Anatol Lieven interviewed Commander Abdul Haq in Peshawar on October 11, 2001. On October 26, 2001, the Taliban announced Commander Haq was killed. According to Taliban officials, Haq was captured inside Afghanistan and executed less than a week after he slipped into the country in an effort to rally defections. Pakistani intelligence sources said they believe the Taliban's claims that Haq was killed are credible. The following introduction and interview was posted on October 15, 2001.
With U.S. backing, Commander Abdul Haq is now emerging as perhaps the most important leader of anti-Taliban opposition among Afghans of Pashtun nationality based in Pakistan. He comes from a leading family in Nangrahar Province (capital Jalalabad) between Kabul and the Pakistani border, and became a leading commander of anti-Soviet Mujahidin in the 1980s. His position in the 1980s was a centrist and moderately Islamist one, rejecting the leaders from the old royal elite, but also the Arab-backed radical Islamists. I interviewed him on three occasions in 1988-89, and remember his bitterness then at the way in which US and Arab money and arms were being used by Pakistani intelligence to strengthen the radicals, and the lack of US support for other Afghan groups. This legacy doubtless helps explain some of his present criticism of the US, which might seem curious in a man who is already being accused of being a US puppet by some of his rivals.
This constant denigration of each other by Afghan leaders is not new, and was a depressing and alarming feature of Peshawar in the 1980s, prefiguring the disastrous civil war between the mujahidin after the Soviets withdrew and the Communists fell. Thus while Abdul Haq was badly wounded by a Soviet mine inside Afghanistan, losing the lower part of one leg, this did not stop rival Mujahidin from accusing him of spending too much time in Pakistan and not enough in the field. Such attacks were increased by his claim to be "the commander-in-chief of Kabul Province", leading his enemies to dub him, "the Commander of Kabul Who Is Based in Peshawar." These sneers and jealousies have resurfaced in a big way as a result of increased US backing for Abdul Haq as an anti-Taliban leader in the wake of September 11th.
Abdul Haq gained credit among ordinary Afghans for refusing to participate in the corrupt, brutal, divided and widely-hated Mujahidin government" from 1992-96. Instead, he eventually withdrew to the Gulf, where he became a businessman. Unfortunately, two of his brothers played leading roles in that government and gained rather odious reputations, which have inevitably affected his own.
I interviewed Abdul Haq in an enormous one-story villa with a white wedding-cake exterior, off a main road. He moved in recently, but I couldn't discover whether this was his villa, or had been given to him by Pakistan as an HQ. Apart from his own bodyguards, there were a couple of Pakistani soldiers from the Frontier Corps on guard outside, but this looked to me rather inadequate to prevent a suicide bomber or a determined armed group smashing through the gates. The Pakistani army and police have been concentrating above all on preventing street demonstrations, and I can't help fearing that they may be in for some nasty surprises if the Taliban and its allies adopt different tactics.
In the way of so many grand Pakistani houses, Haq's camping has a certain resemblance to European noble mansions of the past in that it is designed essentially not for family life (which in any case takes place out of sight in the women's quarters) but for what in the Subcontinent is called Darshan, from the Hindustani word for "to see": the elaborate, continual ritualistic dance whereby the leader shows himself to his following, his followers come to show themselves off to the leader and to ask for favors, and his following can be displayed in as great numbers as possible to visitors, observers, allies and enemies. The result is huge, bare rooms whose furnishings and lighting are quite inadequate for the space. This creates a harsh impression, especially in contrast to some of the grand exteriors. The only note of softness, or aesthetic relief, especially in Afghanistan or the Frontier, is usually some fine carpets.
Aqbdul Haq is a tall, burly man verging on fatness, with a short gray beard. He looks more like a prosperous, genial and highly intelligent businessman than a commander, and is very different indeed to most of his peers. This interview was conducted in English. He speaks the language fluently—which may not be without relevance to his apparent choice by US officials as "their" leader.
“Probably the US has already made up its mind what to do, and any recommendations by me will be too late. However, I'd like to say that for me the question is not of a Northern Alliance or a southern alliance. What is important for me is that there is great trouble in my country and Afghan is killing Afghan.
Military action by itself in the present circumstances is only making things more difficult - especially if this war goes on a long time and many civilians are killed. And so far we know very little about how America will carry on this war, for example whether ground troops will go in, and if so what will be the consequences.
The best thing would be for the US to work for a united political solution involving all the Afghan groups. Otherwise, there will be an encouragement of deep divisions between different groups, backed by different countries and badly affecting the whole region.
I am not sure that the air campaign will work, at least as it is going on now. Before the attacks started, the Taliban's people were very nervous, and their support in the population was very low. Everyone was afraid. But once the bombing started, people began to say, "Well, it's not so bad. We have known worse. We can stand it. " This is something I have often seen in battle. The soldier runs away, terrified of something behind him - he doesn't know what, only that he is frightened. Then he realizes he is not in immediate danger. He stops and faces the enemy, and his courage comes back. So in these last weeks I have seen more support for the Taliban than before. We have been trying to create a revolt within the Taliban, but the US just hasn't given us the chance. They seem to have been determined to attack, even if someone came up with the best proposal in the world to avoid this. This has been a big setback for me.
So my view is that the US should keep up the pressure, above all with money, but should not bomb. Instead, what I would say to the US is that the top leadership of the Taliban is impossible to change by bombing or talking. So instead I have been talking with second-level Taliban commanders, ex-Mujahidin, and tribal elders. And what I am working for is that these should make a statement saying that the Taliban must go, and that anyone who rejects this can be fought. However, what everyone is telling me is that for this to happen, there must be some alternative structure for Taliban people to come over to. Most won't go over to the Northern Alliance, and the Alliance must not be allowed to take power, because they would take revenge on anyone who had ever fought them. Would drive people back to Taliban. And the Northern Alliance must not be allowed to launch attacks, at least against Kabul and to the east and south [i.e. into core Pashtun territories].
If this is followed, then, many Taliban people have told me, they will be prepared to abandon the Taliban.
I have said all this to US officials, ands so have others. But the problem is that it's impossible to find anyone beneath the level of the President who is willing to take responsibility for a decision. It's always, "That's not my department". We just don't know who is calling the shots.
The problem is that America is like an elephant. It is very difficult to get moving - it takes fifty men to push it. But when it starts moving, it can't be stopped, and tramples everything in its path.
Ideally, what should happen is this. We all together get rid of the Taliban, and in six months or so from now, the King goes back to Kabul, and calls a Loya Jirga [grand national assembly] from there. We cannot have a Loya Jirga outside Afghanistan - would be illegitimate. And inside Afghanistan, much better that should be in the capital. And someone, preferably some neutral force, has to provide peace and security in Kabul so that people in the Jirga can talk freely. This won't lead to the restoration of the Monarchy. Zahir Shah is just a father figure who will unite the country in preparation for the Loya Jirga.
But if the US keeps bombing and helps the Northern Alliance, then our work will be much more difficult. The problem is that the Americans cannot control Alliance commanders on the ground if they decide to attack Kabul or massacre people. How can they control them? By threatening to bomb them too?
The Taliban is mostly from Pashtun areas and Pashtuns are the key to getting rid of them.
I don't say this because I hate the other nationalities, not at all. I am a Pashtun, from a leading family, but I don't think that Pashtuns should go round slapping everyone and trying to take control. We say that a good Pashtun is one who respects himself and respects others. Above all, neither the Pashtuns nor anyone else can rule Afghanistan by the gun. We have seen too many attempts by different people to do this, and it always leads to more war.
Whenever the Taliban is weak, it turns to Pashtun nationalism to strengthen itself, and they do have a certain effect. But even after all this fighting, there is no real national hostility between people on the ground, and no calls for partitioning the country. Anyway, the Pashtuns don't stick together as a nation, not like the Hazaras - they are battered again and again, but still stick together. And for these reasons, and because of all the bitter lessons we have had, I hope that this time Afghans will work together better than in the past.
The anti-Taliban campaign needs two stages: a military strategy to split and remove the Taliban, which should be carried out by Afghans themselves, not the US; and a Loya Jirga to create a future government, including representatives of all ethnic groups and tribes.
The second stage is actually much more important than the first, and rather than war, we should be concentrating on avoiding bloodshed as far as possible. Because the Taliban are like a crystal ball. They are very hard, but brittle. If they are hit in the right way, they will shatter into a million pieces. But bombing the whole of Afghanistan is not the right way. Instead, we should undermine the central leadership, which is a very small and closed group and which is also the only thing which holds them all together. If they are destroyed, every Taliban fighter will pick up his gun and his blanket and disappear back home, and that will be the end of the Taliban.
So instead the US should keep up the pressure, but not bomb. But the US is trying to show its muscle, score a victory and scare everyone in the world. They don't care about the suffering of the Afghans or how many people we will lose. And we don't like that. Because Afghans are now being made to suffer for these Arab fanatics, but we all know who brought these Arabs to Afghanistan in the 1980s, armed them and gave them a base. It was the Americans and the CIA. And the Americans who did this all got medals and good careers, while all these years Afghans suffered from these Arabs and their allies. Now, when America is attacked, instead of punishing the Americans who did this, it punishes the Afghans.”