refuge, for reasons which we will examine in a future post on Afghanistan after their takeover, the Taliban had little interest in transnational jihad and were in fact concerned about the kind of trouble bin Laden’s activities might bring upon them. Rightly so, as it would turn out.

In 1996, Afghanistan seemed the only country where the dream of an Islam, assertive in the face of what it saw as an expansionist and hostile west, could be kept alive, but it was only barely kept alive. This is important when we come to the late 1990s and the beginnings of al-Qaeda and its attacks on the United States: the jihadists were in crisis, weakened and harried, their project having run out of steam after the failure to overthrow regimes in Egypt, Algeria and elsewhere. It is all-too-often forgotten in the wake of 9-11 and the blowing up of the al-Qaeda threat out of all proportion, that what was still being referred to as the ‘bin Laden’ network was in pretty desperate straits, hiding out in the wilds of Afghanistan in one of the few places were it might still have a chance of hiding from the U.S. war machine. Of course, this is not to say that they could not inflict damage on property and life. As the 1998 embassy bombings and 9-11 indicate, they certainly had the financial means, the manpower and the will to do this, but none of this mitigates the fact that militant political Islam, that sought to establish regimes based on shari’a, as a movement, was largely a spent force.

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Bin Laden, photographed by Robert Fisk in Afghanistan, 1996.

Knowing this, men like bin Laden and Zawahiri knew that only by somehow provoking the west into some serious atrocities against the Muslim civilian population could they breath some life back into their failed project. The only way to do this was to commit some atrocity of their own, big enough to get the American’s attention and ignite the kind of apocalyptic ‘Clash of Civilisations’ that they (in common with American neo-Conservatives) were hoping for. It is round about here that we have to start giving consideration to the ‘organisation’ we now call al-Qaeda which would attempt to ignite such a conflict. I place the word ‘organisation’ between inverted commas because some accounts give the impression that a group of that name, with an explicit and definable hierarchical structure, was founded around 1988 when Azzam was still alive, along with bin Laden and Zawahiri, and straightaway began to prepare the Afghan veterans for a coming battle with the United States. Things are far from being that straightforward.

Certainly, as we have already seen, Azzam was talking about something called al-Qaeda or ‘the base/foundation’ in the years prior to his death. It doesn’t necessarily mean that this was an organisation though, at least not from this early stage. You will sometimes see numbered amongst bin Laden’s early attacks on the United States, the bombing of two hotels in Aden, Yemen, where American soldiers were staying on their way to Somalia. There is, however, very little evidence for his involvement. It is likewise with the bombing of the World Trade Centre in 1993, in which his role was at most limited to a distant and tangential financial support for some of those involved, possibly. In the early 1990s, there is nothing resembling a structured international network of jihadists directed from a centralised leadership. That does not mean that the idea of creating such an organisation did not exist. It seems overwhelmingly likely that it did, and that the term al-Qaeda was meant to suggest this aspiration, the base, foundation or basis on which a real movement which could realistically take on the west might one day emerge. The name can be seen as a recognition that this was more of an aspiration or long-term project.

Exactly how long term is difficult to say. Fawaz Gerges, for example, argues that al-Qaeda in the late 1980s and early 1990s meant only a series of maxims, not an actual organisation. This is perhaps an exaggeration, but there is very little evidence it amounted to much more than that. One of the best assessments is that of Jason Burke, who I think has done the most authoritative work (in English at least) on this. By the late 1990s, he argues that:

…bin Laden and his partners were able to create a structure in Afghanistan that attracted new recruits and forged links among preexisting Islamic militant groups…

but…

…they never created a coherent terrorist network in the way commonly conceived. Instead, al Qaeda functioned like a venture capital firm—providing funding, contacts, and expert advice to many different militant groups and individuals from all over the Islamic world.

Jason Burke, Foreign Policy, No. 142 (2004), p.18.

So, basically, rather than resembling a limited company with a board of directors and a CEO, by the late 1990s al-Qaeda was more like a franchise, McDonalds or KFC, with a certain amount of financial and logistic support given to those jihadists who wanted to perform a deed regarded as faithful to their cause. At times, indeed, it would seem as if certain groups and individuals were acting independently and simply using the name al-Qaeda (and the same is true more recently of ISIS) to lend gravity to what are basically  lone-wolf actions. In this sense, al-Qaeda and ISIS have borne more similarity to the Animal Liberation Front than any conventional paramilitary group, in that anyone can carry out an action (there is no leadership) in the name of the ALF as long as they follow some basic guidelines, among which it must be mentioned to their credit is that no-one should be harmed, and indeed the ALF have never killed anyone.

As I suggested at the start of this post, I am sceptical of claims that al-Qaeda existed in any meaningful sense before, at very least, the late 1990s. The bombing of American embassies in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam on 7 August 1998 is a crucial turning point in this respect. It is only after these that the security services and the media start talking about something called al-Qaeda. This doesn’t even mean that the people who carried out the bombings thought of themselves as members of an organisation of that name, even at this stage. One of the bombers, Khalfan Khamis Mohamed, denied having even heard of anything  called al-Qaeda. The most plausible explanation for al-Qaeda‘s sudden emergence (it seems pretty weird, after all, that you go from nobody talking about them to them being this international network of highly-competent militants, practically overnight) is given once again by Burke:

It was the FBI, during investigation of the 1998 U.S. Embassy bombing in East Africa, which dubbed the loosely-linked group of activists that Osama bin Laden and his aides had formed as “al Qaeda.” This decision was partly due to institutional conservatism and partly because the FBI had to apply conventional antiterrorism laws to an adversary that was in no sense a traditional terrorist or criminal organization.

Jason Burke, Foreign Policy, No. 142 (2004), p.18.

That is, in order to have any realistic chance of indicting and convicting bin Laden and other instigators of these acts, the FBI needed to work within existing laws regarding criminal conspiracy. These necessitated the prosecutors providing evidence of the existence of an organization, in order to prosecute its leader, even if that person could not be linked directly to the ‘crime’. Of course, they needed witnesses for this, to testify that bin Laden was indeed the one pulling the strings from his hideout in Afghanistan. Enter an obscure figure called Jamal al-Fadl. He is so obscure that this is the best picture I could find of him:

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This is a court picture from the trial which began in February 2001 of those who had carried out the embassy bombings, and (in absentia) bin Laden, al-Zawahiri and others who had financed them. Al-Fadl was a Sudanese jihadist who had joined bin Laden’s network in Afghanistan in the late 1980s. He was apparently a senior member of the ‘organisation’ in the following years but grew resentful of receiving a smaller salary than others and embezzled around $110,000 from them. Having been caught, he then went around to various security agencies hoping to be given refuge and a reward for offering them information. Finally the American embassy in Eritrea took him up on his offer and he went to the United States in 1996. It was a case of being in the right place at the right time for al-Fadl. When, two years later, the FBI badly needed someone who could join the dots for them and help construct a picture of al-Qaeda as a complex and tightly-structured organisation, al-Fadl was ready and waiting to do the job for them.

He gave them exactly what they wanted, because he had every reason to exaggerate the complexity and scope of al-Qaeda. The same was true of L’Houssaine Kherchtou, a Moroccan who was involved in the embassy bombings and gave detailed evidence of the ‘organisation’ in return for immunity from prosecution and witness protection. This is pretty much ‘the evidence’ for the existence of an international terrorist organisation called ‘al-Qaeda’ having existed since the late 1980s, and it is deeply flawed. In the aftermath of the 1998 bombings, and even more so after 9 September 2001, the exigency of building a prosecution against bin Laden and co. had become a more important priority than the actual truth of what al-Qaeda was and how long it had been around. The problem is that the flimsiness of the evidence it was based on was forgotten and subsequent accounts have reported the findings of the trial as if it was solid primary evidence.

Once again, none of this is to deny the fact that some kind of a network clearly existed prior to 1998 (and likely for some years) that had as its aim the extension of the war to the United States. Bin Laden made this clear in a public declaration of war on the United States in August 1996, published in the London-based newspaper Al-Quds al-Arabi, making clear that he had shifted his focus on corrupt regimes like Saudi Arabia, to their main sponsor. There was also the well-attested creation of the ‘World Islamic Front’ in February 1998, a union of al-Zawahiri’s Egyptian faction of EIJ and bin Laden’s network (whether we wish to refer to it as al-Qaeda at this stage or not) along with a few smaller jihadist groups. The fatwa in question contained sentences like: ‘The ruling to kill the Americans and their allies — civilians and military — is an individual duty for every Muslim who can do it in any country in which it is possible to do it…’ You get the drift: the kind of thing you would imagine a formidable anti-American jihadist organisation to declare.

