Military Adventurers and Modern History, Issue One.
31 October 2019.
Ibrahim Moiz, Copyright
Since many people are moved to study and learn history through learning the deeds and careers of wild and whacky military adventurers, I have decided to do a monthly “issue” of contemporary or near-contemporary military leaders and adventurers who played a role in modern history. It is my hope that inshaAllah this would lead folks to study the broader contexts and events surrounding these characters, whom I have selected not only for their weird and wonderful exploits but also because their lives say something about the society in which they live and its politics. I shall do five characters every month; by no means are they necessarily admirable or loathsome individuals, but I have picked them because they happened to participate in key historical events and their lives tell us summat about their society and period.
Zahirul-Islam Abbasi. Pakistan. The Pakistani military establishment, even before the “Islamization” surge of the 1980s, liked to see itself as a vanguard of Muslim interests in the region. Pakistani nationalism, coloured as it was by the sense of difference from pagan majoritarianism in India and by the pan-Islamic discourse of Muhammad Iqbal and other late-colonial-period thinkers, lent itself more easily to Islamism – usually Islamism of a more statist type – than did the nationalism of most surrounding countries, and Islam’s natural opposition to ethnocentrism tallied neatly with the anti-ethnonationalist tendencies prevalent in West Pakistan after its violent split with Bangladesh. This process had begun as early as the 1970s, but it was during the military regime of the 1980s that it kicked into overdrive. Major-General Zahirul-Islam Abbasi, a typical product of this period, epitomized both the most ambitious breed of officer during this period as well as the risks involved to the Pakistani central establishment.
By all accounts an intelligent and personable officer, Abbasi was a fervent believer in the military’s alliance with various Islamist groups and thus a natural fit for the army’s 1980s policies. As attache to the Pakistani embassy in India, he was involved in helping the insurgency in Kashmir and Punjab and made no secret of his hostility to New Delhi. The death of Pakistan’s dictator Mohammad Ziaul-Haq and the election of the more dovish Benazir Bhutto signalled a more placatory policy on this front, and one of Bhutto’s first moves was to dismiss Abbasi.
The army, which resented Bhutto’s attempts to control its projects, nonetheless shifted Abbasi to another well-suited role: the northeastern command on the India-Pakistan border in the Himalayan mountains, where an on-off conflict had brewed since the mid-1980s over the flexible border in the freezing heights. The conflict, whose difficulty has often been used as a metaphor for the intractability of India-Pakistan hostility, usually involved skirmishes between small units of troops over outposts in the mountains, and the prospect of a decisive outcome was unlikely, given that strategic advances to complement tactical assaults could be as glacial as the environment in which they were undertaken. Nonetheless, in summer 1992 Abbasi and the field commander, Masood Anwari, planned an ambitious assault. When it backfired and failed, with Anwari killed in the crossfire, Abbasi was scapegoated and sacked.
The most notable part of Abbasi’s career, however, came in the mid-1990s. Like most officers of his generation, he nursed a special and not unfounded antipathy for Benazir Bhutto, which he shared with the Islamist militant groups who saw Bhutto as undermining their jihad against India in addition to her general misrule. It was with the leader of one such group, the Harkatul-Jihad leader Saifullah Akhtar, that Abbasi allegedly planned a coup against Bhutto in October 1995. The exact events are unclear, and for good reason: Akhtar, a shadowy character who had cut his teeth in the anti-Soviet war at Afghanistan and was thereafter deeply involved with the Kashmiri insurgency, was close to not only the Islamic preachers – Rafi Usmani, Pakistan’s onetime mufti, had fulsomely lionized him in a book about Afghanistan published in the early 1990s – but also to Pakistani military intelligence. He was thereafter dubiously reported to be an advisor to the Taliban emirate in Afghanistan. Yet equally, he was virtually unknown to leading members of both Pakistan’s army and the Taliban; in his memoirs, Taliban leader Abdul-Salam Zaeef describes the bafflement he shared with Pakistani interior minister Moinuddin Haider, another army officer, over Akhtar’s activity.
At any rate, in October 1995 Ali Kuli, then the army’s ground commander, arrested both Abbasi and Akhtar on charges of having plotted a mutiny against Benazir in order to set up an Islamist emirate in Pakistan; Abbasi had allegedly been drawn in by younger officers linked to Akhtar. Abbasi denied the charges, and continued to do so until his death in 2009, but unexpectedly Akhtar turned informer and confirmed the charges. Abbasi’s close counterpart, the popular and pietistic Rawalpindi corps commander Ghulam Malik, was also suspected but acquitted.
