layyin1137

History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part 3

This is the third edition of the Wild and Whacky Military Adventurers feature. Its protagonists hail from Saudia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. InshaAllah, I can only hope it brings about historical interest and good things. I begin and end my venture in Allah’s Name.

Wild and Whacky Military Adventurers Part 3 (Feb 2020)

Ibrahim Moiz Copyright Rights Reserved

29 February 2020

Kamal Adham. Saudi Arabia. The early postcolonial period saw several Arab leaders, and several of their states, compete for regional influence. With British-backed monarchies largely discredited or weakened in the 1950s, in the 1960s it was praetorian and at least rhetorically revolutionary Masr that competed with monarchic and largely conservative Saudi Arabia for influence. In the eventual Saudi triumph over Masr, the Saudi spymaster Sheikh Kamal Ibrahim Adham played a substantial role from his role as liaison to occasionally collaborating but occasionally competing interests: Islamic organizations, American intelligence, and his relation by marriage into the Saudi family.

Adham’s sister Iffat bint Mohammad was the most well-known, and widely respected, wife of Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz. They came from a Turkish family that had left the crumbling Ottoman sultanate in the early 1920s, when Adham was still an infant. This period saw Faisal’s father Abdul-Aziz Ibn-Saud – with occasional assistance from Britain and, later, the United States – carve out a veritable empire in the Arabian Peninsula. Though he was supremely disinterested in matters beyond his own realm, Abdul-Aziz’s success as an Arabian conqueror attracted many admirers in the colonized Arab regions, some of whom expected him to emerge as the newest Muslim hegemon. But apart from raiding rival monarchies in northern Yemen and Transjordan, Abdul-Aziz had no interest in adventurous international links in the Muslim world – not least because of his link to Britain and his later even closer links, courtesy their role in oil extraction, with the United States.

The situation changed sharply when the Saudi founder passed away in the 1950s. His sons, Saud and especially Faisal, were keen to expand Saudi influence, and at the expense of British vassals if need be. Jordan and Oman were frequent targets of Saudi-backed tribal raids. The United States, unlike Britain, had no fixed love for the European colonial order: its main concern was fighting communism and on that count it quite agreed with anticolonial Arab leaders – whether of the republican sort, as was Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Masr, or monarchic sort, as were Saud and Faisal. One of the lesser-known facts about the 1950s is that the Saudi monarchy, along with the Zaidi imamate in northern Yemen, were initially on warm terms with the Cairo junta. The activist crown prince Faisal attended that landmark anticolonial rendezvous, the 1955 Bandung conference, and when in 1958 Turkish force assembled on the border of Masr’s merger with Syria, Saud made a largely empty but symbolic offer of military support. Both were viewed fairly benignly as anticommunist friends in Washington at that point.

Two factors changed this. The second, and more important, was Nasser’s sharp leftward shift in the early 1960s, which included a largely rhetorical but undoubtedly influential denunciation of the monarchies. The first had been the fact that Iraqi military officers claiming adherence to his anticolonial brand had slaughtered the Hashimi monarchy in Iraq during July 1958; that the emergent Iraqi dictator, Abdul-Karim Qasim, soon irked Nasser and turned into his rival, mattered less to Riyadh than the fact that one monarchy gone could mean another.

Nor was this fear groundless given Cairo’s bellicose rhetoric. By 1961, North Yemeni imam Nasir Ahmed bin Yahya, hitherto on warm terms with Cairo, was denouncing its economic policy as unIslamic; he had himself survived a murder attempt linked to Masr insofar as it had been secretly plotted by Abdullah Sallal, Nasser’s admirer who would topple Nasir’s son Badr Mohammad the next year. It was at around the same point – in 1962 – that Saudi intelligence, founded and commanded by Kamal Adham, began its operations.

In order to counter Masri pan-Arabism, Riyadh resorted to two plans. The first was to resort to pan-Islamism – hardly a new strategy, given that pan-Islamism dated back decades and had considerable influence in Masr itself – and the second was to denounce pan-Arabism as unIslamic. In both pursuits, Kamal Adham – the founder of the Saudi secret service, set up with considerable help from American intelligence – played a major role.

This is not to say, as leftist ideologue Vijay Prashad has ludicrously done, that this made pan-Islamism an American construct. It dated back decades in the Muslim world, and had influence in South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. It was also, as events both before and after its linkage to Riyadh would prove, entirely independent of Saudi, let alone American, control. But Riyadh at least had some influence in the sense that it governed Islam’s holiest sites and was, in the 1960s, a place of relative austerity and stern public morality. It was not, as would often be stated later, the only redoubt of such features – they could be found in usually less harsh forms across the Muslim world, from Libya and Yemen to Afghanistan and Mauritania – but its assistance to pan-Islamic organizations, whether political such as the Muslim Brethren or charitable, undoubtedly lent to this impression. What is entirely untrue was that America had any control over this: to be sure, Adham was very close to the Americans, but by the same dint they afforded him considerable autonomy given that both parties shared an antipathy toward communism – another feature that pan-Islamism already had.

What further suited Saudi purposes was that this could paint Masr and its brand of Arab nationalism as inherently secular and irreligious. This was not entirely true; Nasser, despite his crackdown on the Muslim Brethren and his personal secularism, was nonetheless quite willing to entertain religious counterparts. His early popularity had largely rested on Sunnis in mixed-sect countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq; and even in the 1960s, there was little to ideologically differentiate some of his vassals, such as Yemeni republican leaders Abdullah Sallal, from Islamists such as the Muslim Brethren as both attached their concepts of nation to Islam.

But it was true that Masr itself under Nasser’s rule had increasingly embarked on markedly secularist policies, even if less so than ideological competitors such as Baathists and communists. Perhaps most potent for Muslims was that the brand of pan-Islam promoted by Adham eschewed the pointedly Arab focus of pan-Arabism, and was thus attractive to non-Arab Muslims. But it also satisfied American intelligence, as Adham assured, because whereas they had formerly seen Nasser as a bulwark against communism, the Saudis could offer an even more staunchly anticommunist alternative.

The war in northern Yemen was particularly farcical because the Saudi family had no love lost with the ousted Sanaa imamate. Saud and Faisal had commanded military campaigns against them in the 1930s and disliked the inept Badr, who narrowly escaped Sallal’s coup to arrive in Saudi Arabia. But other royals – notably their brothers Khalid and Sultan – firmly backed the imamate, as did Jordan’s monarch Hussein bin Talal. Nasser himself had not planned the coup, but – urged on by his advisor Anwar Sadat, whose cousin Abdul-Rahman Baidani became Sallal’s first prime minister and had prematurely boasted of Badr’s elimination – he decided to back the new order in Yemen.

This dislike for Nasser appears to have spurred on the Saudis more than anything, but they were also possibly worried about the Sanaa coup setting precedent. The Saudi armed forces were in their infancy and by no means reliable: the Saudi family must have taken note when Jordanian air marshal Sahl Hamza, indignant at Hussein bin Talal’s support for the imamate, defected to Masr, and from then on a loyal praetorian force captained by the Saudi prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz was also established. Along with Adham’s intelligence agency, this was a novel development in 1960s Saudi Arabia that survives into the present day.

Not only the United States but also Britain backed Saudi Arabia in the North Yemen war; the British Empire was then facing a partly leftist insurgency, partly influenced by Masr, in South Yemen and furnished plenty of money, weapons, and propaganda to the imamate’s cause. Even Israel tried to get involved, but here the Saudis drew a line: Saudi policy during the latter twentieth century would be to court the United States and attempt to dilute Israeli influence there. In the mid-1960s Saudi Arabia would be – along with Kuwait, Syria, and Masr – among the few states assisting the fledgling Fatah insurgent network against Israel: again Adham’s network was partly in on the action.

The 1960s Yemeni war failed for practically every foreign power. The British were expelled from South Yemen in 1967, and Nasser’s vassal in the Qaumi Liberation Front that had fought them, Qahtan Shaabi, was soon ousted by the communist wing of the Front: the worst possible scenario for Saudi Arabia. The Masri army had itself been forced to fly North Yemen in 1967 after being bogged down for years there; the republic they had established survived but was partly coopted by Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz, who recognized its innate conservatism and saw it as a valuable partner against the communists in Aden.

At the same point as Nasser had lost his vassal Shaabi in Aden, however, he came close to gaining a new one in Riyadh. Daud Rumaih, a Saudi pilot who captained the Dhahran airfield, planned a coup against the monarchy that Kamal Adham soon discovered. Rumaih and his principal accomplice Yusuf Tawil – a Jiddah merchant whose family had long been dissidents in Saudi Arabia – were soon caught; Rumaih was imprisoned, but Tawil appears, in the monarchic fashion typical of the period, to have been coopted into the Saudi elite and became a wealthy merchant.

Adham himself amassed great wealth over the succeeding years, and continued to play a prominent role in regional policy. He had always taken a keen interest in Masr, where his friend Anwar Sadat – whose wedding he had attended in the 1950s – succeeded Nasser and soon shifted Masri policy toward Saudi Arabia. It was on Adham’s advice that Sadat dismissed some sixteen hundred Soviet advisors from Masr in summer 1972, thus ending a decade of Masr-Soviet collaboration and pushing Masri slowly but steadily into the American camp in the Cold War.

The 1973 war, which the Arab countries backed regardless of ideological or structural variances, was also taken by Sadat – with Saudi encouragement – as a step to move Masr toward America, though by the late 1970s he far surpassed Riyadh by negotiating with Israel. By this point Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz had long since been murdered by his nephew, Faisal bin Mutaab, thus neutralizing a possible counterweight to this twist. And Kamal Adham himself had retired, succeeded by Faisal’s son (and thus his nephew) Turki. But Adham’s continuation in pan-Islamic politics continued via his involvement in finance.

By the 1970s Saudi Arabia was financing the World Islamic Rabita, a loose umbrella coalition to which various Islamists hailed with the major aim of upending secularist and in particular leftist trends, many of which misruled Muslim countries at the time. The Rabita was too decentralized and large – essentially a liaison for various organizations – to have been remote-controlled even by Riyadh, and after the Cold War many of its affiliates would become targets of a United States newly committed to fighting “Islamic fundamentalism”. During the 1970s, however, it suited Saudi purposes well.

So did the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, where Saudi spymaster Turki bin Faisal collaborated with Pakistani and American intelligence – cutting out, as his uncle Kamal had done twenty years earlier, an Israel eager to get in on the act. Money flowed often without account, and Adham was among the most generous traders in this campaign. His partners included the flamboyant Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi as well as Sadat’s family. In particular he built up close links with the Pakistani merchant Hasan Abedi, who founded a new bank that played a major role in financing the Afghan war.

But Abedi’s bank had further ambitions, which was to compete with and undercut larger international institutions, particularly in their relation with the Third World. In the early 1990s it financed several ambitious projects in Afro-Asian countries, and this – along with an incipient culture of nouveau-riche corruption – put a target on its back. The bank was soon banned, and Adham, as a major supporter, was fined and barred from finance.

This was not an entirely fair crackdown and was at least partly motivated by financial politics; Abedi’s bank was not unique or exceptional in corruption, and its role in Third World finance attracted suspicion that it had been specifically targeted for political purpose. The same fate befell Adham’s political project, the Rabita, many of whose affiliates were vilified and persecuted in a dragnet after 2001. Adham did not live to see it; he passed away in 1999. As far as his former allies in Washington were concerned, he had – like the Nasserites he worked so hard to fight – outlived his anticommunist uses.

Furrukh Ali. Pakistan. Pakistan has had several military coup attempts in its history, about half successful. The only one that handed over power voluntarily to a civilian government was led by Brigadier Furrukh Bukht Ali; equally remarkable is the fact that he tried to upend the same government just over a year later. Ali’s short but momentous career in the early 1970s remains an understudied episode in Pakistan’s civil-military relations.

An artillery officer of no mean skill, Ali was an upright soldier by training, but with no whitewashed illusions of military life or role; he retains to the present day a knack for sharp insight and honesty. Ali fought in both wars under the military regime against India, and it was in the disastrous aftermath of the latter war – over East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh after an Indian attack swung the tide in the Bengali insurgency’s favour – that he flitted into centre stage as Pakistan lurched in crisis. The war had begun in a perfect storm of events over 1970-71 – a regionally and ethnically polarizing election whose result discomfited the military junta in Islamabad; a massive cyclone in the East that took some half million lives; a merciless insurgency spearled by the Bengali ethnonationalist Mukti Army, which targeted in particular the East’s non-Bengali inhabitants; an even more murderous military crackdown by West Pakistani troops; and the opportunistic but widely acclaimed intervention of Pakistan’s archrival India, who capitalized on the turmoil to install Sheikh Mujibur-Rahman, the popular and ruthless leader of the Awami League, as its vassal in an independent Bangladesh.

Mujibur-Rahman and his West Pakistani archrival in the 1970 election, Zulfikar Bhutto, were strikingly similar characters. Both had played a role in the 1969 downfall of military dictator Ayub Khan (1958-69); both were flamboyant, ambitious, unscrupulous, and enjoyed massive popularity in their halves of the country. The December 1970 election – which Mujibur-Rahman, enjoying an open field in the more populous East as compared to a more divided field in the West, had won – had been meant to signal a transition from the military junta led by Ayub’s successor, Yahya Khan. Yahya, quite aware of Mujibur-Rahman’s very real Indian links – that too in a period where any semblance of ethnopolitics was already viewed askance in Pakistani political spheres – had fatefully refused. The subsequent war had not only seen hundreds of thousands of dead, mainly Bengalis in the East, but also broken up Pakistan, resulted in the forced expulsion of East Pakistan’s Bihari citizens, and humiliated the army on whose support Yahya banked.

Furrukh Ali had spent the 1971 war in West Pakistan. He captained the artillery segment of the northern corps facing India from the west. The junta had decided, upon India’s attack in the East, to attack India from the West and thereby open up two fronts in December 1971. But this policy – clumsily and half-heartedly carried out – collapsed entirely. Specifically in the far north, India actually gained some limited ground. What galled Ali, and countless other contemporaries, was not the defeat but the utter ineptitude that corresponded with rank. His own corps commander Irshad Khan – best-known for having given overoptimistic intelligence prior to the 1965 war – had refused to commit the cavalry, and upbraided Ali when he made the suggestion. Ali suspected that this was because the officer captaining the cavalry force in the corps, Mohammad Iskanderul-Karim, was a Bengali soldier by ethnicity; at any rate, he saw it as criminally supine.

The attitude of Irshad’s superiors was little better. When planning the attack from the west, operational director Gul Hassan neglected to consult the key question of air cover for the Pakistani cavalry with his old friend air marshal Abdur-Rahim Khan; not until the attack was mounted did Abdur-Rahim find out, and promptly refuse to commit his new fleet to what he considered a lost cause. The fact that both Gul and Abdur-Rahim were two of the more seasoned, respected officers in the military brass only underlined the dysfunction that seemed to set in from the top. Prior to the attack, the army commander, Yahya’s second-in-command Abdul-Hamid Khan, had dismissed capable field commanders who had raised objections to the garbled plan before the campaign. More gallingly, Abdul-Hamid had been incredibly lax himself during the war, while Yahya reportedly threw himself into drink with abandon that was even more inappropriate at such a crisis point. Such was the (doubtless exaggerated, but much-agreed-upon) reputation for Yahya’s drink that when Abdul-Hamid entered the mess after the war, he was humiliatingly jeered at by soldiers in foul mood, among whose first demands was that liquor be banned from the mess.

For field officers, the shattering defeat was the final straw for an increasingly dysfunctional and discredited junta. Military rule had corrupted the army: the only alternative was a civilian government, for whom the only candidate seemed to have been the leading West Pakistani candidate in the previous year’s election – Zulfikar Bhutto. Ali and a collection of other officers – each in field rank or lower – planned to oust Yahya and force the return of civilian rule.

With the possible tacit knowledge of its commander Iskanderul-Karim, who at any rate made no move to stop him, Ali commandeered the Kharian cavalry division that had been left unused against India, and turned it against the army headquarters. Two other officers played key roles as respective stick and carrot: Iqbal Shah captained the brigade that rumbled up the Grand Trunk Road to menace the army headquarters at Rawalpindi, while Abdul-Aleem Afridi was sent to the headquarters to negotiate with the seniormost officer available, operations director Gul Hassan. Realizing that the junta was done for – and believing that he too would go with it – Gul received the mutineers’ demands; to his surprise, they wanted Yahya and Abdul-Hamid out along with the military rule, but were content to keep him on.

Gul played another key role that endeared him to the mutineers. Abdul-Hamid, hearing about the mutiny, dispatched the quartermaster Aboobaker Mitha – celebrated founder of Pakistan’s commando force – to handle it. Mitha in turn ordered Ghulam Malik to attack the mutineers’ headquarters at Kharian, and for a brief moment it appeared as though a civil war within the army may break out. But an uncertain Malik, realizing the stakes, passed the buck to Gul, who forbade the order. The junta’s last stroke had failed, and Yahya’s rule (1969-71) was over.

In his place swaggered Zulfikar Bhutto, leader of the People’s Party – the first populist party in Pakistan. He faced a daunting task, not only with regard to negotiating the war’s fallout with India but also in stemming off similar centrifugal challenges to Pakistan. With Bengali ethnonationalism having prevailed in the East, there was a real danger that centrifugal forces based on regionalism or ethnicity would surface in West Pakistan’s diverse landscape. In 1970s Pakistan, the People’s Party and the army were the main heavyweight actors for the central state – but, by virtue of its humiliation in war, the army was at first the decided second fiddle.

