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.

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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.

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

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

nasserfaisalAfter the previous posts on the Afghan war, my intention was originally to examine the participation of foreign fighters in that war and their subsequent attempts to launch jihad in various other countries in the 1990s. I will defer this story for another post, however, as I wish first to backtrack somewhat to where we were after part two of this series, that is, back in the Arab world, and back in the 1960s, looking at the demise of the secularist Arab nationalist movement, personified by Egypt’s president Gamel Abdel Nasser. What left the story somewhat incomplete at that stage was the existence of an opposing movement in the Arab world at the same time that Nasser and his allies were espousing a modern, technologically-driven rebirth of society that would stand up against western imperialism. This was a conservative, theocratic vision centered around the traditional monarchies of the region, led by Saudi Arabia, which in the 1960s would become the standard-bearer and chief rival of Nasser’s Egypt in what scholar Malcolm Kerr termed the ‘Arab Cold War’.

I wouldn’t push this analogy between the US-Soviet Union Cold War and the Egypt-Saudi Arabia one too far. It certainly isn’t universally accepted and differs in profound ways. One similarity is that it did not develop into direct military confrontation, but involved proxy conflicts fought between the two regional powers in other countries, namely Yemen, which sadly is back in the news (although not enough in the news) on account of outside interference. In any case, this rivalry, and the wider battle for the soul of the Muslim world, between conservative Islam and secular nationalism, is crucial for understanding what lies ahead. The notion of an Arab Cold War is also a useful framework within which to prepare the ground for future posts I want to write on Iraq, Libya and Yemen, although a lot will be said about Yemen in this post as well. In part two, I took a fairly detailed look at what was happening in Egypt up to the assassination of Sadat. In part one, I also covered the beginnings of Saudi power in Arabia, and its emergence as a power after world war two, when it positioned itself as a firm partisan of (and oil supplier to) the United States in the Cold War.

To comprehend the weirdness of Saudi Arabia, it really has to be understood how rapid was the transformation from a feudal (probably a clumsy use of that word, sorry) society, tribal in structure and desperately poor, to a modern petro-state, one of the richest in the world with the military capacity of the world’s preeminent superpower at its disposal, and yet underpinned by a conservative religious ideology that sought to reinstate an imagined ‘purer’ Islam, using tremendously-enhanced resources, acquired by linking its economic fate inextricably with the modern world, while at the same time trying to keep that world at bay. Contradictions such as this about in Saudi Arabia. While a bastion of traditionalism, there is nothing traditional about the kingdom. It is a thoroughly modern creation, dating as we saw in part one, to the 1920s-30s. The name literally means the country conquered and ruled over by the Saud dynasty. I can’t think of any other country whose name reflects its rulers in this way; it’s as if ‘Putin’s Russia’ or ‘Elizabeth’s England’ were the actual official title of those respective countries.

We have already seen, in brief outline, how Ibn Saud came to power by warring on his rivals in the decades prior to ‘independence’ in 1932. What we haven’t really examined, however, is how the kingdom he established came to be a functioning coherent state, as opposed to a loosely-allied group of warlords under the umbrella of one uber-warlord. And this is where the American oil companies came in, for it was they who initially built the infrastructure which would tie together the new state and lay the foundations of its power. At the time of independence, little of this existed. Ibn Saud consolidated his power by personal alliances, marriages, suppressing possible rivals (especially within his own huge dynasty) and lavish hospitality. All this left him with huge debts, which the Standard Oil company of California, SOCAL (a predecessor of today’s Chevron Corporation) offered to help him with if he would let them prospect for oil in his territory.

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It is interesting to note that Ibn Saud took the trouble to consult the religious authorities, the ulema, on the wisdom of consorting with infidels in this matter, not so much because they said it was acceptable, but because the were hardly likely to say otherwise. The fact is that the Saudi king had already co-opted them to a large extent, consulting them publicly on the compatibility with Islam of other innovations such as the car and telephone, to none of which they offered any serious challenge. It was a formality, but nonetheless it is notable that he felt the need to keep up the pretense. This was because, despite the acquiescence of the religious establishment in his project, Ibn Saud still faced opposition from Islamic traditionalists in other corners of Saudi society. At the time the first foreigners were arriving to look for oil, anecdotes tell of the imam of the mosque in Riyadh giving a sermon to a congregation of which Ibn Saud was a part about the sinfulness of co-operating with infidels. The king is said to have interrupted angrily and countered with another sura from the Qur’an, suggesting such co-operation was permitted. This tension, between the Saudi government-sanctioned form of the faith, and those who felt the integrity of Wahhabist doctrine had been compromised, will be a constant underlying theme throughout the whole of Saudi history, and once we’ve had a look at the kind of state Ibn Saud and his sons created, we will backtrack a bit and examine the various undercurrents of dissent that existed in the country and how they were dealt with (spoiler alert: it ain’t pretty).

