History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part Eight

In the Name of Allah


Ibrahim Moiz, copyright and full rights reserved 2021

Let’s start 2021’s Kanounel-Awwal with familiar territory – Afghanistan and Pakistan – as well as fascinating Eritrea. Since this articlem like others, covers certain skulduggery and cutthroatery, I must reiterate that these are not approvals of such actions; any individual who engaged in cutthroatery takes his life into his hands when it comes to Allah’s punishment, for rarely are such measures necessary. Rather this is an attempt to recount and place into context such episodes – right or, as more probable, wrong. I begin and end in Allah’s Name

Abdullah Idris, Eritrea. Eritrea is a rare example of a postcolonial state that both won its independence by the sword and has remained internally stable, to a fault, since. Issayas Afworki’s single-party regime, built off the apparatus of the Shaebia insurgent group that swept to victory, is among the world’s most tightly controlled governments, nationalist to the point of isolationism and autocratic to the point of tyranny. In its sweeping path to power in the late Cold War, Shaebia not only swept aside the Ethiopian army but also such rivals as its precursor in Eritrean revolt, the Jibha insurgent faction whose own equivalent of Afworki, the restless and ruthless military commander Abdullah Idris Mohammad, has in the winners’ rhetoric become the much-maligned villain of Eritrean history and is the subject of this profile.

Like its southern neighbour and former suzerain Ethiopia, Eritrea is a multiethnic region of plains, desert, and mountains on the Red Sea’s western coast whose population is roughly equally split between Muslims and Christians. The seat of ancient Axum, it was an on-off tributary of Abyssinia before its colonial occupation by Italy in the late nineteenth century. During the Second World War, Eritrea was the site of fighting between the British Empire, allied with the Ethiopian monarchy, and fascist Italy, and in its aftermath, it was incorporated into Ethiopia first as a federation and then – via a practically unilateral move by the monarchy – annexed outright in November 1962.

The Ethiopian monarchy prided itself as one of the world’s few countries to have never been colonized by Europe, and levied great influence in postcolonial Africa to this end. Paradoxically, however, Addis Ababa’s policy toward Eritrea verged on the colonial. Muslims in particular disliked the Christian chauvinism of the Amharan aristocracy, and much of early Eritrean nationalism, at least its militant sections, was dominated by Muslims – particularly those who had studied or worked in Masr or Sudan. Most Eritrean Christians, by and large, were initially relatively passive under a Christian monarchy that rarely afforded them benefits; increasingly those Christians who did take up arms belonged to leftist tendencies, that often presented as much a barrier to cooperation with the largely conservative Muslims as could religious differences.

Even before Eritrea’s annexation, a militant network that eventually became the Eritrean Liberation Front, or Jibha, had formed in Cairo by a triumvirate comprising former Eritrean speaker Idris Adam, historian Osman Sabbe, and nominal military commander Idris Galawaidos; they also gained the support of the last emir of an autonomous Eritrea, the Christian unionist Tedle Bairu. Their initial contacts in the Eritrean heartland however largely rested on familial or clan connections; most notably, Adam’s roots in the Beniamer people led him to make contact with a dashing adventurer called Idris Awate, whose raids had long vexed a government that described him as a shifta or brigand. Though Awate’s actual role with Jibha was brief – he was killed in 1962 – such was his legend that Jibha kept his martyrdom secret for three years. By that point his exploits had captured the imagination, and must certainly have moved such Beniamer recruits as Abdullah Idris who also joined Jibha at an early stage.

While the external leadership would attract criticism for their distance from the field, they did play an important role in bringing in money and weapons from abroad – largely such Muslim donors as Masr, Sudan, Algeria, Syria, and Iraq, with Libya and the Gulf later in the mix. Other African countries were less forthcoming, partly owing to Ethiopia’s leading role in the African Union and partly because a secessionist revolt in one African state could set uncomfortable precedents on the remaining continent. In turn Eritrean nationalists protested that theirs was not a secessionist but an anticolonial venture, and tried to imitate the most celebrated anticolonial war in Africa up to that point – the Algerian war – while only having a fraction of the numbers.

Ethiopian prince Asrate Kasse tried to stamp out the revolt with both stick – in 1964 Jibha military commander Saeed Hussain was captured during a crackdown, while Israeli troops were increasingly employed to counsel Ethiopian troops on counterinsurgency – and carrot – “dividing and ruling” by making conciliatory noises towards Eritrean Christians and trying to woo Christian defectors from the insurgency. This would exacerbate sectarian tensions within Jibha; though officially a cross-religious group, it was led by Muslims, its references largely drawn from Islamic culture, and its foreign support from Muslim countries. During periods of tension, suspicion would repeatedly surface between Muslims who questioned Christians’ commitment, and Christians who chafed at Muslim dominance. Both perceptions played a role in Abdullah Idris’ career.

Confessional tension came to the fore after the first major Ethiopian campaign against the insurgents during 1967, where Jibha was badly beaten. One reason was its command structure, divided into Algerian-style fronts that were nonetheless too small and poorly coordinated to last. But confessional tension was also unleashed when Hishal Osman, who deputized for the only Christian front commander in Jibha, executed nearly thirty Christian fighters; his commander Woldai Kahsai summarily defected to the government in fear. Abdullah Idris was dispatched to take over Kahsai’s front until such point as a Christian replacement could be found; eventually this role went to Abraham Tewolde.

In the meanwhile, Jibha officers mulled over a reorganization that moved the exile political leadership closer to the battlefield and gave the field commanders more room to coordinate and improvise. Initially proposed by Ramadan Nur and Issayas Afworki, who served as liaisons between the fronts and the command, this theme was taken up by senior commanders Abdullah Idris and Ibrahim Mohammad. Reorganization continued until 1969 when a military council led by Syrian-trained commander Mohammad Abdou was set up; Nur served as his secretary while Abdullah, Ibrahim, and Afworki sat on the council. The upshot was that a group that was still quite modest in size – perhaps two thousand fighters at most at this point – had some forty commanders who, like a sports team with many prospective captains, would often quarrel.