Bhutto realized this and made sure to rub it in, publicly disparaging the “flabby generals” whom he blamed, not incorrectly but with considerable hypocrisy given his own role, for the fallout. Within three months he sacked both air marshal Abdur-Rahim and army commander Gul, on whose promotion he had himself insisted. That an army famously sensitive of criticism went along is a testament to their shared worry over centrifugalism, even when – as in the war Bhutto mounted in Balochistan during February 1973, in league with its conniving premier Akbar Bugti – they were perfectly aware that the prime minister was abusing the central state’s organs.

But this compliance was also a result of Bhutto’s maneouvres. In Gul’s place he promoted his favoured general Tikka Khan. He was a practiced soldier, but an utterly ruthless one. As governor-general in East Pakistan during 1971, he had callously overseen widespread massacre and collective punishment that had helped turn the Bengali populace firmly against Pakistan. What recommended him to Bhutto was that he had no political ambitions, and was utterly – indeed, as shown in Bangladesh, mercilessly – obedient. With Tikka in the driving seat, many of his lieutenants from the 1971 crackdown returned to the field in the war against the Baloch parari insurgency. While this insurgency was backed, as had been the Mukti insurgency in Bangladesh, by a foreign power – in this case Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Soviet Union – the army was quite aware that Bhutto had exacerbated the issue for his own purpose, and insofar as that purpose involved strengthening the central state at the expense of the periphery they went along.

No sooner had the war begun, though, that the mutineers who had brought Bhutto to power conspired to throw him out. Furrukh Ali and his colleagues from 1971 were not politically ambitious men, but the military junta as well as their role in its removal had persuaded them – and indeed others of their generation – that the coup could be a means to a legitimate end. In this case the lead was taken by more junior officers – Farouk Adam in the army and Wing-Commander Ghaus in the airforce – but Furrukh, as well as Abdul-Aleem Afridi, participated in the plans. Fairly unversed in politics, they read up on a hodgepodge of political theory books in order to decide what should come after Bhutto.

But the opportunity never came. The archloyalist commander Tikka Khan had infiltrated the group, and they were soon caught. Bhutto was enraged and ordered their execution; the army, more tolerant of such chicanery, retained the right to try them. The military court was presided over by an officer already ascendant in Bhutto’s favour: his future army commander and executioner, Mohammad Ziaul-Haq.

The trial itself deserves some further comment, since it contained a multitude of important characters in Pakistan’s history. In addition to the military judge Ziaul-Haq, there was the defendants’ lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan – who fifteen years later would serve Bhutto’s daughter Benazir as interior minister, and in 2007 lead a lawyers’ revolt against the next military dictator Pervez Musharraf. There was also Muzaffar Usmani, later a participant in Musharraf’s 1999 coup who would become his second-in-command before his abrupt dismissal in 2001. Usmani’s role was to request clemency from Ziaul-Haq. As it turned out, Ziaul-Haq was sympathetic and let the mutineers air their grievances. But, under pressure from Bhutto to execute them, he contented himself with handing out prison sentences.

Furrukh Ali spent Bhutto’s remaining years in prison. In an ironic twist, his captor would become his neighbour; when Ziaul-Haq toppled Bhutto in July 1977, he had Bhutto thrown in jail in the cell next to Ali’s before his execution in 1979. Ziaul-Haq had abstained from executing the 1973 mutineers, but it had not stemmed from personal squeamishness. As perhaps the only actor in Pakistani politics who could and did outwit Bhutto, he was in no mood to let him go.

Ali was released later during Ziaul-Haq’s period and by the 1990s he had taken to writing invariably incisive and principled commentary; he commented presciently on the post-Musharraf political elite as one that had learned to split the cake between itself. In the 2010s, he wrote his memoir. It remains a curiosity that a key player in some of the key events of the tumultuous 1970s remains nearly unknown.

Ismail Khan. Afghanistan. The fragmentation and militarization of the never-sturdy Afghan state and society in the last quarter of the twentieth century offered an opportunity to a number of military adventurers to try their hand at filling the vacuum. Few managed this task as convincingly and with such single-minded ambition as General Muhammad Ismail Khan, the self-styled emir of Herat and western Afghanistan. This ambitious, resilient, and often autocratic soldier-turned-rebel-turned-ruler nonetheless managed to establish a functioning statelet in western Afghanistan during a period where most other parts of the country were mired in conflict or misrule.

Ismail is best remembered as an enterprising mujahideen commander in the Jamiat faction during the anti-Soviet insurgency. As a matter of fact his role in Herat has often been exaggerated, partly because he emerged as the longest-lasting and most powerful military leader but also because he had a knack of self-promotion that matched his courage and resilience. Indeed Ismail’s relation with both his formal party, Jamiat, and with its leaders as well as other military entrepreneurs in western Afghanistan would constantly be a troubled and transactional one; his by-every-account-competent and mostly fair rule of Herat, which peaked in the mid-1990s just prior to a Taliban conquest, rested on and eventually foundered on the same principle: he was his own emir, and no organization could hold him for long.

Ismail has often been described as a Tajik commander; in fact he possibly had a mixed family in this ethnically mixed region and was certainly able to speak both Pashto and Dari. He came from the Herat countryside and enrolled in the army in the 1970s, a tumultuous decade for Afghanistan that would culminate in its invasion by the Soviet Union. In 1973, the monarchy was toppled; in 1978, the autocratic republic that replaced it was in turn ousted by a communist coup where, amid bloody communist infighting, the Khalq party came to power. Within months the regime’s tyranny had provoked major revolts in different parts of Afghanistan.

The most tumultuous of these revolts occurred at Herat. The “jewel of Khurasan”, as this historic and cultured city was known, dominated the western Afghan countryside. Not incidentally it was also linked by border and culture to neighbouring Iran, where in February 1979 a massive popular revolt – which featured preachers and officers in upheaval along with the merchant class in bazaar revolt – ousted the hated Pahlavi monarchy. The revolt that exploded in Herat just the following month later bore some of the same features: it had no single leader but a collection of adventurers – including some fairly unsavoury characters – it featured a bazaar revolt in conjuction with mutiny in the army, and finally some level of agitation by armed rebels. Retrospect has often credited Ismail with the leadership of the Herat mutiny, where the governor Abdul-Hai Yatim was killed along with several Soviet advisors; in fact this is not true. There were several mutinies, and the one in which Ismail and his friend Alaauddin probably featured – strictly as participants, not leaders – was led by Ghulam Baloch and Sardar Khan. Pandemonium briefly reigned the city; one particularly unprepossessing militia leader, Sher-Agha Sangar, was announced its governor, but in practice this widespread revolt had no authority.

That made the revolt easy to crush, and it was crushed with savage force. Thousands were killed as the new governor Nazifullah Nujat and a backup brigade from Kandahar, captained by Sayed Mukarram, ploughed into the city, backed by Soviet airstrikes. The mutineers escaped into the countryside and founded a small front in the Free Officer mould, but this soon collapsed and they scattered.

More promising were the conglomeration of largely Islamist fronts appearing in the countryside at this point. Afghanistan’s Islamists had been persecuted and already escaped to Pakistan, attempting a revolt in 1975 before the communist coup. After its failure they had fragmented but now, based in Peshawar, they again had money and weapons to distribute to eager insurgents against an oppressive regime. In the west, as in many other Farsiwan parts of Afghanistan, the Jamiat party led by the Tajik professor Burhanuddin Rabbani was most widespread, and it was this party that Ismail and Alaauddin entered.

Jamiat had many Herati veterans, especially in its party apparatus: most notable, perhaps, was Rabbani’s occasional deputy Nurullah Imad. Such party functionaries were not military leaders, however, and the sheer number of fronts that aligned themselves to Jamiat so far from its headquarters in Pakistan made control different: even the far more centralized Hizb party, which often competed with Jamiat, struggled to control its Herat sector. The most disciplined in ideological terms was a front in and around the city founded by Saifullah Afzali, a veteran of the 1975 revolt; this seems to have comprised militants of the typical student-activist type: fervent Islamists, more disciplined and principled in their dealings than most insurgents, but by the same token unable to win the unyielding collaboration of less sophisticated insurgents. Eventually the Herati Jamiat fronts agreed to name Ali Jamjou their official leader for the province.

Jamjou was chosen for his courage, but his organizational ability was found wanting during the first major attacks on Herat after the Soviet invasion in the early 1980s. When the Jamiat fronts were thrust into disorder during a Soviet assault in early 1982, he relinquished his role voluntarily to the professional officers. The story went that he first offered it to Alaauddin, who in turn offered it to Ismail, who accepted. This story seems to accord with Alaauddin’s subsequent popularity among the various commanders in Herat, as well as the suspicion with which they viewed Ismail.

Ismail, with Alaauddin as second-in-command, soon assembled and organized a force of several thousand Jamiat fighters, organized into military-type ranks. Equally distinctive as their nous in the battlefield was their skill at foreign relations; the pair often went to Iran, and managed to overcome Tehran’s characteristic suspicion of up-and-coming military leaders. While he was always mutually suspicious of the party apparatus, Ismail also struck a personal rapport with party emir Rabbani.

Largely by virtue of both access to money – and a willingness to resort to force when money failed – Ismail managed to attract or annex many fronts in Herat. His leadership was always resented in many quarters, however, not least because he had an autocratic and unilateral leadership style that in particularly disdained anything that could be seen as contradiction. One obedient illiterate, he is proclaimed to have once exclaimed, surpassed a hundred disobedient intellectuals; and the expectation that they would obey, not collaborate, with him antagonized many other commanders. Only the dictions of Islamic law – to which he, more than most commanders, scrupulously conformed – limited his control. And he always had opponents linked to other parties – the regime or other mujahideen factions – among whom a disproportionate amount belonged to the sturdily autonomous Nurzai clan.

Nonetheless, the Hamza Front’s effectiveness was undeniable. In both summer 1982 – the first test of its resilience – and summer 1984 it withstood Soviet counterinsurgency; in 1985 it, along with other Herati insurgency, caused such vexation that the Herat governor Ali Samim had to be withdrawn. Most famous, however, was the campaign in winter 1985-86. It was captained by Juma Asak – a Khalqi Pashtun army officer widely despised in Afghanistan’s periphery – and though it was waged against many different mujahideen factions, it was Ismail who struck the most ringing blow. After the campaign, Asak swaggered back to the Shindand airfield and boasted publicly that he had crushed the insurgency in Herat for good. Hours later, Ismail and Alaauddin dispatched a hail of rockets toward the airfield that sent him scurrying back to Kabul.

Buoyed by a steeply ascendant career, Ismail took another public step: in July 1987 he assembled some twelve hundred military leaders from across western Afghanistan to Ghaur where they discussed collaboration. Little actually came of this episode, but it bolstered Ismail’s profile further as the commander in the wild west.

The mid-1980s saw the further fragmentation of and factionalization between fronts, and western Afghanistan was a case in point. This partly stemmed from the shrewd new dictator, Muhammad Najibullah, and his attempt to turn insurgent commanders into militia commanders on the regime’s behalf; most of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords would hail from this class. But it also hailed from old-fashioned greed, treachery, and competition among the insurgent commanders. Sher-Agha Sangar, for instance, the nominal leader of the Herat revolt, had been flipped from the insurgency in the early 1980s.

This development presented Ismail with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge, obviously, was the risk of defections to regime forces. In 1986 one commander, Daud Ziarjum from the Nurzai clan, switched sides and was soon rewarded with major funds and weaponry that he employed to build up a large militia. Feeling that his Alizai clan was at a disadvantage Ismail’s lieutenant Ahmad Sultani – the main field commander in the famous 1985-86 campaign – promptly switched sides too the next year. Sultani tried to give his defection a moral air – arguing that, since Najibullah was attempting to rebrand the regime from a purely communist to a broadly leftist trend, there was nothing unIslamic about switching sides. But there is no doubt that his move paid handsome material dividends; soon his militia numbered some eight thousand, and by the decade’s end was regularly clashing with Ismail’s forces in and around Herat.

The opportunity that this provided Ismail was that the shrinking pool of insurgent fronts and the rising tide of militia fronts put his competitors among the other mujahideen groups under pressure. Since he was best-equipped and placed to hold off the large militias, many of these commanders – some quite grudgingly – were forced to cooperate with him. He was also fortunate in that other major commanders were killed off. Saifullah Afzali was murdered at Iran, while Naikmuhammad Khan – commander of an autonomous, Jamiat-linked emirate in Badghis province – was also killed by the retreating Soviets. While Afzali’s brother Azizullah took over his front, Ismail capitalized on the infighting in Badghis to get a foothold in the province.

In the early 1990s the Hamza front was so clearly the main game in Herat that the last regime offensive in the province – conducted during spring 1991 – was aimed nearly exclusively at Ismail and Alaauddin, pinning them back in the Hamza stronghold at Zindajan. The attack was captained first by Uzbek officer Abdul-Rauf Begi and then by the Tajik army commander Asif Dilawar, under whose command it appears to have slackened. Nonetheless Ismail’s perseverance won him grudging admiration and paved the way to bigger things, because events in Kabul helped turn the tables.

Najibullah’s militia experiments had finally backfired. Not only had it formed a class of essentially mercenary commanders – epitomized by Abdul-Rashid Dostum, the fearsome Uzbek commander in the northlands – but such commanders prized their regional autonomy above any notions of government-insurgency conflict. Having just used them to ward off a Khalqi coup in 1990, Najibullah tried to restrict the unpopular militias’ power thereafter, partly in order to placate the Khalqis and thus preclude another coup. The final straw came when he promoted Juma Asak, the domineering Khalqi Pashtun archcentralist, as governor-general for Dostum’s northern region. Dostum and his other counterparts promptly switched sides, joining the Jamiat commander in the northeast Shah Masoud and helping him oust Najibullah from power. Officers from Najibullah’s original Parcham party also joined the campaign on often ethnic grounds; Begi joined Dostum’s coalition and Dilawar joined Masoud.

Masoud’s sudden takeover had outfoxed his major rival in the opposition, Hizb emir Gulbadin Hikmatyar, who had been building up his forces in Kabul for years and had even collaborated with Khalq in the 1990 coup attempt. Cheated of the prize, Hikmatyar ordered his western fronts to quickly beat other mujahideen to the prize. Hizb commander Ibrahim Butshikan quickly overran Shindand airfield; Hizb commander Abdul-Qayum Khan was among a coalition who beat Jamiat to capturing Ghaur’s centre Chaghcharan. In Helmand, the Hizb commanders Hafeezullah Khan and Mir Wali went so far as to help the Khalqi garrison beat off an attack by their mutual rival, Rasoul Akhundzada.

Herat city was the prize of western Afghanistan, and here too Hizb commander Juma Pahlawan made a dash for power. But its commander Rahmatullah Raufi preempted a Hizb takeover by instead handing power over to Ismail. This was probably because of Ismail’s origin in the army; he was seen as a relatively safe option. And indeed he proved to be just that. Ismail succeeded in engineering compromises with even his most suspicious competitors among the Jamiat commanders – including Azizullah Afzali, who became sheriff, and Yahya Akbari, who was promoted to mayor. Nonetheless, in these compromises Ismail ascertained that he enjoyed a primacy as the only civil ruler of Herat province. He had shown in the 1980s that he was able to govern, and now –checked only by the Islamic law that he employed for law and order – he became Herat’s self-proclaimed emir.

In early 1990s Afghanistan Herat was nearly unique in its relative tranquility and order. Its proximity to Iran and newly independent Turkmenistan ensured a bustling regional economy. There were other relatively orderly places – eastern Afghanistan was governed by a commanders’ council chaired by the mujahideen Arsala family, as was southeast Afghanistan by the Haqqanis and Masoud’s Panjsher heartland. Even Dostum, whose Junbish confederation of militias now straddled northern Afghanistan, managed to establish some semblance of order if the depredations of his vassals in the mercenary class were ignored. But in no region did anybody enjoy the sort of primacy that Ismail did at Herat.

Nonetheless, the Herat emirate was similar to the other aforementioned other regions of Afghanistan in that its upkeep relied on improvised and transactional arrangements between different commanders. Ismail did not intend to limit himself to Herat, either, and his expansionist policy was partly fuelled by neighbouring developments. In October 1992 two important regional events occurred: Juma Pahlawan, the Hizb commander whom he had beaten to the race for Herat, allied with one of his more unsavoury lieutenants Abdul-Ghaffar Tufan – who had, a decade earlier, actually murdered the Jamiat commander Ali Jamjou whose command Ismail had originally taken. The pair mounted a mutiny, which was easily enough crushed.

The other notable event came in nearby Helmand province. Here, it will be recalled, Hizb commanders Mir Wali and Hafeezullah Khan had collaborated with the Khalqi provincial forces to thwart their rival, Rasoul Akhundzada, six months earlier. Now the Khalqi commander Khano Muhammad summarily purged Hizb, who were forced to escape and plot their return. In what would become a pattern, these three erstwhile rivals from the south – Wali, Rasoul, and Hafeezullah – travelled to Herat, where they found Ismail willing to expand his influence in the south. The plan, additionally aided by Iran and Pakistan, came into action during spring 1993, when the coalition overran Helmand and expelled the Khalq forces.

Ismail was at the peak of his power in summer 1993. Not only did he rule his emirate with effective autonomy but his influence had soared. Even Burhanuddin Rabbani, his nominal ruler in Kabul, and his strongman Shah Masoud could not impose their will on him; he took decisions as he saw fit. This, indeed, galled some Jamiat party apparatchiks in Herat – led by Nurullah Imad – but they were unable to muster support against Ismail.

