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Military Adventurers and Modern History Part 4


Ibrahim Moiz

Copyright and rights reserved


This fourth edition in the military adventurers series features characters from Iraq, Bangladesh, Azerbaijan, Somalia, and Masr. It features barracks politics, military ebbs and flows, and the perilous pursuit of power. I begin and end this with Allah’s Name and with prayers for His protection against and removal of the malady that has infected much of the world.


Arif Abdul-Razzaq. Iraq. The Free Officers who brought down the Iraqi Hashimi monarchy in July 1958 and ruled an exact decade before their own overthrow by the Baathists were beset from the outset by feud and competition. Geopolitical differences played a major role and in particular Iraq’s relation with Masr, then the leading Arab republic whose own Free Officers’ coup had been the model for its Iraqi imitators. In this contest one officer with particular fervour for Masr was the daring air marshal and shortlived prime minister Brigadier Arif Abdul-Razzaq Rawi. The two coup attempts he mounted against the mildly pro-Masr regime of the Arif brothers in 1965-66 showed that even the pro-Masri camp was split in the fractious Free Officers’ junta.

As with most Free Officers – and indeed Iraqi army officers of the period – Abdul-Razzaq hailed from Sunni Arab stock, coming from the Euphratian town Rawa. At the start of the 1950s, the Iraqi government seemed to be one of the more formidable Middle Eastern regimes: it dwarfed its Hashimi cousin Jordan, and similarly had a relatively well-trained and well-equipped army. This army had been inherited from the Ottoman garrison in Iraq, but had since the First World War been trained by the British Empire with whom the monarchy was closely allied.

But it was precisely this British link that imperilled the Iraqi monarchy. The legitimacy that their respected lineage and the relative capability of their governance could have enjoyed were offset by the fact that they were closely linked to the most hated European empire in the region. This dislike for the British empire was to be found in many quarters of Iraqi society, not least the army. For if the first generation of officers that served the regime had largely comprised First World War defectors from the Ottoman ranks who had worked with Britain – such as the Anglophile general Nuri Saeed, who served many terms as prime minister – the second and third generations resented British suzerainty. Since the 1930s, there had been several coup attempts and mutinies, most infamously with German support during the Second World War where a British expedition needed to be dispatched from neighbouring Transjordan to recover Iraq.

The success of the Masri Free Officers in ousting a pro-European monarchy was therefore viewed with admiration and some envy in Iraq. When Masri dictator Gamal Abdel-Nasser successfully took on the hated tripartite powers – Britain, France, and Israel, as hateful a concoction as could be imagined in the 1950s Middle East – the admiration reached an exuberance that was keenest in an Iraqi army who felt ready to repeat the Masri feat. The Iraqi government itself had hardly been averse to officers in politics, Nuri being the most infamous example, when they served its interests, and so it was unprepared to confront the rising tide of mutinous officers. Already as the Suez war was raging, there was organization by different networks of Free Officers, among whom Arif Abdul-Razzaq was a member with a particular admiration for the Cairo regime. The Iraqi Free Officers were far more disparate and disorganized than their Masri namesakes, however, and it took them several abortive plans before they struck gold.

In July 1958, a bloody coup captained by Abdul-Karim Qasim and Abdul-Salam Arif ousted the monarchy; in the ensuing bloodbath both the hated Nuri, long a favourite target of Masri invective, and the ruling family including the young ruler Faisal II bin Ghazi and his hated uncle Abdulelah bin Ali were slaughtered. Arif Abdul-Razzaq, then an airforce officer, participated in the coup. But that was the peak of the Free Officers’ cooperation; no sooner had they seized power than they fought bitterly over it – a prediction made, with some irony, by Nuri himself when he had suspected a plot.

The original dispute had to do with Masr. In February 1958 Masr and Iraq’s neighbour Syria had merged to form the United Arab Republic. It was widely expected, especially among the Sunni population from which most Iraqi Free Officers hailed, that Iraq should follow suit. Even the Sunnis in Lebanon, then in revolt against its pro-European Maronite establishment, had fancied the idea, and in their case it took a hasty preemptive American expedition just days after the Iraqi coup to quell the idea.

But Qasim, prime minister and strongman in the new regime, had no intention of subordinating himself to Nasser: this refusal soon earned him the hatred of Cairo as well as many, perhaps most, other Iraqi Free Officers. He soon sacked his optimistic second-in-command Abdul-Salam Arif, who had jauntily predicted an incorporation into the United Arab Republic, and moved quickly to sideline or crush other officers with pro-Masr proclivities, many of whom had begun to plot against him. If Qasim’s instinct in avoiding union was correct – the United Arab Republic, dominated by a heavy-handed Cairo, collapsed in 1961 – his methods justified the pejorative nickname that Masri propaganda had lent him – the Divider, or Qasim, of Iraq. Far more than other Iraqi rulers, he failed to commit to any one side and rope-danced incessantly between various factions; he was never ruthless enough to eliminate any single faction but played them off each other in a classic divide-and-rule strategy.

The most galling faction to Qasim’s opponents was the Iraqi communist party. While communism’s threat to the Middle East was widely overblown in many other places, the Iraqi communist party boasted a large and secretive underground with perhaps the first from the many major militias in modern Iraqi history. Years of dodging crackdowns by the monarchy had given it experience; the Soviet Union bordering Iraq’s northland gave it support; and it recruited heavily among Iraqi minoritarians who disliked other forms of anticolonial nationalism with Muslim or Arabophone overtones. But along with minoritarians, it also attracted defectors from Shia Islam, which was followed by a slight majority of Iraqis and had a large and unenfranchised urban underclass.

Communism was viewed by other anticolonial Iraqis with the same gall with which the monarchy had viewed it, and Qasim himself had no ideological sympathy with it. But political expediency meant he tolerated it more than would most regional rulers and initially used the party militias to fight off challenges from the army – most notably in the spring and summer of 1959 when the Iraqi communists helped crush unionist factions in Mosul and Kirkuk. After their excesses in these operations attracted indignation, he condemned them and distanced the regime from them in a typical maneouvre. A similar pattern followed his relations with the Kurdish clans in northern Iraq and lost their trust, so that Mala Mustafa, the Barzani chieftain who had originally helped him in the late 1950s, became a sworn opponent by the early 1960s, when a long-running and slow-burning war erupted in the Kurdish-dominated northlands by peshmerga insurgents.

Qasim outlived the United Arab Republic, but he only enjoyed the satisfaction for a little over a year. In February 1963, he was ousted and killed in a coup between two long-hostile factions that he had refrained from eliminating. The first and more dominant was the Baath party, represented in the army by Hasan Bakr. Bakr’s young cousin Saddam Hussein had participated in an attempted hit on Qasim in October 1959; though badly wounded, the Iraqi dictator had characteristically refrained from signing the would-be assassins’ execution order in what would be a fateful decision for Iraq’s future. He had already made the same decision, fatefully for himself, in refusing to execute or imprison the leader of the second, unionist faction, Abdul-Salam Arif.

The coup began on a Ramadan morning when the air marshal – Jalal Auqati, a prominent communist officer – was murdered at home. Arif Abdul-Razzaq and a Baathist officer, Mundhir Wandawi, promptly commandeered the Habbaniah airfield outside the capital. As Bakr and Abdul-Salam captained a cavalry force from Abu Ghuraib toward Baghdad, Qasim and his inner circle fled into the army ministry, which was bombarded by planes personally flown by Abdul-Razzaq, Wandawi, and their confederates. As tanks pounded the ministry from outside, the last-ditch attempt was led by the communists, who despite their difference with Qasim realized the attackers’ sentiment toward them. The ministry was at last breached when Abdul-Karim Nusrat, another Baathist officer, led a commando force airlifted onto its roof. Abdul-Salam entered the ministry and had the perhaps cruel satisfaction of interrogating his former leader before ordering his summary execution.

Though Abdul-Salam Arif formally ruled Iraq, the first nine months after the coup were dominated by the Baathists, with Hasan Bakr as prime minister. Commissioned by American intelligence, hitlists on suspected communists were circulated among a growing Baathist militia that murdered, intimidated, and tortured the once-feared communist party out of existence by managing to outdo it in violence. It was not until November 1963 that Abdul-Salam, capitalizing on one of the interminable feuds within the Baathists, felt emboldened to act against them. He swiftly purged the Baathists, who were forced into flight – partly because two of their leading officers, army commander Tahir Yahya and air marshal Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, backed the purge. Tahir, who abandoned the Baath party, was rewarded with a promotion to prime minister as Abdul-Salam banned the party and denounced its crimes.

The Baathists, whose party counterparts had by that point seized power in Syria, were not quite finished. In September 1964 air marshal Hardan secretly planned the murder of Abdul-Salam when he had flown abroad to Masr. Narrowly surviving the attack, Abdul-Salam took precautionary measures by appealing to his alliance with Masr, the bitter rival of the Baathists. Gamal Abdel-Nasser dispatched a large cavalry force to Baghdad, captained by the future Masri army commander Ibrahim Oraby with instructions to protect Abdul-Salam against a coup. Ironically enough, it was at this time that Abdul-Salam established Iraq’s praetorian force – later to become expanded and rendered internationally famous as a tool for Saddam Hussein’s Baathist regime to counter a military coup, but in fact originally founded by a military regime against the Baathists and largely comprising Abdul-Salam’s kinsmen in the Jumaili clan, such as its founder Saeed Sulaibi. Thirdly, Abdul-Salam replaced air marshal Hardan – who had escaped abroad – with Arif Abdul-Razzaq, a known follower of the unionist socialism had become known as Nasserism and thus reliable as an opponent of the Baathists.

In this role, Abdul-Razzaq had to pay attention to the war in the northlands against the Kurdish peshmerga insurgents. From the outset the major feature of the Iraqi campaign, given peshmerga supremacy in highland warfare, was aerial bombardment, which was also the main bludgeon for an Iraqi military not yet inclined to butcher Kurds. Abdul-Razzaq’s predecessors, the communist commander Auqati and the Baathist commander Hardan, had both overseen aerial bombardment, and so briefly did he when talks with the peshmerga broke down and another expedition, captained by Abdul-Salam’s elder brother Abdul-Rahman, was dispatched north in spring 1965 – failing, like its predecessors, to dispel the insurgency.