Were Abbasi’s denials credible? Certainly even the army, no friend of Benazir’s, stuck to the story that he had plotted a coup, which to their chagrin involved not only ousting the prime minister but the army command. On the other hand, Akhtar’s closeness to military intelligence – he continued to remain active for years afterward, and was most recently reported killed in Afghanistan fighting with the Taliban insurgency in 2017 – suggests a possible setup. So does the fact that future military dictator Pervez Musharraf released Abbasi in 2002, despite having purged other Islamist officers of dubious loyalty. At any rate, Abbasi founded a minor Islamist party, which had little traction, and passed away some years later. His life and career illustrated the vicissitudes of the Pakistani army’s relationship with Islamist militancy and with the People’s Party for whom it retained, like Abbasi, a supreme distaste.
Ali Jaifi. Yemen. Yemen is among the hardest states in which to build a centralized polity and its instruments, and its armed forces are no exception. Not only was the country split before 1990 – into a North firstly ruled by the Zaidi imamate and then by a largely military-dominated republic, and a South firstly ruled by the British Empire and its vassals and then by a Marxist dictatorship – but state institutions in both divided Yemens and unified Yemen have reflected to reflect the dominant sociopolitical dynamics of the country rather than circumvent them. Especially in northern Yemen, where clans play a major role, clan politics overlapped with and often led factional politics. Modern Yemen’s longest-serving ruler, Ali Saleh, applied patrimonialism on clan and other bases in both the civil government and the army from which he hailed. Rivals would often complain that his Yemen was a Hashidi state, dominated by the clan confederation to which he belonged. A typical army officer in such a state was Major-General Ali Ali Muhammad Jaifi, who played a complex role in modern Yemeni history that only makes sense when considering his extra-official loyalty to Saleh’s network.
In summer 1978, Ali Saleh and his long-serving right-hand man Ali Muhsin were only mid-ranked army officers, both belonging to the fairly minor Sanhani section of the Hashidi confederation. In the tensions between North and South Yemen, both governments were hit by assassinations and instability during the late 1970s that require a separate study unto themselves. Saleh, who as commander of the important Taiz front had distinguished himself in fighting against South-backed insurgents, spied his opportunity and in league with Ali Muhsin seized power. Few expected him to survive for long, but he lasted over thirty years by masterfully skirting the divides in Yemeni politics and manipulating them to his own ends.
While the two Alis were united, the army was united. But it fundamentally contained factions whose loyalty lay with separate parts of the ruling regime; the Yemeni army comprised what can almost be considered separate clans. Ali Saleh, leading the ruling Shaabi party, filled the praetorian guard and the security forces with his relatives, most notably his son Ahmed. Ali Muhsin, who was close to the Islah party and various independent Salafis, dominated the cavalry forces. Ali Jaifi, with whom our study deals, belonged to the former camp, and rose to command the praetorian forces’ crack mountain infantry – often colloquially called the Giants.
In this position, Jaifi played key roles in several seminal episodes of Yemeni history. The unhappy union between North and South Yemen collapsed in 1994, just four years in; again, army composition and control was one flashpoint issue. While Ali Muhsin’s forces overran southern units in northern Yemen, Jaifi commanded the praetorian northerners outside the enemy capital Aden. The fact that many important southerners – such as Abdrabbuh Hadi, who would later succeed Saleh in 2012 – sided with Saleh in this war made Sanaa’s task easier, and probably played a decisive role in the war’s outcome. Jaifi captained the gaggle of forces – both professional soldiers and various Islamist mercenaries who considered the Aden regime communists and had been duly recruited by Ali Muhsin – that overran Aden loyalists outside the city, paving the way for its conquest and the war’s decisive outcome as Yemen was reunified under Saleh’s grasp.
Over a decade later, Jaifi played a major role in the next major crisis that confronted Saleh: the Houthi revolt in northern Yemen. Largely comprising Zaidi revivalists and disenfranchised sayeds, the Houthis withstood several attempts, mainly by Ali Muhsin and his cavaliers in league with loyalist clan militias, to oust them from the mountainous northlands. After several campaigns and shorter-lived ceasefires, the regime mounted a major assault in spring 2007. This, too, soon went south, and soon Jaifi’s forces – loyal, unlike most of the forces in the north, to the dictator’s son Ahmed Saleh – arrived on the scene. They managed the only progress for Sanaa in the campaign, when they captured the Razih mountains. Qatari-brokered negotiations followed; Saleh was not a vindictive negotiator, and offered that the Houthi leaders in the region – Abdul-Malik Houthi, his uncle Abdul-Karim Amiruddin, and Abdullah Aida – would be escorted into Qatari exile by Jaifi. Apparently mistrustful, the Houthis stalled and ultimately these talks collapsed.