Unfortunately, Ismail overreached. In autumn 1993, he picked a fight with a bigger and nastier fish – Dostum’s Junbish conglomeration in the north. The original dispute was quite petty; a mujahideen colonel in Badghis Province, Jalaluddin Turlangatai, found himself competed over as a vassal by both Ismail and Dostum’s own vassal in Faryab, Rasoul Pahlawan. This Rasoul was a mercenary commander-par-excellence; member of an influential landowning Uzbek family in the northwest, he had begun his career as a mujahideen commander but switched sides again and again over the 1980s as it suited him; the fact that his brother Abdul-Malek was a member of the Khalq party helped ingratiate him to the regime at that point. Now he was among Dostum’s most violent and ambitious vassals, based at the northwest Faryab province. Dostum, who never quite trusted Rasoul, nonetheless felt compelled to support this powerful vassal in a pinch in order to maintain Junbish power in Faryab.

What followed was an on-and-off war in the Badghis-Faryab region between the Herat emirate and its Junbish rival. This was further compounded by Dostum’s decision, in early 1994, to switch his support from Rabbani and Masoud to their rival Hikmatyar, but even without that national-level contest the feud between Rasoul and Ismail seems likely to have continued. The frontlines did not much change, as both sides were well-matched.

What hurt Ismail more was his decision to open a second front. This was related to his ambitions in southern Afghanistan, where he had made alliances with such commanders as the Akhundzadas in Helmand. In autumn 1994, militia abuses in Kandahar provoked the mobilization of another ambitious emirate – the Taliban – who swiftly overran the province. They were not necessarily hostile to the Akhundzadas, who came from a similar background as them, or to Ismail, who appears to have been viewed with a sort of wary fascination for his success as an emir. Rasoul Akhundzada had recently died, and his brother Abdul-Ghaffar had taken over as Helmand governor. Moreover, early contacts between Kandahar and Herat were quite cordial, since the latter respected and applied shariah. The Pakistani army officer, Sultan “Colonel” Imam, a veteran of mujahideen fights up and down Afghanistan and a committed Islamist ideologue, was on friendly terms with both emirates and took pains to mediate.

But in spite of such similarities, structurally the Taliban emirate was a very different prospect to other regional emirates. Whereas they were built around various loosely aligned commanders, the Taliban were an organization of mainly former foot soldiers and students, among whom few had their own source of firepower. Ismail led his coalition of commanders by virtue of his superior firepower; Taliban emir Umar Mujahid had no such firepower and was more a first among equals in the Taliban command. When the Taliban absorbed a front, they would first disarm it; this ran entirely counter to the prevalent model.

There was already some room for unease when Taliban talks with Abdul-Ghaffar Akhundzada in Helmand and Shah Ghazi, Ismail’s associated mujahideen commander in Farah, foundered. In Abdul-Ghaffar’s case, the talks were actually sabotaged by his competitor, another commander called Abdul-Wahid Baghrani who had a long-running feud with the Akhundzadas and turned the Taliban to his advantage by joining them and helping them capture Helmand. In Ghazi’s case, he initially joined the Taliban but left in protest to Herat after they tried to disarm him. Ghazi was joined by other commanders, including Mir Wali from Helmand and Ustad Abdul-Halim from Kandahar, who had already fought against the Taliban emirate. They urged Ismail to help them, and this pressure was compounded by pressure from both Tehran and Kabul. Tehran also pushed competing commanders, including Zahir Azimi from the Shia Harakat faction and Abdul-Karim Khan from the Baloch minority, to help fight the Taliban emirate.

Initially the campaign against the Taliban was successful; a series of back-and-forth battles in southwest Afghanistan ended with Herat prevalent and the Taliban military commander Muhammad Akhund slain in the field. But this was where the ruptures in the commanders’ coalition emerged; Azimi and Abdul-Halim both fell out with Ismail. The Jamiat apparatchiks, supported by Burhanuddin Rabbani, mounted a brief “coup” against Ismail that replaced him with Rabbani’s deputy Nurullah Imad, and it was only the fact that Imad had no fighting background that enabled Ismail to wrest back control. Now, however, he had to prove himself against these competing factions, and so at the end of summer 1995 he mounted an ambitious campaign into southern Afghanistan to end the Taliban emirate.

This campaign, featuring tens of thousands of fighters, collapsed spectacularly at the town of Garrashk in Helmand. The Herat coalition was terribly fractious; Abdul-Halim, whose force occupied the centre of the attacking force, quarrelled with Ismail and deserted in the middle of the battle. Panic set in after the vanguard commander, Nasir Ahmadi, was killed and the Herat force collapsed. The Taliban, captained by deputy leader Muhammad Rabbani, rode the momentum and pursued the disintegrating coalition up through southwest Afghanistan and by September 1995 entered Herat.

Ismail’s prestige seemed to have shattered. He was pointedly excluded from the remaining campaigns in western Afghanistan, which were largely organized by Iran and now captained by his former second-in-command Alaauddin Khan. In 1995-96 Alaauddin led a number of Jamiat attacks into western Afghanistan, but these ended when he was outfoxed at Ghaur by Abdul-Ghani Baradar and killed in the field along with the Jamiat Ghaur commander Saleem Khalili. This also happened to eliminate the leading alternatives to Ismail, who was soon back in Iran’s good graces.

In another twist typical of commander politics, Ismail returned via an unexpected avenue: the Pahlawan brothers in Faryab, against whose Junbish forces he had fought just three years earlier. He now brought several thousand fighters from Iran and decamped at Faryab, where the brothers Gulai and Abdul-Malek Pahlawan led Junbish forces. At first this unlikely coalition worked rather well; in 1996-97 they repulsed two attacks by Baradar over the same Badghis-Faryab frontier over which they themselves had fought earlier. But commander politics are an uncertain thing, and this soon brought about another trial for Ismail.

Since 1995, Pakistan had been attempting to draw Junbish into a coalition with the Taliban, a prospect that seems eminently unlikely given the polarly opposed models of the two organizations and was entrenched further by Abdul-Rashid Dostum’s alliance with Shah Masoud in 1996. But Pakistan had more luck with his ambitious vassal, Rasoul Pahlawan, who expressed interest in the idea – only to be murdered in summer 1996, as were other suspected Junbish commanders. Pahlawan’s brothers Abdul-Malek and Gulai suspected Dostum, and a year later – in May 1997 – they themselves switched sides along with Dostum’s cousin and foremost lieutenant Abdul-Majeed Rouzi.

This Junbish mutiny allied with the Taliban commander in the northwest, Abdul-Razzaq Akhundzada, and swept through Dostum’s strongholds in the northwest. One of their first victims was Ismail, whom they handed over to the Taliban emirate; he would spend the next few years in a Kandahar jail. He would also miss the fallout of the mutineers’ alliance with the Taliban just weeks later, when – galled by Abdul-Razzaq’s impolitic attempt to disarm them – the mutineers again switched sides and slaughtered some two thousand Taliban in Mazari Sharif.

Ismail remained in prison for three years. In spring 2000, however, he escaped when his guard, Hikmatullah Hikmati, defected from the Taliban. Hikmati and his father Abdul-Razzaq Baraso – a former mujahideen colonel who had been an aide to Abdul-Wahid Baghrani, the Helmand commander now aligned with the Taliban – smuggled out Ismail from prison along with Abdul-Zahir Arsala, the son of the leading mujahideen commander Abdul-Qadeer Arsala who had been captured in eastern Afghanistan. Unhappily for Baraso, he himself would be imprisoned the following year during the United States’ invasion as a suspected Taliban fighter.

Ismail returned once more to Iran, and again participated in the campaign against the Taliban along with other western commanders. During the American invasion in autumn 2001, Ismail and other western commanders – including his rivals, Zahir Azimi and Abdul-Zahir Naibzada – attacked western Afghanistan from Iran, accompanied by Iranian praetorian commander Rahim Safavi and even American commandos. This unlikely coalition lasted long enough to overwhelm the Taliban garrison at Herat, whose commander Abdul-Hannan Jihadwal conducted a fighting retreat whose main, unwitting feature seems to have been the escape of the Jordanian extremist Abu Musab Zarqawi – then an obscure militant at a camp in the city. After the Taliban emirate’s collapse, Ismail again took over as Herat governor; his son Mirwais Sadiq became a minister in Hamid Karzai’s government, and the opportunity that had been cut short a decade seemed propitious.

Unfortunately for Ismail, 2000s Afghanistan was a different proposition. His Panjsheri collaborator-cum-rival Shah Masoud – murdered shortly before the American invasion – had been succeeded by Qasim Fahim, who served as army minister for Karzai and was united in his dislike of Ismail by the centralist finance minister Ashraf Ghani. Ghani in particular resented Ismail’s control over the western region’s trade – a control he wanted to put under Kabul’s control.

Additionally there were the foreigners. The invasion had been presented as a liberation from extremist Muslims, and this immediately placed Ismail at a disadvantage. He had governed Herat according to a particular form of shariah that had only become more conservative, and this attracted major hostility not only from the government but also from media and activists. Ismail was keen for the Americans to depart as soon as possible, and in this he was supported by Iran. In turn, this presented him to the United States as a pro-Iranian warlord, who they had no intention to support anymore than they needed to. They thus paved the way for Kabul to oppose him.

What proceeded in 2003-04 was the same complex game of commander competition that had characterized Afghanistan a decade earlier. Kabul – in particular Ghani, Fahim, and frontiers minister Muhammad Arif of the Nurzai clan – backed internal rivals to Ismail within Herat, especially Pashtun Nurzai clan leaders such as Amanullah Khan. They also promoted Abdul-Zahir Naibzada to command the Herat garrison, and tried to replace Ismail with Fahim’s Panjsheri lieutenant, Bazmuhammad Ahmadi. At this Ismail snapped, and expelled Ahmadi from Herat in autumn 2003.

The other competition was at the provincial level; Ismail had his collaborator Abdul-Hai Niamati installed at Farah to his south, but Naibzada’s brother Amirshah was installed at Badghis to the north and Fahim’s lieutenant Ibrahim Malikzada was installed at Ghaur to his east. Ismail had friends in Ghaur, however; he supported Mulla Dinnmuhammad against Malikzada in 2003, and when this faltered he hired Ahmad Khan, commander of an especially important and unsavoury militia on the Murghab river, to attack Malikzada. Additionally the Ghauri mujahideen commanders Rais Abdul-Salam and Yahya Akbari, who had an uneasy relation with Ismail but worse ones with Kabul, were turned against Malikzada, and in summer 2004 they expelled Malikzada from Ghaur.

By this point Ismail had already paid a bloody price for his ambition. In spring 2004, he beat off an attack by Abdul-Zahir Naibzada, who was expelled from Herat, but among the casualties was Ismail’s son Mirwais Sadiq – himself ironically a minister with the same government that was backing Naibzada. The Ghaur campaign proved unsustainable, however, when Fahim soon bought off the Murghabi militia and turned it against Ismail’s coalition. Nor was Iran willing to support him to such a risky extent. In September 2004, Ismail accepted defeat and left Herat for Kabul, where Karzai gave him an honourable exit as a minister. Since then Ismail has confined his ambitions to federal politics, running in several elections without ever having a real prospect of winning, and even surviving a Taliban attempt on his life in 2009.

The legacy of the 2003-04 conflict in the west remains. Firstly, the return of commander coalitions fragmented politics, and not always to Kabul’s liking. Yahya Akbari, the veteran Jamiat commander from Ghaur, would later join the Taliban. So would the Nurzai militia founded by Amanullah Khan after he was murdered in the same month as Ismail’s downfall; they would later turn against the Taliban themselves, as would the Murghabi militia that fragmented, some of its elements joining Daaish a decade later. The resultant instability meant that western Afghanistan remains to this day an open field for ambitious military leaders to stake their claim. Among this collection, however, it is unlikely that any will reach the tantalizing height briefly attained by Ismail Khan.

Omar Muhaishi. Libya. It is among the stranger facts in modern history that one of its longest-lasting rulers was Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who seized power in 1969 and ruled for over four decades. Few would have counted on this brash and impolitic young officer to last long with his fanciful notions and wild ambitions, but Qaddafi’s zealous rhetoric and bizarre eccentricities masked a shrewd, ruthless survival instinct that helped him evade or bludgeon many challenges, internal and external, until his luck ran out in 2011. One early lieutenant of Libya’s self-styled “Brother Leader” who saw this early on was Major Omar Abdullah Muhaishi, who went from fervent admirer to embittered opponent within six years of the revolutionary Free Officers’ coup in which both men participated.

Unlike many other Free Officers in the 1969 coup who hailed from poor backgrounds or, as with Qaddafi, from desert clans, Muhaishi came from a comfortably middle-class family of part-Turkish stock in Tripoli. Like the others, he enlisted in the army of the newly independent Libyan state that had been formed by merging the two historic regions – eastern Cyrenaica, or Barqa, with western Tripolitania – and adding the southern Fezzan region, which sprawled into the Saharan desert. Libya had been colonized, quite brutally, by Italy in between the World Wars, and when Italy was routed in the Second World War it came under temporary British custody.

They in turn decided to hand it over to Idris bin Mahdi, the scion of the Sanousi Sufi order that had intermittently distinguished itself in jihad against the colonial powers in Cyrenaica. Idris had no inherent quarrel with the British Empire, and was quite satisfied to wait out their departure from Libya. He, in fact, had only wanted to rule Cyrenaica, and was only persuaded to add the rest of Libya by the British authorities. Nonetheless his entourage, including most of the Cyrenaican troops who comprised his bodyguard, were mostly easterners.

Idris’ reluctance to impose him across the entirety of Libya was characteristic of the man, who by every account was a pious, self-effacing, and entirely reluctant ruler. Unfortunately for Libya, this meant he relied heavily for governance on firstly his foreign contacts, chiefly Britain and later the United States, and secondly on his often less savoury entourage, some of whom amassed great wealth and shady reputations. First among this elite were the Shalhi family, who supplied several members of the Libyan political and military elite.

Idris was not as indebted to the West as Qaddafi would make out – there is some indication that in the immediate years prior to his overthrow, he was preparing to terminate the Americans’ contract in the massive airfield outside Tripoli that was their major interest. But he was always slow, steady, and cautious to the extent that events surpassed him. This applied to his foreign policy, which was far more cautious and thus acceptable to the West than that of his neighbours, and frustrated younger Libyans and even some of his more international aides. In early 1964, for instance, students protesting in favour of Palestine were attacked and injured by the Cyrenaican bodyguard, captained by Mahmoud Bukhuwaitan. When the reformist prime minister Mohieddin Fekini protested, Idris blamed him for the disturbance and sacked him.

To younger officers such as Qaddafi and Muhaishi such a policy seemed increasingly intolerable. Muhaishi first met Qaddafi when both were teenage students, and was immediately swept up by his colleague’s charisma. In the following years they built up a secret “Free Officer” network in the army, based off the Masri precedent that Qaddafi so ardently admired.

Plotting feverishly, the Free Officers made several plans for a coup only to abort them at the last minute. It reached the point that when, at the end of summer 1969, the decisive plot was in its last stages, Muhaishi initially refused to believe it. He was stationed in Cyrenaica when Mustafa Kharroubi, who coordinated the affair, told him to hurry to his unit at Tarhouna, on Tripoli’s outskirts. Once personally ordered by Qaddafi, he rushed to Tarhouna and completed one of the coup’s decisive actions: chasing out the army commander, Abdelaziz Shalhi, who was particularly loathed by the younger officers and was apparently found hiding in his swimming pool.

The September 1969 coup was nearly bloodless; Idris (1951-69), abroad at that moment, was forbidden from return and accepted quietly enough, ending a rule that was rather unfairly maligned by the new regime. Qaddafi took over at the helm of a military junta modelled on the regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, whom he adored and startled by offering up an immediate union with Masr – not the last occasion on which he would make the offer, repeating it to Tunisia as well in the next years. In the subsequent years he would personalize his rule on Libya to an unprecedented extent.

At first, though, Qaddafi was officially only the most prominent of several members in the junta. Others of note included Qaddafi’s future deputy Abdelsalam Jalloud, Omar Muhaishi, Mustafa Kharroubi, Khuwaildi Hamidi, Bashar Awad, Abdelmunim Houni, Ali Hamza, Abdelfattah Younis – who had, according to Qaddafi’s own account, been thrilled to the point of intoxication in the runup to the coup – and Abubakar Jaber. At the very beginning there were also the eastern officers Moussa Ahmed and Adam Hawaz, who occupied the important army and interior ministry. They were not Free Officers, but their contribution to the coup had been important. With only three exceptions, each of these officers would fall out with Qaddafi before his downfall.

Moussa and Hawaz in fact mounted the first challenge to the new junta; in December 1969 they attempted a coup that was easily thwarted and enabled the Free Officers to monopolize the junta. They also dismissed the shortlived prime minister Mahmoud Maghribi – a Palestinian labour activist who had been influential in Libya’s dissident circles. Other optimistic dissidents, such as former prime minister Mohieddin Fekini, were also excluded from politics in spite of their shared criticism of the monarchy. The junta held power, including ministries, and within it Qaddafi progressively held more and more power.

At first this militarized state of affairs was understandable. Though Idris had quietly accepted his retirement, his aides in the former monarchy were harder to dissuade. During July 1970, Idris’ cousin Abdullah Abaid – known as the Black Prince on account of his mixed-ethnic background – mounted an attempted coup, and the next spring Omar Shalhi – brother of Abdelaziz and a particularly loathed prime minister in the monarchy – also made a shot. At least the second attempt, if not both, were aided by British mercenaries. Ironically given their future enmity, it was America’s intelligence who tipped Qaddafi off: they saw the Brother Leader as a bulwark against communism.