Meanwhile Abdul-Salam faced grumbles at home from the same circles that he had galvanized against Qasim. Though he had denounced Qasim’s failure to unite with Masr and largely followed Cairo in geopolitical affairs, the new Iraqi dictator showed no more inclination than his predecessor in merging with Masr. Of course the United Arab Republic had collapsed and thus exhausted any realistic prospect of union, but even so Abdul-Salam had enlisted the support of unionists in his coup against Qasim and faced pressure from them.

From an ideological viewpoint he had always been far too conservative and traditional a character, as had been many early Free Officers, to have anything but misgivings about the radical socioeconomic leftward shift that Nasser had begun to show in the 1960s, epitomized in Masr’s patronization of the pan-Arab radical Qaumia network led by the Palestinian ideologue George Habash. Abdul-Salam, who had always worn his Sunni Islam on his sleeve, felt uneasy about Masr’s steady persecution of such Islamists as Sayyid Qutb, on whose behalf he appealed to Nasser in 1965 and managed to have an execution sentence briefly overturned. He was very wary of socialist economics, and only agreed to it when it was emphasized as a tool to cement Iraq’s geopolitical advancement and his place in its history; even so, he never followed up on it. Nor was Nasser particularly helpful in themes that immediately mattered to the Iraqi junta; he refused Iraqi requests to deploy the Masri cavalry that he had sent in 1964 against the peshmerga, viewing it as a petty internal struggle. In fact he was rather sympathetic to the peshmerga, whose leader Mala Mustafa he invited to Cairo at one point.

Abdul-Salam’s hesitation in joining with Masr smacked of opportunism to the Nasserites in his cabinet, such as the senior minister and veteran Free Officer Subhi Abdul-Hamid. They were particularly resentful of Tahir Yahya, the prime minister who had abandoned the Baathists in 1963 and was seen as sly, vain opportunist. In July 1965, Abdul-Salam took the advice of his kinsman and praetorian commander Saeed Sulaibi and decided to placate the Nasserites by replacing Tahir with Arif Abdul-Razzaq, the air marshal. Coopting the Nasserites could placate them; moreover, it was believed that Abdul-Razzaq, who only accepted the promotion to prime minister on the condition that he maintain his control of the airforce, had more interest in military than political affairs. Events soon proved this a sharp misjudgement.

In fact the faltering military campaign in the northlands and Nasser’s refusal to support it, which had dimmed Abdul-Salam’s enthusism for Cairo, produced quite the opposite reaction in Abdul-Razzaq and other leading commanders – including army inspector Hadi Khammas and operations commander Muhammad Majid. They believed that if Iraq merged with Masr, Nasser would be consider the peshmerga problem his own and would commit to it; he only needed a push.

In September 1965, Abdul-Salam Arif flew abroad again and Abdul-Razzaq, like Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar the previous year, pounced at a coup. Aiming to neutralize the leading loyalists – praetorian commander Sulaibi, Abdul-Salam’s brother army commander Abdul-Rahman, and interior minister Abdul-Latif Darraji – he summoned them intending to imprison them. Meanwhile Muhammad Majid led a cavalry force from Abu Ghuraib to repeat the coup formula. Unfortunately for them, Sulaibi sniffed a trap and immediately summoned the loyalist guard, supplemented by sheriff Abdul-Hamid Abdul-Qadir with police forces. Sulaibi and Abdul-Qadir, who had persuaded Abdul-Salam to promote Abdul-Razzaq only two months earlier, now played a lead role in scattering his plan. But Abdul-Razzaq managed to escape; Darraji permitted him to fly out to Cairo on the condition that the coup be kept secret, so that appearances could be maintained. This was quite unwise, given that Iraqis could hardly fail to notice the tanks in Baghdad, but nonetheless Abdul-Razzaq took the opportunity and made his escape.

With his mutinous prime minister out, Abdul-Salam needed a replacement and so promoted the only civilian prime minister in the Free Officers’ decade in power. This was the professor Abdul-Rahman Bazzaz, a widely respected writer whose anticolonialism was moored in a strongly Islamic viewpoint, as opposed to the increasingly secularist bent of the Nasserites and the always secularist bent of the Baathists, and who was seen with some sympathy by the Arifs and other early Free Officers who had always been wary of radicalism in any direction. Among other things, Bazzaz believed that appeals to shared Islam could foster an Iraqi nationalism that reconciled Arabs with Kurds, and so set out to reconcile with the peshmerga insurgents.

Abdul-Salam Arif had survived several coup attempts, but he could not escape fate; a plane crash put paid to him, Darraji, and some others in April 1966. His diffident, pliable elder brother Abdul-Rahman was promoted by the junta to replace him, and probably intended more as a compromise candidate. The combination of each Abdul-Rahman – the dovish Bazzaz and the weak Arif, neither particularly popular with the army – must have encouraged Abdul-Razzaq, as must the fact that the peshmerga, who never seemed to have been any more serious about peace than the army, scored a morale-shattering triumph against in May 1966, in which over a thousand troops were slain.

In June 1966, Arif Abdul-Razzaq plotted his second coup against an Arif brother within the space of a year. Unlike the previous coup, which had surprised Nasser, this one was abetted by George Habash’s Qaumi network and was therefore also probably known to Cairo. It was also assisted by Hadi Khammas – the only plotter in the 1965 coup to escape detection – and Mosul commandant Yunus Attarbashi, another seasoned unionist officer who had been tried during Abdul-Karim Qasim’s period for pro-Masri sedition. Attarbashi commandeered the airfield at Mosul and invited Abdul-Razzaq to fly in, where they planned to provide air cover while Khammas prepared the formulaic attack on Baghdad.

Fortunately for Abdul-Rahman Arif, the praetorian guard snapped to attention again; its new commander, Bashir Talib, promptly routed the attackers while Khalil Jasim, a seasoned field commander in the northlands, quickly arrested Abdul-Razzaq and Attarbashi. Considered a weak stopgap ruler, Abdul-Rahman had suddenly won a resounding win. But he too could not capitalize decisively on it; not only did he agree to let Abdul-Razzaq, whom he had upbraided as a dangerous adventurer, loose into exile but he also decided to preempt military unrest by removing prime minister Bazzaz and replacing him with a seasoned Free Officer, Naji Talib, with whom he had collaborated in the 1958 coup.

As it happened, Abdul-Rahman’s leniency would backfire. The circle that the Arif brothers had gathered around them had by now become embittered against the ideological Nasserites, and viewed Abdul-Razzaq’s release as a sign of weakness. This was one of several grievances that would prompt two of Abdul-Rahman’s closest aides – army spymaster Abdul-Razzaq Nayef and praetorian commander Ibrahim Daud – to secretly reach out, with American help, to the Baathist officers Hasan Bakr and Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar. In July 1968 – a full decade after the Free Officers first took power – this unlikely coalition mounted a bloodless coup against Abdul-Rahman Arif, and immediately purged both Nayef and Daud as well to fully replace the Free Officer junta with a full-fledged Baathist dictatorship. Internecine intrigues had cost the Free Officers their early promise; in this respect, Arif Abdul-Razzaq’s 1965-66 adventurism was simply the most spectacular episode in a long-running series.

Abu-Taher, Lieutenant-Colonel. Bangladesh. Bangladesh was born in a period of major bloodshed, both before, during, and after the war that yielded its independence in 1971. Its founder Sheikh Mujibur-Rahman, charismatic leader of the Bengali ethnonationalist Awami League, would himself preside over a tyrannical regime whose predations only exacerbated the massive challenges on a country reeling from the aftermath of war and natural disaster. This contributed to the fragmentation of the solidarity that had characterized Bangladesh’s push to independence, and the emergence of alternate power blocs. This fragmentation in turn manifested in a series of mutinies from the mid-1970s onward, whose first victim was Sheikh Mujibur-Rahman himself. A leading player in the convulsions that ended the founding regime’s chokehold and brought to power the more competent Lieutenant-General Ziaur-Rahman was the charismatic and dangerous army adjutant Lieutenant-Colonel Abu-Taher, a radical leftist officer who briefly commanded significant enough influence for his own necessary elimination by his former mate.

As young men, both Ziaur-Rahman and Abu-Taher had joined the Pakistan army, and joining the new commando force established by Aboobaker Mitha. Both won merit for gallantry in the 1965 war against India, and the more senior Ziaur-Rahman in particular was considered a model officer. This was no mean feat given the systemic hurdles against Bengalis in several Pakistani institutions, not least the army.

Indeed Ayub Khan, the military dictator in the period and a firm believer in British-inherited ideas, made no secret of his disdain for Bengalis and other ethnic groups he felt lacked military ardour. Much of Bengali society in turn resented the army, whose modest deployment in East Pakistan during the 1965 war was seen as an indication of the neglect in Bangladesh. So too was the removal of Ayub’s popular governor-general, Azam Khan, a West Pakistani officer who made considerable effort to reach out to the Bengali populace but was viewed as a potential competitor by Ayub.

Bengali ethnonationalism, particularly focusing on the issue of language, had been a dissident factor in East Pakistan from the outset. The subcontinent’s partition in the late 1940s had been a clumsy and improvised affair, leavened by considerable bloodshed, and the setup of what became West and East Pakistan, separated geographically by the sprawling Indian mainland, epitomized the awkwardness of the arrangement. Because Urdu had been given the pride of place as Pakistan’s national language, the issue of language became a particular sticking point for dissident Bengalis such as Mujibur-Rahman, who made a name for himself as an energetic and popular student activist for the Awami League. Unlike most other dissidents, Mujibur-Rahman also reached out to Pakistan’s sworn enemy India in the late 1960s; he was caught but soon released because of the unrest his arrest sparked.

In fact Ayub’s regime – competent but inescapably elitist in its makeup – was tottering by this point, shaken by mass protests in both East and West Pakistan. Mujibur-Rahman was the best-known leader in the East; Ayub’s former foreign minister Zulfikar Bhutto in the West. But this period also saw the spread of more radical ideologies such as Marxism, particularly in an East whose student politics had tended to lean further left anyway. The Marxists, who would eventually include Abu-Taher himself, would soon prove no friendlier to the Awami League than its better-known Islamist opponents.

Yahya Khan, who led the junta that replaced Ayub, announced an election for December 1970. A particularly devastating flood, which the government was in no way equipped to handle, presaged the election and contributed to the ethnic and regional polarization as Bhutto and Mujibur-Rahman emerged as the major contenders for West and East respectively. It helped Mujibur-Rahman that the main alternative Eastern leader, popular preacher Abdul-Hamid Bhashani, stood down; the West was by contrast divided, and Mujibur-Rahman handily won. But Bhutto raised a furore, and the junta – quite aware of Mujibur-Rahman’s links to India – could not bring themselves to hand over power, and frantic but vain negotiations soon commenced.

