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Monthly Archives: April 2020

Wild and Whacky Adventurers Part 5

April 2020.

The keen-eyed reader will note that this month I have only written about three WILD and WHACKY adventurers, as opposed to the five adventurers that had hitherto been the norm. I have done this for reasons of both immediate convenience – I was busy in what should be the final courses of my undergraduate career, inshaAllah – and also long-term economy: it simply makes more economic sense to keep it to three WILD and WHACKY adventurers per month. Having originally intended a more exotic ensemble, I have made do with people from countries I already love and have already written on, but it is my hope that the adventures are no less fascinating for having returned to well-trodden ground. I begin and end with Allah’s name, and prayers that He blesses our Ramadan in every way and also lifts the ongoing sickness from the world.

 

Abdul-Raqib Abdul-Wahhab. Yemen in the 1960s was rife with conflict. Not only were there two separate formal wars – between the Masr-backed republicans in Sanaa and the ousted Saudi-backed Zaidi imamate in the North; between various insurgents dominated by the left-leaning Qaumi Tahrir Front and the British colony in the South – but these conflicts themselves contained internal contests, which bubbled over the moment the actual wars were decided by the late 1960s. A major, but shortlived, protagonist linked to both arenas was Lieutenant-Colonel Abdul-Raqib Abdul-Wahhab, the dashing young commando officer who briefly served as the Northern army commander before attempting an ill-fated coup just months before his own murder.

Abdul-Raqib came from a Shafii family in the important city Taiz, which lay on the border between the two Yemens. During his youth the North was controlled by a rather parochial and increasingly unpopular Zaidi imamate whose strength drew largely from the Zaidi clansmen in Yemen’s uplands, while the South was under direct British control – as was the case in the prized Aden port – or indirect British suzerainty, as was the case with the sheikhdoms and “sultanates” that littered the southern hinterland.

The landscape changed dramatically in the 1960s. The imam Nasir Ahmed bin Yahya had already been alienating large parts of northern Yemen – even the clans and even members of the ruling family – before the decade began, and with his death it was his unfortunate and inept son Badr Muhammad who paid the price when a military coup ousted him from the capital and set in store a republican regime led by his former military right-hand man, Abdullah Sallal. The new order was soon backed, for reasons we have explored in last month’s feature, by Masr, who shipped in large quantities of troops, money, and weaponry to bolster Sallal. The heavy-handed approach characteristic of the Masris played into the hands of the imamate’s redoubtables, holed up largely in the northern highlands and soon backed by Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Britain, and less directly the United States. North Yemen plunged into war.

At the same point, the south – a very different area, most of it a direct or indirect British colony for over a century – also plunged into conflict. With the British empire in global retreat, Aden was a last bastion that they badly wished to keep and its administrative relation with the southern hinterland became a point of conflict. Yemeni cultural associations, dissident movements, trade unions, and clansmen – by no means a homogenous group at any point – soon agitated for not only reform but independence, and by the mid-1960s South Yemen was at war too. Though there were a conglomerate of insurgent fronts and groups, the strongest organization and funds were found in the group attached to the international Qaumia movement – a pan-Arab, vaguely left-leaning organization led by the Palestinian ideologist George Habash, which was then strongly supportive of Cairo. The Qaumi Tahrir Front was founded with Qaumia support by Qahtan Shaabi, a former worker in the south. At first, Cairo threw its weight behind the southern insurgency and in particular this front, though relations between them would eventually cool.

These events could only have thrilled the teenaged Abdul-Raqib as they did thousands of other young Yemenis. He enrolled in the very much makeshift Northern republican army – most of whose fighting was done at the time by its Masri patrons – and by the mid-1960s he had gone to Cairo, to enroll in formal commando training. When he returned, Abdul-Raqib would found the Northern republican army’s commando force, which played an outsize role when the Northern republicans finally had to fight on their own.

In the meanwhile, Masr and its increasingly uncomfortable dictator Gamal Abdel-Nasser had found that they had walked into a quagmire. Not only were thousands of Masri troops and many more Yemenis slain in the war, not only did Masr have little understanding of the clan politics that increasingly shaped the war, but Nasser had little way to control his own beneficiaries in the war.

This applied to both North and South; in the North, Sallal soon proved a stubborn and unpopular figure. He was among the many northern Zaidis who dominated the elite of the new republic, as had been the case during the imamate, and – for political, not sectarian, reasons, it must be added – were loath to give up their share just because the government was now a republic. Among this elite, too, he was a polarizing, suspicious, and heavy-handed character even in republican ranks – one for whom Nasser himself came to have a strong and rather snobbish contempt as an uncultured bumpkin. Sallal’s qualities were doubly unhelpful considering the myriad attempts to find a negotiated settlement with the opposition – a settlement that Masr was increasingly desperate to find.

Sallal’s troubles in the north were mirrored in the south by Masr’s loose beneficiaries there. Along with the Qaumi Tahrir Front, Masr had thrown its weight behind Abdullah Asnag, a famous trade unionist who nonetheless proved a polarizing and ineffective leader. Moreover he was increasingly unacceptable to the Qaumi Tahrir Front, which was itself divided. Much like Sallal in the north, Shaabi was increasingly unpopular among his field commanders as being out of touch and too beholden to Masr. Many of these field commanders – most notably Abdul-Fattah Ismail in Aden, as well as Salmain Rubayya and Ali Antar in the hinterland, each leaders in the future South Yemen state – came to espouse Marxism. They were influenced by a young, radical Qaumia member, the Palestinian ideologue Nayef Hawatmeh, who had come to espouse Marxist and more specifically Maoist ideas that urged the transformation of Arabian society at large. In Hawatmeh’s view, such complicating factors as clans, traditional society, and (less directly but certainly implicitly) traditional Islam had bogged down the Arabs, and needed to be expunged in order for an Arab renaissance.

The problem for the Marxists was that these factors were each very dominant in Yemeni life. Islam could not be frontally attacked, but clans certainly could be. And opposition to clan politics was hardly limited to the Marxists; given the innumerable cases of petty, self-interested clan squabbles in both North and South Yemen, many other Yemenis came to ally with the left, and this would include northern Shafiis such as Abdul-Raqib Abdul-Wahhab who were themselves otherwise hardly political ideologues. The fact that the leftists dominated the most powerful fronts in the Southern insurgency no doubt also contributed to their spreading influence.