Progressively, however, Qaddafi became more and more unilateral and dominated power in the junta. This may have stemmed from his self-proclaimed succession to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who had passed away in September 1970 and whose legacy Qaddafi vowed to continue by waging revolution at home and abroad. The former prospect, and its often thoughtless radicalism, alarmed several junta members; rarely would Qaddafi’s policy live up to his promises.

Perhaps because of his middle-class background, but likelier because he saw through Qaddafi’s superficial intellectual pretensions sooner than the rest, Muhaishi was the first notable dissenter in the Free Officer circle. When in 1971 the Brother Leader accused his colleagues of lacking revolutionary zeal, Muhaishi was so incensed that he drew a pistol on his former hero. He had to be wrestled back and calmed down by Houni and Jalloud. Nonetheless, Qaddafi was at that early stage not yet a tyrant, and the subsequent years passed by reasonably enough even as he concentrated more and more powers under the slogan of revolution.

It was in summer 1975 that Free Officer solidarity cracked beyond repair. By this point Qaddafi had suffered three disappointments; firstly, Tunisia’s Neo-Destour regime had shunned his offer to unite, and secondly Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat had opted to negotiate with the United States and Israel on outrageously generous terms. Qaddafi, whose role in the oil embargo had played a major role in the 1973 war’s aftermath, was understandably bitter and adopted a maximalist stance that ruled out any negotiation: a period of mutual invective transpired between him that would not end until his shortlived attack on Masr in summer 1977.

Before that, the dissidents in the junta finally tired. The sticking point seems to have been Qaddafi’s decision to stack security and military roles with his clansmen, which prompted a coup plan by several colleagues. They included Muhaishi, who seems to have been the lead plotter, along with four alliterative officers: Huwadi, Hamza, Houni, and – the only member of the plan not on the junta – the senior military officer Omar Hariri. Their planned coup was set for August 1975, but the plan was exposed by Qaddafi’s enlarged security service.

Huwadi, Muhaishi, and Hamza escaped into exile; the unfortunate Hariri was caught and subjected to years of imprisonment; while Houni, the most cautious plotter, remarkably remained unsuspected for nearly a year before, pretending to leave for an eye operation, he made his escape to Masr. There Sadat was only too glad to undermine his irritating neighbour, and so helped Muhaishi and Houni set up a dissident officers’ front against Qaddafi, who did the same thing with Sadat’s embittered former army commander Saadeddin Shazly.

Nothing substantial came of these exiled officer fronts. By the 1980s, Muhaishi was suffering mental illness and returned to Libya, no longer seen as a threat. Qaddafi was not as vindictive toward his former colleagues as toward other putative opponents; in 2000 Houni was given an amnesty and also returned. Nonetheless, by this point the Brother Leader had alienated so many former colleagues that several would play a prominent role in his eventual downfall a decade later. These included Abdelfattah Younis, his hitherto fervent interior minister, whose defection to the insurgency was a turning point in the 2011 war that ousted Qaddafi. Houni and Jalloud, too, joined the opposition, while Hariri was rewarded for his years in prison with the honourary position of adjutant-general for the opposition. By the end of the 2011 war, only Abubakar Jaber – who was killed along with Qaddafi at Sirt – remained incontrovertibly loyal to the dictator, and even he had been briefly put on watch when the revolt broke out. In his last days, as in his first, the Libyan dictator had retained a panache for antagonizing his friends.

 

Abdul-Hamid Sarraj. Syria. Before the Baath party established a cruelly totalitarian domination over its political landscape and Hafez Assad over the Baath party, postcolonial Syria experienced a remarkably volatile couple of decades characterized by upheaval, mutiny, coup, and constitutional change – even including a stint in a one-sided union with Masr. The Syrian Baathists were far from the only actors in this drama, whose cumulative effect was to weaken the fractious postcolonial Syrian political class and strengthen the role of an army itself divided into different factions. A leading actor in this development was Colonel Abdul-Hamid Sarraj, the ruthless and disproportionately influential security chieftain who served as Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s top lieutenant in Syria.

Syria’s independence from French rule in the mid-1940s was soon enough followed by the tumultuous war in Palestine, whose effects hit Syrian politics harder than most others. Linked to Palestine by faith, blood, region, and popular sympathy, Syria was along with the far more disinterested new Lebanese state the only democratic country in the region at the time, and as such popular discontent channelled into political turmoil. A number of military officers would take advantage of this turmoil to sideline what was, with considerable exaggeration though not entirely without truth, portrayed as a craven and corrupt political elite. They included army commander Husni Zaeem, who mounted the first coup in spring 1949 but was himself bloodily ousted and executed within months; Adib Shishakli, the exceptionally crafty army second-in-command who, like a spider at the centre of a web, did more than any other individual to entrench military domination in political life before formally seizing power in 1953; and Sarraj, who though he varied sharply in his politics took on the mantle as military strongman after a revolt had ousted Shishakli in 1954.

There were a number of similarities between these strongmen. Curiously, each belonged to the Kurdish ethnic minority, though Arabic by tongue; Zaeem was also half-Circassian. Each had participated in the 1947-48 war; Zaeem had officially captained the Syrian campaign, Shishakli had captained an influential militant front in the Galilee, where he complained of government betrayal, and Sarraj, using his experience in the French gendarmerie, had fought as a foot soldier. Each, in different ways, also sought to expand Syria’s regional influence: Zaeem was among the first postcolonial dictators to court the Cold War superpowers; Shishakli supported Levantine irredentism; and Sarraj would prove a committed pan-Arabist. The main common denominator between them was a mistrust of a Syrian political establishment that they viewed as inherently sympathetic to the Hashimi monarchies in Iraq and Jordan, themselves at the time attempting to establish a pro-Hashimi regional union.

Shishakli actually captained the bloodless coup that Zaeem mounted against Syria’s founder Shukri Quwatli and his hated prime minister Khaled Azm in 1949; he then played a lead role in the bloodier coup, led by Zaeem’s successor as army commander Sami Hinnawi, that killed Zaeem and his prime minister Muhsin Barazi. During this coup, which took place that summer, Sarraj was Zaeem’s personal bodyguard; his own complicity is uncertain. The result of this coup, to Shishakli’s dismay, was that Hinnawi installed the conservative veteran politician Hashim Atasi, whose Shaab Party was pro-Hashimi in its outlook. In December 1949 Shishakli mutinied, forcing Hinnawi out of the army and into exile at Lebanon, where Barazi’s embittered cousin would later kill the unfortunate army commander.

Shishakli was too cunning to take up the lead role himself. Instead he promoted his pliant collaborator Fawzi Sillou to army minister and the popular Damascus commander Anwar Bannoud to army commander; Shishakli served as his deputy, thereby controlling key units and their operations without putting a target on his back. In November 1951 Shishakli formally replaced an exasperated Atasi with Sillou, whom he himself finally replaced in 1953. Such maneouvres were tricks that Hafez Assad would emulate in the 1960s, and Sarraj himself in the late 1950s.

Despite his wile, Shishakli lacked enough ruthlessness to stay in power long. In 1953-54 the wheels came off; he ordered a military campaign against the Druze chieftain and veteran nationalist Sultan Atrash, who was being secretly supported by Iraq. Two months later, Hashim Atasi’s network in the Syrian army – again backed by Iraqi officer Abdul-Muttalib Amin, who served as attache in Damascus – played a major role in a popular revolt that soon gripped Syria’s major cities. Refusing to crack down on this revolt, Shishakli fled into exile; like Hinnawi, he too would later be murdered in 1960.

Sarraj had played a shrewd role in these events. He had backed the 1949 coups – with the possible exception of the coup against Zaeem, though this is by no means certain – the 1951 coup against Atasi, and switched sides during the 1954 revolt. During Shishakli’s period, he had served as attache to Masr, and witnessed the removal of the Albanian Pasha monarchy and the institutional of a military junta at the helm of its republic. Only months after Shishakli’s fall, Masri strongman Gamal Abdel-Nasser ousted the nominal ruler of the junta, Mohamed Naguib, who had been attempting a transition away from military rule. Profoundly impressed with Nasser, Sarraj sought at every turn to repeat his feat in Syria.

The years 1954-58 saw the return of civilian government to Syria, and a relatively thriving political scene. Again, however, such freedom in such a context lent itself to government weakness, not least against maneouvres by the military establishment. The army itself was sharply divided into different camps; the pan-Levantine Ijtimai party, the Baath party, and the Shaab Party each had its share of loyalists, as did the pan-Arabists – what would later become known as Nasserism.

Immediately after Shishakli’s ouster, both the Baathists and pan-Arabists opposed the Ijtimai party, which Shishakli had favoured while banning others. Their main champions among officers at this time were respectively Adnan Malki, the charismatic army second-in-command and linked to the Baathists, and Sarraj who directed security as constable. In April 1955, the leading Ijtimai officer Ghassan Jadid – brother of Salah Jadid, later the Baath chieftain and a rival to Hafez Assad – organized the murder of Malki.

This murder gave the rival officers an unprecedented opportunity both to purge the Ijtimai party – Sarraj leading the way – and cement military domination in the civilian political sphere. Malki was posthumously lionized as a symbol of Syria’s army and interests both – thus tying the pair together. The Ijtimai party was banned and Ghassan Jadid, who fled into Lebanon, murdered by Syrian agents.

In 1956-57, Sarraj spread his talons further. The war between Masr and the tripartite alliance – Israel, Britain, and France – followed Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez canal. Nasser’s popularity in the region soared; not only did pan-Arabists admire him, but so did anticolonial movements and groups of various stripes. This went well beyond the ideological sphere. In heterogenous countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, for instance, he was widely applauded in particular by Sunni Muslims and portrayed as a champion for their cause, as opposed to the British-aligned Hashimi monarchies in Amman and Baghdad. This was especially so because, in the Cold War period, he seemed to be charting a third way between the capitalist West and communist East.

The Suez events were accompanied by a flurry of intrigue, both for and against Masr. In summer 1956, Iraqi army second-in-command Ghazi Daghistani, backed hesitantly by Britain, hatched a plan for a coup in Syria that would oust its worryingly pro-Cairo government. Daghistani, son of the Circassian Ottoman general Muhammad Fazil, loyally championed the Hashimi monarchy, and by extension opposed their competitors. The plan searched for opposition politicians – even Adib Shishakli was contacted, but he soon correctly judged that the idea would never take off and abandoned it. Iraqi collaborators in Syria would mostly come from within the pro-Hashimi Shaab party, and included Adnan Atasi, son of Hashim Atasi. The plan was soon aborted – Daghistani bitterly complained that the Anglo-Americans had never been serious – but it caught Abdul-Hamid Sarraj’s attention, and he quietly began hunting down suspects. In the meanwhile, the Iraqi monarchy itself was subjected to a pro-Masr coup attempt, which soon also aborted.

In winter 1956-57, Sarraj sprang the trap and swept up a number of mostly Shaab-affiliated politicians, including Adnan Atasi. Together with army second-in-command Afif Bizri, he set up a spectacular trial where the defendants were sentenced to death. That this shocked public opinion, even that sympathetic to the pro-Masr camp, reflects the genteel political culture in Syria at the time. While Syrian politics had been unstable for the past decade, it had never been ruthless: former prime minister Jamil Mardam sent a message to Sarraj asking if he had taken leave of his senses. It was a far cry from what would transpire in Syria later on.

In the meanwhile, Sarraj was hatching his own plans, both inside and outside Syria. In spring 1957, he conspired with a Baathist officer, Mustafa Hamdoun, to mutiny against army commander Taufiq Nizamuddin. A dour Kurd with no political ambitions, Nizamuddin was replaced with Bizri, who – though himself pro-communist – was allied with the pan-Arabists at this point. Nizamuddin’s ouster was confirmed by Amin Nafouri, the neutral officer who served as army inspector. It was a replay of the 1949 mutiny by Adib Shishakli against Sami Hinnawi; again key officers were being coopted and balanced into key positions.

Sarraj also ventured abroad; in April 1957 he supported an abortive coup by the Jordanian army commander, Ali Abu-Nowar, against Hussein bin Talal. The young monarch rallied loyalist bedouin fighters to suppress the revolt without bloodshed – Abu-Nowar, whose family was well-connected, was later coopted back into Hussein’s circle – but this was not the last word Sarraj would have in Jordanian affairs. In summer 1960, his deputy Burhan Adham would plan the murder of Jordanian prime minister Hazzaa Mujalli.

Before that, there was one last attempt from an unexpected corner to counter Sarraj’s influence. Khaled Azm, the Damascene tycoon who as prime minister had been targeted in the first 1949 coup, was a uniquely loathed character in military circles: it had largely been under the pretext of opposing his opportunism that the army had first seized power. Now this wealthy landowner made an unlikely alliance with Syria’s tiny, isolated communist party in an attempt to regain influence; he frequently made trips to Moscow. This unlikely alliance raised alarm bells in Washington, where Azm was termed a “red billionaire”, and helped promote the pro-Masr bloc as a viable alternative.

There is no doubt, even among its detractors and repenters, that the idea of union between Masr and Syria was a massively popular one in the late 1950s; no politician could stand firmly against it and survive. Even Syria’s much-weakened formal ruler, Shukri Quwatli, was sympathetic to the idea. In the event, it again took the officers to seal the deal. Afif Bizri, Amin Nafouri, and Abdul-Hamid Sarraj finalized the plan in February 1958; Khaled Azm, the lone dissenter, was bluntly told by Bizri that he faced a choice between Cairo and the prison at Mizzeh.

NNotwithstanding rhetoric, Nasser had never seriously pursued a union with Syria; nonetheless he welcomed this expansion to his influence and immediately dispatched his close military lieutenants – his praetorian commander Abdel-Mohsen Abul-Nour, and later his army supremo Abdel-Hakim Amer – to rule as his viceroys in what was now called the northern province of the United Arab Republic. This move typified the incongruity of the union; Masr had always been a centralized state, and one where the army and security had firmly established themselves with no difficulty. Syria was far more decentralized and fragmented, and the approach that Masr was used to would not work there.

The United Arab Republic’s was a short and generally unhappy existence. Firstly, expectation that it would lead to a wider unionism was thwarted. In Lebanon, an American deployment checked the largely pro-Masr opposition that had agitated against the rightist Maronite ruling class and even briefly contemplating uniting Sunni-majority areas with Masr and Syria. And in Iraq, the Hashimis’ bloody overthrow in a military coup led by Abdul-Karim Qasim did not lead to union with the United Arab Republic. Instead, Qasim purged the pro-Masr officers and charted a separate course, which included violently putting down a pro-unionist mutiny at Mosul in 1959 whose leader, Abdul-Wahhab Shawwaf, was buried at Damascus.

But there were more than regional effects. Most early proponents of unionism in the Syrian political class were soon disabused of their early optimism, as few kept their former influence and opposition parties – even those, such as the Baath, who had backed the merger – were banned. Afif Bizri was among the many Syrian officers purged and bitterly turned toward the communist party.

By the last few months of the union, only Sarraj and his former instructor Jamal Faisal – the former serving as Syrian interior minister, the latter as Syrian army commander retained any power. Sarraj was, in fact, the last Syrian officer to fall out with the arrogant Masri viceroy, Abdel-Hakim Amer, before a mutiny – tacitly backed by Jordan – ended the union in September 1961. With that fallout ended Sarraj’s own career.

But the union, and Sarraj’s role in it, had left an indelible mark on Syrian politics. The nationalization policies it pursued had shattered almost beyond repair the power of the genteel political class that had dominated civilian politics in the 1940s and 1950s. The resultant vacuum was filled by the same sorts of officer blocs among which Sarraj had once thrived; their internecine squabbles would lead to a fresh round of coups that would culminate in the Baathist takeover. But perhaps worst was the uninhibited expansion of the security state, building off the recently built Masri model, in a country that had never known such repression. Sarraj supervised torture, assassination, and mass surveillance to a ruthless extent that helped undermine the early popularity of unionism. This same security state would be massively expanded and institutionalized long after his departure by the Baath regime.

 

FURTHER READING.

For Kamal Adham, see James Cooley’s slightly sensationalist Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America, and international terrorism (2002); it is less sensationalist than other sources.

For Furrukh Ali, see Shuja Nawaz’s Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its army, and the wars within (2008). Nawaz is the younger brother of future Pakistan army commander Asif Nawaz.

For contrasting takes on Ismail Khan – respectively sympathetic and cynical – see Neamatollah Nojoumi’s The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (2002) and Antonio Giustozzi’s Empires of Mud: Wars and warlords in Afghanistan. Nojoumi worked in aid at Ismail’s front and was very impressed with him. Additionally, for further commentary on western Afghanistan as it stands after Ismail’s heyday see my article here

https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2018/11/14/203/.

On Omar Muhaishi, see Jonathan Bearman’s Qadhafi’s Libya (1986). This book has been criticized by some Libyan activists as too charitable to Qaddafi; it does take Qaddafi’s rhetoric seriously but is otherwise, in my opinion, quite fair.

On Abdul-Hamid Sarraj, see Andrew Rathmell’s Secret War in the Middle East: The covert struggle for Syria, 1949-1961 (1995).

I have also referenced in both the Sarraj and Adham pieces the 1958 coup in Iraq: see my review of the decade that transpired https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2018/07/31/iraqs-military-regimes-1958-68-the-bumptious-barracks-of-baghdad/.

This is the third edition of the Wild and Whacky Military Adventurers feature. Its protagonists hail from Saudia, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, and Syria. InshaAllah, I can only hope it brings about historical interest and good things. I begin and end my venture in Allah’s Name.