In December 1969 Abdou jarred whatever potential this arrangement might have had by suspending the external leadership – Osman Sabbe and the Idrises Adam and Galawaidos. He also executed scores of recruits, exclusively from Addis Ababa, whom he suspected as spies. These moves prompted a number of breakaways from Jibha, which would eventually coalesce into the rival Shaebia organization.

Two seasoned commanders, Omars Abdullah and Damir, quit the group outright, but others formed rival groups. One was led by Sabbe, in opposition to the “coup” within Jibha; two more by field commanders Adam Shedeli and Mohammad Omaro, who respectively were slightly rightist and slightly leftist in insurgent politics; and a fourth, most notably, by Abraham Tewolde and Issayas Afworki, who specifically accused Jibha as biased against Christians. Tewolde, who must have been sensitive to such an issue given his predecessor Woldai Kahsai’s experience, perished on the overland trek to establish a new quarter and Afworki replaced him.

In November 1970, Abdullah Idris participated in an ambush that killed the seasoned Ethiopian field commander for Eritrea, Teshome Ergetu; in response, Ethiopian troops rampaged through Eritrea, killing hundreds of villagers, before a military rule was established in the province. The oppressive environment, and the required refocus of the insurgents away from internecine squabbles, prompted Mohammad Abdou to agree to relinquish power in a Jibha election during autumn 1971. To ease Christian anxiety, the election was organized by Tedle Bairu’s son Herui, who himself was voted second-in-command while Idris Adam returned as emir with his son Ibrahim named his successor. Military command went to Abdullah Idris, who – flanked by a capable staff including his second-in-command Tesfai Tekle, operations director Abdulkadir Ramadan, and field commanders Hussain Khalifa, Woldedawit Temesghen, Seyoum Ogbumichael, and Mahmouds Hassab and Hamid – would lead Jibha to its most arresting field victories.

But Jibha found itself with another problem. In February 1972, the four breakaway groups led by Afworki, Omaro, Sabbe, and Shedeli joined in what was called the People’s Liberation Front, or Shaebia. Put together they were still smaller than Jibha, but large enough to cause alarm. Following the Algerian example – where rival insurgent groups had been squashed to maintain the premier group’s monopoly over the insurgency – Abdullah Idris sprang into action. He immediately attacked and captured Shedeli, whose front on the Obel river in western Eritrea was the weakest link, and over the next year Jibha forces would sporadically skirmish with Shaebia fronts.

This culminated in an attempt by Abdullah to finish off a Shaebia front, led by Tewolde Eyob and Sebhat Ephraim, on the Sudanese border. Though heavily outnumbered, the Shaebia troops fought hard and received an unexpected reprieve from the Sudanese junta. Sudanese spymaster Khalifa Karrar and army field commander Abdel-Rahman Sawarul-Zahab – a decade later Sudan’s army commander and interim ruler – forced Abdullah to stand down.

Such episodes, as well as his proximity to such Arab regimes as Iraq, secured for Abdullah the reputation of a ruthless and intolerant Arabo-Muslim chauvinist. The irony, of course, was that Shaebia’s own strongmen, Ramadan Nur and Issayas Afworki, also proved ruthless in imposing their control. A case in point came when, after a dispute between Shaebia commanders Solomon Woldemariam and Tewolde Eyob in which younger Marxists backed Woldemariam, Nur and Afworki executed the Marxists. Ironically enough, Eyob protested this drastic crackdown and was executed in turn; Woldemariam, by contrast, opportunistically disavowed the Marxists and was rewarded with control over Shaebia security – only to be himself executed a few years later.

Shaebia itself was an officially leftist “social-democratic” movement – yet it was precisely its lack of democratism that entrenched its leaders and rendered it an effective fighting force. It did not take long for them to shed such weak figureheads as Osman Sabbe, who had long outlived his use and was caricatured as an Arab-Muslim chauvinist in the same way that Addis Ababa had caricatured Jibha. Yet Abdullah’s similar attempts to impose control in Jibha earned him a similar caricature as an Arab-Muslim chauvinist that has lasted in Eritrean historiography.

Meanwhile mainland Ethiopia was soon swept up in an enormous uprising that toppled the monarchy and the aristocracy. In its place came a ruthless military junta, known as the Derg, which soon adopted Leninism as an official ideology. But any hopes that Eritrean insurgents might have had that a regime change would effect a more benevolent policy would soon shattered; to the contrary, discipline in the north soon broke down and troops embarked on killing sprees that dwarfed anything done by the monarchy.

The twin collapse of a Christian monarchy and the brutal crackdown by a still Amhara-dominated state served to suspend any collaboration that Eritrean Christians might have had with Addis Ababa; to the contrary, both Christians and Muslims flooded into the insurgency over the mid-1970s, so that both Jibha and Shaebia swelled to severalfold their original size – roughly in the neighbourhood of twenty thousand fighters apiece, an enormous size by most insurgent standards.

Thus bolstered, the insurgents assailed much of the Eritrean province; an early success was Jibha director Abdulkadir Ramadan’s planning of simultaneous jailbreaks in Asmara and Adiqali, which released between them a thousand inmates – among them former Jibha military commander Saeed Hussain and Osman Sabbe’s brother Mahmoud. Paradoxically, however, success in the field came with more leadership disputes.

These were exacerbated in the second Jibha election, during spring 1975. Both rightist emir Idris Adam and his leftist deputy Herui Bairu were voted out; the younger leftist Ahmed Nasir was promoted to replace Idris while Melake Tekle became constable in charge of security. Herui, whose attempts to indoctrinate recruits with Marxist ideology had ruffled Muslim feathers, accused Abdullah Idris and Iraqi envoy Asaad Ghauthani as having stage-managed the election and publicly assailed the Jibha leaders for excluding Christians. Although the Jibha ranks had grown such that Christians now at least matched Muslims, the leadership was still dominated by Muslims, and the tag of Muslim chauvinism has stuck to Jibha and Abdullah in particular. Bairu then fled to Sudan to found another group, but his outburst impressed younger leftists, who would form an increasingly insubordinate and disruptive presence in the ranks.

