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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.

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part Ten

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Issue Ten

Ibrahim Moiz, full rights reserved

May 2021

After a busy spring I have resumed service. This month features military adventurers from three new arenas – Jordan, Bosnia, and Chechnya. I shall for the record reiterate that these are not hagiographies but profiles of the military adventurers in question; that is to say, they are not necessarily endorsements, but rather explorations of said chaps. There are some military adventurers I loathe, and others I admire, and yet others who are rather ambiguous in my opinion. I begin and end the article, as ever, in the Name of Allah without Whose decree neither leaf is moved nor land conquered.

Habis Mujalli. Jordan. The early Jordanian state was a complex mixture of royal centralism and clan interest, military discipline and partisan politics, Arabian gallantry and British fealty, and – most strikingly – transnational ambition and Jordanian particularism. Built in the Levant’s harshest eastern sector off the back of a British-backed bedouin revolt, the Jordanian crown was especially reliant on its British-founded but essentially Arabian military, one whose claims to Arabo-Islamic nationalism not infrequently came second to its essential dependency on outside, non-Muslim, powers. Few figures epitomized and influenced Jordan’s contradictions so thoroughly as its daring bedouin military commander, Field Marshal Sheikh Habis Rufaifan Khadra Mujalli, whose military career went from fighting the recently founded Israeli state to fighting its Palestinian opposition, with a ruthless loyalty to the Hashimi crown its common point.

Habis hailed from a notable Transjordanian clan near Karak, which would spawn several leading servants of the Jordanian regime including several prime ministers. Always proud of his desert roots, he was in some ways the typical recruit in the Jordanian army during the 1930s. At that point Transjordan was a British protectorate to an even greater extent than its Hashimi neighbour, Iraq, and the army was in effect an Arabian paramilitary division for the British empire. Cobbled together from the ground up by a British commander, Bagot Glubb, it largely drew on the Transjordanian clans from the arid eastern Levant, seen as more loyal to Hashimi monarch Abdullah I bin Hussein than the rest of the Levant. Glubb, a fatherly if patronizing partner to the Arabs, never forgot his ultimate commitment to British imperialism.

Britain’s main conflicts in the region during the period involved the controversial and charismatic mufti of Jerusalem, Amin Hussaini. This populist notable assisted first the 1936-39 Palestinian revolt, which largely involved peasants and preachers in the Holy Land, and when that was repressed he escaped to Germany as their client in the Second World War. In spring 1941 Hussaini assisted a pro-German coup by Iraqi nationalists against Abdullah’s nephew in Baghdad, Abdulelah bin Ali. It took British help, directed from Transjordan under Glubb’s leadership, to help quash the revolt and restore the crown. Not surprisingly, there was no love lost between Abdullah – who saw the British empire as a guarantor of a rule that he hoped would eventually extend over the entire Levant – and Hussaini.

In the circumstances, Hussaini’s hostility to Britain was more realistic. London supported the Transjordanian monarchy, but had no intention of letting it rule the entire Levant to become an uncontrollable partner. In 1917, as they had conquered the Levant, Britain had promised the Zionist movement in Europe a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Thus in the 1940s, as it prepared its withdrawal from the region, Britain had to juggle the interests of several vassals – the Hashimi monarchies of Iraq and Transjordan, its separate protectorate in monarchic Masr, and the Zionist movement. In the final analysis, it was the latter that they preferred.

Hussaini – who, in spite of his ruthless ambitions, was genuinely the most popular leader at the Palestinian grassroots and led a putative government-in-exile – led one among several loosely organized Arab militias in a six-month war against the Zionist militias. That culminated with the defeat of the former and the declaration of Israel as a newly independent state in May 1948. The fledgling Arab states now swooped in with their own hastily assembled militaries. Yet – with the partial exception of Masr, which retained the Ghazza strip in southern Palestine – none made any impression except the Jordanian army under Glubb’s command.

The Arab officers under Glubb’s tutelage performed impressively. Most notably, Abdullah Tal rescued the beleaguered Muslim garrison in East Jerusalem, but Habis Mujalli also had his first taste of serious command. With eastern Jerusalem under Muslim and western Jerusalem under Jewish control, the northwesterly road leading out of Jerusalem assumed strategic importance, since it linked the Israelis to supplies from their capital Tel Aviv. Habis led a force, comprising both Jordanian troops and Bedouin fighters, that took control of this road and the fort commanding it. In spite of several major Israeli attacks, the Jordanians held out and soon Israel abandoned any hope for East Jerusalem. Along with the remaining West Bank of the Jordanian river – including such towns as Nablus, Ramullah, and Ramleh – this was incorporated into Jordanian control.

Glubb’s decision to leave the Jordanian campaign at that was widely resented by Palestinians and even Abdullah himself, but – satisfied with a public humiliation of the British commander – the Jordanian monarch contented himself with incorporating the Palestinians into his realm. If he could not have the entire Levant, he was satisfied with both banks of the Jordan river. The situation also ultimately satisfied Britain, who could leverage two competing vassals – Israel and Jordan – against each other, a situation that would prevail through the 1950s. This was in turn helped by Israel’s provocative border probes.

Abdullah’s priority was extending Hashimi influence into Syria – in which pursuit he also sent troops to southern Syria when Israel probed into the Houly valley during spring 1951. Sensing his influence on the upswing, the Jordanian monarch was in buoyant mood on a trip to the Aqsa mosque in July 1951. Habis Mujalli, who had by now been promoted to captain his praetorian guard, anxiously hovered about as Abdullah jostled among worshippers. In an irritated retort that reflected the pristine eloquence of his forebears, Abdullah snapped, “Don’t lock me up, Habis” – Habis meaning in Arabic one who locks up – and Habis hurriedly withdrew. Moments later, an assassin had shot Jordan’s founder dead.

Habis and the enraged guards killed the assassin on the spot, but his identity bespake the unresolved tensions still bubbling in the Hashimi realm. Mustafa Ashou was a Palestinian refugee who had found work in Jordan; like many compatriots, he understandably suspected that Abdullah had undermined the Palestinian cause in favour of his own ambitions. He was also suspected to have been hired by the Hashimis’ archrival Amin Hussaini, the mufti then based in Cairo. The following years would see increasing tension between such Palestinians – who, along with the Jordanian middle class, were increasingly drawn toward republican ideologies opposed to the monarchy – and Transjordanian clansmen such as Habis who were loyal to the crown. It was such tensions that Abdullah’s grandson Hussein bin Talal, who took over the following summer, would have to manage in addition to Jordan’s now more defensive stance with regard to its neighbours.

Hussein’s ascension coincided roughly with the ouster of the rival Masri monarchy to a republican military junta. By the mid-1950s, Gamal Abdel-Nasser had secured himself as its dictator, and in addition as a serious threat to colonial aspirations in the region. In the prevalent mood that gripped Masr and much of the Levant by the late 1950s, Jordan’s dependence on Britain rendered it an obvious colonial lackey. In fact Hussein was not inimically opposed to the anticolonial stance at first – he very publicly sacked Glubb and even unsuccessfully urged Jordanian involvement in the Masri war against Israel, Britain, and France – but in the final analysis, his regime’s safety took priority. He was urged in this direction by his family – his mother, Zain bint Jamil, and her brother Nasir, who took over the praetorian guard – as well as by conservative quarters such as the Mujalli family.

By the late 1950s, Jordan hoped to get both Britain and the increasingly assertive United States in its quarter. Sulaiman Nabulsi had just been voted in as prime minister at the helm of a broadly pro-Masr cabinet, and with Glubb’s ouster the army command had gone to Ali Abu-Nuwar, an ambitious veteran of the Palestine war. Though both had rejected Hussein’s wish to fight in the 1956 war, they were considered dangerously close to Masr and thus a threat to the monarchy. In April 1957 Hussein sacked Nabulsi and then, quite theatrically, Abu-Nuwar – whom he accused of having plotted a coup and exiled to Syria. There Abu-Nuwar was joined within days by his successor, Ali Hiyari, who defected and accused Hussein of having contrived a drama to get Western support. Unfazed, Hussein promoted Habis Mujalli to serve as army commander – a genuine royalist with contempt for such revolutionary fervour as was gripping the region at that point.

If the Abu-Nuwar affair had been contrived, threats to the monarchy certainly were not as republican ideologues and army officers throughout the region conspired to bring down the Western-backed monarchs. The union of Masr and Syria into the United Republic during February 1958 was contrived by, and emboldened, such officers. Hussein and his Iraqi cousins tried to match it with a far more feebly received union between their countries just days later, but it was clear that this was more an attempt to one-up the republicans than genuine proactive union. By the summer Hussein, credibly suspecting assassination attempts and a coup plot by army officer Mahmoud Rousan, had called in a British force to safeguard the palace against further threats.

Hussein’s fear was well-founded; in July 1958, the union came apart with emphatic savagery when a military coup led by Abdul-Karim Qasim, an Iraqi veteran of the Palestine war, murdered the Iraqi monarchy. Ironically, Qasim’s brigade had been ordered to proceed westward from its Baqubah base to protect Jordan; instead, he stopped at Baghdad and effected a coup. It was accompanied with savage mob violence over which the mutineers had no control; in addition to lynching regent Abdulelah bin Ali and hated prime minister Nuri Saeed, they also summarily murdered two Jordanian ministers, both of Palestinian origin, who had been in Baghdad at the moment: Ibrahim Hashim, a former prime minister who had also governed the West Bank, and Sulaiman Tuqan. The only survivor was Habis’ second-in-command in the army, Sadiq Sharaa, who watched the horror from an inn window.

A shocked Hussein bin Talal tried to seize control of the situation; he announced that with his cousins dead, he was now in charge of both Iraq and Jordan, with Habis Mujalli in charge of their militaries. But any royalist influence in Iraq had been bloodily purged, and Britain was unwilling to support a risky Jordanian attack on Iraq. Exasperated, Hussein’s uncle Nasir bin Jamil and Habis contented themselves with rounding up suspected republicans in the army. Their suspicions reached as far as Habis’ own second-in-command, Sadiq Sharaa, although they could not yet move against him.

Now clearly under republican threat, Hussein took some comfort in his cooption by the United States. Regarding the embattled monarch as the “Brave Young King” against radicalism, Washington furnished Jordan with military support. This was welcomed by both the prime minister Samir Rifai and by the leading military officers – Habis Mujalli, Sadiq Sharaa, and Nasir bin Jamil. However, Sharaa – who had good links to the United States after spending some years there – was encouraged enough to overplay his hand. Even while Hussein was touring the United States in spring 1959 – at the same point as Iraq was suffering a United Republic-backed mutiny – his sergeants-in-arms at home, Habis and Nasir, arrested Sharaa for having planned a coup.

It was only years later that Sharaa confessed to planning a coup, and at first prime minister Rifai tried to exonerate him. Without a professional officer like Sharaa, he argued, the army would sink into a morass of competing tribal cliques. By arguing on this line, Rifai jeopardized his own position in palace politics. Both Nasir bin Jamil and his sister, the dowager Zain, insisted on Sharaa’s dismissal, and in May 1959 Habis himself delivered an ultimatum that forced the prime minister to resign. The beneficiary was Habis’ cousin, Hazzaa, a staunch royalist and longstanding rival of Rifai.

With the dismissal of both Sharaa and Rifai – who had advocated a cautious coexistence with Jordan’s Arab neighbours – the hardline royalists were on the upswing. Their stance was far closer to that traditionally taken by Britain, which looked askance at regional republicanism. There was no principle in the stance taken by such figures as Nasir bin Jamil, a brutal and unsavoury character; he had no problem with military domination in politics – but only as a servant of the royal family to which he belonged, not its rival. And thus they were constantly on the lookout for pretexts to attack either Baghdad, where their cousins had been brutally extinguished, or Damascus, which was now a front for Cairo.

An opportunity came in October 1959, when Iraqi Baathists – including a young street thug called Saddam Hussein – attempted to assassinate Abdul-Karim Qasim, leaving him badly injured. Sensing vulnerability, Nasir urged an attack on Baghdad that, similar to 1941, would restore the monarchy. But on this occasion, Britain was unwilling to countenance such a policy. In summer 1960, a more successful assassination attempt put Jordan again on the warpath, when prime minister Hazzaa Mujalli was assassinated by a Palestinian shopkeeper called Salah Fourani.

The Jordanian establishment was incensed at Hazzaa’s murder – none more so than his cousin Habis. They imprisoned a merchant called Zakaria Tahir, accusing him of financing the murder, but blamed the entire plan on Syrian spymaster Burhan Adham. For Habis, Nasir bin Jamil, defence minister Akif Fayiz, and even Hussein – who snarled at the British ambassador that he could not be satisfied until the culprits were torn apart in the same way that they had slain his prime minister – the option was clear: an invasion of Syria to wrest it from Masr’s control. Habis readied the troops on the western border – commanded by, among others, his Mujalli cousins Abdullah and Atif – for the assault, but once more Western refusal to support such a conflagration thwarted their plans. Not until the next summer, when they killed one of Tahir’s kinsmen in revenge, were the Mujallis satisfied.

His loyalty to the crown explains Habis’ long stint as army commander – by the point he stepped down in October 1967, he had served over ten years. Habis’ command ended on a sour note, when the West Bank was lost to Israel in the six-day war. Rubbing salt to the wound was that the Jordanian army had not been in charge of its own campaign; rather, in line with a hastily assembled joint defence pact, they were put under the charge of a Masri commander, Abdel-Monem Riad, who would liaise between them and Cairo. In his own right a capable enough officer, Riad lacked local knowledge and was ultimately subservient to a wildly politicized, inaccurate stream of propaganda coming from Masri headquarters that bore no resemblance to the military situation. He repeatedly turned down his Jordanian staff’ advice in favour of Masri orders, and on one occasion Habis’ clansmate Atif was so exasperated that he flung his headdress to the ground and stomped from the command tent.

The very failure of the Masr coalition rendered cooperation between the Arab states more necessary, and so the royalist camp were in decline by the point Habis resigned as army commander. He was promoted to the relatively ceremonial defence minister’s position, and watched as his successor Amer Khammash – in line with Masri and Syrian policy – supported the Palestinian militants, or fidayin, who, long mistrusted by the Arab capitals, were now proving effective hit-and-run attackers in an attritional border war.

The watershed had been the battle of Karameh in spring 1968, when Palestinian commander Yasser Arafat famously stood down an Israeli assault on a Palestinian camp. Though Jordanian troops grudgingly pointed out that the role of the Jordanian field commander, Mashhour Haditha, had been at least as important, the Palestinians’ resilience provoked widespread admiration and considerable hype, with even Hussein bin Talal shedding his earlier inhibitions to proclaim that everybody in Jordan were fidayin. In turn the emboldened fidayin became more assertive, and in seeking to construct a base on the border with Israel developed into an unstable “state” within the Jordanian state; it was not lost on royalists that mostly leftist extremists within the fidayin ranks, though not Arafat and his dominant Fatah group themselves, were increasingly advocating the overthrow of the Jordanian monarchy. Finally, fidayin raids gave Israel pretexts to launch traditionally devastating raids into Jordanian territory.

Habis Mujalli and other royalists such as Nasir bin Jamil watched these developments with mounting unease. As tension increased, Hussein signalled a policy shift by promoting his uncle to army commander in place of Khammash. In defending his family’s interests against dissidents within Jordan, Nasir was in his element, and by hook or crook escalated the conflict. Both Habis and Nasir served on Hussein’s secret council of advisors tasked with limiting fidayin influence; by 1970, their strategy was clearly one of escalation.

Violence between the army and the fidayin in summer 1970, accompanied by Iraqi threats, forced Hussein to replace Nasir as army commander with Mashhour Haditha, the celebrated Karameh veteran who was well-respected by the Palestinians. He also promoted to prime minister Abdul-Munim Rifai, the brother of former prime minister Samir; both appointments were meant to placate Arafat. Yet as Arafat and Hussein “reconciled”, the hardliners within their coalitions escalated, and when Hussein survived an alleged assassination attempt at Amman in September 1970 the army swung into action. Though Rifai and Mashhour both resigned, Hussein was unconcerned and brought out the hardliners. In turn the Palestinians announced a “revolutionary” government, largely comprising longstanding Jordanian dissidents including Mahmoud Rousan, who had plotted a coup twelve years earlier. Hussein, meanwhile, announced military law and brought Habis Mujalli out of “retirement” to serve as governor-general in charge of the army. Having begun his career fighting against Israel, Habis was now ending it fighting the Palestinians.

The short, bloody campaign of September 1970 ended with a thumping Jordanian victory. Not only were the Palestinians crushed, but a Syrian invasion in their support was also soundly routed by the instrument Hussein had long craved – an effective airforce. Viewing their triumph with grim exhilaration, the Jordanian royalists were in no mood to let up. In spite of a ceasefire which their opponents largely honoured, a new Jordanian cabinet – led by Wasfi Tal, a Palestinian veteran of the 1948 war who particularly championed the regime’s interests – continued to quietly advance. By July 1971, the last vestiges of Palestinian militia in Jordan had been extinguished.  

Jordan’s royalists did not too much mind the fact that the Arab world, including their traditional royal allies in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, were galled at the war. For the next few years, however, Amman largely remained in political isolation among the Arab states. Habis played a tangential role in a redemptive episode, when a small Jordanian unit rushed to the assistance of Syria and Masr in the 1973 war, but its effect was so minor that it hardly changed attitudes.

In his retirement, Habis took to recollecting his military years with some satisfaction. A regular member of Hussein’s senior advisors until he passed away in 2001, he did not mince his words at Israel; the brutal rightwing Israeli general-turned-politician, Ariel Sharon, was a uniquely loathed bane for the Arabs, but Habis dismissed him disdainfully – claiming, plausibly, that he had captured him in 1948 and considered him of no consequence. Nonetheless, Habis’ defining career path was neither opposition to Israel, nor opposition to the Palestinians, nor to any single Arab regime. Rather it was a career marked by unflinching, ruthless loyalty toward the interests of the Jordanian crown; Habis would fight against anybody who appeared to threaten Amman.

Naser Oric. Brigadier Naser Oric. Bosnia.

The bloody breakup of the Yugoslavia federation in the 1990s saw a wave of ethnic cleansing, genocidal atrocity, and assorted war crimes that hit Bosnia, the westernmost successor-state, hardest from the lot. The violence – largely precipitated by Bosnia’s neighbours, the Serb-ethnonationalist Yugoslav regime in Belgrade and the Croat-ethnonationalist regime in Zagreb – saw tens of thousands of mainly Muslim Bosnians or Bosniaks expelled or killed in what became the most infamous war of post-World War European history. The fact that the United Nations and European Union, failed to back up their rhetoric and essentially blockaded Bosnia meant that its defenders were forced to resort at various points to unlikely champions of questionable repute – whose own notoriety became vastly exaggerated in an attempt to equivocate between the different sides in the war. This was nowhere better epitomized than in the case of Brigadier Naser Oric, the brash policeman-turned-commander who led the siege of the important border town, Srebrenica, for most of the war.

For much of the Cold War, Yugoslavia had been viewed with grudging respect by both East and West as a neutral actor of some ability. Founded by anti-Nazi communist militias from the Second World War, it had nonetheless – unlike its neighbours in Eastern Europe – avoided the embrace of the Soviet Union in the war’s aftermath and become a fairly functional, if flawed, multiethnic federation between several different ethnolinguistic groups. In the 1970s and 1980s, however, an increasingly moribund regime’s narrative was challenged by ethnonationalists of various stripes – among them Croatian nationalists, Serbian nationalists, and even Albanian irredentists who wanted to attach Yugoslavia’s smallest, Albanian-majority Kosovo province to Albania.

In this respect Bosniak politics was mainly unusual for its aversion to ethnopolitics. This Muslim-majority western province included Bosniaks as well as a hefty number of ethnic Croats and Serbs; moreover, unlike the other Muslim-majority province Kosovo it had no neighbouring state on which to fall back. Leading Bosniak intellectuals such as the Islamist Alija Izetbegovic and the secularist Adil Zulfikarpasic tended to adhere to non-ethnic ideologies that saw no contradiction between their Muslim background and coexistence. Unfortunately, ethnopolitics was rampant elsewhere in Yugoslavia. It was whipped up in particular by Slobodan Milosevic, who took over in 1989 and reinvented himself from communist bureaucrat to blustering Serbian ethnonationalist. Milosevic’s rabble-rousing chauvinism, initially directed mainly against the Kosovar Albanians, was to bring Yugoslavia crashing in the 1990s. In 1991, Slovenia and Croatia violently broke away; in spring 1992, a largely reactive Bosnia followed suit.

In order to retain as much of its former territory as possible, Milosevic’s regime in Belgrade promoted Serb irredentists in Bosnia – led by Raduvan Karadzic, a sinister doctor with a flair for the barely-veiled threat – and supported their attempt to break away from Bosnia and form their own statelet, the so-called Srpska republic. In the process, Bosnia’s mixed population would have to be violently remanaged to expel non-Serbs from the areas that Srpska claimed.

Naser Oric was somewhat typical of Bosniak citizens, if not of their leaders, in that politics did not overly concern him. Ironically enough, indeed, he had begun his career very much as a professional in the Yugoslav establishment, working as a security guard and police officer. In fact, Oric served as Milosevic’s bodyguard at Kosovo in summer 1989, where the Yugoslav dictator whipped up Serbian chauvinism in his most infamous speech. Nor did Oric have much compunction about working in an interior ministry thereafter. In spring 1991, when Milosevic’s opponents – led by Vuk Draskovic, who shared Milosevic’s Serbian chauvinism but not his propensity toward violence – demonstrated, Oric participated in the crackdown. He was not particularly concerned about ideology or principle; foremost a man of action, it was this quality that would make him invaluable to the Bosnian cause.

In spring 1992 Bosnia declared independence. Within weeks Karadzic’s Srspka enclave, heavily equipped by Belgrade and bolstered by ethnically Serbian defectors within Bosnia, challenged them and made an attempt at their own independence. In the process Serbian militias inside Bosnia, who had long prepared for this moment, began “cleansing” operations to expunge their areas from non-Serbs, with Muslims targeted for especial savagery. Across Bosnia’s eastern border, paramilitaries also poured in from Serbia to join in.

Naser Oric had been working as a police officer in Srebrenica, the border town in the Drina valley that marked the easternmost extent of Srpska ambitions. He had not missed the recent polarization or its implications, and had some weeks after Bosnia’s independence withdrawn into the countryside to prepare a militia for this strategic town placed on the border between Bosnia, Serbia, and the Srpska project. Sure enough, in April 1992 a gaggle of Serbian militias converged on and seized Srebrenica. As elsewhere, the Muslims were targeted for special slaughter, but the Serbian townsmen also found their property vulnerable to the attackers’ plunder.

In May 1992, Oric pounced. The Serbian militia commander for Srebrenica, Goran Zedic, was killed in a roadside ambush before the Bosniak fighters around the town attacked. They caught the Serbian garrison entirely by surprise and quickly seized the town. This was a sharp blow against Milosevic and Karadzhic’s aspirations; the retention of a sizeable Bosnian enclave in the borderlands disrupted their operations, and so the surrounding Serbian forces – now mustered in a makeshift Srspka army led by Ratko Mladic – laid siege to Srebrenica.

In spite of the hardships that ensued, morale in the town improved. Part of this owed to Oric’s strutting charisma; while he was soon coopted into Bosnia’s army, he was to practical purposes independent, and mustered a bravado that heartened the defenders. The Bosniaks would never leave Srebrenica whatever the pressure, he was fond of announcing: they would not follow the fate of the Palestinians.

Certainly Oric’s contribution should not be underestimated. The Serb campaign in the Drina valley uprooted hundreds of villages and expelled hundreds of thousands of mainly Bosniak residents; over fifty thousand entered Srebrenica. In order to replenish supplies, Oric would take repeatedly to mounting raids into Serb-controlled territory. The most notable such raid came in early 1993, at a point when the United Nations’ mission was just entering Bosnia. Scores of Serbs – mostly fighters, but perhaps a dozen civilians – were killed in this particular sweep, and their houses looted for food.

There was no equivalence between such desperate raids, in which the overwhelming majority of casualties were fighters, and the systemic expulsion, rape, and slaughter of mainly civilian Bosniaks by Serb militants. Nonetheless, Serbian propaganda seized upon this to vilify Oric as a murderous butcher, and to this day it is common to find accounts of the war, attempting to flex their neutrality, displaying Oric as the Muslim equivalent of Serbian war criminals.

This was compounded by the United Nations mission’s own dislike of Oric. In typical fashion too late to actually achieve anything besides damage control, the United Nations was already irritated at Bosnia’s subversion of an arms embargo that would have left it to the fickle mercy of better-armed neighbours in Belgrade and Zagreb. European states had largely been content to let the Bosnian war peter out – it was a painfully realistic necessity to retain Christian Europe, preached Britain, while France questioned Bosnia’s right to be counted as a European country – and it had largely been the energy of a United States spying a vacuum in the Balkans that had pushed Western countries into any action. Even so, this action was grudging and its executors, largely Western European officials and officers resentful at independent Bosnian actions, were quick to pounce at anything that might appear objectionable on Sarajevo’s end.

In the bombastic Naser Oric they found plenty to criticize, much of it failing to take into account the circumstances in which Srebrenica had held out. One such criticism was his link to the black market – as if legitimate trade could flourish under a siege – and another his breakout raids. But fundamentally, United Nations officials and officers, and any number of journalists in this period, seemed to have disliked Oric’s comportment and what he represented: Bosnians who would not lie down as perfect victims awaiting their international saviours, but fight.

The dislike was nowhere stronger than with Philippe Morillon, the French commander of a peacekeeping force. He tried to match Oric’s popularity – apparently moved at seeing the plight of the Srebrenica residents, he proclaimed, to suitable applause from foreign observers, that he would never abandon them. His dislike for Oric was such that, years later under oath, he would partially credit the infamous slaughter of some eight thousand Bosniaks by Ratko Mladic’s troops to Oric’s conduct in preceding years, clearly ignoring the vast disparity in scale and nature.

Neither Oric nor Morillon were around to see Srebrenica through to the bitter end. This had partly to do with events in the broader region; in 1993, war broke out between Bosnia and a Croatia that, having hitherto supported Sarajevo, made secret contact with Mladic in order to partition Bosnia between them. This shifted the bulk of the conflict away from eastern Bosnia and up to the north and west. After this particularly bitter war-within-a-war, which the United States brought to an end in 1994, Sarajevo and Zagreb again joined forces and in 1995 planned a major campaign – indeed the war’s last major campaign – set for autumn 1995.

It was in this hullabulloo that, in May 1995, Oric was summoned to participate in the preparation. He left his second-in-command Ramiz Bekirovic in charge, yet neither Bekirovic nor the paltry United Nations force – a battalion of Dutch troops – could withstand a full-fledged assault by Mladic that finally burst through Srebrenica’s defence in July 1995. Waxing arrogant, Mladic celebrated his feat by rounding up every Bosniak man and boy he could find – over eight thousand fully told – and, a stone’s throw away from United Nations peacekeepers who had clearly dishonoured their earlier promises, butchered them en masse.

Pride precedes a fall, and the joint Bosnian-Croatian assault that autumn broke the back of Mladic’s forces in Bosnia. The United States, now indisputably the favoured broker, arranged the Dayton Accord in December 1995 where Bosnia was to accept a trimmed, weakened independence – with an autonomous Serbian region that to this day thumbs its nose at Sarajevo – in return for peace. A few years later, Washington would intervene decisively in the Serbian war in Kosovo, extending the Nato mandate eastward and establishing itself, over both Russia and Europe, as the primary state broker in the region.

The publicized horror of the Yugoslav war and the newfound taste for international justice procedures meant that a public trial was held by the International Criminal Court for crimes in the Yugoslav wars, foremost Bosnia. While Sarajevo had no systemic criminals to boast in the nature that its neighbours had had, political expediency demanded an appearance of equity, and so Naser Oric was summoned to the court.

In the years after Srebrenica’s fall his villainy had been inflated beyond recognition in pro-Belgrade accounts, which attacked him as a bloodthirsty fundamentalist bent – in a neat projection of their own crimes – on ethnically cleansing the Serbs before – rather than departing for a routine military exercise – fleeing the town at the last moment (the latter claim has been repeated over and over with malicious glee by no shortage of reporters). This was the only way that such a crime as the Srebrenica massacre could be remotely justified, and – to their discredit – useful idiots such as Morillon, putting their personal dislikes before any semblance of justice, did their best to add to the prosecuting case.

Nonetheless Oric, who had cheerfully bluffed his way through war, bluffed his way through court. In the years in between the conflict and his summons, he had retired to run a fitness club in Tuzla, and had the occasional brush with the law. He took his trial in good humour, and was eventually exonerated and cleared of charges. Though the result will never satisfy the many quarters who wished for a Muslim villain to match Bosnia’s neighbours, the widespread popularity enjoyed by Srebrenica’s longstanding defender in his homeland is testament enough.

Doku Umarov. Chechnya.

In both its absurd premise and frequent abuse an arguable prelude to the Washington-led war on terror, the Russian reconquest of Chechnya in 1999-2000 and the counterinsurgency that dominated the  came to merge in rhetoric, justification, and analyses many of the same assumptions about a “war with radical Islamic militants” that underlaid its Western counterpart. This included, with the realization that a total war was unfeasible, the hopeful split of opposition into “Islamists” and “secularists”, and – where that failed, as in most places – splitting the former camp by sects. Yet the career of as seasoned a Russian bane as Engineer Brigadier Abu Usman Doku Khamatovich Umarov, emir of the Ichkeria insurgency and its putative successor the Kavkaz emirate, confounded such categorizations.

