History, Profiles, Reviews, Occasional Meanderings

Military Adventurers and Modern History Part Eleven

After an eventful, busy, and quite happy summer – Allah deserves every praise – I resume this feature. This month’s issue includes military adventurers from Pakistan, Libya, and Afghanistan. I begin and end with the Name of Allah, without whose control neither leaf moves or city falls.

Ibrahim Moiz

Copyright 2021, full rights reserved

Naseerullah Babar. The decades-long rivalry in Pakistan between the military establishment and the once-populist People’s Party, which dates to the 1977 coup by the former against the latter, has fostered a cultural impression of two polar opposites. A right-leaning, Islamist-friendly military is often imagined in contrast to a left-leaning, secularist People’s Party. Neither idea of these forces has always been true, however, and in fact there was some overlap in an uneasy but important Pakistan-centralist alliance during the 1970s, a coalition only broken with army commander Mohammad Ziaul-Haq’s coup against the People’s Party prime minister Zulfikar Bhutto. A formidable character who overlapped both camps – military and People’s Party – and who stamped a decades-long impression not only in Pakistan but neighbouring Afghanistan was the tough, bluff, hard-charging interior minister Major-General Haji Naseerullah Khan Babar.

Hailing from the Pakhtun Babar clan in the northwest Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province, Naseerullah was among the earliest soldiers to join the newly founded Pakistani army in the late 1940s. An artillery officer by trade, he helped establish the early army’s air corps; in his words, Pakistan owed it relative success in the September 1965 war with India, which ended on a high note for Islamabad, to airpower, artillery, and to Allah.

Babar had been in the thick of the action during the war; in a famed tale that reflected the quick improvisation of junior officers in that period, he had accidentally landed his helicopter into an Indian platoon near Chhamb in Kashmir. Realizing his error, Babar resorted to the bluff; he informed the enemy troops that he had come at the helm of a large Pakistani force, and blustered them into a surrender back to Pakistani lines. Several score Indian troops were reportedly captured; with this display of nerve came military recognition.

Babar similarly showed no shortage of courage in the December 1971 war, when he was again dispatched to the Kashmir front. This was a similarly unexpected foray; the Islamabad brigade commander, Rahimuddin Khan, came suddenly indisposed, and Babar was hurriedly dispatched to lead his brigade against the Kashmir front. Though this was the only war between Pakistan and India where Kashmir was a sideshow – the main theatre being in East Pakistan – Babar again acquitted himself with courage, and was injured in the fray.

The Pakistani loss and subsequent independence of East Pakistan into Bangladesh brought about the downfall of the military regime and the ascendancy of People’s Party founder Zulfikar Bhutto. A feudal landlord with an often cynical but undeniably skilful nose for the popular touch, Bhutto had previously served as foreign minister in the dictatorship before riding the groundswell of popular resentment against the regime late in the 1960s. His inability to prevail against the similarly populist, albeit contrastingly ethnonationalist, Awami League party in East Pakistan in the December 1970 had been a major factor in pushing Pakistan into war; so too had his refusal to admit defeat. Bhutto was widely, if often privately, resented in a military establishment that viewed him as an opportunist, but he was also popular in what was left of Pakistan after the breakaway, and – with his opposition to centrifugal ethnonationalism, then the threat of the day after Bangladeshi secession – a necessary pill for the humiliated military to swallow in order to preserve Pakistani unity.

Not that military admirers of the People’s Party were in too short a supply; Tikka Khan, the ruthless East Pakistan governor-general whom Bhutto soon promoted to army commander, was among the party’s stalwarts in the army. So too was Babar, promoted to command the important paramilitary corps in his native Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa region. After Bangladesh’s independence, ethnonationalism was a genuine threat in at least western Pakistan. Balochistan, the sprawling southwestern province where Tikka had cut his teeth suppressing revolt in earlier years, was now the site of a particularly fierce war in which clan rivalry and elite competition also played a role.

Oft-aristocratic Baloch chieftains waged their internecine battles by siding with or against the Pakistani state. Thus was Akbar Bugti of the eponymous clan embittered with his rival from the Mengal clan, Attaullah, after the latter won the first provincial election to become premier Akbar informed Bhutto’s regime that both he and Attaullah had been part of a conspiracy raised with India in newly independent Bangladesh to break away from the Pakistani state. This plan, long assumed rumour but recently confirmed, was not necessarily part of a slow-burning secessionist plot – it may have been that Attaullah and Akbar planned to break away only if they could not otherwise secure autonomy, hence their subsequent participation in the election; but if it was not necessarily secessionist at first, the circle was certainly treasonous. Nonetheless, Akbar’s rivalry with Attaullah outweighed his commitment to Baloch autonomy, and so he turned on the state’s side and encouraged Bhutto to mount a major campaign that inflamed into a full-scale war from summer 1973 on.

Bhutto accused Iraq – which had been hoping to feed a Baloch revolt at least in neighbouring Iran – as trying to assist the Baloch rebels in Pakistan. This may or may not have been true, but the July 1973 coup in Kabul by former Afghan prime minister Daud Khan – which ended the forty-year monarchic reign of his cousin, Muttawakkil Zahirshah – was a real threat. Himself a longstanding aspirant to Pashtun irredentism, which would siphon off Pakistan’s Pashtun-majority northwest into Afghanistan, Daud had already locked swords with Islamabad and even Zahirshah over his adventurism. Moreover his regime, at least early on, relied heavily on leftists who channelled Soviet aid to the Afghan insurgency.

Secessionist sentiment was never as high in the Pashtun northwest as it had become in Balochistan; Pashtuns had been solidly represented in the Pakistani state aand more often than not tended to disdain the left-leaning ethnonationalism with which Pashtun irredentism had become identified. Whereas the Balochistan war took the form of major battles involving thousands of fighters, for the most part the Pashtun northwest province – what later became the Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province – saw little more than assassinations and small-scale sabotage. Even in the mountainous and thinly administered frontier agencies – such areas as Waziristan – unrest, again mostly relating to petty feuds and administrative neglect, was limited: there Kabul’s role lay more in exaggerating dissent than actively abetting it. Nonetheless, Pakistan viewed the new regime in Kabul with alarm; the insurgency’s peak came in the assassination of former governor-general Hayat Sherpao, whose family were among Bhutto’s leading Pashtun supporters.

With his thinly spread paramilitary force patrolling the frontier highlands, Naseerullah Babar took the lead in arranging the counterinsurgency; this earned him a promotion, upon his military retirement, to Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa governor-general. In both roles, he prosecuted the campaign against Pashtun ethnonationalism and the Afghan regime that backed it. There were also other worries extraneous to Afghanistan: in Waziristan, for instance, a charismatic preacher called Nur Muhammad emerged as a powerful dissident, provoking the dismissal of several government officials in the region before Babar, newly promoted to governor-general in Peshawar, dispatched his successor in the paramilitary corps, Faqir Gul, to burn the Wana market as a warning to Nur.

Meanwhile searching for a way to pierce Daud Khan’s underbelly, Babar found an avenue in the Afghan opposition – largely comprising, at that point, Islamists who had been persecuted by the regime’s leftist supporters. These were mostly, if not exclusively, urban activists with a revolutionary, internationalist perspective – akin to Pakistan’s Jamaat party, ironically a frequent opponent of Bhutto’s regime. They included a who’s who of major future Afghan leaders such as professors Burhanuddin Rabbani and Abdurrabb Sayyaf; activists Gulbadin Hikmatyar and Shah Massoud; and occasional highlanders such as Jalaluddin Haqqani.

The Islamists’ revolt in summer 1975 – only six months after Sherpao’s assassination by Kabul’s Pakistani proxies – was quickly crushed and the Islamists soon splintered, with the fiery Hikmatyar taking a lion’s share of the rebels while the more cautious Rabbani, who preferred to take power by coup rather than revolt, led his own network. In December 1976 an Islamist officer in Afghanistan, Shah Rizwani, attempted just such a coup; though Daud survived, he was now persuaded that he had to reconcile with Bhutto. The pair reached an informal rapprochement only months before Bhutto’s overthrow by army commander Mohammad Ziaul-Haq, and Daud’s own overthrow by his erstwhile communist supporters.