Nonetheless, the next few years were a productive period for the Eritrean insurgency. Both Shaebia and Jibha swallowed up most of the Eritrean province, to the extent that soon only Asmara and the ports Assab and Massawa remained in government hands. In May 1976, the Derg planned a dramatic campaign: its second-in-command Atnafu Abate led an enormous force of hastily armed peasant conscripts in a so-called “Red March”. But Abate was forced to abate when Abdullah ambushed the peasant army and cut them to pieces, with thousands killed and captured. The campaign’s moniker reflected the Derg’s increasing leftist trend in imitation of the Soviet Union, led by its strongman Mengistu Hailemariam who after a series of fratricidal purges – which killed, among others, the more conservative Abate – seized formal power in 1977.

Mengistu’s bloody purges, while far greater in scale, resembled the tactics of his Eritrean opponents. Even as their forces conquered Eritrea in spring and summer 1977 – Abdullah’s lieutenants Mahmoud Hassab, Hamid Mahmoud, and Woldedawit Temesghen distinguishing themselves in the battlefield for Jibha – both Shaebia and Jibha violently stamped out dissidents. We have already noted how Issayas Afworki and Ramadan Nur cynically executed their constable, Solomon Woldemariam, among others. In summer 1977, after the leftist dissidents in Jibha had repeatedly flouted orders, Ahmed Nasir and Abdullah Idris followed suit. They invited one leftist unit for a talk at central Eritrea, but it was a trap; the dissidents were surrounded, quickly routed, and imprisoned; perhaps as many as eight hundred fighters were imprisoned and some tortured. This crackdown was even controversial in Jibha, where Abdullah’s main rival – the constable Melake Tekle – prevented him from executing more dissidents.

Jibha’s crackdown did not exclusively target the left. A rival, conservative network of Muslim leaders – including Ibrahim Adam, the son of former Jibha emir Idris, and former military commander Saeed Hussain – had coalesced across the Red Sea at Yemen’s Hudaida port in opposition to Ahmed Nasir’s leadership. This crackdown was handled by two other Jibha loyalist commanders, Ali Ishaq and Yusuf Sulaiman. Ishaq feigned sympathy and lured the rightists back to Eritrea, where they were caught on the coast by Sulaiman and summarily executed. By the late 1970s, just as Mengistu controlled the Derg while Afwork and Nur controlled Shaebia, so did Nasir and Abdullah control Jibha.

1977 proved by any standard a momentous year across the Horn of Africa. Djibouti had become officially independent with the withdrawal of France; Eritrea had become a graveyard for Ethiopian troops; the Tigrey region just to Eritrea’s south had erupted in revolt; and in summer 1977 Somalia invaded the Somali-majority Ogaden region of eastern Ethiopia. Widely welcomed by Ogaden’s inhabitants, the Somali army made major initial progress, so that by the summer’s end Mengistu must have felt that the Ethiopian state was collapsing around his ears.

The war also brought a dramatic geopolitical shift; where royal Ethiopia had been stoutly supported by the United States and socialist Somalia by the Soviet Union, the tables were now diametrically turned. Washington suspended ties with Ethiopia after Mengistu’s takeover, instead arming Mogadishu. But it was the Soviet Union, aided by Cuba, whose switch – supplemented by nearly twenty thousand troops – was more decisive; over the winter they reversed and routed the Somali army, before turning north to thunder into Eritrea. Faced with overwhelming firepower, the Eritrean insurgents shrank back; soon the major towns of the region had been retaken by the regime; Shaebia held out in the Nakfa hill citadel, while Jibha was slowly pushed back into the Danakil desert.

Since the Soviet Union had backed the Derg, its leftist opponents in the Ethiopian insurgency now recalculated. Shaebia took a defiantly anti-Soviet stance, as did its Tigray counterpart Wayane. Jibha were prevented from such a decisive stance by the competing currents within the group as represented by the inexperienced ideologue Ahmed Nasir and the seasoned campaigner Abdullah Idris. Nasir foolishly held out hope that the Soviets could be won over; his subsequent trip to Moscow led to accusations by Shaebia and Wayane that the Jibha leadership was selling out the insurgency to cut a deal for itself. In late summer 1980, they mounted a joint campaign against Jibha, which was boxed in. The Derg refrained from campaigning in Eritrea during this period; while Ethiopian forces continued to fight in the Tigray region, Shaebia was more or less free to push Jibha back to the western Barka region – not coincidentally, the heartland of Abdullah’s Beniamer people. Thousands of Jibha fighters and their families were pushed into Sudan; others defected to the now indisputably larger Shaebia as the organization began to collapse.

Abdullah, who had directed Jibha’s gruelling campaigns against first the regime and then the Shaebia-Wayane coalition, had become increasingly vexed with Nasir. Meanwhile Sudan and the Gulf states – foremost Saudi Arabia, whose large Eritrean populace included their envoy to the region, Abdullah Bahabre – were watching the Eritrean conflict with some concern. Whereas Jibha support had previously come from socialist states in the Muslim world, the Saudis now began to encourage the Muslims in the Eritrean opposition to unite against the left. They had come a few years too late for Saeed Hussain and Ibrahim Adam, but Abdullah was intrigued by their proposals.

The Saudis approched both Abdullah and Nasir’s second-in-command, Ibrahim Totil; according to Totil, they blamed the Eritreans’ problems on the Christians, who could not be trusted to cooperate with their Muslim kin, and offered money to form an exclusively Muslim front. Totil refused the offer and Abdullah accepted; at around this same point Totil and Nasir expelled Abdullah from the Jibha command after a decade in charge.