Wild and Whacky Military Adventurers Part 3 (Feb 2020)

Ibrahim Moiz Copyright Rights Reserved

29 February 2020

Kamal Adham. Saudi Arabia. The early postcolonial period saw several Arab leaders, and several of their states, compete for regional influence. With British-backed monarchies largely discredited or weakened in the 1950s, in the 1960s it was praetorian and at least rhetorically revolutionary Masr that competed with monarchic and largely conservative Saudi Arabia for influence. In the eventual Saudi triumph over Masr, the Saudi spymaster Sheikh Kamal Ibrahim Adham played a substantial role from his role as liaison to occasionally collaborating but occasionally competing interests: Islamic organizations, American intelligence, and his relation by marriage into the Saudi family.

Adham’s sister Iffat bint Mohammad was the most well-known, and widely respected, wife of Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz. They came from a Turkish family that had left the crumbling Ottoman sultanate in the early 1920s, when Adham was still an infant. This period saw Faisal’s father Abdul-Aziz Ibn-Saud – with occasional assistance from Britain and, later, the United States – carve out a veritable empire in the Arabian Peninsula. Though he was supremely disinterested in matters beyond his own realm, Abdul-Aziz’s success as an Arabian conqueror attracted many admirers in the colonized Arab regions, some of whom expected him to emerge as the newest Muslim hegemon. But apart from raiding rival monarchies in northern Yemen and Transjordan, Abdul-Aziz had no interest in adventurous international links in the Muslim world – not least because of his link to Britain and his later even closer links, courtesy their role in oil extraction, with the United States.

The situation changed sharply when the Saudi founder passed away in the 1950s. His sons, Saud and especially Faisal, were keen to expand Saudi influence, and at the expense of British vassals if need be. Jordan and Oman were frequent targets of Saudi-backed tribal raids. The United States, unlike Britain, had no fixed love for the European colonial order: its main concern was fighting communism and on that count it quite agreed with anticolonial Arab leaders – whether of the republican sort, as was Gamal Abdel-Nasser in Masr, or monarchic sort, as were Saud and Faisal. One of the lesser-known facts about the 1950s is that the Saudi monarchy, along with the Zaidi imamate in northern Yemen, were initially on warm terms with the Cairo junta. The activist crown prince Faisal attended that landmark anticolonial rendezvous, the 1955 Bandung conference, and when in 1958 Turkish force assembled on the border of Masr’s merger with Syria, Saud made a largely empty but symbolic offer of military support. Both were viewed fairly benignly as anticommunist friends in Washington at that point.

Two factors changed this. The second, and more important, was Nasser’s sharp leftward shift in the early 1960s, which included a largely rhetorical but undoubtedly influential denunciation of the monarchies. The first had been the fact that Iraqi military officers claiming adherence to his anticolonial brand had slaughtered the Hashimi monarchy in Iraq during July 1958; that the emergent Iraqi dictator, Abdul-Karim Qasim, soon irked Nasser and turned into his rival, mattered less to Riyadh than the fact that one monarchy gone could mean another.

Nor was this fear groundless given Cairo’s bellicose rhetoric. By 1961, North Yemeni imam Nasir Ahmed bin Yahya, hitherto on warm terms with Cairo, was denouncing its economic policy as unIslamic; he had himself survived a murder attempt linked to Masr insofar as it had been secretly plotted by Abdullah Sallal, Nasser’s admirer who would topple Nasir’s son Badr Mohammad the next year. It was at around the same point – in 1962 – that Saudi intelligence, founded and commanded by Kamal Adham, began its operations.

In order to counter Masri pan-Arabism, Riyadh resorted to two plans. The first was to resort to pan-Islamism – hardly a new strategy, given that pan-Islamism dated back decades and had considerable influence in Masr itself – and the second was to denounce pan-Arabism as unIslamic. In both pursuits, Kamal Adham – the founder of the Saudi secret service, set up with considerable help from American intelligence – played a major role.

This is not to say, as leftist ideologue Vijay Prashad has ludicrously done, that this made pan-Islamism an American construct. It dated back decades in the Muslim world, and had influence in South Asia, Southeast Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East. It was also, as events both before and after its linkage to Riyadh would prove, entirely independent of Saudi, let alone American, control. But Riyadh at least had some influence in the sense that it governed Islam’s holiest sites and was, in the 1960s, a place of relative austerity and stern public morality. It was not, as would often be stated later, the only redoubt of such features – they could be found in usually less harsh forms across the Muslim world, from Libya and Yemen to Afghanistan and Mauritania – but its assistance to pan-Islamic organizations, whether political such as the Muslim Brethren or charitable, undoubtedly lent to this impression. What is entirely untrue was that America had any control over this: to be sure, Adham was very close to the Americans, but by the same dint they afforded him considerable autonomy given that both parties shared an antipathy toward communism – another feature that pan-Islamism already had.

What further suited Saudi purposes was that this could paint Masr and its brand of Arab nationalism as inherently secular and irreligious. This was not entirely true; Nasser, despite his crackdown on the Muslim Brethren and his personal secularism, was nonetheless quite willing to entertain religious counterparts. His early popularity had largely rested on Sunnis in mixed-sect countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq; and even in the 1960s, there was little to ideologically differentiate some of his vassals, such as Yemeni republican leaders Abdullah Sallal, from Islamists such as the Muslim Brethren as both attached their concepts of nation to Islam.

But it was true that Masr itself under Nasser’s rule had increasingly embarked on markedly secularist policies, even if less so than ideological competitors such as Baathists and communists. Perhaps most potent for Muslims was that the brand of pan-Islam promoted by Adham eschewed the pointedly Arab focus of pan-Arabism, and was thus attractive to non-Arab Muslims. But it also satisfied American intelligence, as Adham assured, because whereas they had formerly seen Nasser as a bulwark against communism, the Saudis could offer an even more staunchly anticommunist alternative.

The war in northern Yemen was particularly farcical because the Saudi family had no love lost with the ousted Sanaa imamate. Saud and Faisal had commanded military campaigns against them in the 1930s and disliked the inept Badr, who narrowly escaped Sallal’s coup to arrive in Saudi Arabia. But other royals – notably their brothers Khalid and Sultan – firmly backed the imamate, as did Jordan’s monarch Hussein bin Talal. Nasser himself had not planned the coup, but – urged on by his advisor Anwar Sadat, whose cousin Abdul-Rahman Baidani became Sallal’s first prime minister and had prematurely boasted of Badr’s elimination – he decided to back the new order in Yemen.

This dislike for Nasser appears to have spurred on the Saudis more than anything, but they were also possibly worried about the Sanaa coup setting precedent. The Saudi armed forces were in their infancy and by no means reliable: the Saudi family must have taken note when Jordanian air marshal Sahl Hamza, indignant at Hussein bin Talal’s support for the imamate, defected to Masr, and from then on a loyal praetorian force captained by the Saudi prince Abdullah bin Abdul-Aziz was also established. Along with Adham’s intelligence agency, this was a novel development in 1960s Saudi Arabia that survives into the present day.

Not only the United States but also Britain backed Saudi Arabia in the North Yemen war; the British Empire was then facing a partly leftist insurgency, partly influenced by Masr, in South Yemen and furnished plenty of money, weapons, and propaganda to the imamate’s cause. Even Israel tried to get involved, but here the Saudis drew a line: Saudi policy during the latter twentieth century would be to court the United States and attempt to dilute Israeli influence there. In the mid-1960s Saudi Arabia would be – along with Kuwait, Syria, and Masr – among the few states assisting the fledgling Fatah insurgent network against Israel: again Adham’s network was partly in on the action.

The 1960s Yemeni war failed for practically every foreign power. The British were expelled from South Yemen in 1967, and Nasser’s vassal in the Qaumi Liberation Front that had fought them, Qahtan Shaabi, was soon ousted by the communist wing of the Front: the worst possible scenario for Saudi Arabia. The Masri army had itself been forced to fly North Yemen in 1967 after being bogged down for years there; the republic they had established survived but was partly coopted by Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz, who recognized its innate conservatism and saw it as a valuable partner against the communists in Aden.

At the same point as Nasser had lost his vassal Shaabi in Aden, however, he came close to gaining a new one in Riyadh. Daud Rumaih, a Saudi pilot who captained the Dhahran airfield, planned a coup against the monarchy that Kamal Adham soon discovered. Rumaih and his principal accomplice Yusuf Tawil – a Jiddah merchant whose family had long been dissidents in Saudi Arabia – were soon caught; Rumaih was imprisoned, but Tawil appears, in the monarchic fashion typical of the period, to have been coopted into the Saudi elite and became a wealthy merchant.

Adham himself amassed great wealth over the succeeding years, and continued to play a prominent role in regional policy. He had always taken a keen interest in Masr, where his friend Anwar Sadat – whose wedding he had attended in the 1950s – succeeded Nasser and soon shifted Masri policy toward Saudi Arabia. It was on Adham’s advice that Sadat dismissed some sixteen hundred Soviet advisors from Masr in summer 1972, thus ending a decade of Masr-Soviet collaboration and pushing Masri slowly but steadily into the American camp in the Cold War.

The 1973 war, which the Arab countries backed regardless of ideological or structural variances, was also taken by Sadat – with Saudi encouragement – as a step to move Masr toward America, though by the late 1970s he far surpassed Riyadh by negotiating with Israel. By this point Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz had long since been murdered by his nephew, Faisal bin Mutaab, thus neutralizing a possible counterweight to this twist. And Kamal Adham himself had retired, succeeded by Faisal’s son (and thus his nephew) Turki. But Adham’s continuation in pan-Islamic politics continued via his involvement in finance.

By the 1970s Saudi Arabia was financing the World Islamic Rabita, a loose umbrella coalition to which various Islamists hailed with the major aim of upending secularist and in particular leftist trends, many of which misruled Muslim countries at the time. The Rabita was too decentralized and large – essentially a liaison for various organizations – to have been remote-controlled even by Riyadh, and after the Cold War many of its affiliates would become targets of a United States newly committed to fighting “Islamic fundamentalism”. During the 1970s, however, it suited Saudi purposes well.

So did the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan, where Saudi spymaster Turki bin Faisal collaborated with Pakistani and American intelligence – cutting out, as his uncle Kamal had done twenty years earlier, an Israel eager to get in on the act. Money flowed often without account, and Adham was among the most generous traders in this campaign. His partners included the flamboyant Saudi arms dealer Adnan Khashoggi as well as Sadat’s family. In particular he built up close links with the Pakistani merchant Hasan Abedi, who founded a new bank that played a major role in financing the Afghan war.

But Abedi’s bank had further ambitions, which was to compete with and undercut larger international institutions, particularly in their relation with the Third World. In the early 1990s it financed several ambitious projects in Afro-Asian countries, and this – along with an incipient culture of nouveau-riche corruption – put a target on its back. The bank was soon banned, and Adham, as a major supporter, was fined and barred from finance.

This was not an entirely fair crackdown and was at least partly motivated by financial politics; Abedi’s bank was not unique or exceptional in corruption, and its role in Third World finance attracted suspicion that it had been specifically targeted for political purpose. The same fate befell Adham’s political project, the Rabita, many of whose affiliates were vilified and persecuted in a dragnet after 2001. Adham did not live to see it; he passed away in 1999. As far as his former allies in Washington were concerned, he had – like the Nasserites he worked so hard to fight – outlived his anticommunist uses.

Furrukh Ali. Pakistan. Pakistan has had several military coup attempts in its history, about half successful. The only one that handed over power voluntarily to a civilian government was led by Brigadier Furrukh Bukht Ali; equally remarkable is the fact that he tried to upend the same government just over a year later. Ali’s short but momentous career in the early 1970s remains an understudied episode in Pakistan’s civil-military relations.

An artillery officer of no mean skill, Ali was an upright soldier by training, but with no whitewashed illusions of military life or role; he retains to the present day a knack for sharp insight and honesty. Ali fought in both wars under the military regime against India, and it was in the disastrous aftermath of the latter war – over East Pakistan, which became Bangladesh after an Indian attack swung the tide in the Bengali insurgency’s favour – that he flitted into centre stage as Pakistan lurched in crisis. The war had begun in a perfect storm of events over 1970-71 – a regionally and ethnically polarizing election whose result discomfited the military junta in Islamabad; a massive cyclone in the East that took some half million lives; a merciless insurgency spearled by the Bengali ethnonationalist Mukti Army, which targeted in particular the East’s non-Bengali inhabitants; an even more murderous military crackdown by West Pakistani troops; and the opportunistic but widely acclaimed intervention of Pakistan’s archrival India, who capitalized on the turmoil to install Sheikh Mujibur-Rahman, the popular and ruthless leader of the Awami League, as its vassal in an independent Bangladesh.

Mujibur-Rahman and his West Pakistani archrival in the 1970 election, Zulfikar Bhutto, were strikingly similar characters. Both had played a role in the 1969 downfall of military dictator Ayub Khan (1958-69); both were flamboyant, ambitious, unscrupulous, and enjoyed massive popularity in their halves of the country. The December 1970 election – which Mujibur-Rahman, enjoying an open field in the more populous East as compared to a more divided field in the West, had won – had been meant to signal a transition from the military junta led by Ayub’s successor, Yahya Khan. Yahya, quite aware of Mujibur-Rahman’s very real Indian links – that too in a period where any semblance of ethnopolitics was already viewed askance in Pakistani political spheres – had fatefully refused. The subsequent war had not only seen hundreds of thousands of dead, mainly Bengalis in the East, but also broken up Pakistan, resulted in the forced expulsion of East Pakistan’s Bihari citizens, and humiliated the army on whose support Yahya banked.

Furrukh Ali had spent the 1971 war in West Pakistan. He captained the artillery segment of the northern corps facing India from the west. The junta had decided, upon India’s attack in the East, to attack India from the West and thereby open up two fronts in December 1971. But this policy – clumsily and half-heartedly carried out – collapsed entirely. Specifically in the far north, India actually gained some limited ground. What galled Ali, and countless other contemporaries, was not the defeat but the utter ineptitude that corresponded with rank. His own corps commander Irshad Khan – best-known for having given overoptimistic intelligence prior to the 1965 war – had refused to commit the cavalry, and upbraided Ali when he made the suggestion. Ali suspected that this was because the officer captaining the cavalry force in the corps, Mohammad Iskanderul-Karim, was a Bengali soldier by ethnicity; at any rate, he saw it as criminally supine.

The attitude of Irshad’s superiors was little better. When planning the attack from the west, operational director Gul Hassan neglected to consult the key question of air cover for the Pakistani cavalry with his old friend air marshal Abdur-Rahim Khan; not until the attack was mounted did Abdur-Rahim find out, and promptly refuse to commit his new fleet to what he considered a lost cause. The fact that both Gul and Abdur-Rahim were two of the more seasoned, respected officers in the military brass only underlined the dysfunction that seemed to set in from the top. Prior to the attack, the army commander, Yahya’s second-in-command Abdul-Hamid Khan, had dismissed capable field commanders who had raised objections to the garbled plan before the campaign. More gallingly, Abdul-Hamid had been incredibly lax himself during the war, while Yahya reportedly threw himself into drink with abandon that was even more inappropriate at such a crisis point. Such was the (doubtless exaggerated, but much-agreed-upon) reputation for Yahya’s drink that when Abdul-Hamid entered the mess after the war, he was humiliatingly jeered at by soldiers in foul mood, among whose first demands was that liquor be banned from the mess.

For field officers, the shattering defeat was the final straw for an increasingly dysfunctional and discredited junta. Military rule had corrupted the army: the only alternative was a civilian government, for whom the only candidate seemed to have been the leading West Pakistani candidate in the previous year’s election – Zulfikar Bhutto. Ali and a collection of other officers – each in field rank or lower – planned to oust Yahya and force the return of civilian rule.

With the possible tacit knowledge of its commander Iskanderul-Karim, who at any rate made no move to stop him, Ali commandeered the Kharian cavalry division that had been left unused against India, and turned it against the army headquarters. Two other officers played key roles as respective stick and carrot: Iqbal Shah captained the brigade that rumbled up the Grand Trunk Road to menace the army headquarters at Rawalpindi, while Abdul-Aleem Afridi was sent to the headquarters to negotiate with the seniormost officer available, operations director Gul Hassan. Realizing that the junta was done for – and believing that he too would go with it – Gul received the mutineers’ demands; to his surprise, they wanted Yahya and Abdul-Hamid out along with the military rule, but were content to keep him on.

Gul played another key role that endeared him to the mutineers. Abdul-Hamid, hearing about the mutiny, dispatched the quartermaster Aboobaker Mitha – celebrated founder of Pakistan’s commando force – to handle it. Mitha in turn ordered Ghulam Malik to attack the mutineers’ headquarters at Kharian, and for a brief moment it appeared as though a civil war within the army may break out. But an uncertain Malik, realizing the stakes, passed the buck to Gul, who forbade the order. The junta’s last stroke had failed, and Yahya’s rule (1969-71) was over.

In his place swaggered Zulfikar Bhutto, leader of the People’s Party – the first populist party in Pakistan. He faced a daunting task, not only with regard to negotiating the war’s fallout with India but also in stemming off similar centrifugal challenges to Pakistan. With Bengali ethnonationalism having prevailed in the East, there was a real danger that centrifugal forces based on regionalism or ethnicity would surface in West Pakistan’s diverse landscape. In 1970s Pakistan, the People’s Party and the army were the main heavyweight actors for the central state – but, by virtue of its humiliation in war, the army was at first the decided second fiddle.

Bhutto realized this and made sure to rub it in, publicly disparaging the “flabby generals” whom he blamed, not incorrectly but with considerable hypocrisy given his own role, for the fallout. Within three months he sacked both air marshal Abdur-Rahim and army commander Gul, on whose promotion he had himself insisted. That an army famously sensitive of criticism went along is a testament to their shared worry over centrifugalism, even when – as in the war Bhutto mounted in Balochistan during February 1973, in league with its conniving premier Akbar Bugti – they were perfectly aware that the prime minister was abusing the central state’s organs.