Ziaul-Haq’s July 1977 coup against Bhutto, which came after opposition to a dubious election and the prime minister’s own orders to crack down, marked a watershed in the sense that it broke the often uneasy but vital coalition between the two main centralist forces in 1970s Pakistan – the People’s Party and the military establishment. The military regime that Ziaul-Haq would set up, soon armed with a particularly capable intelligence wing, catered largely to an often-pietistic middle class as well as merchants that had been scandalized by a prime minister who had catered to both society’s elites – such as the politically nimble landowners – as well as the peasantry. That Ziaul-Haq soon had Bhutto executed after a dubious trial spoke to the dictator’s nervousness; cynical and vindictive as he had been, Bhutto commanded real support and was posthumously branded by the People’s Party as a martyr. Some of them, such as Bhutto’s sons Murtaza and Shahnawaz, went into armed opposition; others, such as Bhutto’s widow Nusrat and daughter Benazir, into civilian opposition.

Most of the army, with customized institutional discipline, swung behind Ziaul-Haq in the rift with the People’s Party. But there were certainly dissidents, particularly from an earlier generation that felt no compunction to step in line for a man who had been their colleague or junior officer. Such dissidents included Ziaul-Haq’s predecessor as army commander, Tikka Khan; ruthless though he had been in uniform, he was now a repeated target of a nervous military regime, whose senior ranks had once reported to him and hesitated to challenge him. Nonetheless, Tikka – serving at one point as the People’s Party secretary-general – was on and off imprisoned during the 1980s. Naseerullah Babar, who had indignantly torn off his medals in protest at Bhutto’s fate, was another notable dissident. The majority of Ziaul-Haq’s generational colleagues, however, supported the regime. Rahimuddin Khan, for whom Babar had once stood in at Kashmir, for instance became first governor-general – where he played a major role in winding down the Balochistan war to a resolution – and later military commander.

The military rift with the People’s Party acquired over the years not only a political but also a societal faultline, and to this day the twain mistrust one another. Nonetheless, on certain issues – such as foreign policy – Ziaul-Haq not only continued but intensified with understated guile, the agenda set by his ambitious predecessor. These included the development of Pakistan’s nuclear programme in competition with India as well as assistance to the Islamists, and other, insurgents in Afghanistan, where Daud’s downfall to a communist coup had been followed by a Soviet invasion and a brutal, internationalized war.

Ziaul-Haq maintained a tight control on Afghan affairs until he lost his life in a plane crash during summer 1988. He was succeeded in the army by Aslam Baig, among the few senior officers to have abstained from the fatal flight, and in government by his bureaucratic lieutenant, former foreign minister Ghulam Ishaq. To widespread optimism they announced an impending election under a parliamentary regime in which the People’s Party partook. Though one of Zulfikar’s sons, Shahnawaz, had been killed in exile and the other, Murtaza, had engaged in impotent terrorism in collaboration with the communist regime in Afghanistan, the party retained considerable support not least because of the Bhutto ladies’ civilian opposition. In the event, Babar marked himself as a valuable political operator for the Bhuttos, helping the family matriarch Nusrat in her successful campaign for the northern city Chitral in parliament.

Yet Babar was by now very much in the minority when it came to military followers of the Bhuttos. Baig and spymaster Hameed Gul, both loosely allied with Ishaq and taking on Ziaul-Haq’s foreign policy mantle, viewed Benazir with a not-unfounded suspicion, correctly expecting that the United States would try to play her against them. Bhutto’s tendency toward dovishness with India just as the Kashmir conflict was heating up was similarly galling for the military establishment.

Meanwhile Gul’s attempt to help the Afghan insurgents capture Jalalabad after the Soviet withdrawal – and thence, it was hoped, Kabul – backfired dramatically, and when Bhutto replaced him with a loyal retiree, Shamsur-Rahman Kallue, the military establishment felt that their toes had been stepped on. Bhutto survived a constitutional coup just months later, where the military backed a parliamentary challenge to her regime and unsuccessfully supported the rightist Punjab premier Nawaz Sharif in the subsequent election. But it was not long, only until 1990, before Ishaq did manage to engineer Benazir’s removal – only to fall out within a few years with the military’s erstwhile client Nawaz.

By the point that Benazir returned to power in autumn 1993, the scene had changed dramatically. The awkward unofficial Pakistani triumvirate of power – the presidency, prime ministry, and army command – had caved in. Ishaq and Nawaz had both torn each other down; though Baig and Gul retained their informal influence and political energy, neither occupied a formal position in retirement. The political arena was a constant wrangle between the People’s Party, Nawaz’s Noon faction of the Muslim League, and whatever provincial coalition they could muster up. This also provoked peripheral unrest; for example, the constant scheming in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa between the Sherpaos, stalwarts of the People’s Party, and their rivals would bring in another military campaign in 1994, waged against an influential preacher called Sufi Muhammad. There was a parallel to be drawn with Babar’s old target of the 1970s, Nur Muhammad.

Naseerullah Babar had been rewarded for another impressive electoral performance – at his native Naushera district, he beat the Pashtun ethnonationalist Awami Party emir Ajmal Khattak – with the interior minister’s post. He was thus set to spend his energy against the most vexatious of 1990s Pakistan’s provincial heavyweights, the Muttahida Qaumi Movement of Karachi. Founded at the start of Ziaul-Haq’s regime – with tacit support from a dictator eager to outmaneouvre Bhutto’s Sindhi loyalists in Pakistan’s eponymous southeast province – the Qaumi Movement combined a rigid party structure with brass-knuckle brutality. Though far from the only ruthless militia in the province, they were by some distance the best-organized and biggest, proving a headache for both the previous Noon League, the military establishment, and the People’s Party.

Whereas the military establishment was keen to crack down on Karachi’s militias writ whole, their civilian counterparts – who had alliances with provincial militias themselves – were eager to focus on Muttahida in particular. Soon after taking charge, Babar dispatched the biggest campaign yet, dispatching Sindh paramilitary commander Mohammad Akram on a sweep through the city. The campaign, which lasted the first half of 1994, resulted in several thousand casualties amid brutal fighting between the militia on one hand and the police and paramilitaries on the other. Yet by the end of it, the Muttahida militia remained, sneering off regime attempts and remaining a major force in the province for the next twenty or so years.

Internationally, Babar is better known for his link to Afghanistan. The mujahideen takeover of Kabul in 1992 had not yielded the dividends for which Islamabad had hoped, with bitter fighting over the Afghan capital haemorrhaging any attempt to stabilize the country. Instead, by 1994 Afghanistan was effectively split into a number of autonomous militia coalitions, some of which worked better than others. Pakistan’s twin concerns over its northwestern neighbour had been a friendly government in Kabul and a stable route by which to access newly independent Central Asia.

The first objective seemed to have been tanked by the bitter infighting over Kabul between two erstwhile Pakistani clients – Burhanuddin Rabbani’s Jamiat government and prime minister Gulbadin Hikmatyar’s Hizb rebels. Babar himself had irritated such Ikhwan-linked Islamists when he had speculated that perhaps a return to the monarchy would not be a bad thing; to Hizb, and a considerable proportion of the Pakistani military establishment, such a claim was outrageous because it would install what they saw as a decadent and pro-Western regime, while to Jamiat it reeked of a return to Pashtun political hegemony.

Aiming to achieve the second objective instead, Pakistan had – much to Rabbani’s irritation – attempted to bypass Kabul entirely by contacting commanders on the road through Afghanistan – such commanders as Ismail Khan, an official Jamiat member but largely autonomous, whose stronghold Herat the veteran Pakistani intelligence officer and Islamist ideologue “Colonel” Sultan Imam frequented as consul. But getting to Herat was itself a problem; southern Afghanistan, overseeing the border from Pakistan, was especially fraught with competing militias or simply bandits who imperilled travellers and traders. One particularly notorious commander to Islamabad, though not the worst offender by any stretch, was Abdul-Salam Rocketi, a mujahideen veteran reknowned for his skill with the eponymous weapon; when his brother was arrested for smuggling in Pakistan during 1993, he had secured his release by abducting a Pakistani officer.

With his characteristically hands-on energy, Babar set out to personally oversee a route from the Kandahari border town Spin Boldak through southern Afghanistan. He set out in a convoy along with Imam, but they were immediately waylaid at Spin Boldak, home to a large arsenal of weaponry, by three militia commanders – Niaz Lalai, Mansur Khan, and, ironically enough, former Pakistani client Sarkatib Atta of Hizb. To the militias’ surprise, however, a troop of black-turbaned Islamic students led by mid-ranked mujahideen veteran Aminullah Burjan swooped into the fray, rescued the hostages, and seized Spin Boldak. Within a day they had attacked Kandahar itself, driven out or disarmed the militias, and announced themselves as the Taliban emirate, with Burjan as its defence minister.