But Abdullah was not prepared to go quietly into that good night. He still commanded a significant following, and in spring 1982 – just as Ethiopia was readying a massive attack – he invited his rivals to discuss their differences at his headquarters in Sudan. Amazingly – considering previous such episodes – they accepted; Nasir and Totil were immediately imprisoned, while Abdullah’s old rival Melake Tekle was killed, perhaps in trying to escape

This takeover – so similar to Mohammad Abdou’s in 1969 – produced a similar result: widescale fragmentation in Jibha, which split to about a half-dozen groups. But where Abdullah had helped rebuild Jibha back then, there was no such reprieve this time. Jibha’s infighting at a critical moment – when the Ethiopian army had mounted its largest campaign yet – and Shaebia’s successful repulsion of that campaign meant that the former was shattered as a fighting force while the latter moved from strength to strength.

By 1991, Shaebia’s coalition with Wayane triggered the downfall of the Derg; Wayane, led by Meles Zenawi, took over a federalist Ethiopia and offered Eritrea a referendum on independence, which passed in 1993 to render Eritrea the first successfully seceded African country since the postcolonial era. Fundamentally, however, Issayas Afworki – who has remained Eritrea’s ruler since – has ruled, as he led in the maquis, with an iron fist. His 1980s coalition with Meles did not prevent the pair from going to war in 1998-2000, and he has presided similarly over a state where force has repeatedly been used to quell any opposition. This opposition included, from exile, many of the Jibha leaders – Ahmed Nasir, Ibrahim Mohammad, and until he passed away in 2011 Abdullah Idris – who had once been his comrades-in-arms and had longer been his implacable enemies.

It is therefore ironic that Abdullah Idris has so often been cast as the villain in Eritrea’s independence struggle. The murder of Melake Tekle is often used in tandem with Tekle’s moderating role in the 1977 crackdown to emphasize that Abdullah was a reactionary cutthroat – the cruel Muslim chauvinist cutting down the hapless Christian leftist – when in fact such ideas are highly misleading in context; Tekle did lead Jibha security, hardly indicating queasiness. Abdullah could certainly be ruthless, but so could his rivals both inside and outside Jibha . There is little to suggest a particularly anti-Christian animus in his actions; to the contrary, he worked well with both Muslim and Christian officers in the military command, and he played a far more important battlefield role than most of his Jibha competitors. The difference between Abdullah and other hard-boiled commanders of the Eritrean war was that his side lost, and he made a particularly easy scapegoat for its collapse.

Abdul-Malek Pahlawan. General Abdul-Malek Pahlawan, Afghanistan.

Painted though the long Afghanistan conflict has often been in exclusively ideological terms – righteous Muslim mujahideen against treacherous invaders, or reactionary fanatics against progressive liberators – even the most ideological conflicts can give room for opportunistic actors to maneouvre in their short-term interest. Such was the case of the Pahlawan brothers from the far northwest Faryab province, who constantly gambled between various power blocs over twenty years with a constant view to their personal interests. This article reviews the tale of the weakest yet most impactful brother General Abdul-Malek Pahlawan, who maneouvred his way into a regional conflagration that exploded quite beyond his expectations.

The nickname Pahlawan is a common one to be found among Afghan commanders, especially such that come from Turkic stock; deriving from the Persian word for wrestler, its air of toughness and combativeness meant that quite a few commanders brawled their way to earning the nickname. Abdul-Malek, who came from a landowning Uzbek family in Faryab, was not one such commander. As a matter of fact he was a teacher, and quite overshadowed by his two tougher brothers Rasoul and Gulai. As was not uncommon among Afghan families that hedged their bets in the war, the Pahlawans played different sides; Abdul-Malek enrolled in the ruling communist party, while Rasoul made the very unlikely decision to join the insurgent Inqilab Islamist faction.

Dominated by Pashtun mullas – many of whom entered the later Taliban movement – Inqilab was a strange fit for the rough-and-ready Rasoul, but it made practical sense given how weak the party actually was in the northwest. There is no evidence that the mulla who eventually became its commander for Faryab Province, Abdul-Rahman Haqqani (not to be confused with a later Taliban commander of the same name), ever exercised any effective control over Rasoul – and that was the way that Rasoul liked it. He seems, indeed, to have had little interest in the war between the insurgents and the communists save its propensity to get him weapons and a following.

By the mid-1980s Rasoul had distinguished himself as a ferocious commander. It was left to Abdul-Malek, his contact in the government, to bail him out of trouble. The regime, led by spymaster-turned-ruler Muhammad Najibullah, was in fact eager to flip insurgent commanders into militia commanders on its side – a strategy at which Najibullah proved very skilful. The upshot was that they could keep their weapons, even get more, and help the regime prosecute the war against the insurgency. This led to a pattern of unaccountable and often brutal militias through the country, in the northlands more than most; the most notable such militia was led by Abdul-Rashid Dostum, an Uzbek security guard-turned-military entrepreneur who would carve out a militia federation in the north.

Such an environment suited Rasoul perfectly; he defected to the government, was given official backing and an enlarged force, with which he could carve out his influence in Faryab. Because there was nothing to prevent him switching sides – the government in this “outback” province needed him more than vice versa – he could also switch back to the insurgency at his leisure if he felt insufficiently compensated for his services. It was a classic mercenary setup; indeed Rasoul’s major quarrel seems to have been with a rival commander, Haqqbardi.

A particularly strange episode, which caused a Soviet intervention as well, emerged in 1986-87. As Haqqbardi and Rasoul fought in Faryab, Haqqbardi switched to the government side and Rasoul thus switched back to the insurgency – provoking a Soviet sweep in the region in order to subdue the upstart. With his Islamist contacts unsurprisingly suspicious, Rasoul eventually asked Abdul-Malek to mend his fences with Kabul. Now both Rasoul and Haqqbardi were on the government’s payroll, but this didn’t stop them from continuing their feud.

As the Soviets withdrew, Najibullah became more reliant on the militias – especially after much of the army, in league with the Islamist Hizb emir Gulbadin Hikmatyar, attempted a coup that the militias helped foil in spring 1990. This increased leverage meant that Dostum, the most formidable militia commander, could carve out a network of influence in the north; when in spring 1992 Najibullah attempted to undercut his power, Dostum revolted and in league with the Islamist Jamiat commander Shah Masoud seized Kabul, forcing Najibullah into hiding between the victors engaged in a deadly fight over the capital with Hikmatyar.