Six months before the embassy bombings, however, these grand declarations were greeted in the west with the semi-indifference they probably deserved at the time. Even afterwards, in 2000, Fawaz Gerges, an expert in this field was writing:

Despite Washington’s exaggerated rhetoric about the threat to Western interests still represented by Bin Ladin [. . .] his organization, Al-Qa‘ida, is by now a shadow of its former self. Shunned by the vast majority of Middle Eastern governments, with a $5 million US bounty on his head, Bin Ladin, has in practice been confined to Afghanistan, constantly on the run from US, Egyptian, and Saudi Arabian intelligence services. Furthermore, consumed by internecine rivalry on the one hand, and hemmed in by the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Egypt on the other, Bin Ladin’s resources are depleting rapidly. Washington plays into his hands by inflating his importance. Bin Ladin is exceptionally isolated, and is preoccupied mainly with survival, not attacking American targets. Since the blasts in Africa, not a single American life has been lost to al-Qa’ida.

Fawaz Gerges, ‘The end of the Islamist insurgency in Egypt?: Costs and prospects’, in The Middle East Journal, 54:4 (2000) 597-8.

Writing a year before 9-11, Gerges would appear to have been spectacularly wrong. But if you think about it a little more, it seems to me that he was essentially correct in all but one (dramatically important) respect. He failed to note that even a relatively small and battered group like this could still carry out an attack like 9-11, and rely on the reaction of the United States to spark off a decades-long war. The terrifying fact of the matter is that any dedicated small group with a pile of cash could have carried out 9-11: the ALF, ETA, the IRA, any of these paramilitary groups could, if they put their minds to it and weren’t bothered by mass civilian casualties. This was certainly true at that time, before the stricter security protocols that 9-11 brought about were introduced.

Nothing about 9-11 changed the fundamental geopolitical situation, but so traumatic was the event to Americans that they felt the need to believe that it ‘changed everything’. This compounded the tragedy. The American government’s response made sure it ‘changed everything’, not the attack itself, and this is exactly what bin Laden and his allies had been hoping for. Ironically, by declaring a ‘War on Terror’ against an amorphous network of desperadoes as if it was a coherent ‘army’, sophisticated and hierarchical, there is a good argument to be made that the United States brought such an organisation closer to actually existing. After 9-11, many jihadist groups started calling themselves ‘al-Qaeda in the something or other’. A glance through some of the names of these groups claiming to be branches of al-Qaeda (below) suggests they are actually more-or-less independent organisations seeking to claim some of the street cred which bin-Laden’s group acquired among jihadists from the exaggerated threat they were presented as after 9-11. Again, bin Laden was only to happy to be blamed, and presented as some kind of omnipotent and mercurial Bond villain.

Al-Qaeda in Iraq (2004)
Al-Qaeda in the Islamic Maghreb (2007)
Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (2009)
Al-Qaeda in Somalia (2010)
Al-Qaeda in the Levant (2012)
Al-Qaeda in the Indian Subcontinent (2014)

If al-Qaeda was a franchise, the American state department drummed up some great business for them.

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It might be asked why they did this? To analyse the American military-industrial complex is beyond the scope of this post, but it’s pretty obvious to any impartial observer that the military, security services and large swathes of the political classes have a vested interest in keeping the public in a heightened state of fear from an external threat. Adam Curtis’ fantastic series The Power of Nightmares suggests that, with the apparent failure of ideology and dreams of a better future to inspire people politically, politicians have found a useable replacement in fear of a vague, implacable and irrational enemy, who ‘hate us for our freedoms‘. It should also be noted that the threat from Islam and Muslims begins to come to the fore just as the communist bloc is collapsing and they could no longer use that particular bogeyman.

Besides, this there is the extremely lucrative arms industry, which would collapse without a good war to keep it going (even better, one with a vaguely-defined and shifting enemy and no obvious objectives, just like the ‘War on Terror’, which can be extended indefinitely). This is worth $1.69 trillion a year (2016), a quarter of which ends up in the Middle East or North Africa. The US, the UK and France are responsible for around 70% of all exports of major conventional weapons to the Middle East. You can read more fun facts here. There are literally armies of people whose very livelihoods depend on the existence of something like al-Qaeda or ISIS. This included not only actual military or law-enforcement personnel, but a legion of academics (whose numbers have swelled since 9-11) who follow the money when it comes to the many postgraduates programmes and postdoctural fellowships which abound in the subject of terrorism and security. These, the very people we look to for authoritative answers about this subject, are institutionally disinclined to offer an alternative narrative to the one we were stuck with, even though it is highly dubious. They are no more likely to question it than a member of the theology department is likely to question the value of studying the bible, or someone in a business school is likely to critique capitalism.

Given all this, if we ask ourselves whether the world’s most powerful intelligence-gathering agencies misunderstood the nature of al-Qaeda or whether they deliberately distorted the picture to create an organisation where one hardly existed, the ‘exaggeration’ thesis seems more plausible than the idea that they got it wrong. This is not to say that there was no threat (clearly there was) or that these intelligence agencies knew about 9-11 beforehand or anything. Simply that the nature of the threat was manipulated in order to justify attacks on entire countries that had little or nothing to do with the atrocities bin Laden sponsored. Where, you might ask, does exaggeration shade into outright lying? Round about here:

 

Rather than go into the attacks on the World Trade Centre in 1993 and 2001, or the embassy bombings of 1998, I will examine them in some detail in a future post. Before we do that, however, we have to look at some of the conflicts that have been alluded to in this post, where the fight was taken up by jihadists in the 1990s to the ‘near enemy’ in Algeria, Chechnya and Bosnia, discrete national stories that have been forgotten in the haste to paint a picture of all-encompassing global conflict between ‘the west’ and ‘the Muslims’, but which, if anything, are more significant.

 

Featured image above: Eyes of Osama Bin Laden.

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A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 15: The ‘Afghan Arabs’ : foreign fighters in Afghanistan

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 13: Yemen #1

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This seems to be as good a juncture as any to look at Yemen, partly because we touched on it in the last post, and partly because it is so topical. One of the most shameful man-made humanitarian catastrophes is taking place right now (May 2018) in this country as a result of the civil war which has been raging since March 2015, in what was already the Arab world’s poorest country. Now, over 8 million people are facing the immediate threat of famine, 50,000 children alone died last year of starvation and a cholera outbreak, probably the worst the world has ever seen, has killed over 2000, with a million suspected cases up to the end of 2017. One of the world’s richest countries, Saudi Arabia, is bombing one of the world’s poorest, with the implicit approval of not only the United States, but also the United Kingdom, France and Canada, who all sell arms to them.

What’s going on right now does not, of course, take place in a vacuum but in the context of a power struggle between the Houthis and the government, which itself had taken power after a series of popular protests in 2011 had forced the president of 33 years to step down. In the spirit in which this blog is intended, therefore, it behooves us to examine the historical context in which all this took place, and to show that the tragic events that have taken place in Yemen over the last few years are not a bolt from the blue, nor are they the kind of incomprehensible, ‘tribal’ or religious war they are sometimes portrayed in the media, but the result of long-festering political tensions and power struggles between actors both inside and outside Yemen.

First of all, some basic facts about Yemen: it’s a country of 27 million people, a bit bigger than Spain, takes up most of the southern part of the Arabian peninsula. As can be seen from the map below, it consists of a highland area to the west (confusingly called the north, which we’ll get to in a minute) and a much less-densely populated desert lowlands in the eastern part of the country, a region called Hadhramaut.

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The frequent division of Yemen into North and South (they were separate countries until 1990) is because the west of the country is far more densely populated than the east. When people refer to ‘south’ Yemen therefore, they mean the bit around Aden, south of Sana’a, although as you can see from this map, parts (mostly empty parts though) of the former South Yemen were further north than parts of North Yemen.

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This western part of Yemen is (or at least has been historically) pretty fertile by Arabian standards, and the frequently-cited fact that Yemen is the poorest Arab country has not always been the case. Once upon a time, this was one of the richest corners of Arabia, and was known to the Romans as Arabia Felix (happy Arabia) as opposed to the rest of the peninsula, which is mostly inhospitable desert. The Yemenis (who seem to have thought of themselves as a distinct people since the seventh century at least) once had a monopoly (which they closely guarded) over coffee, although Europeans eventually succeeded in stealing the plant and began to grow it cheaper elsewhere with slave labour. Yemen’s wealth and geographically important location (at a vital point on the sea lanes between European and India) also meant Yemen was the subject of interest from several imperial powers. The Ottomans dominated a great deal of their history until the twentieth century.

It is the immediate aftermath of the First World War, and the collapse of the Ottoman empire, which we took as the chronological outset of this blog, and for good reason: so many modern Arab nations have their genesis at this moment when they escaped the dominion of the Turks only to fall into the clutches of the French and British, in the case of Palestine, Lebanon, Syria for example (see part one). Such was not the case of Yemen, however, at least not the northern part. The Ottomans had never really established a strong hold over the country, and when they abandoned any pretensions to doing so, neither the French nor British were in a position to move into their place. The south, around the port of Aden (one of the world’s greatest natural harbours) was a different story. The British had been there since the 1830s, when they purchased the port, recognising its massive potential as a refueling point for their steamships on the way from Europe to India. Aden was integrated as a Province of British India and remained so until 1937, when it became a crown colony.