Oil was of course found, in large quantities, in 1938 at Damman on the Persian Gulf in the east of the country and things moved quickly from there. Although the disruptions caused by Second World War in some ways slowed early development, the post-war reconstruction and alliance with the United States no doubt made up for this. A subsidiary of SOCAL, the California-Arabian Standard Oil Company, took care of business in Saudi Arabia, and in 1944 its name was changed to the Arabian-American Oil Company (ARAMCO). It might be argued that ARAMCO is as important a factor in the story of Saudi Arabia as the Saud family itself. In these first decades after the war, ARAMCO basically performed the functions of a state which the Saud family didn’t initially have the resources to: building infrastructure (much of it in the early years at least, primarily for the use of the royal family) such as roads, railroads, a communications network, schools, hospitals, you name it: ARAMCO took care of it, for a hefty fee of course.

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Still from Aramco publicity film, 1950

Riyadh’s population exploded in these years, from around 50,000 at the end of the war to 150,000 in 1960 and over 500,000 in 1970. The capital was connected by railway (built of course by ARAMCO) to Damman in 1951. The country was basically a construction site, much of this work (not to mention the drilling) supervised by infidels the conservative elements in Saudi society had been so reluctant to allow in-mostly Americans but also some Dutch, British, Italians, etc. While the years after oil-extraction commenced saw an explosion in the numbers of non-Muslims in Saudi Arabia (before this, they had probably numbered fewer than fifty), this does not mean that they wandered around the country at will, freely interacting with the locals. On the contrary, ARAMCO’s workers lived in a weird, cloistered world shut off from Saudi society in vast compounds in which they attempted to recreate as much as possible the conditions of suburban America which they had left behind. At the Dhahran compound near Damman, a regime of racial segregation was imposed in which the foreign workers lived in luxurious, air-conditioned quarters surrounded by barbed wire fences, while their Arab colleagues lived right next door in an unfenced compound that, in the early days, lacked basic services such as electricity, water and plumbing.

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Images from Aramco compound, Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, 1950s

The Saudi workers in these oil-fields were people who, for the most part, had been almost entirely cut off from the outside world, living a sedentary or nomadic life within the desert that had changed little in centuries. This world was suddenly turned upside down, exposed to the influence, not only of the westerners which both ARAMCO and the Saudi government attempted (but never completely managed) to confine within the compounds, but also of Arabs who came from other parts of the middle east to work in the industry. Palestinians, for example, came and told their fellow Arabs of their travails and the Nakba; ideas of pan-Arab nationalism begin to foment within Saudi Arabia, even secularism; workers came under the influence of socialist ideas and attempted to organise. Another potentially destabilising factor was the fact that in the early years, most of the functioning oil wells were in the eastern province of the country where most of the country’s Shia live, a minority (about 10%) with which the Saudi rulers have not always enjoyed smooth relations, especially after the revolution of 1979 in nearby Iran. In the mid-1950s, about 60% of ARAMCO’s native workforce were Shia.

This propaganda video gives an idea of the kind of hybrid world being built in the desert in the 1950s:

These revolutionary social developments began to see political consequences in the 1950s, for all the government’s (and the Americans’) efforts to maintain the status quo. The deplorable conditions in workers’ camps led to strikes among the ARAMCO workforce in 1953 and 1956 that obtained some improvement of conditions. The authorities’ tactic seems to have been to take the edge off this dissent by making material concessions, but conceding nothing in the way of political rights, and certainly not allowing the labour movement any opportunity to organise itself into anything resembling an opposition. The most prominent of these opposition figures was Nasir al-Sa’id, a worker from Ha’il in the northern interior of the country. While offering improved wages and camp conditions, people like al-Sa’id were imprisoned. When released, he left the country and led a kind of opposition in exile from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq and Egypt. While not regarded as a huge threat by the Saudis for most of the 1960s-1970s, in the period following the seizure of the Grand Mosque of Mecca in late 1979, which he claimed was part of a people’s revolution, al-Sa’id was kidnapped from his home in Beirut and never seen again, the widespread suspicion (never confirmed) being that the Saudis got hold of him.