For Nasser the problem was that the Qaumi Tahrir leftists were no more inclined to follow his orders than that of any colonial power. No later than 1966-67, in fact, Cairo cut off ties with the group outright; ironically, it would thereafter be largely funded by an Adeni merchant class eager to ride Qaumi Tahrir momentum. This split did not escape British notice, and – perhaps only to spite Nasser, who had vexed them for a decade – they negotiated their sudden withdrawal from Aden with Qaumi Tahrir, even with Abdul-Fattah – seen by the British, with some justification, as the “foremost communist in Arabia”. At the same point as Masr’s prestige was being wrecked in the battlefield by Israel in summer 1967, Britain ended her century-long occupation – and the Qaumi Tahrir Front proceeded on a juggernaut, sweeping away both rival insurgents as well as the sheikhdoms and proclaiming a Southern republic by November 1967.

By this point, Abdul-Raqib Abdul-Wahhab and other Northern Shafiis had already been contacted by the left. Yemeni unification had been a powerful idea even before the 1960s, and with the British colony gone it seemed like a prime moment. The idea was now latched onto by Northerners present in the South – such as that communist ideologue and commander, Abdul-Fattah, who hailed from Jauf in the North but was a now a major leader in the South – and it would naturally have appeal to Northerners, especially Shafiis given the South’s dominant Shafii community. Finally, Abdul-Raqib – no political ideologue of any sort – came from Taiz, on the border with the South, and must have welcomed cross-border links with the leftists now making outreaches from Aden. Finally, as a military officer he could only have appreciated the fighters now hurrying north to assist the republican army.

And assistance was needed in the North by this point. A Masr humbled by its defeat to Israel and a Saudi Arabia never especially fond of the Zaidi imamate had made their peace over the summer, with the result that Masri troops had withdrawn at last from the North in return for the Saudis withdrawing aid to the imamate troops. Not coincidentally, the Masri withdrawal coincided with the downfall of Abdullah Sallal; the beleaguered officer was replaced in Sanaa’s political intrigues with the respected Zaidi magistrate Abdul-Rahman Iryani, who had long been involved in negotiation attempts and hoped to bring the war to a quick end.

The same hope via a very different method was shared by Muhammad bin Husain, a cousin of the long-irrelevant imam Badr Muhammad who was by now the practical leader of the imamate forces, having long commanded its forces from a base in Najran. The fact that the Masri army had withdrawn and that Saudi aid was running dry prompted this ambitious, energetic prince to decide that it was now or never. Much as Badr’s father Nasir Ahmed bin Yahya had once done against a coup in 1948, Muhammad bin Husain rallied clansmen from across North Yemen to his banner for a concerted assault on Sanaa with promises not of any principle, but of plunder. Should they only help him seize the capital, the prince announced, they could have their fill of its wealth. A vast army of clansmen bore toward the capital.

November 1967 was thus a momentous month for Yemen; not only did the South announce its independence, but the fight in the North between republic and imamate was reaching its climax at the capital itself, as Sanaa came under siege during the winter of 1967-68.

Iryani was still vainly trying to negotiate a settlement with other imamate princes; the formal republican army commander, Ali Saif, was nowhere to be seen; as a member of the Khawlan clan that had members in the attacking force, perhaps, he was reluctant to cross swords. Into the void stepped seasoned army officers; their leader was Hasan Amri, an irascible Zaidi general close to Iryani, who had once served as Sallal’s prime minister, and was known for his iron will and determination. Amri imposed emergency law in the capital and set about organizing its defence, for which he would earn the sobriquet “Sword of the Republic.”

But indisputably the vanguard of the capital’s defence was led by Abdul-Raqib Abdul-Wahhab, putting his commando training at long last to its fullest extent. Assisted by a team of dedicated young lieutenants, he set about personally directing the city’s defence, appearing here and there to order squads against the attackers’ numerous salvos. A large number of Shafiis, leftist and otherwise, had arrived in the capital to bolster its defence; some, like Abdul-Raqib, were soldiers, while others such as the colourful sheikh Ahmed Awadi were clan leaders whose participation increased the prestige of their own clans. It was an irony of the war that even the anti-clanist factions had to rely, to some level or another, on clan participation on the republican side just as the imamate did on its side. A particularly famous battle took place between Qasim Munassir, a swashbuckling sheikh from the attackers who would later switch sides and join the republic, and Abdul-Raqib in the city’s northern perimeter.

By February 1968 Muhammadbin Husain realized that his gamble had run out of steam. He quietly withdrew, and the clan army around him dissipated into the countryside; with the exception of a few isolated fronts hither and yon, the imamate had thrown in the towel. It was an immensely uplifting moment for the North Yemeni republic; Amri was the man of the hour, and Abdul-Raqib the champion of the capital’s triumph. In this land with a tradition of gallant Arab poetry, tales and songs were composed about the epic siege – even though, by the standard of modern warfare, it had been a relatively modest affair. The participants were not going to have it belittled.

Unfortunately, the tale had a less than happy ending. Almost immediately upon the triumph, a contest emerged between the basically conservative factions that dominated the North – largely clan-based and Zaidi, and including Hasan Amri himself – and the “Young Turks” who comprised the Shafii officers, bolstered by the leftists from the South.

Again, this mirrored events in the South – in spring 1968, there were three mutinies in the South, two against and one by the Marxists who constituted the real power in the Qaumi Tahrir command. The most influential, by the Marxist commander (and future South Yemen dictator) Salmain Rubayya in May 1968, required the assistance of professional troops whose own commander Husain Ashal had mutinied against the left two months earlier. Two months later, when the paramilitary troops inherited from the British colony – largely comprised the large Aulaqi clan, and led by Nasir Buraik – mutinied, the Aden government had to resort to a smugly vindicated left to crush them. Qahtan Shaabi, desperately balancing these opposed forces, would himself fall within a year to the Marxists who would rule the South for the next year. Their opponents – including Ashal and the former trade unionist, Asnag, would flee North as opposition-in-exile during the 1970s.

None of this was predictable during spring 1968. Even as Ashal was confronting the leftists in Aden, a standoff emerged at the Hudaidah Port in North Yemen between Sinan Abu-Luhoum and the leftists who had come from the South. In spite of his tactical flirtation with the far-from-conservative Baath Party, Abu-Luhoum was precisely the sort of Northern sheikh whom the left resented – as one of the chieftains who had thrown in their lot with the republic, he became part of a kingmaking class of republican sheikhs whose influence has reached in Sanaa to the current day. Abu-Luhoum and the leftists were squabbling over a shipment of weaponry that, the sheikh charged, had been sent to destabilize the Northern republic. Whether or not this was true is impossible to tell, but onto opposite sides in the dispute waded Hasan Amri and Abdul-Raqib Abdul-Wahhab, co-champions in Sanaa’s defence only the previous month. Amri was accompanied by the Northern army commander Ali Saif, whose mutual dislike with Abdul-Raqib turned the confrontation personal. At length the leftists lost out, though Abdul-Raqib was mollified with a promotion to replace Saif as army commander.