What emerged from the Ottoman collapse in the north of Yemen was an independent kingdom, led by a dynasty of Imam-Kings from the northern highlands, a region which has historically produced formidable fighters and is home to a brand of Shia Islam more or less unique to Yemen: the Zaydi. The Zaydi are a group within Shia Islam whose followers, in the eighth century, recognised a younger son, Zayd, of the fourth Shia Imam as their leader instead of the eldest son, recognised by other Shia. Yemen is pretty much the only country with significant numbers, and the rulers who founded and ruled the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (1918-1962) were both political leaders and religious ones, who kept a tight rein on the country, jealously guarding absolute rule for themselves and, for the most part, attempting to keep their kingdom cut off from the threatening influence of the outside world.

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Flag of the Mutawakkilite Kingdom from 1927.

Imam Yahya had already been Imam of the Zaydi since 1904 when he became king in 1918. He proved himself a canny and ruthless ruler in the three decades he presided over the kingdom, recognising the importance of the clans and tribes in the highlands, whose frequent interventions in the politics of the region in the centuries of sporadic Ottoman rule had shown how they could make or break a ruler. Imam Yahya micromanaged Yemen to an extraordinary degree, trusting no-one to make any decision of consequence besides himself and running things according to a kind of medieval petitioning-system whereby people had to come and petition him personally if they wanted anything done. He was also notoriously jealous of foreign interest in his country’s resources and (probably wisely, as it happens) rebuffed attempts by oil companies to prospect there and by other western corporations to open up the country to their products by trying to give him lavish gifts. His rejection of such offers and the austere lifestyle he lived despite his great wealth won Yahya a great deal of respect among Yemenis as befitting a man who was their spiritual as well as temporal leader.

The same could not be said for his son, Ahmad, who took power after the assassination of the king in 1948. Yahya became more and more unpopular towards the end of his reign, as his heavy-handed repression of those who called for fairly modest reforms provoked a more radical opposition movement. Their killing of the king might have led to a toppling of the regime, but for the fact that Ahmad acted quickly when he heard of his father’s killing, heading north to the northern tribes loaded with as much gold as he could carry to win them over to his side in the coming struggle. Within a few months, he had wiped out his enemies and installed himself in power, a position he would hold onto for fourteen bizarre years of decadence of madness. Ahmad (below) is the kind of figure whose excesses presage the downfall of a monarchy. While his father had been ruthless but perceived as fair, Ahmad was ruthless but petty and unpredictable, gratuitously cruel at times, preoccupied with his own aggrandisement and the acquisition of technological marvels such as cars and telephones from abroad for his own personal enjoyment, while continuing the policy of keeping the country isolated from outside influence. A few vignettes from his reign that give some impression of the vibe: he had a gigantic portrait of himself erected in the public square outside his palace, he drowned his court jester dwarf, he collected hundreds of bottles of aftershave and liked to personally attend public beheadings and play with electric trains.

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Although clearly a conservative figure who would have liked to keep Yemen in a perpetual middle-ages with himself as the divinely-appointed ruler, Ahmad nevertheless made alliances and sought aid from whoever was willing to give it with the least strings attached. This made for some unlikely alliances with, for example, the Soviet Union and Maoist China. His foreign policy was largely dictated by fear of domination by Yemen’s large neighbour, Saudi Arabia, which was beginning to flex its muscles and exploit its oil wealth towards the end of his reign. While he and his father had been pretty successful in cutting Yemen off from the outside world, by the 1950s the cult of Nasser could not be kept out, the contagion of Arab nationalism, republicanism and secularism. It is no surprise that plots were laid against him, and yet, despite his eccentricities, Ahmad also seems to have had a cat’s nine lives, surviving an astonishing number of attempts to depose him. The most amazing was when he was sick in hospital in 1961 and some plotters shot him three times at point blank range; he survived by rolling onto the floor and pretending to be dead, although he was injured and lived only a year longer in a morphine-induced haze. He died in September 1962, against all the odds, peacefully.

His son was duly appointed but this was the end of the road for the Mutawakkilite monarchy. In many ways, it is amazing they soldiered on for as long as they did, and even the last king, Muhammad al-Badr, made a decent fist of fighting to take back the throne from the republican army officers who deposed him after only a week in power. Such a coup had been on the cards for some time, led by a cadre of officers who Imam Ahmad had taken the risk of sending to Iraq for training, risky because since 1958 that country had been a republic, having overthrown the Hashemite monarchy. The transfer of power from father to son was the window of opportunity these officers needed to seize control of Sana’a with little opposition and declare the Yemen Arab Republic, what is usually referred to as North Yemen. The republicans were led by Abdullah al-Salla, a forty-five year old colonel who was among those who had trained in Iraq. Here he is with his pals at a military display the year after taking power.

Abdullah_al-Sallal_in_a_military_display_March_1963

The seizure of power was initially fairly efficient. The usual massacre of ministers and royal allies took place in the main square. The monarchy might have fallen then and there if it wasn’t for two factors: firstly, Imam Badr escaped, fleeing north for the traditional rallying of northern tribes to fight for him (well, for money really) and secondly he received outside help. The second is probably by far the most important, as most accounts suggest that the Imam-king did not inspire a huge amount of loyalty or love from his subjects, but that they fought for him because he could pay them handsomely, and because he commanded the support of the Saudis. Here is Imam Badr with some of his fighters during the civil war which followed:

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It was really only over the border in Saudi Arabia that any prospect of a counter-attack against the new republic became realistic, but of course  the monarchists were not alone in receiving outside help. We alluded in the last post to Yemen, and this war, as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’, and indeed the North Yemen civil war (1962–1970), when it is remembered, is usually primarily remembered as a proxy war between Egypt and Saudi Arabia. The Egyptians staked far more in North Yemen than the Saudis. By the time of the Six-Day War against Israel in 1967 (when they really could have done with extra troops) roughly half of Egypt’s forces were bogged down in North Yemen and the war consumed over 20,000 in casualties by the time they were finished. While they ultimately managed to prevent the king’s return to power, it would be hard to argue that the Egyptians ‘won’ the war in any meaningful way.

In many ways the country exasperated Nasser and his officers, who found Yemeni fighters (both their allies and enemies) untrustworthy and indifferent to ideology, simply fighting for whoever would pay them the most. A Soviet journalist reported on the shocking amiability between supposed enemy tribesmen when gathering for negotiations near the Saudi border: ‘They hugged each other like old friends, kissed each others’ hands, and, once the initial greetings were over, spent a good while strolling around the enclosure hand in hand, as is the local custom.’ (cited from Victoria Clark’s excellent Yemen : Dancing on the Heads of Snakes, Yale University Press, 2010). Nasser reportedly introduced al-Sallal to Nikita Khrushchev, remarking, ‘I just wanted you to see what I have to put up with.’ For all its fine republican rhetoric, the Egyptian campaign was distinctly unheroic and can be seen, along with the Six-Day war, as one of the turning-points at which Arab secular nationalism lost its way. Yemeni villages were bombed, chemical warfare was used, the kind of torture methods alluded to in part 2 as common in Egyptian prisoners were exported to Yemen. This is not the way to win converts to your cause, and in the end, the Egyptians were seen by many Yemenis as just another invader. Again, parallels with the United States (whose invasion of Vietnam was masked in rhetoric about not being like the old European colonial powers) abound.

Another foreign power that intervened in the North Yemen civil war was Britain, although they were not honest enough to do it openly and to this day, in all the coverage of the current Yemen crisis, it is hardly ever talked about. Of course, the British backed the fedual despotic monarchy but before we look at their clandestine intervention in North Yemen, lets get up to date with what was happening in the south, where there was nothing clandestine about the British presence whatsoever. As noted above, the British had obtained the port of Aden back in the nineteenth century and, while not entirely unwelcome to many of the Indian and Jewish merchants who lived in the port town, the Arabs and surrounding tribes put up sporadic resistance to the British presence. Aden was something of a backwater in the British colonies, hot and uninviting, it was perceived as one of the less desirable places you could be sent as a soldier or administrator. This changed somewhat when the Suez Canal opened in 1869 and Aden became more prosperous as a result of the increased importance of the Red Sea route to the east.

Although it became an economically more attractive location, and could be said to have thrived in some respects, the Yemenis continued to resent the British occupation of their best port and largest urban centre. In order to deal with the surrounding animosity, the British made more and more treaties with shiekhdoms in southern and eastern Yemen, seeking to buy off local rulers with arms and money, to convince them to leave them in peaceful possession of Aden in return for which they were largely left to their own devices. It was much cheaper than filling the country with soldiers and trying to pacify it, which the British were smart enough to realise (from looking at what had happened to the Turks, and would happen to the Egyptians) was pointless. Another cheap expedient was using the RAF to punish disobedient tribes and villages from the 1920s onwards, a technology to which the Yemeni tribesmen (like the Iraqis bombed by British aircraft in the revolt of 1920) had no answer.