What happened to al-Sa’id—exile, possibly execution, attempts to excise him from public memory (he doesn’t even have a wikipedia page as far as I can tell, nor can I find a picture of him anywhere) is typical of those who have stood up to the Saudi regime, which has this strange double face: on the one hand presiding over dramatic changes in the social and material fabric of the country, while simultaneously trying (largely successfully) to maintain an unchanging political hegemony. Just as all these dramatic changes were taking off, the country’s founder Abdulaziz Ibn Saud died in 1953, and power passed to the first in a series of sons which, to this day, have ruled the kingdom in succession. Saud (one of forty-five sons) came to the throne at the age of 51. He had been groomed to inherit his father’s kingdom from an early age, after the death of his older brother of flu in 1919. Here he is, posing with two of his favourite  butlers in 1957:

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Saud was a dud, which became clear over the following decade. He spent lavishly on palaces and stuff for himself and his dynasty while the country’s debt spiraled out of control. While the oil business was booming, but it wasn’t that booming, and huge debts (much of which he had inherited from his father) meant that cuts had to come somewhere, given the refusal of ARAMCO banks to extend. Under Saud, these cuts generally came from public works projects. Given that the ‘public sphere’ in Saudi Arabia was more or less limited to the royal family, opposition to Saud coalesced around two focal points: his brother Faysal, with whom he had been vying for power since before their father died, and a much younger brother, Talal. But Faysal first:

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Faysal, king from 1964 to 1975

Both Saud and Faysal had received extensive training in expectation that they would succeed to positions of power in the kingdom. This training seems to have impressed itself upon the mind of Faysal more profoundly than Saud. He had been minister for foreign affairs since 1930 and prime minister since the time of Saud’s accession, when the post had been created, along with a Council of Ministers, as a gesture on Saud’s part towards sharing power with his relatives. This council would instead become a battleground, as Saud used it to promote his adherents and immediate family members. Government ministries became pawns controlled by the king as he sought to scheme against what he (rightly) suspected was his brother’s scheming against him and filled posts with allies, some from the royal family, others from less-prominent collateral branches or people he trusted. This alienated those in the family who felt shut out, who rallied around Faysal. One of the most important of these was the ‘Sudairi Seven’, so called because they were all sons of Abdulaziz Ibn Saud with Hussa bint Ahmed Al Sudairi, and two of whom have succeeded as king. Instead of getting bogged down with all their names for the moment, just to note that these were a powerful ally for Faysal as the Saud regime’s financial situation deteriorated and the king’s incompetence more and more apparent to those in the know.

Relations began to deteriorate between the two brothers in the early sixties and Saud was less successful than Faysal in maintaining a power-base. Saud’s assumed for himself the powers of prime minister in 1960 and at this point his rival was merely waiting for his opportunity to act. This came in 1962 when Saud went abroad for medical treatment. Forming a cabinet in his brother’s absence, Faysal, with the support of the ‘Sudairi Seven’ and other allies, announced a program of reforms that included the creation of a basic law, the abolition of slavery (yep, they still had that) and the establishment of a judicial council. Having secured the support of the ulema (Islamic religious scholars), it was a done deal by the time Saud came home. Although there was a short period in which he was allowed to remain as a figurehead, it wasn’t long before Faysal had him removed from this capacity as well, and Saud left the country, dying in Greece in 1969.

And yet in many ways, his predecessor was the least of Faysal’s worries. Saud was yesterday’s man. The threats facing the Saudi regime going forward came from other sources, some within, some without. As we have already seen, politics in Saudi Arabia was essentially something practices only by the extended family of the king. Everyone else was a bystander, if they were even observing public events. Among those in the inner circle were younger sons of Ibn Saud, especially Talal bin Abdulaziz Al Saud (below) whose mother was Armenian, and who Ibn Saud had doted over in his old age. Talal and some other younger brothers formed a faction that oscillated in their loyalty between Saud and Faysal, and when Saud failed to listen to their proposals for some modest liberalisations of the autocratic regime, Talal and some of his allies moved abroad in 1961, forming an opposition in exile in Lebanon and Egypt and heavily influenced by the vibe behind Gamal Abdel Nasser, hence the moniker they gave themselves: the ‘Free princes’ (cf. the ‘Free Officers Movement’ in Egypt).