As we have noted, the next few months saw a series of mutinies bring the left, to whom Abdul-Raqib was by now definitely allied, into power in the South. Just a month after the Southern leftists had consolidated their position by routing the Aulaqi mutiny in the South, Abdul-Raqib mounted his own mutiny in Sanaa. But Amri and Saif were ready – if not spoiling – for the fight, and in the bloody battle that ensued, where hundreds were slain, they ousted Abdul-Raqib from North Yemen. Only six months earlier the capital’s champion, he was forced into exile at Algeria. By the year’s end, a somewhat mollified Amri did permit Abdul-Raqib to return to Sanaa. But he lasted only a month; in early 1969, he was murdered at the age of twenty-six.

Aden’s outraged reaction to Abdul-Raqib’s murder confirmed for the Northern government that they had been in cahoots with him. As a matter of fact, the Southern leftists would oust Shaabi himself by the summer. For both Yemeni leftists and Yemeni Shafiis, however, Abdul-Raqib’s murder represented the culmination of a conspiracy by the conservative Zaidis at the heart of power in the North. It ended for some years meaningful Shafii representation in Northern government – not until the mid-1970s would Shafiis return to substantial positions. To this day, Abdul-Raqib remains a martyr for several different tendencies in Yemen; not only the leftists, long overrepresented in international commentary on Yemeni politics, but also Shafiis and more broadly Sunnis. As late as the 2010s, Yemeni Salafis were naming their fronts and organizations after Abdul-Raqib. His short life and career represented only a stage in the complex struggles between North and South, Left and Right, Shafii and Zaidi, lowlander and highlander in Yemen. But for many Yemenis, his career pointed to something more – the romantic fighter, betrayed and cut down, in his prime. The exact correspondence of facts with this image need not necessarily matter; it makes for a good story, and Yemenis love a good story.

Ibrahim Umari. Southeast Afghanistan’s Haqqani network has a particularly interesting place in modern history: as leading commanders in insurgencies against both the Soviet Union and then the United States; as masterful clan politicians with major transnational links; as ruthless fighters and as cunning diplomats; as liaisons between Afghanistan and Pakistan; and between the 1980s mujahideen parties and the Taliban. The extraordinary life of Jalaluddin Haqqani, patriarch of this network, deserves its own tale, but the contradictions and ironies in the Haqqanis’ longstanding role in the regional stage can be found in the career of his younger brother and longstanding lieutenant, Haji Muhammad Ibrahim Umari Haqqani Zadran, whose role as a commander, minister, and especially as a diplomat put him near the frontline of the network’s adventures.

Along with Khalilur-Rahman Ahmad and Ismail Haqqani, Ibrahim Umari was among the several much younger brothers to Jalaluddin Haqqani. They hailed from the Zadran clan that played an important role in the mountainous highlands of southeast Afghanistan, a region known as Loya Paktia or Greater Paktia – containing as it did the three provinces Paktia, Paktika, and Khaust. The Karlanri federation to which the Zadran belonged had often proven themselves tough fighters, and the last quarter of the twentieth century proved no different when the Zadran clan played a major role in fighting the communist regime in Kabul.

Jalaluddin’s militancy, of course, predated the communist takeover; like many other Islamists, he had mobilized in the mid-1970s to resist the increasingly leftward direction of the Afghan state after the ouster of the monarchy. But it was only in the late 1970s that this kicked into overdrive, with predominantly Zadran forces routing expedition after expedition sent by Kabul, whose soldiers on more than one occasion would defect en masse.

Jalaluddin was hardly the only Zadran leader in the area, and as a mulla his influence could have been expected to be modest compared to others. But the Haqqanis compensated for this – even before amassing an international reputation that drew in money, material, and fighters aplenty – with their clever diplomacy at the local level, an area where Jalaluddin excelled and where, as he grew older, his brothers Ibrahim Umari and Khalilur-Rahman Ahmad increasingly took the role.

By the 1980s, the insurgency had been formally categorized into several distinct parties mostly headquartered in Peshawar. The Haqqani family and their affiliates belonged to the Hizb II party – not the more infamous group founded by Gulbadin Hikmatyar, but rather a breakaway group founded by an older preacher from eastern Afghanistan, Younas Khalis, who was a friend of Jalaluddin. Unlike most other formal leaders, the aged Khalis regularly fought in the battlefield, occasionally at the Haqqani front in southeast Afghanistan. This was one of the more prominent fronts; located a stone’s throw from the Pakistani border at Waziristan, the Haqqanis enjoyed the assistance of both clan and religious networks across the border, as well as the Pakistani military. Their main target was the city Khaust, which had an unusually strong communist presence – Muhammad Najibullah, the spymaster-turned-dictator, came from the area – and just far afield to the north the garrison city Gardaiz. Most insurgent activity in the southeast focused on cutting off these cities. Along with Jalaluddin, other major commanders at the region included Matiullah Gulbaz, formally the military commander for Khalis’ party; Arsala-Rahmani Daulat, who established a military school for the insurgents run by a retired Afghan army officer Gul Zarak; Nasrullah Mansur, another preacher in the Khalis mould who founded his own unrecognized party but had a steady supply of informal resources from other groups; Fariduddin Mahmud from Jamiat; Fayiz Muhammad from Hikmatyar’s faction; and others. For the most part, these networks tended to cooperate strongly.

In the meanwhile, the internationalization of the conflict paid dividends for the Haqqanis. Among the many foreign fighters, mostly from the Arab world, who streamed in, their most famous visitor was Abdullah Azzam, the Palestinian preacher whose book, Al-Rahman’s Signs in Afghanistan, featured Jalaluddin as a major character and his brothers in minor roles. Many Arab fighters were much less sensitive than Azzam, and according to Mustafa Walid – a Masri reporter who became a close friend of the family – Jalaluddin’s brothers disliked and kept their distance from many of them. The younger brothers were trained by retired Pakistani soldiers who had come to join the Afghan insurgency; another frequent visitor to the region was Sultan “Colonel” Imam, the fervently impressed army intelligence officer who would “go native”, in the slightly sneering terms of some more hard-eyed colleagues, and become a fervent supporter of the Afghan insurgency in both action and personal habit. Soon Ibrahim was promoted to captain a unit at the Haqqanis’ front named after the caliph Umar b. Khattab; this, presumably, is how he received his nickname Umari.