The application of this in Yemen is described by a retired colonial official in this 1985 episode of a TV series, End of Empire, around 7m24s in:

What the old dude is describing in the clip sounds a lot like terrorism but the narrator of the programme seems to accept the whole thing as perfectly acceptable, referring to it without the bat of an eyelid as ‘air policing’!

The political arrangements of the British with southern Yemeni tribes evolved into the Aden protectorate, subdivided for administrative purposes into eastern and western divisions. When an independent kingdom emerged in northern Yemen, the Imams there claimed to be rightful rulers of the whole land, providing weapons to anyone within the British areas who would back up their claims. The British, for their part, filled the region with weapons given to anyone who would support their claims, which became more and more important to defend as Britain’s empire began to fragment and disintegrate in the period after the Second World War. This corresponded with the growing importance of Aden as both a maritime (it was the third-busiest port in the world) and aviation hub (the busiest RAF base in the world) at this time, not to mention the fact that BP had built a huge oil refinery there. Retention of Aden, especially after the Suez crisis, therefore became the concern to which everything else was subordinated in British planning.

The port’s success, however, was linked to growing hostility towards British rule in that the increasingly-powerful merchant community and the growing number of industrial port workers began to demand rights associated with an urban bourgeoisie and proletariat. In the post-war period, a kind of legislative assembly for Aden was granted (for which few could vote), and workers began to organise trade unions. Political astute Arabs were almost inevitably influenced by the Arab nationalism that was proving an inspiration all over the Middle East in the 1950s, and the inevitability of independence was recognised by the early 1960s by everyone, including the British, who hoped to manage this ‘independence’ in their own interests by creating a state called the Federation of South Arabia, which was to consist of sixteen of the more westerly sultanates over which the British had exercised a protectorate, wedded (somewhat reluctantly) to Aden. The remaining territories in the east (see the .gif above) would remain outside the federation as the ‘Protectorate of South Arabia’.

But history had run ahead of the British, and the offer represented by the federation was too little, too late for Yemenis, who now wanted full independence like their northern counterparts, and were prepared to fight for it. The proposed state would exclude most Yemenis from participation in political life and in any case offered them no real self-determination, especially not over Aden. The fact that the British designated the place the ‘permanent’ headquarters of their Middle East Command in 1962 would suggest they were not planning on giving it up any time soon. The federation also gave undue power to the rulers of the various small states at the expense of Aden, against which the British had long been playing the rural hinterland as a means of divide-and-rule, and which now wanted no part of this proposed puppet state. It did have quite a nice flag though:

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The opposition to British rule had, by the time the monarchy fell in North Yemen, morphed into an effective movement for full independence in the south, which received assistance from the republicans in Sana’a and Egypt. The National Liberation Front (NLF) was the name of this group and attracted broad support because it recruited not only among port workers but also among rural tribesmen. Led by Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi (below), a British-trained agricultural officer who had come under the influence of Nasserist ideas in Egyptian exile, the NLF perceived nothing less than direct armed action would induce the British to leave, and initially waged a guerilla war in the Radfan area north of Aden. The British, whose intelligence on the freedom fighters appears to have been dreadful, dismissed the NLF as primitive tribal forces, seemingly missing the fact that these were being armed and trained by professional Egyptian soldiers from just over the border in North Yemen. Failing to take them seriously at first, it was far too late by the time they realised they commanded widespread support from the population and collaboration from the British-trained Arab police and military that carried out much of the day-to-day policing in the protectorate. Aden and the surrounding area drifted into all-out war towards the end of 1963.

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The NLF’s instruction manual encouraged its activists to engage in relatively-innocuous actions like breaking the colonists’ air-conditioning and pouring sugar in their petrol tanks, but it wasn’t long before the things turned distinctly ugly: hand grenades were hurled at parties of British soldiers and their families (whom they persisted in bringing over with them as if nothing was amiss) and the British in turn responded with the torture of civilians in custody and summary collective punishment in the streets.

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You might think it would improve things, but the coming to power of the Labour Party in October 1964 if anything only made things worse. As centre-left governments often come under suspicion of not being tough enough militarily, they often feel compelled to dispel these doubts about their resolve by being even more pigheaded and aggressive than their right-wing counteparts. Harold Wilson’s party in opposition had criticised the federation plan for not giving any representation in power to the people of Yemen, but merely handing some power over to autocratic sultans. Once in power, however, they came under American pressure behind the scenes to dig their heels in and stick to the Conservatives plan. The Americans were concerned (rightly, as it happened) about southern Yemen falling into the Soviet sphere of influence if the British lost it. They, therefore, continued the policy of imposing the British settlement by force. They also lost the support of the Arab contingent associated with the labour movement in Aden, led by Abdullah al Asnag (below) which up until now had been campaigning peacefully for democratic rights for the inhabitants of Aden, and felt deeply betrayed by the Labour Party when they failed to support them.

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Coming to the conclusion that full independence and a military campaign to achieve this was now the only option, they formed the Front for the Liberation of Occupied South Yemen (FLOSY) in early 1966. It was less Marxist in its outlook than the NLF and would soon be fighting them for control over the independent state which was to emerge in South Yemen. By this juncture, Wilson’s government had decided to throw in the towel and declared their intention to depart by 1968. What with the speed of political developments in the Middle East (the Six-Day War) and the rapidly deteriorating situation in Aden, they were compelled to leave even earlier, in November 1967, leaving their erstwhile allies, the sultans and shiekhs whom they had tried to install as rulers of the federation, completely high and dry and without protection after independence.

The period between announcing their intention of leaving and actually leaving saw, oddly enough, an escalation of violence, as embittered British troops and Arabs engaged in tit-for-tat killings which escalated as the British-trained local army and police forces came out openly on the side of the freedom fighters. June 1967 saw the occupation of the Crater district of Aden by these forces, who killed twenty-two British soldiers in one day. The area was reoccupied the following month by a force (they marched back in playing bagpipes) led by one Colin Mitchell, nicknamed ‘Mad Mitch’ in the British media which, smarting from the injury to their imperial pride, built him up into a folk hero, who would later be elected an MP on the basis of his celebrity. Dubbed ‘the last battle of the British empire’, in reality, Mitchell’s forces engaged in looting, sniping at civilians from the rooftops and pointless gratuitous violence in the final few months of British occupation.

The fact that this episode was perceived by sections of the British public as a victory of some kind says a great deal about the continuing emotional draw of empire and the reluctance (which continues to this day) to see it for what it was. Episodes like Aden were the bully’s last petulant punch before withdrawing in a huff, and (like Cyprus, Kenya, Northern Ireland) are far more representative of the vicious way in which the empire was relinquished than the much better-remembered and celebrated withdrawal from India. It’s also telling that the British to this day refuse to refer to it as a ‘war’, persisting in calling it the Aden ’emergency’ (just like Kenya, Cyprus, Malaysia, the ‘Troubles’ in Northern Ireland), they seem reluctant to describe them as wars. I wonder why.

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The NLF meanwhile was moving more and more to the left and under Soviet influence. The Egyptians switched support to the more centrist (and more malleable) FLOSY and it may well have been Nasser’s support that induced the departing British to recognise the rival NLF as its successors to power as they were leaving. The latter crushed the former more or less at the same time as the British left and the People’s Republic of South Yemen was declared on the 30 November 1967 with Qahtan Muhammad al-Shaabi as its first president. This would quickly become an avowedly-Marxist state, renamed the People’s Democratic Republic of Yemen three years later, when al-Shaabi was removed from power by the more hardline communists, and we will look at its history up to unification with the north (1990) in the next post.

Returning to North Yemen, Britain’s intervention there was far more hush-hush and not widely acknowledged to this day. After the takeover by the republican government backed by Egypt, the British were keen to see the Imams regain their kingdom, being against whatever was Nasser was for and for the same reason they backed the tribal rulers in the south. One of their more well-informed officials in the country, Christopher Gandy, described what they were defending as ‘an arbitrary autocracy’ and recommended recognising the republic who were ‘much more open to contact and reasoned argument’. He was overruled by British leaders, however, who at the same time recognised the embarrassing inconvenience of standing up for reactionary despotic regimes, but for whom Britain’s imperial interests (fading as they were) were always prioritised over everything else.

The spread of modern republicanism and democracy was perceived as a direct threat to these interests, and so had to be combated, not only in Yemen, but everywhere in the Middle East where Britain continued to have a finger in the imperial pie. Indeed, some of the more die-hard imperialists saw no shame in what they were doing and again, we have the bigotry of one of their number for a fairly frank account of what was going on here. Aviation minister Julian Amery commented in 1963:

The prosperity of Britain rests on the oil of the Persian Gulf, the rubber and tin of Malaya, and the precious metals of south and central Africa. As long as we have access to these, as long as we can realize the assets we have there, as long as we can trade with this part of the world, we [the people of the United Kingdom] will be prosperous. If the communists were to take them over we would lose the lot. Governments like Colonel Nasser’s in Egypt are just as dangerous.

This can be seen around 11:50 in a documentary made by the wonderful Adam Curtis back in 1999.