Noting the difference in background between the founder of the original Chechen insurgency – Dzhokhar Dudaev, a chancing former Soviet airforce general – and his successors in the second Chechen insurgency, many observers regardless of their stance on the war tended to split the Chechen militants into “secularist”, or “nationalist”, and “Islamist”, or “radical”, camps; one American author, Robert Schaefer, went so far as to differentiate between “Gazavat” – a traditional term for Islamic campaigns – and “jihad”, which he perceived in the same radical garb as the most extreme proponents.

Such talk, popular though it has been, is plainly muddled; not only, as the very much non-radical Chechen foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov explained in his 2010 memoir, did almost every Chechen, regardless of his personal practice, strongly identify with Islam – leaving very few “secularists” as it were – but again and again political actions and coalitions stymied such imagined faultlines. Little better was the sectarianized idea of “radical Wahhabis”, influenced by an influx of Arab fighters, versus “moderate Sufis”; while Wahhabis or Salafis were certainly present and increasingly influential in traditionally Sufi Chechen communities, the term “Wahhabi” was commonly and mostly inaccurately used by critics to describe any Muslim militancy, while Sufis and Salafis – both adherents of Sunni Islam – did not act as separate monoliths but often collaborated.

Doku Umarov’s career overrides such faultlines. The scion of the notable Malkoy clan – which also insulted the abovementioned Akhmadov and many other major characters in the Chechen conflict – he came from very much an ordinary background, mixing an engineering education with occasional prison stints, mostly for petty crime, as a youth. At some point in the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union was in collapse and Chechnya premier Dudaev was increasingly agitating for secession, Umarov became a more observant Muslim. He fought in the mid-1990s war that expelled the Russians and established the so-called Ichkeria emirate, a largely unrecognized parastate that was immediately beset with holdover problems from the war.

Dudaev earned his stripes in the liberation war; he had originally fought at a famed strike force founded by Khamzat Gelaev, but in around 1995 he left along with his friend Akhmed Zakayev to start another front. After Ichkeria’s independence, Zakayev ran alongside its emir Aslan Maskhadov in the February 1997 election, and thus became prime minister. Gelaev became defence minister, probably the second-most important military leader after the daring Shamil Basaev. And Dudaev was eventually promoted to serve as secretary-general in Maskhadov’s security council.

Such titles were less influential than they ought to have been, largely because the course of a war that had pummelled the Chechens brought with it the typical problems that linger after such wars. In a problem that directly concerned Dudaev because of his office, “state structures” tended to cover for coalitions of militias, who operated outside the state and only fleetingly bothered to cite its authority. Some were associated with the Salafi trend that had gained some traction in the 1990s, even before the war.

Outside observers initially – but wrongly – attributed this to the influence of Abu Saleh Khattab, a seasoned Saudi commander who had entered Chechnya mid-war and had become a close collaborator of Basaev and Gelaev. But, as foreign minister Ilyas Akhmadov pointed out, this was untrue; Khattab made no attempt to impose his Salafi doctrine on the Chechens, and when push came to shove he sided against the unruly Salafi militias. Rather the militias were associated with younger, ambitious, and not unusually unscrupulous Chechen adventurers for whom Salafi exceptionalism served as an easy route to flout societal authority; a considerable number of them were involved in both contraband and crime, earning hefty ransoms from abductions. Among the most infamous was Arbi Baraev, second-in-command of the official state paramilitary – in reality a number of competing militias – and a clansmate of Umarov. Perhaps because of their shared clan background and his own unruly youth, Umarov would in later years be repeatedly associated with Baraev – and repeatedly protested his innocence, declaring that a horse was a horse even if a rumourmonger called it a goat.

In 1998 Chechnya officially adopted shariah as its law; this was itself uncontroversial, but it ironically gave such militia commanders as Baraev an official license to flex their authority under the dubious guise of applying shariah. They were also well-connected in the region, and it was perhaps not a coincidence that in July 1998 – the same month as Salafi militants attempted a coup in the neighbouring, Russian-governed, Dagestan emirate – Baraev and his lieutenant Abdulmalik Medzhidov mutinied in the eastern town Gudermes. Umarov, whose job basically involved mediating between rival militias, was sacked after he proved unable to stop them. Instead, a battle ensued between the mutineers and troops loyal to Baraev’s boss, Magomed Khanbiev. Though the loyalists were backed by the Yamadaev militia, from a notable Sufi family that detested the Salafis, Abu Saleh Khattab’s Arab militia abstained from supporting the Salafi mutineers.

If Khattab and Basaev were loyal to the Ichkeria emirate, they were also increasingly irate at what was rightly perceived at Russian pressure on the emirate. The 1996 Khasavyurt Accord that had yielded Chechen independence had been wildly unpopular in Russia, and it was suspected – not without reason – that Moscow was officially and unofficially subverting Chechnya. Yet while Maskhadov’s solution – at which the embattled Ichkeria emir admittedly ultimately failed – was to avoid any misstep that could strengthen Russia’s case, for Basaev and Khattab the problem lay in the narrowness of the independent Chechen corridor. They increasingly believed that a liberation of the North Caucasus at large – especially Dagestan, its most prosperous province and the home of Basaev’s legendary namesake, nineteenth-century Imam Shamil – was necessary. This would be later put down to their supposedly expansionist “Salafi ideology” – though Basaev did not in fact follow this ideology – but in fact the reasons seem to have been as practical as anything. Basaev could point out that brazen faits-accompli had proven effective in the recent past – it had been his daring, commando-style raid into Grozny that had precipitated the Russian withdrawal in 1996 – and he now turned his sights on Dagestan.

In summer 1999, Basaev and Khattab mounted an invasion of Dagestan. Carried out with only a few hundred fighters, who expected to be welcomed as liberators, the project entirely backfired. Apart from a few individuals such as Siradzhuddin Ramazanov, the brother of a Salafi ideologue whom the attackers expected to name Dagestan emir, the rural population was more unprepared and unwilling to see a war, and so quickly beat off the invasion. This gave Moscow – where Vladimir Putin, the sinister security hardliner, was in the ascendant – a pretext, and a spate of mysterious apartment bombings in Moscow the next month strengthened this pretext. Though Khattab and Basaev rightly protested their innocence from the Moscow attacks, neither the Russian regime nor broader public was in much mood to reconsider and the second Chechen war began.

Over the winter into the new millennium, Russia steadily surrounded Grozny and subjected it to another ferocious bombardment. His jaw badly injured in the battle, Doku Umarov was among the earlier Chechen fighters to leave the city. It would be several months before he recovered, by which point Russia had taken Grozny and, rebuffing attempts by Ilyas Akhmadov to negotiate, installed former Chechnya mufti Akhmad Kadyrov as its vassal. Kadyrov, who had enthusiastically called for an anti-Russian jihad in the first Chechen war, now played on the “Sufi-Salafi” dichotomy in an attempt to legitimize the Russian campaign – claiming that the Wahhabis had wrecked the prospect of independence.

Nonetheless, the first few years after the Russian conquest saw a ferocious, and surprisingly effective, insurgency. If the Ichkeria emirate had been a shambles, insurgency found the Chechen fighters back in their element, and in spite of repeated attempts to wedge between them the insurgency largely remained united under the leadership of Aslan Maskhadov and Shamil Basaev; those senior officials or commanders who switched sides, such as the Yamadaevs and eventually even Khanbiev, largely failed to attract sizeable numbers outside their immediate band of followers. Nor did the Russian elimination of such commanders as Arbi Baraev and Abu Saleh Khattab immediately dent insurgent momentum.

Numbers are difficult to ascertain – information about the war was much more tightly controlled by Moscow than had been the case in the 1990s – but certainly thousands of Russian troops, and many more Chechens, were killed in the first few years of the war; so widespread was the insurgency, even on Grozny’s outskirts where Doku Umarov was among its commanders, that Kadyrov had to use a makeshift capital in the east that was itself under constant threat.

Ironically, a war that had been justified by Chechen expansionism saw such expansionism spread. Khamzat Gelaev, who operated in southern Chechnya, was an early proponent of attacking neighbouring North Caucasian emirates, including Ingushetia and Dagestan. While this tactic was controversial, it increasingly became necessary to find “strategic depth” as Russia slowly but surely increased its clout on Chechen soil. Similarly, Shamil Basaev was increasingly enthusiastic about using suicide attacks – a hitherto unknown tactic – against Russian garrisons. By the point that Gelaev lost his life to a Russian attack on the mountains in 2004, the Chechen leadership had prepared a sweeping offensive.

The summer offensive, with a lighning blow a month, began spectacularly in May 2004 with the assassination of Akhmad Kadyrov – blamed by his son and successor, Ramzan Kadyrov, on insurgent commander Khairullah Imurzaev – in an attack that also injured the Russian corps commander, Valery Baranov. The next month, Akhmed Taziev led a brazen raid into the Ingush city Nazran, executing its interior minister Abubakar Kostoyev and his second-in-command Zyauddin Kotiev before his withdrawal. This was followed a month later by Imurzaev’s takeover of the historic town Avtury. At the summer’s end it was the turn of Grozny; in an attack planned by Doku Umarov, his lieutenant Yunadi Turchaev plowed into the city for yet another commando raid, barraging its security forces to the tune of dozens slain before his withdrawal.

These attacks immensely emboldened the Chechen insurgency, but they were capped off by a far more controversial and indeed tragic episode that marked the beginning of the end – when Basaev, increasingly willing to endanger civilians, held hostage a school in the Russian town Beslan. He had apparently intended to force a withdrawal similar to the 1990s, but Putin was far more ruthless than Boris Yeltsin, and when Russian troops stormed the site over three hundred people, mostly schoolchildren, were killed. The incident sparked widespread revulsion and horror, depriving the Chechen insurgency of whatever sympathy it might have had.

Certainly Basaev’s colleagues realized that a line had been drawn; Doku Umarov would publicly argue against targeting civilians – such tactics, he said, would cost the insurgents their humanity. By now he had assumed command in the strategic southwest region, which spanned the Georgian border as well as Ingushetia. Aslan Maskhadov, meanwhile, began 2005 with a month-long ceasefire to show goodwill; a few weeks after its expiration, the Russians took him out, before sighing mournfully that the widely respected Ichkeria emir had permitted himself to be hijacked by the radicals.

Maskhadov’s assassination marked the beginning of the end for the original Ichkeria leadership; his handpicked successor, mild-mannered mufti Abdulhalim Sadullaev, and military commander Basaev both followed suit in summer 2006. Now a secondary generation, the field commanders of the previous decade, assumed executive positions.

Widely respected for his organizational and practical talents, Umarov replaced Sadullaev and promoted his counterparts from the 2004 campaign to the executive command. He replaced Basaev – whom he took care to posthumously honour – with Akhmad Taziev, and promoted Khairullah Imurzaev to his own second-in-command. The latter, however, only lasted briefly: he was personally wanted by Ramzan Kadyrov for his father’s assassination, and in spring 2007 Russia took him out.

Ironically, Umarov now veered toward the same expansionism that had marked Basaev in 1999 and Gelaev thereafter. Again widely portrayed by observers as evidence of a shift from his Sufi background to Salafi ideology – a shift for which there is no real evidence – it was necessitated to a large part by the fact that Russia was slowly tightening its grip in Chechnya. The upshot was a large uptick of attacks in Ingushetia and Dagestan. In October 2007, Umarov officiated this position by announcing that the Ichkeria emirate would be replaced by the Kavkaz emirate, to cover the entire Muslim region of the North Caucasus.

This announcement sparked shock from Akhmed Zakayev, the former Ichkeria prime minister now acting as something of an unofficial foreign minister in Europe. He had been convinced that his old friend Umarov would not yield to such maximalist temptations; to him, they jeopardized the entire Chechen cause abroad by asking more than the international community was willing to give. The announcement practically split the Chechen insurgency into an external wing, led by such diplomats as Zakayev, and an internal wing.

While talk of moderation and radicalism buzzed in both Western and Russian capitals, however, Umarov’s motives were essentially practical. In an age where the war on terrorism, fundamentally hostile to independent Muslim militancy at its core, abounded, Umarov informed his followers that they could not rely on the help of America, China, Europe, or any other country – only on the help of Allah. However much this may have discomfited secularists, it was the logical conclusion to the international community’s essentially pro-Russian stance of the past decade.

Yet if Umarov’s motivation was based on fact, it was also a fact that the insurgency was spread thin. Its numbers dwindled sharply – owing to sheer war-weariness, flight, and elimination by the counterinsurgency – in the late 2000s, so that only a couple of thousand fighters remained by 2010. Umarov tried to solve the problem by resorting to a tactic he had previously opposed – suicide attacks. He reorganized Shamil Basaev’s old suicide brigade, now led by a close confidante called Said Buryatali, a Russian convert to Islam. In autumn 2009, five years after the Beslan campaign, they mounted a number of terrorist attacks. Umarov laboriously, and somewhat half-heartedly, tried to defend such tactics – much as Basaev had done before, he claimed that the Russian population’s indifference to their callous regime left him with no other options.

However, this showed Umarov’s vulnerability as much as anything. Starting from autumn 2009, an alarming number of Kavkaz commanders were picked off with blurring speed, including mufti Sayfullah Astemirov and Buryatali. Umarov was losing commanders faster than he could replenish any territory. Increasing dissent among Umarov’s lieutenants became clear in summer 2010. The summer began with the surrender of his military commander, Akhmad Taziev; unrepentant at his role in the insurgency, Taziev’s surrender seemed to have been prompted by necessity. The recently promoted mufti Sayfullah Vagabov also criticized Umarov, but the most alarming step came in August 2010.

In what appears to have been a neat coup plan, the Kavkaz propaganda outlet announced that Umarov was stepping down and would be replaced with Aslambek Vadalov, who had previously led the front in eastern Chechnya. Within hours, however, the announcement was reversed. Umarov espied a plot by four leading commanders – Vadalov and the shadow interior minister Khusain Gakaev, both of whom shared the Chechnya front between them; Muhannad Harbi, the commander of Arab fighters whom he had hitherto closely trusted as military second-in-command; and constable Tarkhan Gaziev, who handled security. They refused an attempt to reconcile by Umarov’s second-in-command, Supyan Abdullaev, and pushed for a court to resolve their differences.

The shifting sands in insurgent politics merited some interest. The mutineers, including the Salafi Arab commander Muhannad, were supported by Zakayev, belying the idea that there was a “Sufi-Salafi” or “moderate-radical” dynamic at play. Meanwhile, Umarov received the support of two Levantine Salafi preachers, Abu Muhammad Barqawi from Jordan and Abdul-Munim Halima from Syria.

It was not until the following summer, however, that the court was held – it ruled in Umarov’s favour, so that both Gakaev and Vadalov yielded. Gaziev abstained, and soon left for Turkey; Muhannad, meanwhile, had been eliminated along with the loyalist second-in-command Supyan Abdullaev by Russia in spring 2011.

Umarov had survived, but he now presided over a steadily crumbling network. Thinly spread and unable to command much territory, the Kavkaz insurgency was a shadow of itself. Russia continued to pick off commanders, including Gakaev; and in September 2013, they nabbed Umarov. It was a sudden, but long-expected, end for an emir whose reputation for practicality had been challenged by increasing political, diplomatic, and military pressure. In a field increasingly misdiagnosed as a contest between ideological and sectarian opponents, Umarov’s common point had not been moderation or radicalism or any particular sect but rather a constant opposition to Russia’s occupation.

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Issue Nine

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Issue Nine

February 2021.

Bism Allah Al-Rahman Al-Rahim

Ibrahim Moiz, Rights reserved 2021.

This month we plow into Chad, Somalia, and Syria, where regional politics played a major role in the trajectories of the military adventurers in question. I begin and end with Allah’s Name, and prayers that this pandemic is removed.

Nour Abdelkarim. Chad. We have discussed how Chad’s peculiar dynamics – the plethora of ethnic groups, a fairly brittle but profitable state structure, a largely Saharan landscape with relatively few strongholds and thus a potentially quick path to power, and a long, on-and-off conflict fuelled by and fuelling neighbouring conflicts – have led to a series of military adventurers making their stake for the top. Idriss Deby, the most successful such adventurer to date, has largely maintained his thirty-year reign by navigating, manipulating, coercing, or coopting various other roving adventurers, dealing with many commanders but only trusting his own network within the Zaghawa ethnic group. Deby’s decision to run an unconstitutional third term in the mid-2000s provoked the most serious challenge to his regime, when a series of adventurers took up arms and attempted to oust him by force. An important early character was Captain Mahamat Nour Abdelkarim, a Tama mercenary who came close to capturing the capital Ndjamena in 2006, only to be forced into reconciliation and even serve briefly as defence minister after losing the support of other rebels.

The Tama group, like the larger Zaghawa, is among several Muslim ethnic groups – including the Masalit, Baggara Arabs, Hadjerai, and others – in the Chad-Sudan borderlands that has been profoundly affected by years of conflict and the peculiarities of modern power politics. Traditionally each group was ruled by an indigenously selected paramount chieftain – called, with usually some exaggerated grandeur, a sultan – who dispensed justice and mediated with external groups. These sultans’ power was challenged by both the state structure, which dispatched government authorities to the region, and warfare in both Chad and Sudan, the militarization spawning a series of military adventurers in each community. Nour was well-connected in both sections of the Tama people; one relative, Haroun Abdoulaye, was the Tama sultan, while Nour’s uncle Mahamat Garfa led an armed group in the 1980s Chad conflict. This war meant that Nour grew up in a militarized atmosphere; he was perhaps still in his late teens when he joined his uncle in assisting the Zaghawa commander Deby, who triumphantly swept west from his base in Sudan’s Darfur region and conquered the capital Ndjamena from his predecessor, Hissein Habbre, in 1990.

We have already seen elsewhere how Deby juggled the various commanders, and thus the communities they ostensibly represented, in his government while trying to hammer out a political process. Latent opposition – with Habbre’s loyalists still at large and various opposition in southern Chad – meant that he learned only to trust a fairly narrow base within the Zaghawa, where his own authority was by no means unquestionable. As such, he shuffled official portfolios among various leaders – often militia commanders. Mahamat Garfa, Nour’s uncle, was promoted both to the army command and as a minister in the cabinet during 1993-94. Nour took up a role in the Chadien army – really a collection of disparate militias.

However – in the pattern of Deby’s allies breaking with him – Garfa defected and fled to Cameroon with about six hundred fighters, including Nour, during September 1994. He claimed mistrust of Deby and opposition to his politics. He spent the next year collecting a coalition that appears to have included the swashbucklingly-nicknamed Adam Bazooka, recently sacked commandant for the eastern city Abeche. In November 1995, Garfa mounted a short-lived insurgency from Sudan, but this never posed a serious challenge to the regime.

Instead, over the next few years the Chadien fugitives plied their wares in Sudan, which was beset by its own destructive war. The Islamist government was pitted in warfare against a secularist southern insurgency – which eventually yielded the seceded state of South Sudan in 2011; this campaign often employed militias in league with the army, and Nour appears to have fought for the Sudanese government.

Meanwhile, a series of factors led to a more slow-burning conflict in Darfur. These factors included the southern rebels’ attempts to infiltrate Darfur; the resentment of certain Darfur groups against continued government domination by the Nile riverine elite; and the holdover of militarized Arab chauvinists in Darfur, who had been radicalized by Libya in shared opposition to Habbre during the 1980s, when many Darfur Arabs were recruited by the Chadien commander Acheikh Oumar. Though Libya and Oumar eventually recanted – the latter, in classic Chadien style, even serving briefly as Habbre’s foreign minister – the residual holdover poisoned the Darfur landscape.

In its counterinsurgency at Darfur, Khartoum found it expedient to encourage pastorialist Arab raiders, who would earn from their enemies (and much of the international media) the dreaded nickname “janjaweed”, or “mounted fiends”, because they mounted bloodcurdling raids against sedentary targets from such ethnic groups as the Fur. Though it is not certain that Nour worked with the janjaweed, as his enemies later claimed, it is true that they both worked effectively as mercenaries for the same Sudanese government. On the other hand, Adam Bazooka – the ambitious Abeche commander who had rebelled with Mahamat Garfa and Nour in the mid-1990s – fought for the opposition, who included not just Fur but his own Massalit community, and he was killed early in the war.

Bazooka was something of an anomaly in his opposition to both the Sudanese and Chadien regimes; as a rule, rebels against one government avoided antagonizing the other, if only to cover their bases in case they needed a fallback. This was somewhat counterintuitive for these regimes, since Deby – who had been helped by Sudanese dictator Omar Bashir’s then-fledgling regime in his path to power – had traditionally had good links with Khartoum. These links steadily cooled in the 2000s, however, when the Sudanese Zaghawa doctor Khalil Ibrahim founded the insurgent Musawat group, drawn largely from Khalil’s Kobe clan in the Zaghawa.

Musawat gave Bashir a headache for several reasons: it was relatively efficient and well-organized; it shared the regime’s Islamist ideology and was could thus attract defectors; and also shared the Zaghawa background of the Ndjamena regime. It was this last factor that piqued Bashir’s suspicion that Deby had perhaps betrayed him; though Deby in fact tried to allay these suspicions by helping Bashir with an early sweep against Sudanese rebels in eastern Chad during 2003, Bashir’s suspicion persisted and were not unfounded. For though Deby did not originally help the Zaghawa insurgents in Chad, several of his advisors and aides increasingly sympathized with them and, as global opinion turned decisively against Sudan, Ndjamena did form links with the Zaghawa rebels in Darfur. Part of the reason was the toll of the war, whose refugees spilled into Chad; and part was their indignation at the cost that their Zaghawa brethren were now bearing.

It was no difficult task for Bashir to assist Deby’s opponents in retaliation. The Tama and Arabs in eastern Chad were increasingly unhappy with the Ndjamena regime. With his uncle Mahamat Garfa having reconciled with Deby in 2003, Nour was the most promising Tama rebel leader; the main Arab commander meanwhile was Abdelouahid Mackaye, a seasoned fighter and former official who had broken with Deby in the same year, 2003. They formed one of the many abbreviated coalitions by which Chadien commanders called their alliances, in which Nour served as leader and Mackaye as secretary-general.

Whatever Bashir’s machination, Deby’s increasing difficulty was largely self-inflicted. By 2005 he had decided, against the constitution he himself had set up, to run for a third term: this not only antagonized existent opponents but provoked new ones, even within his Zaghawa clan. In autumn 2005 two rebel formations appeared in eastern Chad; the first was the coalition between Nour and Mackaye, and the second was a largely Zaghawa coalition led by Yaya Djarou, who belonged to Deby’s Bidayat confederation and attracted mass Zaghawa defections from the army. In 2005-06, both rebel groups adopted different routes in their attempt to take over; while Djarou worried Deby by attracting regime defections from deep within the ruling circle, Nour and Mackaye attempted lightning offensives.

Much as Khalil Ibrahim had worried Omar Bashir for his ability to attract regime defections, Yaya Djarou worried Idriss Deby more. His army commander, Saleh Kaya, had to be replaced after refusing to suppress the mutiny, while a number of senior regime officials – including Deby’s nephews the Erdimi brothers Timane and Tom, as well as Kaya’s successor as army commander Seby Aguid – were persuaded to defect and join Djarou. With the regime in such disarray, Nour pounced. In December 2005 he attacked the border town Adre, and it took a serious defence by the garrison, led by Deby’s other nephew Abbakir Youssouf, to beat back the assault.

Deby condemned the attackers as janjaweed – with an eye to international sensibilities – and claimed that Nour was a collaborator of the bloodthirsty janjaweed commander Moussa Hilal; this may or may not have been true, but it was largely irrelevant – in fact, a few years later Deby himself married Moussa’s daughter. Nor did it prevent over two thousand soldiers from various garrisons, led by senior officers such as the Bicharas Farid and Ahmat, from joining Mackaye and Nour. There was neither need nor attempt for Mackaye to hide the Sudanese connection, since Deby himself had swept to power with Bashir’s assistance fifteen years earlier and these latest rebels now expected to follow suit. No wonder Nour was buoyant; claiming that the winter battle had been a mere test run, he promised to march on the capital and blithely informed a reporter, “We will invite you to Ndjamena when we arrive.”

Deby, meanwhile, was scrambling to cover his bases. Having promoted his nephew Abbakir Youssouf to army commander, he now tried to mend his fences with Bashir; Muammar Qaddafi, the Libyan dictator who had long hobnobbed with both and was reinventing himself as an elder peacemaker, invited the pair to sign the first of many accords at Tripoli in February 2006, where they promised to abstain from helping each others’ insurgents. No sooner than the ink dried than Deby’s rebellious nephews, the Erdimi brothers, and former army commander Seby Aguid tried to mount a coup, led by his longstanding bodyguard Bakhit Ramdane. Deby only narrowly survived, but no sooner was this mole whacked than the other reared its head.

Making good on his word, Nour burst from Darfur in April 2006; he overran Adre, where army commander Abbakir Youssouf was slain, and blazed down the well-worn trail to Ndjamena. A fierce battle ensued, but Nour’s second boast proved premature: Deby was no pushover in the field, and the result was a rout. Hundreds of attackers, including Nour’s second-in-command Issa Ousmane, were slain in the fray, and hundreds more captured to be paraded by the regime in the city streets, while the triumphant and newly confident Deby sneered that the attackers had been amateurs and promptly cut links with Sudan.

As they licked their wounds, the rebels turned on Nour, accusing him of regionalism and incompetence. In autumn 2006 Mackaye expelled Nour from their coalition; he would soon join the Erdimi brothers in a coalition with Deby’s former interior minister Mahamat Nouri, a leading northern commander whose links to both France and the United States, dating to the 1980s, made him a more attractive counterpart; Sudan in turn threw its support behind this coalition.

Suddenly left high and dry, Nour decided to reconcile with Deby. He still had over three thousand troops under arms, and this meant that the Chadien regime stood to gain by a peace deal. Qaddafi again stepped in as broker, and in December 2006 Deby and Nour signed an agreement at Tripoli, whereby Nour and his fighters would be integrated into the Chadien government. The following spring – not yet a year after his attack on the capital – prime minister Noureddine Koumakoye named Nour defence minister, effectively in charge of the same army he had attacked: a bizarre yet typical Chadien arrangement.

Unsurprisingly this arrangement did not last long. By autumn 2007, when the Erdimis’ rebel bloc was again on the warpath, tension between Nour’s fighters and other soldiers in the eastern garrisons – whom, the Tama fighters claimed, tried to disarm them – compounded mistrust in the capital. Fearing for his life, Nour escaped to the Libyan embassy; in his wake, he was dismissed from the cabinet. Shortly thereafter – perhaps intending to cover its bases – the government intervened in Tama politics, replacing sultan Haroun Abdoulaye with Yaya Garfa, brother of Mahamat and thus uncle of Nour. Though both were related to Nour, it appears that Ndjamena was more confident in the Garfa brothers’ fealty and quite prepared to overrule the traditional election of sultans to cover its bases.

Nour’s short stay at the top had ended, and he played no further part in the war; notably, however, the very next year his former lieutenant Hassan Djinnaidi more successfully followed a similar course: switching from rebel leader to army commander and helping suppress other rebels. The war finally ended, at least for the moment, when in 2010 Deby and Bashir finally reconciled.

Nour meanwhile drifted in Chadien politics. In 2019 his brother Abderrahmane Abdelkarim was arrested along with the major rebel leader Mahamat Nouri by France; whether Nour was involved in whatever collusion may or may not have occurred between the pair is unclear, but only a few months later he reconciled with Deby and was given an advisory rolej. In the militarized factionalism of Chadien politics, there is only a thin line between state official and enemy of the state.

Omar Masale. Somalia.

Somalia is often taken as the case study of a country that, despite a relatively short unity mostly under a dictatorial state, soon collapsed into mayhem after that state was stripped away. This analysis can, however, divert from the fact that the early years of the war were very much dominated by leading figures in the former state, who in its absence were forced to carve out their own careers amid a regional tumult in the Horn of Africa that was hardly limited to their country. One such leader was Major-General Omar Haji Mohamed Masale, once the Somali defence minister and among the more interesting soldiers-turned-militia commanders. In the army, Masale had a reputation as a professional disciplinarian; yet when the institutions collapsed in 1991, he was forced to fall back on his Marehan clan, on whose behalf he embarked on a particularly unpredictable career partly coloured by the politics of neighbouring states, including Somalia’s former archrival Ethiopia.

Masale hailed from the same Marehan clan, within the Darod confederation, as the military dictator Siad Barre, whose regime officially denounced clan-based bigotry but increasingly relied on clan links. Nearly immediately after seizing power in October 1969, Barre ruthlessly maneouvred to sideline or eliminate rivals, a process in which he increasingly came to rely on his Marehan clan. There is little to suggest that Masale himself relied on favouritism to scale the ladder – he had a reputation as a stern professional – but a shared clan could hardly hurt his standing.

Nonetheless, Somalia briefly emerged as a regional power with one of Africa’s strongest armies. It was also a promising period for Somalis within and without the country: in spring 1977 France withdrew, much to Mogadishu’s satisfaction, from largely Somali Djibouti, while the neighbouring archenemy Ethiopia – an African heavyweight and one of the few states on the continent whose military outweighed Somalia’s – was in existential crisis. Somalia had long contested Ethiopian rule over the ethnically Somali Ogaden region on their border, and when the monarchy was ousted in revolt and replaced with a bloodthirsty communist regime, Ethiopia spiralled into mayhem. Just months after Djibouti’s independence, Somalia capitalized on Ethiopia’s weakness and swept into Ogaden.