With the Soviet withdrawal, insurgent forces became increasingly embittered at the regime’s survival; even if Soviet bombardment continued, a considerable proportion of insurgent activity during this period was spent infighting, both in the field and at Peshawar, where a makeshift exile cabinet officially chaired by a compromise leader, Sibghatullah Mujaddidi of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, lacked both form and function. In October 1990, therefore, Jalaluddin invited a number of the top commanders across Afghanistan – including Shah Masoud from Panjsher, Abdul-Haq Arsala from Nangarhar, and others – to set up a commanders’ council that would coordinate field activity. Pakistan, ordinarily leery of such initiatives, was by now sufficiently frustrated with the Peshawar-based parties to cautiously welcome the move, perhaps because they trusted Jalaluddin more than most other commanders.

The coordination swiftly paid off. In spring 1991, the long-encircled but well-equipped Khaust garrison finally fell against a cross-party local coalition assembled by Jalaluddin, whose brother Ibrahim Umari captained the final assault. Captured in the garrison were the regime’s deputy army minister, Zahir Sulahmal, and the former army commissar Gul-Agha Nahabi; in keeping with custom in the highlands the pair were not harmed. It was a major achievement, celebrated across party lines by the insurgents and sending shockwaves through Najibullah’s regime. Even an argument over the spoils didn’t quite spoil it – Hizb commander Fayiz Muhammad claiming the lion’s share, and soon taking up residence in the town citadel. When he hosted Hikmatyar, Pakistani spymaster Asad Durrani, and the Pakistani Jamaat emir Qazi Hussain – each partial to Hizb at that point – the Haqqanis, not yet Pakistan’s favourite insurgents, were indignant.

Khaust’s fall came right after an international event that had caused some tumult in the insurgency: the Gulf War. The typical reaction among the Afghan insurgents – apart from Hikmatyar, who condemned the West and backed Iraq – had been to condemn the Baathist regime in Baghdad but try to preempt an American deployment to Saudi Arabia by sending their own force – a modest lot indeed, numbering perhaps five hundred troops led by Qasim Khan, whose main return was the opportunity to visit the holy sites. But the war, and particularly the Haqqanis’ cordial links with the Saudis, paid battlefield dividends: over the summer a number of captured Iraqi tanks were delivered to the front.

Bolstered by this newfound cavalry, Ibrahim Umari set off in autumn 1991 to the next stop in the southeast. This was the garrison city Gardaiz, held by the regime’s corps commander for the region, Lieutenant-General Imamuddin. Imamuddin was a long-term regime loyalist – he had reportedly participated in the final assault against Daud Khan’s palace during the communist coup in April 1978 – and over the winter he held out as the insurgent council, captained by Ibrahim, laid siege to the city. The Haqqanis’ youngest brother, Ismail, lost his life in the fray.

The collapse of Najibullah’s increasingly shaky regime forced Imamuddin to reconsider in April 1992. Within days the attackers had sent an envoy of noted military background – Rahmatullah Safi, a former army officer who had served in the royal army and even fought with the Americans in Vietnam before that – and he persuaded Imamuddin to surrender. As was the case in Khaust, the garrison commander was permitted to retire unharmed and Ibrahim took over the garrison.

In the subsequent conflict between Hikmatyar and Masoud at Kabul, the Haqqanis kept neutral. Jalaluddin, indeed, returned to his old role as mediator, but this was beyond his skills, and he was forced to escape the capital after narrowly surviving a barrage of gunfire. The Haqqanis’ official position, and that of most insurgents in Loya Paktia, was to officially acknowledge Burhanuddin Rabbani – the Jamiat emir who now served largely as Masoud’s puppet in the capital – as the rightful leader. But they, like an increasing number of former insurgents, especially Pakhtuns, were equally bitter at Masoud.

Nonetheless, when push came to shove the Haqqanis backed Rabbani – if not Masoud himself – over Hikmatyar. Arsala-Rahmani Daulat, a close friend of the Haqqanis, was indeed offered the prime ministry by Rabbani in 1994; though this position was meaningless and Daulat stayed outside Kabul, it was an indication as to how the Loya Paktia networks tried to keep a foot in the “legitimate” camp.

Another early example of their cooperation featured Ibrahim Umari, now serving as Gardaiz corps commander, in 1993. Claiming implausibly to have received permission from Jalaluddin and his second-in-command Nizamuddin Haqqani to use the city’s airfield, Hikmatyar tried to send planes to Gardaiz but found the airfield blocked by tanks that Ibrahim had hastily assembled. The Haqqanis were keen to stay out of the war, much to the Hizb emir’s indignation.

Nor was this the only case where Hizb encountered resistance from the Haqqanis. In autumn 1994, just before the newly founded Taliban emirate started carving up Hizb fronts in southern Afghanistan, Fayiz hurried to mobilize his resources in service of Hikmatyar’s war. He had rented a camp out to an Arab group led by a certain Abu Atta Sharqi – apparently at that point, whether Fayiz knew it or not, the Afghan-based liaison of the incipient Qaida network based in Sudan – and now he threatened them at gunpoint to give back the camp. At this point Abdul-Qayum Khan, the Haqqanis’ lieutenant and official Khaust governor, stepped in with his own arsenal aimed at the Matoun citadel where Fayiz had his headquarters. In his subsequent report to Qaida military commander Mohamed Atef, Sharqi described Abdul-Qayum’s threat: “By God, if you fire a single shot we will destroy the Matoun citadel and we will kick you out of Khaust.”

Over the following winter, the incipient Taliban emirate shattered Hizb beyond repair and moved up to Kabul, where they had first been welcomed and were soon confronted by Masoud and Rabbani. With the south under their control, the emirate sent a unit to the southeast captained by Abdullah Turak, a southerner who had helped found the group. Several other southeastern commanders – most notably Abdul-Latif Mansur, the younger brother and successor to Nasrullah Mansur, whom Rabbani had promoted to Logar governor after Nasrullah’s murder – soon joined them. Ibrahim Umari himself gave a friendly reception to Turak, welcoming him formally to Gardaiz.

To his surprise, the Taliban southerners – perhaps imbued with overconfidence, or perhaps tactlessly trying to repeat their tactic against more resistant groups elsewhere – unceremoniously disarmed Ibrahim and claimed control of the region. This behaviour was very much not in keeping in the southeast highlands, where certain etiquettes still predominated. According to Mustafa Walid, the normally taciturn Jalaluddin Haqqani was incensed when he heard about the incident. It was Younas Khalis who persuaded him to let it pass, and advised him to join the Taliban. Jalaluddin agreed, and in return the Taliban – now led by their most tactful and capable administrator Ihsanullah Ihsan – opted for an “indirect” control in the southeast, giving the region’s networks considerable autonomy and inducting them into the Taliban cabinet.