The obvious contradiction between all of this reactionary conniving and the progressive, democracy-loving image the British wished to convey was becoming obvious to the more intelligent of their own population, so they had to do it all covertly. The man for the job was the subject of the above documentary, David Stirling (below), who had founded the SAS during the Second World War and, in the 1960s, was among those active in the corridors of power (Amery was a personal friend) resentful of Britain’s declining imperial role in the world and looking for ways to exert it again. He agreed with Amery and another Conservative MP, Billy McLean, to recruit mercenaries from among his SAS comrades and in France for a clandestine operation in North Yemen, funded largely by the Saudis and Jordan. The SAS couldn’t be committed officially (but were in all but name) but enough plausible deniability was created to distance the government from their actions.

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The purpose of Britain’s covert operation was less to win the war than make life hard for the Egyptians and in the (as we have seen, ultimately vain) hope of preventing the war in North Yemen from upsetting their rule over Aden. As Mark Curtis has noted (see Unpeople: Britain’s Secret Human Rights Abuses) the British recognised in private that their clients had no chance of winning the war but, as Prime Minister Harold Macmillan told President Kennedy ‘it would not suit us too badly if the new Yemeni regime were occupied with their own internal affairs during the next few years’. An internal memo at the time noted that ‘the present stalemate in the Yemen, with the Republicans and Royalists fighting each other and therefore having no time or energy left over to make trouble for us in Aden, suits our own interests very well’. Mines were lain, railways blown up. Again, it’s hard to avoid the impression that, if all of this had been orchestrated by Colonel Gaddafi or Iran, they would call it terrorism, but there you go.

The British operation in North Yemen no doubt made a contribution to Egypt’s military disaster there, and although they pulled out in 1967, the royalists did not retake power (the Saudis had also withdrawn their far-less extensive military presence). Once the foreign armies left them to it, the Yemenis eventually came to realise that neither side was likely to achieve outright victory and, when al-Sallal was removed and replaced by a civilian leader, Abdul Rahman Al-Iryani, things began to move towards a compromise. By 1970 it was agreed that the republic would stay, but many of the royalist figures would be offered influential roles in government, with the exception of the royal family itself. Muhammad al-Badr went into exile in Britain and died in London in 1996.

In the next post, we will follow the paths of these two Yemens, North and South, from the early 1970s on to unification in 1990 and beyond. While the south pursued a doctrinaire Marxist line until the collapse of their Soviet sponsor, the north occupied an ambiguous position in the late Cold War years, dominated by president (1978-2011) Ali Abdullah Saleh and preferring to take help from whoever would give it with least strings attached. While the northern Zaydis had failed to restore their Imam to the throne, they remained an important factor in the north’s politics, re-emerging in another form and another name, the Houthis, in the mid 1990s.

Featured image above: Sana’a skyline.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 13: Yemen #1

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

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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).

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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…

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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):

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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:

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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):

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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 8: Afghanistan #1

 

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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:

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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’.

 

ADDENDUM:

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

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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.
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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:
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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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’.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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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:

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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.’

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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:

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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.

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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:
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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.

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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.

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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:

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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:
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Image: Al-Jazeera
And here is Walid Jumblatt firing a machine gun to give him a send-off:
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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:
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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.

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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

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 5: The Lebanese civil war #1

 

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This post began as an attempt to explain the environment from which Lebanese Hezbollah, today a major Islamist movement, emerged. Given that the stated purpose of this blog has been to explore the genesis and development of political Islam and its relationship to the west, it seemed initially wise to limit my focus to Hezbollah as much as possible. I have encountered two problems with this approach however. Firstly, it seems impossible to explain this background without basically going back to 1975 and explaining the whole saga of the Lebanese civil war. Any truncated version which begins, say, with Israel’s invasion of Lebanon or the presence of the multinational forces in the country in 1982, will just decontextualise the story, which is exactly the opposite of what I’m trying to achieve here. Secondly, the whole labyrinthine story of the Lebanese civil war is just too damn interesting (and little understood) not to tell. Something that has struck me quite forcefully since I started writing this is that it is impossible, and for that matter undesirable, to try and isolate religion and ‘political Islam’ from other factors such as economics, politics, nationalism, environment etc. which, until the 1980s at least, played a far greater role in driving the conflicts that have come to define the Middle East today.

Religious rhetoric has played a prominent role in the last two posts, because the Iranian revolution was under the spotlight, a self-consciously religious event (at least for those of its participants who won out), but when we examine other conflicts like the Arab-Israeli war, we find that it is only relatively recently that these have come to be viewed through the prism of religious conflict. Lebanon is a perfect example of this. For all the facile characterisations in the western media of it as an incomprehensible sectarian conflict between fanatical religious groups, there is far more to the Lebanese civil war than this. Certainly religion as a marker of ethnicity is there in the mix, a prominent factor which fed into and exacerbated the conflict, but the war had little or nothing to do with any purported wider conflict between Islam and the west. Hezbollah, for example, will not emerge in this story as a significant actor until almost a decade after the war’s beginning.

So I am going to try and tell the story of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) in a couple of posts, a conflict which only tangentially fits into a story of political Islam. In recognition of this, and the fact that much else written on this blog concerns developments beyond political Islam, I have changed its title to the more general ‘A contemporary history of the Muslim world’…which will have to do for now.

To understand the roots of the Lebanese war, we must once again return to the secret arrangements made by the British and French after World War I to carve up the former Ottoman possessions in the region, the Sykes-Picot agreement. It might be remembered (see part 1) that the Arabs helped the British and French fight the Turks in the expectation that they would be rewarded with independence after the war. It might also be remembered that this isn’t how it panned out. I didn’t mention Lebanon in the first post, but it found itself (along with Syria) under French control when the dust had cleared, while the British were handed the ‘mandate’ to run Palestine, Jordan and what would become Iraq. The Syrians, who claimed jurisdiction of an area today containing Lebanon, fought against French rule, but their revolt was quickly crushed by the French in 1920 and the latter took control of the region, dividing it up into six states, one of which was called ‘Greater Lebanon’ and would form the basis of the country of Lebanon (marked in yellow below) when it later achieved independence.

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Pretty much the only group of people who were happy to see the French take over here were the Maronite Christians, who were concerned at the implications of Arab independence and their status as a minority in any Muslim-dominated future state. The Maronites (named after a 4th-century Syrian monk) are closely related to the Catholic church and (as far as I can understand) do not really differ from the latter in beliefs, but rather forms of worship and administrative structure. In 1920, they saw the French as their saviour, and the French in return saw them as a useful ally in the region and a potential spanner to throw in the works of Arab nationalism. Here is the flag of ‘Greater Lebanon’ under French rule. You can see the French really took into account local sensitivities and were not at all attempting to evoke any similarity with the French tricolour:

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Indeed, this Lebanese state was far larger than the Lebanon that had existed under Ottoman rule, hence the name ‘Greater’ Lebanon. Robert Fisk has described it (and therefore the modern Lebanon based on it) as a ‘totally artificial, French-created entity’, whose borders were designed to weaken the surrounding Muslim lands. Hence, the future state of Syria was deprived of its best ports (Tyre, Sidon and Tripoli), which were handed to Lebanon, as the French attempted to create a state as large as possible in which the Christians could exert a controlling influence. We can observe, at the very same time, the British applying the same strategy viz-a-viz the Unionists in drawing the borders of Northern Ireland. The downside of this arrangement for the Maronites was that instead of being an overwhelming majority dominating a smaller Lebanon, they ‘only’ comprised about 28% of the population. They still made them the largest religious minority in a land of religious minorities, along with other Christians sects (Greek Orthodox and Catholics) the Sunni and Shia Muslims, as well as the Druze (I’ll get to them).

Another legacy of this was that it left a large number of Muslims in Lebanon feeling, at the very least, ambiguous about their membership of this new nation when Lebanon finally achieved independence from France during the Second World War. Significant numbers of Muslims did not even want Lebanese independence, hoping the country would be annexed by their newly-independent Syrian neighbour, something their Christian ‘compatriots’ feared more than anything. As seen in part one, the aspiration towards Arab unity was a major political theme in the Middle East in this postwar period, and Lebanon was not immune to this temptation. The exact extent of Muslim discontent is disputed, however. There were no  doubt a willingness among some Muslims in some periods to make it work, and a sense of Lebanese national identity cannot be written off as a complete fantasy.

At the same time, while there was much talk of this common national identity transcending the ethnic and religious divide, there was no getting away from the fact that many Maronites saw the country from the start as a kind of Christian bulwark in the Middle East. Their attitude can be best summed up by a quip by one of their most prominent politicians in the mandate period, Emile Iddi, who remarked that those Muslims who didn’t want to live in a Christian-dominated Lebanon could emigrate to Mecca. At the time of independence in 1943, the leading Lebanese politicians therefore attempted to address these tensions in a verbal understanding which was to form the ground-rules for constitutional politics in the decades to come. It was called the National Pact, and sought to balance the conflicting aspirations and assuage the fears of the various ethno-religious groups in the country. Briefly, the Christians agreed to give up French protection in return for the Muslims giving up their aspirations to unite with their neighbours. The top positions in government were apportioned to the various communities according to their preponderance in the population: the President would always be a Christian,  the Prime Minister always a Sunni, and the Speaker of the parliament always a Shi’a Muslim. Seats in parliament were likewise allocated along ethnic lines, with a 6:5 ratio of Christian to Muslim guaranteed.