In the military headquarters, Omar Masale and Nur Galal helped army commander Abdullahi Fadil direct operations, though Galal was soon sent to the battlefield to command the troops in person. The early stages of the invasion, meeting a sympathetic Ogaden population who welcomed them as liberators, went well, and by the summer’s end it seemed that Somalia would win the day, especially since Ethiopia’s longstanding ally the United States had washed their hands of the communist regime in Addis Ababa. But in autumn 1977, Ethiopia scored a major coup by enlisting – in a neat Cold War geopolitical flip – the critical and direct assistance of the Soviet Union, along with the Cuban army. The Soviet Union had hitherto supported Somalia in its rivalry with Ethiopia, but now Vasily Petrov arrived to assist the Ethiopians against a Somali army whose top rungs he had helped train. While several Muslim countries – excepting nearby South Yemen’s leftist regime – dispatched some aid, no state was as directly willing to help Mogadishu. In early 1978, a major Ethiopian campaign drove most of the Somali army back across the border; the last Somali troops were expelled in 1980, around the same point that Omar Masale was promoted to defence minister.

The defeat in Ogaden sent a tremor down the regime; not a month after the defeat in spring 1978, Barre survived a coup attempt; most conspirators belonged to the hitherto trusted Majerteen clan dominant in central Somalia’s Puntland region, against whom Barre now turned the first of several clan-based mass punishments. The conspirator who escaped, Abdullahi Yusuf, had been a field commander in the war against Ethiopia, but soon fled across the border and became a client of its regime in his quest to topple Barre, founding the Majerteen-based Badabatinda faction and thus becoming the first of many Somali military officers to turn militia commander.

As increased American armaments trickled in during the 1980s, Barre became steadily more brutal in his repression and narrower in his regime base; before long the regime was based not only around his Darod clan confederation, but more specifically around his family, while opponents were often subjected to collective punishment. One notorious example was his cousin Hashi Gaani, who was dispatched as prefect for the restive northern province Somaliland, where his harsh governance only sharpened alienation among its dominant Isaq clan confederation. Since Barre’s basic base within formal institutions was the army, he tried increasingly to fill it with loyalists, often from his personal network.

Though Masale himself belonged to Barre’s Marehan clan, he objected to regime favouritism and in spring 1982 lost his job. Worse followed; in summer 1982, Barre conducted a mass purge and imprisoned several leading government veterans who could potentially serve as rivals: these included his influential second-in-command Ismail Abukar; former foreign minister Omar Arte; finance minister Yusuf Weyrah; ministers Aden Sheikh, a noted intellectual, and Osman Jelle, a junta member; secretary Warsame Farah; and Masale, who could have been a Marehan rival for military loyalty.

This purge, like others in the regime, soon backfired; within days the Ethiopians invaded, assisted by Abdullahi Yusuf, and captured the border city Galdogob in central Somalia from Barre’s son-in-law Said Morgan; the regime responded, again, with collective punishment against the Majerteen clan for Yusuf’s sins. In the longer run, the purge provoked the resignation of another minister, Ahmed Silanyo, who fled abroad to found the Wadaniya insurgent group based around his marginalized Isaq clan; like Majerteen officer Yusuf in the Badabatinda clan, the Wadaniya military command was held by a veteran of the Ogaden war, Isaq officer Abdulqadir Kosar.

As the regime base narrowed steadily through the 1980s, with more and more defectors setting up opposition groups in the maquis or abroad, Barre’s regime became increasingly corrupt and brutal. Masale had opposed favouritism, but the army was soon dominated by outright nepotism; by the decade’s end Morgan was promoted to defence minister and Barre’s son, Maslah, to army commander. Morgan became particularly notorious when, in response to a Wadaniya campaign in spring 1988, he pounded Somaliland’s major city Hargeisa into submission, killing thousands and sending many more fleeing for their lives. Such brutality only provoked more unrest and more scattered insurgent fronts, usually led by major regime defectors. By winter 1990-91, Barre had alienated much of the Hawiye clan confederation that dominated Mogadishu. When Hawiye officer Farah Aidid stormed into Mogadishu and another Hawiye general – Nur Galal, another former defence minister and Omar Masale’s old colleague – turned on the regime from within, it was the last blow and Barre fled the capital.

Yet by now clan polarization and militarized factionalism had formed a toxic cocktail. Much as the ancien regime had employed collective punishment, the Hawiye militias that streamed into Mogadishu now embarked on an indiscriminate killing spree against the Darod clan confederation, which was held collectively responsible for the escaped dictator’s sins. Many of them were hastily recruited militiamen with more sudden access to weaponry than restraint, and even had their officers wanted to restrain them – which was by no means evident across the board – they proved unable to stop a wide series of massacres.

This in fact gave Barre a potential route back to power. With the Darod confederation now under fire, not only his loyalists but also many non-affiliated Darod fighters mobilized under his leadership in the western Gedo region. Barre formed one of the several abbreviation-marked militia groupings – in order to distinguish it from other Somali National militia names, we will call it Jabhada, the Somali word for its distinctive description Front – which represented the Darod confederation. Having hastily drawn together many disparate Darod, it was very much a loose front rather than an organization – it included not only major former regime loyalists such as Said Morgan, who now controlled the eastern seaport Kismayo, and Hashi Gani, but also other Darod commanders such as Barre’s former prisoner Omar Masale; what united them was the interests of a Darod community that felt itself under attack.

This was not lost on Farah Aidid, who now emerged as the major leader of one of two coalitions that contested Mogadishu. A powerless prime ministry existed – held by Omar Arte, the formerly imprisoned finance minister – but Aidid fought for overall leadership against a rival coalition led by the well-connected merchant Ali Mahdi, who was widely recognized abroad as the rightful ruler. While Aidid claimed that Mahdi, who generally lacked his ruthlessness, was offering regime holdovers a lifeline, in fact he himself was more pragmatic than this stance indicated, and soon sent Omar Masale a warning to not cooperate with Barre. Yet after his militia had conducted a massacre against the Darod clan in Mogadishu, this appeal failed to move Masale, who held the rearguard in Gedo when Barre unsuccessfully tried to attack Mogadishu in spring 1992 before he was expelled for good into exile.

In Barre’s absence, the Darod coalition fragmented and southern Somalia became a collection of competing commanders – many from the top rung of the collapsed Somali institutions. These included at least four former defence ministers – Morgan and Aden Gabyow, who tended to cooperate; as well as Galal and Masale – as well as former military spymaster Omar Jess. Nor could any claim a monopoly on their clan: Jess and Gabyow, for instance, both belonged to the Ogaden clan, but the former fiercely opposed Morgan in Kismayo while the latter tended to support him.

A more potent factor that entered the fray at this point was the Islamist Itihaad network, largely built around the networks of preachers – often but not exclusively Salafi preachers – who had been persecuted under the regime. In 1992 they made two major campaigns in Somalia: we have encountered the first, which was swept aside by Abdullahi Yusuf in Puntland, and the second emerged in the south. When Farah Aidid repulsed Barre’s attack on Mogadishu, he thundered southward, aiming to take Kismayo from Said Morgan. On the way he was met with a small Itihaad force, led by Farah Hussein; though this resistance was quickly brushed aside, the campaign lent the Islamists a major leader in Aidid’s former lieutenant Dahir Aweys, a pietistic officer who had been sent to negotiate with the Islamists but joined them instead.

Though Aidid’s attack on Kismayo quickly sputtered out, it left an impact in the south as the Darod coalition crumbled for good. The fearful Morgan became an independent adventurer in Kismayo; meanwhile, further west, Omar Masale and Hashi Gaani withdrew from Gedo into Kenya. Thus they played no notable role in the United Nations’ campaign during 1992-95, which included the infamous American misadventure against Aidid in Mogadishu. Masale did, however, participate in an Ethiopian-backed endeavour to form an interim government led by Ali Mahdi, in 1993-94; this came to nothing, but signalled the beginning of a complex relationship with Addis Ababa. During the mid-1990s, most Somali commanders – including the former defence ministers Gabyow, Masale, and Morgan – seem to have done so in shared enmity with Farah Aidid. But such arrangements had their problems: though the ethnic federation that now ruled Ethiopia was distinct from Somalia’s older monarchic and communist archenemies, they retained their predecessors’ suspicions of Somali nationalism and a willingness to enforce their interests ruthlessly if need be.

The Islamists in Gedo provided another mutual opponent. The vacuum in Gedo was quickly filled by Itihaad, who set up an important local front led by the quiet but effective Marehan commander Mohamed Yusuf. In a way this was to be expected: Islam was perhaps the only binding factor that overrode factionalism among Somali clans, and the overall stability and justice that Islamic courts provided were a welcome antidote to years of militia misrule. Yet Omar Masale was not entirely convinced of their sincerity; in a televised debate by a correspondent of British television with the Itihaad leader Dahir Aweys, he claimed that Itihaad was a stalking horse for Hawiye infiltration. Clearly suspicion and the instinct for clan preservation still ran deep, even if events proved him wrong.

Ethiopia was even more suspicious, and blamed Itihaad for a number of attacks in the neighbouring Ogaden region – one of whom targeted its ethnically Somali premier, Abdulmajid Hussein. Though Abdulmajid himself doubted the attack’s responsibility, Addis Ababa seized the opportunity to mount an invasion of Gedo in summer 1996, temporarily sweeping Itihaad forces aside. In 1997, Omar Masale participated in similar campaigns – becoming yet another veteran of the 1970s war to join forces with the Ethiopians. His case appears to have been a Marehan equivalent of the Rahanweyn Resistance Army, led by Hassan Shatigudud and Adan Madobe, that we have elsewhere reviewed.

But unlike other southern Somali commanders – such as Gabyow, Morgan, and Shatigudud who formed long-term partnerships with Ethiopia – Masale’s collaboration soon ended. By the late 1990s other regional powers, including Masr and Djibouti, were attempting to mediate the Somali conflict; the Masri ambassador Abdullah Mahmoud tried to mend fences between Ali Mahdi and Farah Aidid’s son Hussein. It is not clear if Masale cooperated because of his rivalry with Morgan over Marehan leadership, or because the Masri deal seemed sweeter, or simply because he decided that the younger Aidid lacked his slain father’s menace – but he signed onto the venture. Its first order of business was the removal of Morgan from his Kismayo stronghold so that the southern seaport could be connected to Mogadishu under one coalition. In April 1998 Masale attacked Kismayo, but he was beaten back by Morgan.

This prompted Masale to mend his fences with Itihaad. In summer 1998, Marehan clan leaders mediated a deal between Masale and Itihaad commander Mohamed Yusuf, the latter turning over the region to Masale’s control and retiring to Arabia. With Hussein Aidid and Ali Mahdi momentarily reconciled in Mogadishu, and Masale ensconced in Gedo, the opportunity looked ripe for a coalition to seize southern Somalia. Yet events rapidly overtook them: Ethiopia and its northern neighbour, Eritrea, had entered a full-fledged war in spring 1998. This played out in Somalia when the Eritrean regime flung its support behind Hussein Aidid in an attempt to divert Addis Ababa. Instead Ethiopia – which, unlike Ethiopia, borders Somalia – upped the ante; they ratcheted up support to their clients, Said Morgan and Hassan Shatigudud, while subverting the factions led by Aidid, Mahdi, and Masale by backing mutineers in each faction.

Masale’s Jabhada faction was no more unified than the others, and a pro-Ethiopian wing soon emerged, led by Ali Nur and Ahmed Burale. In spring 1999 Nur was suddenly murdered, and – amid the tension between Burale and Masale – Ethiopia once more invaded Gedo and brushed aside Masale with ease. Their campaigns elsewhere in the south were more mixed. They helped Shatigudud establish his Rahanweyn militia in the Baidoa region; on the other hand Said Morgan finally lost Kismayo – ironically enough, the city was overrun by Ahmed Warsame, who had served as Morgan’s right-hand man during the sack of Hargeisa a decade earlier but now led a separate militia. Yet militia politics helped Ethiopia deny Eritrea and Masr a victory in Mogadishu, where the infighting in Hussein Aidid and Ali Mahdi’s factions flung the city once more into turmoil. In another irony, this weakening of the Eritrean-backed factions unintentionally prompted a resurgence for the Islamists in the capital, as Dahir Aweys led a collection of Islamic courts on a campaign to restore order.

Masale, however, had largely passed by his sell-by date. He continued to prioritize his shrunken Darod faction long after the 1991 crisis had passed. This was epitomized in the attempt, led by Djibouti, to form a grassroots government in Mogadishu, led by former interior minister Abdi Salad, during 2000. Masale initially supported the venture, but by 2001 – in what turned out to be his last political venture of note before his retirement – he joined both Hussein Aidid – now reconciled, after Ethiopia’s victory over Eritrea, with Addis Ababa – and such longstanding Ethiopian clientele as Abdullahi Yusuf, Hassan Shatigudud, Aden Gabyow, and Said Morgan in opposing the venture. The coalition, which successfully sabotaged the weak Djibouti-led coalition, spoke volumes about Ethiopia’s ability to win and manipulate Somali clientele.

But it also spoke volumes about Masale’s political career. Such an about-face, barely a year after condemning Ethiopian intervention, was especially surprising for a man with a patriotic and relatively respectable – certainly by the standards of Somali militia commanders – reputation. Yet it tallied with his previous moves – in joining his former opponent Barre, in joining Ethiopia during 1997, and even in opposing Ethiopia during 1998-99 – which were done largely to maintain his clan’s immediate perceived interest against a mutual enemy. Clan polarization might have forced Masale into such tactical positions, but it was a far – and, given his inability to track a consistent course with any long-term success, largely unimpressive – cry from his career as a professional soldier.

Abdul-Aziz Salameh. Syria. Though the Syrian war seems largely to have become an arena for the competing interests of Iran, Russia, Turkey, and the United States – with much of the original insurgency coalescing in the Turkish camp – the war’s early years were quite different. Back then, the multiplicity of both insurgent factions – a predictable handicap for a broad-based revolt with no single leader – and regional backers meant that different commanders had to maneouvre in trying to coordinate or unite their factions. One influential such commander was the Aleppan merchant Hajj Abu Jumaa Abdul-Aziz Salameh Anadan, who tried to wangle his faction’s provincial strength around Syria’s biggest city into a platform for various cooperatives. Eventually, however, Salameh’s initiatives sunk under the weight of both internecine conflict, regional states’ strength, and the entrance of Daaish into the Syrian arena.

A honey merchant, Salameh came from Anadan, an airbase-dotted town to Aleppo city’s east. Like many Syrian Sunnis of similar background, he seems to have had little love lost for the Alawite-dominated, secularist, and often practically sectarian Baathist regime. This could also have translated into at least informal links or sympathy with members of the long-banned Muslim Brethren; though their role was often exaggerated by a regime that portrayed any Sunni militancy as an Ikhwani stalking-horse, it is true that the Ikhwan or fellow-travellers had a bedrock of sympathy among middle-and-lower-class Sunnis, many of whom suffered economically and politically under the Baath regime. For the same reason, Ikhwani links were useful in the early years of the revolt: the neighbouring Turkish government, which has been the main foreign backer, had many Ikhwan sympathizers, and until the mid-2010s the Brethren or similar groups were quite able to work, fundraise, and organize in the Gulf states as well.

Compared to provinces such as southern Daraa, northwest Idlib, or central Homs,  Aleppo – the biggest city and economic stronghold of Syria – was relatively quiet in the war’s first year. This changed in summer 2012, when a lightning insurgent campaign – largely comprising rural Sunnis from the provincial countryside – swept across much of the province, capturing about half of Aleppo city as well as many of the towns around it, including Anadan and the sizeable suburb Safira. The speed of the insurgent offensive was stunning and owed to several factors: firstly, the Sunni population in at least the province’s periphery, if not always its financial upper-class, harboured strong resentment against the regime; secondly, many Sunni military officers defected; and thirdly, perhaps prodded by Turkey, many of the regime security forces collapsed.

The Tauhid front that Abdul-Aziz Salameh founded benefited from each factor: it was partly funded by regional Muslim sympathizers, including the Muslim Brethren; it recruited principally among Sunnis in rural Aleppo or in the city’s lower class; it was abetted by such army defectors as Yusuf Jadir and Zaki Loula; and it benefited from the flight of the seasoned regime constable in the province, Muhammad Muflih, who escaped to Turkey during the offensive. While Salameh provided the political and financial link, the field command was led by Abdul-Qadir Saleh, who came from the northern town and typified the type of rural Sunni fighter that dominated the Aleppan insurgency.

Saleh was widely admired, not only because he assumed the lion’s share of the summer 2012 assault, but because he and Salameh took an early lead in attempting to unify the insurgents. As leaders of what was then Aleppo’s strongest faction, they were well-placed to mediate during the numerable disputes that accompany any broad-ranging insurgency. Tauhid brigade espoused the sort of uncomplicated Islamic principles that attracted many Sunnis without squabbling over such specifics – as had the Muslim Brethren and other purely political factions – that might lead to partisanship. Also early among the largely Sunni insurgency, they tried – albeit without notable results – to ease Alawite apprehensions about what an Islamic Syria would entail: Jadir took care, for instance, to distinguish the Assads, whose forebears had served the French mandate, from the anti-French Alawi leader Saleh Ali.

Yet the very diffident approach that enabled Salameh to mediate between factions on the ground also equated to a lack of discipline that struck outsiders as unreliable; it did not go unnoticed, for example, that Salameh’s own son Abdul-Rahman was a member of the Nusra Front, another strongly rooted organization that was nonetheless linked at the leadership level to Qaida. While events would eventually prove correct the frequent retort to much of Nusra’s membership had little to do with Qaida, that link nonetheless prevented many states from throwing their support behind the insurgency.

The Aleppan campaign had catalyzed foreign powers who expected the regime to soon fall; while Iran and its Lebanese militia Hezbollah increasingly moved to support the regime, a number of otherwise disparate powers – Turkey, the Gulf States, and briefly the United States – scrambled to get a foot into whatever might succeed the regime; in at least the United States’ case, this was partly done in order to avoid such groups as Qaida from dominating the field.

Thus a largely ceremonial “shadow cabinet” was formed, and with it a military command led by Salim Idris, one of the higher-ranked army officers. Yet in reality the shadow cabinet was split between personalities and their respective backers, while Idris’ military command was really just a list of autonomous field commanders whom he tried to coopt while meanwhile trying to navigate the partisanship in the shadow cabinet to whom he was technically responsible.

That commanders’ list included Abdul-Qadir Saleh as well as Abdul-Jabbar Ukaidi, a professional soldier who was named the insurgents’ provincial commander. This was a largely ceremonial title and Ukaidi knew it, and so he worked closely with field commanders – and in particular Saleh – in trying to link both fronts within Aleppo into a coordinated command, and such a command with the rest of the insurgency. When in spring 2013 Hezbollah mounted a major campaign into Homs province to the south, Ukaidi and Saleh were the only commanders to send reinforcements of any note, though they could not prevent Hezbollah from overrunning the strategic town Qusair – a battle that helped turn the war’s momentum, hitherto been entirely in the insurgents’ favour.

With the shadow cabinet and its military command proving largely ineffective, the Aleppan commanders – Salameh, Saleh, and Ukaidi – tried to coordinate other groups in the province. This was not always a good thing in retrospect; at the end of summer 2013, for instance, Ukaidi acquired the help of Abu Jandal Masri, a rabidly sectarian commander of what soon became known as Daaish in besieging the Minnagh airfield to Aleppo’s east. Daaish also became embroiled in a bitter dispute with the major militia in the northern city Azaz, led by the unpopular commander Samir Ammouri. This militia controlled the northern Babul-Salameh border town and thus a significant proportion of revenue. It had already been accused of corruption before Daaish, building on resentment, attacked it in autumn 2013: among the earliest Daaish attacks on the Syrian rebels.

The Tauhid brigade, then the strongest militia in the north, was forced to mediate, but the resultant compromise only papered over the crack in October 2013. Ammouri, blamed for the corruption, was exiled to Turkey; his successor, Mahmoud Naddoum, eventually joined the Tauhid brigade, which briefly took control of the border post. This was an early case of Daaish confrontations with other rebels, which would soon escalate into warfare.

Meanwhile, with the shadow cabinet and its command led by Idris largely proving ineffective, Salameh and Saleh tried to build links with other major groups in the field. Along with their aide Abu Omar Huraitan, both men played a major role in assembling the first such coalition, the “Islamic Front” between several major Islamist groups who tried to avoid both the Qaida links of Nusra and the growing Daaish on one hand, and complicating international control on the control. The coalition also included the shadowy but increasingly important Ahrarul-Sham movement founded by Hassan Abboud and Abdul-Nasir Yasin; the Islam Army led by Zahran Alloush and mostly based in the Ghouta region near Damascus; the Hama front led by Muhammad Ratib; and the Idlib front led by Abu Issa Shaikh. Only days before the coalition was announced in November 2013, however, the Syrian army counterattack in Aleppo began with a series of airstrikes. This campaign, whose employ of devastating “barrel bombs” would soon earn international infamy, was employed with particular vehemence against Tauhid brigade: one airstrike killed the faction’s spymaster Yusuf Abbas, while another wounded Salameh and killed Saleh. Within days, the regime campaign, led by the swaggering commander Suhail Hasan, had seized Safira; Abdul-Jabbar Ukaidi, incensed at both the lack of ground coordination and the lack of supplies from the external command, quit in frustration.

This coalition came amid an increasingly frenetic and complicated winter for the insurgency. On the external level, the shadow cabinet was fragmenting between factions sympathetic, respectively, to the increasingly divergent Gulf states Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Salim Idris himself had no problem with the field Islamists – to whom he instructed his nephew Bassam Idris to turn over the Babul-Salameh border post in December 2013 – but this earned him the approbation of the shadow cabinet, which unceremoniously ousted him in spring 2014, when the shadow cabinet and military command both split down the middle and lost what little coherence they had. In the field, meanwhile, the Islamist coalition was immediately hit from two sides: first by the regime campaign, and secondly by Daaish, whose regional commander Amr Absi mounted a series of murderous attacks against them.

Their concurrent conquests in Iraq lent Daaish brash confidence, and they now openly embarked on a killing spree of Islamist commanders in the region including Tauhid military commander Adnan Bakkour. Some commanders – such as Abu Issa Shaikh’s peg-legged lieutenant Hasan Abboud (not to be confused with the similarly named Ahrarul-Sham emir), who led a well-armed front in Aleppo – also defected and joined Daaish. Over the winter, therefore, the Aleppan insurgency waged a bitter war against both Daaish commander Amr Absi and regime commander Suhail Hasan.

Daaish was eventually ousted from the region, but it came at a price: the Islamic Front, with officers assassinated and fighters airbombed, was battered into inoperability. None were hit harder than Abdul-Aziz Salameh’s group – epitomized by the breakaway of a key field commander, Adil Nasir, who had won fame for his innovative usage of tunnels, modelled after Hamas’ Ghazzan defences against Israel, in order to survive regime aerial bombardment. Nasir’s breakaway indicates that Salameh was no longer able to provide the services he needed on the ground.

Another factor that transformed the northern battlescape was a brief but important influx of sudden American patronage, aiming primarily to forestall the Daaish campaign, into northern Syria. There were several beneficiaries of varying natures: they included the maverick preacher Taufiq Shihabuddin, who soon founded the Zanki Movement faction that has persisted in western Aleppo; the career officer Abu-Bakr Bakkour, whose insurgent force played a particularly key role against Daaish; the Idlib-based adventurer Jamal Marouf; and a network of commanders, led by Bilal Attar, who received political support from the still well-connected Salim Idris. The main significance of these groups was that they watered down considerably the influence of already struggling “Islamic Front”, which soon ceased to exist as a coalition as its constituent groups went their own ways.

2014-15 saw two polarizations in northern Syria. The first was between the United States, which abandoned any idea of ousting Assad and flung its weight behind Kurdish communists hostile to the insurgency, and a Turkey that was the primary target of the Kurdish communists. The second was between Nusra and the American-backed commanders, such as Marouf, who were soon expelled from Idlib.

Both polarizations necessitated another attempt at a “third way”, similarly to the Islamic Front, into which Abdul-Aziz Salameh again flung himself. This occurred at both a Syria-wide level – when another coalition was formed, comprising both the Islamic Front member groups and the American-backed fronts, under the overall leadership of former shadow justice minister Qais Shaikh – and at the Aleppan level. In the latter, Salameh founded the so-called Shamia Front – a coalition with Abu-Bakr Bakkour, Taufiq Shihabuddin, and two other Aleppan commanders, Mustafa Saqr from within the city and career officer Ibrahim Majbour.

Yet neither coalition lasted long in its official form. The Nusra question continued to haunt the Syria-wide groups under Qais Shaikh’s leadership: Ahrarul-Sham, for instance, was involved in a militarily profitable coalition with Nusra at the same point as Nusra was elsewhere attacking Attar and Marouf, who were officially its co-members in Shaikh’s coalition. At the Aleppan level, meanwhile, Salameh’s own diffidence and his lack of reliable funds – because both Turkey and such private donors as the Muslim Brethren were now exploring other options in the insurgency – hampered his control over the other Shamia member organizations, and by spring 2015 Shamia collapsed amid internal infighting. A brief relaunch two months later in fact simply brought it under the control of the more disciplined Ahrarul-Sham, who sent their Aleppan commander Muhammad Harkoush to take over a coalition that soon ceased to exist.

In the ensuing years, the polarization within the insurgent camp between the former collaborators Ahrarul-Sham and Nusra Front, and in the international scene where the insurgency was largely abandoned except by an increasingly beleaguered Turkish regime, wrought important changes. Salameh’s former coalition partners Abu-Bakr Bakkour, Muhammad Ratib, Mustafa Saqr, and Abu Issa Shaikh sooner or later joined Ahrarul-Sham, now the largest integrated faction outside Nusra. Ahrarul-Sham, Nusra, and an increasingly active Turkey now formed the same coordinating functions in northern Syria that Salameh and Abdul-Qadir Saleh had tried in their 2012-13 heyday. Ultimately, organizing far-flung militants in a broad, leaderless insurgency required more clout than a modestly well-connected honey merchant from Anadan could muster.

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part Eight

In the Name of Allah

MILITARY ADVENTURERS AND MODERN HISTORY, PART EIGHT.

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.

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part Seven.

Seven long months have passed since my last addition to the Military Adventurers and Modern History feature, and this in a section that was meant to continue on a monthly basis. I can offer no meaningful excuse except that of a brief mental breakdown – this coronavirus lockdown can be a trying thing – and that of having been very busy; on a brighter note, I did graduate at long last after a decade spent at university. But the show shall eventually resume, and so I have ended 2020 with three profiles of military adventurers who played an important role in modern history – an African feature this month, whose protagonists hail from Masr, Comoros, and Chad respectively. I begin and end with Allah’s Name with hope of His blessing and protection from the malady that has recently afflicted the world with a considerable force that He is nonetheless entirely Capable of undoing. I reserve my rights, as usual.

Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf. A major feature of Masr’s seven decades under praetorian rule has been the tension between the Cairo junta and the oppositional Islamist Muslim Brethren, or Ikhwanul-Muslimin, group. Representing easily the largest and best-organized political group in spite of having been formally banned or otherwise harassed for much of this praetorian period, the Brethren have come under especially ferocious persecution since their one-year rule in was ended by the 2013 coup. Yet when we review the previous successful coup in Masri history – the July 1952 Free Officers’ coup that ended the Pasha monarchy – we find that the Brethren have had a long and complicated history with military interventions that was by no means perennially hostile. This complex history was best epitomized by Lieutenant-Colonel Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf, a Free Officer of some influence whose loyalty to the Muslim Brethren eventually put him in the crosshairs of the junta he had helped found.

After the collapse of the Ottoman Sultanate and the direct colonization of much of the Middle Eastern region by Britain and France, Masr – with its rich history, its economic potential, its cultural clout, and its strategic location astride the crossroads of Africa, Asia, and the Mediterranean – seemed the next-best replacement for Muslims who groaned under the colonial yoke. Shakib Arslan, the Lebanese aristocrat and pan-Islamist ideologue, speculated with the idea of a caliphate based in Cairo, as had been the case four centuries earlier. This was by no means restricted to foreign dreamers; within Masr, no less a figure than that best-known modern Arab jurist, Abdel-Razzak Sanhoury believed that some reconstitution of the caliphate was both inevitable and eminently desirable. Sanhoury came to sympathize with the Muslim Brethren, a political-cum-charitable trend founded by the fervent Islamic revivalist Hassan Banna. The Muslim Brethren believed that political revival was attached to moral revivalism, and in spite of their frequent censure they have long enjoyed important influence not only outside but even within some parts of the Masri elite.

The problem was that Masr itself was little more independent than a colony. Since the late nineteenth century, the profligate Pasha khedivate – descended from Muhammad Ali, the ambitious Albanian military adventurer who ruthlessly whipped the country into modernity and regional power – had been a protectorate of Britain, with British officials controlling such economic strongpoints as the Suez Canal – a vital point for their global empire – as well as foreign, military, and to some extent internal affairs. In the 1910s, the Pasha dynasty formally became a client monarchy of the style that Britain was encouraging in other Arab countries. This arrangement was not only resented by the Masri citizenry, but also increasingly within the palace. When he came to the throne a dashing youth in the mid-1930s, Farouk bin Fuad I became a rallying point for the pro-independence sentiments that he himself shared, having no desire to kowtow to a British administrator.

The Second World War’s beginning coincided with protests against the British protectorate and the election of an anti-British prime minister, Aly Maher, in Masr. The protectorate feared that the opposing Axis would be supported by Farouk, Maher, and army commander Aziz Masry. This last figure had already enjoyed a colourful and impactful career. As a young Ottoman officer of Circassian descent, in the storming competition over the sultanate’s composition he had attempted to overcome ethnic divisions – such as between Turk and Arab – in favour of a pan-Islamic and pan-Ottoman union. When this failed and a pan-Turanist junta seized power, a galled Aziz had founded a secret organization – a sort of proto-Free Officer society, as it were – that backed the 1910s Arab Revolt with some six thousand defectors. When that revolt became dominated, and predictably betrayed, by Britain and France, the doubly galled Aziz had joined the Masri army and formed an anti-British Iron Ring of officers.

In 1939-40, confronted by a surging Nazi Germany, Britain was in no mood to risk such independent-minded characters who could join forces with Germany, and so both Maher and Aziz were ousted in 1940. British fears were not unreasonable; in May 1941, their Iraqi protectorate was momentarily lost when anti-British Iraqi officers and Levantine rebels took over with German support, requiring a British reconquest of the country.

In fact German spy Johannes Eppler did arrive in Masr from Italian-occupied Libya, where the German commander Erwin Rommel’s famous campaign was starting. Travelling in disguise, Eppler found ripe ground from a number of anti-British circles – bonafide fascists, nationalists, Muslim Brethren, and others. Among the anti-British junior officers who rankled at Aziz’s dismissal and had founded Iraq-style barracks cells were Hussein Zulfikar and Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf, both notable figures in later Masri history. Abdel-Raouf was a Muslim Brother himself, and led the Brethren’s secret recruitment effort in the military. The officers whom he recruited to the Brethren – often informally, but certainly with considerable sympathy – included future Masri dictators Gamal Abdel-Nasser and Anwar Sadat.

Eppler’s plan was to have Aziz smuggled out to Libya where he could rally a mutiny that could threaten Masr; having inadvertently helped the British Empire in the First World War, Aziz could presumably undermine it in the Second. The idea was always a long shot, but the adventure appealed immediately to dissident officers. Zulfikar and Abdel-Raouf were both trained pilots, and tried to fly Aziz out. Unfortunately for them, the flight crashed in the desert; the fugitives scrambled into the countryside to avoid a British sweep, which captured, among others, Sadat.

Britain’s eventual victory in the World War left the empire exhausted and untenable in its current form; pro-independence movements, often by soldiers who had fought under the Union Jack, were sprouting across the world, and such prizes as the subcontinent had to be abandoned. Whatever else its sins, Britain could not afford to be overly vindictive, and thus it was easy for malcontents such as Abdel-Raouf and Zulfikar to return quietly to the ranks. At this point, Abdel-Raouf helped found the Free Officers’ circle – a wide-ranging but disciplined set of military dissidents. The Muslim Brethren were subsequently mounting parallel attempts to form cells in the army; Abdel-Raouf’s aim was to unite and coordinate them.

Along with the corruption of the Pasha regime – whose once-promising figurehead, Farouk, had been bullied into sullen surrender by the British protectorate – and the affronts of the protectorate, the Palestine war of the late 1940s popularized anti-colonial sentiment further. Both the Free Officers and the Muslim Brethren’s volunteers were well-represented in this war; Ahmed Abdel-Aziz, a popular officer linked by marriage to the monarchy, was at least a sympathizer of the Free Officers and led an Ikhwan paramilitary force into Palestine during 1948. There they acquitted themselves well enough to impress expeditionary commander Fouad Sadek.

Sadek was forced to testify, unsuccessfully, in the Ikhwan’s favour, because at the war’s end an alleged Brethren member, Abdel-Magid Hassan, murdered prime minister Mahmoud Noukrashy. Though Banna condemned the act, this gave the regime and its British backers a pretext to ban the organization and mount a ferocious crackdown; Banna was murdered only two months after Noukrashy.

The British role in the Palestinian Nakba could hardly be ignored, and this added to the silent furore against the protectorate. By the early 1950s, the anti-British scene was dominated, openly, by the Muslim Brethren, and secretly by the Free Officers; Abdel-Raouf had a role in both, and given his history it is quite remarkable that he escaped British arrest. In addition to their cells in the army, the Brethren had a clandestine and largely autonomous military wing led by Saleh Ashmawy and Youssef Talaat, who mounted hit-and-run attacks on British strongpoints before retreating into the countryside.

Amid increased strains between Cairo and London, in early 1952 a battle ensued at Ismailia when British forces tried to evict Masri police; this especially blatant affront provoked a riot in Cairo, where hundreds of shops were burnt. The Free Officers were of course heartened, though there were disagreements about how exactly they should proceed.

Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf urged his colleagues to bring the Free Officers formally under the Muslim Brethren; however, given that the Free Officers included not only Islamists but independents, leftists, and others, this was rejected and Abdel-Raouf lost his place on their council. In retrospect, this marks the start of the break between the Brethren and the officers. However, his colleague Kamaleddin Hussein – among the Brethren-linked officers who had fought with Abdel-Aziz in Palestine – claimed that this episode was simply a cordial disagreement; Abdel-Raouf participated, at any rate, in the coup that took place just six months earlier.

The entire story of the July 1952 coup deserves another article; it suffices here to note that the coup was planned and conducted with consummate efficiency by the Free Officers, in particular their charismatic leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser; and that the cavalry unit that confronted Farouk at his palace was captained by Abdel-Raouf. When Farouk refused to step down, Abdel-Raouf turned his tank barrel at the palace and politely requested him to reconsider, which he did.

Though the downfall of Farouk had become known since as a “revolution”, it is unclear that it was going to be a very revolutionary affair. At first the Free Officers chose a respectable elder general, also noted for his involvement in Palestine, Mohamed Naguib as the junta’s formal leader. Naguib had escorted Farouk to exile, but it wasn’t even clear at first that a radically different regime would succeed him; Farouk’s infant son, six months of age, was crowned Fuad II to succeed him. The regency for the baby boy was somewhat conventional. The first member was a landed prince, Mohamed Abdel-Monem, whose father had been the last khedive ousted by the British protectorate, and the second was Wafd minister Bahaeddin Barakat. The only sign of some radical change was the third regent, a charismatic army officer called Rashad Mehanna who was a member of the Muslim Brethren. Mehanna’s dismissal from the regency – itself a practically powerless institution, since the Free Officers’ junta controlled policy – sparked the first mutiny under the new regime. Within the next year, Fuad II was formally deposed and returned to his father, and Naguib became republican Masr’s first ruler with Nasser as prime minister.

Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf did not spend this period idly. Masr had salvaged the Ghazza Strip from the war against Israel, and in the 1950s periodic firefights – whether between ousted Palestinian villagers and Israeli settlers or actual raids by militias – continued. Abdel-Raouf arrived in Ghazza and set up a paramilitary linked to the military regime and organized in part by the Muslim Brethren, continuing the organization’s at that point well-known link to the Palestinian cause. But events in Masr soon overtook this aspiring proto-“fidayin” activity.

In 1954, the Masri junta started to turn in on itself in accordance with a wider conflict in the country, which alternated between a continued military rule or a transition to representative rule. Nasser, whose more ambitious reforms required an iron hand, favoured the former, while Naguib favoured the latter. They first collided in the spring, when Nasser’s aides in the budding Masri security services thwarted another mutiny against a junta itself split on the matter. The charismatic Muslim Brethren lawyer and preacher Abdel-Qader Oudeh rapidly organized mass protests in Naguib’s favour, forcing Nasser to withdraw. Stung, the prime minister patched up his relations with the Muslim Brethren over the summer. But his opportunity soon came.

In October 1954, a Nasser speech was interrupted when an armed worker in the crowd, Mahmoud Abdel-Latif, fired several shots at the prime minister. Remarkably, they each missed from point-blank range, and Nasser delivered a virtuoso performance: “Should Gamal Abdel-Nasser die,” he roared at a rapturous crowd, “each of you shall be Gamal Abdel-Nasser.” The Muslim Brethren were totally unready for what transpired.

Nasser’s lieutenant Zakaria Mohieddin – himself a future prime minister – was in the process of building up a fearful secret police apparatus, the first of its kind in the postcolonial Arab world, that cut its teeth on the Brethren. Thousands were rounded up; a conspiracy to thwart the revolution, it was said, had been foiled. Among the Brethren leaders accused of participation in the plot and executed were Abdel-Qader Oudeh – who had had the temerity to challenge Nasser with streetpower – and Youssef Talaat – the former bane of the British protectorate, now ironically brought down by an anti-British regime.

Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf, who had recruited so many of the junta’s members, was also accused of the plot, but he managed to escape the dragnet; he disappeared, allegedly fleeing to Europe, and was never heard from again. Abdel-Raouf’s fidayin in Ghazza were roundly purged and replaced by his successor, Mostafa Hafez, who was giving the twin tasks of keeping out the Muslim Brethren as well as marshalling a new Palestinian response to Israel that would be firmly under Cairo’s control. (Hafez, incidentally, proved sufficiently energetic in the latter task to provoke an Israeli assassination in 1956).

Nasser’s takeover from Naguib – who was given a relatively comfortable house arrest – was a watershed moment. It moved Masr both toward a more radical international position as well as a more dictatorial internal position. It also left a bitter mark on the Islamist movements; the Muslim Brethren, once the vanguard of the anti-imperial effort, felt themselves not only persecuted but usurped. Many were forced to flee to the Levant, where – ironically enough – they were given a more tolerant reception by a British vassal, Hussein bin Talal of Jordan, because of their mutual enmity with Nasser. This also polarized the internal ranks of the Brethren. The main body led by Banna’s successor Hassan Hodaiby became effectively inoffensive, confining themselves to social work rather than politics or militancy; this state would continue until the formation of Hamas thirty years later. A contrary stance was taken by more radical members, who, partly radicalized by their stint in prison, went on to spawn the extremist movements that emerged in Masr during the last quarter of the twentieth century. To this day the Muslim Brethren and other Islamist movements view Nasser with a particular hatred quite disproportionate to his actual record in power; the bitterness is quite understandable, given the treachery and humiliation they suffered.

Yet the crackdown on the Muslim Brethren, ferocious as it was, was not as total as it appeared; the roots within Masri society by the Brethren were simply too strong. Nasser’s colleagues who still sympathized with or had links in the movement – such as Kamaleddin Hussein, the equivalent of a prime minister in the early 1960s, or Nasser’s successor Anwar Sadat – remained intact and untouched; military experience and personal links still went some way in placating the anti-Islamist crackdown. In 1952-54, as in 2011-13, the military and the Brethren still enjoyed sufficient common ground to coexist before one cheated the other. A significant proportion of that credit went to the start mounted by the daring, dashing, and disappeared Abdel-Monem Abdel-Raouf.

Mohamed Bakar. A particular historical curiosity, as common in the modern age as any other, is the marriage of popular or apparently principled causes with decisive actors who have no particular attachment to those causes. In particular disputes over identity, autonomy, and territory – ranging from ethnonationalism, separatism, regionalism, irredentism, etatism, and centralism – have found their fair share of examples. The tiny Indian Ocean island federation of the Comoros has had its modern history decisively affected by military adventurers with no particular attachment, especially mercenaries from its former colonial ruler France. But the emergence of separatist tensions in these islands, from the late 1990s to the late 2000s, saw Comorian variants of the militarily decisive but politically undecided adventurer, perhaps most notorious among whom was Colonel Mohamed Bakar from the Comorian island Anjouan and the short-lived ruler of a self-styled separatist emirate therein. When his island of Anjouan tried to claim independence from the Comorian federation, Bakar was the most prominent among several adventurers who alternated tactically between separatism and loyalism.

Despite a total population of less than a million, the Comoros federation – comprising the islands, in ascending size, of Mewali, Anjouan, and Ngazidja – has had a tumultuous history of independence. The archipelago came under French rule, first as a protectorate and soon as a colony, in the late nineteenth century – fifty years after the fourth island in the archipelago, Mayotte, had been colonized by the Quai D’Orsay. Faced with violent revolt elsewhere after the Second World War, France was forced to grant increasing autonomy and political representation in the region from the 1950s onward.

This culminated in an independence movement – led, as is usually the case, by both middle-class activists and aristocrats. Mayotte was the outlier; with a longer colonial history and a sizeable Christian populace compared to the almost entirely Muslim other islands, its own independence referendums were not entirely clear-cut but certainly evinced more support for continued French rule than the other islands. In July 1975, the other islands dispensed with French prevarication over Mayotte and announced their independence as the Comoros, their capital based in the Ngazidja city Moroni, though hope for Mayotte’s entry continued to hold out for decades.

However, independence was a mixed bag and only partial; immediately viewed with misgivings by France and only slowly acknowledged worldwide, the Comoros were meanwhile plunged into a series of power struggles among its small elite in which the decisive actor was not a Comorian citizen but the notorious French mercenary, Bob Denard, already experienced in misadventures across Africa, who led various coups in favour of one faction against another and back again. Backed by apartheid South Africa, Denard’s militia of mercenaries, the so-called Affreux (“terrifiers”), operated with virtual impunity as a praetorian guard and led at least four successful coups before, having outlived his use after twenty years, he was ironically ousted by a military assault from an embarrassed France in autumn 1995. By that point the Comoros, partly because of Denard’s predations and partly corruption in the elite, was in flux: impoverished, unstable, and reliant on handouts from East African and Arab states.

Against this backdrop, the relative stability and prosperity of French-ruled Mayotte looked more tempting. And the idea of a Mayotte-style separatism caught on in the two smaller islands, Mewali and especially Anjouan. Comorian ruler Taki Abdelkarim, who had won the first post-Denard election, plausibly accused France of backing some of these movements, which came in full force only in 1995-96.

Anjouan had several improvisational groups that called for reforms to decentralize an already rather decentralized federation. One group, led by army officer Ahmed Hazi, simply called for decentralization; others, led by Abdullah Ibrahim and Omar Chamassi, pursued outright secession and independence, which was practically achieved in summer 1997. Emboldened by the Anjouan secessionists, Mewali premier Mohamed Souaif also declared his island’s independence – only to retract since it was obvious that the tiny island could not survive alone. The Anjouan secessionists were similarly indecisive: largely short-term, shifting coalitions between such ambitious individuals as Anjouan constable Mohamed Bakar.

Bakar’s keenness to dismiss notions of French vassalage was possibly sincere; he indignantly dismissed the claim that former Comorian army second-in-command Combo Ayouba, a friend of Denard’s who had served as his figurehead in the 1995 coup, had arrived to take control of Anjouan’s military force. But in this he was contradicted by the separatist movement’s own radio, which proudly announced Ayouba as its commander. More overt was the celebration of a French public holiday in July 1997, and more embarrassing yet was Abdullah’s shameless request the next month that the Anjouan emirate be annexed, Mayotte-style, into French rule. This proved hard to stomach for France itself, especially given indignation in the rest of Africa at the prospect.

If the Anjouan emirate was in embarrassing political water, its military foothold was another matter. Bakar and another separatist officer, Abaid Abderrahmane, were trained fighters and knew how to organize at least a basic garrison. In September 1997 Comorian army commander Moilim Youssouf dispatched a unit to retake the island, but it was surprised and beaten off. The fact that the Comorian government had sent troops against its own professed island added more fuel to the separatist fire, yet the coalitions of this most makeshift emirate were shifting. Former Comorian prime minister Abdou Madi, who had initially rallied to the separatist cause, soon deserted it and fled back to the central government. He returned in February 1998 and attempted to oust Abdullah, but he was beaten off too after a firefight.

By now the Anjouan emirate had realized its legitimation problem. The African Union had condemned the secession, and urged a resolution; until then, they and the Comoros imposed a blockade that, while largely ineffective because Mayotte continued to bypass it, brought home to the separatists their international unpopularity. The first of many referendums was announced to be solidly in favour of independence from the Comoros – no less than ninety-nine percent, if the claim was to be believed; several such referendums materialized over the next few years.

Yet this argument failed to convince even the faltering leadership; Abdullah, who had stoked the secessionist flame, now began to seek a rapprochement, and in the process fell into fighting with the more hardline faction led by Chamassi. At this point – in November 1998 – news emerged that the Comorian ruler Taki Abdelkarim had passed away. With the crisis no closer to resolution, in April 1999 Comorian army commander Azali Assoumani seized power in a coup whose first order of business was to salvage the Comorian union.

The military coup in Ngazidja was followed by a twin coup in Anjouan, when Abaid ousted Abdullah. Whereas his predecessor had dithered on the issue of an African Union-brokered reconciliation, Abaid rushed to the negotiations table – only for Azali, inexplicably, to purge Anjouan natives from the central government that rendered it impossible for Abaid to commit. This diplomatic indecision continued, in spite of several tortuously produced accords, until an exasperated Bakar mounted his own coup against the indecisive Abaid in August 2001.

Four months later, a Comoros-wide referendum proved a changed constitution whereby the islands would each elect their premiers, while the national government’s leader would be elected by rotation between the islands – one election between Ngazidja natives, the next between Anjouan natives, the next between Mewali natives. The agreement seemed to have worked in the short term; the first such election in 2002 was won by Assoumani at the national and by Bakar at the Anjouan level.

The crisis had passed, and under their newly elected rulers – both military men whose election partially tilted on their readiness to make peace – both the Comorian federation and Anjouan island seemed set for a new beginning. In 2006, Assoumani stepped down after the next election – contested between Anjouanis – was won by preacher-cum merchant Ahmed Sambi. Unfortunately, Bakar in Anjouan did not follow Assoumani’s example and thus spelt his downfall.

Scheduled to end his term in spring 2007, Bakar instead refused to hand over power and rejected a number of interim rulers, as well as a small military unit, dispatched by Sambi before an election could be called. One such Moroni appointee, Dhoihirou Halidi, was initially rejected by Bakar, and appears to have joined him – because he was soon put alongside an embargo list with Bakar.

Why Bakar attempted to take over, beyond short-sighted ambition, is not entirely clear, but in order to maintain his rule during summer 2007 Bakar raised the stakes by announcing Anjouan’s independence. This was remarkable considering his pro-Comoros stance in the early 2000s, but not so surprising given his earlier history or the fact that others, such as Abaid Abderrahmane and Abdullah Ibrahim, had attempted the same tactic earlier. Also in classic fashion, Bakar announced an island-wide referendum – widely castigated as unfair – in favour of secession.

Such a move was always swimming against the regional and international tide. Where Taki Abdelkarim had panicked in 1997-98, Ahmed Sambi did not in 2007-08. Denouncing Bakar as a dictator, he steadily assumed support for a multilateral takeover of the island, to be conducted jointly with an African Union always leery of secessionist movements. Nor was it too difficult; military units in the Comoros were always tiny, and it was eminently easy to assemble the requisite force, led jointly by Comorian commander Daouda Mataba and Sudanese officer Yahya Abdullah.

Bakar maintained a defiant stand: “Sambi,” he sneered, “does not know anything concern the military, but if I had to advise him I would say that it’s not the solution. The first time the army came we kicked them out. The second time the army came we kicked them out. That means if they try to come a third time we will kick them out.” This bravado made his summary ouster, in spring 2008, the more satisfying for Sambi. The attack cost three lives, exclusively among Bakar’s troops, and the Anjouan garrison crumbled without a fight.

Now it was the government’s turn to sneer, claiming that the “dictator” had fled – in a common but not necessarily truthful accusation attributed by victors over vanquished in Muslim conflicts – disguised as a woman. What Bakar wore on his flight is unclear, but he did flee with two dozen followers into the French-controlled isles – first Mayotte and then Reunion. His application for asylum caused an awkward situation for France, who had formally opposed his takeover and helped the earlier attack on him. Ultimately the Quai D’Orsay refused to extradite the fugitive and satisfied themselves with a small three-month imprisonment.

By that point the Comoros had secured its control of Anjouan. Neither Abdullah Ibrahim, Abaid Abderrahmane, or Mohamed Bakar had ultimately managed to wangle the island’s grievances into a long-term career opportunity; Bakar had come closest but also crashed hardest. Secessionism has often been a thin cover for adventurers, but rarely was the cover so transparently flimsy as in Anjouan.

Abbas Koty. Most of Chad’s modern history has been embroiled in some level or other of warfare. This geographically vast but sparsely populated land, much of it astride the Sahara desert, has only had a few major centres of population and thus relatively modest garrisons. That same modest size, however, has translated into relatively short routes to the top and relatively few military targets to capture. Consequently, Chad has seen a large number of military commanders and officials, each usually representing some separate faction in its diverse populace, try to seize power under some confusingly abbreviated coalition or other. Chad’s current ruler, Idriss Deby, has been the most successful example, but his position has always been uneasy. Another important example of an army commander turned rebel was Colonel Abbas Yacoub Koty, a veterans of Chad’s long war who both helped Deby to power and then challenged him before his sudden murder.

Like its neighbour Sudan, early independent Chad suffered a north-south divide. But where in the Sudan British colonialism had privileged the northlands’ largely Muslim and Arabophone riverine region and neglected the southlands, in Chad French colonialism had neglected the largely desert Muslim northlands and privileged the more fertile southlands. Chad’s founder, the increasingly tyrannical Francois Tombalbaye, had attempted to monopolize power, but where he largely got away with it in the south his repression backfired in the north. A combination of Muslim, ethnic, regional, socioeconomic, and geopolitical factors contributed to revolt of the Chadien north from the mid-1960s onward. The so-called Frolinat coalition – comprising Muslims, Islamists, socialists, regionalists, and opportunists – soon fragmented, so that by the time Tombalbaye was murdered in a military coup in 1975 his successors faced a bewildering array of militias who competed with each other, in a fashion reminiscent of contemporary Lebanon and 1990s Afghanistan and Somalia.

Similarly to these other lands, Chad had a number of identity groups – the Muslim northerners containing such variant ethnicities as the Zaghawa and the Toubou, each with their own clan splits. The Zaghawa, for instance, included the Bidayat confederation to which Deby belongs and the Kobe confederation to which Koty belongs. Chad also featured major geopolitical competition by both the former colonial power, France, and neighbours such as Libya, Nigeria, and Sudan.

Libya, whose quixotic dictator Muammar Qaddafi supported the Muslim revolt but also laid claim to the Aouzou desert region of northern Chad, was an especially involved but also easily vilified actor, such vilification serving to mask the agendas of its rivals and the involvement of other powers. Chad, Libya, and Sudan have had for decades a triangular “Great Game”, conflict spilling over borders between Chad, Libyan Fezzan, and Sudanese Darfur for decades. In the 1970s, Qaddafi enthusiastically supported dissident leaders from both Chad and from Sudan.

After the 1975 coup, the Chadien junta in Ndjamena – led by Felix Malloum, a relatively conciliatory former army commander who had fought in the north – negotiated with the rebels and with France. Optimistic rebel leaders began to return from Libya; these included Ouaddai Wichidimi, the derde or magistrate of the Toubou who had been a major rallying figure for the revolt. Ouaddai’s son Goukouni, elected as the Frolinat coalition’s nominal leader, was a well-meaning but weak, indecisive figure whose leadership was challenged in particular by the ambitious military leader Hissein Habbre, who accused him unfairly as Qaddafi’s puppet.

A brilliant but ruthless adventurer trained, like many other Chadiens, in France, Hissein leapfrogged over Goukouni’s negotiations with Paris and Ndjamena when he abducted French hostages in the mid-1970s and captured the main strongpoints of the north. An exasperated Goukouni expelled Hissein outright from his coalition, but this merely formalized the state of affairs: Hissein’s so-called Nord (North) Army, built compactly around his Gourane clan, was the best-organized and most autonomous rebel faction. Despite his role in destabilization, Hissein was widely admired by France and even by Goukouni’s own father for his military ability and his brooding single-mindedness; he would soon ally with France against what he termed as the Libyan agenda led by Goukouni.

Less notorious equivalents of Hissein Habbre emerged in eastern Chad, whose ethnic groups overlapped in Sudan. These were largely career soldiers whose military training and access to weapons promoted them to lead their in-group. The Hadjerais’ equivalent was Maldoum Abbas; the Arabs’ equivalent was Ahmat Acyl; in the Zaghawa group, Idriss Deby would play an similar role for the Bidayat confederation, while Abbas Koty did the same for his Kobe confederation.

In 1975-77 Hissein had repeatedly undermined Goukouni’s talks with Felix Malloum. After he broke away with the Nord Army, however, he began to negotiate with Malloum in order to win a place for himself. This, in turn, gave Goukouni and his followers an incentive to take over the north; in February 1978, it was Abbas Koty who captained the coalition’s first major conquest, taking over Faya, the main garrison town of the northlands. The attack was purposely mounted on the tenth anniversary of the day that Frolinat founder Brahim Abatcha had been killed in battle, and thus dedicated to Abatcha.

The next year saw frantic realignments; a short-lived French attack halted the Frolinat advance at Salal, while the neighbouring states – Nigeria and Sudan in particular – tried to limit Libya’s influence. Sudan, whose dictator Gafar Numairi was a fierce rival of Qaddafi, arranged the power-sharing accord between Hissein and Malloum in autumn 1978. In turn, Libya’s most favoured militia within the Frolinat umbrella – the umbrella Bourkane militia led by Ahmat Acyl – tried to take over the rebel coalition. In both summer and autumn 1978, Acyl attacked Faya; in both cases he was beaten off by Koty’s troops.

Yet the popular depiction of Acyl as a Libyan puppet was scarcely truer than that of Goukouni as a Libyan puppet; at this particular point he struck a conviviance with Libya, and Qaddafi would slowly come to prefer Arabs in his alliances. Yet the Kobe commander Koty, who led the garrison, was a fervent and long-term admirer of Qaddafi himself. Rather than a binary set of anti-Libyan and pro-Libyan agendas – as claimed by Libya’s rivals in Ndjamena, France, Sudan, Nigeria, and later the United States – it appears that Frolinat militia commanders were weighing their options and responding improvisationally to events.

The Malloum-Hissein coalition formed by Sudan broke down in six months; when their loyalists attacked each other in the capital in February 1979, Frolinat troops rushed to the scene to complete the downfall of the Ndjamena regime, many of whose members fled south to organize their own militias. This ended the southern dominance in Ndjamena – since then, a northerner has always ruled Chad.

But the Frolinat militias and Nord Army soon fell into infighting complicated by regional powers’ agendas. The complex negotiations that ensued are beyond the scope of this article; for our purposes it suffices to note that Goukouni, who emerged as a weak leader in power, posted Abbas Koty to command his native region in eastern Chad, and that his uneasy rapprochement with Hissein Habbre broke down in 1980, when the Nord Army leader fled into the maquis. Goukouni responded by asking Qaddafi to send a Libyan force to safeguard him against the Nord Army, to which the Libyan dictator gleefully assented.

Yet Goukouni’s own discomfort with the indisciplined Libyans soon matched that of Qaddafi’s many enemies; in autumn 1981 he requested the Libyans to leave, in favour of an African Union peacekeeping force led by the Nigerian general Geoffrey Ejiga. Indignant at this ingratitude, Qaddafi decided to remind Goukouni what he had lost; he withdrew his forces before the African Union troops could arrive, and sure enough Goukouni’s archenemy Hissein Habbre pounced.

Now backed by Qaddafi’s archenemy, Sudanese dictator Numairi, Hissein thus attacked from the east, in Abbas Koty’s area of responsibility. Koty was caught off guard and the Nord Army quickly seized the border town Adre. This eastern assault was backed by a northern assault from Hissein’s native northern region, and by summer 1982 the Nord Army led by Hissein’s lieutenant Idriss Deby had captured Ndjamena, Hissein seizing power for himself. The exhausted Goukouni first fled but finally threw in the towel by the mid-1980s, at which point many of the militias under his nominal leadership – among them Koty’s Kobe militia – had reconciled with Hissein.

Though Hissein was a far more capable ruler than Goukouni, he also proved far more ruthless. Experience had taught him that the loose coalitions in Chad were not to be trusted, and he soon began to brutally purge the other factions in his coalition, in favour of his own Gourane group. One by one non-Gourane commanders, such as the Hadjerai Maldoum Abbas and the Kobe Abbas Koty, fled into exile to plot their return.

Yet Hissein also successfully rallied a “patriotic” war against the Libyans, which he was able to do since Qaddafi had reappeared in the northern Aouzou region after Goukouni’s ouster. By this point – the mid-1980s – Qaddafi was opposed not only by France and his African competitors, but also to a fanatical extent by the United States. They flung their weight behind Hissein, who was able to expel the Libyans by 1987.

Yet Qaddafi did score some victories – a popular uprising in Sudan overthrew his longstanding archenemy Numairi, and the resultant election brought to power Sadiq Mahdi – the Sudanese equivalent of Goukouni, a well-meaning but weak scion of privilege who Qaddafi had supported since the 1970s. Like Goukouni, there was little commonality between Sadiq and Qaddafi’s revolutionary “Green Book” ideology – an ideology that in order to mobilize support fo became increasingly Arab supremacist in this period, with long-term consequences for Sudan’s western Darfur region – but beset by a civil war in southern Sudan and heavily dependent on Libya, there was little Sadiq could do.