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Although influenced by Nasser, the Free Princes did not go as far as proposing the deposition of the king, merely its transformation into a constitutional monarchy. Although their movement was clothed in the revolutionary-sounding language of nationalism and socialism, in reality it was liberal and rather modest in its vision for Saudi Arabia. It basically envisaged the Saudi kingdom making the leap that France had made in the 1790s. Notwithstanding these ideological differences (although Nasser’s ideology is somewhat opaque also), the Free Princes Movement became closely associated with the charismatic Egyptian leader, who enjoyed a god-like status in the Arab world in the early 1960s. Nasser had not always been at loggerheads with the Saudis. Initially, they had been allied in common enmity towards the Hashemite regimes (see part one) of Jordan and Iraq. Nasser visited Saudi Arabia in 1956 and was greeted with popular enthusiasm, something worrying to the Saudi authorities. Don’t forget this was an era when monarchies were being overthrown all over the place (Egypt: 1952, Iraq: 1958, Yemen: 1962 and Libya: 1969). The image of solidarity was shattered when it emerged in 1958 (following the short-lived union of Egypt and Syria) that Saud had hired a hitman to assassinate Nasser.

By the time the Free Princes Movement emerged, therefore, relations between Egypt and Saudi Arabia had soured, and this rivalry for leadership in the Arab world is what is sometimes dubbed the ‘Arab Cold War’, a rivalry between two states that were merely emblematic of a deeper rivalry between two visions for the future of the Arab world: one secular, modernising, left-leaning and the other monarchical, conservative, informed by a three-centuries-old religious orthodoxy. When Faysal came to power in 1964, he defined more sharply Saudi Arabia’s role as a counterweight to secular nationalist regimes like Egypt and Syria. You would probably think, standing at the vantage-point of 1964, that a contest between these two visions would inevitably lead to the triumph of the modernising, forward-looking vision. You’d be wrong.

The ‘Free Princes’ were reconciled with the Saudi regime when Faysal came to power. It might be asked why. They achieved none of their aims really. Their return to the fold had less to do with improved relations with the dynasty back home than a worsening of relations with Nasser, and this had a lot to do with the ‘Cold War’ between Egypt and Saudi Arabia which had become distinctly hot. This actual war took place in one of those corners of the Earth where ‘great powers’ like to wage their proxy wars: Yemen.

Rather than treating Yemen as an aside in another story (which is the way it often gets treated) I want to go into it in a more detailed post of its own) so let’s not dwell here on the circumstances surrounding the civil war that started in 1962 when republicans took power from the king and imam, Muhammad al-Badr, who had only been in power a week. This transformed the Mutawakkilite Kingdom of Yemen (what is today the western part of Yemen, often confusingly referred to as ‘North Yemen’) into the Yemen Arab Republic. The king fled north and got help from the Saudis, the republicans got help from Egypt. This set the scene for a proxy war between the two Arab heavyweights on Yemeni soil (sound familiar?), the Saudis being freaked out by the sudden presence of 20,000 Egyptian soldiers on their southern borders, not to mention the first republican government on the Arabian peninsula.

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A quick Yemen gif

While Nasser’s commitment to the republicans in Yemen was wholehearted, Saudi support for the royalists was less spectacular, reflecting the fact that, while the country was an economic powerhouse, politically, militarily, Saudi Arabia remained a fairly minor player in the Middle East. To change this was one of Faysal’s main objectives. The Yemen war, however, was something of a shambles; some Saudi pilots even flew their planes off to Egypt to defect. Saudi Arabia got some half-hearted help from the Americans, but under Kennedy, they themselves were going through a period of attempting to win Nasser over from the Communist side, so they weren’t going to do too much to help; indeed, the United States recognised the Yemen republic in late 1962 to the dismay of the Saudis. Saudi and Egyptian involvement in the Yemen war would come to an end in 1967. They had already agreed behind the scenes that it was mutually destructive and in any case they had bigger fish to fry in dealing with Israel in the Six Day War. Incidentally, the Yemenis themselves worked out a compromise that ended the civil war in 1970, but more of that in a separate Yemen post.