If all this sounds like a perfect recipe for entrenching ethnic divisions in a country, yes, in a way it was, but it also worked for a surprisingly long time…in a way. Despite being the tinderbox of sectarian tension which the world would come to identify it as, Lebanon, in the first two decades after independence stood out as an economic success story in the Middle East, at least on the surface. The country was turned into a mercantile and financial hub, an apparent oasis of stability in an instable region. Everything else was subordinated to the interests of business, so ‘light touch’ regulation, low taxes and duties were the order of the day. If peace and stability were good for business, it was believed, then prosperity could only beget more peace and stability. In the late 1940s for example, 30% of the world’s gold passed through Beirut, as the rulers of Arabia’s new oil-rich states exchanged their petrodollars for the stuff. Capital likewise fled other, left-leaning Arab nations which were busy nationalising sectors of their economies, and settled in Lebanese banks. The country began to market itself as the ‘Switzerland of The East’, a business-friendly entrepôt, banking, cedar forests, skiing, you name it. Here is a short film advertising the country to potential tourists in the 1960s, which is kind of eerie to watch when you think of how Beirut became synonymous with war and destruction later on.

The effect of all this glitz and glamour was to hide the symptoms of Lebanon’s underlying sickness for quite some time, but skiing and financial hocus-pocus will only get a country so far. In many ways, prosperity merely papered over the cracks in the country’s political system, allowing people to lapse into complacency and the belief that these cracks were not there. This boom created social tensions of its own. With an economy geared towards middlemen and the service sectors such as banking and tourism, manufacturing and agriculture suffered a relative decline. While a few became immensely rich, the poorest sections of society just got poorer as the growing wealth of the few stoked inflation and the ‘trickle-down’ theory of economics was as nonsensical then as it is now. The rural poor, ruined by the downturn in agriculture, poured into Beirut and other cities (but mainly Beirut) where they joined the burgeoning population of Palestinian refugees (see below).

Speaking of these wealthy few, another feature of Lebanese political life must be mentioned which is central to this story, which is clientism or, as the Lebanese call it, the Za’im system. A Za’im is the head of an established powerful family or clan, who used their wealth and influence to control the outcome of elections, basically monopolising power in the years prior to the outbreak of war. They have been compared to organised crime syndicates or feudal lords in their stranglehold over Lebanese political life, and once war came, they formed armed militias and formed shaky alliances which were as often about dynastic rivalries as ideological differences. Politics was (and is) a family business, sons often inheriting their father’s electoral seats. Almost a quarter of the members of the 1960 parliament were kin to those who had been appointed under French rule. A group of about thirty families dominated the country in this way. This must be borne in mind if we are tempted to imagine that the liberalised, western-style economy described above was in any way ‘free’ or open to enterprise or men of ability (let alone women). It wasn’t. It was in fact a largely closed shop, opportunities being open only to the already-rich and influential. The traditional system of patronage, kinship and loyalty, feudal in character, which had its roots in rural areas, was merely transfered over to the the cities when Lebanon became more urbanised. By the way, lest we kid ourselves into thinking that this kind of clientist system is something that doesn’t happen in Europe, just take a look at Irish politics.

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Left to right: Bechara El Khoury, Fuad Chehab and Camille Chamoun.

The figures who ran Lebanon in these years emerged from this background. Bechara El Khoury, who ruled from 1943 to 1952, was so blatantly corrupt that he eventually provoked massive protests against his rule. He requested the head of the army, Fuad Chehab, to use force against the protesters, but the latter refused and El Khoury resigned, making way for Camille Chamoun, who ruled until 1958. Chamoun was an authoritarian figure, pushing forward with economic liberalisation (but not any other kind) and working actively against Arab nationalism and the drive towards a pan-Arab state which, as seen in part one, led to the short-lived union of neighbouring Syria and Egypt in 1958. While all these presidents were Christians (remember the National Pact) Pan-Arab nationalism was not without considerable support among the Muslims of Lebanon and Chamoun was fighting against a groundswell of support for Nasser’s vision. He nailed his colours to the mast during the Suez Crisis, refusing to cut off diplomatic relations with France and Britain and pissing off Nasser. The following year, Chamoun aligned Lebanon to the United States by formally accepting the Eisenhower doctrine, by which the Americans promised to ‘assist’ any nation in the region to fight ‘Communist aggression’, which was very loosely interpreted as meaning the Egyptians and Syrians, who were supported by the Soviet Union at the time.

Much of this looked to Muslims like a betrayal of the National Pact, which had promised that the country’s foreign policy would be Arab-orientated in return for their acceptance of a Christian President. Protests against Chamoun increased, not only over the issue of Arab political union, but also due to the inevitable corruption in which Chamoun’s regime was neck-deep. Scarcely any attempt was even made to hide it. In many cases what would now be (and was then) described as corruption was simply legalised, and elections in 1957 were widely believed to have been rigged, depriving many popular opposition figures of their seats. In response to this, protests escalated, exacerbating sectarian tensions. It should be remembered in all that follows-much of which will take a sectarian and religious form-that it was social tensions resulting from building a state skewed towards the interests of banks and traders which played a huge role in creating the conditions for war.

In 1958, things came to a head. In May, with rumours rife that Chamoun would (illegally) seek another term of office, and the murder of a prominent journalist by the security services, a general strike was called and the people rose up in arms against the authorities. The leaders of this opposition (left to right below) were Saeb Salam, Rashid Karami (two Sunni politicians who would between them serve fourteen terms as Prime Minister) and Kamal Jumblatt, a Druze leader who had founded the left-wing Progressive Socialist Party (PSP) which will come to play a vital part in the early stages of the civil war:

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By July 1958, much of the country was controlled by this opposition. Chehab, who was still head of the army, once again refused to allow it to be used by an overreaching politician, and positioned his forces in a largely neutral role, preventing either side from securing strategically important positions and refusing to take sides in the conflict. In panic, Chamoun asked for help from the United States marines to save his regime. At first the Americans were reluctant, but after a coup in Iraq that July toppled the pro-western government there, Eisenhower sent the marines in, whose presence was enough to pressurise the various sides into making a deal. While expecting they would prop up Chamoun’s regime, the Americans instead lent their support to his replacement by Chehab, and a government of reconciliation formed with Karami as Prime Minister. Despite his military background, Chehab actually stands out as one of the few responsible, statesmanlike figure in this story. His government’s motto was ‘no victor, no vanquished,’ and while many accounts romanticise the apparent harmony which he restored, he generally succeeded in keeping a lid on the conflict in the following years, so much so that many wanted him to amend the constitution to allow him to run for another term in 1964. But he refused, and placed a follower of his, Charles Helou, in the office instead.

Helou remained in office until 1970. This is a crucial year for our story, and specifically the month of September, Black September. Back in part 2, I discussed the aftermath of the Six-Day War in 1967, in which the West Bank was annexed by the Israelis. The Palestinian leadership and many refugees fled into Jordan, only to come into conflict with the government there and be expelled, to Lebanon. The Palestinians had in fact been present in Lebanon for some years, launching attacks on Israel and fighting intermittently with the Lebanese army. The exodus after Black September brought a whole new dimension to their presence in Lebanon however. Before this, the Palestinian refugee camps had been largely run by the Lebanese security services under martial law, but then the PLO took control themselves and they became basically independent, outside of the Lebanese state’s control.