But this compliance was also a result of Bhutto’s maneouvres. In Gul’s place he promoted his favoured general Tikka Khan. He was a practiced soldier, but an utterly ruthless one. As governor-general in East Pakistan during 1971, he had callously overseen widespread massacre and collective punishment that had helped turn the Bengali populace firmly against Pakistan. What recommended him to Bhutto was that he had no political ambitions, and was utterly – indeed, as shown in Bangladesh, mercilessly – obedient. With Tikka in the driving seat, many of his lieutenants from the 1971 crackdown returned to the field in the war against the Baloch parari insurgency. While this insurgency was backed, as had been the Mukti insurgency in Bangladesh, by a foreign power – in this case Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Soviet Union – the army was quite aware that Bhutto had exacerbated the issue for his own purpose, and insofar as that purpose involved strengthening the central state at the expense of the periphery they went along.

No sooner had the war begun, though, that the mutineers who had brought Bhutto to power conspired to throw him out. Furrukh Ali and his colleagues from 1971 were not politically ambitious men, but the military junta as well as their role in its removal had persuaded them – and indeed others of their generation – that the coup could be a means to a legitimate end. In this case the lead was taken by more junior officers – Farouk Adam in the army and Wing-Commander Ghaus in the airforce – but Furrukh, as well as Abdul-Aleem Afridi, participated in the plans. Fairly unversed in politics, they read up on a hodgepodge of political theory books in order to decide what should come after Bhutto.

But the opportunity never came. The archloyalist commander Tikka Khan had infiltrated the group, and they were soon caught. Bhutto was enraged and ordered their execution; the army, more tolerant of such chicanery, retained the right to try them. The military court was presided over by an officer already ascendant in Bhutto’s favour: his future army commander and executioner, Mohammad Ziaul-Haq.

The trial itself deserves some further comment, since it contained a multitude of important characters in Pakistan’s history. In addition to the military judge Ziaul-Haq, there was the defendants’ lawyer Aitzaz Ahsan – who fifteen years later would serve Bhutto’s daughter Benazir as interior minister, and in 2007 lead a lawyers’ revolt against the next military dictator Pervez Musharraf. There was also Muzaffar Usmani, later a participant in Musharraf’s 1999 coup who would become his second-in-command before his abrupt dismissal in 2001. Usmani’s role was to request clemency from Ziaul-Haq. As it turned out, Ziaul-Haq was sympathetic and let the mutineers air their grievances. But, under pressure from Bhutto to execute them, he contented himself with handing out prison sentences.

Furrukh Ali spent Bhutto’s remaining years in prison. In an ironic twist, his captor would become his neighbour; when Ziaul-Haq toppled Bhutto in July 1977, he had Bhutto thrown in jail in the cell next to Ali’s before his execution in 1979. Ziaul-Haq had abstained from executing the 1973 mutineers, but it had not stemmed from personal squeamishness. As perhaps the only actor in Pakistani politics who could and did outwit Bhutto, he was in no mood to let him go.

Ali was released later during Ziaul-Haq’s period and by the 1990s he had taken to writing invariably incisive and principled commentary; he commented presciently on the post-Musharraf political elite as one that had learned to split the cake between itself. In the 2010s, he wrote his memoir. It remains a curiosity that a key player in some of the key events of the tumultuous 1970s remains nearly unknown.

Ismail Khan. Afghanistan. The fragmentation and militarization of the never-sturdy Afghan state and society in the last quarter of the twentieth century offered an opportunity to a number of military adventurers to try their hand at filling the vacuum. Few managed this task as convincingly and with such single-minded ambition as General Muhammad Ismail Khan, the self-styled emir of Herat and western Afghanistan. This ambitious, resilient, and often autocratic soldier-turned-rebel-turned-ruler nonetheless managed to establish a functioning statelet in western Afghanistan during a period where most other parts of the country were mired in conflict or misrule.

Ismail is best remembered as an enterprising mujahideen commander in the Jamiat faction during the anti-Soviet insurgency. As a matter of fact his role in Herat has often been exaggerated, partly because he emerged as the longest-lasting and most powerful military leader but also because he had a knack of self-promotion that matched his courage and resilience. Indeed Ismail’s relation with both his formal party, Jamiat, and with its leaders as well as other military entrepreneurs in western Afghanistan would constantly be a troubled and transactional one; his by-every-account-competent and mostly fair rule of Herat, which peaked in the mid-1990s just prior to a Taliban conquest, rested on and eventually foundered on the same principle: he was his own emir, and no organization could hold him for long.

Ismail has often been described as a Tajik commander; in fact he possibly had a mixed family in this ethnically mixed region and was certainly able to speak both Pashto and Dari. He came from the Herat countryside and enrolled in the army in the 1970s, a tumultuous decade for Afghanistan that would culminate in its invasion by the Soviet Union. In 1973, the monarchy was toppled; in 1978, the autocratic republic that replaced it was in turn ousted by a communist coup where, amid bloody communist infighting, the Khalq party came to power. Within months the regime’s tyranny had provoked major revolts in different parts of Afghanistan.

The most tumultuous of these revolts occurred at Herat. The “jewel of Khurasan”, as this historic and cultured city was known, dominated the western Afghan countryside. Not incidentally it was also linked by border and culture to neighbouring Iran, where in February 1979 a massive popular revolt – which featured preachers and officers in upheaval along with the merchant class in bazaar revolt – ousted the hated Pahlavi monarchy. The revolt that exploded in Herat just the following month later bore some of the same features: it had no single leader but a collection of adventurers – including some fairly unsavoury characters – it featured a bazaar revolt in conjuction with mutiny in the army, and finally some level of agitation by armed rebels. Retrospect has often credited Ismail with the leadership of the Herat mutiny, where the governor Abdul-Hai Yatim was killed along with several Soviet advisors; in fact this is not true. There were several mutinies, and the one in which Ismail and his friend Alaauddin probably featured – strictly as participants, not leaders – was led by Ghulam Baloch and Sardar Khan. Pandemonium briefly reigned the city; one particularly unprepossessing militia leader, Sher-Agha Sangar, was announced its governor, but in practice this widespread revolt had no authority.

That made the revolt easy to crush, and it was crushed with savage force. Thousands were killed as the new governor Nazifullah Nujat and a backup brigade from Kandahar, captained by Sayed Mukarram, ploughed into the city, backed by Soviet airstrikes. The mutineers escaped into the countryside and founded a small front in the Free Officer mould, but this soon collapsed and they scattered.

More promising were the conglomeration of largely Islamist fronts appearing in the countryside at this point. Afghanistan’s Islamists had been persecuted and already escaped to Pakistan, attempting a revolt in 1975 before the communist coup. After its failure they had fragmented but now, based in Peshawar, they again had money and weapons to distribute to eager insurgents against an oppressive regime. In the west, as in many other Farsiwan parts of Afghanistan, the Jamiat party led by the Tajik professor Burhanuddin Rabbani was most widespread, and it was this party that Ismail and Alaauddin entered.

Jamiat had many Herati veterans, especially in its party apparatus: most notable, perhaps, was Rabbani’s occasional deputy Nurullah Imad. Such party functionaries were not military leaders, however, and the sheer number of fronts that aligned themselves to Jamiat so far from its headquarters in Pakistan made control different: even the far more centralized Hizb party, which often competed with Jamiat, struggled to control its Herat sector. The most disciplined in ideological terms was a front in and around the city founded by Saifullah Afzali, a veteran of the 1975 revolt; this seems to have comprised militants of the typical student-activist type: fervent Islamists, more disciplined and principled in their dealings than most insurgents, but by the same token unable to win the unyielding collaboration of less sophisticated insurgents. Eventually the Herati Jamiat fronts agreed to name Ali Jamjou their official leader for the province.

Jamjou was chosen for his courage, but his organizational ability was found wanting during the first major attacks on Herat after the Soviet invasion in the early 1980s. When the Jamiat fronts were thrust into disorder during a Soviet assault in early 1982, he relinquished his role voluntarily to the professional officers. The story went that he first offered it to Alaauddin, who in turn offered it to Ismail, who accepted. This story seems to accord with Alaauddin’s subsequent popularity among the various commanders in Herat, as well as the suspicion with which they viewed Ismail.

Ismail, with Alaauddin as second-in-command, soon assembled and organized a force of several thousand Jamiat fighters, organized into military-type ranks. Equally distinctive as their nous in the battlefield was their skill at foreign relations; the pair often went to Iran, and managed to overcome Tehran’s characteristic suspicion of up-and-coming military leaders. While he was always mutually suspicious of the party apparatus, Ismail also struck a personal rapport with party emir Rabbani.

Largely by virtue of both access to money – and a willingness to resort to force when money failed – Ismail managed to attract or annex many fronts in Herat. His leadership was always resented in many quarters, however, not least because he had an autocratic and unilateral leadership style that in particularly disdained anything that could be seen as contradiction. One obedient illiterate, he is proclaimed to have once exclaimed, surpassed a hundred disobedient intellectuals; and the expectation that they would obey, not collaborate, with him antagonized many other commanders. Only the dictions of Islamic law – to which he, more than most commanders, scrupulously conformed – limited his control. And he always had opponents linked to other parties – the regime or other mujahideen factions – among whom a disproportionate amount belonged to the sturdily autonomous Nurzai clan.

Nonetheless, the Hamza Front’s effectiveness was undeniable. In both summer 1982 – the first test of its resilience – and summer 1984 it withstood Soviet counterinsurgency; in 1985 it, along with other Herati insurgency, caused such vexation that the Herat governor Ali Samim had to be withdrawn. Most famous, however, was the campaign in winter 1985-86. It was captained by Juma Asak – a Khalqi Pashtun army officer widely despised in Afghanistan’s periphery – and though it was waged against many different mujahideen factions, it was Ismail who struck the most ringing blow. After the campaign, Asak swaggered back to the Shindand airfield and boasted publicly that he had crushed the insurgency in Herat for good. Hours later, Ismail and Alaauddin dispatched a hail of rockets toward the airfield that sent him scurrying back to Kabul.

Buoyed by a steeply ascendant career, Ismail took another public step: in July 1987 he assembled some twelve hundred military leaders from across western Afghanistan to Ghaur where they discussed collaboration. Little actually came of this episode, but it bolstered Ismail’s profile further as the commander in the wild west.

The mid-1980s saw the further fragmentation of and factionalization between fronts, and western Afghanistan was a case in point. This partly stemmed from the shrewd new dictator, Muhammad Najibullah, and his attempt to turn insurgent commanders into militia commanders on the regime’s behalf; most of Afghanistan’s most notorious warlords would hail from this class. But it also hailed from old-fashioned greed, treachery, and competition among the insurgent commanders. Sher-Agha Sangar, for instance, the nominal leader of the Herat revolt, had been flipped from the insurgency in the early 1980s.

This development presented Ismail with both a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge, obviously, was the risk of defections to regime forces. In 1986 one commander, Daud Ziarjum from the Nurzai clan, switched sides and was soon rewarded with major funds and weaponry that he employed to build up a large militia. Feeling that his Alizai clan was at a disadvantage Ismail’s lieutenant Ahmad Sultani – the main field commander in the famous 1985-86 campaign – promptly switched sides too the next year. Sultani tried to give his defection a moral air – arguing that, since Najibullah was attempting to rebrand the regime from a purely communist to a broadly leftist trend, there was nothing unIslamic about switching sides. But there is no doubt that his move paid handsome material dividends; soon his militia numbered some eight thousand, and by the decade’s end was regularly clashing with Ismail’s forces in and around Herat.

The opportunity that this provided Ismail was that the shrinking pool of insurgent fronts and the rising tide of militia fronts put his competitors among the other mujahideen groups under pressure. Since he was best-equipped and placed to hold off the large militias, many of these commanders – some quite grudgingly – were forced to cooperate with him. He was also fortunate in that other major commanders were killed off. Saifullah Afzali was murdered at Iran, while Naikmuhammad Khan – commander of an autonomous, Jamiat-linked emirate in Badghis province – was also killed by the retreating Soviets. While Afzali’s brother Azizullah took over his front, Ismail capitalized on the infighting in Badghis to get a foothold in the province.

In the early 1990s the Hamza front was so clearly the main game in Herat that the last regime offensive in the province – conducted during spring 1991 – was aimed nearly exclusively at Ismail and Alaauddin, pinning them back in the Hamza stronghold at Zindajan. The attack was captained first by Uzbek officer Abdul-Rauf Begi and then by the Tajik army commander Asif Dilawar, under whose command it appears to have slackened. Nonetheless Ismail’s perseverance won him grudging admiration and paved the way to bigger things, because events in Kabul helped turn the tables.

Najibullah’s militia experiments had finally backfired. Not only had it formed a class of essentially mercenary commanders – epitomized by Abdul-Rashid Dostum, the fearsome Uzbek commander in the northlands – but such commanders prized their regional autonomy above any notions of government-insurgency conflict. Having just used them to ward off a Khalqi coup in 1990, Najibullah tried to restrict the unpopular militias’ power thereafter, partly in order to placate the Khalqis and thus preclude another coup. The final straw came when he promoted Juma Asak, the domineering Khalqi Pashtun archcentralist, as governor-general for Dostum’s northern region. Dostum and his other counterparts promptly switched sides, joining the Jamiat commander in the northeast Shah Masoud and helping him oust Najibullah from power. Officers from Najibullah’s original Parcham party also joined the campaign on often ethnic grounds; Begi joined Dostum’s coalition and Dilawar joined Masoud.

Masoud’s sudden takeover had outfoxed his major rival in the opposition, Hizb emir Gulbadin Hikmatyar, who had been building up his forces in Kabul for years and had even collaborated with Khalq in the 1990 coup attempt. Cheated of the prize, Hikmatyar ordered his western fronts to quickly beat other mujahideen to the prize. Hizb commander Ibrahim Butshikan quickly overran Shindand airfield; Hizb commander Abdul-Qayum Khan was among a coalition who beat Jamiat to capturing Ghaur’s centre Chaghcharan. In Helmand, the Hizb commanders Hafeezullah Khan and Mir Wali went so far as to help the Khalqi garrison beat off an attack by their mutual rival, Rasoul Akhundzada.

Herat city was the prize of western Afghanistan, and here too Hizb commander Juma Pahlawan made a dash for power. But its commander Rahmatullah Raufi preempted a Hizb takeover by instead handing power over to Ismail. This was probably because of Ismail’s origin in the army; he was seen as a relatively safe option. And indeed he proved to be just that. Ismail succeeded in engineering compromises with even his most suspicious competitors among the Jamiat commanders – including Azizullah Afzali, who became sheriff, and Yahya Akbari, who was promoted to mayor. Nonetheless, in these compromises Ismail ascertained that he enjoyed a primacy as the only civil ruler of Herat province. He had shown in the 1980s that he was able to govern, and now –checked only by the Islamic law that he employed for law and order – he became Herat’s self-proclaimed emir.

In early 1990s Afghanistan Herat was nearly unique in its relative tranquility and order. Its proximity to Iran and newly independent Turkmenistan ensured a bustling regional economy. There were other relatively orderly places – eastern Afghanistan was governed by a commanders’ council chaired by the mujahideen Arsala family, as was southeast Afghanistan by the Haqqanis and Masoud’s Panjsher heartland. Even Dostum, whose Junbish confederation of militias now straddled northern Afghanistan, managed to establish some semblance of order if the depredations of his vassals in the mercenary class were ignored. But in no region did anybody enjoy the sort of primacy that Ismail did at Herat.

Nonetheless, the Herat emirate was similar to the other aforementioned other regions of Afghanistan in that its upkeep relied on improvised and transactional arrangements between different commanders. Ismail did not intend to limit himself to Herat, either, and his expansionist policy was partly fuelled by neighbouring developments. In October 1992 two important regional events occurred: Juma Pahlawan, the Hizb commander whom he had beaten to the race for Herat, allied with one of his more unsavoury lieutenants Abdul-Ghaffar Tufan – who had, a decade earlier, actually murdered the Jamiat commander Ali Jamjou whose command Ismail had originally taken. The pair mounted a mutiny, which was easily enough crushed.

The other notable event came in nearby Helmand province. Here, it will be recalled, Hizb commanders Mir Wali and Hafeezullah Khan had collaborated with the Khalqi provincial forces to thwart their rival, Rasoul Akhundzada, six months earlier. Now the Khalqi commander Khano Muhammad summarily purged Hizb, who were forced to escape and plot their return. In what would become a pattern, these three erstwhile rivals from the south – Wali, Rasoul, and Hafeezullah – travelled to Herat, where they found Ismail willing to expand his influence in the south. The plan, additionally aided by Iran and Pakistan, came into action during spring 1993, when the coalition overran Helmand and expelled the Khalq forces.

Ismail was at the peak of his power in summer 1993. Not only did he rule his emirate with effective autonomy but his influence had soared. Even Burhanuddin Rabbani, his nominal ruler in Kabul, and his strongman Shah Masoud could not impose their will on him; he took decisions as he saw fit. This, indeed, galled some Jamiat party apparatchiks in Herat – led by Nurullah Imad – but they were unable to muster support against Ismail.