Notable entrees into the Taliban cabinet included Arsala-Rahmani Daulat, who left his formal position as Rabbani’s prime minister; Abdul-Latif Mansur; and Jalaluddin Haqqani as well as Ibrahim Umari. The latter pair were given portfolios that seemed to suit their particular skills and contacts; Jalaluddin was appointed frontiers and clans minister, with Ibrahim his deputy. With their considerable network spanning both sides of the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, and Jalaluddin’s growing rapport with a Pakistan to whose concerns he was always peculiarly sensitive – indeed he would once claim to see himself as a citizen of both Afghanistan and Pakistan – this was a promotion that paid the Taliban dividends.

Though the Haqqanis’ relations with the Taliban were not devoid of tension, they clung on until and after the 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by the United States. Here Jalaluddin, whose links with foreign fighters may have contributed to the Taliban reluctance to relinquish the foreigners, struck a publicly defiant tone, and was indeed tasked by Taliban emir Umar Mujahid with organizing military resistance in the region. But always the pragmatist, he – like much of the southern Taliban – was exploring ways to come to terms with the new order, especially as it would p0tentially benefit his longstanding rivals in the southeast: men such as Badshah Khan, another Zadran commander who had a long record of competition with Jalaluddin and now rode back on the coattails of the American campaign.

After Kandahar fell, the main American effort was geared toward bombarding the southeast well into the spring of 2002. Hamid Karzai, their chosen option for the Afghan crown, was rather more dovish than his benefactors’ rhetoric let on; never a vindictive man if he could help it, he quietly responded to Jalaluddin’s feelers for talks. Jalaluddin sent Ibrahim Umari – whose role now and since appears to have been a mainly diplomatic one – to talk to the Afghan ruler at the same point as American airstrikes, guided by the Haqqanis’ local opponents, were pelting the region. One report, indeed, claimed Ibrahim had been slain by such a strike. In fact he did reach Karzai, who – eager not to make avoidable enemies – offered him a governorship to signify his good intentions.

None of this appears to have reached the Americans, who continued listing the Haqqanis as targets; and if it did reach the militias who were their counterparts on the ground, they rushed to snip any rapprochement in the bud. Especially obstructive was Pacha Khan, a former friend of the Haqqanis who was now angling to displace him and serve as governor-general in the region. Stories vary, but Ibrahim was at one point abducted and beaten. When his captors were satisfied, they let him go, but a shaken Ibrahim returned home and announced that the invaders had no intention of making peace, and only a renewed jihad could stop them.

If the unceremonious treatment of his brother by the Taliban had irritated Jalaluddin in 1995, the arbitrary cruelty by the new government must have infuriated him in 2002. The Haqqanis would soon make a name, partly buoyed by their strong rapport with the Pakistani military and Islamist establishment, as an especially lethal and dangerous opposition. Other commanders, it should be noted in fairness, had more luck; Arsala-Rahmani Daulat, for instance, was able to surrender unharmed and later even join the Afghan legislature, though his continuous attempts to get the government to reconcile with the Taliban were unsuccessful.

The first notable military opposition in the southeast was initiated in spring 2002 not by the Haqqanis by another network linked to the Taliban: the Mansur family. Abdul-Latif Mansur’s nephew, and Nasrullah Mansur’s son, Saifur-Rahman Mansur, had cut his teeth as a colonel in the Taliban army during the 1990s. As American commandos and Afghan militiamen – led at this point by one Ahmad Zia, a Ludin clansman with no local links – encircled the sizeable arsenals that had been stockpiled in the valleys of Paktia since the 1980s, Saifur-Rahman mounted a daring counterattack that enabled the Taliban and the foreign fighters with them to escape with the weaponry. He was assisted by the Uzbekistan Islamist leader Tohirjann Yuldushev, who thereby managed to evacuate with his fighters into northwest Pakistan, and also according to several reports by Ibrahim Umari. It is clear, however, that the main role was played, with considerable skill and nerve, by Saifur-Rahman, who was later given his own autonomous command in the southeast much as Jalaluddin was given his own.

By the late 2000s, the aging Jalaluddin effectively retired; he would pass away a decade later. In summer 2007, his most capable son Sirajuddin Haqqani replaced him, overcoming a mild challenge by his uncle Ibrahim. As it was, Ibrahim – as well as Khalilur-Rahman Ahmad, the other surviving Haqqani brother – continued to play a diplomatic role. They were often aided by the Pakistani military, who maintained a soft spot for the Haqqanis and who moreover tried to enlist their mediation in the Pakistani insurgency, led by some of their former Pakistani comrades as well as by Tohirjann Yuldushev’s Uzbeks, with the Qaida network playing an escalatory role. Mediating in this particular conflict, however, proved beyond the Haqqanis’ talents, although in 2010-11 the brothers Ibrahim and Khalilur-Rahman did try to convince Fazil Saeed, a Sunni militia commander, to quit his sectarian battles with Shia militiamen in the Kurram agency, which bestrode their own supply lines into Afghanistan. In the meanwhile the talks with the government went no further; Burhanuddin Rabbani and Arsala-Rahmani Daulat, now leading attempts to mediate, were both murdered in 2011-12.

Since then, Ibrahim and Khalilur-Rahman have been involved in Taliban diplomacy, often trying to soften their stance by stressing their respect for the United States based off its former assistance against the Soviets; their stance, in short, is not the same as that of Qaida. In summer 2015 Ibrahim was part of a high-level Taliban embassy that met Karzai’s younger kinsman Hekmat at the Pakistani city Murree; nothing came of the talks, but the government delegation soon leaked the news of Umar Mujahid’s earlier death, which caused a furore and a brief internal struggle among the Taliban. Sirajuddin Haqqani played a major role in mediating the reconciliation that followed, enabling the Haqqanis to play a more central role within the traditionally southerner-dominated Taliban command. The link between the Haqqanis and mainstream Taliban, which started so tenuously when Ibrahim Umari first met them at Gardaiz a quarter-century earlier, seems stronger by 2020 than at any prior point.

Azzeddine Zerrari. The Front Liberation insurgency that won Algeria’s independence from France in the 1950s influenced its fair share of anticolonial literature and militancy, much of which bore little resemblance to the Front itself. At its root were hardy Algerian fighters, dismissed as fellagha or bandits by the French government before forcing them to the negotiating table, and lionized as moudjahedine by the Algerians. An outstanding example of the fighter’s fighter was Si Azzeddine Rabah Benmohamed Zerrari, a tough and battle-scarred field commander in the hinterland near the Algerian capital.

Unlike the relatively experienced and shrewd political leadership that had founded the Front Liberation, Zerrari had no political training. Born in the Kabylia region, which produced a disproportionate number of insurgent leaders, but apparently himself an Arab by ethnicity, he came from humble coppersmith stock, and was barely out of school when the insurgency began. Like thousands of other Algerian youth, he was fired up by the impending fight and joined the Front Liberation. Zerrari joined the Front’s Algerois wilaya or sector, founded in the region in and around the Algerian capital where he joined the so-called “commando” unit founded by Ali Kodja, an originally small battalion that mounted hit-and-run attacks on French forces in the region.