While Jamiat and Hizb fought like cats over Kabul, Dostum formed a militia confederation called Junbish in the north. He cut deals with various northern commanders – communist, Islamist, or otherwise did not matter – where they would pay him homage and provide him with support when needed in exchange for autonomy. Rasoul soon became one of Dostum’s most formidable vassals in this arrangement. Underscoring the lack of ideological cohesion in Junbish in favour of coopting commanders, Inqilab commander Abdul-Rahman Haqqani now served as Faryab governor.

The Junbish confederation became, like other peripheral parts of Afghanistan, a state in its own right, based at Balkh with its own currency and even airline as Dostum cultivated strong links abroad in the newly independent Central Asia. So did Abdul-Malek Pahlawan, whom Dostum promoted to Junbish foreign minister.

The advantages of this arrangement were somewhat offset by the near-impunity enjoyed by the commanders, some of whom ran the most notorious militias in Afghanistan. Perhaps wanting to appear more statesmanlike, Dostum at one point did try to discipline one such commander – Abdul-Ghaffar Pahlawan, who had provoked complaints – but Rasoul, his most outspoken vassal, reacted furiously and persuaded him to back down. Junbish’s stability came at a price.

This stability did not last long. Faryab lay at the western end of the confederation and bordered another nascent statelet – the Herat emirate in western Afghanistan, led by autonomous Jamiat commander Ismail Khan whose adventures had been previously noted here. In autumn 1993 Rasoul and Ismail conflicted over a vassal in northwest Afghanistan – a former Ittihad military leader called Jalaluddin Turlangatai, whom both wanted to hire.

Urged on by Rasoul, Dostum began a war with Herat in autumn 1993, coincidentally at the same point as he began a war with Masoud’s lieutenants in the northeast over customs from the Tajikistan border. Thus by autumn 1993 Junbish was fighting officially Jamiat-linked opponents on both its eastern and western fronts. This coincided with a fallout between Dostum and Jamiat party emir Burhanuddin Rabbani; as a result, the Junbish emir thrust himself firmly into the opposition camp and joined Hizb emir Gulbadin Hikmatyar in fighting Jamiat.

In this campaign, western front against Herat remained more or less secure, manned by the Pahlawan brothers and backed up by Hilaluddin Hilal, a career officer who commanded Junbish’s airforce and who had ironically led Dostum’s talks with Masoud in 1992. Try though he did, Ismail could not break through to Faryab over the course of 1994. In 1995 he faced another threat to the south by the recently formed Taliban emirate. We have separately covered their conquest of Herat; its relevance here is that Ismail, shorn of a capital and most of his followers, promptly joined the Pahlawan brothers in their Faryab redoubt.

While Taliban commander Abdul-Ghani Baradar steadily advanced in western Afghanistan over 1996, Pakistan reached out to the north. Even before the Taliban emirate, an Islamabad frustrated by Masoud’s hostility had been contacting his rivals, including such former vassals Hikmatyar and Ismail, and eventually even their former enemy Dostum in order to find a trade route to the newly independent Central Asia that bypassed Kabul. The speed and efficiency with which the Taliban emirate overran southern Afghanistan attracted Pakistan’s notice and support. At first this was largely diplomatic, and various Pakistani powerbrokers – official and otherwise – tried to attract other commanders in Afghanistan to team up with the Taliban.

Pakistan had had good relations with Dostum’s envoy, a former Islamist commander called Abdul-Baqi Turkistani, but they could not persuade the Junbish emir to help the Taliban campaign. More receptive was the ambitious Rasoul Pahlawan, who showed interest until he was suddenly murdered in summer 1996. Rasoul’s brothers Gulai and Abdul-Malek had their suspicions, but they continued to fight against the Taliban over the next year.

That autumn, any prospects that Pakistan harboured to reconcile Junbish with the Taliban emirate were badly hit when Taliban commander Abdul-Razzaq Akhundzada expelled Jamiat from Kabul and immediately executed the former communist ruler Najibullah. As a former communist commander with an unsavoury reputation, Dostum had no intention of trusting the mullas and flatly rejected Pakistani offers – instead teaming up, again, with Burhanuddin and Masoud.

But Pakistani blandishments made more effect on Dostum’s embittered lieutenants. As late as six months after the Taliban conquest of Kabul, the brothers Pahlawan were, along with Ismail, staving off Taliban attacks by Abdul-Razzaq and Baradar on Faryab’s main city Maymana. But in May 1997, Abdul-Rahman Haqqani – the Faryab governor whose background rather matched the Taliban’s and whose loyalty in the fight against them thus came under question – was invited to tea by the Junbish emir, only to be murdered in broad daylight after his cuppa. This coincided with a mutiny in Samangan, where another Junbish-affiliated commander of Inqilab background, the mulla Abdul-Quddus Rahmani, was murdered by his troops. Though the latter episode’s motive is unclear, the Pahlawans had no doubt about who had killed Abdul-Rahman; Dostum, it appears, had gone too far.

Instantly the Pahlawan brothers and other veteran Junbish commanders – including Dostum’s right-hand man Abdul-Majeed Rouzi and Abdul-Ghaffar Pahlawan – defected from Junbish; they accused Dostum of having murdered both Abdul-Rahman and, the previous year, Rasoul. This moral outrage had been preceded and perhaps catalyzed by considerable Pakistani lobbying to this effect, which was of course what had provoked Dostum’s suspicion. At any rate, the Junbish emir was blindsided at this mutiny; the Pahlawan brothers swiftly cut a deal with the Taliban, betraying and handing over Ismail as a gesture. Abdul-Malek was named the leader of the mutiny, and his brother Gulai helped Abdul-Razzaq Akhundzada sweep east through the northlands, uprooting Dostum from his stronghold Shibarghan and forcing him abroad, eventually screeching to a stop in the Junbish capital Mazari Sharif, where Taliban foreign minister Muhammad Ghaus arrived.