In 2009, Jaifi and Ali Muhsin’s local lieutenant Faisal Rajab – a southerner with whom Jaifi had collaborated in the 1994 war – again joined forces to fight the Houthis in the strategic Harf district that bestrode the road from Sanaa to the northern Houthi territory. Along with Thabit Jawas, another of Ali Muhsin’s lieutenants who had infamously killed the Houthi founder Husain Houthi in 2004, they virulently opposed any negotiations with the Houthis they claimed could not be trusted, and promised to relent only when Abdul-Malik Houthi’s head was recovered.
Yet despite this apparently blood-baked cooperation, the coalition between Alis Saleh and Muhsin had become increasingly fragile by this point. Ali Muhsin, who had reportedly supported Saleh for thirty years on the condition that he succeed his comrade as Yemeni ruler, was alarmed at Saleh’s attempts to groom his son Ahmed as his successor, and it was strongly suspected that the wily Saleh had tried to eliminate him using American-Saudi airstrikes. Muhsin and his Islah bloc – then led by the powerful Hashidi chieftains in the Ahmar family – therefore separately explored negotiations with the Houthis, just as did the Salehs. In fact, when protests rocked the regime in 2011, Muhsin’s lieutenant in the north, Zahiri Shaddadi, agreed a deal with Houthi military commander Abdullah Hakim that effectively put the northern Saadah Province under Houthi control – a direct reversal of Muhsin’s longstanding enmity with the Houthis.
But if Muhsin was treacherous, Saleh proved even more so. Having been unceremoniously ousted into exile by 2012 and replaced by Hadi, whose cabinet heavily comprised Islah members, the former dictator secretly reached out to the Houthis, no later than 2013. Hadi, a neutral actor, was nonetheless compelled by Saleh’s overthrow and Islah’s timely defection to favour the Islah bloc, which steadily antagonized Saleh’s former network. The Houthis capitalized on the increasing unpopularity of the regime to mount a sudden offensive in summer 2014, which overran Muhsin’s cavaliers in the north and put them within sight of Sanaa.
By this point, Hadi had unwisely entrusted the Yemeni capital’s security to Jaifi, perhaps expecting that Jaifi’s long record against the Houthis would preclude any cooperation. This proved wrong, for Jaifi’s loyalty to the Salehs outstripped his distaste for the Houthis, and in September 2014 he opened the capital’s gates to his former enemies – whose first act was to hunt down Ali Muhsin, who fled into exile. By spring 2015, the Houthis had seized control of most of Yemen, prompting a Saudi bombardment in support of Hadi, who was now based at Aden. Among the bombardment’s most notable victims was Ali Jaifi, who was one of several dozen officers killed in an airstrike on the Sanaa interior minister Jalal Ruwaishan’s father’s funeral.
Jaifi’s decisive tilt in the Houthis’ favour is especially striking if we look at his long hardline record against them. But it makes sense when considering the power politics that involved Saleh’s network on one side, Muhsin’s network on the other, and the Houthis on the third. While Alis Saleh and Muhsin were joined at the hip against the Houthis, Jaifi fought the Houthis; when Saleh teamed up with the Houthis, Jaifi welcomed them to Sanaa. Jaifi’s eventful career illustrate richly the unlikely vicissitudes of power politics in such a fragmented arena.
Muhammad Shikara. Iraq. The 2003 invasion of Iraq by the Atlantic powers saw a large, multipronged insurgency that at one stage badly threatened both the unpopular war, its clientele, and the war-makers back home. Ultimately, however, the insurgency sidled into a mixture of internecine bloodletting and sectarian warfare, in which its dominant trends were eventually polarized into several mutually hostile groups mostly among the Sunni Arab populace. The most repugnant and eventually dominant of these trends was, of course, the self-styled “Islamic State” or Daaish, but this had originally been a small and marginal player whose successes largely owed to the removal of its competitors, whether elimination or cooption, by the American counterinsurgency. But they also owed to the rash indulgence of Daaish extremism by originally independent militia leaders. One such commander was Abu Talha Muhammad Khalaf Shikara Jubouri, who began his career an independent adventurer in Mosul and ended it a Daaish vassal.
Like the other major commander in the early insurgency – Omar Hadid in Falluja – Shikara had been an outlaw, skirting with the bounds of Baathist legality and adopting the Salafi ideology prior to the 2003 invasion. Unlike Hadid, however, he had also been an army officer and his speciality had been smuggling in northern Iraq, a vocation that involved dealings with what by the 1990s was the practically autonomous Kurdish “Bashur” region of northern Iraq. At the time, this region, having already survived an internecine war between its peshmerga factions, was caught in a small but not-insignificant insurgency, by a conglomeration of mainly Salafi Islamist Kurds called Ansarul-Islam.