Zerrari received the first of many wounds in the battlefield during spring 1955; unlike most of the remainder, this one was treated by a professional doctor, Pierre Chaulet, who came from the French piednoir settler community. Chaulet, a friend of Ramdane Abbane – the Front’s preeminent political organizer and soon to be their practical leader in the country – was was unusual in his open sympathy and support for the Algerian insurgency, which stood in stark contrast to the general piednoir attitude. He soon stitched up Zerrari, who returned to the maquis, taking with him in the trend of many an insurgent fighter the self-adopted nickname of Azzeddine.

The Algerois wilaya, which contained several key cities in and near the Mediterranean littoral, was a key front. It contained insurgents of several different types. Kodja’s unit, which started at only sixscore fighters but would eventually grow tenfold, distinguished itself in running skirmishes with French troops, attacking them before melting into a sympathetic countryside. A different, and more famous, case was presented in Algiers city itself, where urban militias had been set up in the underground by such streetfighters as Saadi Yacef and Ali Lapointe, engaging in unorthodox and often cold-blooded tactics to disrupt the French presence in the city. To counter their raids, which occasionally drifted close to outright terrorism, the French forces and their piednoir allies adopted savagely brutal tactics, most infamously including rampant torture. The subsequent urban battle over 1956-57, in which Lapointe lost his life and the widely respected Front founder Larbi Benmhidi – then the seniormost Front founder in the field – was killed in custody, would become famous a decade later in a film that Yacef himself would help produce, The Battle of Algiers.

The hinterland skirmishes in which Kodja’s unit engaged were different and – one might add – rather more obviously gallant than the ugly urban warfare that took place in Algiers. The risks remained high, however, and Kodja himself was killed in October 1956 – just as the battle of Algiers was beginning not far off. Azzeddine Zerrari, by then already reputed as a hardy fighter, took his place, as the “commando” force continued to mount ambushes and hit-and-run attacks on French patrols. Very soon the French troops themselves came to find a grudging respect for Zerrari; Marcel Bigeard, the officer who had captured Larbi Benmhidi at Algiers, engaged in regular duels with his forces in the hinterland, and once – at Agounennda, in the hills to Algiers’ south and Blida’s east during May 1957 – managed to draw him out into the open field, where some hundred insurgents were slain even as Azzeddine organized a fighting retreat. Azzeddine, like many of his fighters, was wounded repeatedly in these battles; given the difficulty in finding treatment, he would often last days without treatment, or else find some makeshift arrangement himself.

With Larbi Benmhidi’s execution, meanwhile, the Algerois wilaya attained an enterprising new commander, Mhammed Bouguerra, who reorganized the insurgent troops into the region to reflect the needs of the hour. The command structure lost its earlier hierarchy, and the diverse roles played by different units were formally organized. This tallied with an overall reorganization of the Front structure in the late 1950s, part of which involved setting up two “field” armies in the sympathetic and newly independent neighbouring states of Morocco and Tunisia. In response, the French army constructed a highly effective electric barrier, named after its army minister Andre Morice, along the more active Tunisian border. The eastern army there, captained by Nacer Mohammedi – whose career we have already encountered in an earlier article – made several vain attempts to storm the barrier and relieve their counterparts in the field, but for the most part had no answer. The more shrewd and calculating commander in the west, Houari Boumedienne, preferred to bide his time and wait. With the insurgents inside Algeria increasingly cut off from outside, the French army mounted several sweeps throughout the country where thousands of insurgents were slain.

The electric barrier was not the only counterinsurgency tool the French army employed. Another, which caused considerable consternation in Algerian ranks, was the cooption of various Algerian militias who had hitherto backed the insurgency. In some cases these were formally attached to the Front’s competitor, the Mouvement Liberation. Founded by the veteran France-based Algerian activist Ahmed Messali-Hadj, the Mouvement had a strong presence in urban France but no real organization in Algeria itself. There was, however, strong sympathy for it, mostly relating to Messali-Hadj’s personal popularity, and this made the Mouvement an ideal label for defecting commanders, such as Mohamed Bellounis, to stake their banners to even as they were backed by France. Perhaps the most notable defector was Abdelkader Kobus, who had actually served alongside the Front’s founders as military organizer for an abortive planned insurgent group at the start of the decade.

Given such subversion, it was not surprising that the Front became paranoid, and over the course of the war many hundreds were killed in conflict between the “Mouvement” – both actual members and French-backed defectors – and the Front, while hundreds more were killed in internal Front purges. This method of counterinsurgency was highly successful at turning the Front’s strength on itself. In November 1958, Azzeddine Zerrari made a brave move that effectively ended it.

Six months earlier, the dashing World War-period French general, Charles de-Gaulle, had seized power. Events in Algeria were directly responsible: when the French regime suggested it might negotiate with the Front Liberation, the colonial forces – both the French army and the cocoon of generally far-right piednoir militias and paramilitaries that backed it – mutinied in Algiers, and threatened to attack Paris itself. They ordered the installation of an emergency government led by de-Gaulle, whom they supposed would back their hardline stance against the insurgency. Imagine, then, their rude shock when de-Gaulle, once firmly ensconced in power, offered not only talks with the Front but autonomy for Algeria’s Muslims.

Vainglorious blowhard though he was, de-Gaulle was also a realist, and recognized that no matter how many battlefield triumphs the army and its piednoir allies scored, the permanent alienation of the Muslim populace had made Algeria unsustainable as a colony. He therefore announced a typically grandiloquent “Peace of the Brave”, offering some autonomy and self-governance in return for the insurgency laying down its arms. The offer was largely scorned by the insurgency –it was doubtful at that point whether de-Gaulle could deliver such a deal, given how he had been brought to power and could potentially be ousted by hardliners in the counterinsurgency. It is likely that they only swallowed the bitter pill because they believed that this would split the insurgency, and because they had only just made their bed.

Nonetheless, in November 1958 the French army was pleasantly surprised when their battle-worn foe, Azzeddine Zerrari, arrived cap in hand to meet the field commander Victor Massu, a veteran of the recent mutiny and of the 1956-57 Algiers battle. Here was a real catch: this was no exile politician or opportunistic warlord, but a well-known field commander whose defection could turn heads – and whose integrity was fervently attested to by his longstanding sparring partner Marcel Bigeard. Giving Massu his word as a fighter that he would lay down his arms, Azzeddine explained that de-Gaulle’s Peace of the Brave had convinced him that there was no point in further fighting.