For Babar and Imam, who might have become jaded by mujahideen infighting, the zeal and transparent integrity of their rescuers brought on emotion; was this, rather than the array of militias that had dogged Spin Boldak, the actualization of the jihad they had set out to support twenty years earlier? A fervent admirer, Imam set out to persuade Ismail in Herat to cooperate with the Kandahari emirate – a mission in which he ultimately failed – while Babar beamed that the Taliban were “my boys”, a paternalistic quote that exaggerated enormously Islamabad’s role and leverage in assisting the Taliban movement, but probably reflected his true feelings. At any rate, not only Babar as interior minister and such spies as Imam but also Pashtun merchants and communities in the area flung their support behind the nascent emirate.

Nor were they alone; since the Taliban emirate’s earliest targets included Hikmatyar’s group, rivals of Hizb joined the nascent emirate – even the unsavoury Abdul-Salam Rocketi, who had caused Pakistan such a headache, would become a field and later a corps commander in the Taliban on account of his military experience. Moreover, even Burhanuddin Rabbani’s government in Kabul, keen to divest itself of Hikmatyar’s menace, supported the student militia. Not till Hizb had been thoroughly battered and Burjan had led Taliban troops to the capital’s gates did Jamiat decide that, in fact, the provincial bumpkins from the southern countryside were in fact Pakistani puppets – a thesis to which Babar’s hearty appreciation of “our boys” lent a valuable soundbite. In fact Pakistan had begun to support the Taliban movement by this point, yet the fledgling emirate was nobody’s puppet: much to the regret of Imam, they would engage and prevail in a fierce war with Ismail.

It must also be remembered that Babar did not represent the military establishment. He was a People’s Party loyalist rather than an institutional leader of the military. The traditional Pakistani military approach had been to support the revolutionary Islamist – oft-Ikhwani-leaning urban professionals and activists, such as Jamiat and Hizb – a policy in which former army commander Aslam Baig and former spymaster Hameed Gul had been important. The pair retained unusual post-retirement influence; though Baig was cautiously optimistic about the Taliban emirate, Gul – quite contrary to future reports, which painted him as a cradle-to-grave sympathizer if not planner of the Taliban movement – had a suspicion of these southerners who had unseated his longstanding client Hikmatyar; he saw them as a stalking horse for the monarchy, and would not be convinced otherwise until the late 1990s after which he became a warm supporter.

At any rate, Babar’s government career ended only months after Burjan led Taliban troops into Kabul during autumn 1996. Benazir’s second regime was dismissed on corruption grounds by its own leader Farooq Leghari. The ensuing election, in which Babar ran in both Naushera and Karachi only to lose both constituencies, saw Nawaz Sharif sweep to victory in another round of musical chairs that upturned the mayhem of 1993.

That effectively marked the end of Babar’s career on the national stage, though not for want of trying. The following years saw a blurring number of regional upheavals – the Indian and Pakistani nuclear tests, the Kashmir war, the Pakistani coup by army commander Pervez Musharraf against Nawaz, and the invasion of Taliban-held Afghanistan by the United States. The latter event, in particular, outraged Pakistani public opinion across the political spectrum. Thus when in autumn 2002 Musharraf arranged provincial elections, Babar – standing on behalf of the People’s Party in his native Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa province – was far from the only candidate with historic sympathy for the Taliban movement. He was outdone in an election of questionable practice by a rival, firmly Islamist coalition led by Akram Durrani, whose provincial government thereafter harboured the Taliban emirate with little secret about the matter, and with the tacit support of Musharraf’s own junta. Babar, People’s Party stalwart though he was, shared Taliban sympathy with the rival military regime and Islamist parties both.

Musharraf’s delicate balancing act with the United States eventually tipped, as the Pakistani dictator attempted to kill two birds with one stone – removing internal threats and easing foreign pressure – by expanding the war into the same Waziristan region that Babar had once policed. By the late 2000s Pakistan was at civil war, with the military regime perilously close to falling. Benazir and Nawaz, both exiled by the junta, had lobbied effectively abroad, with the former in particular catching Washington’s eye. At this late stage, the United States appears to have preferred an accomodation between Musharraf as strongman and Benazir as liberal prime minister; in autumn 2007, the dictator reversed the corruption cases against his civilian opponents and permitted them back.

This apparent betrayal of their platforms alienated stalwarts from both the People’s Party and the military regime. A rare general who despised military rule, Babar resigned from the party after some thirty years in service; on the government side, former army ground commander Shahid Aziz – an Islamist officer long-uncomfortable with Musharraf’s trajectory – also resigned from his role at the helm of the counter-corruption office. Ironically enough, Aziz himself – a relative-by-marriage to Musharraf (and, full disclosure, to the writer’s family as well) – shared Babar’s sympathy for the Taliban emirate, for whom he lobbied extensively both before and especially after his resignation. Support for Babar’s presumed “boys” was broad across the Pakistani spectrum.

The cynicism by Babar and Aziz about the Benazir-Musharraf coalition was well-founded. There was no love lost between Benazir and Musharraf; in December 2007, just two months after Babar’s resignation, Benazir was mysteriously assassinated. By now, though, her party – with its liberal and increasingly secularist rhetoric, contrary to the populism of Zulfikar Bhutto’s day – was beginning to outweigh Musharraf in Washington’s estimations, and with the army abstaining from his support the Pakistani dictator escaped to exile in summer 2008. A People’s Party government led by Benazir’s sinister widower, Asif Zardari, took power, but would prove no less disastrous and hiccup miserably to the end of its term five years later.

Naseerullah Babar did not long outlive Benazir. Long in declining health, he passed away in early 2011, just before the putative Pakistani-American coalition reached its breaking point. It marked a quiet end to a boisterous and controversial career, which had played a major role in events both within and without Pakistan.

Salaheddin Badi. The central paradox of the 2011 Libyan revolt against the decades-long dictatorship of Muammar Qaddhafi was its mixture of widespread domestic support and the critical role played by foreign military support in its immediate success. Both the far-flung and heterogenous nature of the revolt’s Libyan constituents and its foreign backers meant that reaching a stable long-term accord after Qaddhafi’s ouster has proven especially tricky, with coalitions forming and disappearing on short-term bases at a bewildering pace. One character whose career has epitomized the twists and turns of Libyan coalitions even as he pursued a relentlessly maximalist revolutionary policy was the Misratan militia commander and erstwhile “parliamentary spymaster” Pilot Brigadier Salaheddin Omar Bashir Badi. A bitter opponent of the ancien regime, this courageous but controversial militia leader’s provocative attempts to purge the remnants of that regime escalated Libya’s fighting at critical stages even as he switched between such coalitions as he presumed would serve that end.

Though there was considerable brouhaha – much of it understandable given Qaddhafi’s demonstrated instability and brutality – over an impending humanitarian catastrophe at the outset of the war, the only city that the Libyan regime actually managed to attack in full force was the wealthy Mediterranean port Misurata. Long a distinctive and diverse city of pietistic merchants and political potentates, Misurata’s position between the capital Tripoli and the oil-rich Libyan gulf rendered it a priority for the regime, as did its close links by family and politics with the eastern city Benghazi, which had become something of a rebel capital after its takeover in February 2011. The city thus faced a major assault by Qaddhafi’s hard-charging son Khamis; in the brutal two-month battle that ensued, they beat off Khamis at the cost of some thirteen hundred casualties, which scarred the social consciousness of Misuratans and rendered much of the city a bitter revolutionary stronghold thereafter.

The city garrison in the Battle of Misurata largely comprised a mixture of retired and active military officers, some of whom had become prominent merchants in civilian life and could draw on their broader links to attract support. Salaheddin Badi, too, heralded from the airforce, but he differed from the city’s elite, which was far closer and better-represented in Qaddhafi’s regime than would proven convenient to recall; for example, the rebel leader Abdurrahman Sewehli’s brother Hamdi commanded the navy while the Dabaiba merchant family had a long relationship with the regime. By contrast Badi had been a dissident for years, and paid the price. A distinctly mutinous personality as an airforce instructor, he had caught the attention of the regime’s heavy-handed security forces and been locked up for some years. Thus he had more reason to fight than most, and he distinguished himself with his ferocity both during the battle and thereafter.

Badi co-led the city’s garrison on a council of roughly equal commanders, many of whom have since become prominent personages in Libyan politics. Perhaps best-known is Fathi Bashagha, a pilot-turned-merchant who served as liaison to the Nato force that supported the insurgency largely as a result of the Misurata campaign; he has since nimbly maneouvred around Libyan politics and most recently ran in the 2021 election after serving as an influential interior minister. Others included Salem Juha, another career officer who proved the cheese to Badi’s chalk – he had a notably conciliatory stance toward the losers after the war – and has most recently served as military second-in-command; Ramadan Zarmouh, who became a minister in the first government formed after Qaddhafi’s ouster; retired officer Mohamed Benhumaida; lawyer Khalifa Zawawi; and the defecting soldiers Sulaiman Faqih and Ibrahims Baitulmal and Benrajab, each of whom has led the Misuratan military council at some point. The council was a loose and politically diverse array, but under pressure tended to coalesce better than most groups in Libya’s fractious political landscape; as a result, Misurata has proven an extraordinarily influential city-state of sorts in the Libyan landscape of the 2010s.