Contrary to considerable propaganda at the time, Ansarul-Islam was not an agent of the Baathist regime – indeed it recruited primarily among Kurds in the Halabja region, which had been so devastated by the same regime – but it did maintain links with various private actors in Iraq and Iran. Ansarul-Islam was never especially large – it barely exceeded a thousand members – but its adoption of the same mountain warfare that had made the peshmerga so effective against the Iraqi army made it a persistent headache for the peshmerga regime, bottled in the Zagros Mountains and displaying a particular panache for political assassinations. In lobbying for the Atlantic invasion, peshmerga leaders often took liberties to emphasize that Ansarul-Islam, with its very real links to Usama bin-Ladin – an early funder – and its fictitious links to Saddam Hussein, was a link between these two separate actors. What was true was that private Arab actors, among whom Shikara may well have ranked, did smuggle funds and weaponry to Ansarul-Islam.
Ansarul-Islam also unwisely proved a shortlived conduit for Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian founder of what would later become Daaish. At the time leading a small group of fanatics, he arrived in Iraq from Afghanistan – apparently via Iran, whose authorities were curiously laissez-faire about the matter – in 2002, and though their especial extremism irked Ansarul-Islam it proved the first vehicle for their entry to Iraq. Also like Ansarul-Islam, Zarqawi was touted as a case study of Baath links with bin-Ladin’s Qaeda network, though in fact he had no discernible links to the former and had fallen out with the latter.
When the United States invaded Iraq, Ansarul-Islam was effectively destroyed as a standing force, and its officers dispersed into Arab-majority Iraq to set up an insurgency. The much larger Ansarul-Sunnah group was formed in 2003, comprising both Arabs and Kurds of a mostly Salafi variety. Until at least 2005 it was by some distance the largest and deadliest single insurgent force in Iraq, and Shikara became its commander in Mosul. Though Mosul had fallen almost without a fight, polarization between its Arab and Kurdish inhabitants quickly deepened. David Petraeus – the future American commander in Iraq and later spymaster, then the commander for this region – was keen not to alienate the Arabs entirely in the face of peshmerga domination at the time, and so approved the appointment of Arab army officer Muhammad Barhawi as sheriff.
Apparently with Barhawi’s tacit approval, Shikara spent 2003-04 building up a formidable insurgent network in Mosul. It far outweighed the original Daaish network led by Zarqawi, which made a name largely through a series of spectacular suicide attacks but was insignificant in both size and territorial control. However, in 2004 Zarqawi arrived in Mosul where he appears to have flipped Shikara, and a few others from the early Ansarul-Sunnah command, to his network. Unlike Falluja – whose commander Hadid was falsely identified as a Zarqawi lieutenant in much American propaganda – Zarqawi found a useful base in Mosul under Shikara’s approving eye. Well before any military assault, Zarqawi and his lieutenants had begun to conduct eye-catching atrocities – beheading prisoners and the like – that would soon typify Daaish.
Having stormed but then withdrawn from Falluja in spring 2004, the American marines mounted another assault in the autumn. This coincided with an insurgent push in Samarra – led by various localized leaders, among whom another Daaish vassal Haitham Shaker would soon gain notoriety – and Shikara also sprang. Barhawi’s security forces disappeared overnight as large parts of the city came under insurgent control. The Americans, allied with a newly formed gendarme under another former army officer Adnan Thabit, had considerable difficulty in wresting these areas back over winter 2004-05. But having reestablished territorial control, they closed a dragnet around Shikara, capturing lieutenant after lieutenant until he himself was nabbed in summer 2005, to be executed seven years later.
Perhaps the earliest insurgent commander of any note who defected to Daaish, Shikara’s fealty to indulgence of Zarqawi at a critical moment in the insurgency proved ultimately fatal for the insurgency. At the time he was under no compunction by the weak Daaish leader, and it was conversely his protection that enabled Zarqawi to emerge. The sadism and sectarianism that Zarqawi displayed would soon turn what had originally been a typical insurgency into a full-blown sectarian war, whose effects have ravaged Iraq. Even among the insurgents, Ansarul-Sunnah was an early casualty of its Daaish competitor; by the late 2000s, it was vastly shrunken and scattered, broken by both the American counterinsurgency and the defection of its early commanders. Ultimately, Shikara bears considerable responsibility for indulging Zarqawi’s Mosul presence a full decade before a hugely expanded Daaish, now a hegemon in the insurgency, stormed the city and turned it into a capital for its millennarian state.
Abdul-Qayum Zakir. Afghanistan. One profoundly harmful disadvantage for successive invasions of Afghanistan has been the technologically superior invader’s ignorance about localized contexts, dynamics, and actors. A particularly striking example emerges in the career of Taliban military commander Hafiz Mulla Abdul-Qayum Abdullah Zakir Alizai, who captained Taliban forces against the United States-led Nato expedition only years after having been imprisoned by the same apparently unwitting enemy.