Unfortunately, Ismail overreached. In autumn 1993, he picked a fight with a bigger and nastier fish – Dostum’s Junbish conglomeration in the north. The original dispute was quite petty; a mujahideen colonel in Badghis Province, Jalaluddin Turlangatai, found himself competed over as a vassal by both Ismail and Dostum’s own vassal in Faryab, Rasoul Pahlawan. This Rasoul was a mercenary commander-par-excellence; member of an influential landowning Uzbek family in the northwest, he had begun his career as a mujahideen commander but switched sides again and again over the 1980s as it suited him; the fact that his brother Abdul-Malek was a member of the Khalq party helped ingratiate him to the regime at that point. Now he was among Dostum’s most violent and ambitious vassals, based at the northwest Faryab province. Dostum, who never quite trusted Rasoul, nonetheless felt compelled to support this powerful vassal in a pinch in order to maintain Junbish power in Faryab.

What followed was an on-and-off war in the Badghis-Faryab region between the Herat emirate and its Junbish rival. This was further compounded by Dostum’s decision, in early 1994, to switch his support from Rabbani and Masoud to their rival Hikmatyar, but even without that national-level contest the feud between Rasoul and Ismail seems likely to have continued. The frontlines did not much change, as both sides were well-matched.

What hurt Ismail more was his decision to open a second front. This was related to his ambitions in southern Afghanistan, where he had made alliances with such commanders as the Akhundzadas in Helmand. In autumn 1994, militia abuses in Kandahar provoked the mobilization of another ambitious emirate – the Taliban – who swiftly overran the province. They were not necessarily hostile to the Akhundzadas, who came from a similar background as them, or to Ismail, who appears to have been viewed with a sort of wary fascination for his success as an emir. Rasoul Akhundzada had recently died, and his brother Abdul-Ghaffar had taken over as Helmand governor. Moreover, early contacts between Kandahar and Herat were quite cordial, since the latter respected and applied shariah. The Pakistani army officer, Sultan “Colonel” Imam, a veteran of mujahideen fights up and down Afghanistan and a committed Islamist ideologue, was on friendly terms with both emirates and took pains to mediate.

But in spite of such similarities, structurally the Taliban emirate was a very different prospect to other regional emirates. Whereas they were built around various loosely aligned commanders, the Taliban were an organization of mainly former foot soldiers and students, among whom few had their own source of firepower. Ismail led his coalition of commanders by virtue of his superior firepower; Taliban emir Umar Mujahid had no such firepower and was more a first among equals in the Taliban command. When the Taliban absorbed a front, they would first disarm it; this ran entirely counter to the prevalent model.

There was already some room for unease when Taliban talks with Abdul-Ghaffar Akhundzada in Helmand and Shah Ghazi, Ismail’s associated mujahideen commander in Farah, foundered. In Abdul-Ghaffar’s case, the talks were actually sabotaged by his competitor, another commander called Abdul-Wahid Baghrani who had a long-running feud with the Akhundzadas and turned the Taliban to his advantage by joining them and helping them capture Helmand. In Ghazi’s case, he initially joined the Taliban but left in protest to Herat after they tried to disarm him. Ghazi was joined by other commanders, including Mir Wali from Helmand and Ustad Abdul-Halim from Kandahar, who had already fought against the Taliban emirate. They urged Ismail to help them, and this pressure was compounded by pressure from both Tehran and Kabul. Tehran also pushed competing commanders, including Zahir Azimi from the Shia Harakat faction and Abdul-Karim Khan from the Baloch minority, to help fight the Taliban emirate. Shah Masoud sent a trusted commander, Najamuddin Wasiq, to help.

Initially the campaign against the Taliban was successful; a series of back-and-forth battles in southwest Afghanistan ended with Herat prevalent and the Taliban military commander Muhammad Akhund slain in the field. But this was where the ruptures in the commanders’ coalition emerged; Azimi and Abdul-Halim both fell out with Ismail. The Jamiat apparatchiks, supported by Burhanuddin Rabbani, mounted a brief “coup” against Ismail that replaced him with Rabbani’s deputy Nurullah Imad, and it was only the fact that Imad had no fighting background that enabled Ismail to wrest back control. Now, however, he had to prove himself against these competing factions, and so at the end of summer 1995 he mounted an ambitious campaign into southern Afghanistan to end the Taliban emirate.

This campaign, featuring tens of thousands of fighters, collapsed spectacularly at the town of Garrashk in Helmand. The Herat coalition was terribly fractious; Abdul-Halim, whose force occupied the centre of the attacking force, quarrelled with Ismail and deserted in the middle of the battle. Panic set in after the vanguard commander, Nasir Ahmadi, was killed and the Herat force collapsed. The Taliban, captained by deputy leader Muhammad Rabbani, rode the momentum and pursued the disintegrating coalition up through southwest Afghanistan and by September 1995 entered Herat.

Ismail’s prestige seemed to have shattered. He was pointedly excluded from the remaining campaigns in western Afghanistan, which were largely organized by Iran and now captained by his former second-in-command Alaauddin Khan. In 1995-96 Alaauddin led a number of Jamiat attacks into western Afghanistan, but these ended when he was outfoxed at Ghaur by Abdul-Ghani Baradar and killed in the field along with the Jamiat Ghaur commander Saleem Khalili. This also happened to eliminate the leading alternatives to Ismail, who was soon back in Iran’s good graces.

In another twist typical of commander politics, Ismail returned via an unexpected avenue: the Pahlawan brothers in Faryab, against whose Junbish forces he had fought just three years earlier. He now brought several thousand fighters from Iran and decamped at Faryab, where the brothers Gulai and Abdul-Malek Pahlawan led Junbish forces. At first this unlikely coalition worked rather well; in 1996-97 they repulsed two attacks by Baradar over the same Badghis-Faryab frontier over which they themselves had fought earlier. But commander politics are an uncertain thing, and this soon brought about another trial for Ismail.

Since 1995, Pakistan had been attempting to draw Junbish into a coalition with the Taliban, a prospect that seems eminently unlikely given the polarly opposed models of the two organizations and was entrenched further by Abdul-Rashid Dostum’s alliance with Shah Masoud in 1996. But Pakistan had more luck with his ambitious vassal, Rasoul Pahlawan, who expressed interest in the idea – only to be murdered in summer 1996, as were other suspected Junbish commanders. Pahlawan’s brothers Abdul-Malek and Gulai suspected Dostum, and a year later – in May 1997 – they themselves switched sides along with Dostum’s cousin and foremost lieutenant Abdul-Majeed Rouzi.

This Junbish mutiny allied with the Taliban commander in the northwest, Abdul-Razzaq Akhundzada, and swept through Dostum’s strongholds in the northwest. One of their first victims was Ismail, whom they handed over to the Taliban emirate; he would spend the next few years in a Kandahar jail. He would also miss the fallout of the mutineers’ alliance with the Taliban just weeks later, when – galled by Abdul-Razzaq’s impolitic attempt to disarm them – the mutineers again switched sides and slaughtered some two thousand Taliban in Mazari Sharif.

Ismail remained in prison for three years. In spring 2000, however, he escaped when his guard, Hikmatullah Hikmati, defected from the Taliban. Hikmati and his father Abdul-Razzaq Baraso – a former mujahideen colonel who had been an aide to Abdul-Wahid Baghrani, the Helmand commander now aligned with the Taliban – smuggled out Ismail from prison along with Abdul-Zahir Arsala, the son of the leading mujahideen commander Abdul-Qadeer Arsala who had been captured in eastern Afghanistan. Unhappily for Baraso, he himself would be imprisoned the following year during the United States’ invasion as a suspected Taliban fighter.

Ismail returned once more to Iran, and again participated in the campaign against the Taliban along with other western commanders. During the American invasion in autumn 2001, Ismail and other western commanders – including his rivals, Zahir Azimi and Abdul-Zahir Naibzada – attacked western Afghanistan from Iran, accompanied by Iranian praetorian commander Rahim Safavi and even American commandos. This unlikely coalition lasted long enough to overwhelm the Taliban garrison at Herat, whose commander Abdul-Hannan Jihadwal conducted a fighting retreat whose main, unwitting feature seems to have been the escape of the Jordanian extremist Abu Musab Zarqawi – then an obscure militant at a camp in the city. After the Taliban emirate’s collapse, Ismail again took over as Herat governor; his son Mirwais Sadiq became a minister in Hamid Karzai’s government, and the opportunity that had been cut short a decade seemed propitious.

Unfortunately for Ismail, 2000s Afghanistan was a different proposition. His Panjsheri collaborator-cum-rival Shah Masoud – murdered shortly before the American invasion – had been succeeded by Qasim Fahim, who served as army minister for Karzai and was united in his dislike of Ismail by the centralist finance minister Ashraf Ghani. Ghani in particular resented Ismail’s control over the western region’s trade – a control he wanted to put under Kabul’s control.

Additionally there were the foreigners. The invasion had been presented as a liberation from extremist Muslims, and this immediately placed Ismail at a disadvantage. He had governed Herat according to a particular form of shariah that had only become more conservative, and this attracted major hostility not only from the government but also from media and activists. Ismail was keen for the Americans to depart as soon as possible, and in this he was supported by Iran. In turn, this presented him to the United States as a pro-Iranian warlord, who they had no intention to support anymore than they needed to. They thus paved the way for Kabul to oppose him.

What proceeded in 2003-04 was the same complex game of commander competition that had characterized Afghanistan a decade earlier. Kabul – in particular Ghani, Fahim, and frontiers minister Muhammad Arif of the Nurzai clan – backed internal rivals to Ismail within Herat, especially Pashtun Nurzai clan leaders such as Amanullah Khan. They also promoted Abdul-Zahir Naibzada to command the Herat garrison, and tried to replace Ismail with Fahim’s Panjsheri lieutenant, Bazmuhammad Ahmadi. At this Ismail snapped, and expelled Ahmadi from Herat in autumn 2003.

The other competition was at the provincial level; Ismail had his collaborator Abdul-Hai Niamati installed at Farah to his south, but Naibzada’s brother Amirshah was installed at Badghis to the north and Fahim’s lieutenant Ibrahim Malikzada was installed at Ghaur to his east. Ismail had friends in Ghaur, however; he supported Mulla Dinnmuhammad against Malikzada in 2003, and when this faltered he hired Ahmad Khan, commander of an especially important and unsavoury militia on the Murghab river, to attack Malikzada. Additionally the Ghauri mujahideen commanders Rais Abdul-Salam and Yahya Akbari, who had an uneasy relation with Ismail but worse ones with Kabul, were turned against Malikzada, and in summer 2004 they expelled Malikzada from Ghaur.

By this point Ismail had already paid a bloody price for his ambition. In spring 2004, he beat off an attack by Abdul-Zahir Naibzada, who was expelled from Herat, but among the casualties was Ismail’s son Mirwais Sadiq – himself ironically a minister with the same government that was backing Naibzada. The Ghaur campaign proved unsustainable, however, when Fahim soon bought off the Murghabi militia and turned it against Ismail’s coalition. Nor was Iran willing to support him to such a risky extent. In September 2004, Ismail accepted defeat and left Herat for Kabul, where Karzai gave him an honourable exit as a minister. Since then Ismail has confined his ambitions to federal politics, running in several elections without ever having a real prospect of winning, and even surviving a Taliban attempt on his life in 2009.

The legacy of the 2003-04 conflict in the west remains. Firstly, the return of commander coalitions fragmented politics, and not always to Kabul’s liking. Yahya Akbari, the veteran Jamiat commander from Ghaur, would later join the Taliban. So would the Nurzai militia founded by Amanullah Khan after he was murdered in the same month as Ismail’s downfall; they would later turn against the Taliban themselves, as would the Murghabi militia that fragmented, some of its elements joining Daaish a decade later. The resultant instability meant that western Afghanistan remains to this day an open field for ambitious military leaders to stake their claim. Among this collection, however, it is unlikely that any will reach the tantalizing height briefly attained by Ismail Khan.

Omar Muhaishi. Libya. It is among the stranger facts in modern history that one of its longest-lasting rulers was Libyan dictator Muammar Qaddafi, who seized power in 1969 and ruled for over four decades. Few would have counted on this brash and impolitic young officer to last long with his fanciful notions and wild ambitions, but Qaddafi’s zealous rhetoric and bizarre eccentricities masked a shrewd, ruthless survival instinct that helped him evade or bludgeon many challenges, internal and external, until his luck ran out in 2011. One early lieutenant of Libya’s self-styled “Brother Leader” who saw this early on was Major Omar Abdullah Muhaishi, who went from fervent admirer to embittered opponent within six years of the revolutionary Free Officers’ coup in which both men participated.

Unlike many other Free Officers in the 1969 coup who hailed from poor backgrounds or, as with Qaddafi, from desert clans, Muhaishi came from a comfortably middle-class family of part-Turkish stock in Tripoli. Like the others, he enlisted in the army of the newly independent Libyan state that had been formed by merging the two historic regions – eastern Cyrenaica, or Barqa, with western Tripolitania – and adding the southern Fezzan region, which sprawled into the Saharan desert. Libya had been colonized, quite brutally, by Italy in between the World Wars, and when Italy was routed in the Second World War it came under temporary British custody.

They in turn decided to hand it over to Idris bin Mahdi, the scion of the Sanousi Sufi order that had intermittently distinguished itself in jihad against the colonial powers in Cyrenaica. Idris had no inherent quarrel with the British Empire, and was quite satisfied to wait out their departure from Libya. He, in fact, had only wanted to rule Cyrenaica, and was only persuaded to add the rest of Libya by the British authorities. Nonetheless his entourage, including most of the Cyrenaican troops who comprised his bodyguard, were mostly easterners.

Idris’ reluctance to impose him across the entirety of Libya was characteristic of the man, who by every account was a pious, self-effacing, and entirely reluctant ruler. Unfortunately for Libya, this meant he relied heavily for governance on firstly his foreign contacts, chiefly Britain and later the United States, and secondly on his often less savoury entourage, some of whom amassed great wealth and shady reputations. First among this elite were the Shalhi family, who supplied several members of the Libyan political and military elite.

Idris was not as indebted to the West as Qaddafi would make out – there is some indication that in the immediate years prior to his overthrow, he was preparing to terminate the Americans’ contract in the massive airfield outside Tripoli that was their major interest. But he was always slow, steady, and cautious to the extent that events surpassed him. This applied to his foreign policy, which was far more cautious and thus acceptable to the West than that of his neighbours, and frustrated younger Libyans and even some of his more international aides. In early 1964, for instance, students protesting in favour of Palestine were attacked and injured by the Cyrenaican bodyguard, captained by Mahmoud Bukhuwaitan. When the reformist prime minister Mohieddin Fekini protested, Idris blamed him for the disturbance and sacked him.

To younger officers such as Qaddafi and Muhaishi such a policy seemed increasingly intolerable. Muhaishi first met Qaddafi when both were teenage students, and was immediately swept up by his colleague’s charisma. In the following years they built up a secret “Free Officer” network in the army, based off the Masri precedent that Qaddafi so ardently admired.

Plotting feverishly, the Free Officers made several plans for a coup only to abort them at the last minute. It reached the point that when, at the end of summer 1969, the decisive plot was in its last stages, Muhaishi initially refused to believe it. He was stationed in Cyrenaica when Mustafa Kharroubi, who coordinated the affair, told him to hurry to his unit at Tarhouna, on Tripoli’s outskirts. Once personally ordered by Qaddafi, he rushed to Tarhouna and completed one of the coup’s decisive actions: chasing out the army commander, Abdelaziz Shalhi, who was particularly loathed by the younger officers and was apparently found hiding in his swimming pool.

The September 1969 coup was nearly bloodless; Idris (1951-69), abroad at that moment, was forbidden from return and accepted quietly enough, ending a rule that was rather unfairly maligned by the new regime. Qaddafi took over at the helm of a military junta modelled on the regime of Gamal Abdel-Nasser, whom he adored and startled by offering up an immediate union with Masr – not the last occasion on which he would make the offer, repeating it to Tunisia as well in the next years. In the subsequent years he would personalize his rule on Libya to an unprecedented extent.

At first, though, Qaddafi was officially only the most prominent of several members in the junta. Others of note included Qaddafi’s future deputy Abdelsalam Jalloud, Omar Muhaishi, Mustafa Kharroubi, Khuwaildi Hamidi, Bashar Awad, Abdelmunim Houni, Ali Hamza, Abdelfattah Younis – who had, according to Qaddafi’s own account, been thrilled to the point of intoxication in the runup to the coup – and Abubakar Jaber. At the very beginning there were also the eastern officers Moussa Ahmed and Adam Hawaz, who occupied the important army and interior ministry. They were not Free Officers, but their contribution to the coup had been important. With only three exceptions, each of these officers would fall out with Qaddafi before his downfall.

Moussa and Hawaz in fact mounted the first challenge to the new junta; in December 1969 they attempted a coup that was easily thwarted and enabled the Free Officers to monopolize the junta. They also dismissed the shortlived prime minister Mahmoud Maghribi – a Palestinian labour activist who had been influential in Libya’s dissident circles. Other optimistic dissidents, such as former prime minister Mohieddin Fekini, were also excluded from politics in spite of their shared criticism of the monarchy. The junta held power, including ministries, and within it Qaddafi progressively held more and more power.

At first this militarized state of affairs was understandable. Though Idris had quietly accepted his retirement, his aides in the former monarchy were harder to dissuade. During July 1970, Idris’ cousin Abdullah Abaid – known as the Black Prince on account of his mixed-ethnic background – mounted an attempted coup, and the next spring Omar Shalhi – brother of Abdelaziz and a particularly loathed prime minister in the monarchy – also made a shot. At least the second attempt, if not both, were aided by British mercenaries. Ironically given their future enmity, it was America’s intelligence who tipped Qaddafi off: they saw the Brother Leader as a bulwark against communism.