While the Saudis did not achieve their objective of restoring the king in Yemen, it could not be said that Egypt emerged from the war with the spoils of victory. Yemen is sometimes referred to as ‘Egypt’s Vietnam’ and, in the years that followed, Faysal would implement a series of administrative and fiscal reforms, coupled with a series of diplomatic manoeuvres which would place Saudi Arabia in a more commanding position within the Arab world. Crucially important was Arab defeat in the Six Day War, which damaged the reputation of Nasser, and after which the Saudis pledged a great deal of petrol-dollars to the Palestinians’ struggle. Perhaps even more important were the events which followed the outbreak of the Yom Kippur War in 1973. At the same time, Faysal brought the country into greater alignment with Israel’s greatest ally, the United States. In order to flex its muscles more effectively in the world at large, Faysal took advantage of the only asset Saudi Arabia had: oil.

After the outbreak of another war with Israel in 1973, the Saudis will lead an attempt to punish Israel’s western allies, especially the United States, for its steadfast support for the occupation of Palestine. This oil embargo on a select group of countries is epoch-making, not so much for the impact it had on the Israel-Palestine conflict (very little as it happens) but as heralding in a new era of Saudi power and the increased centrality of oil to geopolitics, not to mention contributing greatly to  a severe recession which would have huge knock-on effects, both political and social, which we arguably live with to this day. It is worth backtracking a bit to look at the evolution of Saudi oil policy and the creation of OPEC, the organisation through which this embargo was effected.

Handing over the exploitation of your oil to someone else, in return for a cut of the profits, makes some sense when you don’t have the expertise or resources to get it out of the ground, refine it and transport it around the world. What happens over time, though, is usually that the resources derived from oil-wealth are partly spent on developing indigenous resources and infrastructure, educating and training indigenous technicians and administrators, until the day comes when the reasons for handing over your resources to the oil companies no longer apply. The original disadvantageous agreement comes to be seen as an unfair constraint on the country with the natural resources, and the desire to reassert control over them becomes irresistible. We have already seen what happened in Iran when Mohammad Mosaddegh attempted to nationalise Iran’s oil and take it back from the Anglo-Persian Oil Company (BP to you and me). In Saudi Arabia, taking over control of the oil did not have such destabilising consequences. ARAMCO remained an American-owned company until the 1970s, when the Saudi state began to buy it out, a process complete by 1980.

From the 1960s on, one of the most important figures in Saudi politics was the head of the Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources. The first of these was Abdullah Tariki (below), who had gained an education abroad patronage of the state in geology and was made first minister for oil in 1960. That year, he was instrumental in founding OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) along with his Venezuelan counterpart. They did this (Iran, Iraq and Kuwait also joined) in the hope of exerting more control over the price and volume of oil produced, which at that time was controlled by the a cartel of multinational oil companies with little regard for the countries from whom they had obtained concessions. Particularly resented was the oil companies attempts to keep prices low as new sources of oil glutted the market in the post-war decades.

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In its early years, OPEC wasn’t hugely successful in its objectives. Much of the oil was still in the hands of western multinationals, not the states in question, but as states like Saudi Arabia acquired more and more control over its own resources (another long-term strategic goal of OPEC) their leverage gradually increased, as did the prospect of them using oil prices to exert influence over politics, especially as they concerned Israel-Palestine. To those in the west who are happy to guzzle petrol like there is no tomorrow, but pay little attention to where it comes from (i.e. most people) the measures taken by the Arab OPEC countries in response to the west’s support for Israel in the 1973 war came as a big shock. It shouldn’t have (OPEC had, only months before the war, raised the price of oil by nearly 12%) but it did, and I think if we are honest, there has always been a sense among many in the west that the petroleum under the ground in foreign lands, even if they are no longer colonies in a formal sense, is somehow the birthright of white people living in Europe and America.

In October 1973 then, OPEC cut production by at least 5% (and some countries like Saudi Arabia by more) and increased prices by an initial 17% (in the following months, this would result in a 70% increase in the price of oil internationally), but most spectacularly of all, announced a complete oil embargo against Israel’s main western allies: the United States, Canada, Japan, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Tariki had been replaced by this stage by Ahmed Zaki Yamani (below), who in many ways was the face of this effort to deter the west’s support for Israel.