Helmand, where Zakir grew up, was something of a backwater during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s, with only a couple of major campaigns. By contrast, it has been the hotspot of the Nato-led occupation in the 2000s and 2010s, reflecting the Taliban organization’s strong roots in the area. In the 1980s, the single most powerful commander in Helmand was Nasim Akhundzada, a roving adventurer as infamous for his involvement in narcotics as he was for his military exploits against the Soviets, which enabled him to build a large network in the south that was later inherited by his nephew, Sher Akhundzada.
Zakir and his elder brother Abdul-Salam Abid came from the same Alizai clan as the Akhundzadas and apparently went to school with Sher. Though Abid did participate in the 1980s insurgency, Zakir was too young and really made his name in the 1990s conflict, where he emerged as a daring commander. In 1994-95, Sher’s uncle and Nasim’s brother Abdul-Ghaffar Akhundzada served as Helmand “governor”, an unsteady post that mainly involved mediating among various localized militias. The early Taliban movement were aware of both Abdul-Ghaffar and his family’s longstanding rival, Abdul-Wahid Baghrani, who had been a similarly prominent commander in northern Helmand; in fact, both had been considered for the movement’s top spot in its early days. But when Taliban forces fresh from Kandahar’s takeover arrived in Helmand to discuss the province’s merger into their fledgling emirate, they met Abdul-Wahid, then commandant at Garrashk town, who scuppered their negotiations with Abdul-Ghaffar and promptly sided with them as they overran both Abdul-Ghaffar and his counterparts.
At this point, Zakir and Abid had been working in the Garrashk garrison, and promptly joined the Taliban emirate. During its longrunning war in the northlands against a coalition comprising Ahmadshah Masoud’s Panjsheri Nazar, Abdul-Karim Khalili’s Hazara Wahdat, and Abdul-Rashid Dostum’s Uzbek Junbish forces, the Taliban emirate relied increasingly on a brigade recruited largely from Helmand, at whose helm it put Zakir. His direct superior was another Alizai commander from northern Helmand, Abdul-Rauf Khadim, who served as Kabul corps commander and directed various units’ movement. Zakir soon distinguished himself as a lively, capable officer with a penchant for maneouvring between enemy lines as well as enforcing strict discipline. He mainly fought at northernmost Afghanistan’s Khawaja Ghar front, which assumed increased importance in the late 1990s when it became the only airfield available to Masoud’s forces. By this time the emirate had begun to regulate the employment of foreign mercenaries – largely Arabs, Pakistanis, and Uzbeks – who had joined its ranks more chaotically in 1998, but were from 1999 placed under stricter control. Zakir, as a rare Arabophone Afghan officer, was among the few Taliban commanders who dealt with them regularly.
When the United States invaded Afghanistan in October 2001, the Taliban military commanders in the northlands – Fazil Mazlumyar, Abdul-Ghani Baradar, and Daddullah Lang – directed their forces to converge in the relatively safe northeast city Kunduz, which had been their main base in the north. These forces included Zakir and Khadim, who arrived in Kunduz before it was placed under a punishing siege – attacked by airstrikes, by Junbish from the west, Wahdat from the south, and Nazar from the east. Eventually Mazlumyar reached a deal with Dostum whereby the garrison would evacuate in return for safe passage and amnesty. The Arabophone officer Zakir was instructed to give the orders to the foreign mercenaries, which must have been a bitter pill. It proved bitterer when Dostum promptly went back on his word after the surrender; Mazlumyar, Zakir, Khadim, and Taliban governor-general Nurullah Nuri were promptly given to American custody and sent off to the Guantanamo prison in Cuba. Baradar and Daddullah, wisely choosing not to trust the offer, escaped this fate, but they were luckier than many hundreds of fighters, both Taliban and mercenary, who were summarily butchered by Junbish forces. The mercenaries, whose Uzbekistani leader Jumaboi Qosimov fell in battle, were almost entirely wiped out.
Zakir’s stay and release from Guantanamo epitomize the bizarre lack of intelligence exploitation among their captors. Documents show that Guantanamo garrison was perfectly aware that a certain “Mulla Thakir” or “Mulla Dhakir” had been among the mercenaries’ Taliban liaisons. Yet they failed to link this commander to Zakir, who along with Khadim feigned ignorance and pretended to be simple peasants forcibly conscripted as foot soldiers. The more senior commanders Mazlumyar and Nuri, whose identities their captors knew and would only release in a prisoner swap in 2014, played along with the scheme. The pair were by 2007 released into the Afghan government’s custody.