Central Asia was shaken by this whirlwind campaign. The rulers of the newly independent Central Asian states were largely former Soviet apparatchiks still beholden to Russia, and having resorted instead to legitimizing themselves through ethnic nationalism shared Moscow’s mistrust of anything smacking of “radical Islam”. It was alarming enough that an apparently unthreatening teacher such as Abdul-Malek, the mutiny’s figurehead, could topple so powerful a baron as Dostum; it was more alarming that a band of raggedy mullas had entered Central Asia proper; in its aftermath, the region’s apparatchik veterans would work more closely with rival Islamists of a more palatable nature such as the Afghan Jamiat and the Iranian regime. Their dismay was matched by satisfaction in Pakistan, which immediately recognized the Taliban as Afghanistan’s government; but at any rate both reactions were premature.

The standard Taliban practice had been to disarm militia commanders; it was such contrasts to the typical militia setup that brought them to war with Herat, and they had much less common with the Junbish mutineers. The mutineers, in their turn, prized autonomy and their own militia control – the exact opposite of the Taliban arrangement. The principal Taliban concession was to make Abdul-Malek a deputy minister, a move they had tried to some effect with Islamist commanders. But this could hardly satisfy the wolfish pack around Abdul-Malek; Pakistani envoy Ayaz Wazir conferred with Taliban governor-general Abdul-Razzaq, who ignored his warnings to tread gently and had started the disarmament programme; Ayaz left with considerable unease that was soon vindicated.

As quickly as they had ousted Dostum, the Junbish mutineers turned the tables on the Taliban. It was a brutal affair even by mutiny’s standards as the rapacious militias cut loose; at least two thousand Taliban fighters were summarily slaughtered, as were an uncounted number of Pashtuns in the north as politics began to take a sharply ethnic tinge. Among them was Ihsanullah Ihsan, the intelligent and flexible Taliban finance minister who had arrived in order to oversee the transition as he had done, with more success, in other regions.

Abdul-Malek himself bagged a number of top-ranked Taliban leaders as hostages – they included Abdul-Razzaq, Ghaus’ second-in-command Fazil Ahmadi, and the airforce commanders Ghulam Gaillani and Akhtar Mansur. This probably saved their lives; as Abdul-Malek was later at pains to point out, he ransomed them back safe and sound. But, as figurehead of the mutiny, he was tarred with the slaughter that his counterparts had conducted. Over the next year, northern militias – soon joined by Hazara fighters – repeatedly butchered Pashtuns whose loyalty was seen as questionable; this continued until the Taliban, in their own recapture of Mazari Sharif in summer 1998, slaughtered several thousand Hazaras. The murderous cycle had started under Abdul-Malek’s watch in Mazari Sharif.

The ethnic polarization worked both ways; galled Pashtun commanders helped the Taliban survivors find a foothold at Kunduz and Baghlan that soon became their main base for the northlands. Though they had lost the northwest, therefore, the Taliban emirate had a valuable entrance to the northeast; this in turn prompted Abdul-Malek and Masoud to join forces. By the end of summer 1997, they had formed the so-called “Northern Front” – a loose coalition of militias who, though Jamiat emir Burhanuddin Rabbani, was in practice dominated by Masoud’s Nazar organization and Junbish.

As autumn 1997 rolled in, the Taliban mounted their next attack on Mazari Sharif; it was led by interior minister Khairullah Khairkhwah and corps commander Daddullah Lang, both survivors of the Junbish butchery. They reached as far as the city’s airfield, but attacked from the rear by Masoud and from the front by the Junbish commanders were forced to withdraw.

Yet Abdul-Malek does not seem to have impressed his Junbish colleagues; in a pack of brutal cutthroats he lacked the force, courage, and charisma that Dostum had had. Nor had the former Junbish emir been idle; as the northern conflict developed into a gruelling war, he had been collecting foreign support. Before the year was out, Dostum returned to Mazari Sharif and unceremoniously ousted Abdul-Malek, who was forced to escape to Iran; nobody in Junbish complained.

That effectively ended Abdul-Malek’s career. Even though Iran reportedly preferred him as an alternative to Dostum, he lacked the support to win over the other commanders even after Dostum was routed by the Taliban in summer 1998. The American invasion in 2001 enabled Dostum to rebound, replete with hefty funds from the latest conquerors, and retake much of the north; as a last word Abdul-Majeed Rouzi, the Junbish commander who had partaken in the 1997 mutiny, crowned the campaign with a summary slaughter of prisoners at Dostum’s mountain stronghold. Abdul-Malek’s political attempts to challenge Dostum during the subsequent occupation have been similarly unsuccessful. The teacher-turned-militiaman’s moment on centre stage left a jarring impact in the region, but it was brief and evaded his own control.

Akbar Tariq. Major-General Mohammad Akbar Tariq Khan Khaishgi, Pakistan.

Since its inception, Pakistan’s history has been marked by several themes – civil-military tensions, centre-periphery tensions, and the quest to liberate Kashmir from the Indian yoke. A pioneering role in each issue was played by the first ground forces commander in the Pakistan army, Major-General Mohammad Akbar Tariq Khan. This restless and remarkable adventurer’s short but tumultuous career catalyzed the Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan, engineered the incorporation of the Baloch Kalat emirate into Pakistan, and more or less ended in the first and most unusual of Pakistan’s many military coup attempts.

Akbar came from a Pashtun family ruled by the British Raj, whose paramilitary force in the Pashtun hinterland he joined after training in Britain. He partook in the 1930s expedition against the so-called “Faqir of Ipi” – Mirza Ali, the Waziristan mulla who launched a revolt against the British Raj – and subsequently fought with some distinction in the Second World War. The World War catalyzed the end of the Raj, however, as continued occupation became unsustainable.