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To show the long-term effects of the ‘oil crisis’ of the 1970s is beyond the scope of this post. Just one observation: it can be seen as a crucial nail in the coffin of the post-war economic boom and the social-stability afforded by the accommodation between business and organised labour, resulting in rising living standards, the welfare state, etc. All of this entered a period of crisis in the 1970s, which was taken advantage of by neoliberals like Reagan and Thatcher at the end of the decade.

But for Saudi Arabia, the results of this period were more mixed. Israel emerged triumphant from the Yom Kippur War and the embargo was lifted in March 1974 having failed to achieve its political objectives. The increase in oil prices that following during the series of oil shocks of the 1970s brought a huge increase in revenue to Saudi Arabia, from about 22.5 billion SR (Saudi Riyals) in 1970 to 163.6 billion SR in 1975, to 546.6 billion in 1980, an astonishing increase of 2329% in just a decade. An image in the west of underhand practices, of oil being used as a kind of blackmail, and underhand manipulation of the oil markets became widespread in the west at this time, which is kind of hypocritical when you consider that multinational oil companies had been doing this for decades. Their cartel had been informally known as the ‘Seven Sisters’ and while there isn’t space to go into it here, this Al Jazeera series on the subject is well worth a watch:

 

This is the time when an image of the ‘greedy sheikh’ emerges in the west, and a growth in anti-Arab feeling in some quarters, a resentment towards the Arabs for using their oil-wealth which follows logically from the idea that this is really the property of western nations. The 1970s can be pinpointed as the beginnings of what will become a widespread Islamophobia in the west. It is worth reflecting that it emerges at the same time that the oil-producing nations began to assert control over their own natural resources. Just a thought.

Faysal was able to use these huge financial resources to invest in infrastructure, to both improve living conditions for Saudi citizens and consolidate his control over them, not to mention purchasing ARAMCO from the Americans. His stance in at least offering symbolic support for the Palestinians bolstered his country’s standing in the Arab world, at least temporarily, and in flexing its economic muscles and provoking conflict with the United States, Saudi Arabia actual found itself in a more favourable relationship in the aftermath, having demonstrated how indispensable they were as an ally. Faysal was not to enjoy the fruits of all this for long though, as he was assassinated in March 1975 by one of his nephews, ostensibly as an act of private revenge for the killing of the assassin’s brother ten years earlier (although conspiracy theories abound).

Faysal’s trusted oil minister Yamani was standing next to him when he was shot and, in December (he had a hell of a year) he and several other oil ministers were taken hostage at the OPEC headquarters in Vienna by a team led by Carlos the Jackal who hoped to promote the Palestinian cause. The plan was to ransom all the oil ministers with the exception of Yamani and his Iranian counterpart, Jamshid Amuzegar. A plane was provided which brought the kidnappers to Algeria, where they had hoped to fly on to South Yemen. In the event, pressure from the Algerian government, which was revolutionary but not that revolutionary, secured the release of the oil ministers, although they did allow Carlos and his associates to walk free.

When all this smoke had cleared, the tensions between Saudi and American interests appeared to have been resolved. The old deal stood firm: Saudi Arabia would supply cheap oil to the United States and Europe and in return, the United States guarantee Saudi Arabia’s  (or rather the Saudi dynasty’s) security, both internal and external. But there was always (and still is) a glaring paradox to both parties allegiance to the other: Saudi Arabia’s closest ally just happened to be the main sponsor of Israel; later on, when American claims to be combating Islamic fundamentalism will be starkly contradicted by their close alliance with the Saudis. Another problem was that the explosion in oil-wealth had produced a materialism in Saudi society, as well as a growing reliance on American military technology, which was frowned upon by the hardline Wahhabists and others who questioned the Saudi monarchy’s claim to be the legitimate interpreters of what constituted the ‘true’ path.