After the regime attack had been repulsed in May 2011, Misurata stretched its wings. Misuratan commanders such as Badi, Juha, and Zarmouh joined the attack on Tripoli at the end of summer 2011; when Qaddhafi was expelled from the capital, Badi and Zarmouh pursued him to his hometown Sirt. There the ousted dictator held out in the early autumn with his son Mutassem and his defence minister Abubakar Jaber; finally, in an attempted escape during October 2011, they were caught by Misuratan fighters – apparently belonging to Zarmouh’s units – and publicly lynched. Zarmouh was notably sanguine about Qaddhafi’s sanguinary end – what, he asked coldly, about the dictator’s victims? – but it was Badi who claims to have taken the corpses and buried them in a secret spot.

His role in Qaddhafi’s elimination secured Badi’s standing as a revolutionary hardliner, one of those who wanted every trace of the ancien regime eliminated from Libya’s political scene. The problem was, firstly, that much of Libya had been either loyal to or at least indifferent toward the former dictator – far more than such revolutionary ideologues cared to admit – with attempts to purge the ancien regime often encroaching on purging the state of important assets. Secondly, much more than the revolutionaries cared to admit, Qaddhafi’s ouster had been majorly assisted by foreign powers who did not necessarily share the unrelenting hostility toward the ancien regime.

By 2012, the fear of Islamists – who had played a considerable role in the 2011 revolt – capitalizing on the dictator’s ouster was especially pronounced. While the term Islamist has been and was selectively abused in Libyan politics – most Libyans, even such liberals as the interim prime minister and revolutionaries’ bane Mahmoud Jibril, acknowledged the role and importance of Islam at least in words – what is clear that actual Islamists, whether of the Ikhwan-leaning variation or veteran militants, sided with the revolutionary camp to which Badi belonged. He himself denied being an Islamist, but his denial was purely on procedural grounds – claiming, for instance, that a Muslim country like Libya didn’t need an Islamic party. In outlook and coalition, Badi differed little from the hardest core of Islamists.

Badi and similar ideologues saw a counterrevolutionary plot, seeking to topple their gains, as the major threat to Libya. They were not wrong that such counterrevolutionary circles existed – the 2013 coup in neighbouring Masr and the alliance of France, the United Arab Emirates, and other countries was certainly eager to limit whatever gains had been won in the 2011 revolts. But the uncompromising ruthlessness of Badi and his fellow revolutionaries, who enjoyed major influence in the new Libyan setup, often played into their opponents’ hands, by turning potential friends into enemies.

This was best epitomized in autumn 2012 when tensions flared at the desert town of Bani Walid. The largely clan-based town had a latent rivalry with Misurata that had only been sharpened by the 2011 war, when Bani Walid largely abstained from siding with the revolt. The irony was that Qaddhafi had largely ostracized the town after a 1993 coup attempt by several local officers; Bani Walid’s neutrality in the 2011 war was not from loyalism but a suspicion of foreign intervention and a cautious isolationism. Indeed the town’s garrison was partly led by Salem Wair, a veteran of the 1993 coup. But, governed by a clan leader called Mohamed Barghouti who had in 2011 thrown his weight behind the regime, it was nonetheless seen as complicit in attempts to resuscitate the Qaddhafi regime. When Omran Benshaaban, a Misuratan fighter who had helped kill Qaddhafi, was himself abducted and mortally injured there in summer 2012, Misuratan hardliners including Badi bayed for blood and an attack on the town.

The subsequent operation was controversial – defence minister Osama Juwaili and field commander Abdelhamid Budirbala, both from the mountain town of Zintan, resigned in protest; so too did Salem Juha, Badi’s old counterpart from the previous year’s Misurata battle, who was ostracized – but it went ahead. Formally led by a more measured Misuratan commander called Mohamed Moussa, the attack was more prominent for the role played by Badi and Mohamed Kilani, a Salafi commander from Zuwara. The autumn 2012 battle displaced much of the town, with the revolutionary militias behaving as more a conquering than securing force. It also hardened the bitterness between Misurata and Bani Walid.

Convinced that the counterrevolutionary elements were not yet finished, Badi and his friends continued to push for isolation of anybody linked to the ancien regime. In spring 2013 they agitated for the removal from formal government positions of anybody who had worked for Qaddhafi; this in fact forced the resignation of both parliament speaker Mohamed Magarief and his Misuratana deputy Juma Atiga, even though the former had led opposition against Qaddhafi from abroad since the 1980s. Magarief’s revolutionary successor, Nouri Busahmain, arrived to lead parliament just as manufactured protests were raging in neighbouring Masr against its elected Ikhwani ruler Mohamed Morsi – culminating in a coup, very firmly backed by the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia.

Convinced that the Libyan revolution needed to protect itself against similar plots, Busahmain quietly contracted a number of Islamists led by the Salafi militant leader Shaaban Hadia to serve as a sort of praetorian guard for the Libyan parliament. He also instructed Badi to lead intelligence operations against any similar plot in Libya. There was certainly something in the water; a rival militia, led by a thuggish commander from Zintan called Imad Trabulsi, had been pressuring the government for weeks, and it was presumably against such pressures that Hadia and Badi were expected to protect the parliament.

But while the counterrevolutionary international axis had firmly set its sights on Libya, Tripoli was not Cairo. The irony was that revolutionaries, including Islamists of different stripes, were well-represented in the Libyan regime. The prime minister Ali Zidane was a notable exception, but militant Islamists had filled key positions such as the interior and defence portfolios. One example was Khalid Sharif, a veteran of the Muqatila militia that had in the 1990s waged a small-scale insurgency against Qaddhafi; he served as deputy defence minister. The Muqatila group had waged a low-scale insurgency against Qaddhafi during the late 1990s; they had become blacklisted on accounts of their founders’ loose links with Qaida in 2001, only to storm back into contention during the 2011 revolt where their veterans played a considerable role and, ironically, shunned efforts by Qaida to coopt them. Nonetheless, the fact that Muqatila veterans largely fell into the revolutionary camp meant that the label of extremist militants was increasingly employed by opponents of that camp, with considerable traction abroad.

Not that the revolutionaries helped themselves. In autumn 2013 prime minister Zidane was abducted in Tripoli by one of the myriad revolutionary militia leaders, Abdelmunim Saeed; though Khaled Sharif helped secure his release, the irate prime minister alleged a coup attempt by such Islamist revolutionaries as Mohamed Kilani. This specific charge may not have been true, but what was true was that militants linked to the revolutionary camp were behaving in a regularly provocative manner; in their attempt to stamp out counterrevolution, they were only provoking opposition at a moment when, with the coup in neighbouring Masr, they could not afford it.

With spiralling instability and political deadlock – prime minister Zidane resigned and escaped to Europe, with his succession disputed between his defence minister Abdullah Thinni and the Misuratan notable Ahmed Maiteeg – Cairo’s preferred client showed his hand in spring 2014. This client was the former army officer Khalifa Haftar, a nakedly ambitious, ruthless braggadocio who compensated his historic military setbacks – he had been defeated and captured in Chad during the 1980s, when he switched sides and became an agent of American intelligence – with a brazen swagger. Haftar had spent a year or so canvassing support from foes and victims of the revolutionary bloc in eastern Libya. Now he capitalized on the political flux to announce that his coalition of militias and professional soldiers were the real Libyan army, and that he would purge the east from extremists and criminals in order to restore Libya’s dignity.

In northwest Libya, Haftar found support among the Zintani commanders Mukhtar Fernana and Imad Trabulsi, who attempted to attack the parliament in Tripoli but were beaten off against Shaaban Hadia – whom Nouri Busahmain had hired a year earlier for precisely this purpose. There was enough of a breathing space for Thinni to prevail as prime minister over Maiteeg after the latter yielded to a supreme court decision, and for a summer election to be held. Pathetically attended, unsurprisingly given endemic instability, with less than a fifth of the electorate, this election yielded a firmly non-revolutionary parliament.