The Raj had included regions directly under the British governor-general’s control as well as a scattering of “princely states”, largely feudal emirates held by the local vassals of Britain. With the Raj ending, competition over the aftermath intensified between the two major parties in the subcontinental mainland: the officially secularist but Hindu-dominated Indian Congress, which officially combined anticolonial socialism with barely implicit Hindu majoritarian, and the Muslim League, which rallied on themes of Muslim rights and Islamic solidarity. Both themes threatened to upturn the feudal framework that the Raj had cultivated, and it was the position of two feudatories – in the Baloch Kalat emirate of the west and the Dogra Kashmir emirate of the north – that would involve Akbar’s adventures.

Marked by improvisation, sectarianism, and mutual bad faith, the subcontinental Partition proved an infamously bloody affair, partly over the Punjab that was split between the two new countries India and Pakistan. The emergent countries, led respectively by Jawaharlal Nehru and Ali Jinnah, began to incorporate the feudatories, many of whom had become briefly independent in the interim, into their countries through negotiation or coercion.

Both Kalat emir Ahmadyar Khan and Kashmir emir Harri Singh proved vexatious for Pakistan. Ahmadyar and his prime minister Ghaus Buksh had in fact petitioned the Raj for Kalat’s independence, basing their claim on the fact that their vassalage in 1876 had not been to the British Raj’s capital in New Delhi, but rather to the British crown itself at London; therefore, they claimed, Kalat had a special status unlike the Raj vassals and merited independence. In fact Kalat had been supported at that point by two eminent Bombay lawyers who would soon become rulers of the new Pakistan: a certain Ali Jinnah and a future prime minister, Ismail Chundrigar. But that was 1946 and this was 1947, and much had changed in the interim; with emirates – including other Baloch principalities – lining up to choose between India and Pakistan, an independent Kalat was not an option.

While Kalat negotiated with the fledgling Pakistan government in Karachi, two more hotspots emerged in Kashmir – a Muslim-majority vale ruled by a Hindu prince – and Hyderabad – a Hindu-majority city-state ruled by the fabulously wealthy Muslim prince Osman Ali. The latter, which would be conquered by fire and sword a year later, is beyond this article’s scope except to serve as another case of a former Raj vassal prevaricating even as he was forced to choose between different nation-states.

Much like Ahmadyar and Osman, Singh weighed his options nervously but ultimately – urged on by the last British governor-general, prince Louis Mountbatten, who was virulently opposed to Pakistan – would opt for Pakistan. Before that, however, Singh’s royal troops had embarked on a wide-ranging and brutal crackdown, provoking a major revolt in western Kashmir’s Pounch district, especially among Sudhan clan that included the foremost pro-Pakistan leader, Ibrahim Khan.

The Pakistan government led by Jinnah and prime minister Liaquat Khan was smaller, poorer, and militarily weaker than its Indian neighbour. Akbar, among the fledgling army’s seniormost officers, was approached by Ibrahim in order to assist the Pounch revolt; he agreed, but emphasized secrecy in order to not alarm a government that might object, especially given that British officials and officers – who were involved in both India and Pakistan – could pressure them.

In keeping with this cloak-and-dagger routine, both Akbar and the other officer whom Ibrahim approached, Sher, adopted the nom-de-guerre Tariq, after the Muslim commander Tariq b. Ziad who had spearled the Umayyad conquest of Spain. Yet along with this secrecy, they also contacted several leading officers. These included the seniormost airforce officer, Mohammad Janjua, and Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa premier Khan Abdul-Qayyum. The latter, who hailed from Kashmir, played a particularly notable role in encouraging Pashtun clansmen to join a jihad, along with the province’s paramilitaries, against the dogra emirate.

The Pashtun invasion, which swept over Muzaffarabad, has been rather shabbily treated in retrospect; the clansmen came, plundered, and left in what was a typical clan raid. It suited both India and Pakistan to emphasize their role – India because it gave New Delhi the opportunity to distract from the dogra’s crackdown and present its own deployment as a legitimate response to “barbarous” invaders; Pakistan because it distracted from any official role in these early days of the United Nations when the assembly’s rules and opinions were taken more seriously than since. In retrospect, the Pashtun assault was more a vanguard for a more entrenched campaign.

But while the Pashtun raiders would earn especial infamy, the Muslim forces in Kashmir included a bewildering array of elements and commanders with no especial order, whose main commonality was fighting for the Muslim cause. They included native Kashmiris, over whom a career officer called Ali Shah unconvincingly announced himself military commander, and such Sudhan clansfolk as Khan Muhammad. They included the Muslim League party militia led by Khurshid Anwar. They included Muslim veterans of the British army such as Shaukat Hayat, scion of a prominent Punjabi family. They included Muslim veterans of the so-called “Indian National Army”, a force that had fought the same British army in the World War, and were now led in the field by its seniormost Muslim commanders Zaman Kiani and Brigadier Habibur-Rahman. They included the small militias of emirates that would join Pakistan in autumn 1947, such as the Chitral militia led by Lieutenant-Colonel Mataul-Mulk and Gilgit militia led by Mirza Hasan. They included Islamists loyal to Jamaat emir Abulala Maududi, who had shed his early reservations about Pakistan. They included the Qadiani leader Bashiruddin Mahmood’s followers. And they included communists led by Abdul-Latif Afghani. Over this perplexing array the task of coordination and strategy – that too, officially in secrecy – lay with “Tariqs” Akbar and Sher.

Frederick Loftus-Tottenham, another British officer with the Pakistanis, would later observe that with Pounch besieged, a quick operation by a brigade would have finished the job. This opinion was also shared by Akbar, who was enthusiastic when the cavalry commander Masud Satti offered to bulldoze straight from Murree to Kashmiri capital Srinagar before Indian cavalry could deploy in November 1947. But neither his co-strategist Sher nor Pakistani politicians shared this opinion and – much to his frustration – the opportunity fizzled out as Indian reinforcements flew in, though there was still scope for Masud to show his mettle in capturing Mirpur a few weeks later. In between, the dogra regime acceded to India, prompting Jinnah and Liaquat to order an official mobilization.