It is interesting to reflect that the Saudi monarchy has always tried to legitimise itself by stressing its religious credentials and its adherence to the Wahhabist doctrine of returning to a ‘purer’ Islam and shedding it of idolatrous and erroneous practices that it has allegedly accumulated over the centuries. At the same time, the measures that it has taken to maintain its grip on power and accumulate its massive wealth have involved what many would argue have taken the country in the opposite direction. While always careful to get the establishment ullema onside, not everyone has been convinced, and it hasn’t always been easy for the Saudi monarchy to put the genie of religious fundamentalism back in the bottle once out. An early and dramatic example of this came in November 1979 (only months after the revolution in Iran) when the Grand Mosque in Mecca, the Masjid al-Hara, was seized by al-Ikhwan, armed followers of a religious figure they claimed to be the Mahdi, or redeemer who many Muslims believe will appear shortly before the end days and rid the world of evil. Many of those who participated in the seizure of the Masjid al-Hara were indoctrinated by the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood who had fled Nasser’s repression and been offered sanctuary by Faysal in the 1960s and early 1970s. Their military leader was Juhayman al-Otaybi (below), who was the son of one of the original Ikhwan, who had fought for Ibn Saud in his conquest of the country in the 1920s. When Saud won independence and recognition from the British, and began to collaborate with westerners to consolidate his rule, the Ikhwan, who had been told that all foreigners were infidels and wanted to keep fighting, revolted against Saudi rule in 1928 and were brutally suppressed in the following years.

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The complaints of the 1979 Ikhwan bear certain resemblances to their forefathers’ criticisms of the Saudi regime (by now, Khalid was king: 1975-1982), that they had betrayed Islam by their pursuit of profit and adoption of western decadence; also subject to criticism were the ulema for rubber-stamping all this. Al-Otaybi railed against any concessions to a public role for women, immodest dress, television, and currency with an image of the King on it. The mosque seizure lasted two weeks and was ended when Saudi troops, with Pakistani and French assistance, stormed the area and captured most of the Ikhwan, beheading al-Otaybi and sixty-two others the following month at eight locations around the country.

But this, as you no doubt know, was far from the end of Salafist militancy in Saudi Arabia. Much of its energies would be channeled into fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan during the 1980s, a cause the Saudi government heartily supported, providing them with funds and training and packing them off on their merry way. The cause of the Mujahideen Afghanistan was also helped by private donors, the more ardent of which even traveled to the country itself to see what could be done on the ground. Among these was the seventeenth son of fifty-two children born to a construction magnate named Mohammed bin Awad bin Laden, who had come from Yemen with practically nothing and become one of Saudi Arabia’s richest men by founding a construction company which undertook a large number of infrastructure projects for the monarchy. Mohammed, a close associate of Faysal in particular, was also deeply religious and before his death in a plane crash in 1967, imbued in his children a deep respect for the austerity and orthodoxy of Wahhabite traditions, despite the temptations offered by their enormous wealth. Here are some of his kids on a visit to Falun, Sweden in 1971, while one of the brothers conducted business with Volvo. See if you can spot the most famous child, Osama, aged sixteen.

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But this story will be the subject of a future post on foreign fighters in the Afghan war and the development of the Salafist movement generally in the 1980s and 1990s. Whether this will be the next post or the one after that I am not sure yet. I would like to set things up for a proper assessment of political Islam as it becomes a major geopolitical factor in the nineties. This involves taking a close look at places like Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, not to mention giving Yemen some detailed attention. In summary to this post though, we have seen in the 1960s and 1970s, the eclipse of the left-leaning, Nasserite vision in the Arab world by a conservative Islamic monarchist one, American-allied and fiercely anti-communist. Even in Egypt, as we saw in part two, the regime after Nasser’s death will begin to move away from the Soviet sphere of influence and towards the Americans, flirting with political Islam as it did so, although Sadat would pay dearly from his drawing back from this alliance when he perceived that it was a force that he might have trouble controlling.

If there was a winner of the ‘Arab Cold War’, it was the religious conservative establishment, personified by the Saudi monarchy, a triumph that seemed to be consolidated as the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc tottered and fell in the 1980s. But although they used religion to legitimise their rule, and the Americans were happy to see Islamic fundamentalism as a stick to beat the Russians with, they had opened up a Pandora’s box and unleashed a political ideology they would lose control of in the very moment when the ‘end of history‘ seemed to have arrived. Of course, it might also be argued that the west simply needed a new bogeyman once the communist one had been vanquished, and the Islamists fit the bill perfectly.

 

Featured image above: Nasser and Faisal of Saudi Arabia, 1960s.

 

 

P.S. Osama bin Laden is second from the right.

A contemporary history of the Muslim world, part 12: Saudi Arabia and the ‘Arab Cold War’

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 9: Pakistan to 1979

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Mohammed Ayub Khan

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

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Zulfikar Ali Bhutto

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

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

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

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Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

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

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Bangladesh liberation flag

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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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.

afghanistan

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:

Dany_Chamoun

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.

uno-ifil

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:
Sadr_pic_1

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.

aftermath

 

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