The Financial Express

The dead men of Afghanistan

The dead men of Afghanistan

This is a story of the men who have led, or tried to lead, Afghanistan in our times. It is a story which needs to be narrated in the light of the disaster, for so it is, that has befallen the country with its renewed seizure by the Taliban. It is a story which must begin with Amrullah Saleh, first vice president of Afghanistan under the now-fugitive president, Ashraf Ghani, for Saleh has been trying to build up resistance to the Taliban in the Panjshir valley in alliance with a prominent warlord in the region.

And the warlord is none other than the son of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the man who is today referred to in Afghan history as the Lion of Panjshir. Massoud was murdered by two al-Qaeda operatives posing as journalists two days before the twin-towers in New York were blown up. It was the end of a true Afghan patriot who had not only battled the Soviet army once the latter had occupied his country in 1979 but had then gone on to shape resistance to the Taliban and the terrorists, al-Qaeda, they hosted in the country between the late 1990s and the early 2000s.

Ahmad Shah Massoud's death was a blow to Afghanistan, for he was so much more than a soldier waging war for the restoration of his country. He was a profound thinker, a strategist who was always a source of worry for his friends in the Mujahideen. And the Mujahideen were the quarrelsome body of men who, supported by the Reagan administration in Washington and Pakistan under General Ziaul Haq and others, took power in Kabul and then busied themselves in trying to blast one another to smithereens. It was only a matter of time before the Mujahideen regime would be sent packing by the Taliban in 1996.

There are the other dead men of Afghanistan we remember as we witness the helpless thousands of Afghans struggling to get out of Kabul, out of the country, today. In April 1978, President Sardar Mohammad Daoud, who had seized power in 1973 from his cousin, the long-reigning King Zahir Shah then vacationing abroad, was brutally murdered along with the rest of his family by the communists, segmented into the Khalq and Parcham factions.

Not a sign of the family remains. No one was aware, till 2008, of what the killers, who commandeered Afghanistan after the assassinations, did to the corpses of the dead president and his family. Sixteen bodies and another twelve, identified to be of Daoud and his family, were discovered in two mass graves beside the Pul-i-Charki prison in Kabul in June 2008. In December 2008, the murdered leader was given a state funeral and his bones were respectfully laid to rest.

The murder of Sardar Mohammad Daoud was but the beginning of a cycle of intrigue and death inaugurated by those who took over the country after him. Nur Mohammad Taraki, the communist politician-cum-poet installed as president by his associates, was not fated to last long in power. Internal dissension among the communists, with Khalq and Parcham keeping wary eyes on each other, led to a fresh coup that brought the ruthless Hafizullah Amin to power. Amin's supporters felt little compunction in murdering their fellow communist Taraki in bed, forcing the life out of him through pressing a pillow over his face. Not many know where Taraki's remains were disposed of.

If Hafizullah Amin thought he would rule Afghanistan unchallenged, he would soon be proved wrong. Lurking in the shadows was Babrak Karmal, the Soviet stooge Leonind Brezhnev and company would soon make use of in their ambition of pulling Afghanistan into the USSR's sphere of influence. Amin's ambitions of being a member of the club of Yugoslavia's independent-minded Josip Broz Tito or Romania's Nicolae Ceausescu were nipped in the bud soon enough. Soviet tanks rolled into Kabul in December 1979, swiftly killed Amin and equally swiftly installed Babrak Karmal as Afghanistan's new leader. Again, no one has any clue about Amin's resting place. Those who seize power in medieval fashion have little time to accord their victims decent burials.

Karmal was not to last long either. His good fortune was that he did not die or was not murdered, a fate that was to befall his successor, the hapless Dr Najibullah. For close to four years after Mikhail Gorbachev took Soviet forces out of Afghanistan, Najibullah was an embattled president faced with the challenge of warding off the Mujahideen and also keep an eye on the little noticed Taliban, then in an embryonic stage in Kandahar. He lost power in 1992 as the Mujahideen marched into Kabul. Taking shelter under the United Nations in the city, Najibullah thought he was safe. The Taliban, once they overran the country in 1996, made sure that he was punished for his 'sins'. They murdered him and his brother in cold blood and had their corpses hung in public in Kabul.

Najibullah's death was a foretaste of the darkness that was to envelop Afghanistan under the Taliban. Today, with the militant group in control of the country again, there is little hope for the country. It is a broken, shaken and suffering Afghanistan once again. Much as the world excoriates Ashraf Ghani for scampering out of the country even as the Taliban entered Kabul, one does not quite know what those gun-toting purveyors of medieval ferocity would have done to him had they been able to lay their hands on him.

Hamid Karzai remains in Kabul. So does Abdallah Abdallah, the politician with the repetitive name. The Taliban have been speaking to them about the nature of the government they mean to have for Afghanistan. Beyond such images, though, comes the question: Will Karzai and Abdallah be permitted the luxury of being alive for much longer? 


Syed Badrul Ahsan is a senior journalist and writer.

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