Much as Akbar had feared, British influence proved a roadblock. The British officers in both India and Pakistan were still under a joint command, and so Pakistan’s nominal army commander Douglas Gracey – with whom Akbar’s initially good relations rapidly cooled – had to obey British orders to avoid combat. As the senior ranks of the Pakistan army, under the command of cautious British officers, increasingly took over the war, an exasperated Akbar was reassigned to the opposite end of Pakistan, the southwest Balochistan region.

This was no mere sinecure, however, because with most other emirates having agreed to join Pakistan the controversy over Kalat was reaching a head. Akbar played a role in the controversial fait accompli that followed. In spring 1948, Ahmadyar negotiated with Jinnah in Karachi, where he reportedly at last lent his agreement to the emirate’s incorporation into Pakistan. But just in case, Akbar was dispatched a few weeks later to Kalat with a military unit to help the emir make up his mind, as it were.

Nearly immediately after this, Akbar was reassigned to the Kashmir front where the Indians had mounted a major attack along the river Jhelum valley. Led by Akbar, the Pakistani force held them back for two months and finally forced their withdrawal. Over the summer the momentum swung to and fro, but even as both countries lost their leaders – Jinnah succumbing to a longstanding sickness while Mohandas Gandhi was murdered by fascists – the frontline soon stabilized at Pounch, which was split between Pakistan and India. While Pakistan had taken much of the northern sector around Skardu, India retained Srinagar and the Jammu region.

Such Pakistani officers as Akbar were thus indignant when prime minister Liaquat Khan accepted a ceasefire and negotiations that led to the Karachi Accord in summer 1949, which called for a ceasefire before a plebiscite was arranged by the United Nations. In retrospect – given that the plebiscite was never held – their irritation was quite understandable, especially because the military campaign’s senior command had been dominated by cautious British officers whose commitment the Pakistanis doubted. Equally understandable was Liaquat’s stance; the fledgling Pakistani war, now without its foremost leader Jinnah, would have taken a serious risk with an attritional war. Nonetheless, Akbar was among the considerable number of dissidents in the ranks for whom the decision stung.

Over the subsequent years, the British officers left and the Pakistani military was manned by native officers. Akbar became the first ground commander; his superior was Ayub Khan, another Pashtun officer trained in Britain, but one who was fundamentally more shaped by British conservative attitudes. In these early years of the Cold War, Ayub would become a reliable mainstay of the pro-Western right while Akbar, not particularly ideological himself, nonetheless increasingly flirted with the left if only because it stood in opposition to Britain. Akbar’s coup plan against Liaquat, the first such episode among many in Pakistan’s history, was unusual in that it was linked to the political left.

The plot included veterans of the Kashmir campaign – airforce officer Mohammad Janjua, who had helped Akbar mobilize early forces; Nazir Ahmed, who had served as his superior in Balochistan; and Quetta commandant Mohammad Abdul-Latif, who had served as his lieutenant in Kashmir. None were particularly ideological beyond their resentment of the Kashmiri outcome, but the same could not be said for a fifth soldier from the war, the Marxist poet Faiz Faiz, who, along with Akbar’s ambitious wife Nasim, linked the plotters to the political left.

Faiz’s circle was loosely led by Sajjad Zaheer, the leader of the Indian communist party, which elicited the support of resentful army officers by blaming Liaquat’s overly conservative regime for capitulation. The communist party was banned in Pakistan, and while Akbar did not share any ideological overlap beyond a shared resentment toward the government and irritation at Western dominance, he agreed to rescind the ban should he take power; in return, the communists and their affiliates in the trade unions would support the military junta.

The plot was leaked to and thwarted by Ayub in February 1951 and the plotters imprisoned; nonetheless, they gained considerable public sympathy given their grievances over Kashmir and, in particular, Akbar’s role in the war. At the trial, presided over by jurist Mohammad Abdur-Rahman, Akbar’s defence was entrusted to the former Bengal premier, Huseyn Suhrawardy, who would become Pakistan prime minister within a few years. So enthused was Suhrawardy at his client’s cause that he defended him even when Akbar could no longer afford to pay him. In the event, most received fairly light sentences, and when Akbar came out there remained job opportunities among admirers who valued his experience.

Ironically Ayub, who had thwarted Akbar’s coup, mounted his own coup in 1958; his decade as dictator saw another war over Kashmir and an ultimately bitter end to his Western relations after his foreign minister Zulfikar Bhutto turned on him. When Bhutto took over in the 1970s, he promoted Akbar to security advisor, a relevant position given a conflict in Balochistan. There Kalat’s unceremonious treatment had, after years of provincial neglect from the centre, become a lodestone for the Baloch insurgency whose leaders included its former prime minister Ghaus Buksh; even though Bhutto promoted Ahmadyar Khan to provincial premier, a younger, more radical generation of Baloch dissidents were not convinced.

A more satisfactory arrangement, though not without its bumps, had emerged in “Azad” (Free) Kashmir, the western half of Kashmir wrested from India in 1947-48. Here popular sentiment had always been more sympathetic to Pakistan, some level of autonomy was reached, and indeed several veterans of the 1940s war – including Ali Shah and Akbar’s own counterpart Ibrahim Khan – served as premier. Whatever else the controversies of “General Tariq’s” career, at the end of the day he played a major role in what remains Pakistan’s most successful military campaign, which earned Azad Kashmir its name.

REFERENCES. Michael Woldemariam’s Insurgent Fragmentation in the Horn of Africa: Rebellion and its discontents (Cambridge University Press, 2018) is invaluable both on Eritrea and more broadly on insurgent politics; so is Antonio Giustozzi’s Empires of Mud: Wars and warlords in Afghanistan (Columbia University Press, 2009). On Pakistan I collected a number of sources, both online and print.

2 responses to “Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part Eight

  1. Pingback: The historical past and legacy of Pakistan’s first coup strive - World Tribunes

  2. Pingback: The history and legacy of Pakistan’s first coup attempt – Technology Redefined

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