The Peace of the Brave seemed to have gone off to a promising start – internal turmoil, meanwhile, in the Front ranks could only have encouraged France – but only a month later Azzeddine disappeared, reappearing in the insurgency. To the nasty surprise of the French officers, he had not defected; instead, he had fed them false information and used the interim to feed information and supplies to his compatriots in the maquis. A measure of how stung the French were by this event can be found in their virtual abandonment of the defector tactic, hitherto so successful; much like the paranoid Front commanders who had earlier purged their ranks in fear of French subversion, the colonial forces practically abandoned their hitherto successful tactic at its first reversal.

The trick was just as gratifying to the front, and Azzeddine was promoted from his field command. In May 1959 he participated in a high-level Front trip to China, the only non-Muslim country to support the insurgency. Upon his return he was sent to serve in the Morocco-based external army on the staff of its commander, Houari Boumedienne.

The discordant effect of Azzeddine’s feigned betrayal continued to hurt France. Indeed in spring and summer 1960, they received a strikingly similar offer of negotiation from a higher-ranking Front commander, Salah Zamoum. He had replaced Algerois commander Mhammed Bouguerra when the latter had lost his life in combat the previous year, and after years of hard fighting he was genuinely ready to come to terms. His French interlocutors were cautious but interested, and even scheduled a meeting with Charles de-Gaulle. But a suspicious de-Gaulle, stung by the episode with Azzeddine, refused to even meet Zamoum, and a genuine opportunity for France went begging.

Azzeddine then returned to Algeria at the end of the French occupation, right as the colonial forces were withdrawing. Boumedienne dispatched him to lead the Front forces that took over Algiers, a task he managed well – but only briefly. For the long-simmering internal tensions in the Front’s leadership finally broke out at the moment of triumph; two competing leaderships, one led by Benyoucef Benkhedda and the other by Front founder Ahmed Benbella, made a rush for the capital. Benkhedda had on his side a number of the Front’s most seasoned, and indeed ruthless, commanders – the feared security supremos Abdelhafiz Boussouf and Lakhdar Bentobbal, as well as Belkacem Kerim, the only Front founder to last the entire war in the field. But Benbella had Boumedienne’s disciplined and no less ruthless army, primed for this very moment. Moreover, Benbella’s camp – led by the ambitious secretary-general, Said Khider – persuaded Hassan Khatib, otherwise an opponent of Boumedienne, to take over Algiers from Zerrari.

Dismayed by the sudden discord, Azzeddine washed his hands of the affair and left Algiers. In his wake, Boumedienne’s forces – assisted by the veteran streetfighter Saadi Yacef, mobilizing his front in the capital’s streets – swept into Algiers, brushing aside opposing forces led by the official field commander for Algerois, Zamoum’s successor Hassan Khatib. Benkhedda was routed and went into retirement; the same could not be said of many of his counterparts, who went into opposition of some type or other both during Benbella’s subsequent regime and, after a neatly managed coup in 1965, Boumedienne’s succeeding regime.

Azzeddine Zerrari himself retired into private life, taking up business. He never had any particular political inclinations, and preferred to think of himself as a soldier; indeed, long after the war he maintained correspondence both with his own comrades as well as French officers, in the sort of friendship that occasionally surfaces between former battlefield foes. He later wrote his memoirs – They called us Fellaghas. Owing to his relatively high profile, he was occasionally the subject of bitter speculation and gossip by former comrades who had gone into opposition; Azzeddine, while critical of successive Algerian regimes, had no interest in militarily opposing them. On the other hand, during the mid-1990s as the Algerian civil war spiralled into a brutal conflict between the extremist Groupe Armee and the security forces, he offered his services to the interim ruler, Liamine Zeroual, a former officer who had attempted to reach some accord with the respectable Islamist Front Salvation. At Zeroual’s request, Azzeddine organized several thousand volunteers to fight the Groupe Armee. Now into his dotage, he continues to make occasional comments on Algeria’s trajectory, often along the lines of the well-worn cliché that a corrupt regime has manipulated the 1950s independence to its own advantage. But politics in themselves were and are not for Azzeddine; he was ever only a simple fighting man.

Fundamental errors

Fundamental errors
Ibrahim Moiz
24 April 2020

The American reporter Steve Coll is one of the Anglosphere’s most careful and studious observers of Afghanistan, and his books – in particular Ghost Wars, a 2004 work about the link between the 1980s Afghanistan conflict and its blowback in the 2000s – some of the best-known on the topic. Not only has he reams of interviews with notable characters across different languages, but he also keeps up to date with academic literature on the subject.
I confess I am not a particular fan myself – I don’t generally like journalistic books on topics of war and peace, which tend to rely overly on interviews and thus the perspectives of the interviewed. Less a fan than myself, however, is an old hand from the Afghanistan conflict, whom I met in Pakistan on several occasions. He knows many of the people interviewed by Coll, including members of the 1980s insurgency, the current Taliban, the militia coalition that opposed them, and the Pakistani military, but his problem with Coll is not a political one. No, what he objected to when I met him was the rendition that Coll gave on a mystical dream that the Taliban emir Umar Mujahid is supposed to have had.

There are many rumours about Umar Mujahid seeing some saintly dream that propelled him to found the Taliban movement; such rumours often abound and were often seen in conflicts . What my interlocutor objected to was that Coll, probably unknowingly but quite blasphemously from an Islamic standpoint, presents Umar as having claimed to see a rendition of Allah. SubhanAllah (glorious and free is Allah above that), my interlocutor – again, familiar with many leading protagonists on different sides of the conflict – exclaimed; didn’t he know that no Muslim could say such a thing?

In Islam, we do not believe that Allah has human versions or partners on earth. This is one of the fundamental differences we have with Christianity, which does assign to the Creator such human partnership. Sunnis and their many schools, Shias and their many schools – it doesn’t matter. As Surah Ikhlas, perhaps the most fundamental chapter in the Quran, tells us unambiguously: Allah is One, and there is nothing comparable to Him. My interlocutor, as a pious Muslim somewhat unusual in his obsessive study of English literature on politics, was scandalized and actually claimed to have reached out in the mid-2000s to people in the know (apparently both retired members and opponents of the Taliban) to make sure: Umar had, it was true, been rumoured to have seen some saintly dream or other, but that was a completely different thing: the difference between that and what Coll had written was the difference between Islam and unbelief. Had Umar made such a claim, my interlocutor solemnly said, he would have been skinned by his own followers. Muslims didn’t hold such views; Sunni Muslims certainly didn’t; Daobandi Sunni Muslims absolutely didn’t; and obsessive-compulsively ultraconservative Daobandi Sunni Muslims would not countenance such a claim let alone found a political movement led by the claimant.