By this point the Awami League’s clandestine armed wing, which became known as the Mukti Army, had already commenced operations. Its early exploits focused largely on terrorizing non-Bengalis – particularly the Urdu-speaking Biharis, who were painted as a fifth column en masse in classic ethnonationalist style and would be wiped out within the year – through pointedly sadistic acts of murder, torture, and rape that were intended to send the message to non-Bengali communities as a whole: the number of victims was never satisfactorily measured in one of the twentieth century’s less-known attempts at ethnic cleansing.

But this relatively small if bloodthirsty core of the Mukti Army, which would be painted by Pakistani propaganda to include Bengali dissidents at large, could not have and did not win over the bulk of the populace had it not been for a murderous state crackdown in spring 1971, overseen by the newly promoted governor-general Tikka Khan. This was no mere counterinsurgency sweep but one that effectively turned into a savagely murderous collective punishment on the bulk of the Bengali populace. As West Pakistani troops wrested back urban cities in the East and swept through the countryside, thousands were killed while plunder and rape became common. Because Hindus figured disproportionately in Bengali ethnonationalist thought, their temples were picked out for special treatment.

Along with its alienation of Bengali society at large, the crackdown alienated most Eastern officers in the army – including most famously Ziaur-Rahman, who in a mutiny commandeered the Chittagong garrison and announced Bangladesh’s independence before his expulsion. The fact that so many officers as Ziaur-Rahman, who were neither ethnonationalists by persuasion nor inherently hostile to Pakistan – indeed, Ziaur-Rahman had been seen as a model officer until then – gives lie to the idea that the Bengali insurgency, which benefited India geopolitically, was an Indian concoction from top to bottom.

Tikka’s crackdown succeeded in its immediate aim – driving the Mukti Army out of East Pakistan and into Indian exile, along with a massive flow of refugees. The problem for Pakistan was that with them went a large proportion of its Bengali soldiery, trained troops who knew both the lay of the land as well as the character of the Pakistani army – quite intimately. In India, the Mukti Army, formerly no more than a petty terrorist outfit, attracted thousands of recruits to graduate into an insurgent army. Many of its recruits were only nominal affiliates, but this did not hold for the revamped Mukti command structure, which was dominated by Bengali army defectors. The official military commander was Attaul-Ghani Osmani, a veteran officer in the Pakistan army jilted for promotion who could now exceed his ambitions by becoming the first army commander in an independent Bangladesh. Ziaur-Rahman, already probably the best-known field commander, helped bring in his old commando counterpart Abu-Taher, who had been in West Pakistan during the crackdown but had summarily defected and sneaked into India.

Now Mukti commanders, Ziaur-Rahman and Abu-Taher first targeted northern East Pakistan – the shortest route to the capital, Dhaka. Unfortunately for them, it was also the best-defended; in the north more than elsewhere, Pakistani garrisons – isolated and outnumbered though they were – fought ferociously. This was nowhere truer than at Kamalpur, the strategic village commanding the entrance to the Jamalpur district. Garrisoned by only sevenscore troops and a resolute captain in Ahsan Malik, it held out some six months against encircling attacking forces – first the Mukti insurgents, and then from December onward the Indian army – that dwarfed it in size. At first Ziaur-Rahman focused on hit-and-run attacks; in the autumn, when the Mukti Army began more targeted assaults, he handed over command to Abu-Taher with instructions to storm the garrison.

In October 1971 Abu-Taher began the first of several attempts to take Kamalpur by storm. As a dashing officer who tended to lead from the front, he was badly wounded and shipped off to treatment in India, where his leg was amputated. But the result was no dishonour to Abu-Taher; when India formally entered the war in December 1971, a full brigade backed up by Mukti forces could not break the Kamalpur garrison. So impressed was Indian army commander Sam Manekshaw by the defenders that he singled out Malik for especial praise after the war. Manekshaw could afford to be generous because by then India and her Mukti allies had won the war, rendering such dramatic battles a mere sidepiece in the war’s outcome.

Bangladesh was officially independent under the rule of Sheikh Mujibur-Rahman. But from the start Mukti officers, especially those who had defected from Pakistani colours and inherited Pakistani suspicions of New Delhi, balked at India’s domination of their independence. Even the formal surrender of East Pakistan by Pakistani corps commander Abdullah Niazi to Indian corps commander Jagjit Aurora conspicuously lacked any Bengali presence. Very soon Mukti commanders began to balk at Indian domination of the proceedings; another field commander, Mohammad Abdul-Jalil, for instance objected to Indian troops plundering supplies in what was meant to be an independent country.

In truth, whatever else the foibles of Pakistani propaganda, it had been correct in the sense that Sheikh Mujibur-Rahman – if not his supporters en masse – was beholden to India, and this awkward reality did not gratify those Bengalis who had taken the Awami League founder at his word. Not only did Mujibur-Rahman face a daunting prospect in rebuilding a war-shattered country – that too while militias only loosely and nominally linked to the official Mukti commnd wrought havoc in the countryside – but the new state of affairs belied his own claims. For the Awami League had at least hinted at Bengali irredentism – uniting East Bengal, that is to say the new Bangladesh, with West Bengal, the Indian province. And this Mujibur-Rahman could not do, given both India’s key role in Bangladesh’s triumph and his own personal dependence on New Delhi.

This gulf between promise and reality soon galled many segments of Bangladeshi society. Mujibur-Rahman had always faced an uphill task, but this was further compounded by his own regime’s predatory and extractive nature. Basking in the their own glow as liberators, the Awami League regime and in particular its leader’s personal network did little to address the endemic challenges that Bangladesh faced – whether plunder and rapine, natural disaster, poverty, or international difficulty.

The officers’ segment of the Mukti Army was relatively quickly organized into a new Bangladeshi army, with Attaul-Ghani Osmani as its commander and Abu-Taher as its adjutant-general. But this did not address the question of “freedom fighters” only barely attached to the organization who in many cases formed their own fiefdoms. Some of them – such as the Maoist Sarobohora faction, which had been founded by the young communist student Siraj Sikder in summer 1971 – were ideologically hostile to the regime, which they regarded as an Indian puppet; soon Sikder, joined by a military officer Mohammad Ziauddin, would mount an outright Maoist insurgency. Others set about privately intimidating non-Bengalis, leading to unrest and even a regional insurgency in the Chittagong hills that would outlive the Awami regime.

Mujibur-Rahman’s main response to the militia problem was to set up a personal militia, trained and controlled quite blatantly by India to an extent that the Mukti Army had never been, and captained by his nephew, Fazlul-Haque Moni, who had led the Awami League youth wing. This increasingly personalized rule around his own network was typical of Mujibur-Rahman, who as early as the first month of independence had sacked his prime minister Tajuddin Ahmed and would rule singly until disturbances forced him to adapt in 1975.

Ironically given their hitherto closer relations with the Awami League, it was the Bangladeshi left that first challenged the Awami regime. Marxists and Maoists were no more impressed with Mujibur-Rahman’s Indian links than had been Pakistan’s Islamist collaborators in the war, and they were doubly resentful of his misrule. In 1972 Serajul-Alam Khan, a disenchanted co-founder of the Awami party militia, joined student activist Hasanul-Haque Inu and the military field commanders Abu-Taher and Mohammad Abdul-Jalil in founding the Marxist Samajtantrik party.

The Samajtantrik armed wing, founded brazenly by Abu-Taher even as he served as army adjutant-general, dabbled in insurgency. Abu-Taher had by this point embraced what was a popular military subculture in many countries around the world, based off the Chinese model in the 1960s. It rejected the traditional military discipline and hierarchy and called for an overhaul in preparation for a “people’s army” comprising the masses – this being the tactic that Mao Zedong had used in China. As such, the Samajtantrik militia included both soldiers, among whom the charismatic and brooding Abu-Taher was quite popular, as well as students, who were led by Ino. They employed a more gradualist approach than had Sikder and Ziauddin, but their ultimate aim was to topple the Awami regime.

In the event they were beaten to the punch. In August 1975, a group of disgruntled mid-ranked army officers formerly close to the palace, led by Syed Faruque, burst in on Mujibur-Rahman and slaughtered him, along with his family. They had complained of various grievances from Awami leaders and their families, which he had blithely dismissed. The mutineers’ response was a bloodcurdling slaughter of Mujibur-Rahman, Moni, and their entire family – except his daughters, including future Awami ruler Sheikh Hasina, who were then in Europe. Though the mutineers were far from his leftist views, Abu-Taher openly welcomed the move, commenting that the only mistake had been to leave the victims’ corpses to be buried as potential sites of respect; the killers should, he coldly remarked, have tossed Mujibur-Rahman’s corpse into the Bay of Bengal.

The regime that replaced the Awami League was quite the opposite of a leftist one, but more to Abu-Taher’s immediate purposes it sought to expunge the Awami past. Mujibur-Rahman’s closest lieutenants, including Tajuddin Ahmed, Mansur Ali, Syed Nazrul-Islam, and Mohammad Qamaruzzaman – each of whom had served in the top level of government – were imprisoned and a disgruntled minister, Moshtaque Ahmed, was promoted to rule. It was he who promoted Abu-Taher’s old friend Ziaur-Rahman to the army command, partly because Ziaur-Rahman’s misgivings about the ancien regime were known.

Moshtaque did not last long. In November 1975, he ordered the murder of the four imprisoned Awami leaders. On the same day, Khaled Mosharraf – another field commander from the 1971 war, who resented Ziaur-Rahman’s failure to punish Mujibur-Rahman’s killers – seized control; he imprisoned Ziaur-Rahman, took over the army, and ousted Moshtaque, replacing him with the chief justice Abu-Sadat Sayem.

Alarmed at the prospect of an Awami resurgence Abu-Taher sprang into action. He and his Samajtantrik student comrade Hasanul-Haque Inu mobilized both soldiers and students in revolt, and he rushed to personally free his former commander Ziaur-Rahman from prison. Within days Ziaur-Rahman, who enjoyed considerable stature within the army, had wrested back control; Mosharraf was killed and Ziaur-Rahman emerged as the military strongman.