Things came to a head in July 2014 when the revolutionary coalition – still supported by Busahmain, who remained in charge of parliament – opted to have their opponents for breakfast before they could be had for lunch. Playing a prominent role were the mufti Sadiq Ghariani, Muqatila veteran Khaled Sharif and the Misuratan potentates Fathi Bashagha and Abdurrahman Sewehli, while field forces were led by Salaheddin Badi, Shaaban Hadia, and a number of Tripolitan field commanders including Abdelghani Ghinaiwa, Mustafa Qaddour, and Haitham Tajouri. Their target was the strategic airport, long held by the Zintani commander Mukhtar Akhdar. The battle drew in other Zintani militia commanders in Tripoli, several of whom – Imad Trabulsi and Othman Mlegta in particular – had a long record of enmity with the revolutionary camp.

As a furious battle ensued for the airport, its reverberations echoed. Prime minister Thinni fled the capital with part of the parliament, making for the eastern town Tobruq which lay under Haftar’s control on the border with Masr. Once arrived, they announced themselves the rightful government against a coup attempt by the Islamists. Busahmain remained in Tripoli, siding with the revolutionary camp. Opposition to the revolutionary camp’s ambitions also played into their hands, for instance in the case of the powerful Zintani commander Osama Juwaili, who had resigned as defence minister over the 2012 Bani Walid attack, opposed the airport attack. Having long kept a distance from post-revolt conflict, Juwaili was pushed by circumstances and the aggression of the Misuratan-led coalition into a tactical alliance with Haftar.

Perhaps ironically, it took cooler heads to turn the airport over to the revolutionary attackers. The Misuratan militia commander Mohamed Moussa, who had led the 2012 Bani Walid operation but balked at his colleagues’ aggressions, negotiated the airport’s handover to an independent Salafi commander, Abdelrauf Kara. The Zintanis were forced to withdraw from the capital’s environs by autumn 2014, and an Islamist regime led by speaker Busahmain and the professor Omar Hassi. In effect, Libya was split into two governments, at Tripoli and Tobruq, while fighting raged in the hinterlands of both “capitals” against their peripheral opponents.

The United Nations, ever belatedly helpful, tried to negotiate a compromise regime between Tobruq and Tripoli. This split the Misuratan camp; while Bashagha and sitting Misuratan military council head Sulaiman Faqih supported the talks, they faced strident opposition from Abdurrahman Sewehli, scion of one of the city’s most esteemed families, and Badi. To the latter, negotiations with what they perceived to be stalwarts of the ancien regime amounted to a betrayal of both the 2011 and 2014 campaigns. They set about recruiting fighters to protect the Tripoli regime, now led by the Misuratan merchant Khalifa Ghuwail. Yet as the negotiations continued, Badi found himself increasingly isolated; when in December 2015 Bashagha co-signed the Skhirat Accord stipulating a compromise government in Tripoli, Sewehli was on board.

In classic United Nations fashion, the Skhirat Accord stipulated a compromise cabinet that included political elites across Libya. A ruling council was chaired by the former architect-turned-minister Fayiz Sarraj, while Sewehli led an advisory council. Yet in spite of Misuratan representation, Badi opposed the idea; not only did it displace the Tripolitan parliament led by Nouri Busahmain that he had fought with, but it had no real way of doing the same thing with the Tobruq parliament guarded by Khalifa Haftar. Badi saw his Misuratan colleagues’ assent to the Skhirat Accord as naïve at best and opportunistic at worst; outside the revolutionary camp, he in turn was seen as a dangerous wildcard with unrealistically maximalist aims.

In fact when Sarraj’s government was set to take over at Tripoli in spring 2016, Badi and some other officers momentarily contemplated attacking them and preventing their arrival to the capital. He was only dissuaded at the eleventh hour on the advice of two Misuratan Ibrahims, the commander Benrajab and the preacher Benghafir, who had themselves suffered losses in the war and could not be suspected of opportunism. On the whole, Badi was in a firm minority within Misurata; over 2016, Misuratan forces played a major role in bolstering Sarraj against a Daesh threat in Sirt, which they captured by the year’s end.

Badi continued to harbour dark suspicions toward the new Tripoli government. This was in part because Khalifa Ghuwail, the Misuratan successor to Omar Hassi whose government had been replaced by Sarraj, continued to harbour thoughts of a comeback, and partly because Sarraj’s installation in Tripoli required the support of a number of controversial militias that had become something of a cartel in the capital. Although these included militia commanders who had sided with Badi against the Zintanis in 2014 – including Abdelghani Ghinaiwa, Mustafa Qaddour, and Haitham Tajouri – he now turned against them. During the last months of 2016, Ghuwail and Badi mounted a number of attacks on the Tripolitan militias. In spring 2017, the Tripolitan militias mounted a major attack against Badi and Khaled Sharif, whom they had supported three years earlier at the airport; this effectively ended Ghuwail’s attempt to restore the former parliament.

But Badi continued to simmer away. Unlike most Misuratan commanders, who seemed to have accepted Sarraj as a preferable alternative to Khalifa Haftar’s Tobruq-based coalition, he seemed inconsolable to the new status quo, which he called corrupt and compromised. Badi’s revolutionary rhetoric – comparing himself, for instance, to the United States’ founder George Washington in an attempt to explain his standpoint to Western interviewers – attracted ridicule and largely achieved the opposite effect abroad. Within Libya, Badi was not the only militia leader dissatisfied with the Tripolitan militias, but most challengers were easily thrust aside. Worse yet, by spring 2018 an insecure government constantly facing small-scale challengers invited back to Tripoli the same notorious Zintani militia, led by Imad Trabulsi, against whom the Misuratans had fought in 2013-14. Thus Badi continued to search for a promising partner with whom he could break the Tripoli regime.

He found it in the southern Tripolitan suburb of Tarhouna. Here a ruthless set of brothers, the Kanis, had managed to impose themselves as the town’s effective rulers by cunning politics and brute force. Although they had not participated in the 2011 revolt, their iron grip over Tarhouna marked them out as a force to be reckoned with. And they were unhappy, too, with the Tripolitan government. Thus at the end of summer 2018, when the family’s military leader Mohsen Kani assumed a “Robin Hood” persona and attacked southern Tripoli, Badi joined in.

The attack backfired; not only did Mustafa Qaddour, Haitham Tajouri, Abdelghani Ghinaiwa, and Imad Trabulsi survive the attack, but they were even joined by a Misuratan militia led by Abdelsalam Zoubi – a mark of how far Badi had pushed his co-citizens. To his Misuratan colleagues, who shared his misgivings about the Tripoli militias, Badi’s recklessness appeared to have backfired. With every attack Badi had rendered more insecure Fayiz Sarraj, a personally acceptable individual for them, and strengthened his reliance on the same militias he wanted to oust.

This latest attack earned Badi a United Nations sanction, and also prompted other Misuratan leaders to thrust themselves into the Tripoli fray. Fathi Bashagha, the politically savviest of them, cut a deal with the Tripoli militias and became Sarraj’s interior minister, partly hoping to wield some control over the Tripoli cartel and partly to advance his own considerable ambitions.

It took nothing less drastic for Badi to reconcile with the Tripoli regime than the sudden and imminent threat of Khalifa Haftar. Having spent the winter mopping up southern Libya, the self-styled Arab Army appeared in Tripoli during April 2019 and promptly mounted an attack. They were assisted by such former counterparts of Badi as Adil Daab, who had fought alongside him in the 2014 airport campaign, and the Kani brothers; their summary turnover of their key towns of, respectively, Tarhouna and Gharian in short order enabled the Arab Army to encroach upon the capital.

But for Badi himself, who had based his opposition to Fayiz Sarraj on speculation that Tripoli might accommodate Haftar’s counterrevolution, the sight of Haftar turning on Sarraj meant he could only support the latter. He fought boldly at the southern Tripoli front in an umbrella of Misuratan, Tripolitan, and Zintani militias assembled by Fathi Bashagha and Osama Juwaili.

By mid-2020, importantly bolstered by a Turkish campaign, Sarraj’s government had beaten back the threat and negotiations opened. Given the importance of international respectability, Tripoli was keen to play down Badi’s role in the campaign. But that was not the only reason, for with their mutual enemy Haftar kept momentarily at bay there was still an intent by this most recklessly uncompromising of revolutionaries to pursue his grudge against his erstwhile friends: once Libya was truly liberated, he pugnaciously claimed, he would throw the militia leaders in prison.

Abdul-Sabur Farid. The apparent triumph of the Afghan mujahideen over the Soviet-installed regime in spring 1992 was spearled, complicated, and eventually squandered by the Ikhwani-leaning Islamists in their camp, the Hizb and Jamiat factions. In retrospect much historical commentary has focused on this rivalry as the result of regional or ethnic disputation. Yet at its core the dispute between Gulbadin Hikmatyar, the Hizb emir who became a mutinous prime minister in the mujahideen coalition, and his Jamiat archenemy defence minister Shah Massoud was a political one. This was better known than most by Hikmatyar’s Tajik lieutenant, the shortlived prime minister Ustad Abdul-Sabur Farid Kouhistani – who led the conquest of Kabul in 1992, but whose role has been almost studiously scribbled out by historians eager for lazier explanations.

In retrospect it became fashionable to term the 1990s Hizb-Jamiat fratricide as an interminable ethnic dispute between a supposedly Pashtun-chauvinist Hizb and a supposedly Tajik-moulded Jamiat. This fits in neatly with the idea of Afghanistan as a cauldron of forever squabbling ethnic groups, and ignores the essential pan-Islamic origins and multiethnic nature of both sides as well as the fact that both, particularly Hizb, had had rivals within their leaders’ ethnic group. To be sure, as the war between them dragged on coalitions tended to form ethnic or regional lines, with Tajiks in particular tending to incline towards Jamiat while at least some Pashtuns saw Hizb as preferable to a Tajik-led government. But this was not the major issue or root of the problem between Hikmatyar and Massoud, which had bubbled under the surface for years.

Abdul-Sabur Farid, a Tajik Hizb commander from the Kouhistan uplands to Kabul’s northeast, knew this better than most. During the 1980s his front was located neatly between Massoud’s stronghold in the Panjsher valley and the Hizb-friendly environs of Kabul province. Farid reached a curious rapprochement of mistrustful cooperation with Massoud, and it was to a large extent because of this that he would be entrusted with the prime ministry in a shortlived attempt to reconcile the two camps during 1992.

The Ikhwani Islamists – to be distinguished by other Afghan Islamic groups by the fact that they tended to be urban professionals with a more internationalist and revolutionary outlook – really began to mobilize in the 1960s, when monarchic Afghanistan experimented with parliamentary politics. The 1960s saw the emergence of both revolutionary Islamist and Marxist groups in Kabul’s university politics; neither liked the monarchy, but they loathed each other with at least equal fervour. Among the early leaders of the Islamist camp were the Kabul professors Burhanuddin Rabbani, later Jamiat emir, and Abdurrabb Sayyaf, who would found a rival mujahideen group called Ittihad. It was only later that the harder-scrabble Hikmatyar and Massoud would emerge as leaders, buoyed in part by their organizational skills and personal magnetism.

With the support of his father Abdul-Shakur, Abdul-Sabur Farid joined the Islamists as a teenager, linking up with the Islamist ideologue Saifuddin Nasratyar in about 1969. Farid soon earned respect both for his personable character and his knowledge on Islamic history and culture. A patient, easy-tempered character, he earned his keep as a schoolteacher, and would long be distinguished from many of his contemporaries by his especial attention to education and infrastructure.

After the monarchy was overthrown by its erstwhile prince and prime minister Daud Khan, the Islamists kicked into overdrive. Their initial appeals to Daud went unheeded, and in fact they were soon targeted for especial punishment by the communists who flanked the new Afghan dictator. An abortive, Pakistani-backed attempt at revolt in summer 1975 was quelled, though it did bring into sharp focus the second generation of revolutionary Islamists – Hikmatyar, the ideological firebrand who had urged the revolt, and Shah Massoud, one of its leaders in the Panjsher valley.

As the Islamists split late in the 1970s, Hikmatyar would take the lion’s share of the revolutionary camp, founding Hizb around this core. He always disliked the formation of other groups – partly because, he rightly noted, political unity was necessary and his group was the oldest of Afghan Islamists. It was, in addition, the most tightly organized and controlled of the different groups; in contrast to Rabbani, whose Jamiat was content to delegate field command to such outstanding commanders as Massoud, Hikmatyar closely supervised and disciplined the various Hizb fronts.

The emerging rivalry between Massoud and Hikmatyar would focus not only on their personal mutual antipathy but their views of insurgent organization; Massoud believed in the primacy of the field commander, largely autonomous from party control, while Hikmatyar insisted that the political party must control field fronts. Both had something to commend them; Massoud’s approach afforded flexibility and battlefield effectiveness, but Hikmatyar’s preempted fragmentation or indiscipline.

It was not until the late 1970s, when the communists ousted Daud and themselves fell into bitter factionalism, that Afghanistan at large erupted in revolt. Though partly coaxed by such countries as Pakistan, this was a largely indigenous response to the brutal societal upheaval by the ruling communist Khalq faction, whose targets included the rival Parcham communist party. The Soviet invasion of December 1979 installed the Parchami leader Babrak Karmal in power at the helm of a Parcham-Khalq coalition; however, Moscow could never mend fences between the two communist factions.

Abdul-Sabur Farid soon joined one of the war’s most active battlegrounds, his home region directly to the northeast of Kabul. This included Kouhistan as well as the Shamali Plain, a fertile green sprawl marked by the Soviet-built airbase at Bagram. Because of its importance in commanding the route to the Kabul garrison, Bagram retained and continues to retain considerable strategic importance – even more than the far more storied Panjsher vale north of Kouhistan, which was soon distinguished by Massoud’s famous Jamiat front.

The Shamali Plain was the site of innumerable clashes and ambushes between Soviet troops and a number of mujahideen fronts, particularly from Hizb and Jamiat. There was a mixed record of cooperation and competition between different groups here; Hizb, led by Fatah Muhammad, and Jamiat, led by Sharif Shaheen, maintained a wary distance but cooperated at large with other groups. Further north, in Farid’s home area, lay the Kouhistan hills, where Farid served as a lieutenant to the Hizb provincial commander Abdul-Rauf Hujjat. And further north yet was the Panjsher valley, where Massoud enjoyed nearly uncontested control, and which oversaw the road between Kabul and the northeast.

While such commanders fought in the 1980s, the Pakistani city Peshawar became the main site for their political leaders in exile. The Peshawar mujahideen leaders split their hours between international lobbying and internecine power struggles; Hikmatyar was unusual in his regular attention to battlefield fronts. By the mid-1980s, however, news had sifted through to Peshawar and abroad of Massoud’s remarkable military ability. He had repelled a number of Soviet assaults on the Panjsher valley, and – unusually among the rough-and-tumble mujahideen commanders – he had organized something akin to a standing army, which proved especially effective in repulsing Soviet attacks.

While Rabbani cheerfully accepted the plaudits that came Jamiat’s way with Massoud’s success, Hikmatyar was naturally suspicious of such an autonomous front. His suspicions heightened in 1983, when – having beaten back another Soviet assault – Massoud unilaterally agreed to a year-long ceasefire with the Soviets. For the Panjsher commander, this was a necessary compromise; his front needed to replenish and reorganize. But to the mujahideen political leaders in Peshawar, it provoked alarm, especially since the war was raging elsewhere in Afghanistan. Hikmatyar went furthest in attacking Massoud as a traitor; in future years, he would darkly, though perhaps unfairly, hint that Massoud was happy to sacrifice a national Afghan resistance strategy in order to retain his own regional autonomy.

In fact, at least the 1983 ceasefire was not evidence of a Soviet conspiracy with Massoud – in spring 1984 the Soviets mounted their biggest assault yet on the Panjsher, at which point even Hikmatyar instructed such commanders as Tariq, Hujjat, and Farid to chip in the valley’s defence – but the rivalry between Hizb and the Panjsheri commander was hardening. By the mid-1980s, the Afghan war was changing; it had become far more internationalized, with Pakistani and Iranian support to the insurgents now matched by the United States and a number of Arab countries, several of whom sent volunteers.

Moreover, Massoud was trying to translate his battlefield success to regional expansion. Unhappy at mujahideen subservience to the Peshawar-based political leaders, he began to try and coordinate field commanders in the region to coordinate, independent of their political factions. If they refused, he proved willing to attack them and force them into compliance. This field coordination, which would soon become a faction in its own right called the Nazar Council, was viewed with alarm by Hikmatyar and his strongly disciplined Hizb party. They portrayed it as proof of Massoud’s regionalism, and pointed to the fact that after 1986 he never once attacked the communist regime but instead only other mujahideen – mostly but not exclusively Hizb commanders – who challenged the Nazar Council.

Massoud, who seems to have been aware that Moscow was planning to withdraw, appears to have been preparing for the day after – yet to his critics, especially Hikmatyar, it seemed that Massoud was ignoring mujahideen in other parts of Afghanistan as long as he could be left alone. Hizb nursed a longstanding suspicion that Massoud had come to an arrangement whereby he could rule his own fiefdom in return for Moscow’s non-interference; the fact that Jamiat would years later appeal to federalism seemed to bear out this hypothesis, but it should be noted that as of the 1980s there is no real evidence thereof.

Nonetheless, the contrast between Massoud’s studied mutual non-aggression with the Soviets and the rest of Afghanistan during the late 1980s was stark. This applied even to nearby Hizb fronts; even as the Soviets abstained from attacking Panjsher during 1987-89, they mounted several campaigns against Hizb fronts in northeast Afghanistan. One such sweep slew the Hizb provincial commander Abdul-Rauf Hujjat, whose place Abdul-Sabur Farid promptly filled.

His jurisdiction now including the Shamali lowlands as well as Kouhistan and the uplands, Farid was especially lively in the number of attacks he mounted on Soviet convoys during the late 1980s. In fact his reputation reached such an extent that in spring 1987 Muhammad Najibullah, the Soviet-installed ruler in Kabul, named him along with Massoud in a list of commanders to whom he offered amnesty in return for their standing down. Predictably, both refused the offer. In fact, notwithstanding the hostility and mistrust between their factions, Massoud and Farid strove to keep out of each other’s way; Massoud, never miserly in recognition, would publicly name Farid as one of the few Hizb commanders he could trust – even if the trust was not reciprocated.

As the Soviet withdrawal approached, the mujahideen began to overrun territory in earnest during 1988. That autumn Abdul-Sabur Farid took control of Mahmudi Raqi, one of the earlier provincial capitals taken by the mujahideen. He had earned some popularity already for his attention to maintaining a disciplined order and engagement with civilians in areas he controlled. More and more Hizb fronts began to coalesce around the capital, effectively laying siege for a number of years. However, this was undermined by the increasing controversy of Hizb on the political level.

With the Soviets’ departure in February 1989, the mujahideen elected a shadow government – effectively a coalition between different group leaders – among whom Sibghatullah Mujaddidi, a compromise candidate, became their emir. Hikmatyar was among those who challenged the shadow government, insulated in part by his closeness to the Pakistani military establishment. This in turn meant that his mujahideen rivals increasingly sided with Massoud, even as the Nazar Council was entrenching itself more subtly as a rival power structure. That it was Hizb, not Nazar, who cooperated with the cross-mujahideen’s unsuccessful attack on Jalalabad in spring 1989 thus counted little in its favour.

The other mujahideen groups’ unease at Hizb turned into outrage during spring 1990, when Hikmatyar attempted to exploit the Parcham-Khalq rift by unilaterally attempting a coup attempt in league with the Khalqi defence minister Shahnawaz Tanai. The coup attempt, backed by Pakistan’s army commander Aslam Baig, only narrowly failed and led to bitter fighting in Kabul between the mutineers and Muhammad Najibullah’s loyalists. Aiding the regime was the notorious Uzbek militia founded by Abdul-Rashid Dostum and led by his lieutenant Abdul-Majeed Rouzi. It is not known how directly Farid partook in this coup attempt, but the Bagram airfield – where Tanai’s co-conspirator, air defence commander Abdul-Qadir Aqa, was holed out, fell in the Shamali area at his jurisdiction. Eventually the coup was crushed, with Tanai, Aqa, and other conspirators escaping to Pakistan.

While Hikmatyar rued his narrow defeat, the other mujahideen groups vented their spleen. How could he constantly bicker with them, they raged, but cut a deal with as inveterate an enemy of the mujahideen as Tanai? The move was controversial enough for much of Hizb’s leadership, including its military commander Muhammad Hanif, to break away; but Hikmatyar remained defiantly confident that his ploy of aiming for the capital was the key to victory. Soon he had amassed a standing army, with considerable Pakistani support, in the Logar region to Kabul’s south under the command of Agha Abu-Bakar, a hardline Hizb ideologue. The regime duly dispatched Dostum to attack this region, but he could not dislodge Abu-Bakar.

An uneasy rapprochement now prevailed between Hizb and the other groups; but in 1992, the race for the capital once more kicked off. Uneasy at his reliance on the predatory militia, Najibullah had banished Dostum’s troops from Kabul and now sought to court the Khalqis in order to prevent another coup. This in turn outraged his own Parcham party as well as the militias, who interpreted his outreach to the predominantly Pashtun Khalqis as an ethnic conspiracy to limit their autonomy. In early 1992, Dostum and other militia leaders made contact with the mostly non-Pashtun Jamiat fronts in the north and turned over several key cities, including Mazari Sharif.

This northern coalition between Islamist rebels and communist militias – the core of an on-off marriage of convenience that would later become known internationally as the Northern Front – were controversial, and Hikmatyar in particular bayed for an end to this apparent treachery. Even though his oft-collaborator, the Shia leader Abdul-Ali Mazari, tried to persuade him to send Farid as a representative on the coalition, Hizb would make maximalist opposition to Dostum and other communist militia a cornerstone of its politics in the ensuing year.

The summary collapse of the north caught both the regime and the mujahideen factions by surprise. While negotiations for an interim handover of power commenced, the regime basically fragmented along ethnic lines in April 1992. As Najibullah narrowly escaped to the United Nations compound, much of the largely Persian-speaking Parcham party joined Massoud and Dostum’s coalition; much of the Khalq party joined Hikmatyar. Most of the defectors were officials and officers who had only recently bitterly fought against the mujahideen. But the increasing role of ethnicity in the communist defections was illustrated in Najibullah’s surviving lieutenants who tried to turn over power; the Persian-speaking Abdul-Wahid Surabi insisted on turning over the government to Massoud while the Pashtun Abdul-Rahim Hatif opted to surrender to Hikmatyar.

A later meeting between Massoud and Hikmatyar, conducted on the eve of their struggle for the capital, epitomized their contrasting views: Massoud claimed that the Parchamis’ collapse would remove the need for a violent takeover, Hikmatyar insisted that the communists had to be removed first and ethnic divisions contained; he minimized the remaining influence of the Khalqis who had joined him as irrelevant has-beens, and Hizb at least claims that he disdained the former defence minister Muhammad Rafi, among the Pashtun Khalqis who had surrendered to him.

Perhaps partly to preempt ethnic arguments, Hikmatyar had commissioned his Tajik lieutenant Abdul-Sabur Farid with Hizb’s race to the capital ahead of Nazar. The party had enjoyed a major constituency around the capital, and though the official advance included commanders of other mujahideen parties in the region it was a firmly Hizb-led venture. The enormous operation required both stealth, speed, and subtlety; virtually Hizb’s entire corps in the region was assembled for the operation, with Farid dispatching his lieutenants Abdul-Jalil Shafaqyar, Fatah Muhammad, and Abdul-Karim Abid to seize strongpoints in the capital. Other prongs advancing into the capital from the south and west were led by such battle-hardened commanders as Agha Abu-Bakar, Amanullah Khougman, Sayed Wahidyar, Fayiz Muhammad, and Hizb spymaster Haji Ihsanullah; Amin Tariq assembled his troops on the northeast front, aiming to forestall his longstanding neighbour-cum-rival Massoud from approaching the capital first.

The move worked; within hours Abdul-Sabur Farid’s force had captured Kabul and most of its strongpoints, just beating Massoud and Dostum’s troops to the punch. Hizb military commander Abdul-Salam Hashimi also arrived to oversee the emotive moment. After fourteen years in communist hands, and some twenty years after the Islamists had first opposed Daud, Kabul had finally been taken. Farid had the honour of conducting the last assault on the communist regime, and that he has been written out of most subsequent history owes largely to what immediately followed.

The Hizb conquest was viewed with alarm not only by Massoud and Dostum but also by the mujahideen leaders in Pakistan, who balked at Hikmatyar’s unilateralism. They suspected him, unsurprisingly given his history, of attempting to seize power for Hizb. Pakistan, whose historical support to Hikmatyar did not extend to such a unilateral takeover, themselves hurriedly arranged the Peshawar Accord between the mujahideen leaders; it stipulated an interim government with Mujaddidi as ruler, Hikmatyar as prime minister, and Massoud as defence minister.

Hikmatyar’s rejection of the Peshawar Accord, which minimized his military takeover, gave Massoud and Dostum their opportunity to strike – now on behalf of the official government. Only two days later, Nazar and the militias mounted a devastatingly swift assault that almost entirely eradicated Hizb’s takeover. The operation was led for Dostum by Abdul-Majeed Rouzi, who had helped thwart the coup against Najibullah two years earlier, and the army officer Humayun Fauzi; it was led for Massoud by his crafty Nuristani advisor, Doctor Abdul-Rahman, who had masterminded the northern coalition. Nazar forces infiltrated Hizb’s thin defences before both groups struck, catching Hizb entirely unawares. Within a day they had wrested almost the entire capital, to Hikmatyar’s furious astonishment. Cheated of his defining triumph, the Hizb emir would spend the next three years in a costly attempt to reclaim it.

Massoud and Dostum entered Kabul; they could now claim to be acting on behalf of the mujahideen government, and the support of both Nazar and the Parchami defectors was vital to the early stability of the capital. Mujaddidi arrived to form a government, but when he dismissed the idea of an election in any short order he was chased out of Kabul by an assassination attempt that he initially blamed on Hikmatyar – meeting a scornful denial – but would later blame on Massoud. That brought in the Jamiat emir Burhanuddin Rabbani at the helm of another government. The Ikhwani groups, Hizb and Jamiat, could now have cooperated, and in a measure of goodwill Hikmatyar nominated Abdul-Sabur Farid, with whom Massoud had worked amicably in the past, to serve as prime minister.

Within weeks, however, the mujahideen coalition had fallen apart. Hikmatyar claims that Farid had reported to him a meeting where Rabbani had revealed his intentions for a Persian-dominated regime – since the government’s three most important posts were held by Tajiks. Such ethnocentrism apparently scandalized Farid, who refused this Tajik triumvirate outright. Certainly as of summer 1992 Kabul was dominated by Tajiks – along with Rabbani, Farid, and Massoud, there were the former Parchami generals Nabi Azimi and army commander Asif Dilawar. Whether it was the nucleus of an intended Tajik ethnonationalism is less certain; it could well have been that Rabbani and Massoud planned to phase out the Tajik communists, and certainly other Pashtun and Uzbek mujahideen leaders did not seem to mind. It should also be kept in mind that both Hizb and Jamiat had an eye on events in newly independent neighbouring Tajikistan, where a popular revolt partly modelled on and supported by the Afghan mujahideen was underway.

Either way, at the summer’s end Hikmatyar objected to the continued presence of Dostum’s militia and communist remnants in Kabul and mounted a fearful bombardment of the capital, in which hundreds of people were killed – mostly militia according to Hizb, but mostly civilians according to their opponents. This episode more than anything cemented the Hizb emir’s reputation as the Butcher of Kabul, even though plenty of other leaders had and would engage in at least as destructive attacks. Hizb’s bombardment, supported only by Abdul-Ali Mazari’s Shia group, galled other mujahideen leaders and foreign powers and assured that Rabbani’s regime never left the ground.

Rabbani in turn dismissed his prime minister Abdul-Sabur Farid, who disappeared abroad – perhaps intending to lobby for Hizb. He returned to Afghanistan by the autumn briefly resurfaced in his home region and longstanding haunt to Kabul’s north; by now, however, this area was firmly under the control of Massoud’s Nazar lieutenant Bismillah Muhammadi, who accused Farid of trying to stir up a revolt here. If that was so, it was spectacularly unsuccessful; Farid was chased out of the region, and had to resort to selling his meagre belongings to escape; the sale of a camera bought him an escape to Peshawar.

In Kabul, meanwhile, mujahideen attempts to form a ceasefire – policed by Nur Agha, one of Farid’s non-Hizb collaborators in the conquest of Kabul – subsided. When Rabbani sacked the Parchami army commander Asif Dilawar, Hikmatyar saw it as a vindication of his cold-blooded tactics. He was not the only mujahideen veteran with misgivings about Rabbani and Massoud, but he was the only one in the critical first year of the regime to resort to violence. A short-lived, Pakistani-backed Islamabad Accord, which returned Hikmatyar to the prime ministry with Farid as his second-in-command, similarly faltered because of the mistrust between Hikmatyar and Massoud.

The next few years saw a number of coalitions emerge – including an unlikely marriage of convenience between Hikmatyar, Mazari, Dostum, and Mujaddidi – whose common point was enmity between Hizb and Jamiat. The most effective such coalition, however, appeared in 1994-95, when Rabbani and Massoud briefly backed the fledgling Taliban emirate that swept out Hizb from its stronghold to Kabul’s south. With Hikmatyar out of the way, Jamiat and the Taliban then turned on each other in another battle for the capital.

This latter conflict laid the ground for a long-last Ikhwani coalition of sorts between Rabbani and Hikmatyar. Mediated by the Pakistani Islamist leader Qazi Hussain, who had historic links with both Hizb and Jamiat, the two parties formed a coalition government in spring 1996. By this point they had lost most of Afghanistan to either the Taliban emirate or Dostum’s Junbish confederation of militias, and it was only this mortal peril that persuaded them to bury the hatchet, even if it was not buried very deep. In their coalition government, Farid was given the role of governor in his home Parwan province. In practice, however, this province remained and would remain under the effective control of Massoud’s Nazar troops for the next few years.

The Taliban conquest of Kabul in autumn 1996 broke the Ikhwani coalition; Jamiat withdrew to Massoud’s stronghold of the northeast, where they would relentlessly ambush Taliban troops over the next few years. But although Farid was nominally the coalition governor of the battlefront in this period, he does not seem to have played any notable role; Hizb was, indeed, largely disinterested in the war between the Taliban on one end and the Jamiat-Junbish northern coalition on the other. Though nominal members of the Northern Front, they engaged in barely any campaigns, and such Hizb leaders as Hikmatyar and Farid largely stayed abroad. The area under Farid’s nominal governance was rather controlled by Massoud’s Nazar lieutenants – Bismillah Muhammadi, the former communists Abdul-Wahid Babajan and Asif Dilawar, and spymaster Qasim Fahim. In summer 1999 it was the site of a tragic Taliban scorched-earth campaign when, exasperated with repeated ambushes in the green farmlands, the emirate set the plain ablaze.

Farid’s home region remained the frontline until the United States’ invasion in support of the Northern Front against the Taliban emirate in autumn 2001, at which point Hizb – in typically unilateral fashion – pulled out from the coalition and joined the Taliban in insurgency. This was, if anything, a more principled stance than their previous coalitions, but it meant that the United States, always suspicious of Hikmatyar, was now turned on his group.

Hizb had shrunk to a shadow of its former self by this point – many of its commanders had broken away – but that did not make the American dragnet any more discerning. The security forces of the new government were entirely controlled by the Panjsheri commanders of the Northern Front; with Massoud having been assassinated just prior to the United Nations’ invasion, his successors lacked his penchant for flamboyant chivalry and instead opted to settle old scores. When Massoud’s longstanding lieutenant Doctor Abdul-Rahman, who had masterminded the takeover of Kabul from Abdul-Sabur Farid in 1992, opted instead to switch his support to the Americans’ preferred ruler, Hamid Karzai, he was lynched in what Karzai claimed was a Nazar conspiracy. Hizb veterans were also targeted for assassination or manhunts on a few occasions.

Hikmatyar had evaded American pursuit and reached Pakistan as an exile. There he was joined by Abdul-Sabur Farid, Haji Ihsanullah, and other longstanding lieutenants. By the mid-2000s Karzai, trying to broaden his constituency and lessen his reliance on the Panjsheris, received a message from a group of Hizb commanders led by Khalid Farouqi, formerly the Hizb commander for southeast Afghanistan and the party’s liaison in Kashmir. The group included Farid, and agreed to lay down its arms in return for amnesty and political participation. Initially uncertain of the government’s guarantee, Farid remained in Pakistan for months, but eventually joined Farouqi at Kabul during December 2005 where Karzai promoted him to the senate. This was a typical move for Karzai, who tended to fill mujahideen veterans in advisory roles that lacked practical clout.

Either way, early caution was well justified. In May 2007 – some fifteen years after he led its takeover – Abdul-Sabur Farid was shot in the Afghan capital. Though mourned by Hizb, by some other mujahideen, and by his local community, the shortlived prime minister is almost unknown outside the country. The triumph with which he had led the mujahideen conquest of Kabul, which was poised to be a historically significant moment, had been obscured by too much subsequent tumult, much of it outside his ability to influence.References. I have relied on Ikram Sehgal’s Defence Journal, some articles of which are available online, in my profile for Naseerullah Babar. For Salaheddin Badi, I strongly recommend Wolfram Lacher’s Libya’s Fragmentation: Structure and process in violent conflict (IB Tauris, 2020) as well as other works by Lacher and by Jalel Harchaoui, whom I have been fortunate to personally consult. On Abdul-Sabur Farid, I have relied partly on Halim Tanwir’s Afghanistan: History, diplomacy, and journalism (Research and Reconstruction Institute of Afghanistan, 2012) and also consulted with the fine reporter Fazelminallah Qazizai.

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