This conversation took place years ago, and I didn’t think too much about it till recently. As I said, I don’t particularly like Ghost Wars or the broader genre of journalistic accounts. My guess was, and remains, that Coll was either purposely misinformed or had accidentally mistranslated; I certainly do not impugn his integrity as a reporter. Recently, however, after some experience this conversation has reoccurred to me. It’s not that I expect non-Muslims to know about Muslim theology. But when covering issues in the Muslim world, which frequently involve ideological categorization into “moderates” and “radicals”, however, at least this level of basic knowledge should be a requirement. If somebody as studious and esteemed in the field as Steve Coll could make such a glaring error on so fundamental an issue, what is there to be said about the dozens of less qualified analysts and reporters who regularly pontificate on issues of Islam and politics?
Certain traditionalist students of Islam have tended to dismiss Western academia as offering nothing productive, and at worst orientalist distortions, to the Muslim student. As somebody involved at least tangentially in academia, I think they overstate the point. But I am becoming increasingly convinced that some level of theological literacy about Islam the faith is required in order to talk about Islam the sociopolitical phenomenon. If one is to talk, however dispassionately, about the latter, one needs to have at least a baseline knowledge on the latter.
Hostility and wilful ignorance
Part of the problem, of course, is that especially after 2001, a good deal of the material was muddied and purposely misled by a multimillion-dollar (at a conservative estimate) anti-Islamic industry that purposely misled people on the subject. And indeed the most glaring errors I see often occur in books by actors in the immediate aftermath of 2001.
On Afghanistan, for instance, several mostly anonymous or pseudonymous books were written by low-ranking “citizen warriors” who participated in the early stages of the War on Terror; their theological ignorance on the topic, which again would not be such a problem if they weren’t involved actively in the affairs of Muslim countries and societies, often stem from an antagonistic perspective of Islam that is only barely covered by references to Qaeda, Taliban, or terrorism. The rampant hostility toward Islam – not only the specific Muslims they were fighting – in places such as Guantanamo Bay is well-known and uncontestable. Often political opposition translated into opposition to, and at times wilful ignorance of, Islam.

Much of this flies under the radar but can be seen in relatively petty cases. For instance, the well-known pseudonymous commando officer who participated in the Battle of Torabora, Dalton Fury, claims in his memoir that the Afghan locals treated Usama bin-Ladin as though he were “almighty” and also as if he were the Prophet Muhammad SAW. This contains both theological illiteracy – Muslims believe that Prophet Muhammad SAW was simply a servant of Allah – but also brings to the table the underlying political hostility, which was his suspicion and thus resentment of the locals he saw as sheltering bin-Ladin.

A more blatant case is that of an anonymous paramilitary officer who had fought in Afghanistan during 2002 later penned an obscure largely nonsensical memoir whose sensationalism could be gauged from its title – Hunting Al-Qaeda: A take-no-prisoners account of terror, adventure, and disillusionment – which claims, based off the authors’ own garbled memories of their experience in the early War on Terror, that they could have single-handedly won the said war had they not been backstabbed by pompous bureaucrats. The book is largely nonsensical, but like a considerable proportion of the genre it also makes little secret of its contempt for the locals and – to our purpose – jeeringly refers to a character as Allah (Subhan-Allah above such a claim), a statement that again betrays a criminal misunderstanding of even the most basic Islamic tenets. The war on terror, and particularly its earliest years, were conducted in a Muslim environment by people who had neither the slightest knowledge, sympathy, or inclination towards either knowledge or sympathy when it came to Muslims or Islam.

Such cases as the above are of course extreme, and I would hazard that they will one day fade and disappear the same way as medieval crusade propaganda about Muslims as devil-worshipping enemies of Christ have now faded. But they are symptomatic of a wider problem. At best, the majority of political commentary on Islam and Muslims is theologically illiterate; at worst, it is hostile. Nobody expects a non-Muslim to necessarily understand or like Islam, but the former is a necessary prerequisite for talking, often from very high vantage points and in positions of considerable authority, on topics that affect Muslims.
It should be noted that by the 2010s there was at least some attempt to improve upon this aspect, often by paying attention to Muslim interlocutors and advisors. The hostility and wariness may not quite have disappeared – James Jones, former praetorian commander and security advisor to no less cosmopolitan an American ruler as Barack Obama, solemnly pronounced the Afghan war as “a clash of civilizations…a clash of religions…a clash of concepts of how to live”, and the fact that individuals such as Tony Blair, Michael Flynn, James Mattis, David Frum, and others continue to hover in varying spheres of influence suggests that this will continue awhile. But if there must be hostility, at least let there be an attempt to understand the basic tenets. The British Empire, for all its villainy, also understood and tried to understand its opponents (even if only to undermine them), and produced high-calibre scholastic and diplomatic appraisals of what it regarded as subject populaces.
Islam as theology, Islam as sociopolitical phenomenon

Thankfully, academia remains a sphere where hostility is not so much an issue. But theological literacy on at least the basic tenets of Islam remains a major issue. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen very basic errors from perfectly well-meaning authors; one that springs straight to mind was a mistranslation of a paper Nidai-Haqq – meaning “Call of Truth”, but mistranslated instead to the rather blasphemous “Voice of God”. This mistranslation was by the same author – again a well-respected academic whose integrity there is no reason to question – who once mistranslated and rendered infinitely more radical an Islamist slogan that went “No half-measures in Islam”, to “No moderation in Islam”. Even the most practiced hands are often startingly poor when it comes to Islamic tenets, and this limits their ability to commentate, as they often do, on matters of ideology, moderation, and extremism.

This is especially problematic because, for better or worse, the Western approach to militancy and whatnot, with its categorizations and its ideas, has often been copied by Muslim states in their own internal affairs. One can argue – I certainly would – that such an imitation is unhealthy, but then given the fact that several Muslim states have faced violence and subversion of a very clearly extremist – I don’t just mean any old insurgency – sort, perhaps it is not surprising. The irony is that Western literature on ideology and whatnot, often as noted here functionally illiterate on Islamic theology, is internalized by states whose Muslim functionaries and academics do, or at least should, know about said theology themselves. The upshot is that not only is the academic response to Muslim groups in non-Muslim circles garbled, the same has become often true of Muslim academics and policymakers who should know better.

The fact is that, even if it is often instrumentalized and not always accurately represented, Islamic theology plays a fundamental and powerful ideological role in all but the most overtly secularist Muslim movements. In order to understand how Muslim movements, factions, and mobilizations work, an at least basic grasp of Islam is required. This is particularly the case when non-Muslims are attempting to categorize such groups into ideological camps; without a very basic understanding of the faith behind the ideology, such classifications lose their meaning.