The Magazine

Remembering Abdul Haq

The Taliban executes an Afghan patriot

Nov 12, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 09 • By LISA SCHIFFREN
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ABDUL HAQ, the legendary Afghan resistance commander, was captured and hanged on October 25 by the Taliban while on a mission inside Afghanistan to contact local Taliban leaders who wished to defect. In the war against the Soviets, Abdul Haq had led large-scale operations in and around Kabul. In the past decade, he had been a tireless, if sometimes despairing, advocate of the return of King Zahir Shah and the installation of a democratic political system in Afghanistan.

Intelligent and articulate, Abdul Haq was a genuine political moderate. At 44, he was one of a tiny number of Afghans with the stature and ability to lead an effective opposition coalition against the Taliban and eventually to help constitute a successor government. With his death, a satisfactory resolution to the U.S. action in Afghanistan becomes even harder to imagine than it was before.

Abdul Haq was born Humayoun Arsala in 1957, one of six sons of a prominent member of the rural aristocracy in Eastern Afghanistan. His family were historic leaders of a major Pashtun tribe. His father was a senior engineer on the massive, U.S.-funded Helmand River irrigation project in the 1960s, a large American contribution to Afghan development in the Cold War years. These influences -- the traditional conservatism, independence, and noblesse oblige of the rural khanate, along with a scientific and Western orientation -- ran deep.

In 1973, the long-reigning, do-nothing King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his cousin Mohammed Daoud, with Soviet backing. Shortly thereafter, Abdul Haq left school to join the resistance forming in the villages, as the new regime attempted to enlarge the powers of the state by curtailing the powers of family and tribe. After a few brushes with the police, he landed in Kabul's Pul-i-Charki prison, where he was tortured and condemned to death. When the Afghan Communists took power in 1978, a bribe secured his release, and he left home for good, fleeing to Peshawar, Pakistan, where refugees were massing and the Pakistani military had begun training promising young men in insurgency and guerrilla-warfare tactics. It was then that he took the nom de guerre Abdul Haq, Servant of Justice.

When the Soviet army marched into Afghanistan in 1979, Haq went to war. He joined his brothers in the Hisb-i-Islami party, a centrist Islamic party affiliated with the moderate nationalists. His guerrilla operations, near Kabul, were known for their bravado and a level of organization unusual among the rather haphazard mujahedeen. His exploits included blowing up the largest Soviet munitions dump in the country, at Karga, with a handful of small rockets, and disabling the Sarobi Dam and power station for many months, depriving Kabul of electricity. Haq's intelligence network in Kabul circulated "Night Letters," to instruct and bolster the city's captive population.

In those years, Abdul Haq was feted as a freedom fighter by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and others in the West. Back then, the Afghans seemed noble for their swashbuckling resistance, at great personal cost, to the Soviet colossus.

In 1987, when he was 29, Haq lost his right foot to a landmine. In a war conducted largely on foot and horseback in some of the world's least negotiable terrain, this crippled his ability to lead guerrilla operations, though he initially resisted that conclusion. Eventually, he understood that his future lay in politics.

The U.S. government had never given much in the way of money or arms to Abdul Haq's party, and in the late '80s it stopped most of his funding. He was not, to be sure, the ideal agent of the CIA. He would not be bought, and the agency trusts only men who are on the payroll. He believed he was fighting for the interests of the Afghan people, and the CIA had contracted the war out to the Pakistani government, which wanted to support only commanders who could be controlled by Pakistani military intelligence, the ISI.

Haq, though a member of an Islamic party and personally conservative, was no fundamentalist. The CIA, with its blind reliance on the ISI, which is famously staffed by rabid Islamists, convinced itself and some at the State Department that only mujahedeen espousing the most virulent and repressive Islamic fundamentalism would successfully fight the Soviets, so that is where the agency directed arms, money, and training. And that is how Afghanistan came to be so congenial to Osama bin Laden.

Members of the CIA station in Pakistan took to disparaging Abdul Haq as "all talk, no action," "Hollywood Haq," and "the BBC commander," appellations disparaging the ability to persuade through speech, a hallmark of democratic politics -- as opposed to, say, the willingness to assassinate any potential rival, a quality possessed by Gulbaddin Hekmatyar, the Islamist mujahedeen leader they backed with U.S. dollars.