Progressively, however, Qaddafi became more and more unilateral and dominated power in the junta. This may have stemmed from his self-proclaimed succession to Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who had passed away in September 1970 and whose legacy Qaddafi vowed to continue by waging revolution at home and abroad. The former prospect, and its often thoughtless radicalism, alarmed several junta members; rarely would Qaddafi’s policy live up to his promises.

Perhaps because of his middle-class background, but likelier because he saw through Qaddafi’s superficial intellectual pretensions sooner than the rest, Muhaishi was the first notable dissenter in the Free Officer circle. When in 1971 the Brother Leader accused his colleagues of lacking revolutionary zeal, Muhaishi was so incensed that he drew a pistol on his former hero. He had to be wrestled back and calmed down by Houni and Jalloud. Nonetheless, Qaddafi was at that early stage not yet a tyrant, and the subsequent years passed by reasonably enough even as he concentrated more and more powers under the slogan of revolution.

It was in summer 1975 that Free Officer solidarity cracked beyond repair. By this point Qaddafi had suffered three disappointments; firstly, Tunisia’s Neo-Destour regime had shunned his offer to unite, and secondly Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat had opted to negotiate with the United States and Israel on outrageously generous terms. Qaddafi, whose role in the oil embargo had played a major role in the 1973 war’s aftermath, was understandably bitter and adopted a maximalist stance that ruled out any negotiation: a period of mutual invective transpired between him that would not end until his shortlived attack on Masr in summer 1977.

Before that, the dissidents in the junta finally tired. The sticking point seems to have been Qaddafi’s decision to stack security and military roles with his clansmen, which prompted a coup plan by several colleagues. They included Muhaishi, who seems to have been the lead plotter, along with four alliterative officers: Huwadi, Hamza, Houni, and – the only member of the plan not on the junta – the senior military officer Omar Hariri. Their planned coup was set for August 1975, but the plan was exposed by Qaddafi’s enlarged security service.

Huwadi, Muhaishi, and Hamza escaped into exile; the unfortunate Hariri was caught and subjected to years of imprisonment; while Houni, the most cautious plotter, remarkably remained unsuspected for nearly a year before, pretending to leave for an eye operation, he made his escape to Masr. There Sadat was only too glad to undermine his irritating neighbour, and so helped Muhaishi and Houni set up a dissident officers’ front against Qaddafi, who did the same thing with Sadat’s embittered former army commander Saadeddin Shazly.

Nothing substantial came of these exiled officer fronts. By the 1980s, Muhaishi was suffering mental illness and returned to Libya, no longer seen as a threat. Qaddafi was not as vindictive toward his former colleagues as toward other putative opponents; in 2000 Houni was given an amnesty and also returned. Nonetheless, by this point the Brother Leader had alienated so many former colleagues that several would play a prominent role in his eventual downfall a decade later. These included Abdelfattah Younis, his hitherto fervent interior minister, whose defection to the insurgency was a turning point in the 2011 war that ousted Qaddafi. Houni and Jalloud, too, joined the opposition, while Hariri was rewarded for his years in prison with the honourary position of adjutant-general for the opposition. By the end of the 2011 war, only Abubakar Jaber – who was killed along with Qaddafi at Sirt – remained incontrovertibly loyal to the dictator, and even he had been briefly put on watch when the revolt broke out. In his last days, as in his first, the Libyan dictator had retained a panache for antagonizing his friends.

 

Abdul-Hamid Sarraj. Syria. Before the Baath party established a cruelly totalitarian domination over its political landscape and Hafez Assad over the Baath party, postcolonial Syria experienced a remarkably volatile couple of decades characterized by upheaval, mutiny, coup, and constitutional change – even including a stint in a one-sided union with Masr. The Syrian Baathists were far from the only actors in this drama, whose cumulative effect was to weaken the fractious postcolonial Syrian political class and strengthen the role of an army itself divided into different factions. A leading actor in this development was Colonel Abdul-Hamid Sarraj, the ruthless and disproportionately influential security chieftain who served as Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s top lieutenant in Syria.

Syria’s independence from French rule in the mid-1940s was soon enough followed by the tumultuous war in Palestine, whose effects hit Syrian politics harder than most others. Linked to Palestine by faith, blood, region, and popular sympathy, Syria was along with the far more disinterested new Lebanese state the only democratic country in the region at the time, and as such popular discontent channelled into political turmoil. A number of military officers would take advantage of this turmoil to sideline what was, with considerable exaggeration though not entirely without truth, portrayed as a craven and corrupt political elite. They included army commander Husni Zaeem, who mounted the first coup in spring 1949 but was himself bloodily ousted and executed within months; Adib Shishakli, the exceptionally crafty army second-in-command who, like a spider at the centre of a web, did more than any other individual to entrench military domination in political life before formally seizing power in 1953; and Sarraj, who though he varied sharply in his politics took on the mantle as military strongman after a revolt had ousted Shishakli in 1954.

There were a number of similarities between these strongmen. Curiously, each belonged to the Kurdish ethnic minority, though Arabic by tongue; Zaeem was also half-Circassian. Each had participated in the 1947-48 war; Zaeem had officially captained the Syrian campaign, Shishakli had captained an influential militant front in the Galilee, where he complained of government betrayal, and Sarraj, using his experience in the French gendarmerie, had fought as a foot soldier. Each, in different ways, also sought to expand Syria’s regional influence: Zaeem was among the first postcolonial dictators to court the Cold War superpowers; Shishakli supported Levantine irredentism; and Sarraj would prove a committed pan-Arabist. The main common denominator between them was a mistrust of a Syrian political establishment that they viewed as inherently sympathetic to the Hashimi monarchies in Iraq and Jordan, themselves at the time attempting to establish a pro-Hashimi regional union.

Shishakli actually captained the bloodless coup that Zaeem mounted against Syria’s founder Shukri Quwatli and his hated prime minister Khaled Azm in 1949; he then played a lead role in the bloodier coup, led by Zaeem’s successor as army commander Sami Hinnawi, that killed Zaeem and his prime minister Muhsin Barazi. During this coup, which took place that summer, Sarraj was Zaeem’s personal bodyguard; his own complicity is uncertain. The result of this coup, to Shishakli’s dismay, was that Hinnawi installed the conservative veteran politician Hashim Atasi, whose Shaab Party was pro-Hashimi in its outlook. In December 1949 Shishakli mutinied, forcing Hinnawi out of the army and into exile at Lebanon, where Barazi’s embittered cousin would later kill the unfortunate army commander.

Shishakli was too cunning to take up the lead role himself. Instead he promoted his pliant collaborator Fawzi Sillou to army minister and the popular Damascus commander Anwar Bannoud to army commander; Shishakli served as his deputy, thereby controlling key units and their operations without putting a target on his back. In November 1951 Shishakli formally replaced an exasperated Atasi with Sillou, whom he himself finally replaced in 1953. Such maneouvres were tricks that Hafez Assad would emulate in the 1960s, and Sarraj himself in the late 1950s.

Despite his wile, Shishakli lacked enough ruthlessness to stay in power long. In 1953-54 the wheels came off; he ordered a military campaign against the Druze chieftain and veteran nationalist Sultan Atrash, who was being secretly supported by Iraq. Two months later, Hashim Atasi’s network in the Syrian army – again backed by Iraqi officer Abdul-Muttalib Amin, who served as attache in Damascus – played a major role in a popular revolt that soon gripped Syria’s major cities. Refusing to crack down on this revolt, Shishakli fled into exile; like Hinnawi, he too would later be murdered in 1960.

Sarraj had played a shrewd role in these events. He had backed the 1949 coups – with the possible exception of the coup against Zaeem, though this is by no means certain – the 1951 coup against Atasi, and switched sides during the 1954 revolt. During Shishakli’s period, he had served as attache to Masr, and witnessed the removal of the Albanian Pasha monarchy and the institutional of a military junta at the helm of its republic. Only months after Shishakli’s fall, Masri strongman Gamal Abdel-Nasser ousted the nominal ruler of the junta, Mohamed Naguib, who had been attempting a transition away from military rule. Profoundly impressed with Nasser, Sarraj sought at every turn to repeat his feat in Syria.

The years 1954-58 saw the return of civilian government to Syria, and a relatively thriving political scene. Again, however, such freedom in such a context lent itself to government weakness, not least against maneouvres by the military establishment. The army itself was sharply divided into different camps; the pan-Levantine Ijtimai party, the Baath party, and the Shaab Party each had its share of loyalists, as did the pan-Arabists – what would later become known as Nasserism.

Immediately after Shishakli’s ouster, both the Baathists and pan-Arabists opposed the Ijtimai party, which Shishakli had favoured while banning others. Their main champions among officers at this time were respectively Adnan Malki, the charismatic army second-in-command and linked to the Baathists, and Sarraj who directed security as constable. In April 1955, the leading Ijtimai officer Ghassan Jadid – brother of Salah Jadid, later the Baath chieftain and a rival to Hafez Assad – organized the murder of Malki.

This murder gave the rival officers an unprecedented opportunity both to purge the Ijtimai party – Sarraj leading the way – and cement military domination in the civilian political sphere. Malki was posthumously lionized as a symbol of Syria’s army and interests both – thus tying the pair together. The Ijtimai party was banned and Ghassan Jadid, who fled into Lebanon, murdered by Syrian agents.

In 1956-57, Sarraj spread his talons further. The war between Masr and the tripartite alliance – Israel, Britain, and France – followed Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez canal. Nasser’s popularity in the region soared; not only did pan-Arabists admire him, but so did anticolonial movements and groups of various stripes. This went well beyond the ideological sphere. In heterogenous countries such as Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, for instance, he was widely applauded in particular by Sunni Muslims and portrayed as a champion for their cause, as opposed to the British-aligned Hashimi monarchies in Amman and Baghdad. This was especially so because, in the Cold War period, he seemed to be charting a third way between the capitalist West and communist East.

The Suez events were accompanied by a flurry of intrigue, both for and against Masr. In summer 1956, Iraqi army second-in-command Ghazi Daghistani, backed hesitantly by Britain, hatched a plan for a coup in Syria that would oust its worryingly pro-Cairo government. Daghistani, son of the Circassian Ottoman general Muhammad Fazil, loyally championed the Hashimi monarchy, and by extension opposed their competitors. The plan searched for opposition politicians – even Adib Shishakli was contacted, but he soon correctly judged that the idea would never take off and abandoned it. Iraqi collaborators in Syria would mostly come from within the pro-Hashimi Shaab party, and included Adnan Atasi, son of Hashim Atasi. The plan was soon aborted – Daghistani bitterly complained that the Anglo-Americans had never been serious – but it caught Abdul-Hamid Sarraj’s attention, and he quietly began hunting down suspects. In the meanwhile, the Iraqi monarchy itself was subjected to a pro-Masr coup attempt, which soon also aborted.

In winter 1956-57, Sarraj sprang the trap and swept up a number of mostly Shaab-affiliated politicians, including Adnan Atasi. Together with army second-in-command Afif Bizri, he set up a spectacular trial where the defendants were sentenced to death. That this shocked public opinion, even that sympathetic to the pro-Masr camp, reflects the genteel political culture in Syria at the time. While Syrian politics had been unstable for the past decade, it had never been ruthless: former prime minister Jamil Mardam sent a message to Sarraj asking if he had taken leave of his senses. It was a far cry from what would transpire in Syria later on.

In the meanwhile, Sarraj was hatching his own plans, both inside and outside Syria. In spring 1957, he conspired with a Baathist officer, Mustafa Hamdoun, to mutiny against army commander Taufiq Nizamuddin. A dour Kurd with no political ambitions, Nizamuddin was replaced with Bizri, who – though himself pro-communist – was allied with the pan-Arabists at this point. Nizamuddin’s ouster was confirmed by Amin Nafouri, the neutral officer who served as army inspector. It was a replay of the 1949 mutiny by Adib Shishakli against Sami Hinnawi; again key officers were being coopted and balanced into key positions.

Sarraj also ventured abroad; in April 1957 he supported an abortive coup by the Jordanian army commander, Ali Abu-Nowar, against Hussein bin Talal. The young monarch rallied loyalist bedouin fighters to suppress the revolt without bloodshed – Abu-Nowar, whose family was well-connected, was later coopted back into Hussein’s circle – but this was not the last word Sarraj would have in Jordanian affairs. In summer 1960, his deputy Burhan Adham would plan the murder of Jordanian prime minister Hazzaa Mujalli.

Before that, there was one last attempt from an unexpected corner to counter Sarraj’s influence. Khaled Azm, the Damascene tycoon who as prime minister had been targeted in the first 1949 coup, was a uniquely loathed character in military circles: it had largely been under the pretext of opposing his opportunism that the army had first seized power. Now this wealthy landowner made an unlikely alliance with Syria’s tiny, isolated communist party in an attempt to regain influence; he frequently made trips to Moscow. This unlikely alliance raised alarm bells in Washington, where Azm was termed a “red billionaire”, and helped promote the pro-Masr bloc as a viable alternative.

There is no doubt, even among its detractors and repenters, that the idea of union between Masr and Syria was a massively popular one in the late 1950s; no politician could stand firmly against it and survive. Even Syria’s much-weakened formal ruler, Shukri Quwatli, was sympathetic to the idea. In the event, it again took the officers to seal the deal. Afif Bizri, Amin Nafouri, and Abdul-Hamid Sarraj finalized the plan in February 1958; Khaled Azm, the lone dissenter, was bluntly told by Bizri that he faced a choice between Cairo and the prison at Mizzeh.

NNotwithstanding rhetoric, Nasser had never seriously pursued a union with Syria; nonetheless he welcomed this expansion to his influence and immediately dispatched his close military lieutenants – his praetorian commander Abdel-Mohsen Abul-Nour, and later his army supremo Abdel-Hakim Amer – to rule as his viceroys in what was now called the northern province of the United Arab Republic. This move typified the incongruity of the union; Masr had always been a centralized state, and one where the army and security had firmly established themselves with no difficulty. Syria was far more decentralized and fragmented, and the approach that Masr was used to would not work there.

The United Arab Republic’s was a short and generally unhappy existence. Firstly, expectation that it would lead to a wider unionism was thwarted. In Lebanon, an American deployment checked the largely pro-Masr opposition that had agitated against the rightist Maronite ruling class and even briefly contemplating uniting Sunni-majority areas with Masr and Syria. And in Iraq, the Hashimis’ bloody overthrow in a military coup led by Abdul-Karim Qasim did not lead to union with the United Arab Republic. Instead, Qasim purged the pro-Masr officers and charted a separate course, which included violently putting down a pro-unionist mutiny at Mosul in 1959 whose leader, Abdul-Wahhab Shawwaf, was buried at Damascus.

But there were more than regional effects. Most early proponents of unionism in the Syrian political class were soon disabused of their early optimism, as few kept their former influence and opposition parties – even those, such as the Baath, who had backed the merger – were banned. Afif Bizri was among the many Syrian officers purged and bitterly turned toward the communist party.

By the last few months of the union, only Sarraj and his former instructor Jamal Faisal – the former serving as Syrian interior minister, the latter as Syrian army commander retained any power. Sarraj was, in fact, the last Syrian officer to fall out with the arrogant Masri viceroy, Abdel-Hakim Amer, before a mutiny – tacitly backed by Jordan – ended the union in September 1961. With that fallout ended Sarraj’s own career.

But the union, and Sarraj’s role in it, had left an indelible mark on Syrian politics. The nationalization policies it pursued had shattered almost beyond repair the power of the genteel political class that had dominated civilian politics in the 1940s and 1950s. The resultant vacuum was filled by the same sorts of officer blocs among which Sarraj had once thrived; their internecine squabbles would lead to a fresh round of coups that would culminate in the Baathist takeover. But perhaps worst was the uninhibited expansion of the security state, building off the recently built Masri model, in a country that had never known such repression. Sarraj supervised torture, assassination, and mass surveillance to a ruthless extent that helped undermine the early popularity of unionism. This same security state would be massively expanded and institutionalized long after his departure by the Baath regime.

 

FURTHER READING.

For Kamal Adham, see James Cooley’s slightly sensationalist Unholy Wars: Afghanistan, America, and international terrorism (2002); it is less sensationalist than other sources.

For Furrukh Ali, see Shuja Nawaz’s Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its army, and the wars within (2008). Nawaz is the younger brother of future Pakistan army commander Asif Nawaz.

For contrasting takes on Ismail Khan – respectively sympathetic and cynical – see Neamatollah Nojoumi’s The Rise of the Taliban in Afghanistan (2002) and Antonio Giustozzi’s Empires of Mud: Wars and warlords in Afghanistan. Nojoumi worked in aid at Ismail’s front and was very impressed with him. Additionally, for further commentary on western Afghanistan as it stands after Ismail’s heyday see my article here

https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2018/11/14/203/.

On Omar Muhaishi, see Jonathan Bearman’s Qadhafi’s Libya (1986). This book has been criticized by some Libyan activists as too charitable to Qaddafi; it does take Qaddafi’s rhetoric seriously but is otherwise, in my opinion, quite fair.

On Abdul-Hamid Sarraj, see Andrew Rathmell’s Secret War in the Middle East: The covert struggle for Syria, 1949-1961 (1995).

I have also referenced in both the Sarraj and Adham pieces the 1958 coup in Iraq: see my review of the decade that transpired https://layyin1137.wordpress.com/2018/07/31/iraqs-military-regimes-1958-68-the-bumptious-barracks-of-baghdad/.

3 responses to “Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part 3

  1. Pingback: Emirates and Central States | layyin1137

  2. Pingback: “Black September” 1970: Anatomy of a State-Militant Fallout | layyin1137

  3. Pingback: Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part Eight | layyin1137

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: