Where friends turn foes and foes turn friends

At Moscow peace talks, Afghan leaders who fought each other and the Taliban found themselves on the same side

Vivek Katju March 11, 2019 19:12:23 IST
Where friends turn foes and foes turn friends
  • It was February 1997. A war was on not far from the Valley, the home and stronghold of Ahmad Shah Massoud

  • Just five months ago, unable to hold Kabul, Massoud had retreated into the folds and the safety of the Valley, to continue the fight against the Taliban

  • Hero of the Afghan jihad, Massoud had earned the respect of the Soviet army for his legendary skills in guerrilla warfare

It was February 1997. The Panjshir Valley was in the middle of yet another harsh winter. The mighty Hindu Kush was covered in snow. A war was on not far from the Valley, the home and stronghold of Ahmad Shah Massoud.

Just five months ago, unable to hold Kabul, Massoud had retreated into the folds and the safety of the Valley, to continue the fight against the Taliban, which was ruling three quarters of Afghanistan. And, I was there to talk to him about his hopes, concerns, goals and needs.

It was a quiet, but not a clandestine, visit. For Massoud was the defence minister in President Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government, the legitimate occupant of Afghanistan’s UN seat.

Where friends turn foes and foes turn friends

(From left) Vivek Katju, Dr Abdullah Abdullah, Abdul Rahman and Masood Khalili on the banks of the Panjshir River on February 7,1997

Hero of the Afghan jihad, Massoud had earned the respect of the Soviet army for his legendary skills in guerrilla warfare but he was more than a great military commander. He had a cultivated mind, steeped in poetry, aware of the currents of history.

I had met him earlier and would do so again but this trip was special — an occasion to underline India’s solidarity. Massoud was generous with his time, grateful that India stood by its friends in their hour of need.

I met his companions and friends too, including Dr Abdullah Abdullah, all mirroring their leader’s steely resolve to carry on the good fight against an obscurantist foe, sponsored by an avaricious and meddling neighbour.

The Moscow roundtable

Fast-forward 22 years. It was February again. As I saw pictures of a cross-section of Afghan leaders and Taliban representatives, old and new foes, old and new friends sitting at a round table in Moscow’s President Hotel’s glittering, chandeliered hall, I was reminded of that Panjshir visit and of the remarkable men I had met then and later, some of whom were around that table.

Almost all at the table had participated in the jihad against the then USSR, forcing Mikhail Gorbachev to cut his country’s losses and withdraw the Soviet army north of the Amu River 30 years ago, to the month.

The Soviet Union was consigned to history’s dustbin in 1991 and its constituent states are now independent countries. Russia was always the core of the Union and these Afghans, once the sworn enemy of the Bear, were back in its embrace, even if temporarily. The wheel of time constantly turns and springs surprises.

Among those whom I had met during my professional association with Afghanistan was Toran (captain) Ismail Khan from Herat. He led its garrison’s revolt against communist rule in March 1979, became a famous jihad commander and lost Herat to the Taliban in 1995. Khan rebuilt the province after the Taliban were ousted and is based in Herat, weakened but not out.

Then there was Yunus Qanooni from Panjshir. Articulate and a skilled negotiator, he was a leading aide of Massoud and is now a pillar of the Jamiat-e-Islami party. Mohammed Mohaqiq, the Hazara fighter from Mazar-e-Sharif who showed exemplary courage against the Taliban in Hazarajat, is now a power player in Kabul.Atta Muhammad Nur, the Tajik fighter from Balkh who spent early years in the jihad and also took on the Taliban in the province, went on to be governor of the province after Taliban were defeated. He wields considerable power and influence nationally.

Hamid Karzai, the Pashtun Popalzai chief from Kandahar, who went to college in Shimla, remained on the fringes of the jihad, was in Moscow as well. Adept at political manoeuvring, Karzai was the Afghan president from December 2001 to September 2014. He continues to be influential and many feel he’s not reconciled to losing power.

Hanif Atmar, a Laghman Pashtun, as a young man worked with the Afghan intelligence of the communist government against the jihadis. Sharp and a competent networker, the former national security adviser is a strong candidate for the presidency.

Shifting sands

Afghan politics is again on the cusp of change. Will it end 45 years of turmoil and bring peace? While that question awaits an answer, these men are dropping old allies and stitching new partnerships. They have done that in the past—such is the nature of politics and Afghanistan is no different.

Ethnic solidarity is critical to the country’s identity and acts as a coalescing factor for political groups but is no guarantor of individual loyalty. Thus, the non-Pashtuns —Mohaqiq, Qanooni and Atta, who were with Abdullah, who is for all purposes a Panjsheri — have now teamed up with Atmar in his quest for the presidency.

More dramatic was non- Pashtun leaders sharing the table and breaking bread with the Taliban led by Mohammad Abbas Stanikzai, who had put in his lot with the Taliban soon after its formation.

The Taliban are essentially a hard-line Sunni Deobandi Pashtun group. It was hard on all non-Pashtuns but particularly the Hazaras, who are Shia and the most disadvantaged ethnic minority. But here was Mohaqiq supping with Stanikzai and his colleagues. Stanikzai is a graduate of the Indian Military Academy, Dehradun and he was sent for training during the communist government period!

The non-Taliban participants had no hesitation in meeting the group that refused to interact with the Afghan government. The Moscow meeting illustrated the government losing ground. The Russians left it out in the cold, pandering to the Taliban. The Americans are doing the same, as they go ahead with their Taliban engagement.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the leader of the American negotiating team, must be keeping Ghani and Abdullah in the loop but a meal is being cooked and they will have to eat whatever is dished out.
President Donald Trump is determined to end the Afghan war and Khalilzad is in a rush to seal an agreement with the Taliban. His wants to ensure that the country does not become a base for an al-Qaeda like outfit again, an assurance the Taliban is believed to have given him.

On its part, the Taliban want to be back in power, with as little dilution in their theological and political positions as possible. The country though, has changed and a new generation of Afghans may no longer be willing to accept its rigid ways. In this flux, my old Afghan friends will have to navigate their political and personal lives. I can only pray that peace returns and guns stop booming so the Hindu Kush knows the calm again.

(The writer is a retired Indian Foreign Service officer)

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