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Palestinian rally in Beirut, 1979

This situation was, to some extent, given official sanction by an agreement between the PLO and Lebanese army in Cairo in 1969. In the long term, however, this solved nothing. From the Palestinians’ point of view, it legitimised their presence in Lebanon and freed them up from fighting the Lebanese so they could focus on raiding Israel. This they did, and their actions brought the inevitable retaliation from the Israelis. It quickly became clear that the Lebanese state was unable to protect its territory or citizens against Israeli attacks. In December 1968, for example, they attacked Beirut airport and destroyed 13 Middle East Airlines planes in retaliation for the Palestinian hijacking of an Israeli airplane in Athens. In 1973 a Israeli army unit was able to kill three leaders of the PLO in the middle of Beirut. During the Yom Kippur war which took place the same year (see part two), in which Lebanon wasn’t even a combatant, Israeli used the Beqaa valley as an air corridor to attack Syria. This might be the right moment for a map of Lebanon:

Lebanon

All of this begs the question: why was the Lebanese state so weak that it was unable to defend itself, not only against the Israelis (admittedly one of the most powerful armies in the world), but against the Palestinians and other militias which formed in the war? The Lebanese armed forces had always been weak in comparison to other Arab nations, many of which, like Syria and Iraq, were basically military dictatorships. Lebanon was different, ruled with the interests of its financial and merchant elite at heart-an elite that didn’t particularly want a large, expensive army and security apparatus that would only cost money and raise their taxes, provoke Israel and create a class of military rulers who would probably end up taking over. Nonetheless, Chehab had in the 1960s created a security service that functioned efficiently enough to provoke complaints of an encroaching police state. This ‘Deuxième Bureau’, as it was known, became associated with the Chehabist programme. Its unpopularity is part of the reason for the other important event which occurred in September 1970, which is the unexpected defeat in the presidential election of the appointed Chehabist successor to Helou, and the success of this man, Suleiman Frangieh:

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Like many prominent Lebanese politicians, Frangieh inhabited the grey area between politician and mafia boss. He had, some years earlier, helped gun down a rival mob and was forced to flee to Syria while the heat died down. He enjoyed close relations with the Syrian president Assad, and his promise of increasingly close relations with Syria was probably one of the reasons he won this controversial election, which was conducted by the parliament rather than the general populace. Jumblatt and his bloc of leftwing delegates had been expected to support the Chehabist candidate, Elias Sarkis, but he was persuaded to switch his vote to Frangieh at the last minute and the latter won by one vote. It remains unclear why Jumblatt (who later said he regretted his decision) voted for Frangieh. The aforementioned closer ties with Syria were no doubt a lure, as were promises to scale down the Deuxième Bureau. In addition to this, Frangieh appears to have promised continued leniency towards the Palestinians, Jumblatt’s allies. Another, more conspiratorial explanation, is that he was ordered to by the Soviet Union, as revenge for the previous Chehabist government foiling a plot of theirs to steal an American-manufactured plane to examine it.

Whatever the reasons, Frangieh was as good as his word with the Deuxième Bureau. The security apparatus of the Lebanese state was considerably reduced and a number of leading figures put on trial. Many have subsequently blamed the anarchy that prevailed during the civil war, the free rein given to independent militias and the inability of the state to exert control, to Frangieh’s actions in this period. All of this played into the hands of the Palestinians of course, and by 1973 they were once again fighting the Lebanese army. In this, they were now joined by a coalition of left-wing Lebanese groups, led by Jumblatt, which would come to be known as the Lebanese National Movement (LNM). We are getting to the point where the various factions in the civil war begin to coalesce and the LNM are one of those. There is no point at this stage in pretending that the Lebanese Civil War was anything other than insanely complicated, and I will try to clarify it as much as possible, but there is no getting around the fact that the following will contain a confusing array of militias, leaders and constellations of alliance, but what can you do except try and come to grips with it?

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Emblems of the main parties in the LNM: The PSP, SSNP and the Lebanese Communists.

So, the LNM was composed of, besides Jumblatt’s PSP, the Lebanese Communist party, a number of small Nasserite groups campaigning for pan-Arab unity, and the Syrian Social Nationalist Party (SSNP), who wanted to unite Lebanon with Syria and were also (broadly-speaking) left-wing in their socio-economic outlook. This block of parties were, at this stage, backed by Syria (remember Assad’s ‘Corrective Movement’ had brought him to power in 1970) and the Soviet Union, and with the help of the latter, as well as the experienced Palestinian guerillas, built a powerful military organisation which, by the mid-1970s, had grown to rival the state’s security forces. The LNM was officially secular, but in practice overwhelmingly Muslim. The PSP was in fact associated with the Druze, a religious minority in Lebanon to which Jumblatt belonged. The Druze are a religious group native to the Levant. Related to Islam but (usually) not considered Muslims, they combine a monotheistic faith similar to the other Abrahamic religions with a belief in reincarnation. Being a minority everywhere they exist, they have suffered a great deal of persecution over the centuries and, not surprisingly, this has made them a tight-knit, coherent community, proud of their distinctive traditions and culture.

Their role as a minority, sandwiched in between the Christians and Muslims, also left the Druze in dire need of allies. It was partly the skill of Jumblatt that made the LNM such an effective alliance, and prepared to support the Palestinian refugees in their country. The really pertinent question here is: why were these Lebanese groups increasingly taking up arms against their compatriots and making cause with the Palestinians in their struggle against Israel? For starters, pan-Arab solidarity with the Palestinian cause cannot be entirely discounted. In the early 1970s, the Palestinians were still welcomed by many Lebanese. It was only after their presence had provoked such ferocious Israeli attacks that they came to be resented by much of the population. But this is far from a satisfactory explanation on its own. Far more relevant is the element of class conflict in Lebanon, and the dovetailing of interests between these left-wing groups, who wanted to see radical social change, and the Palestinians, whose movement had become more revolutionary since the Arab defeat in the 1967 war, in which the older generation of Arab leaders such as Nasser, had been somewhat discredited, and the Palestinians had begun to take the initiative in their struggle themselves. As much as religion, therefore, the Lebanese civil war was rooted in the growing inequality between the classes in Lebanon, which came to be articulated in sectarian terms. It was perceived to be perpetuated by the National Pact, and one of the LNM’s princial aims was an end to the 6:5 ratio of parliament seats in favour of Christians.

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Emblems of the main factions within the LF (left to right): Kataeb (Phalangists) Party, the Tigers Militia, Marada, the Guardians of the Cedars and Al-Tanzim.

In the first period of the civil war, the LNM’s opponents would be the LF (really helpful-all these acronyms!), which stood for ‘Lebanese Front’ or ‘Lebanese Forces’, and was almost exclusively composed of Christian political factions and their militias. The largest of these was the Kataeb or, as they are usually known in English, the Phalanges Party. If the word ‘Phalangist’ sounds vaguely familiar, it should. This was the name of a Fascist movement in 1930s Europe which became the ruling ideology of Spain under the Franco dictatorship. How Phalangism became a major ideology in Lebanese politics is down to one man, Pierre Gemayel, who was impressed by the discipline of the Hitler youth on a visit to the Berlin Olympics in 1936 and founded the party shortly afterwards. The Phalangists advocated a strong authoritarian state and the maintenance of the social hierarchy as it was, with the wealthy elite and the Christians maintaining their privileges. Anti-trade-unionist, anti-communist, they wouldn’t openly admit to being fascists, but then again, who does? Here is Gemayel on the left, along with his two sons, Bashir and Amine, who will also play key roles in the war:

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The Phalangists stressed the separateness of the Lebanese nation from its Arab neighbours. This differentiated it from the Marada movement, which was dominated by President Frangieh, and had close ties to Syria. The Marada first attracted attention when they were led, armed, into the parliament chamber to ‘support’ the election of Frangieh. They were led on that occasion by his son Tony, who was the Sonny Corleone to Suleiman’s Vito. As will be seen, however, the Frangiehs were not alone in resembling mobsters. The Marada were mainly active in the northern city of Tripoli and the surrounding area. The Tigers were the military arm of the National Liberal Party, founded and initially financed by former president Chamoun. Like the Phalangists, it laid great stress on Lebanon’s independence,  but differed ideologically from the latter in adherence to free trade and American-style liberalism. The ‘Guardians of the Cedars’ took the separateness of Lebanon even further, claiming that the Lebanese were not Arab at all but ‘Phoenician’, descended from the trading people of classical times, and a ‘western’ rather than ‘eastern’ country.

This is where the Christian militias’ ideology shaded into outright racism. Etienne Saqr, the ‘Father of the Guardians’ was described by Robert Fisk as ‘one of the more psychopathic of the minor Christian militia leaders’ which is really saying something when you consider the stiff competition. The ‘Guardians’ were even more fiercely hostile to the Palestinians in Lebanon, often attacking indiscriminately and torturing their victims to death. Al-Tanzim (meaning ‘The Organisation’) was ideologically similar to the ‘Guardians’. Formed by Phalangists years earlier who had believed their party was not militant enough, they had close links to elements within the Lebanese army who opposed the Cairo agreement with the Palestinians. They would come to fracture into pro- and anti-Syrian camps in the summer of 1976, but we’ll get to that.

Some of the more militant among these factions were arming and training from 1970 onwards, foreseeing the struggle ahead with the Palestinians. There is good evidence that the Lebanese army helped them import weapons. Rather than pinpointing the start of the war to a particular date, it would be truer to say that Lebanon gradually descended into anarchy, as the state forces lost control and the two Lebanese factions, along with the Palestinians, engaged in a series of tit-for-tat killings that eventually drifted into outright war. A major flashpoint occured on February 26, 1975 in Sidon, when fishermen demonstrated against the attempts of a deep-sea fishing company (founded and chaired by Chamoun) to establish operations in their fishing grounds which threatened their livelihoods. A leader of the Sunni community and leftwing activist, Maaruf Saad, was killed by the army and the protesters fought back. More civilians and army personnel were killed in the following weeks, and the unrest spread to other parts of the country, as the right-wing groups held demonstrations in support of the army.

The 13 April 1975 is usually reckoned the ‘outbreak’ of the war, when things got irrevocably out of control. On this day, an attack took place on a church congregation (among which was Pierre Gemayel) in the east Beirut area of Ain el-Rammaneh, a predominantly Christian neighborhood. Four people were killed, and the perpetrators were most likely Palestinian gunmen who had been involved in an altercation with the Phalangists guarding the church. Within hours, Phalangist militiamen, joined by the Tigers, had set up roadblocks in the area and attacked a bus filled with Palestinians returning to the refugee camp in Tel al-Zaatar, killing 27 passengers. LNM and Palestinians set up roadblocks in their own, western half of Beirut, and over the next few days hundreds were killed as the division which would characterise the city for the next decade began to harden. Here is a map of Beirut and the places mentioned in the text here:
Beirut
This downward spiral of violence intensified over the summer. Ceasefires were declared and promptly broken. Frangieh proved himself utterly incapable of dealing with the crisis. When his Prime Minister,  Rachid Solh, in May resigned in protests against the excesses of the Christian militias, Frangieh appointed a military cabinet, hoping to send out the message that the government was ready to restore law and order. The fact that this cabinet resigned after only a few days, cowed by the threat of a strike by the LNM, sent out the exact opposite signal. A lull in the fighting following in June, as a ceasefire arranged by the (re-appointed as Prime Minister) Karami was taken slightly more seriously than other ceasefires. Negotiations and proposals for reform were exchanged back and forth among the leading politicians. Much of the killing that was happening on the streets was random and brutal, often with little motivation beyond the fact that the victim was a member of a rival sect. What is often left out of account in narratives that stress war as a mere extension of politics is the role played by revenge, and the way conflicts like this can take on a life of their own independent of political developments, as each side seeks to exact revenge for the atrocities it has suffered by inflicting an even greater one on ‘the enemy’.
On 5 December (known as ‘Black Saturday’) the killing escalated dramatically, as the bodies of four Christians were found dead in east Beirut, and the Phalangist militias, under the orders of Bashir Gemayel, went on the rampage in the port district, killing Muslims at random. The LNM and Palestinians began killing Christians in retaliation. Roadblocks were set up and ID cards used to identify members of the opposing side (cards gave the religion of the bearer in those days), who was often dragged out of their car and had their throat slit there and then. By the end of the day, 600 people had been killed, roughly half from each side. While civilians had been killed before, Black Saturday was a watershed in that it was the beginning of a feature that would come to characterise the war from this point on, the indiscriminate massacre of civilians, often known as ID-card killings.
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This photograph of a Muslim woman in Karantina pleading with a Phalangist milita member won the World Press Photo for French journalist Francoise Demulder.
Another major massacre was carried out by the Phalangists in January at the refugee camp at Karantina, now surrounded within east Beirut. As many as 1000 civilians there were murdered, not only Palestinians but Kurdish and Armenian refugees as well. The survivors were moved to west Beirut and the division of the city between Muslim west and Christian east only became more entrenched. These massacres led the LNM and their allies to go on the offensive. The PLO attacked the town of Damour, stronghold of Chamoun, 25 km south of Beirut, and massacred as many as 500 Maronite civilians. An intensified campaign was launched to take the hotel district in the downtown area of Beirut from the Christians. The site of most of the city’s tallest buildings, this phase became known as the ‘Battle of the Hotels’ and went on for months as the Phalangists and their allies held on grimly in the face of increasingly successful LNM assaults. In its early stages, hundreds of tourists and staff in the hotels were caught up in the crossfire, although most of these were evacuated during a ceasefire. The Holiday Inn is a fitting, unintentional memorial to the Civil War. Built in 1974, it operated for only a year before the outbreak of war. To this day, its gutted, bullet-ridden facade looms over the city. Due to a disagreement between its owners, it has never been renovated and remains in the ruined state it was left by the militias.
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The Holiday Inn, Beirut, during the war and as it looks today.
By the end of March, the LNM and Palestinians had virtually captured the entire area. This was achieved with the help of a breakaway faction of the Lebanese army. In January, Muslim soldiers stationed in the Beqaa Valley mutined, led by a Lieutenant, Ahmed al-Khatib, and joined forced with the LNM. This faction would be known as the ‘Lebanese Arab Army’. In response, a Christian faction within the army led by Colonel Antoine Barakat in Beirut declared its allegiance to the other side. The worst nightmare of those who had hoped to maintain some semblance of central authority had come to pass-the splitting of the army along sectarian lines. By the summer of 1976, the Christians were facing military defeat in the face of the Muslim allies’ onslaught. The latter’s victory was thwarted from what might at first appear an unlikely direction: Syria. Like all Arab states, the Syrians were sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians, and indeed so close was their association with some of the PLO factions that they could reasonably be described as puppets of the Assad regime. Having said this, Assad’s great bugbear was the growth of a powerful and unified Sunni opposition to his rule. It will be remembered from part two the trouble he was having at this time with the (Sunni) Muslim Brotherhood in his own country, and how brutal his suppression of this threat would be.
While Assad overtly supported the Palestinians ultimate goal of recovering their homeland from the Israelis, and had no objection to a Palestinian presence in Lebanon, within limits, he had broader strategic interests to which he subordinated Lebanese internal politics. Embroiled in rivalry with Sadat in Egypt, he sought to dominate Lebanon, Jordan and the Palestinians as a counterweight. The prospect of the Palestinians and LNM victory over the Christians in Lebanon was unwelcome to him, as it would leave the PLO far too powerful for comfort and no longer dependent on him, not to mention provoking Israel, which was the last thing he wanted. The Palestinians’ growing radicalism was likewise a cause for concern and was perceived to threaten instability. A meeting in March 1976 between Jumblatt and Assad in Damascus, once allies, ended in acrimony. The demands of Jumblatt to be allowed to pursue outright victory were denied by Assad, and his call for an end to sectarianism fell on deaf ears. It was becoming increasingly clear that the Syrians intended to intervene in the conflict to prevent their fellow-Muslims overwhelming the Christian minority. It should be remembered that Assad was not without his friends in that camp either. Both Frangieh and his successor (that September) Elias Sarkis (below, the one who looks like a waiter), were allies of Assad. Nor should it be forgotten that Assad himself belonged to the Alawite minority in Syria, and filled his government with members of that sect.
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Through unofficial American mediation, the Israelis and Syrians tacitly agreed not to step on each other’s toes. The Israelis let it be known that, as long as the Syrians did not advance further south than the  Litani river, they would permit their intervention. From the beginning of the year, Syrian troops had been infiltrating the country secretly; from June, they were present in great numbers, professing to keep the peace between the warring factions. The Arab League created an ‘Arab Deterrent Force’, with a few token Sudanese and Saudi troops, in order to give the Syrian presence legitimacy. There was some resistance from the LNM and Palestinians, who attempted to halt the Syrian advance across the country at the same time as they raced to capture east Beirut from the LF before the Syrians arrived. Beyond the objective of establishing de facto rule over the capital, they had a more pressing need to take the city, which was to break the siege of the camp at Tel el-Zaatar, full of Palestinian refugees isolated in east Beirut. Despite intensive efforts, lack of basic supplies led to the fall of the camp, before it could be relieved, in August. Once again, the Christian militias committed an atrocity, killing between 1000-1500 unarmed civillians, raping and mutilating many of their victims. Many of the survivors would be resettled by the PLO in Damour, which the Palestinians had ethnically cleansed of Christians.
Somewhat ironically then, given their previous determination to resist incorporation by Syria, the Christians of Lebanon found themselves welcoming the Syrian army as their saviours. This doesn’t mean that their reception was without ambiguities however. The same can be said of the population as a whole. While many no doubt had mixed feelings about the arrival of Assad’s forces, their arrival at least heralded an end to hostilities and horrors such as those of Karantina, Damour and Tel el-Zaatar. By the time the Syrians reached east Beirut in November the LNM and Palestinians were no longer attempting to halt their advance. The Syrians prevented them from taking east Beirut. Knowing they were no match for the Syrian army, the LNM had little choice but to accept their presence, and the uneasy truce they established.
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Syrian soldiers take up position on the streets of Beirut in November 1976.
This truce was in fact mistaken by most people as a permanent peace. Hope, as they say, is a powerful drug, and no doubt desperation to believe that the war was over blinded people to the fact that none of its substantive causes had been addressed. Lebanon was still ruled (to the extent that it was ruled) along sectarian lines, the Palestinians were still present in large numbers, nor had they been disarmed or substantially weakened by the Syrians. Rather than putting an end to hostilities, it might indeed be argued that the intervention of outsiders had the effect of prolonging the war. Nor am I merely referring to the Syrians here; soon the Israelis would be invading from the south; in a few years, everyone from the United States to the Italians would be piling in. In time, the war would come in large part to be about their presence, as opposed to being primarily a civil war between Lebanese. Just how long it was to last can be gauged from the following photograph, taken at some point in the 1980s. This is the front line between the two sides in Beirut (aptly called the ‘Green Line’, given the foliage). Once a bustling street in the middle of a metropolis, the area was destined to be abandoned so long it turned into a forest.

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Featured image above: First hand-drawn flag by members of parliament during the declaration of independence in 1943.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 5: The Lebanese civil war #1