But to Abu-Taher’s nasty surprise, that was the end of Ziaur-Rahman’s dalliance with the left. Unlike the radical leftists, Ziaur-Rahman’s personal inclinations were distinctly traditional; in particular he was alarmed at the very idea of the “people’s army” of which Abu-Taher dreamt. No sooner had he maintained control than he ordered the imprisonment, on treason charges, of the same longstanding comrade who had just freed him. For the most part Ziaur-Rahman, who would formally take over from Sayem as Bangladeshi ruler in 1977 and found his own party, was a more amenable and equitable ruler than had been Sheikh Mujibur-Rahman: he managed, for instance, the long overdue task of reconciling the Bengali majority with ethnic minorities. But when his position was threatened, as it would be on several incidences in the following years, he could be ruthless – and this was nowhere better displayed than his treatment of his rescuer, jailed only days after the rescue and executed in July 1976.

So ended the brief and turbulent career of the one-legged Abu-Taher. From the many officers who thrust their way into the centre of political life, his had been the shortest career – largely because his Marxist ideas of a classless society were no more palatable to an army command that correctly perceived them as a danger to not only societal norms but also to military discipline. Many Mukti veterans, from many different political factions, rejected dominion by their erstwhile Indian “rescuers” as well as the personalized Awami League regime: Abu-Taher was the most notable and dangerous rejectionist from the leftist wing.

Surat Husseinov. The collapse of the Soviet empire in the early 1990s brought a sudden vacuum to many regions and lands once suffocatingly dominated by an unprecedentedly intrusive state. The vacuum tended, however, to give way to regional conflicts in various parts of the former Soviet Union, which provided an opportunity to ambitious adventurers, often with no political or military background, to carve out influence with money and militias. Such a case is found in the career of factory owner-turned-warlord-turned-prime minister Colonel Surat Davudoglu Husseinov, who played a brief but key role in Azerbaijan’s war over Nagorno-Karabakh and its transition to stability.

Like several other peripheral regions in the Soviet Union, Azerbaijan had had a shortlived emirate – a republic in the early 1920s – before its annexation by Moscow. For the majority of the Soviet period, the South Caucasus region experienced a stifling stability. Azeris – unlike their more assertive Armenian neighbours, who entered several key apparatuses in the Soviet state – were underrepresented in the Soviet centre. The leading exception was Moscow’s man in Azerbaijan for several decades: Haydar Aliev, a graduate of the Soviet secret service who in the 1970s became the Soviet Azerbaijan party secretary – effectively Azerbaijan governor-general – and in 1982 was promoted even higher, to Moscow’s central politburo where he served as deputy prime minister.

Aliev’s experience was unusual among Azeris, but he was widely recognized as a competent and calculating bureaucrat. The same could not be said of his successors Kamran Baghirov and Abdurrahman Vezirov, during whose tenures in the remaining 1980s Azerbaijan joined a growing number of Soviet regions in turmoil. The costly war in Afghanistan, the entrenched corruption in the Soviet state, and the clumsy attempts in the latter 1980s by Soviet dictator Mikhail Gorbachev to liberalize each contributed to the system’s decay and eventual collapse. This was compounded by the rise of ethnic or regional nationalisms in various Soviet regions, including the South Caucasus where a steady polarization emerged between Armenians and Azeris. The economic liberalization, meanwhile, meant that economic managers formerly controlled but now unshackled by the Soviet state could spend their funds to exercise wealth and power, often in a growing black market.

Surat Husseinov was one such entrepreneur. Having served in the Soviet army and then worked in Russia, he had returned to the South Caucasus to supervise a textile factory in the 1980s. The wealth and economic leverage he attained, through legal or extralegal means, was not unusual: Gorbachev’s twin reforms, glasnost in the political and perestroika in the economic sphere, saw many such characters emerge. In Azerbaijan, partly in response to neighbouring Armenian nationalism and particularly to dignify their own shortlived republic, much of the emerging upper and middle classes contributed to the formation of a specific Azeri nationalism, often strongly imbued with ethnic Turkic connotations. The leading Azeri nationalist front was the Xalq party, whose founders – Abulfaz Elchibey, Isa Gambar, Etibar Mammadov, Panah Hussein, Rahim Qaziev, and others, a mixture of merchants and academics – would emerge as major leaders in the 1990s.

The advance of nationalism was not a peaceful process: the late 1980s saw increased ethnic violence in the South Caucasus, often between irredentists of Armenian or Azeri background. This was particularly unfortunate because the region was ethnically mixed; though Armenia in the west was dominated by Armenians, and Azerbaijan in the east by Azeris, there were two large enclaves awkwardly cut off by land from their fellow ethnic enclaves. These were the largely Armenian Karabakh region in southwest Azerbaijan, and the largely Azeri Nakchivan region to the west of Armenia. Armenia separated Nakchivan from Azerbaijan proper; Azerbaijan separated Karabakh from Armenia. An outsize proportion of both Armenian and Azeri elites moreover came from these landlocked regions – Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the future founder of independent Armenia, was an Armenian irredentist from Karabakh, while Haidar Aliev was the seniormost of many Azeri elites from Nakchivan. In the late 1980s, Aliev – sacked by Gorbachev from Moscow on dubious grounds – returned to his home region Nakchivan, whence he plotted his comeback. But it was over Karabakh that conflict would break out.

As a rule the Soviet authorities, while batting down militants from both quarters, tended to favour the Armenians, who also enjoyed a sympathetic world press on account of the large Armenian diaspora and the popular impression that Azerbaijan was the enclave of stodgy Soviet dependents. In fact Azerbaijan’s dependency on Moscow meant that the latter could deal with it with impunity; when the latest in a series of pogroms targeted Armenians in Azeri capital Baku at the turn of the decade, the Soviets stormed the city and replaced the ineffectual governor-general Vezirov with Ayaz Mutalibov, another veteran party apparatchik.

In fact, however, the old Soviet-period elites were almost entirely discredited; Aliev, cunningly biding his time in Nakchivan, was an exception. Mutalibov was widely attacked by the Azeri Xalq Front, who furthermore benefited from his support to the failed 1991 coup in Moscow. That coup spelt the downfall of the Soviet Empire. Armenia had already declared their independence in 1990, armed, and organized to take Karabakh with both their army and the militia set up by the self-proclaimed Artsakh emirate in Karabakh capital Stepanakert. Azerbaijan was left scrambling to catch up, which they never quite accomplished throughout the war.

The few Azeris who had served in senior Soviet positions –officers such as Dadakh Razaev, a battle-hardened veteran of Soviet campaigns in Ethiopia and Afghanistan – were tasked with organizing Azerbaijan’s army, but from the start the dysfunction in Baku precluded any organization. Instead, even as the political elite squabbled and sniped in Baku, Azeri military entrepreneurs improvised in setting up militias, occasionally with help from Turkey, the only regional government to openly back Azerbaijan against its Armenian foes.

One such militia was founded by Xalq loyalist Iskander Hamidov, a Kurdish Xalq militiaman who would later become interior minister, but this was mostly involved in hard-charging security operations in Baku. Another Xalq leader who became part of a fast-changing assembly line of army ministers in early 1992, Rahim Qaziev, helped introduce Chechen fighters – captained by Shamil Basaev, later the legendary military commander of Chechen forces against Russia. A future interior minister, Rovshan Javadov, and his brother Mahir likewise organized an underground militia linked to their putative Takamul Party.

But it was Surat Husseinov who most ably employed his wealth and his political links – with Russia – to set up his own militia. He was tacitly aided by the Russian garrison in the western city Ganja, not far from the frontline; though the Russians tended to prefer Armenia, they appear to have seen in Husseinov a useful asset who in turn viewed Russian cooperation as essential for Azerbaijan’s interests. Before long this militia proved itself not only in fighting the Armenians but also rival Azerbaijan forces.

By spring 1992, Azerbaijan’s morale was at a low ebb. The Armenians had broken their siege of Stepanakert by capturing the highpoints to the city’s east, and a furious blame-game ensued both at the popular and political level. In the latter, the Xalq leader Abulfaz Elchibey and Isa Gambar capitalized on the emergency to oust the unpopular Mutalibov. Though the process was legally conducted through parliament, the lingering presence of Iskander Hamidov’s militia served as a grim threat. While Gambar presided over an interim cabinet, an election was quickly arranged. Elchibey won at the helm of the Xalq party; tellingly, however, the runner-up Nizami Suleimanov, a professor with little political experience, openly campaigned on returning the “aksakalli”, or greybeard, back to power. This aksakalli was Haidar Aliev, that shrewdest of Azeri leaders; he would, proclaimed Suleimanov, bring stability and order back to Baku.

Elchibey entered office with high expectations, but these would soon be dashed as the Xalq government proved itself politically inept. In particular its diplomacy was a letdown; whereas the party was initially viewed with optimism abroad by governments that considered Mutalibov a Soviet relic, Elchibey’s unrealistic insistence on Turkic irredentism soon alienated whatever potential backers there were. Turkey, the only regional government unequivocally sympathetic, was hardly willing or able to unify with Azerbaijan. Russia was displeased, as was a West where Armenian diasporas exercised strong influence. And Iran, whose own northwest Azeri province bordered Azerbaijan, responded to the threat of irredentism by backing Armenia.

Surat Husseinov, with his Russian contacts, could hardly have sympathized with the Xalq government. In July 1992, he scored a notable coup when his militia burst upon the Artsakh-controlled Martakert district and captured it. This rare Azeri advance in the war was widely celebrated by the relieved regime in Baku, but the noose was tightening around Elchibey’s own neck. It had not been his Xalq forces, after all, but an autonomous militia commander quite unfriendly to his own pan-Turkic imaginings who had done the deed. Another critic of Elchibey’s romanticism, the hardheaded Haidar Aliev, was prepared to move by 1993. He was – ironically enough – helped by Turkey, whose ruler Suleiman Demirel was an old personal friend and who had helped ensure the safety of the Nakchivan emirate during his years there.

Matters spiralled during Jume 1993. First the Russian garrison suddenly vacated Ganja. Realizing that they intended Surat Husseinov, then stationed at the frontline town Aghdam, to replace them, Abulfaz Elchibey immediately dispatched a force to garrison Ganja. The importance he assigned can be seen by the senior members who led this force: they included Dadakh Razaev, the seasoned “soldier’s soldier” then serving as army minister; Fahmin Hajiev, the Xalq loyalist who supervised security in Azerbaijan; and attorney-general Ikhtiar Shirinov. Unluckily for them Husseinov not only won the race but beat off their attack, capturing Shirinov in the process. The unfortunate attorney-general was then told to sign a warrant for Elchibey’s own arrest. Leaving the war front, Husseinov set off east toward Baku to finish off the deed.

Elchibey’s problems were only worsened by the return of Haidar Aliev. It was either desperation or extraordinary naivete that had made him agree to the ambitious, calculating Aliev’s return to Baku. Perhaps he thought that Turkey would protect him, or perhaps he thought that the former Soviet leader’s international stature could help Azerbaijan out. In either case, he had agreed to the Turkish proposition to replace Gambar as parliamentary speaker with Aliev. In so doing he tightened the noose around his own neck; as Surat Husseinov marched on Baku, Aliev was in prime position to pick up the pieces.

In fact Husseinov’s first demand was simply that the government sack its prime minister, Panah Hussein. But his malign intentions for Elchibey could hardly have gone unnoticed, and so the Xalq leader – in over his head from the outset – quietly fled the capital. The toss-up for power was now between Aliev and Husseinov; in the ensuing negotiation, Aliev took over power – now leading his old roost for the first time as an entirely independent ruler – and Husseinov served as prime minister, although only after having assured his own control over security and military affairs. The price was the fall of the frontline town Aghdam, which Husseinov had unceremoniously abandoned in his marches to Ganja and Baku; the shrunken garrison, captained by Talib Mammadov, was ousted the very next month.

Russia could hardly have expected a better outcome than the Aliev-Husseinov partnership; following one more vain campaign, the Azeri government agreed to a ceasefire with Armenia, signed at Bishkek at the mediation of Kyrgyz diplomat Medethan Sherimkulov, in May 1994, over loud objections from a Xalq Party still smarting from its ouster. This also seems to have annoyed Surat Husseinov and more so his interior minister Rovshan Javadov. Javadov, among the earlier and more successful militia commanders in the war, had just returned to Pakistan, where he had contacted Afghan Hizb emir Gulbadin Hikmatyar recruited several hundred Afghan fighters from Hizb commander Fazil-Haq Mujahid. With these reinforcements planned a winter attack on the southern front against Karabakh forces; this had to be abruptly called off and the Afghans, profoundly unimpressed with their adventure, returned home.

But Aliev had no intention of serving as Russia’s cat’s paw; like Turkey, with whom Azerbaijan’s relations would continue to be warm, he soon assisted the Chechen revolt led by yet another veteran of the Soviet army, Dzhokhar Dudaev, in autumn 1993. Prime minister Surat Husseinov, however, wanted to take advantage of his friendship with Russian army minister Pavel Grachev – the very commander overseeing the ruthless campaign against the Chechen revolt.

Husseinov had already attempted to wangle in his handpicked army minister, Mammadrafi Mammadov, into a pro-Russian front. Mammadov indeed authorized the station of Russian troops in Azerbaijan without the consent of Aliev, who furiously retracted the order. Thus cowed, Mammadov carefully obeyed Aliev and avoided Husseinov’s more confrontational approach. More to Husseinov’s chagrin, Aliev agreed to let international oil companies access Azerbaijan’s large energy resources, in the so-called “deal of the century”.

By the end of summer 1994, Aliev was facing opposition from several different quarters. Most notable was Surat Husseinov, his prime minister who accused him of compromising Azeri security by angering the Russians. Next was Rovshan Javadov, who still commanded influential militia forces in Baku and called for Aliev’s impeachment for having surrendered Karabakh. In autumn 1994 both birds were eliminated with one stone.

At the end of September 1994, the deputy speaker Afiuddin Jalilov and army spymaster Shamsi Rahimov were murdered. Aliev immediately blamed Javadov and his brother Mahir, and in October 1994 dispatched the attorney-general Ali Umarov to arrest them. The Javadov brothers quickly routed their challengers, however, and only stood down when Aliev assured them that Umarov had acted without his orders. Meanwhile Aliev accused Surat Husseinov of trying to repeat the 1993 coup; he ordered Husseinov’s arrest and replaced him as prime minister with Fuad Quliev. Loyalist troops secured Ganja and the Baku airport; Husseinov, frantically denying a coup, nonetheless escaped to Russia. That was the end of his short, tumultuous career in Azerbaijan’s politics.

In Husseinov’s wake, Haidar Aliev set about consolidating his control. In spring 1995 he plausibly accused the Javadov brothers of a coup attempt backed by the Turkish deep state; Rovshan was killed and Mahir escaped to exile. In the summer, he imprisoned two former army ministers – the Musaevs Shahin and Vahid – for having attempted another coup, allegedly with Ayaz Mutalibov’s help. The truth of these claims is uncertain; what is clear is that these episodes helped Aliev cement his power at the top, ruling Azerbaijan with an iron fist – albeit a very competent iron fist indeed – until he passed away in 2003.

By 1997, Aliev’s cunning balancing act between local opponents and foreign governments came full circle when he signed an economic agreement with Russia – the very same agreement for which Surat Husseinov had pushed in 1994. The cruelly ironic price was Russia’s extradition of Husseinov, supposedly their man in Baku, to Azerbaijan. It was a price that the former prime minister might not have considered worth paying for the Russian deal.

In 1999 Surat Husseinov was imprisoned for life; in 2004, however, he was pardoned and released by Haidar Aliev’s son and successor, Ilham Aliev. It was an unexpectedly quiet end for the man who had played so explosive a role in Azerbaijan’s politics. In the end, he proved just another casualty in the long chess game that involved regional powers, military fortunes in Karabakh, and the consolidation of power in Baku – a game played with more skill by the cunning old dictator who outfoxed him.

Adan Madobe. The turmoil that gripped Somalia at the turn of the millennium, the downfall of the Somali state, and the attempts to patch together a replacement, brought an opening for a new political elite that initially comprised military adventurers and leaders who fell in with the new order. Such adventurers were a dime-a-dozen, but one particularly successful and shrewd commander was Sheikh Adan Mohamed Nur Madobe, who played his cards shrewdly to briefly emerge as ruler and an important powerplayer of the patchwork Somali government installed in the late 2000s.

Madobe came from the Rahanweyn clan confederation, which was mostly clustered in southwest Somalia’s Bay and Bakool region around the towns Baidoa and his own hometown Hudur. He played an important role in the Rahanweyn’s steady emergence from underrepresented and often victimized peripheral actor to a force in their own right.

The early 1990s, with the downfall of the Faqash dictatorship and a raging civil war in the southern half of Somalia, hit Baidoa and its surrounding region particularly hard. Ousted from Mogadishu by the rebel Gohala, or Congress, coalition, Faqash dictator Siad Barre escaped southward and organized a comeback by rallying troops, largely from his Darod confederation, in an attempt to retake the capital. In Mogadishu, the triumphant Gohala coalition had meanwhile fragmented between its official leader, the well-connected merchant Ali Mahdi, and its leading field commander Farah Aidid whose military dynamism proved invaluable in repelling Barre’s two attacks from the south during the springs of 1991 and 1992.

The Bay and Bakool region around Baidoa, caught between these opposing forces, paid a heavy toll: the back-and-forth salvos between the Faqash and Gohala militias featured considerable brutality, scorched-earth tactics that ravaged the countryside, and widespread depopulation. The result was the infamous famine that struck the southwest and provoked a United Nations mission, Unisom, in 1992.

The Rahanweyn confederation suffered partly on account of its lack of political and in particular military leadership. Throughout southern Somalia, dominant militias had been set up by commanders who had been prominent in the ancien regime and thus mobilized their networks in the civil war. Barre’s disaffected former army ministers, Omar Masale and Aden Gabyow, had set up shop based off their clan networks in southwest and southeast Somalia respectively; also prominent in the southeast was former army spymaster Omar Jess, who had played a prominent role in Barre’s downfall and was locked in an on-off contest for the southern port Kismayo with Said Morgan, the brutal former army commander.

The small groups that had represented the Rahanweyn soon split in conjunction with the Aidid-Mahdi split. This vacuum meant that the region was particularly dependent on a Unisom that was itself chased out of Somalia by the Mogadishu militias. The danger was not lost on the Rahanweyn clan leaders: as Unisom withdrew in spring 1995 the Rahanweyn chieftain Mukhtar Hassan assembled a council, including Hamud and Mayow, that set up an autonomous administration in the southwest, to be chaired in rotation between different leaders, starting with a Hassey Ibrahim.

Unfortunately for the confederation, this political unification lacked a military backbone. In summer 1995 Farah Aidid, the most accomplished Mogadishu commander, had mended fences with several former opponents and announced himself ruler of Somalia at the helm of a Sallabarre, or broad-based, coalition. Such a rule involved cementing his control over the entirety of Somalia, and the Baidoa region proved an easy walkover. His task was made easier by the fact that certain rival clans within Rahanweyn complained about the merchant Sharif Aden, a leading member of the Leysan clan within the confederation, and invited his coalition in. Farah entrusted his son Hussein, a veteran of the United States praetorian corps, to command the expedition that overran the southwest in September 1995.

This defeat forced the confederation to militarize, a process urged by Hassan Shatigudud, a former officer who had served as a governor in the 1980s. What had been taken by force, Shatigudud was fond of insisting, could only be recovered by force, and the Rahanweyn Resistance Army was formed on this logic. In keeping with the more collective pattern in Rahanweyn politics, the militia was not concentrated around one commander but had several major powerbrokers. These included Shatigudud, his seconds-in-command Adan Madobe and Mohamed Habsade, as well as Ali Qalinle and Abdullahi Deerow.

The Rahanweyn Resistance Army was aided in its early mobilization by the Aidids’ tyrannical rule in the southwest. Notwithstanding their military supremacy and the circumstances of their entrance into Baidoa – where only ten people had been killed in the city’s conquest – the Aidids had a record of ruthlessness that, while by no means unique to them, could hardly have endeared them. Their militia was largely based on the Hawiye confederation and in particular Aidid’s own Habirgidir clan, and this contributed to their unpopularity. So did the brutal crackdown that Hussein Aidid, who succeeded his slain father in 1996, mounted in response to Ali Qalinle’s attempted attack on Baidoa during autumn 1997. The Resistance Army was early on assisted by Aidid’s rival, the self-proclaimed state of Somaliland, but it would only really reach fruition in the late 1990s when allied to Somalia’s longstanding enemy Ethiopia.

As a particularly longstanding opponent of Somalia, Ethiopia had made several attempts to promote a reconciliation on its particular terms – tending to prefer a decentralized Somali state – and this brought them in accord with the Resistance Army. So too did their mutual enmity with Hussein Aidid, who was backed by Ethiopia’s rivals – first Masr and Yemen countries in 1997-98, and then Eritrea as it entered war with Ethiopia. Finally, Ethiopia had by this point invested in several different militia commanders, such as Morgan and Gabyow, and the Resistance Army was drawn into the same circle. But there was a certain irony in that the Resistance Army was prepared to work with both Somalia’s old enemy as well as with such ruthless warlords as Morgan, whose brutality far outstripped that of the Aidids.

Ethiopia had already mounted several raids into western Somalia over the past few years, but in summer 1999 it mounted its most ambitious assault yet into southern and western Somalia. Shatigudud had captured Hudur from Aidid in October 1998, and this proved a solid launchpad for him to capture Baidoa in summer 1999. So secure was the Resistance Army grip that it remained the base for Ethiopia’s campaign, which aided pro-Ethiopian militias throughout southern Somalia against their opponents. When Said Morgan was expelled from the southeast, for instance, he escaped to Baidoa to plot his return. In spite of its ethical problems, the 1999 campaign heralded several years of autonomy for the Baidoa region. The Resistance Army proved a capable garrison force but events in Mogadishu opened up cracks in its organization.

In summer 2000, a collection of Somali merchants, technocrats, activists, clan leaders, and imams formed what was meant to be a national government in Mogadishu that would reunite Somalia: the so-called Arte coalition, led by the former interior minister Abdi Salad. They managed to win over Abdullahi Deerow from the Resistance Army; as the speaker of the putative parliament, he was the top-ranked Rahanweyn member in the enterprise and would set off a trend of Rahanweyn speakers in coalition governments.

However, the Arte conference proved controversial among the militia commanders throughout Somalia, several of whose fronts split over loyalty or opposition to it. In particular it was opposed by Ethiopia, and in early 2001 Addis Ababa coalesced many militia leaders to oppose the enterprise, which was caricatured as either a neo-Faqash enterprise or the cat’s paw of Islamic extremists. Led ironically enough by Ethiopia’s former archenemy Hussein Aidid, and it also included Aidid’s erstwhile opponent Musa Yalahow, Aden Gabyow, Puntland emir Abdullahi Yusuf, and Baidoa emir Hassan Shatigudud. Yusuf lent an otherwise breathtakingly cynical coalition some principled cover, however, when he claimed that the coalition was only opposed to the sort of centralized government that had brought Somalia to ruin in the past, and instead preferred a decentralized alternative that would ensure order and harmony. As rulers of relatively stable parts of Somalia, both Yusuf and Shatigudud could take this line as a point of principle.

By this time the American war on terrorism had gone underway, and Somalia was among its putative targets. Ethiopia seized the opportunity to paint its neighbour as a hotbed of extremism linked to Qaeda, which the Arte coalition was either unwilling or unable to tackle. Meanwhile the Resistance Army leaders – Shatigudud, Madobe, and Habsade – pursued their own diplomacy with the United States, still remembered Unisom’s relief effort with gratitude and that it had been the pesky militias of Mogadishu, not Baidoa, who had ousted the American expedition. Britain, indeed, sent a fact-finding mission, which took the very much glowing view that Baidoa was a model of decentralized governance that could hardly be compared to either opportunistic warlords or millennarian fanatics associated internationally with Somali politics. In April 2002 Shatigudud felt emboldened enough to announce the official autonomy of a new Southwest emirate, much as Abdullahi Yusuf had done in Puntland.

This proved premature, however, because that summer both Madobe and Habsade turned on Shatigudud. In July 2002 their combined force attacked and pushed him to the outskirts of Baidoa. The salient problem was the Resistance Army’s split over Arte, a split mirrored in several militias across Somalia at that point. Madobe and Habsade both supported the Arte coalition, and particularly took umbrage at Shatigudud joining a coalition that was officially led by their longstanding tormentor, Hussein Aidid. Nonetheless Shatigudud clung gamely on, and he was soon reprieved when an alternative formula to the Arte coalition emerged.

During late 2002 a number of militia commanders, including Shatigudud and Madobe, participated in a conference at the Kenyan town Eldoret that hammered out the skeleton of a new Somali order, based on a federalism that very much gratified the regional militia commanders present. But it was also attended by Arte prime minister Hassan Abshir and speaker Abdullahi Deerow in a recognition of their coalition’s toothlessness against the regional militias. Essentially, the Transitional Federal coalition that would form over the mid-2000s was a power-sharing accord between various regional commanders, even if some – such as Shatigudud and Yusuf – governed their territories relatively well.

It followed that official leadership in the Federal coalition was, at least to begin with, a power-sharing competition between commanders linked to the project: the process often resembled a horse-trading bargain. In this respect the Rahanweyn commanders in the southwest enjoyed an advantage, in that their relative security and proximity to Ethiopia gave them considerable leverage. The important position of parliamentary speaker – essentially entrusted with mediation between different commanders – went to another Rahanweyn leader known for integrity, the Leysan merchant Sharif Aden. In October 2004 Puntland emir Abdullahi Yusuf was elected as its ruler, and thus the internationally recognized ruler of the skeleton “state”. Influential commanders such as Shatigudud and Madobe were added to the cabinet in the next few months.

The Federal coalition also indirectly incentivized the commanders to “clean up house”, as it were, by imposing more control in their territory where the “government” could set up shop. With Mogadishu still in turmoil, a competition soon emerged between commanders to hold the interim capital at their towns – a development that would mean prestige and political reward. In this respect the Baidoa commanders Madobe and Shatigudud enjoyed an advantage in presiding over one of Somalia’s safer cities. But Mohamed Dheere, the main commander in Jowhar, was eager to present his town as an alternative capital, and he enjoyed considerable informal influence in the government in that his kinsman, Ali Gedi, served as its prime minister.

Moreover Baidoa’s security was shaky. In spring 2005 the city saw fighting between Shatigudud and Madobe on one side and on the other the third member of the Resistance Army troika, Mohamed Habsade. He had not signed onto the Federal project, he opposed Abdullahi Yusuf, and he was backed by an up-and-coming commander called Yusuf Indhaadde. They fought indeterminately against Shatigudud and Madobe over the spring, but their resistance was vain; Habsade soon resigned to the new order, and Indhaadde left Baidoa for Mogadishu, where his prestige would skyrocket by another avenue over the next year when he became army minister for what was emerging as the alternative to the top-down Federal project: the Islamic Courts Union that burst from Mogadishu and swept over much of Somalia in 2006.

The Courts Union drew on a number of longstanding Islamic courts, which had provided justice and social services in wartorn Somalia for a number of years. Even as a Federal process of mediating between various commanders was hitting its stride in the mid-2000s, the Courts emerged as a sudden and striking alternative. Led by Sharif Ahmed, a respected preacher who had once worked for Mohamed Dheere, they established themselves in Mogadishu by repelling several American-backed commanders in spring and summer 2006, and by the autumn their advance into the rest of southern Somalia sent alarm bells ringing in the Federal camp. Some Federal members, such as speaker Sharif Aden, favoured mediation with the Courts; others, such as the hard-charging leader Abdullahi Yusuf, preferred to nip them in the bud, and it was the latter camp, then backed by the United States, who won out. In December 2006, Ethiopia mounted its biggest foray into Somalia yet, a ruthless campaign captained by Ethiopian general Gabre Heard uprooting the Courts from Mogadishu and driving them into the maquis.

The arrival of the Courts and the Ethiopian role in their downfall provoked another split in the Federal coalition. Speaker Sharif Aden had been a leading proponent of dialogue with the Courts, and he resigned in protest at the invasion by an Ethiopia that he asserted was perennially bent on subjugating Somalia. With Mogadishu at war and Jowhar in uncertain waters, Baidoa was now the uncontested interim Federal capital, and its most reliable commander Adan Madobe was swiftly voted in as speaker.

As an insurgency against the Ethiopian campaign emerged, Sharif Aden joined an Eritrean-backed coalition, the so-called Reliberation alliance. This coalition included both Courts leaders such as Sharif Ahmed and his aides Abdirahman Janaqow and Abdulqadir Omar, as well as such commanders as Hussein Aidid and Omar Aden who had been excluded from the Federal pie. Another, more dangerous front was also emerging, led by more hardline leaders such as former Courts second-in-command Dahir Aweys and the shadowy Shabaab network.

It was soon clear that the Federal coalition was under grave threat from the insurgency. A split emerged in the government over how to deal with them. Abdullahi Yusuf, whose run-ins with the Islamists dated back years, was particularly badly placed; now aging, sick, and in a foul temper, he opposed any attempt at reconciliation. But he was clearly in a minority, and not only among Somalis: even the United States was beginning to realize that its East African experiment had backfired. Somalia in 2007 was less secure than in 2006, and Washington realized that a major provocateur was the occupation by Ethiopia. Weary of East African misadventure and wary of fuelling sufficient resentment to rebound at America itself, Washington quietly began to urge attempts at reconciliation with such insurgents as were not linked to Qaeda and could be classified as “reconcilable” to the Federal order. This even included Islamists such as Sharif Ahmed, caricatured only the previous year as a dangerous fanatic.

In order to circumvent the prickly Ethiopian occupation, negotiations were quietly pursued with the assistance of another regional country with a far friendlier history to Somalia, Djibouti. The idea – that a multilateral African Union force, largely drawn from Uganda, would be sent to Somalia to replace the unpopular Ethiopians, and that the Islamists would be given the share in government that negotiations could have brought in 2006 – soon caught the interest of the Eritrean-backed Reliberation coalition. The policy of talks was pursued with vigour by Nur Adde, who replaced Ali Gedi as Federal prime minister in late 2007, and by the speaker Adan Madobe, whom Adde appointed the minister in charge of reconciliation.

Even as he pursued reconciliation with the insurgents, Madobe capitalized on the Federal reliance on his stronghold of Baidoa. In December 2007, he and three other Rahanweyn ministers – Hassan Shatigudud, now promoted to interior minister; Ibrahim Yarow, another field commander who would later take up the same role; and Abdulkafi Hassan – quit to protest what they considered inadequate representation in Adde’s cabinet. The prime minister blinked and rearranged the cabinet within a fortnight, underscoring Federal reliance on the Rahanweyn clan and its commanders. Back in the cabinet, Madobe helped Adde send out feelers to Reliberation leaders, particularly the two Sharifs Ahmed and Aden, who were too happy to respond.

A more serious disagreement transpired between Nur Adde and Abdullahi Yusuf. Belying his sickness, Yusuf insisted on stamping out the insurgency, which had crept up to Baidoa itself, by force. A deadlock emerged in the Federal government, between Adde and Madobe on one side and Yusuf on the other. The fact that his objections had no bearing on the negotiation, which culminated in the Djibouti Accord mediated by Mauritanian foreign minister Ahmedou Ould-Abdullah in August 2008, spoke volumes about Yusuf’s lost prestige. At the year’s end, he quit, ending a turbulent thirty-year career at the top of Somali politics. In his place, until an election at Baidoa scheduled for the next month, stepped Adan Madobe. The Rahanweyn commander’s careful and clever stewardship of Somalia’s militarized politics had briefly earned him the country’s official top job.

Technically, the Reliberation faction did very well out of the Djibouti Accord: in the election that followed, submitted by a show of hands, Sharif Ahmed easily beat Maslah Barre, son of the former dictator Siad. The Courts Union’s former emir was now emir of the Federal coalition that had ousted the Courts, and his unique link between the two helped keep key Islamist fronts, particularly those from Sharif’s home region of the central south, in the Federal camp.

The new order unsettled and threatened Shabaab, who responded with a spectacular assault. The very day after the Ethiopian withdrawal, Shabaab second-in-command Mukhtar Robow – himself a Rahanweyn clansman from Madobe’s hometown Hudur – swooped into Baidoa. With Robow’s Leysan clansmates Mohamed Habsade and Ibrahim Yarow standing down at once, only a startled Madobe put up any resistance, but he was quickly routed. The reconciliation government, having started with such hopes just days earlier, was forced into an embarrassing flight. Moreover Ethiopia, who must have taken no small pleasure, were back in Somalia by the summer, prompting many of Sharif Ahmed’s disillusioned supporters to desert the coalition.

The government’s new base was Mogadishu, certain districts of which were relatively secure even as Shabaab and other insurgents probed other districts. With the change in capital came a slow downturn in Adan Madobe’s own fortune. This was compounded by the steady squabbling that occupied the Federal coalition. In February 2009, Sharif Ahmed promoted Omar Shermarke, son of Siad Barre’s predecessor Abdirashid, to the prime ministry. By 2010, a rift had emerged between Sharif and Madobe on one side, and Shermarke on the other. Having voted against Shermarke, Madobe was himself voted out in May 2010 and replaced as speaker by Sharif Aden, who had supported Shermarke. Though he briefly joined the cabinet again in 2014-15, Madobe’s importance to the Federal coalition had diminished with that coalition’s maturity.

Adan Madobe’s career epitomized many emergent trends in Somali politics at the turn of the millennium. These included both the militarization as well as emergence from the periphery to the centre of Somali political life by the Rahanweyn confederation. They included the steady intrusion and domination of Ethiopia into the Somali vacuum, a development in which Madobe played his own role before attempting to cut it off. They included the various and often inconsistent attempts to cook together a formula on which to build a nascent Somali government. Most notably, they include the early reliance by this government on militia commanders to guard the terrain on which it operated, a reliance that enabled Madobe to climb to and play a key role in the top of Somali political life during the late 2000s.

Anwar Qady. Masr’s anticolonial heyday in the 1950s and 1960s featured a domination of the Masri state by military officers that has never quite abated. Led by Gamal Abdel-Nasser and his ambitious second-in-command Abdel-Hakim Amer, the Masri officer class during this junta was characterized more by its political influence than by its military experience. A tellingly quiet exception to this rule was Lieutenant-General Anwar Abdel-Wahab Saeed Qady, who in the course of his promotion to operations director played an important but almost anonymous role in most military escapades of the period.

Qady came from the Mediterranean metropolis Alexandria. Having enrolled in the army during the period of British domination in the 1930s, he participated in the 1948 Palestine campaign. In keeping with the strange anonymity that marked his professional life, however, we know little about his role therein – or, for that matter, in the early 1950s, when the Free Officers in Masr toppled the monarchy and installed a junta that Nasser eventually came to dominate, with his boon companion Abdel-Hakim Amer promoted to the supremo in charge of the army – somewhere between a viceroy, an army minister, and an army commander, and free to handle military affairs quite independently of an indulgent Nasser’s oversight.

What we do know is that Anwar Qady ended up fighting in nearly every significant Masri campaign of the period. Our tale begins in autumn 1956, when alarmed at Nasser’s popular nationalization of the Suez Canal a tripartite force comprising the three most hated powers in the region in that period – Britain, France, and Israel – made a beeline for the Sinai Peninsula.

Though Abdel-Hakim Amer’s liberal patronage and personal affability made him a popular generallissimo, he was hardly qualified to handle such an attack. Indeed the tripartite attack threw him into a state of panic, leaving the forces on the front to improvise as they saw fit. The frontline division in the Sinai was captained by Anwar Qady, and they scrambled – largely unsuccessfully – to meet the challenge. For the most part, it was brigade commanders – Salaheddin Moguy at northern Port Saeed, Saadeddin Motawally in central Sinai, and Raouf Zaky in southern Sharmel-Sheikh – who operated independently, albeit with instructions from Cairo constantly barked down their ears. Port Saeed and Sharmel-Sheikh soon fell, though Motawally managed to beat off several attacks in the centre. Largely sidelined by both his superiors and lieutenants until that point, Qady was eventually ordered to organize the withdrawal from Sinai to the Suez Canal’s west bank.

Though the military reversal soon transformed to a famous political victory for Masr, it did reveal a crippling incongruity in the army command structure. Unfortunately, nobody in the brass, certainly not Amer, seemed to have paid enough attention to military reform; the pattern would repeat itself a decade later, when Israel would capture the Sinai in the 1967 war.

The intoxicating popularity with which Masr’s escapade was greeted in the region soon propelled Syria to merge with Masr in the United Arab Republic in 1958. Before long Nasser, always an indulgent friend, had dispatched Amer to serve as viceroy in the union’s northern Syrian province. In spite of its overwhelming early popularity, union soon wore thin in Syria, particularly because it introduced some of the centralizing reforms that had been taken as a given in Masr but were utterly unsuited to Syria.

Very soon a considerable proportion of Syrian institutions underwent “Masrization” during Amer’s stewardship. These included, as I have mentioned elsewhere, the economic and security realms; they also included the army. Anwar Qady was assigned to deputize for the Syrian army commander, Jamal Faisal, a fervent unionist who sought to integrate Masri and Syrian officers in the army. The process was still incomplete when, in September 1961, Amer’s Syrian aide Abdul-Karim Nahlawi led the mutiny that would unravel the United Arab Republic.

Having headed Amer’s office, Nahlawi was primely positioned to coordinate the actions of the various units that participated in the mutiny. His co-conspirators included Muwaffaq Asafeh, who took control of the airforce units in the north; Haidar Kuzbari, whose desert forces swooped in on Damascus; and Abdul-Ghani Dahman, the Damascus commander. Most of these officers were disgruntled Sunni officers from Damascus, for whom integration had worn thin: they also received secret support from the Jordanian court.

Anwar Qady caught wind of the scheme just before the axe fell; no sooner had he ordered a counterattack than he, Faisal, and Amer were soon captured at Damascus and effectively held hostage. This came not a moment too soon for the mutineers, because in fact several key units outside Damascus remained loyal to the union. Aleppo commander Hikmat Dayyah quickly rejected the mutiny, while Ladhaqia second-in-command Kazim Zaitoun, whose commander Muhammad Mansur had left for Damascus to participate in the mutiny, also mobilized in the union’s favour.

For a moment it seemed that Syria would split in a war between unionists in the north and mutineers in the south. Dayyah was soon captured in an Aleppan mutiny by his aide, Faisal Hasan, but Zaitoun remained entrenched at Ladhaqia, where he called for reinforcement from Cairo. Nasser did send a token commando force led by Galal Huraidy, a paratrooper who was a profound admirer of Amer – but even before they had landed, he thought better of it and opted to dissolve the union. After two months’ negotiation, the prisoners – Amer, Qady, and a Huraidy who had been captured the moment he landed in Syria – were released to Masr along with the remaining Masri contingent.

In spite of his indifference toward the union and his speed in agreeing to its dissolution, Nasser was left somewhat embittered by the experience. Within six months, Nahlawi and Dahman fell out with the new Syrian order, and joined a group of unionists in petitioning for Cairo’s support in a reunification; Nasser scornfully rejected them. Masr’s prestige had been hit, but six months later a new opportunity presented itself in North Yemen.

Ruled by a Zaidi imamate, North Yemen had, like Saudi Arabia, initially been friendly to Nasser in the 1950s: its inept crown prince, Badr Mohammad bin Ahmed, was an unabashed admirer of Masri anticolonialism. But by the 1960s, with a leftward trend in Masri policy, the Arabian monarchies also cooled on Cairo; Badr’s father, the autocratic imam Nasir Ahmed bin Yahya, exchanged a war of words with Cairo where he lyrically lambasted the Masri socialist state for having seized private property in a violation of Islam. Nasir had also survived a murder attempt in spring 1961, which he suspected had been planned by Masr.

In September 1962 Nasir Ahmed passed away, and Badr took over. Events then accelerated with dizzying speed. A mutiny, led by a mid-ranked officer called Ali Abdul-Mughni, attacked the imam’s palace in Sanaa, and Badr was proclaimed slain in the wreckage. Army commander Abdullah Sallal, hitherto a favourite of Badr, quickly proclaimed a republic with himself as ruler and promoted Abdul-Rahman Baidani, a voluble politician of mixed Yemeni-Masri background, as prime minister. Baidani, a brother-in-law of Nasser’s aide (and future successor) Anwar Sadat, confidently proclaimed Badr dead, prompting Masr to quickly expand its troops in Yemen in order to supplement the new government. Meanwhile Nasir Ahmed’s brother and former deputy Wathiq Hasan bin Yahya announced himself the new imam among the northern Zaidi clans. Within a few weeks, however, Badr soon dramatically reappeared in the northern highlands and announced his quest to recapture Sanaa from the traitor – Sallal – whom he had protected and from his former hero – Nasser – who now occupied his homeland.

To a considerable degree this was dramatized farce. The very same Masri ambassador, Mohamed Abdel-Wahid, whom Badr soon accused as having supported the coup, had in fact sent him warnings against Abdul-Mughni, Sallal, and even Badr’s own uncle Wathiq Hasan, who had openly despised his nephew as an incompetent but who now announced that he would deputize for Badr. Badr’s escape had been perhaps his finest hour, but his dramatic reappearance and the newfound bonhomie between him and his uncle had largely been planned by monarchies hostile to Cairo – Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and a Britain keen to salvage its influence. Cairo had plotted against Nasir Ahmed, but not against Badr – it had been their belief that he had been killed, and in particular the reports that Baidani sent Sadat, that persuaded them to shift their support to the Yemeni republicans.

At any rate, both Nasser and his rivals now saw North Yemen as a litmus test for Masri aspirations. The republicans, a fundamentally conservative lot, entirely dismissed both the secularism and the socialism found in Masr, but were happy to align with Cairo’s republicanism. Masr in turn dispatched a massive influx of military aid – flown over to Yemen by an airforce officer who would later became Masri dictator, Hosni Mubarak – as well as some seventy thousand troops, over whom Anwar Qady was promoted as expeditionary commander. Much as had been the case in Syria, Abdel-Hakim Amer was dispatched to Yemen as Nasser’s regional viceroy.

As expeditionary commander, Anwar Qady’s job was to cement republican control against an insurgency that comprised various interests, often only loosely affiliated to the imamate but to varying degrees hostile to the new regime in Sanaa. The complicated clan politics, quite transcending the simple republic-imamate split, that played such a key role in the Yemeni war were often lost on the Masri commanders. The result was that a tendency to distrust the Yemeni republican troops emerged in the Masri army, who very much dominated operations.

Early on the security of Sanaa was itself uncertain, with Wathiq Yahya’s sons Hasan and Abdullah, as well as their cousin Abdullah bin Husain, occupying key points to the capital’s north and east where they curried the favour of the clans. Ali Abdul-Mughni, the Yemeni officer who had captained the coup, was killed only the following month fighting Wathiq’s sons in Marib.

Consequentially Qady entrusted early operations in the Sanaa region to Masri officer Abdel-Monem Khalil, conducted largely at battalion level by commandos. More ambitious operations could be fatal: though an airlifted Masri force had managed to occupy Saadah city, the major town in the north, the countryside was largely in opposition control. Mohammad bin Husain, the Yemeni prince ejected from Saadah, managed to establish a large and well-provisioned camp just across the Saudi border in Najran, which would prove the command centre for the imamate and which would enable Mohammad to emerge as the practical leader of the imamate forces before the war was done. Meanwhile Masri infantry in the eastern Jauf highlands were easy prey for his brother Abdullah’s forces, which were also able to count on backup support on the border not only with Saudi Arabia but also British-held South Yemen. In such risky areas, Masr would rely increasingly on a Yemeni counterpart far more formidable than the weak army in Sanaa: autonomous clan chieftains, such as Abdullah Ahmar in the Hajjah region, who would become and have largely remained major powerbrokers in republican Yemen.

The imamate’s strongholds in the north and east could not long be ignored, though, if Masr was to cement Sallal’s control. In February 1963 Abdel-Hakim Amer drew up what was to be the most, if not the only, successful campaign of his career. Again supervised by Anwar Qady, it featured two major thrusts. The smaller, eastward thrust would attack Marib and Harib, the town on the border with South Yemen; the larger northward thrust would sweep up into Saadah, scythe eastward through the northern highlands, through the desert on (and probably across) the Saudi border, before cutting back south and thence southwest to the Marib-Harib region, which would thus be encircled.

The campaign was ambitious, and certainly not without its setbacks, but it nonetheless succeeded in its main aims. Mohammad bin Husain’s attempt to forestall the northern thrust with some fifteen hundred reinforcements from Najran was quickly thrust aside, and the imamate forces in the north were momentarily scattered. In the eastern town Harib, the imamate commandant Abdul-Karim Wazir sent most of his garrison off to fight the Masris in the north – only to find himself encircled when the northern prong suddenly plunged southeast. He only narrowly escaped into South Yemen, with Marib and Harib quickly captured in his wake.

The imamate and its Saudi-British allies were alarmed, and the Masris buoyed, by the so-called Ramadan offensive. Nonetheless Anwar Qady, who had early on planned on digging in for the long haul in Yemen, was convinced that the campaign was no longer sustainable. The Yemeni war, he told both Abdel-Hakim Amer and Gamal Abdel-Nasser, was a quagmire complicated by clan politics that Masr could not understand; having won a symbolic win, Masr should leave before the year was out. But by this point Nasser had staked his prestige on the war, and with the Sanaa republicans in feeble shape he brushed aside Qady’s concern.

The campaign prompted the insurgency to focus more on hit-and-run tactics, a method of warfare ideally suited for nimble Yemeni mountaineers against cumbersome Masri infantry and cavalry. In December 1963, Abdullah bin Husain managed to lure Anwar Qady himself out into a sweep outside Sanaa; here the Masri commander was ambushed and injured in the eye. That ended Qady’s Yemen campaign; he was flown to Germany for treatment while a new commander, Abdel-Mohsen Mortagy, took his place.

The Yemeni war did turn into the quagmire that Qady had feared, and the fact that the republicans would eventually win it in 1967-68 owed little to Masri support and more to their own eventual, if momentary, unification and the increasing disinterest by Saudi Arabia in an imamate that it had never really liked. Before that, however, Masri aspirations were to receive their most humiliating blow – not in Yemen, but in the Sinai Peninsula where Nasser’s prestige had first skyrocketed a decade earlier.

Nasser knew very well that Masr was unable to confront Israel directly, in particular because of the latter’s geopolitical support by the United States. Nor was he keen on alienating Washington entirely, given their power and also the fact that they had supported him in the 1950s. Nonetheless, Masr’s regional prestige was based on the challenge that it presented Israel, a challenge that gave it an edge over its competitors. Nasser decided to square the circle by ratcheting up belligerent rhetoric against the Zionist entity, while systemically precluding the military from upgrading their arsenal in order to avoid provoking Washington entirely.

This unwise combination met a tragic end in summer 1967. Abdel-Hakim Amer had updated a cursory strategy just in case of war – which basically involved luring Israeli troops into killing fields – but this was never seriously considered. What operational preparation there was for the war that Nasser threatened but never believed would transpire was left to Anwar Qady, who had returned with repaired eye to a promotion as operational director.

But, typically in Masri military preparation of this period, Qady’s hands were bound by the political considerations. Not only did Nasser forbid the air marshal, Sidki Mahmoud – who, like Amer, had occupied his spot since 1956 despite having done little to inspire confidence therein – from upgrading his arsenal, but the operational command in the Sinai was confused. The Masri corps in the peninsula – numbering some hundred thousand troops – was officially commanded by Salaheddin Mohsen, but at the last moment Amer added an additional command layer, entrusted to Abdel-Mohsen Mortagy. The latter, like Amer, had spent the majority of the last few years in Yemen and had little familiarity with the Sinai.

Had Nasser’s bluff not been called, none of this need have mattered. But in fact more and more states – even Jordan, a sworn opponent to Nasser for a decade – were signing onto Masr’s grandly proclaimed Arab regional cooperational command chaired by Ali Amer, another longstanding lieutenant of Abdel-Hakim Amer. The Jordanian army, indeed, to whom the Palestinian West Bank and east Jerusalem was entrusted to a Masri officer, Abdel-Monem Riad. The upshot was that the Masri command was a confusing, multilayered, disorganized, and uncoordinated mishmash of operational centres, frontal commands, and regional garrisons designed more for show than operations. Unfortunately for Nasser, the Israelis were only too glad to call his bluff: in summer 1967, they attacked and within a week had conquered the West Bank, the Ghazza Strip, and the Sinai in addition to smashing Masr’s prestige.

Given the confusion prevalent, Anwar Qady can hardly be blamed for the failure. But in fact there was nothing he could have done, anyway, because the Israeli air attack that presaged the war immediately stranded a plane carrying him, Abdel-Hakim Amer, and air marshal Sidki Mahmoud. When they landed, they were immediately confronted at the Cairo airport by its commander Mohamed Ayoub, who in the farcical disorder of the period had assumed the turmoil to be a coup attempt. Incandescent with rage and panic, Amer berated the unfortunate officer but was unable to stop the Israeli military from inflicting a crushing humiliation.

The Israeli victory brought to an end Masr’s pretensions as a frontline match to the Zionist entity; from then on, Masr and other states would invest more heavily in Palestinian guerrilla fighters. It also hurried the end of Masr’s involvement in Yemen; by the summer’s end, Nasser and Saudi monarch Faisal bin Abdul-Aziz finally agreed to pull out their military and financial support to the opposing actors respectively, with the result that in the late 1960s North Yemen was soon taken by the republicans and South Yemen, ironically enough, by Marxist militants quite inimical to both Nasser and Faisal.

But before that the Masri defeat signalled the end of the duumvirate between Nasser and Amer: the Masri dictator could no longer afford to indulge his old friend. As Nasser began a much-publicized purge of the military brass, Amer’s supporters panicked. Former army minister Shamseddin Badran, spymaster Salah Nasser, and former party chieftain Abbas Redwan – each a heavyweight in the deep state during the past decade – joined forces with more junior supporters of Amer such as Galal Huraidy to attempt a coup; instead, they were outmaneouvred and routed by Nasser’s new army minister, Mohamed Fawzy, who set about ruthlessly destroying his predecessor’s power. In September 1967 Amer, under house arrest, was found to have “committed suicide”.

Anwar Qady was more fortunate; unlike the vast majority of his contemporaries, he had avoided barracks politics and was therefore safe from their fallout. He lost his job, but that was a relatively mild price in a period where his colleagues were being publicly disgraced and purged. Qady subsided into a quiet retirement, writing his memoirs but otherwise staying out of public life until he passed away in 1994. Although he had often served at the frontline of Masr’s many military adventures during Nasser’s period, the precedence of politics over operations had imposed restrictions on both his ability to work professionally, but also insulated him from their immediate fallout.

Risk and reward in Doha Accord (link)

A short article I wrote on Afghanistan’s Doha Accord, its implications, and its limitations has been published by the Express Tribune.