What is especially baffling is that while the Americans seemed genuinely ignorant about their captives, their Afghan clientele were not fooled. No less a figure than Hamid Karzai himself appears to have been aware of their actual names and roles. It was an equally unlikely blunder on his part that led to their release. In December 2007, British forces attacked northern Helmand, where Taliban forces including Zakir’s elder brother Abdul-Salam Abid had occupied Musa Qila and surrounded several other towns. Sher Akhundzada, Zakir’s former schoolmate and a friend of Karzai, had formerly served as Helmand governor, but he was sacked in 2005 and retaliated by secretly helping parts of the insurgency, which probably included Zakir’s brother Abid.
Whether the wily Karzai knew this or not is uncertain, but he proceeded to fool himself. A minor Taliban member, one Mulla Abdul-Salam – who came from the same Alizai clan as Abid, Zakir, and Khadim – volunteered to switch sides and serve as the government’s vassal in Musa Qilaa. Karzai, mistaking him for his namesake Zakir’s brother Abid, promptly agreed and in a gesture of good will released both Zakir and Khadim. The Afghan ruler may have been aware of his captives’ actual names, but was less aware of who he was negotiating with in the battlefield. Of course, the Taliban defector was not Abid, and so the deal backfired: Zakir and Khadim returned to the Taliban ranks to an uproarious reception, their reputations enhanced by their ordeal in American custody. The withdrawal of a disgruntled militia commander, Abdul-Rahman Jan, from Marja in July 2008 enabled Zakir to get closer to the provincial capital Lashkargah, which he attacked in October 2008. Though the attack was beaten off, it did his reputation no harm. By 2009, Zakir and Khadim had assumed major command roles in Helmand and Uruzgan respectively.
Zakir, with Abid as his second-in-command, captained Taliban forces in northern Helmand at the outset of the 2009-10 campaign; their counterpart Naeem Baraikh did the same in southern Helmand. But Zakir quickly developed a rivalry with Akhtar Mansur, a veteran Taliban member from the Ishaqzai clan who had been active in Kandahar but was attempting to expand his influence in Helmand. The hardnosed, abrasive Zakir disliked the sly, calculating Akhtar, and when the Taliban’s effective leader Baradar was imprisoned in 2010 – just prior to an intensified Nato campaign in the south – the pair competed to replace him. It took patient mediation by Hasan Rahmani, another veteran Taliban leader, to arrange a compromise where Zakir took over the military command and Akhtar the political command, but in practice the pair operated parallel to each other.
Zakir and Naeem bore the brunt of the counterinsurgency campaign at Helmand in the early 2010s, an extraordinarily tough period where perhaps as many as a fifth of Taliban fighters in the region were slain; they included Zakir’s brother Abdul-Salam Abid. Zakir’s mood was not helped by reports of treachery in the Taliban command; he sacked, and originally threatened to execute, his second-in-command on the military council, Ismail Nasir, but settled with sidelining him. Ismail’s replacement was Zakir’s longstanding collaborator Abdul-Rauf Khadim, but he soon resigned and left the Taliban movement outright; he would later emerge as Daaish’s first vassal in the region.
This was complicated by the rivalry between Akhtar and Zakir; at least once Akhtar tried to sideline Zakir to a junior post, which the military commander refused. Akhtar promoted Sadar Ibrahim, another veteran commander with a strikingly similar background and career to Zakir, but who was staidly loyal to Akhtar, to Zakir’s second-in-command; in 2014, Akhtar unceremoniously sacked Zakir, officially for “health reasons”. Zakir must have been tempted to mutiny, not least because Khadim had returned from Iraq and was trying to attract defectors to Daaish. Zakir and Naeem, however, steadfastly opposed Khadim, and even independently tried to attract Iranian support against Khadim, who was eventually killed by an American airstrike in February 2015.
At length, Zakir decided not to turn on Akhtar, largely because another senior military leader Matiullah Nanai tirelessly tried to reconcile the pair. In December 2014 – partly, apparently, under Pakistan pressure – Zakir was briefly promoted to return to his former role as military commander, replacing the less assertive Sadar, and he would play a major role in the 2015 summer campaign. But this fragile reconciliation, too, threatened to implode that summer, when Kabul announced that Taliban emir Umar Mujahid, on whose behalf Akhtar had been claiming to act for years, had expired perhaps as early as 2013. Akhtar quickly gerrymandered his election to replace Umar. Zakir, as well as other senior Taliban members, were indignant and originally tried to promote Umar’s son Yaqub Mujahid and brother Abdul-Mannan Umari as alternatives; calling another election, Zakir threw his support behind Yaqub. But by the summer’s end Akhtar had persuaded the pair to support him and Zakir subsided sullenly, by now entirely sidelined but abstaining from joining the mutiny against Akhtar by other marginal Taliban fronts. Zakir’s marginalization was complete when Akhtar persuaded Iran to shift its minor support for Zakir onto him instead in 2016, and today the former military commander remains a politically marginal figure without any formal command in the insurgency.
Abdul-Qayum Zakir’s career, from his unlikely escape and survival to his eventual downfall in the power struggle with Akhtar, illustrates the complex dynamics of politics at the ground level in Afghanistan. The hardened commander – who liaised with foreign mercenaries and escaped American custody, who both contested Akhtar Mansur but abstained from violent confrontation with him – both benefited from and eventually fell prey to the vicissitudes of Helmand politics.
Jaga Ziyoev. Tajikistan. The 1990s civil war in post-Soviet Tajikistan and the emergent regime are largely obscure abroad, save as part of metanarratives about extremist Islamism and nomenklatura dictatorship. Both categories were flirted with, but ultimately rejected, in the colourful career of Jaga Mirzohuja Ziyoev, a commander and onetime minister who brushed shoulders with Islamist militants yet decisively assisted the nomenklatura regime before it ultimately consumed him.
Nearly uniquely in post-Soviet Central Asian republics, Tajikistan’s transition to official independence underwent a trial by fire. Increasingly bitter disputes between the ancien regime’s nomenklatura – the bureaucrats and officials who served the Soviet Union – and an opposition coalition combining liberals, Islamists, regionalists, and others by 1992 descended into a chaotic civil war that soon took on regionalist colours and was influenced by interactions with Afghanistan, Iran, Uzbekistan, and a kingmaking Russian force. The emergent winner was Emomali Rahmonov, a hitherto obscure official who secured power by playing off different factions off one another with a cynicism and skill unmatched among other nomenklatura veterans.
The Tajikistani opposition had contained many different strands, but several factors influenced the preeminence of the Islamist camp among them. Not only was Islam, in its broadest sense, the major factor on which virtually all the anticommunist forces could agree, but neighbouring Afghanistan’s successful repulsion of the Soviet Union gave both moral and material encouragement. In the moral sense, Islamists in Afghanistan – particularly the dashing Tajik leader Ahmadshah Masoud – provided a model of apparent success; in the material sense, both Masoud and his archrival Gulbadin Hikmatyar, as well as other smaller actors, encouraged and armed the Tajik opposition, while the Russian garrison served as the main foreign guarantor of the regime.
Both regime and opposition soon fragmented badly, however, and this interplayed with events in neighbouring Uzbekistan, ruled with a near-totalitarian iron fist by the fearsome nomenklatura veteran Islam Karimov. Tashkent helped primarily Uzbek-ethnic opponents of both the regime and the opposition. Meanwhile, Karimov’s opponents – primarily the hardline Islamists led by Tohirjann Yuldashev and Jumaboi Qosimov – escaped into Tajikistan and joined the opposition; Jaga Ziyoev, a formidable “vahobbi” commander in southern Tajikistan, was their main patron. The term “vahobbi” in post-Soviet states, based off the term “Wahhabi”, had little to do with the Arabian movement, but was rather a derogatory term for Islamists or Islamic revivalists outside official circles.
By the middle 1990s when Emomali took over, the conflict was extremely fragmented along largely regional lines; at the risk of overgeneralization, the regime was based on the western Kulobi networks; its Islamist opponents were largely confined to the south; the eastern Pamiri region was held by vaguely pro-opposition Aghakhanis; and the northern region held an opposition from the former elite that was partly backed by Uzbekistan. Emomali solved his conundrum by playing different actors off each other. He was helped by the fact that, despite its toleration of anti-Uzbekistan militants, Russia viewed the regime as a bulwark against Islamist expansionism. In addition Masoud, the primary Afghan model for the Islamists, was forced by his war with the Taliban emirate to come to terms with the Russian-led security architecture in the region; as a first step, Masoud advised a reconciliation with Emomali in summer 1997, signed by Emomali and Islamist leader Abdullo Nuri at Moscow. While some Tajikistani Islamists kept links open with the Taliban emirate as a result, on the whole they accepted Masoud’s advice. Having thus reconciled most of the Islamist opposition, Emomali was able to crush malcontents from other groups – chiefly the Uzbekistan-backed hardliners – before turning on the Islamists themselves.
Jaga Ziyoev played a key role in these events. Nicknamed after the famous Punjabi hero Maula Jutt or Jaga Jutt – introduced to Central Asia by Indian films in thee Soviet period – he had been a major commander who translated his command on the Afghan border to a prime piece of the pie. Although –perhaps because – he patronized the major anti-Tashkent Islamists Jumaboi and Yuldashev, he was seen as a commander with whom the regime could deal. He agreed to the 1997 Moscow Accord, in return for the post of army minister; this was too much for Emomali, who instead gave him the role of border security, which gave him a prize official role to add to his command of the Afghanistan-Tajikistan border.
The deal between Dushanbe and the opposition rankled the separate opposition, primarily linked to Soviet-period interests and backed by Uzbekistan, in northern Tajikistan. Breaking with the official Russian position – which appears to have favoured the deal – in August 1997 and then in November 1998 Mahmudruzi Xudoiberdiev, an ethnically Uzbek commander who had rendered yeoman assitance to the regime early in the war, now mutinied. The first mutiny was stamped out by Emomali’s guard commander Ghafur Mirzoev in league with Suhrob Qosimov, a separate loyalist commander. The second mutiny, which appears to have had backing from Karimov, was crushed by both Suhrob and Emomali’s opponent-turned-lieutenant, Ziyoev.
Ziyoev rendered further assistance to Emomali in the succeeding years. In 1999-2000, Emomali wanted to tone down tensions with Karimov. So Ziyoev persuaded his Uzbekistani guests, Tohirjann Yuldashev and Jumaboi Qosimov, to leave Tajikistan and go to Afghanistan, whose northern border was now partly controlled by the Taliban emirate. Ziyoev does not seem to have had any specific preference for either the Taliban or Masoud’s Nazar group; while the Uzbekistani departure strategically helped the Russia-Tajikistan faction with whom Masoud was now allied, in the short term it helped the Taliban who enlisted the arriving mercenaries under Jumaboi’s command to fight against Masoud. This illustrates the strange complexity of alliances in this volatile period.
In summer 2001 Ziyoev again proved his worth; Emomali ordered an offensive against the opposition commanders Hitler (so nicknamed because he had played the part in a school play) Sanginov and Mansur Muaqqalov. Ziyoev and Suhrob were again picked for the task, and Ziyoev used his influence to persuade a large part of the opposition to defect before the remainder were routed. This preceded by weeks the American invasion of Afghanistan, which benefited the Dushanbe regime immensely and to which Emomali offered bases.
By now entrenched as not only a Russian but American partner and having routed his most dangerous enemies, Emomali began to eliminate the commanders who had helped him but whose continued loyalty he doubted. Among the earliest to go was his longstanding constable, Ghafur Mirzoev, the so-called “grey cardinal” of Tajikistan whose downfall shook other commanders. Perhaps too late for his own good, Ziyoev was estranged from the Tajikistan dictator as well. In the late 2000s rumours were put about that Abdullo Rahimov, a shadowy mulla from southern Tajikistan who had allegedly fought in Afghanistan, had returned to Tajikistan: the regime announced that he had joined Ziyoev in a conspiracy. Another of Ziyoev’s counterparts, Niamat Azizov, and several other southern military-political leaders and mullas were said to be part of a scheme against the regime, leavened with contraband and narcotics. It is probable that there was no such scheme, but this did not concern Dushanbe unnecessarily; in summer 2009, Ziyoev and Azizov were killed in what was officially a counter-narcotics sweep. Several similar purges since have consolidated the wily Emomali’s position since.
Jaga Ziyoev’s position as a commander reconciled, doublecrossed, and discarded by Emomali Rahmonov is not unique. What is unique is that he was linked on both sides of several struggles in the 1990s and 2000s, some of whose repercussions reverberated not only in Tajikistan but also Afghanistan and Uzbekistan. Apparently acting out of tactical interest, ultimately Jaga was cornered and outmaneouvred by a superior and more ruthless tactician.
FURTHER READING. Please note that these are not exhaustive sources; in some cases there is no satisfactory book on the military adventurer involved and often the researcher has to do more than simply fill in the dots. They are simply each the single best published books I have found, some of which are splendid and others not so.
Marieke Brandt; Tribes and Politics in Yemen: A history of the Houthi conflict (Hurst & Co, 2017).
Brian Cloughley; War, Coups, and Terror: Pakistan’s army in years of turmoil (Simon & Schuster, 2009).
Edit in summer 2020: I have added to this list a book that was published shortly after I wrote this article, and which adds valuable insight on Abdul-Qayum Zakir’s career:
Antonio Giustozzi; The Taliban at War, 2001-2018. (Hurst Publishers, 2019)
John Heathershaw; Post-Conflict Tajikistan: The politics of peacebuilding and the emergence of legitimate order (Routledge, 2009).
Mike Martin; An Intimate War: An oral history of the Helmand conflict, 1978-2012 (Oxford University Press, 2014).
Malcolm Nance; The Terrorists of Iraq: Inside the strategy and tactics of the Iraqi insurgency, 2003-2014 (CRC Press, 2015).