The convergence of views between Sudan and Libya provided an opportunity for Abbas Koty. His short-lived stint with the vicious Hissein Habbre was over, and he genuinely respected the Libyan dictator; he also had close links to Sadiq Mahdi’s government, especially interior minister Mubarak Fadel and Darfur governor Tigani Tahir, who supervised the camps from which Chadien dissidents attacked.

Several factors changed the environment in 1989. First, Sadiq Mahdi was overthrown in a military coup that installed Omar Bashir at the helm of an Islamist regime. This did not hurt the Chadien dissidents as much as might be expected, because the new regime shared the antipathy toward Hissein Habbre and largely continued Sudanese policy.

Secondly, the dissidents had a windfall when Hissein’s army commander Idriss Deby, having unsuccessfully attempted a coup, fled into Darfur. Koty himself abetted this flight, which brought both confederations of the Zaghawa people – the Kobe and Bidayat – into the revolt. Ironically given the claims that Hissein’s opponents were Libyan clientele, Deby had been preceded by Hissein’s reconciliation with the major Libyan client of the 1980s – the Arab adventurer Acheikh Oumar, who had succeeded Ahmat Acyl as Bourkane militia leader before he reconciled with Hissein. Now, ironically, it was Hissein – who had opportunistically championed himself as an African champion against Qaddafi’s Arab imperialism – who reconciled with Qaddafi’s Arab clientele, and who in turn lost the support of non-Arab adventurers. Along with the Zaghawa, the Hadjerai commander Maldoum Abbas provided the third major faction in the Darfur-based opposition to Hissein.

By 1990, it was the increasingly hated Hissein Habbre who was on the back foot. France, in the eventual pattern of every neo-colonial power with native vassals, had tired of him. Qaddafi of course disliked him, while neither dictatorship in Sudan or Nigeria had any taste for him. In November 1990, a major rebel assault thundered from Sudanese Darfur into eastern Chad. It was do or die for Hissein, and – his flaws having never included cowardice – he personally led the majority of his army into the field. The armies collided outside Abeche, and Hissein was routed. Many of his top lieutenants killed, he himself beat a hasty retreat to Ndjamena. He stopped only to loot the treasury and kill some presumably risky prisoners before making a westward beeline for Cameroon.

The triumphant coalition – now led majorly by Chad easterners – sauntered into the capital at their leisure. Deby set about trying to install a regime, striking reconciliations with former opponents – such as Goukouni Ouaddai – and sending off expeditions against those – such as Hissein’s former Gourane entourage but also southern rebels – who refused. Deby was not as ruthless as Hissein, but like his predecessor his conquering regime has essentially personalized power around his core entourage while trying to either coopt or conquer opponents. That he has survived thirty years on this model attests to some skill and no small fortune.

Among the earliest competitors that Deby sized up were his partners in the 1989-90 period. Both Abbases – the Hadjerai Maldoum and the Kobe Koty – had brought their militias with them, over whom Deby had no control. Moreover, with their major arsenals the two Abbases viewed themselves essentially as equals to Deby, holding powerful positions: Maldoum served as interior minister and thus oversaw security, while Koty took over the army as its commander. Finally, because their links with neighbouring powers were at least as strong as Deby’s links, he was apprehensive that they could turn on him as he had turned on Hissein and, indeed, as Hissein had turned on Goukouni. A purge was in order – not as nasty a purge as Hissein’s earlier purges, which Deby made sure to condemn, but a purge the noo.

In October 1991, Deby ordered the arrest of Maldoum Abbas and army second-in-command, a Kaffine Chahidullah. They had, he claimed, been planning a coup. The charge was baseless, and after a short imprisonment Deby restored Maldoum to a less consequential role in his cabinet; Chahidullah was indignant enough to refuse any further role in the regime.

Far more real was the coup that the other Abbas, army commander Koty, attempted in June 1992. Probably deciding to have Deby for breakfast before he was had for lunch, Koty’s mutiny was equally crushed and he escaped west, following Hissein Habbre’s footsteps into Cameroon. Once safely abroad, he announced a new coalition to oust the regime. But there was little interest, and it appears that he could only attract such few Zaghawa followers, such as his family, who shared his apprehension toward Deby.

Qaddafi – by now, ironically, reinvented as the regional voice of reason once French and American interests were no longer at stake – offered to mediate. Koty was invited to Libya in summer 1993 and at its end he signed the sort of high-level accord that could be expected for a formal government. The Libyan team was led by a leading army officer, Abdelrahman Sayed; the Sudanese team by former Darfur governor Tigani Tahir. Idriss Deby took care to send a suitably high-level delegation, including his brother Dawousa and future defence minister Mahamat Nassour. Koty returned to Chad and registered his exile coalition as a legal opposition party.

Yet no sooner had he let his guard down than Koty was eliminated. In October 1993, days after his party’s registration, he was mysteriously murdered. The culprits are unknown, but Koty’s brother Hissein blamed the government and escaped – unsurprisingly, east into Sudan – to plot another revolt.

Like the rebel assault from Sudan in 1990, Abbas Koty’s route has been worn, rinsed, and repeated again and again in Deby’s long regime, with one military adventurer after another taking to the maquis – often, as relations with Bashir worsened in the 2000s, with Sudanese help – and mounting assaults that frequently came from Darfur. Very frequently such mutineers have been either eliminated, or coopted into high-level positions such as army commander. The Chadien state structure remains similar in structure, if somewhat broader, than it was during the 1980s; much as Hissein Habbre relied on his personal entourage, so has Deby. This has not prevented malcontents from attempting to replace Deby, but it has not prevented their reintegration as well as a sort of militarized regional aristocracy. In this respect, Abbas Koty was perhaps unusual only in his ideological certitude – for in contrast to many others, he was reportedly quite fervent in his espousal of revolutionary Muslim nationalism – and the abruptness of his violent downfall.

Wild and Whacky Military Adventurers Part 6

Ibrahim Moiz, rights reserved

31 May 2020

I had intended, again, to focus on less trodden lands this month, but somehow the deadline crept up on me and I had to quickly write on lands well-trod. The keen-eyed reader will note, perhaps with a touch of chagrin, that I have grouped the Kashmiri commander under Pakistan and the Palestinian commander under Syria. This is not a comment on whether or not these putative occupied lands should be part of these neighbouring states, which has often been the source of controversy but on which I cannot venture an opinion; given, however, that they have been occupied throughout the postcolonial period by loathsome regimes, I’ve decided to group them under the nearest kin-country of any size. I begin and end with the Name of Allah, in whose Hand lies total power, and with prayers that he lifts the malady that has plagued the world without further casualties.

Abdul-Majeed Dar. Kashmir/Pakistan*. The decades-long occupation of Kashmir by India and the insurgency that especially dominated the 1990s prompted a number of international observers, usually heavily influenced by New Delhi, to refer to the conflict’s Kashmiri rebels in ideologically absolutist terms – between hardliners and moderates, between nationalists and “jihadists”, and so forth. Most such analyses have been puerile, partly because they focused only on one side of the conflict irrespective of the overarching conditions that produced different responses from the Kashmiri militants. One key example is the career of Abdul-Majeed Dar, the military commander of the best-organized Hizbul-Mujahideen insurgent group, ended with an unexpected attempt at negotiation. Having been the insurgent’s insurgent through his career, his murder shortly after initiating an unreciprocated dialogue with Indian authorities enabled them to portray him posthumously as a dove whose sane capitulationism had been cut mercilessly short by the “hardliners” with whom he had spent his career. In fact, Abdul-Majeed’s decisions, while certainly controversial among the Kashmiri insurgency, reflected the peculiar dynamics of the conflict in the early 2000s.

The war between India and Pakistan over Kashmir in the late 1940s had a profound effect on both that picturesque region and relations between the two subcontinental neighbours. It resulted in the partition of Kashmir; the largely autonomous western Azad Kashmir came under Pakistani purview based at Muzaffarabad, while the eastern Jammu and Kashmir region came under Indian rule at Srinagar. In both cases Kashmiri leaders who had taken one side or other in the war dominated the local politics, though at least in the 1950s both New Delhi and Islamabad’s ministerial liaisons to these Kashmiri governments flexed their authority over these regional premiers on several occasions. India’s failure to implement a long-promised referendum for Kashmir’s autonomy, however, helped make New Delhi’s grip far more resented, however. Though Pakistani rulers occasionally intruded in Azad Kashmir, this was usually a corollorary to insecure centre-periphery tensions throughout Pakistan.

By contrast Jammu and Kashmir was treated as a vassaldom by an India that clearly had no intention of submitting to the long-promised referendum. The most notable victim-turned-beneficiary of this vassaldom was Sheikh Abdullah, a popular activist leader since the colonial period who had become premier in Srinagar until his imprisonment, on blatantly contrived charges of sedition, by Jawaharlal Nehru’s government in summer 1953. Released after eleven years, he spent the next eleven years canvassing support – in Pakistan and several Muslim countries – for support of Kashmiri autonomy. In the process he hobnobbed with Zulfikar Bhutto, then Pakistan’s hawkish foreign minister, but also avoided the more militant separatism favoured by the likes of Amanullah Khan, whose network carried out sabotage operations based off the Palestinian model, in this period.

Pakistan’s defeat in the 1971 war with India, however, shook both Bhutto and Abdullah; now enthroned as Pakistani prime minister, Bhutto bluntly informed Abdullah that the Kashmiris could expect no reasonable help for a decade. In turn Abdullah mended his fences with New Delhi: in January 1975 he signed an accord with Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of his former persecutor Nehru, which enabled him to return to power in return for effectively forgoing autonomy. India’s irritant had become her trusted vassal in Srinagar.

The Abdullah family’s domination in Srinagar coincided with an increased militancy among Kashmiris. Amanullah’s Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was set up in the late 1970s, though its activity was essentially confined at this point to lobbying efforts for Kashmiri independence. Inside Indian-occupied Kashmir, opposition to Abdullah and his son Farooq, who succeeded him, took a less militant form and at least grudgingly operated within the system. Ali Geelani and Salahuddin Yousuf, future leaders in the Islamist wing of the separatist movement, both participated in politics under the Indian mandate, the former as a member of the Jamaat Islami party. Abdul-Majeed Dar was also active in student politics at his home city, Sopore; while not a formal Jamaat member, he played a considerable role in Islamist student politics. Campaigning on behalf of Geelani, he was arrested on several occasions and once spent a full year in custody.

The Jamaat party was close to Pakistan’s military dictator Mohammad Ziaul-Haq, who had toppled Zulfikar Bhutto and overseen a sea change in geopolitics. This had largely to do with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as a result of which both Pakistan diplomatically as well as a particularly Islamist brand of militant internationalism were strengthened on the international front. Ziaul-Haq, already helping a Sikh insurgency in the Indian Punjab, also tried to coopt Amanullah – drawing in many of his lieutenants, but ultimately failing to draw in Amanullah himself, who was always suspicious of Pakistani motives. Thus Ziaul-Haq turned to the Jamaat, which was far more amenable to coordination between Muslim Pakistan and Muslim Kashmir. Its leaders in Muzaffarabad and Srinagar respectively, Maulana Abdul-Bari and Saaduddin Tarabeli, met with Ziaul-Haq in 1984; Tarabeli, who was initially hesitant, agreed to send Jamaat members including his own son for military training.

Nonetheless, what really kicked the Kashmiri opposition into overdrive was the election of spring 1987. Blatantly rigged in favour of Farooq Abdullah, who had succeeded his father as India’s man in Srinagar, this election featured several Kashmiri leaders of the oncoming insurgency in opposition, including future Hizbul-Mujahideen emir Salahuddin Yousuf. Abdul-Majeed Dar then sat on the board of an Islamist umbrella coalition – the Muslim United Front, chaired by Jamaat leader Ghulam Muhammad – and in the aftermath of the elections joined the thousands of Kashmiris who took up insurgency. Coincide as it did with both the ongoing Afghanistan insurgency and the rather more similar Palestinian uprisings, the Kashmiri insurgency kicked into overdrive with a not-inconsiderable prospect of success in the late 1980s.

Though the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front was initially the largest and most active insurgent group, the merger of several smaller Islamist fronts into larger outfits soon dwarfed it in both size and operation. Abdul-Majeed and his schoolfriend Bashir Reagan – nicknamed, apparently on account of his charisma, after the American ruler of the day – founded a militia based largely on their student network, but by 1989 this had merged into what became known as the Hizbul-Mujahideen. Closely linked with the Jamaat and its fellow travellers, this group was modelled, down to its name, on the Afghan Hizb party led by Gulbadin Hikmatyar, which had been the foremost party to train Kashmiris and was then particularly close to the Pakistani military.

Unlike the Afghan Hizb, however, Hizbul-Mujahideen never achieved the sort of centralized command around its emir that it may have liked. One reason was that while the Afghan Hizb enjoyed considerable space to operate in captured or surrendered territory, the Kashmiri situation more resembled the Palestinian or Irish one: the Kashmir valley was by 1990, with the arrival of the brutal governor-general Jagmohan Malhotra, swamped with regime troops and indeed became the most heavily militarized region in the world. Unlike Afghanistan and similar insurgencies, where considerable land exchanged hands and at least large pockets of rebel governance existed, Kashmir featured hit-and-run attacks, chronic instability, and disruption rather than any attempt to capture territory. Suicide attacks, though by the mid-1990s very much in vogue among Hizbul-Mujahideen’s ideological cousins in the Palestinian Hamas, were ruled out by Abdul-Majeed and his colleagues based on their dubious legality in Islam, but otherwise it was the same sort of war being fought in Palestine. By the same token, their streetfighting leaders were far more vulnerable to elimination; this resulted in a high turnover of leaders, and the Hizbul-Mujahideen were no exception. Few leaders have survived the party’s history; Ali Geelani, widely respected for his own sacrifices, remained an eminence grise in an unofficial capacity, but most of its remaining leadership fluctuated.

Very soon the leading council was based in Muzaffarabad as a fallback: small armed units were “launched” into Indian-occupied Kashmir from Azad Kashmir where they received support from established cells inside the valley. Nonetheless, not dissimilarly to Afghan insurgent parties’ struggles with their field commanders, a gulf started to emerge between the Hizbul-Mujahideen council based in Muzaffarabad and the internal command structure. An ill-advised attempt to control the latter resulted in several bloody purges during the mid-1990s, though some of these were undoubtedly Indian operations trying to cut a wedge between the insurgents. Eventually the Muzaffarabad council promoted to its lead Salahuddin Yousuf, who was in turn charged with liaising with Pakistan. Indian accounts have subsequently made much of the “Pakistan-backed” Salahuddin, portrayed as a chickenhawk hardliner and Pakistani stooge, and the allegedly more “moderate” field commanders. This largely nonsensical appraisal nonetheless stemmed from real tensions between the external and internal leadership, the former prioritizing its liaisons in the international realm while the latter prioritized its fighters in the field.

Abdul-Majeed Dar appeared the quintessential field commander at this point. He had spent the early 1990s in the battlefield, directing many attacks around his native city Sopore, and enjoyed considerable popularity. He was also well-regarded by the Kashmiri leadership in Pakistan, which recalled him to coordinate in the mid-1990s. But in fact – contrary to subsequent Indian propaganda, which saw Abdul-Majeed as a pragmatic battlefield commander and Salahuddin as a hawk beholden to Pakistan – Abdul-Majeed did not actually return permanently to occupied Kashmir until spring 2000. And indeed at that point, he had been entirely on the same page, and well-trusted by, the external Hizbul-Mujahideen leadership.

By this point a full decade had elapsed since the war started; occupied Kashmir was laden with blood; and the Indian government appeared, if anything, on the diplomatic upswing. India had allied firmly with Russia, Iran, and most Central Asian states in the Afghanistan war; Pakistan’s support to the Taliban emirate in that war was portrayed internationally as part of a larger “radical” Islamic flood that would sweep the region, including Kashmir. This had contributed to the contrasting outcomes of India and Pakistan’s 1998 nuclear tests, with the latter punished economically and diplomatically while the former largely escaped such measures; it was also hardened by the 1999 war in Kashmir, when a Pakistani attack was eventually repulsed and received widespread international approbrium, as did – initially – the subsequent coup by army commander Pervez Musharraf against prime minister Nawaz Sharif.

Like the regimes of both Sharif and Musharraf, Abdul-Majeed dismissed these notions. He knew several Afghan actors, and scoffed at the notion that Usama bin-Ladin – whose alliance with the Taliban in Afghanistan was a particularly juicy selling point – had exercised any authority in Afghanistan, let alone Kashmir. He was by contrast quite keen to prove that the Kashmiri insurgency was a pragmatic, rational actor. Coupled with the exhaustion of Hizbul-Mujahideen fighters, in July 2000 – two months after returning to the valley – he announced a month-long ceasefire and offered substantive talks.

While Abdul-Majeed’s ceasefire took Ali Geelani and most of the external Hizbul-Mujahideen leadership by surprise, it did not initially cause any dispute. He was backed by an impressive array of Hizbul-Mujahideen field commanders – Abdul-Hameed Masood, Khurshid Asad-Yazdani, Farooq Mirchal, Ghulam, Zafar Abdul-Fattah, and possibly Naseeruddin Ghulam, most of them from the top deck of the organization’s command. And even the quintessential “external hardliner” Salahuddin Yousuf initially agreed to the ceasefire for a full month.

Indeed, quite contrary to the idea that this had jolted Pakistan, the exact opposite seems to have been true. Pervez Musharraf, Pakistan’s new military dictator, had encountered a rough welcome to the international sphere, based in no small way off his reputation as a hawk from the previous year’s war. What had particularly stung had been American ruler Bill Clinton’s pointedly humiliating dismissal of him in a trip to South Asia that spring, which contrasted with Clinton’s warmer trip to India. Musharraf took American opinion seriously, and by July 2000 he was so fraught that he resorted to no less controversial a figure than Yasser Arafat to mediate on his behalf in Washington. Abdul-Majeed’s offer therefore worked entirely in Islamabad’s favour, and indeed Musharraf one-upped it by offering to meet Indian ruler Atal Vajpayee anywhere on any condition.

It was instead Vajpayee’s refusal to consider these terms that caused a subsequent rupture. It was a humiliating setback for Musharraf, whose trust in the Kashmiri insurgents’ judgement never recovered; from that point on he would seek to pursue his own talks separately. It was a more humiliating setback for Abdul-Majeed, whose credibility with the Hizbul-Mujahideen command had been shaken; critics darkly whispered of betrayal and conspiracy, which they assigned – both rather implausibly – to either Pakistani or Indian pressure. A jilted Salahuddin also never quite forgave the blunder.

The promise of the new millennium, which had begun with much hype about militant acceleration in Kashmir, thus caved. The Hizbul-Mujahideen organization began to fray, and not simply on external-internal lines: in October 2000 Masood Sarfaraz, a Hizbul-Mujahideen veteran in the Pir Panjal region, tried to break away in a mutiny that was forcibly quelled by the loyalist commander Shamsher Khan and the Azad Kashmir Jamaat emir, Abdur-Rasheed Turabi; an embittered Sarfaraz broke away from the organization outright. Coupled with the increased tension between Abdul-Majeed and Salahuddin, this contributed to the insurgency losing steam.

Abdul-Majeed, who always maintained public talk of unity, tried to save face. In spring 2001 he took credit for a high-profile attack on a high-ranked Indian officer, Bikram Singh, during the latter’s trip in Kashmir’s Islamabad; Singh survived and would become Indian army commander a decade later. But his attempt to paper over the cracks with Salahuddin came too late. By this point the Indian security services had their wedge, and they used it ruthlessly; the elimination of several of Abdul-Majeed’s lieutenants, including Abdul-Hameed Masood, blamed in the Indian media on Salahuddin’s “hardliners”, were much more plausibly done by India. But this could not be proven either way, and the fact that Hizbul-Mujahideen had conducted purges before contributed to the progressive unease between its factions.

In May 2002 the tension snapped when Hizbul-Mujahideen expelled Abdul-Majeed. Refusing the dismissal, Abdul-Majeed attempted his own breakaway; this, however, failed to get much traction, and within a year he was murdered in Sopore. The murder – blamed, again implausibly, by India on Salahuddin – nonetheless did not attract the sort of widespread grief normally reserved for slain Kashmiri commanders; doubts about treachery and treason had crept in, for had not Shaikh Abdullah been coopted by India decades earlier? The likelier explanation for the murder – that India, having vainly hoped that Abdul-Majeed’s ouster would split Hizbul-Mujahideen, put paid to him – can still not be confirmed.

Abdul-Majeed’s gamble for a ceasefire had effectively put his head above the parapet in the India-Kashmiri conflict, and the fact that it backfired had left him isolated and untrusted by both parties. His career, from student leader to militant commander to prospective and ultimately failed peacemaker, reflects responses toward shifting circumstances that ultimately proved beyond his control and swallowed him.

Walid Iyad. Palestine/Syria*. The mobilization and assertion of Palestinian militancy that immediately followed the 1967 Israeli conquest of Ghazza and the West Bank came hand in hand with a gradual power shift in the region. The governments of the region, while formally supportive of the Palestinian fidayin, found their leverage and authority over these fidayin much harder to ascertain; this was especially the case with the Fatah organization, the largest and most active Palestinian group. But though it made a virtue of maintaining autonomy from the governments, Fatah also had more to lose from unnecessary confrontation with those governments, in order to focus on Israel without losing key bases in the region. This was a challenge it largely failed, resulting in its bloody ouster from Jordan and then Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s respectively. The career and even the posthumous reinvention of Abu Ali Walid Muhammad Mustafa Nimr Iyad, a leading military leader in the Fatah command, illustrates this rather tragically.

The facts are these: Walid Iyad, one of the fidayin’s toughest and most capable commanders, had trained in Algeria immediately after its independence and thereafter banked on that experience to set up military recruitment and preparation in the Levant. In 1970-71, however, Fatah and other fidayin organizations fell out sharply with the Jordanian monarchy over power, having constructed a virtual state-within-a-state that posed a none-too-subtle threat to a monarchy that had always preferred its Palestinian populace as loyal subjects of the crown. The resulting war, where the Jordanian regime bloodily expelled the fidayin from their territory, culminated with Walid Iyad’s capture and execution, allegedly by Wasfi Tal, the hard-charging Jordanian prime minister and himself a loyalist Palestinian of the sort preferred by Amman. Months later, Tal was himself grotesquely murdered by one of several hit squads, set up by various fidayin commanders, that dabbled in outright terrorism (as opposed to guerrilla warfare) and named themselves after the slain “Abu Ali Iyad”.

It might then be expected that Iyad was a Palestinian commander of the exact sort that such Arab regimes as Jordan’s feared; a hardline revolutionary, as committed to subversion as he was to fighting the Zionist entity. In fact, quite the opposite was true. Walid Iyad’s career was that of a proper “fighting man”, loath to involve himself in overambitious politics and focused largely on the task at hand. After his martyrdom, his memory was rewritten and instrumentalized for political purposes – much as was the case with his alleged executioner, Wasfi Tal. Iyad was no subversive agent anymore than was Tal a remorseless enemy of Palestinian aspirations; in the final analysis, both men’s lives ended abruptly in the shifting conflict between mutually suspicious and uneasy allies in the war against Israel.

Walid Iyad’s formative years saw the conquest of Palestine by Israel against first a rather motley array of Palestinian groups and then against a no-less-motley array of fledgling Arab states in the late 1940s; interestingly Wasfi Tal then served on a military board, chaired by Iraqi army commander Ismail Safwat, that was meant to organize the anti-Zionist fronts, and his own advice on strategy was overruled. Whether it would have made a difference or not, Wasfi Tal was none too impressed with the experience and came firmly to believe that Arab state power of the sort that Jordan – whose fledgling, British-trained army was objectively the best performer in the war – was needed to liberate Palestine. This was exactly contrary to what Fatah supposed, and goes some way in explaining Tal’s rift with his compatriots.

Though hit-and-run Palestinian bands – mainly by peasants and farmers competing with Zionist settlers and frontiersmen – continued during the 1950s, it was hardly a promising period for any sort of actual insurgency. By contrast the attention of Iyad’s generation could only be drawn admiringly toward Algeria, where a century-long French colonial territory was expelled in a ruthless but rewarding war by the Algerian Front Liberation. Iyad, who moved to Algeria shortly after its independence in the 1960s and worked as a teacher there, was hardly alone in his admiration. A significant number of Arab, and especially Levantine, youth arrived in Algeria; they included the Syrian Baathists Yusuf Zuayyin and Ibrahim Makhous, who would soon become prime minister and foreign minister for one of the several Baath regimes that dominated 1960s Syria.

In 1964, the same year that Iyad returned from Algeria, the Masri regime pushed itself as the champion of the Palestinian cause and set up an umbrella organization of Palestinian activists, intellectuals, and militants; it is best-known as the PLO but, since I hate acronyms with a passion, I shall henceforth refer to it by its Arabic noun, Munqadha. In spite of the relatively large and well-trained units in its military wing, Munqadha was early on dominated by Masr, of which its unpopular founder Ahmad Shuqairi was a joint citizen. In founding Munqadha, Cairo was aiming to add another arrow to its bow of the sort it had already fletched in the form of the pan-Arab Qaumia network. This network, led by the Palestinian intellectual George Habash and disproportionately representing secularist Arab minoritarians of a leftist bent, was so loyal to Masr that for years it shied away from any militancy that it feared would draw Cairo into a war for which it was not yet prepared: its closest flirtation to militancy came in South Yemen, where it backed the insurgency against Britain without ever controlling it as it would oike.

By contrast the network of Palestinian militants that Iyad joined, which formed Fatah a few months later, firmly eschewed domination by any Arab state. They were largely Palestinians from refugee or expatriate backgrounds. While many of them had cut their teeth in groups as far-flung as the Muslim Brethren and the Baath, they had been disappointed in the inaction of these groups and eschewed any focus on ideology in favour of action. In this respect – their focus on spontaenous action rather than conscious organization or indoctrination – Fatah much more resembled the Palestinian militancy from the 1930s up to 1948, and sought to draw on its legacy.

Though Fatah had no single leader at the start, several leading figures gradually emerged. Most notable was Yasser Arafat, whose combination of domineering bravado and restless lobbying would eventually catapult him to its effective emir. Other leading figures included Khalil Wazir, like Arafat a former member of the Muslim Brethren, and along with his wife Intisar a clever and thoughtful organizer; Salah Khalaf, a former Baath member who would eventually dominate security and clandestine operations; the Hasan brothers Hani and Khaled, who had solid international connections; and Iyad himself.

Like many other insurgent groups, a rift would soon emerge between Fatah’s internal command and its external political offices, which were especially leery of Arafat’s unilateral recklessness. The latter included Arafat’s own brother Fathi and Adil Abdul-Karim, who was largely based in Kuwait but also enjoyed good relations with the Baath party. It is important to note that, despite their subsequent hype, early Fatah operations were quite modest and only remarkable for the fact that they occurred at all. But they soon caught the attention of other Palestinian groups as well as Syria, which had just undergone the latest of several internecine coups within a Baath party that was fast transforming it into a surveillance state that could hardly miss the Palestinian militiamen organizing on its territory. While the Syrian Baath faction that seized power in February 1966 included Iyad’s old Algeria contacts Zuayyin as prime minister and Makhous as foreign minister, real power lay with the secretive military junta of the Baath party, whose competing potentates sought to use the Baath for their own purposes.

Among these potentates were Baath strongman Salah Jadid, army minister Hafez Assad, and army commander Ahmad Suwaidani. Suwaidani, who already had several Palestinian militias as putative projects, was the most eager to support Fatah, and Assad the least. Suwaidani won out, since it was hoped that he could merge Fatah into his own projects, both led by army officers of Palestinian stock. The first was Ahmad Jibril, whose initially small front would morph into the Qiadah organization – a group that survives today and participates in the Syrian war on the regime’s behalf. The second in particularly caused Arafat unease; it was led by Yusuf Urabi, a brash commander who was both a friend of his Fatah rival Adil Abdul-Karim and tipped by the Baath regime to take over Fatah.

The tension soon snapped; in May 1966, Urabi was killed in a shootout with Arafat’s guards. Ironically it was Suwaidani’s rival Assad, who had hitherto maintained a cold disapproval, who swooped in to capitalize on the murder; accusing the Fatah command of murdering an army officer, he had them swept up in jail. Walid Iyad briefly took over as stand-in leader but was himself soon arrested, leaving Intisar Wazir, Khalil’s wife, in charge of a flailing organization.

Assad turned up the heat on his captives for six months; Arafat and his colleagues were thoroughly grilled by a military tribunal that comprised Assad, future army minister Mustafa Talas, future air marshal Naji Jamil, and his own Palestinian lieutenant in the airforce, Mahmoud Azzam. The conditions were gruelling; Arafat eventually staged a three-week hunger strike, while Wazir was only released after his infant son was killed in an accident. But, ever a cynic, Assad was not overly concerned about a murder; rather he wanted to coopt Fatah in his struggle with Jadid, Suwaidani, and the other Baath heavyweights. It was with Walid Iyad that he eventually signed a private understanding; in return for a Fatah training camp to be opened at Hama under airforce supervision, the fidayin would avoid links with Assad’s Baathist rivals and operate strictly on Syria’s terms – which included a ban on activity from Syrian territory that might prompt an Israeli attack.

This latter concern was reduced to a joke only seven months later, when Israel overran Masri, Jordanian, and Syrian forces to occupy the Sinai, Ghazza Strip, West Bank, and Golan Heights. The rout, while crippling in the immediate run, also provided an opportunity for the Palestinian militants – and in particular Fatah, whose longstanding mistrust of regime cooption seemed vindicated. Arafat took the lead in arguing for an insurgency, a move soon aped by many smaller competitors. And though the early insurgency in the occupation was smashed by the end of 1967, it did receive the approval of the regional states as well, in particular Masr, which needed to divert Israel while it reconstructed its military and waged an attritional border conflict on the Suez Canal. In short, the fidayin – and especially Fatah – had more leeway to act.

Walid Iyad’s camp at Hama took especial importance as Fatah mobilized in earnest. By every account he was a brave and effective leader, enjoying the confidence of both his fighters with whom he frequently forayed, and the Damascus regime. He also participated in the battle that made Fatah’s reputation and catapulted fidayin insurgency into the spotlight.

In 1967, Jordan’s cautious monarchy had thrown in its lot with the Masr-led republics; though this cost him the West Bank, Hussein bin Talal backed the Masr-led attritional war and, for the purposes of cooperation, admitted fidayin to operate from Jordan. Their bargaining power with regard to the monarchy was increased by the arrival of an Iraqi force, officially meant to guard Jordan and support the insurgents; this was led by the sympathetic Hasan Naqib, later Iraqi army second-in-command and, after his retirement, a Fatah member.

Bristling at the fidayin camp at Karameh across the Jordan river, in spring 1968 Israel dispatched a force to destroy it. Although it was only a small Fatah unit – some two hundred fighters – it was a rare collection of insurgents at an open spot, and Israel probably wanted to make a warning point to Jordan as well. Fatah leaders at the site included Yasser Arafat, Walid Iyad, and Hani Hasan; they received advice to back down from Naqib and Jordanian army commander Amer Khammash. Arafat, however, opted to stand and fight; according to Hani, his words were: “We want to persuade the world that there are those in the Arab nation who will not withdraw and flee. Let us die under the tracks of the tanks and change the course of history in our region.”

This stand paid off richly. It cost Fatah nearly half its fidayin battalion, but it cost the Israelis an unusual share of casualties in men and material as well, and catapulted the fidayin into the popular imagination of their generation. Never mind, as Arafat’s rivals darkly noted, that the Jordanian field commander Mashhour Haditha’s bold decision to join the fidayin, losing threescore troops in the process as they fired heavy guns at the Israelis, went largely unnoticed in the public eye. The fidayin’s popularity skyrocketed in the aftermath of the battle; tales and poems were written about the fundamental importance of such resistance to Palestinian identity. Money and recruits poured in, Iyad’s camp taking more volunteers than it was prepared to handle. Even Hussein bin Talal, long leery of the insurgents, was compelled to ride the tiger, announcing “we are all fidayin” The Jordanian regime had little option but to accept and support the fidayin.

To a considerable extent, this popularity went to the fidayin’s head. In subsequent years it is undeniable, even if Amman exaggerated the facts, that the insurgents formed an unruly state within the Jordanian state, misunderstanding Jordanian indulgence for weakness. The worst culprits, however, were not Fatah; despite their attempt to distance themselves from regime control, they had no fundamental quarrel with the Jordanian regime. Far worse were the Marxist groups, most of which had sprouted from a newly militant Qaumia. Qaumia’s founder George Habash, espousing a newfound Marxism, founded the Shaabia group, while a more radical understudy Nayef Hawatmeh founded a small breakaway front that prioritized action against such purportedly reactionary Arab states as Jordan as a more immediate priority than action against Israel. Hawatmeh had already influenced the takeover of South Yemen by a Marxist party, and was equally confident that he could take on Jordan. The generally modest size and lack of societal reach that these Marxist groups had only emboldened them to “force” the issue by carrying out headline-grabbing but strategically pointless operations such as the airplane hijackings planned by Habash’s military commander Wadia Haddad and Hawatmeh’s aide Fuad Abdul-Karim. This was a complete U-turn for Habash in particular; having once warned against rash action in order to prevent an Israeli strike on Masr, he now tolerated rash action that could jeopardize Jordan.

Fatah did not share the confrontational aims of its smaller rivals, but its sanctuary and newfound legitimacy undoubtedly went to many Fatah members’ head. By 1969 Fatah had effectively taken over the Munqadha umbrella, with Yasser Arafat doubling as Munqadha and Fatah emir and embarking on a series of international tours. Fatah militiamen, and even some leaders, fondly imagined that small states such as Jordan were now at their mercy, and that the lack of a confrontation was not due to Jordanian goodwill but their own magnanimity.

By contrast Fatah leaders intimately involved in diplomatic or military operations, such as Walid Iyad, Khalil Wazir, Khaled Hasan, and Kamal Udwan were much more cautious. They had little love for the Jordanian regime but realized that their forward operations in the occupation depended heavily on their Jordanian base. Similar tensions with Lebanon, whose Maronite-dominated army was more openly nervous about fidayeen activity, had been papered over by Masri diplomacy, but there was no such guarantee for Jordan.

One factor that complicated Fatah relations with Jordan was the steady influx of not only civilians but also Jordanian officers into the fidayeen camp. Though they varied widely in motive – some were ideological, others ambitious, others simply keen to fight at the front with their relative military expertise – these officer recruits came to occupy an increasingly significant role in Fatah; one prominent example, Attaullah Attaullah, soon came to challenge Walid Iyad’s control of the Lebanese and Jordanian bases, though he would not do so successfully until after Iyad’s death. The fact that many such recruits doubled as fidayeen and army officers, and that some – such as Abu Moussa Muragheh, a cousin of the Maoist fidayeen commander Fuad Abdul-Karim – sympathized with opposition parties in Jordan, made the Jordanian regime increasingly suspicious that the fidayeen, including Fatah, were planning a coup. Such Jordanian advisors as Wasfi Tal – who had in 1968 embraced the fidayeen alliance but quickly lost patience – were increasingly convinced that Jordan was not big enough for both the regime and the fidayeen. This tension ultimately led to the bloody war of 1970-71.

This is not the place to discuss the entire war’s history; suffice it to say that clashes between the army and fidayeen – the latter initially largely represented by the Marxist groups rather than Fatah – escalated in spring 1970, despite repeated attempts by both regional Arab states, Hussein bin Talal, and Yasser Arafat to come to an understanding. At one point, indeed, Hussein offered Arafat the prime ministry – which the startled fidayeen emir refused. Similarly, to assuage Fatah, Hussein promoted to prime minister Abdul-Munim Rifai and army commander the same Mashhour Haditha who had fought at the Karameh battle in 1968; both were trusted by the fidayeen. But Hussein was also keeping his powder dry, mobilizing the army as well as bedouin paramilitaries on whom the regime often relied in such troubled periods. In fact the prime ministry and army command became irrelevant; power was increasingly centred in an unofficial council comprising Hussein and his cousins in the army Nasir bin Jamil and Zaid bin Shaker.

For their part, the Marxists continued to escalate on the fidayin side, mounting brazen ambushes and openly planning a takeover. By the summer, with scores slain in skirmishes and tempers frayed, many Fatah leaders began to agree with them, boasting that they could topple the monarchy at a whim. Walid Iyad took the opposite view, arguing to the end that the fidayin should reach an accomodation and focus on insurgency in Israeli territory. But by this point even his fellow pragmatists were wavering; Kamal Udwan, himself a fierce critic of the Marxist groups, began to wonder if really a takeover wasn’t for the best, while Khalil Wazir actually tried to preemptively split the army by proposing a coup that would leave the state intact but replace Hussein with former army commander Mashhour. This bespoke overconfidence by even these more realistic commanders; in fact, the army was now entirely under the control of Hussein, his cousins Zaid and Nasir, and the loyalist bedouin army commander Habis Mujalli. Many Jordanian officers would defect in the subsequent conflict, but not enough to dent its progress.

This is not the space to recount the rapid and bewildering series of political, military, and diplomatic events that unravelled in what became known as “Black September” 1970; I will, if Allah wills it, write an article on this subject on the war’s fiftieth anniversary in September 2020. It suffices here to note that escalation – especially on the government’s behalf – was by now so inexorably set that a series of diplomatic attempts to stop a war by a cavalcade of Arab states faltered; these ran the ideological and partisan gamut from radical Masr, whose dictator Gamal Abdel-Nasser spent his last days in mediation and would perish before the month was out, to conservative Kuwait. Iraq, which had repeatedly assured the fidayin that it would crush any regime attempt against them, quailed under the threat of American airstrikes and backed out. By contrast the rival Baathist regime in Syria did mount a brief and ill-fated campaign across the border; this was a corollary of the bubbling conflict between Salah Jadid, whose faction approved the attack, and army minister Hafez Assad, who pointedly refused to give the attacking troops air cover and thus left them fodder for the Jordanian airforce. These events would have a profound impact in the region; within months Assad would unseat Jadid in a bloodless coup, while the ruling faction in Baghdad, including the future dictator Saddam Hussein, used Iraqi failure as a pretext to purge their opponents and cement their control.

But back to Jordan and the war; the fidayin’s illusions were swiftly and cruelly crushed, as the army drove them from Amman and Zarqa, where they had thousands of supporters and where they lost thousands in the campaign; most fidayin were expelled to northern Jordan, the majority in Ajloun under the joint command of Walid Iyad and Khalil Wazir. This show of force in the capital satisfied Hussein for the moment, and he called off the attack. But subsequent talks were bound to fail, partly because the newly confident regime was on a roll and partly because they rightly judged that Fatah could not keep the other groups in order. In fact, Fatah was forced to introspect by their sudden defeat, and spent the winter both trying to placate Hussein and chiding their rivals in the fidayin ranks. Ultimately, Hussein had no confidence in them, and his promotion of Wasfi Tal to prime minister heralded his resolve to finish off the fidayin enclave in Jordan.

As early as winter 1970-71 – while talks were still afoot – Tal mounted a creeping northward march. By the spring the regime had recaptured Jirash and Irbid, to only muted protests by the Arab capitals; indeed the fidayin suspected that the newly enthroned Syrian dictator Hafez Assad, despite his official protest, had given the Jordanian army intelligence on them. Israel had taken advantage of the crisis to stamp out the putative fidayin cells in the occupied territories; not till the late 1980s would they face an actual insurgency.

With Wazir rushing abroad to confer with the remaining leadership in Cairo, Walid Iyad was in sole command at the beleaguered Ajloun garrison when the final blow fell in July 1971. Several Jordanian soldiers who had defected to the militants were executed, as was Iyad himself in the final act of the fidayin enclave in Jordan.

This last action particularly galled Fatah. While Amman insisted that stray soldiers had shot the prisoners, and sentenced several to military trials, the militants were convinced that Iyad had been personally executed by Wasfi Tal. Though there is no proof of this, it did reflect a popular perception of the prime minister based in his particular interest and role in expunging his troublesome compatriots from Jordan. One Fatah leader, Khaled Hasan, later claimed that Tal privately came around to fidayin mistrust of Hussein and offered him a joint coup against the crown, but this is impossible to verify and seems dubious given Tal’s energetic role in the campaign.

At any rate, the events of 1970-71 stung Fatah enough to venture outside the strictly guerrilla sphere into a brief but internationally infamous venture into what can be described as terrorism. This was not strict policy, but several leading Fatah members – including Salah Khalaf and Abu Daud Oudeh, both of whom had been humiliated by the Jordanian regime in September 1970, and also including Yasser Arafat’s bodyguard Abu Hasan Salameh and Abu Yusuf Najjar – set up small and clandestine wings that dabbled in assassinations, sabotage, subversion, and bomb attacks. Khalaf, the most influential, even organized an attempt to assassinate Hussein bin Talal in October 1974. These networks adopted such names as “Black September” and “Abu Ali Iyad” – thereby ironically cementing the posthumous, and entirely inaccurate, reputation of Walid Iyad as a mastermind of such tactics and of general militant-regime confrontation. Yasser Arafat denied responsibility for most of their actions, but it was a mark of the war’s psychological effect that he, who had made many efforts to reconcile with Amman, eagerly claimed Fatah credit for the spectacularly grotesque murder of Wasfi Tal at Masr in November 1971. The embrace of such tactics, with their regular references to “Black September” and the execution of Iyad, shows the lingering fallout of the Jordanian triumph and the lingering regard held for its most famous and misremembered casualty.

Hasan Naqib. Iraq. I have written at length on this site about Iraqi politics, particularly with regard to military coups and factionalism, that predated the totalitarian regime of the Baath Party. Upon the Baath seizure of power, they embarked on a series of purges and counterpurges – largely directed in the early years against mutinous or potentially mutinous army officers, with the result that the Tikriti network of Saddam Hussein and Hasan Bakr entrenched itself for over three decades. Most leading opponents of the Baath were imprisoned, purged, executed, or escaped abroad; one particularly long-lasting survivor with an especially varied career was Major-General Abu Falah Hasan Mustafa Naqib, briefly the army second-in-command in the early 1970s but by the 1980s a renegade who flirted with Palestinian militancy before settling into exile politics with whichever opponent of the Baath regime would have him.

Naqib came from the historical garrison city Samarra, home to one of the familial networks in Iraq’s Sunni Arab community that rivalled the Tikriti Nasiris who would dominate under the Baath regime. As with many other officers of his generation, he was fired up with the idea of military-led revolution in the 1950s, and supported the July 1958 coup by Abdul-Karim Qasim and Abdul-Salam Arif against the monarchy. Naqib was in its aftermath sent to serve as military attache to the United States; Washington would become recurrent territory over the years.

Like Arif and many other officers, Naqib had seen the merger of Syria and Masr into the United Arab Republic just months earlier, and expected that Iraq would join soon. Qasim, however, prevaricated and soon made clear his opposition to the idea, purging Arif and thus fixing a target to his back from the many enthusiasts of unionism at the time. Very soon the public court presided by Qasim’s cousin, Fadil Mahdawi, which had been set up to try the ancien regime, was filled with pro-unionist officers who had plotted or been suspected of plotting against Qasim. While Qasim was a compulsive schemer, however, he was never a vindictive man, and in spite of Mahdawi’s bombastic verbal bullying he very rarely approved any capital punishment; Arif, for instance, he considered to be relatively harmless and gullible rather than malicious, and thus released after a while. A more serious affair was the Mosul mutiny in spring 1959, mounted by Abdul-Wahhab Shawwaf. In the bloody battle that ensued, the regime relied on militias – including Iraq’s then-large and brutal communist militia – to suppress the mutineers, who had wide support in the Mosul region. Though Qasim would purge the communists once he no longer needed them, this set an unhealthy pattern of militia domination by some party or other that continued for decades.

Working as the regime’s attache in Washington, Hasan Naqib naturally shared his thoughts on these matters. He was hardly a government supporter, given his own sympathy with unionism, but he had nonetheless never challenged it. He was, however, alarmed when for once Qasim did approve a death sentence – on Shawwaf’s co-conspirators, the veteran Free Officers Nazim Tabaqchali and former army spymaster Rifaat Sirri. There is an available record of his interview with the American foreign ministry’s regional specialist, William Lakeland. In it Naqib lambasted Fadil Mahdawi and bemoaned Qasim’s decision to execute the widely respected conspirators. Whether sincerely or because he was aware of his audience in the Cold War, he also made much of Qasim’s unhealthy alliance with the communists.

Qasim was at length ousted and killed in the February 1963 coup that brought Abdul-Salam Arif, briefly allied with the American-backed Baath Party, to power; the Baathists had just enough time to repay communist crimes with interest in an orgy of bloodshed before Arif purged them. Arif, and the brother who succeeded him Abdul-Rahman, themselves however abstained from joining Masr – the United Arab Republic having long since perished – and they survived coup attempts by the former prime minister, Arif Abdul-Razzaq, in 1965-66. (I have already written on this episode in my profile about Abdul-Razzaq).

Hasan Naqib seems to have progressed serenely up the army ranks during this period of praetorian intrigue. When the summer 1967 between Israel and the three neighbouring states – Masr, Jordan, and Syria – broke out, the Iraqi regime was slow to respond – in fairness largely because the war only lasted six days. They did dispatch a force led by Naqib west into Jordan, where Masri general Abdel-Monem Riad, in an apparently desperate late maneouvre, ordered them across the Jordan River. They were attacked by the Israeli airforce, which enjoyed virtual impunity in the skies at this point, and Naqib himself was injured as the Iraqis pulled back with the Jordanian defeat in the West Bank.

As the battered Arab states tried to rebuild, the Iraqi contingent remained in Jordan as a bulwark against any Israeli designs. They soon took on another role, however. By the end of summer 1967, Palestinian fidayin – particularly the freewheeling Fatah group led by Yasser Arafat – had begun to mount guerrilla operations in the occupied territories. This was encouraged by most surrounding governments, especially Masr, where Abdel-Monem Riad had now been promoted to army command and played a considerable role in the border war with Israel where he would be killed. Jordan, as the main point of entry and an easier target for Israel, was rather leerier, but acquiesced under pressure from its neighbours including Iraq. Thus Naqib’s expeditionary force served a double purpose – protecting the Jordanians from Israeli advances, and protecting Palestinian militant interests in Jordan.

In spring 1968 the fidayin won their most famous battle – against an Israeli raid at the town of Karameh. Here Arafat and the Jordanian field commander Mashhour Haditha eschewed cautionary advice from Naqib and Jordanian army commander Amer Khammash and beat off an Israeli raid, catapulting the fidayin’s popularity and power to new heights. Recruits poured in with platitudes, and the fidayin began to establish more and more camps and mount more and more operations.

Naqib became quite close to and popular with the fidayin, and in particular friendly with Arafat; his expeditionary force played a considerable role in supplies and upkeep. He had never been a particularly ideological or partisan officer, and thus survived his post after the Baath party, led by Hasan Bakr, seized power from Abdul-Rahman Arif in July 1968. Indeed, even as they mounted regular internal purges in the army over the next few years, the Iraqi Baathists were eager to keep up their influence in Jordan and with regard to the fidayin. Naqib was eventually promoted to army second-in-command.

By spring 1970, tensions between Jordan and the overly assertive militants were mounting, and began to culminate in a series of skirmishes between the Jordanian army and the fidayin. Though Fatah was not directly hostile to Jordan, repeated provocations by its leftist rivals-cum-allies and subterfuge by every party, including the government, killed off any prospect of a peaceful outcome. Nonetheless, as Arafat and Jordanian monarch Hussein bin Talal negotiated, the Iraqi expeditionary force was expected to play a major role in Fatah’s bargaining power. Most mediation attempts, resulting in only brief ceasefires, were led by Iraq, in particular interior minister Saleh Ammash who both coaxed and threatened the Jordanian regime. In May 1970, Ammash actually offered Arafat a coup, to be conducted by Naqib, that would oust Hussein from power and install the fidayin in Amman. Arafat, quite aware that the fidayin were in no shape to rule and worried about a pretext for an Israeli attack that they couldn’t survive, refused, but this episode only strengthened the perception that the Iraqis would shield the Palestinian militants.

It was a rude shock to everybody concerned, then, when full-fledged war did break out – and the Iraqis melted away. What had sealed the deal was a last-minute threat by the United States that they would bomb Iraqi troops, or do worse to the regime, should they dare assist any action against Jordan. This successfully cowed the regime in Baghdad; Ammash, so vocal for the fidayin’s cause earlier, now put it none-too-gently to Fatah diplomat Mahmoud Abbas: “We can replace the revolution with a hundred others, but our regime is more important.” This withdrawal paralyzed whatever planning had been done by the militants, who would soon be remorselessly expelled from Jordan.

As they took stock of the situation, Palestinian commanders were especially bitter at the Iraqi betrayal. Fatah leader Salah Khalaf claimed to have a phone call between Hussein bin Talal and the Iraqi army minister, Hardan Abdul-Ghaffar, in which the latter assured Hussein of Iraqi non-interference. Although the decision seems to have been shared across the Baath cabinet, Khalaf’s naming of Hardan made the Iraqi army minister, one of the Baath’s most formidable heavyweights, an easy scapegoat for his competitors in the regime. Led by the fast-advancing Baath constable, Saddam Hussein, the regime sacked Hardan, and murdered him in exile. This went a long way in assuring Hasan Bakr and Saddam’s primacy – even though Saddam would also imprison and later execute the Baathist ideologue, Abdul-Khaliq Samarrai, who had urged intervention.

Abdul-Khaliq was not the only Samarrai leader left aghast at Iraqi non-interference. Hasan Naqib had fully expected to join battle on the side of the fidayin, and was vocal enough in his indignation that the regime decided to kick him upstairs. He was dismissed from the army and shunted off to ambassadorial posts, first in Spain and then Sweden. By the standards of Baath treatment toward their opponents, of course, he had had it very easy.

Though Iraq redeemed itself somewhat in the 1973 war with Israel – where its expedition played a major role in preventing an Israeli march to Damascus – Hasan Naqib continued to smart and soon turned against the Baath regime. In September 1978 he suddenly announced his resignation and defection to Fatah, which was then embroiled in a vexatious conflict at Lebanon. Arafat gladly welcomed his old friend Abu Falah into Fatah, where Naqib would serve as his military advisor. Along with former Jordanian officers Saad Sayel, Abu Moussa Muragheh, Ahmad Afana, and Attaullah Attaullah – who would each command Fatah at some point or other – the militants’ brass was increasingly filled with professional soldiers.

It is not entirely clear how much of a role Naqib played in Fatah’s plans during the Lebanon war, which were largely haphazard and reactive to events beyond their control. Syria, for example, had entered Lebanon on the side of their opposition, but nonetheless sided with them against Israel before turning back against them when that threat subsided. Fatah’s high hopes for Masr had been vanquished by Anwar Sadat’s détente with Israel in the late 1970s, and their relations with most Lebanese militias were generally tense or at best transactional. By the mid-1980s, Fatah fragmented as both Syria, Jordan, and Iraq backed splinter groups against Arafat – the first two backing the Jordanian officers Abu Moussa Muragheh and Attaullah Attaullah respectively in their mutiny against Arafat.

By this point Naqib seems to have lost interest in the Lebanon war. Iraq had entered a bloody war with Iran, and the heavy toll of the war presented Baghdad with a major challenge. Naqib decided to capitalize on this by setting up one of the earlier exile opposition groups, initially based at Syria. Over the years he met and haggled with other opposition exiles; when Iraq fell out with Saudi Arabia in the early 1990s, Naqib cut a partnership with the Saudis. Such journeyman politics are not unusual for exiles, and abounded in the Iraqi case.

More questionable was Naqib’s decision to join the most notorious and opportunistic Iraqi exile, Ahmad Chalabi, in his Mutamar group, where he served as deputy. This partnership did not very last long either, perhaps because of Chalabi’s burgeoning links with the pro-Israel American neoconservatives, and soon Naqib had founded yet another exile group. His brother-in-law, Adnan Thabit, who still worked in the Iraqi army, was meanwhile involved with a rival group – the Wifaq group, led by Chalabi’s cousin and rival Ayad Allawi, and conversely backed not by the civilian neoconservatives but by American intelligence. In summer 1996 this network mounted an ambitious coup attempt, led by another former Iraqi officer called Abdullah Shahwani, but it was crushed. Thabit was among the scores of officers imprisoned in the aftermath.

When the United States – egged on by, among others, Chalabi – invaded Iraq in 2003, it was widely speculated, often with a dash of cynicism, that former Iraqi generals such as Hasan Naqib would find their way into the new order. This proved to be overstated, and was not true for the aging Naqib. But it did somewhat apply to younger exiles, such as Shahwani, who became spymaster, and Naqib’s son Falah, who had joined Ayad Allawi. When Allawi formed an interim cabinet in 2004-05, Falah served as its interior minister and hired his uncle, Adnan Thabit, to set up gendarmes under the interior ministry’s control; among their expeditions was the recapture of the Naqibs’ home city, Samarra, from Iraqi insurgents in autumn 2004. But the gendarmes proved brutal and reckless, and by the next year – when the Shia Islamists led by Ibrahim Jaafari and Nuri Maliki won the election – they became a hive for sectarian militias. These militias in turn threw themselves wholeheartedly into a murderous sectarian war with what would later become Daaish.

By this point Hasan Naqib’s career had long since receded into the shadows. Bouncing from state unionism to putative showdowns with Israel to fidayeen colours and finally American support, it had spanned some of Iraq’s most tumultuous episodes. But the feeling remains that, like his expeditionary force in Jordan during the autumn of 1970, Naqib never quite reached his promise.

Wild and Whacky Adventurers Part 5

April 2020.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military Adventurers and Modern History Part 4

2020/3.

Ibrahim Moiz

Copyright and rights reserved

29/3/2020

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part 3

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

Wild and Whacky Military Adventurers Part 3 (Feb 2020)

Ibrahim Moiz Copyright Rights Reserved

29 February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

FURTHER READING.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wild and Whacky Military Adventurers Part 3 (Feb 2020)

Ibrahim Moiz Copyright Rights Reserved

29 February 2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

FURTHER READING.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Military Adventurers and Modern History, Part Two.

Ibrahim Moiz, copyright and rights reserved
27/1/2020

Unfortunately, I could not update this feature in November and December 2019 because of prior commitments and study. However, I hope to continue this on a monthly basis during the 2020s – new decade innit – if Allah permits.

Ismail Aly. Masr. Masr’s transformation from regional revolutionary in the 1950s and 1960s to turgid underachiever since has been well-covered; ironically, it was after her finest military hour in the October 1973 reconquest of the Sinai that this key country, bestriding the crossroads betwixt Asia and Africa, sank into a morass of almost masochistic policy minimalism under the rule of Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. After the drubbing that Masr had received against Israel during summer 1967, it was ironic that it took a morale-boosting near-triumph to deflate her ambitions. This was partly because, for better or (probably) worse, Cairo’s successive dictators after Gamal Abdel-Nasser had chosen to cut their losses and adopt a policy of strictly constricted alliance with Israel’s major Western sponsor, the United States. A look at Masr’s top military officer during the Sinai reconquest, army minister Marshal Ahmed Ismail Aly, gives some hints as to the conservatism that crept into the officer corps that underpinned the regime.

Ismail was not popular among his peers, but nor was he a bad man or a poor officer. Rather his career was marked by a tendency toward cautious deference that, while occasionally prudent, was not always so and did little to endear him to his peers. Most infamous and defining would become his rivalry with his immediate subordinate during the 1973 war, the dashing and popular army commander Saadeddin Shazly. A hard-changing action man who led from the front with little fuss about the strictures of military hierarchy, Shazly’s popularity with the troops contrasted with his relationship towards Ismail, which was positively icy.

Partly Albanian by descent, Ismail had climbed the ranks in the period where Masr’s international prestige, if not her military effectiveness, was at its height. The 1950s and early 1960s saw an extraordinary wave of popularity around the military strongman Nasser, which he consciously stoked as a foreign policy tool to expand Masr’s influence. Nasser’s policies were rather less radical than his rhetoric suggested, but his mixture of bluster and calculation did initially serve him well, most notably in the 1956 Suez war where he coaxed the support of the Cold War powers to transform what had been a fairly straightforward military rout against the Tripartite powers Britain, France, and Israel into a political victory. This was almost the exact opposite of what Sadat would do with Masr’s initially brilliant advance in the Sinai in 1973.

By the 1960s, however, Nasser’s star was falling; not only had he made more promises and commitments than he could reasonably keep, but his shortlived union with Syria had collapsed and his fallout with hitherto friendly monarchies in the Arabian Peninsula peaked in the Yemen war, where – on the advice of Sadat, among others – he had plunged in the army to support a shaky republican regime against the Zaidi imamate it had ousted. Increased repression at home preceded the sound 1967 rout, and it would have been reasonable for Masr’s enemies to expect that she had sunk for good. Notably, this did not happen: not only did Nasser survive an attempted coup by his security heavyweights a mere month after the war, but he managed to leverage his influence over the various non-state actors and his reconciliation with other Arab rulers to keep Masr punching away at an attritional war against Israel until shortly before his fatal heart attack in September 1970.

By this point, Ismail’s military career seemed to have had come and gone rather sleepily. He had some several notable highlights: he served as military attache to the newly independent Congo in the early 1960s. Congo was a tinderbox; its ruler Patrice Lumumba was fiercely loathed (and eventually murdered) by the Europeans and Americans, who helped in every way they could a secessionist insurgency in the mineral-laden Katanga Province. The United Nations, seeking to mediate between its heavyweights and newcomers, sent in a peacekeeping force whose Masri section included Shazly. It was here that Ismail and Shazly first quarrelled, apparently over the question of jurisdiction: Shazly believed that the attache’s attempts to enforce discipline on his unit while Congo was aflame were missing the forest for the trees. The ensuing shouting match cemented the notoriety of the pair’s mutual antipathy in the Masri army even as they advanced in the army.

After the 1967 drubbing, Nasser had patched up his quarrel with Saudi Arabia and, in coordination with his wartime allies Syria and Jordan, opted for a strategy of slow-burning pressure on Israel, delivered via occasional flares on the border and assistance to the ascendant Palestinian fidayin insurgency. Soviet assistance to Masr – the first occasion that the region’s non-aligned states had taken a markedly pro-Moscow stance in the Cold War, stemming in part from Western assistance to Israel in 1967 – ratcheted up the stakes further. The logic ran that with Israel unable to afford comparable casualties, continued pressure until her enemies could reach some level of parity was the best option.

In spring 1969, Masr’s army commander Abdel-Monem Riad was killed in a well-aimed Israeli strike that also injured the frontline commander, Adli Sayed. Riad had been an active, innovative commander; his replacement Ismail was, by contrast, a safe and cautious option. As the war continued to bubble on and off, an Israeli raid in December 1969 caught the Masris at a particularly sensitive point. The military had been considerably more stringent since the 1967 war, and in a fit of pique sacked both army commander Ismail and naval admiral Fouad Abu-Zikry.

That could have been the end of Ismail’s career had it not been for Sadat’s succession and the political swirl around it. Initially picked as a pliable interim candidate to replace Nasser in September 1970, Sadat surprised everybody with his slow-burning energy and cunning. In the process of cementing power, he survived at least two coup attempts. The first, backed by the increasingly influential Soviets, came in May 1971 and was led by the same group who had installed Sadat as an attempted figurehead. They included his deputy, Ali Sabry; the interior minister Sami Sharaf; the security constable Shaarawi Gomaa; and the army minister Mohamed Fawzy, a feared disciplinarian who had occupied this spot since rescuing Nasser in 1967.

Tipped off by Sharaf’s aide Ashraf Marwan, Sadat acted fast. He promoted Ismail to spymaster and had him rifle through the intelligence files to uncover the plot. He was also fortunate in that Ismail’s successor as army commander, Mohamed Sadek, unexpectedly resisted the coup: not only was Sadek hostile to the Soviets, but he also thought a coup attempt during a period of military reconstruction to be suicidal. The upshot was that the coup attempt collapsed without military support, and the culprits were quickly purged. Buoyed by his unexpected survival, Sadat soon expelled the Soviet advisors from Masr and dispensed promotions to his loyalists: Ismail had been brought in from the cold to take over an increasingly powerful security structure, Sadek replaced Fawzy as army minister, confirmed loyalist Mamdouh Salem took over the interior ministry, and Marwan – a brother-in-law of Nasser, who has since been speculated as either a spy or a double agent in the Masr-Israel espionage contest – was promoted to serve as Sadat’s chamberlain.

Increasingly confident, Sadat began to draw up plans to reconquer the Sinai post-haste. Events would prove him right, but at the time this alarmed much of the army command: army minister Sadek warned against a premature attack, arguing for a careful reconstruction of the army in the absence of Soviet assistance first. Sadat was increasingly irked by his intrusive army minister, but satisfied himself for the moment with summarily sacking instead Sadek’s deputy Abdel-Qader Hassan and the naval admiral Mahmoud Fahmy, both of whom had publicly challenged him. Stung, Hassan began to discuss a coup with army spymaster Mostafa Mehrez and Cairo corps commander Ali Abdel-Khabir in September 1972. But the interior minister, Mamdouh Salem, caught on; he caught Abdel-Khabir, who duly confessed. This led to another shakeup, and was particularly unfortunate for Sadek: though he had not been involved, Sadat had been wanting an excuse to sack him, and the role of his former deputy in the scheme was good enough.

Sadek’s misfortune was Ismail’s fortune. By this time Saadeddin Shazly had become army commander, and he was aghast to hear that his old opponent was being brought back to control the army. He protested to Sadat, pointing out that he, as army commander, and Ismail, as army minister, could not possibly collaborate given their decade-long antipathy. Sadat brushed off the concerns blithely, but this was of course his unspoken point. By appointing at the army’s helm two mutually antagonistic figures, he could ensure that they would not collaborate against Sadat. Ismail was stolid and unimaginative, but he could be counted on for loyalty. Moreover, he was suffering by that point with a terminal cancer; even had he wanted to, he was in no shape to take Sadat on.
This was a good enough plan to preempt any coup plot; what it was not was a good recipe for a military command on the brink of a war. Yet to their credit, both Ismail and Shazly forced a strained cordiality and cooperated well enough in the runup to the war. They had to their advantage a scrupulously professional aide, Abdel-Ghani Gamasy, a studious officer entirely unconcerned with barracks politics who drew up and directed a superb battle plan. What was more remarkable was that even as Sadat, Ismail, and Shazly shuttled missives for support around Arab capitals, Israel – normally so alert – was entirely oblivious. The intoxication of the 1967 triumph had not, it appears, worn off and when the Masri and Syrian armies suddenly attacked from west and north in October 1973, the Israeli command was left entirely nonplussed. Directed by Gamasy and covered by aerial bombardment, two Masri armies under the respective command of Saadeddin Mamoun and Abdel-Monem Wassel swept aside the Israeli fortifications and overran the Sinai Peninsula.

But it was at this uplifting point that the cracks, so meticulously papered over, reemerged. With the wind in their sails and the enemy in disarray, Shazly and Gamasy wanted to press their advantage and move beyond the Sinai into the Levant. Sadat, who appears to have confined his ambitions to the Sinai, refused, and so stolidly did Ismail. They had a point insofar as Masri bombardment could scarcely cover an advance beyond the Sinai, but Shazly and Gamasy – who had actually commanded the operation – also had a point insofar as the Israeli army was in an almost unique disarray and would probably not have been able to respond promptly. At any rate, seniority held out; a furious Shazly had to relent, and the armies remained fixed at Sinai for the next fortnight.

Events beyond his control forced Sadat to rethink his caution. On the northern front, the Syrian advance on the Golan Heights had not gone nearly so well, and despite some early momentum the Syrian army was not only repelled but pursued into Syria by the Israelis. This threatened to disrupt the balance entirely, and an alarmed Sadat ordered a diversive attack to the Israelis’ west. By this point, the advantage held by the Masri army two weeks earlier had dissipated, and Shazly and Gamasy now protested against these orders. They were not alone: one field commander, Abdel-Aziz Qabel, protested at what seemed a pointless suicide attack, and only reluctantly obeyed when Ismail himself personally ordered it. The attacks collapsed, predictably, and an Israeli army riding their momentum now took advantage of the breach to storm back into the Sinai. Shazly by now was in a spitting rage, so Sadat promptly sacked him on the spot and replaced him with the cooler-headed Gamasy. There was furthermore misfortune for the Masris, as frontline commander Saadeddin Mamoun suffered a heart attack at this inopportune moment and his forces were unable to rally effectively.

The upshot was that, quite contrary to the formidable position of yesterday, the Masris suddenly found themselves dangerously exposed as a sizeable Israeli force steamrolled through the breach in the Masri lines and surrounded Wassel’s forces. This ensured that when Sadat and his cohorts accepted a ceasefire, it was on terms much more favourable to Israel than could have been expected. By the time the negotiations took place, Ismail – whose cancer would finish him off within a year – had followed his old rival Shazly in losing his job, and it was instead Gamasy who became army minister. Ismail, who did try to reconcile with Shazly on his deathbed, passed away thereafter, while Shazly eventually stormed into Libyan exile.

To everybody’s surprise Sadat offered terms that were ridiculously generous, aimed at shoring up a strategic partnership with Washington and, perhaps not explicitly at the time, détente with Tel Aviv. This astounded not only his army minister Gamasy – who lost his cool and stormed out of the negotiations at his ruler’s repeated concessions – but even the seasoned Israeli and American diplomats. Like the cat that had swallowed the canary, however, they gulped down what they could and set off a process of one-sided negotiation whereby Sadat, hailed as a champion of peace and reconciliation, would consolidate his rule at the expense of Masr’s regional strength. It was a bittersweet conclusion to the reconquest presided over by the odd couple he had set up at the army’s helm.

Daud Boulad. Sudan. The Sudanese state, which was Africa’s largest country by territory before its split in 2011, spans many different regional, ethnic, linguistic, and even religious groups. Attempts to unify these groups into an inclusive and encompassing Sudanese identity include the diametrically opposed secularism connected to the Sudanese People’s Liberation Movement, now the ruling party of the South Sudanese state but once a significant irritant to the united Sudanese state; and the revolutionary-Islamist idealism of the Enqaz Front, which eventually became the official ideology of the military regime founded by Omar Bashir that ruled Sudan in the thirty years between 1989 and 2019. The short but notable career of Daud Yahya Ibrahim Boulad began promisingly in the latter camp and ended violently in the former.

To understand Boulad’s career, an overview of early Sudanese politics is in order. Modern Sudanese politics have been dominated by the north, and more specifically the sons of the Nile river valley and its cities. This mostly Muslim, mostly Arabophone and often Arab group dominated what is one of the world’s most diverse countries, largely on account of the fact that this was the area garrisoned and prioritized by the imperial power, Britain, that ruled Sudan before its independence. Much of the remaining regions in what became Sudan was ruled by various minor polities, such as the Fur sultanate from which Sudan’s western Darfur region derives its name.

The riverine region was no monolith: Khartoum and Omdurman had a fiercely-competed political scene including differences on regional policy, foremost pertaining to Masr to the north, unification with which was a target of the Khatmiyya sufi Mirghani family that founded one of Sudan’s major parties. Another religious order, the Ensar – whose roots lay in the millennarian nineteenth-century revolt against the British Empire – fundamentally opposed this aim. Unlike the Masr-linked Khatmiyya, the Ensar would look westwards, including Chad and Libya, for foreign links. They were popular in the Darfur region that bordered both countries.

Frustrated with the apparent provincialism and sectarianism of these early parties, more revolutionary parties came to the fore in the 1960s, often founded by student activists and inspired by transnational movements. The Sudanese communists and the Sudanese Ikhwan were two such parties; though fundamentally opposed, they both aimed to override the sectarian, regional, and ethnic differences in Sudan. Both parties played both a major role in the revolt that toppled Sudan’s first military regime in 1964, and both would later suffer internal splits over their attitude to the next military regime founded by Jafar Numairi five years later. Although he had originally been expected to favour the communists, Numairi survived communist challenges in the 1970s and thereafter cracked down hard on them. He also increasingly coopted the Islamists, whose wily, brilliant, and ambitious leader Hassan Turabi became a minister in his government during the late 1970s.

The roots of both the People’s Liberation Movement and the Enqaz Front lay respectively in the earlier communist and Ikhwan parties. By the end of the 1980s, both were dominated by military adventurers: John Garang, a southern army officer with Marxist inclinations, founded the Liberation Movement while Omar Bashir, a northern army officer, led the coup that toppled an Ensar government in 1989.

Daud Boulad, who hailed from a notable Fur family, was one of several provincial arrivals who emerged on the political scene in the 1970s. The “parochialist” Ensar party had been popular in Darfur, but Boulad opted for the Islamists and on their ticket won an election to become the first non-Arab president of the student union in his university at Khartoum. Here he rubbed shoulders with, and was initially encouraged by, Arab Islamists such as Tayeb Sikha, whose nickname Sikha derived from the word for the iron skewer with which he would menace opponents in campus battles. Sikha served as Boulad’s bodyguard, a position that would become faintly ironic in later years.

Before long, however, Boulad fell out with the Islamists. He claimed that despite their pan-ethnic ideology, they favoured Arabs and that he himself was a tokenist candidate. It is hard to know how accurate this was at the time; on the one hand, Boulad’s fellow non-Arab Darfur student politician Ali Mohamed, whose clan originated from Western Africa, meanwhile advanced swiftly through Islamist ranks, for whom he would later served as a major administrator, and Boulad himself ran at first for Numairi’s ruling party, which was at least as dominated by Arabs. On the other hand, other Islamists admitted casual favouritism towards Arabs even among their ranks. And the Enqaz regime that Bashir led would repeatedly favour Arabs against other ethnic groups, foremost and most destructively in Darfur.

But there were other factors in the Darfur imbroglio. Most notable was the war in neighbouring Chad, for which Darfur became a major recruiting and refurbishment centre in the same way that Pakistan’s northwestern agencies did with Afghanistan. This war featured various factions and warlords, some of whose ethnic groups overlapped into Darfur. It also featured the involvement of Libya’s Jamahiriya dictator Muammar Qaddafi on one side as well as the similarly unsavoury regimes of France’s Francois Mitterrand and America’s Ronald Reagan on the other. Numairi and Qaddafi had become bitter rivals by this point, and Qaddafi was helping Numairi’s principal opponent Sadiq Mahdi, leader of the Ensar movement who had been prime minister briefly before Numairi’s takeover.

But Numairi was overthrown by a popular revolt in 1985, and the following year Sadiq swept to power. A weak and vacillating prime minister, Sadiq was beholden to, often caricatured as a puppet of, Qaddafi – and he certainly helped the Libyan dictator, who had lately begun to recruit Arab vassals in Chad and increasingly preached the idea of Islam as an essentially Arab faith to be dominated by Arabs. Many Arab clans in Darfur were militarized and recruited for the war in Chad; they would espouse Arab supremacism in Darfur then and later. This blatant bigotry was recognized as such in Khartoum, yet for purely political reasons both the Ensar and the later Enqaz regime would for different reasons enable its Sudanese proponents.

Sadiq had other problems, which included the People’s Liberation insurgency in southern Sudan that he had inherited from Numairi. Though Numairi had managed to secure a decade-long peace in the south during 1972, a mixture of external subversion and internal unrest prompted war to break out in the south during the 1980s. The catalyst, though not cause, was the decision of Numairi’s religious affairs minister – Hassan Turabi, the leader of the Enqaz party – to implement shariah not only in the north, where the idea was broadly popular, but also the south.

A collection of militias and rebels in the south gathered around John Garang, leading to a decades-long war that bled the region. Sadiq and his successors would find the People’s Liberation Movement increasingly backed by Sudan’s rivals including Ethiopia, Israel, and the United States. The Ensar regime would pioneer the desperate measures, revolving around undisciplined and frequently brutal militias, that Bashir would later employ in Darfur. Sadiq’s inability to confront the southern insurgency contributed to the coup by which Bashir, in accord with Turabi, overthrew him in 1989.

Garang, unlike many separatism-inclined colleagues, was a Sudanese unionist and soon looked for collaborators in the Sudanese north in order to expand the war and eventually seize Khartoum. He found sympathizers among the dissident Marxists, but also many among the neglected peripheral groups, including those who had been victimized by militias linked to Khartoum. These included Abdel-Aziz Hillou, who became the Liberation Movement’s northern generallissimo; Yousif Mekki, a charismatic ideologue in the Kordofan Mountains; later Abdel-Wahid Nour, once a Fur communist activist and a prominent figure in the 2000s war at Darfur; and earlier, the restless and frustrated Daud Boulad, whose ambitions had been frustrated in the 1970s.

While Boulad’s career had stagnated, his Islamist former colleagues advanced rapidly during the Enqaz regime. Boulad’s former bodyguard, the Arab Islamist Tayeb Sikha, became Darfur governor in the early 1990s and would later advance into the federal cabinet; his fellow non-Arab activist, Ali Mohamed, would also become an influential Darfur governor in the mid-1990s. Boulad was by now thoroughly estranged from these colleagues, however, and spied in the Liberation Movement not only an alternative group but perhaps also a kindred spirit. He made contact with its northern general Abdel-Aziz Hillou, and they mounted a plan for a revolt in the 1991-92 winter. It was a propitious moment, Boulad believed: the Libyan-Sudanese partnership had led to years of intermittent ethnic conflict between Darfur communities and militias, and given the right leader – himself, naturally – they would spring into a revolt.

Unfortunately for the plotters, Darfur governor Tayeb Sikha had caught wind of the scheme. Having won considerable goodwill by attempting to assuage Fur concerns in the region, Sikha watched his former colleague enter Darfur with Hillou in December 1991, and immediately dispatched Arab militiamen to intercept them. Hillou escaped, but Boulad was caught; and Sikha, while wary of an overreaction that could spark an actual revolt, was in no mood to deal gently with his old friend. A broadcast of a captured Boulad confessing his treason did the rounds, but an expected spectacular trial did not occur; instead, he was quietly executed.

In the next decade, certain Darfur governors such as Tayeb Sikha and Ali Mohamed did try to implement at least symbolic reforms, without undermining the overall strategic aim of the Enqaz regime. Unfortunately for them and more so for Darfur’s inhabitants, an overall pattern of state protection towards predatory Arab militias – later called janjaweed, or mounted devils – would last some fifteen more years and spark Darfur into the same revolt that Boulad had pathetically attempted in 1991. He was not left to obscurity however; in 2000 a “Black Book”, attacking the Sudanese riverine elite for neglect, did the rounds; it appears to have been authored by non-Arab Islamists in Darfur, but Omar Bashir suspected it had been written by Hassan Turabi, the Islamist ideologist who had finally fallen out with him the previous year. Notably, this book referred to Boulad as a “martyr”.

Valiollah Gharani. Iran. The aftermath of the cataclysmic Iranian revolt in 1979, which toppled the Pahlavi monarchy and installed a clerical Shia republic in its place, has produced considerable commentary on the distinction between the old regime and the new. In many spheres, the two regimes could not be more different: one secularist, the other clerical; one monarchist, the other republican; one strongly allied to the United States, the other strongly pitted against it. Yet not only existed there similarities in both regimes – their varyingly autocratic tendency, their Iranian nationalism often at the expense of a nervy Gulf, and their prioritization of Persian culture above Iran’s other ethnic groups – but also more than a smattering of the same personnel. Major-General Mohammad Valiollah Gharani, who served the Iranian army first as its spymaster in the imperial regime and then its commander in the clerical regime, is perhaps the most outstanding case.

The army was the backbone of the Pahlavi imperial regime: it was from the army that its founder, the cruel and domineering Rezashah Khan, had emerged to topple the Qajar dynasty and impose a ruthless regime of European-modelled modernization on the country. Its effects included drumming up an army that was one of the most effective in Asia. By the same token Rezashah, and his succeeding son – who shall be referred heretofore as “the shah”, following popular precedent – were keen to keep rival officers from doing the same thing to them.

The Pahlavi emperors did this not only by keeping a close eye on army affairs – a future army commander, Fereydoun Djam, would complain that the younger shah micromanaged military matters to a ludicrous extent – but also by offering perks to the officer corps. Iranian generals were not simply political and military elites, but socioeconomic elites too: entry into and promotion in the army meant wealth and more importantly social prestige. Coupled with the common theme across any army of protecting the realm, and it is no surprise that aspiring lads would sign up. Among them was Gharani, who hailed from a middle-class family in Tehran.

The British and Soviet Empire were the region’s major heavyweights during the early Pahlavi regime. They had guarded respect for Rezashah, but in his attempt to resist these two allied giants during the Second World War the Pahlavi founder picked for once on somebody above his size. His refusal to evict Germans in Iran whom the anti-Axis allies suspected of trying to control this strategic country led to his own ouster in September 1941. To give the process an appearance of respectability, British officials had Rezashah abdicate in favour of his son.

The young shah, who had been bullied by his unmerciful father and initially lacked confidence and political strength, found himself increasingly irrelevant to a burgeoning political class in the war’s immediate aftermath. Postwar prime ministers wielded far more power than the office had held during Rezashah’s period: they included Ali Razmara, an ambitious and wily army veteran abruptly murdered by religious extremists in 1951; and most famously Mohammad Mossaddegh, a nationalist typical of the period who resisted British domination over Iranian oil. It was his insistence on nationalizing Iranian oil against extortionate British companies that would lead to his own ouster to the shah’s benefit, masterminded at British insistence by the scene’s latest empire, the United States. The laughable pretext was that Mossaddegh, who had not a communist bone in his body, was too soft on Iran’s large communist party, Tudeh, and that it was in the Cold War interest to topple him.

The United States’ candidate for prime minister was Fazlollah Zahedi, a former general who had been evicted from Iran by the British Empire for alleged pro-German activity during the Second World War. The postwar world was different, however, and Zahedi had lately become close to the United States; his son Ardeshir would later serve the shah as a longstanding and loyal ambassador to Washington. As it happened, Valiollah Gharani – at this point commanding the garrison at the important city Rasht, some four hours to Tehran’s northwest – secretly met Ardeshir prior to the coup, though he would not participate therein.

Planned and controlled by the United States’ burgeoning secret service, the coup brought on board a nervous shah, whose job was to sign a decree ordering Mossaddegh’s arrest and replacement as prime minister by Zahedi. Mossadegh’s loyal military aide, Taghi Riahi, intercepted the first attempt to arrest the prime minister. So panic-stricken was the shah that he immediately arranged a flight abroad. The Americans were more determined, however, and a second attempt – mounted by irregulars and crowds that had been paid by American intelligence’s allies in the Iranian merchant class and underworld – ousted Mossaddegh and installed Zahedi in his place. The shah returned to Iran with newly imbued confidence.

Zahedi did not last long as prime minister. While the Iranian monarchy became one of the United States’ most important and powerful supporters, the shah recognized that the Americans could break him as easily as they had made him. He was therefore intensely paranoid and especially leery of other political leaders, such as Zahedi, who rivalled him in Washington’s affections, and indeed he was sacked within two years.

It is unclear whether it was the ouster of Zahedi specifically or the general direction of monarchic rule, that alienated such officers as Gharani. Soon the former Rasht commander, who had been a passive bystander during the coup against Mossaddegh, came to regret it and privately complained to Iranian dissidents about the court’s corruption. Given the shah’s close scrutiny of his officers, it is thus remarkable that Gharani was nonetheless implicitly trusted, and indeed promoted to the twin position of army second-in-command and army spymaster. Given the constant collaboration between Iranian intelligence and their American counterparts, he was thus in a prime position to affect a coup himself.

Gharani’s exact plan is unclear, but it appears to have involved getting American preapproval before ousting the shah and installing a new prime minister. This was apparently to be Ali Amini, the ambassador to Washington, who was very close himself to the American political elite and a particularly close friend of the Kennedys. Amini was not informed, because Gharani’s plan failed at the first step. His secret meeting with certain American officials, at the house of his accomplice Esfandiar Bozorgmehr, in early 1958 found them unwilling to countenance such a risk, though they did not report it. Gharani and Bozorgmehr proceeded next to the British embassy, who did not report it either, and then Gharani sent Bozorgmehr on another try with the Americans, in a secret meeting at Greece. Knowing their audience, the conspirators tried to argue implausibly that the shah was inclining towards the Soviet Union.

This was rather hard to believe, and one of the two visits with the Americans was somehow leaked to the shah in February 1958. Incensed – foremost, one suspects, because he had let his guard down – the shah roundly berated the American embassy, whose pressure may nonetheless have forced him to give Gharani a light sentence. Nonetheless, Gharani appealed the sentence unsuccessfully, and after his release continued to squirm under heavy supervision, so that he was again imprisoned in 1963. During this period he often met with the clergy, which may have persuaded them of his religious conviction. There is no reason to doubt his sincerity, but it would pay dividends for him – albeit briefly – after the monarchy fell.

There is no need to recount the well-trodden story of the monarchy’s zenith and collapse. It is worth noting that, even at his proudest moment and the peak of his alliance with the Americans, the shah would always suspect anybody who would precede him in Washington’s affections. He had, for instance, only with great reluctance appointed Amini as prime minister in the early 1960s, in order to woo Amini’s friend Fitzgerald Kennedy, the incoming American ruler who had been strongly critical of Tehran. As soon as he had no use for Amini, the shah dropped him. In the end, though, it was not the Americans and their friends who brought him down but a gargantuan revolt inside Iran that rippled across socioeconomic lines and forced him to flight in 1979.

In the shah’s place came a republican triumvirate that would soon be dominated by the fiery preacher Ruhollah Khomenei. The original interim government, however, was not a one-man show, and its personnel comprised Iranian dissidents of various stripes and persuasions before Khomenei purged them. Taghi Riahi, Mossaddegh’s military aide in the 1950s, was promoted to army minister; and Gharani, who had the benefit of prosecution by the monarchy on his record, returned from retirement as army commander. Riahi would eventually resign in protest at Khomenei’s domination over his portfolio; a rather different fate ended Gharani’s career.

In the two months he held the job, Gharani distinguished himself by his loyalty to the new order. When unrest broke out in Iran’s Kurdish minority in the northwest, the official narrative from Tehran is that Gharani hauled out Ghassem Zahirnejad, a seasoned soldier – and himself a future army commander – at night and ordered him to proceed to the northwest in order to nip the Kurdish unrest in the bud. Zahirnejad, the story goes, wanted a rest until morning, but an urgent Gharani upbraided him and told him that there was not a moment to lose.

Whether one believes this particular story – the initial hostility between Tehran and the Kurdish periphery was a rather long, drawn-out affair before war actually broke out that summer – there is no reason to suppose anything other than sincerity on Gharani’s part for the new order. This is certainly how its enemies perceived him: in April 1979, he was murdered by and became the first high-ranking victim of a shortlived militant group called Forghan, which had been founded by an anti-clerical militant called Akbar Gudarzi and would target several more officials in the next year or so.

Gharani’s life and career encapsulate the torn loyalty that confronted many Iranian officers. At heart a patriot and a professional dedicated to Iranian interests, he was nonetheless quite willing to countenance, even with foreign support, the removal of certain regimes. Gharani’s trajectory from disabused royal loyalist to pro-American conspirator and finally revolutionary army commander puts him at several key points in Iran’s modern story.

Nacer Mohammedi. Algeria. Algeria’s two major wars since the Second World War each began with the mobilization of a widespread and somewhat populist insurgent group against the established order in Algiers. The first, celebrated war against French colonialism in the 1950s brought Algerian independence and the establishment of the insurgent group, the Front Liberation, at the helm of a single-party regime. The second, bemoaned war occurred in the 1990s after a military coup arrested the ascent of an alternative party, the Islamist Front Salut, who had mobilized against increasing regime corruption in the 1980s: soon both the Front Salut and Front Liberation became bystanders in a bloody war dominated by the deep state and a millennarian cult. Though the regime Front National and opposition Front Salut parties had faced off in the 1980s, they shared many similarities – in their appeals to Islam, Algerian nationalism, and radicalism that culminated in militancy against an unjust order dominated by foreigners, and in particular France. Few people epitomize this continuity as much as Major-General Si Nacer Said Mohammedi: he had served as the Front Liberation military commander in the 1950s and briefly its deputy ruler in the 1960s, before joining the Front Salut in his old age during the 1980s.

Mohammedi, like a disproportionate number of the Front National leaders, was a Kabyle from the mountainous, forested Amazigh-majority Kabylia region in northern Algeria. The French had, in classic divide-and-rule fashion, seen the Kabyles as somehow less essentially Muslim than their Arab neighbours, and attempted to mould Kabyles in education and outlook along French lines – a policy that continues to have repercussions into the postcolonial period. This did not, of course, prevent the region from becoming a major headache for the colonial regime during the 1950s war. At any rate, Mohammedi was not among the Kabyles who suffered colonial indoctrination: a peasant’s son, he reportedly taught himself to read and write and maintained a firmly independent outlook, for better or worse, throughout his life.

The fiercely pietistic Mohammedi was, like many other aspiring young Algerian Muslims, attracted to the Islamic revivalism of the Ulama Association founded by Abdelhamid Benbadis and Bashir Ibrahimi, which argued for an Islam-based Algerian identity in contrast to the colonial authorities, the piednoir French settlers, and even assimilationist liberal Muslims such as Ferhat Abbas who aspired to equality with Frenchmen under the French order. Shortly before his death in 1940, Benbadis had famously countered Abbas’ denial of a historical Algerian identity with the assertion of an “Algerian Muslim nation” with “its own culture, its traditions and characteristics, good or bad like any other nation”, which moreover was not, could not be, and had no inclination to be French.

The events of the 1940s, including the world war whose triumph culminated with an infamous mass slaughter of thousands of Algerians in Setif by French settlers and authorities, and a subsequent election rigged against the Algerians would eventually persuade Abbas and other liberal politicians of the need for independence. Young Muslims such as Mohammedi had long been convinced; not only did he credit the Ulama association with political advancement but also Islamic revivalism in everyday life; later, in an interview with the American researcher William Quandt, he would commend the Ulama for having opposed “degenerate” superstition, such as the veneration of saintly marabouts.

In his opposition to France, Mohammedi went much further than most of his compatriots. Following the precedent of the Jerusalem mufti Amin Hussaini, he signed up with the German army’s foreign forces, and fought with distinction in Eastern Europe and even the gruelling, doomed Nazi assault on Soviet Russia. In 1944 he was captured and remained in French custody until 1952, by which point many of his compatriots had long since come around to his way of thinking. Though the piednoir French settlers in Algeria, a rightwing lot in the best circumstances, tended to support the shortlived Vichy occupation of France by Germany, some Muslim Algerians also eyed the humiliation of the colonial power with some grim satisfaction: Zohra Drif, a famous insurgent fighter in the 1950s war, would later recount how her father, a Muslim magistrate, viewed France’s occupation by Germany as a divinely ordained punishment for their misdeeds in Algeria.

Early agitation against France had been led by Ahmed Messali-Hadj, a charismatic but divisive veteran of trade union politics in France who had nonetheless by the 1950s alienated many Algerian dissidents. They criticized him as a unilateralist removed from the ground reality; indeed, no sooner had the Front Liberation insurgency taken off in November 1954 than Messali-Hadj founded a separate group, the Mouvement Liberation, which was at the very least viewed as a lesser threat by France who would infiltrate it quite thoroughly.

Not until the mid-1950s, by which point the French stranglehold on Morocco and Tunisia was already weakening, did the Front Liberation National kickstart its insurgency. As often happens after independence, today the various lists of leaders, commissions, and committees that would transpire at the Front’s helm have become etched into the national narrative as if it was a setpiece process. The reality in the 1950s was rather more chaotic; many early leaders were killed or captured by France, and others competed over authority.

The Front was an impressively organized group by any insurgency’s standard, managing to juggle secrecy and typical effectiveness in the battlefield with well-oiled international diplomacy and overall cohesion. International diplomacy, indeed, would prove decisive; Algeria would become a major cause celebre of the international anticolonial, Muslim, Arabist, and even leftist circles: many young leftists including the famous ideologist Frantz Fanon would enter Algeria to enlist in its ranks. Similarly many Muslim countries – foremost Masr, whose military agents Fathi Dib and Ezzat Soliman were dispatched to Algeria to assist the revolt – sympathized with the Front, giving it an enviable diplomatic edge that few insurgent groups have enjoyed.

And yet at the Front’s top rung, the rapid turnover of commanders, the split between its external figureheads and its internal field commanders, and old-fashioned political rivalry would lead to several major power blocs. This article will only deal with the power bases relevant to its subject, but it is worth noting that there were several more cliques in the Front whose competition would influence its trajectory both during and especially after the war.

Seven of the official nine Front founders were picked off in the war: Moustafa Benboulaid, Abdelkader Didouche, and Larbi Benmhidi were slain at their respective fronts in the battlefield; Ahmed Benbella, Tayeb Boudiaf, Hocine ait-Ahmed, and Said Khider were captured on a trip to Morocco during October 1956, ending their participation and pushing a second rung of Front commanders to replace them. This elimination process left two founders still in the fray: the Arab commander Rabah Bitat and, more importantly, the Kabyle commander Belkacem Kerim. It was Kerim who founded what would become the war’s most resilient and ruthlessly effective front in Kabylia; he was among the few Front leaders as equally effective in the battlefield as they were in politics outside the country.

As a seasoned fighter, Mohammedi entered the Kabylia front as a top lieutenant to Kerim, marked by the German army helmet he wore as his particular trophy and his new nom de guerre, Nacer or Victor. The capture of the other Front founders in October 1956 prompted Kerim to take their place as its main representative abroad; he left Mohammedi to take his command over Kabylia.

Even as he continued to organize attacks on the French army, however, Mohammedi confronted competition by Messali-Hadj’s Mouvement Liberation. This was a double-edged threat to the Front: given Messali’s stature and experience in anti-French agitation, the Mouvement enjoyed a genuine organic following within Algeria. And yet the Mouvement had been strongly infiltrated by French counterinsurgency to the point that its leading field commander, Mohamed Bellounis, was decorated by the French army as their vassal in the Algerian maquis.

After repeated blandishments, threats, and skirmishes, Mohammedi resorted to brute force to make an example. During May 1957, dispatched a unit to Melouza, a village near Mesila known to harbour Mouvement sympathies. In a merciless killing spree, the village’s male adults – nearly four hundred men – were systemically butchered. This was only one of many massacres in the war, but unlike the majority it was carried out on the part of the celebrated Front, and would taint its legacy for years to come.

Shortly thereafter, Mohammedi followed Kerim abroad into newly independent Tunisia. Here, in the latest attempt to coordinate the various fronts, the Front had set up one of its two external legions to serve as both strategic reserves and overall strategists. Mohammedi was promoted to command this legion, whose responsibility included eastern Algeria; the less active western legion, based in newly independent Morocco, was captained by a wily, secretive, and cautious commander called Houari Boumedienne.

Soon the Tunisia legion faced a challenge. In order to interdict insurgent passage to and from Algeria, France constructed in September 1957 a massive electric fence along the Tunisian border, named after its army minister Andre Morice. Front supply lines, which had moved in and out of Tunisia with virtual impunity, were suddenly cut, isolating the battlefield fronts from their supporters abroad. France had earlier received a major diplomatic backlash for its destructive bombardment inside Tunisia; now, its airpower could be restricted to the Algerian side of the border, picking off whatever fighters managed to cross.

The barrier vexed Front commanders in eastern Algeria. They mounted several attempts, some quite dextrous and others clumsier, to thwart it, but could not circumvent it with anything near the required regularity. Mohammedi – drawing, one suspects, from the attritional warfare at Russia in which he had participated – opted to throw more and more fighters at the problem, resulting in more and more casualties. Whereas most units had been small earlier, the largest that Mohammedi directed at the fence, captained by Lakhdar Chirine in May 1958, numbered about a thousand fighters, who were sitting ducks for French bombardment.

This unimaginative strategy hit morale hard, and provoked a backlash among the Front field commanders. In autumn 1958, the Front founded a “shadow cabinet” in exile, chaired by Ferhat Abbas and including Mohammedi as a largely honorary minister. Only a few weeks after its inauguration, this cabinet was faced with a mutiny in Tunisia, which was quickly put down. The mutiny was captained by the Front’s leading field commanders in eastern Algeria – Mohamed Lamouri, Ammara Bouglez, and Ahmed Nouaoura – and was alleged, with no proof, to have had the tacit approval of Masr.

Some observers attributed ethnic factors – the mutineers were Arabs and the Tunisia command was largely Kabyle – but what was more clear was that they resented the military strategy. At any rate, the Front found this insubordination at such a trying point intolerable. The plotters were tried in a court chaired by Houari Boumedienne, the Morocco legion commander, and executed. Boumedienne would indeed distinguish himself as a hatchet man, putting down a similar mutiny in the western legion a year later.

Executions were not confined to the external front. Mohammedi had become uneasily aware by this point that the Front field commander who had replaced him in Kabylia, Amirouche ait-Hamouda, had acquired a taste for bloodshed. Amirouche – feared by French troops as the “wolf of Akfadou” after the forest that held his base – was a brilliant commander, probably the single best in the Front ranks. But he was also ruthless and paranoid; where French counterinsurgency could not beat him, they tried to subvert him by planting a number of plots, real and staged, against him. So paranoid did Amirouche become over the war’s duration that he began to suspect the new influx of recruits – largely leftists from the cities – as French spies. Over 1958, he carried out a series of bloody purges that, according to a possibly inflated French number, killed as many as sixteen hundred suspected “spies”. Many were claimed to have been tortured by his brutal aide, Ahcene Mahiouz.

The French army was of course keen to paint the insurgency in the worst possible colours, but at least Mohammedi believed there was something to the reports. After Amirouche was slain in 1959, Mohammedi sent another commander, Abderrahmane Mira, to replace him at the Kabylia front, with the explicit instructions to shy away from bloodshed and improve the Front’s conduct in the region. Mira arrived at Kabylia to find its command already competed over between Amirouche’s aides, the hatchet man Mahiouz and the widely respected Mokrane Oulhadj. This coincided with a new French campaign in Kabylia over the summer, where Mira was slain; not until October 1959 was Oulhadj confirmed as his successor.

The late 1950s had been a disaster for the Front, and yet they prevailed – largely through clever diplomacy and the escalating confrontation between France and the piednoirs – in the early 1960s. Coinciding with a mass upheaval of the piednoirs and their local collaborators, who emigrated to France, Algeria became independent in summer 1962. No sooner had this occurred, however, than a race for power began between the Front’s several power centres – competing organs of the Front, its external commanders, and field commanders. Eventually Houari Boumedienne, the calculating western external commander, played the key role when his well-drilled and well-rested forces seized Algiers and then set about pacifying what dissidence remained.

The Front became the official party of independent Algeria, with Ahmed Benbella – among the founders imprisoned in 1956 – effectively its leader. In this role, though, he was soon challenged from different angles by three of his former founders-turned-cellmates – Hocine ait-Ahmed, Tayeb Boudiaf, and Said Khider – as well as Belkacem Kerim, the Front founder who had remained at liberty. Ait-Ahmed soon allied himself with dissident field commanders including the Kabylia commander Mokrane Mokrane – with the ironic result that Kabylia remained for several years as much a headache for independent Algeria as it had been for the French colony. Meanwhile Ferhat Abbas, who was the figurehead in 1962-63, repeatedly locked horns with the overweening Benbella over the role of the party as opposed to elected politicians in the parliament. Backed by Boumedienne and his gamechanging military force, Benbella was able to overcome these challenges one by one.

Mohammedi, who was not especially interested in politics and politically the weakest Front commander, originally acquiesced to these developments. His main sticking point was that Algeria should be an Islamic polity, and so long as that was the case he was loyal to the regime. Most more sophisticated Islamists, including Front cofounder Khider and the ideologist Malek Bennabi, were soon politically marginalized. Their views were anathema to certain secularists, both among the liberal and the separate leftist camp; in the latter, Reda Malek, a former friend of Frantz Fanon who had written Front propaganda during the war and was involved in writing up the constitution, would be the most adamant opponent of the Islamists.

Benbella, who harboured Marxist economic ideas and took pains to claim that they did not contradict Islam, nonetheless presided over a regime whose secondary organs, at least, were manned by functionaries who treated practicing Muslims with contempt. He himself dismissed the blandishments of the Ulama leader, Bashir Ibrahimi. But at least at first Benbella did sufficiently persuade both Mohammedi and Boumedienne – who, though less ideological, was basically by upbringing a Muslim traditionalist and then viewed sympathetically by the Islamist camp – to serve in the socialist single-party state as his deputy rulers. In practice this role was rather meaningless: more relevant was Boumedienne’s control of the military forces as army minister. Having defeated his other rivals, Benbella viewed the defence minister with some disquiet, and promoted to the army command Tahar Zbiri, an officer known to have personal differences with Boumedienne. Yet Zbiri had sided with Boumedienne in the 1962 takeover, and in summer 1965 both collaborated in a bloodless coup that ousted Benbella and installed Boumedienne in his place. The wily, calculating military strongman had taken over Algeria almost by stealth, and he would rule it until his death in 1978.

Mohammedi had been purged by Benbella just months before the 1965 coup, which he initially supported and on whose junta he served. Yet, much like Zbiri, he fell out with Boumedienne by 1967. Their methods were different: Zbiri, rallying his field commanders, attempted an unsuccessful coup in December 1967. Mohammedi, however, travelled to his native Kabylia, a hotbed of dissidence. Speaking at a ceremony to remember the slain commander Amirouche, he attacked Boumedienne as a dictator.

Boumedienne could afford to ignore Mohammedi; he lacked both formal and informal power by this point, and his enthusiastic approval of Arabic as Algeria’s official language had not endeared him among many Kabyle dissidents. He remained politically irrelevant throughout Boumedienne’s 1970s regime and the subsequent 1980s regime of Chadli Bendjedid, one of Boumedienne’s military lieutenants.

By now cracks had appeared in the single-party regime; attempting to offset its economic problems by liberalizing the socialist economy, Algeria followed a familiar contemporary pattern that saw poverty and inequality lead to major dissidence. The Front, as the ruling party, was increasingly discredited. While socialist dissidence, led by Hocine ait-Ahmed, had long been a factor especially among Kabyles, a more potent dissidence emerged in the form of revolutionary Islamism. As had been the Front’s own precedent in the 1950s, Islam became the dominant framework of dissidence. The influential preachers Abbassi Madani and Ali Benhadj would channel discontent into the emergent Front Islamique Salut. In its call for an Islamic overhaul and its allegation of regime corruption as well as inauthenticity – primarily the Europhilia and Francophilia of the elite – it channelled sentiments similar to those that the Front Liberation had hit upon thirty years earlier.

In autumn 1988, mass unrest, which was bloodily put down, forced Bendjedid to relinquish the one-party state and hold multiparty elections. The Front Liberation was itself suffering rupture. It had never been a secularist party per se, and always had an at least consciously Muslim wing that included Bendjedid’s prime minister Abdelhamid Brahimi and its newly promoted secretary-general Abdelhamid Mehri. The 1988 upheaval prompted Bendjedid to sack Brahimi from the prime ministry and promote Mehri to secretary-general, but each Abdelhamid vociferously attacked regime corruption. The Front Salut continued to advance rapidly in the next few years, and an aged Nacer Mohammedi joined its ranks.

Nacer Mohammedi, who seems finally to have found a political party that he could identity fully with, ran in the 1991 parliamentary election on a Front Salut ticket. This fateful election, which the Salut leader Abdelkader Hachani won, should have given him the role of prime minister. Instead the army minister Khaled Nezzar mounted a coup, removing Bendjedid and installing a sinister emergency junta, known colloquially as the “Pouvoir” or power, that was variously fronted by one 1950s figurehead after another, few of whom had any power.

These included the celebrated Front Liberation founder Tayeb Boudiaf, whose attempt to investigate Pouvoir corruption ended abruptly with his own murder; the Front field commander Ali Kafi; Boumedienne’s former finance minister Belaid Abdesselam, who made a doomed late attempt to return to socialism; and Reda Malek, the former socialist-turned-capitalist whose main attraction to the Pouvoir was his militantly secularist opposition to any accord with the Islamists.
On the insurgent side, the Front Salut announced an insurgency but proved entirely incapable of its implementation against regime crackdowns; unlike the 1950s insurgency, the 1990s insurgency fractured into what were basically gangs, many of whom joined the millennarian Groupe Islamique Arme, a murderous cult that continued to match and outstrip Pouvoir atrocities well after the Front Salut had collapsed. Not until Liamine Zeroual, an army officer with a more accommodating policy, came to power in 1995 did some normalcy return, though Pouvoir and Groupe continued to trade atrocities for years thereafter.

Nacer Mohammedi did not live to see these developments. The old battler passed away, quite peaceably, during the war’s most horrendous period in December 1994. It was an unlikely ending to a career that had been forged in and shaped by conflict.

Abshir Musa. Somalia. The steady breakdown and collapse of the thirty-year-old Somali state in the late 1980s and 1990s made that swathe of the African Horn a byword for state collapse for years. A common point often raised by both longstanding opponents of Somali politics (not least in the neighbouring powerhouse Ethiopia, which tended to view its rival’s collapse with some malicious glee) and genuinely introspective observers was that Somalis were – despite their overwhelmingly homogenous ethnicity, culture, and faith – not suited for a modern state. They were too wedded, it was claimed, to nomadic and subsistence lifestyles, as well as to the debilitation of clan politics; a Somali state could only be upheld by clientelism or, as had happened often during the military dictatorship of Siad Barre, brute force. This article is not the place to discuss such theories and their merits, but it is easy to forget that in their early years Somalia’s founders had considerable room for optimism. One leading Somali military-cum-political leader who played a sizeable role both in the Somali state and its aftermath, and who decidedly did not fit the model of the clientelist or brute, was Major-General Mohamed Abshir Musa. This upright, principled officer had overseen the construction of a surprisingly effective security force as its first commander in the 1960s, and subsequently survived imprisonment to play a sizeable role in the events of the 1980s and 1990s.

The Somalia state was built off two Somali-dominated regions in the African Horn ruled by, respectively, the British and Italian empires in north and south; the Italian rout in the Second World War put their proportion of central-southern Somalia under indirect British suzerainty, but still governed by a post-fascist Italian colony until 1960. The discrepancy, both before and after independence, between these regions would prove a challenge to the emergent doctrine of Somali nationalism, which sought ultimately to reunite the Somali peoples in the African Horn, whose numbers were dispersed not only in modern Somalia but also in independent Ethiopia, French-occupied Djibouti, and British-occupied Kenya. In part, Somali nationalism emerged to challenge perceived clanism among Somalis that had helped subject them to foreign rule. The Somali Youth League, first modern party for Somali nationalism, adopted “unity for Allah’s sake” as a motto – but unity proved difficult to realize.
Nonetheless, in the 1950s prospects of decolonization and the end of colonial suzerainty, which was now untenable for the European empires, set off an optimistic mood among many Somalis, particularly those who, like most postcolonial elites, had been educated and politicized under a foreign rule they had come to resent. By this time it was clear that the Italian-British regime could not last, and in preparation for its replacement many members of the still modest Somali upper and middle classes were trained to build a functional state. In the mid-1950s, several Somali technocrats, officials, and officers were sent on training courses to Italy, whence they returned to fulfill governmental positions in the fledgling Somali state. This relatively small group includes almost a who’s who of early Somali politicians.
Among the officers sent for military and security training were many of the Somali state’s most prominent troops. They included the future military dictator Siad Barre, his deputy Mohamed Ainanshe and Hussein Kulmiye, future army commander Daud Hersi, as well as Abshir Musa. As in many colonial setups, there was little to differentiate military and security forces; a year before Somali independence in summer 1960, the colony’s native garrison was split into an army and a security force, led respectively by Daud and Abshir. By every account both were officers in the best postcolonial tradition, committed to their jobs, incorruptibly scrupulous, and optimistic about an independent Somali government that would overcome clan and political cleavages in favour of just modernized rule. They were certainly well-placed in the new state of affairs; not only did they command Somalia’s initially modest but rapidly expanding military-security forces, but Abshir was related by marriage to Aden Adde, the widely respected Youth League leader who became independent Somalia’s first ruler.

Unfortunately, the optimism of the 1950s proved to have been naïvete. Again like contemporary postcolonial democracies, the Somali government in the 1960s proved inept, fractious, and dysfunctional. The northwestern region Somaliland, whose leading politician Mohamed Egal flirted with the idea of a separate state, was brought into the Somali union by a sleight of hand (exercised by Mohamed Ainanshe, the leading Somalilander in the army) and promises of shared representation that were never fulfilled. Moreover the Youth League, in its pan-Somali optimism, soon and prematurely picked a fight with the neighbouring giant Ethiopia, hoping to liberate the Somali-dominated Ogaden region opposite Somaliland from the Amharic monarchy.

The subsequent insurgency in Ogaden, led by a colourful Ogaden chieftain called Makhtal Dahir, briefly captured the Somali imagination. Daud Hersi and Abshir Musa, who had overseen a rapid expansion of their respective forces, were instrumental in delivering assistance to the insurgency. By summer 1964, however, it was clear that Somalia had not the capacity to continue supporting a revolt that was out of its depth against the Ethiopian army’s might. Adde’s new prime minister Abdirazak Hussein now assigned to Abshir the unhappy task of informing the Ogaden insurgents that Somalia was washing its hands of the resistance; the blow was only softened by offers of residency and pensions in Somalia.

Nonetheless pan-Somali sentiment lingered, accentuated by concern over the fate of French-colonized Somalis in what would later become Djibouti. It was partly an appeal to pan-Somali sentiment, on which the incumbent regime was accused of negligence, that the Aden-Abdirazak government was ousted in the 1967 election. In their place came Adde’s former prime ministers Abdirashid Shermarke and Mohamed Egal, who set about consolidating their control over a fractious Somali political landscape in league with their loyal interior minister, Yasin Bidde.

This troika’s domination of the Youth League prompted its former stalwart Abdirazak to break away and form a new party, colloquially called Dabka or flame. Bidde swiftly banned the party and ordered the security force to crack down on it. Abshir Musa, who reported to Bidde but had a longstanding friendship with his Majerteen clansmate Abdirazak, moreover doubted the ban’s legality. After a consultation with legal experts, Abshir refused Bidde’s orders to close down Dabka. Bidde accused his constable of insubordination and attempting to form a parallel state, whereupon Abshir promptly resigned. The resignation of this popular and potentially troublesome officer was, of course, exactly what the government had wanted: his pliant successor Jama Qorshel faithfully cracked down on Dabka, whose appeal to the judiciary was also rejected.

By 1969, the troika were entitled to feel some confidence. The old guard – Adde and Abdirazak among the politicians, Daud and Abshir among the officers – were now out of the picture, but paradoxically this only endangered the regime. Daud’s successor, Siad Barre, had less qualms about military intrusion into politics. The murder of Abdirashid Shermarke in October 1969 by his bodyguard, Said Orfano, presented him an ideal opportunity, but he had to act fast: prime minister Egal, then in the United States, was on his way back while parliament speaker Mukhtar Hussein prepared to take up Shermarke’s role. Barre won the race, however, with a bloodless coup; prior to arresting the leading politicians and assuming power, he also arrested the constable Jama Qorshel in order to secure the security forces’ cooperation.

Barre’s subsequent military dictatorship, known dismissively as Faqash by its critics, lasted until 1991 and ended only during the dissolution of the country into civil war. Though he promoted a mixture of Somali nationalism and the scientific socialism so fashionable in that period, the regime was essentially and increasingly clientelist and focused on its dictator and his ruling clan. This is not to say that it lacked any redeeming qualities whatsoever; at least in the 1970s there was general stability and some prosperity. Barre’s rule was in its arc similar to the 1977-78 war he mounted in Ogaden against Ethiopia; it started well, but ended in disaster, and indeed it was the defeat in Ogaden that prompted the wheels to fall off the Faqash wagon.

Long before that, however, Barre demonstrated a tendency towards arbitrary rule that quite dwarfed the more chaotic vexations of the 1960s. Abshir was among the many 1960s leaders to be tossed in prison, apparently because the dictator feared his popularity as an alternative leader. It was in prison that he became strongly pietistic; indeed, at one point even his copy of the Quran was confiscated from him. At that point he was treated to an unexpected kindness by his cellmate, Mohamed Egal – the prime minister in the 1960s whose government had ironically sacked Abshir – who lent him a copy. He also reportedly resisted several attempts to coopt him; indeed, from Somalia’s future elite he was the only one who had not worked at some point in the Barre regime. Not until 1982 was he released, whereupon he went into exile first in Djibouti and then Saudi Arabia.

Barre’s crackdowns had meanwhile not been confined to the earlier generation of Somali leaders. Following the playbook of many a dictator, he had early on eliminated potential rivals in the junta. These included his deputy Mohamed Ainanshe, the interior minister Jama Qorshel, and the leading officer in his own coup Salad Gabayre, now the army minister who whose influence and closeness to the Soviet Union Barre feared. Within two years of the 1969 coup, these potential contenders for power had been imprisoned or executed on what appear to have been trumped-up charges. An actual plot, revolving around senior officers from the Majerteen clan, did transpire immediately upon the defeat to Ethiopia in April 1978. The Majerteen officers were foiled and executed, but one – Abdullahi Yusuf – did escape and made his way to Ethiopia, from where he and his Badbadinta Front would mount repeated attacks into Somalia.

By the 1980s, therefore, much of Somalia had already entered the civil war that would expand dramatically in the 1990s. Barre’s ruthless response, whetted by a newfound partnership with the United States to confront the new communist regime in Ethiopia, only aggravated the problem, and the Faqash assault on the northwestern Somaliland region in 1988 became the stuff of nightmare for its predominantly Isaaq clan. Similar to Baathist Iraq’s chemically leavened assault on Iraqi Kurdistan during the same period, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back: Somaliland was effectively out of government control from then on, ruled by opposition militias.

The Somaliland experience presaged what occurred in Somalia at the decade’s turn; large parts of the country practically fragmented and turned into fiefdoms of the dominated armed group therein, often organized along clan bases. The crisis eventually reached Mogadishu as more and more officials and officers broke away from a regime that was narrowing in its support base and increasingly brutal on opposition.

Abshir was among a large number of Somali dissidents, which also included the state’s founder Aden Adde, who returned to Somalia at this point in order to forestall the crisis. Along with a collection of intellectuals, politicians, and ministers, they wrote a famous manifesto in May 1990, which urged Barre to give up power to a transitional regime, which would include Adde and Abshir. Barre did, it appears, express some interest in coopting Abshir to the regime, but beyond this he ignored the manifesto. Its signatories spent much of the subsequent months – the last of the Faqash regime – trying to lobby either their constituents or mediate between warring militias.

It wasn’t until early 1991 that the regime fell; as Barre fled Mogadishu, the once-gleaming capital collapsed into brutal infighting among militias, with a particular targeted campaign against the Darod clan confederation from which he had hailed; militia leaders and commanders were often either unwilling or unable to control them.

Even as this happened, the winners struggled over the succession; the leading contenders were Ali Mahdi, a former minister and merchant; and Farah Aidid, an army officer who had once served as Barre’s aide. Aidid, with his tough and battle-hardened militia, claimed credit for the regime’s fall but it was Ali who had international recognition as the Somali ruler as well as the support of key militias outside Mogadishu.

In this struggle, Abshir Musa sided with Ali. The former constable returned to his home province Puntland. By now Somalia’s fragmentation into practical statelets controlled by competing militias was complete. They included the largely Isaaq Somaliland in the northwest, which soon announced an unrecognized but practical independence and where former Somali prime minister Mohamed Egal eventually established control. Largely Majerteen Puntland in the northeast largely came under the purview of the Badbadinta Front that had been founded by Abdullahi Yusuf and rebelled against Barre in the 1980s. This front, however, was not a homogenous entity, and Abshir’s arrival in Puntland complicated matters further.

Abshir had arrived at the Puntland port Bosaso claiming that a restoration of order was needed. His links in the international community and his widespread repute for integrity rendered him an attractive alternative to the domineering, controversial Badbadinta founder Abdullahi Yusuf. Yusuf, and eventually the Ethiopian regime that was his occasional sponsor, would soon accuse Abshir of sponsoring the numerous Islamist, and in particular Salafi, militants that appeared in Somalia during this period, though no proof was given to this effect. At most, Abshir could be accused of tolerating and perhaps sympathizing with the Itihaad group that briefly took over much of Puntland, primarily at his rival Yusuf’s expense, in 1992. Abshir’s pietism and his links to Saudi Arabia made him an easy target to be attacked as a “Wahhabi” zealot, though convincing evidence was never presented. Such polarizing claims were even more harmful given the famine that had broken out, which attracted a United Nations mission, led by the Algerian diplomat Mohamed Sahnoun and militarily captained by Pakistani officer Imtiaz Shaheen, over 1992-93.

The competition between Abshir and Yusuf never broke into warfare, largely because Majerteen clan elders managed to avoid an escalation. Nonetheless it soon took on regional and international implications. Because Abshir was loosely linked to his archrival Ali Mahdi, the Mogadishu commander Farah Aidid wanted to win Yusuf over to his side. The fact that Abshir, and not Yusuf, was invited to sign a peace accord on the Badabadinta Front’s behalf in Addis Ababa during early 1993 must have rankled the latter, and contributed to his prejudice against the Ali faction in favour of Aidid.
Aidid invited the United Nations’ Unisom mission to hold another peace accord at Mudug, but Unisom – correctly suspecting that Aidid wanted to use this as a pretext to weaken Abshir to Yusuf’s benefit – declined. Undeterred, Aidid and Yusuf signed a non-aggression pact in summer 1993 – a day before Aidid’s troops unwisely attacked a Pakistani Unisom convoy in Mogadishu. This threw the fat in the fire, and the United States stormed into the Somali fray in a hasty and ill-advised expedition against Aidid that culminated in the infamous Mogadishu battle four months later.

Even though Aidid had a son, Hussein, then serving in their army, the United States soon fixated on him as the ruthless warlord who had resisted the international community. By the same token, they warmed to his rivals, few as much as Abshir Musa. Based at the Bosaso port, Abshir was in a prime position to assist passage, and he was credited with using his influence to save American lives by their ambassador Robert Oakley, who would later call Abshir perhaps “the best Somali living.” The United Nations mission’s American advisor, April Glaspie, claimed that Abshir had accompanied her “through shot and shell” to secure the United Nations’ protection.

Be that as it may, Abshir lacked both the skill and ruthlessness to resist Abdullahi Yusuf’s steady advance. Though they formally buried the hatchet, Abshir left Somalia shortly after Yusuf secured his control over the Badbadinta and announced an autonomous Puntland emirate in summer 1998. He moved to the United States to get medical treatment for his disabled son, and that was the end of his relevance to Somali politics.

There was a very brief return that seemed to portend more promising things. In summer 2000, Abshir returned to Somalia and participated in an exploratory “parliament”, mediated by Djibouti, that sought to establish an interim government in a manner similar to Ethiopia’s later support of Yusuf in the mid-2000s. This “government” was led by Barre’s former interior minister Abdi Salad, but it was soon ousted amid significant opposition from key militia commanders – including Yusuf himself. Abshir’s relevance to this well-intended but shortlived project was that as the eldest member of this accord, he was elected this “parliament”‘s speaker – a purely symbolic role, but perhaps a fitting last hurrah.

There is a notable postscript. Perhaps because of his pietism, whispering campaigns by his enemies, or the dragnet approach to “radical Islam” by the United States after 2001, Abshir Musa was slapped with a deportation order in the mid-2000s. The situation had reversed itself curiously from 1993; now it was Abshir’s former rival Abdullahi Yusuf who, preparing to set himself up as the leader of a self-declared Somali government, was the toast of the international community and United States in particular. Happily enough, Abshir had sufficiently well-placed friends such as Oakley and Glaspie to prevent his deportation. Serving by now as an “elder statesman” to his local community rather than in Somali politics, he passed away in 2017.

Abshir Musa had been in the relatively small Somali elite that had dominated the postcolonial state’s early years and unlike several contemporaries was never accused of brutality or corruption. His political career extended beyond the Somali state’s dissolution and up to the civil war of the 1990s, where he was among the few leading figures who did not disgrace themselves. Yet these very qualities for which he was admired ultimately prevented him from playing more than a peripheral role in the Somali political arena.

FURTHER READING. Please note that these are not exhaustive sources; in some cases there is no satisfactory book on the military adventurer involved and often the researcher has to do more than simply fill in the dots. They are simply each the single best published books I have found, some of which are splendid and others not so.

William Daly; Darfur’s Sorrow: The forgotten history of a humanitarian disaster (Cambridge University Press, 2010).

Hazem Kandil; Soldiers, Spies, and Statesmen: Egypt’s road to revolt (Verso Books, 2012).

Abbas Milani; Eminent Persians: The men and women who made modern Iran, 1941-1979; Volume One (Syracuse University Press, 2008).

William Quandt; Revolution and Political Leadership: Algeria, 1954-1968 (MIT Press, 1970).

Philip Roessler, Ethnic Politics and State Power in Africa: The logic of the coup-civil war trap (Cambridge University Press, 2016).

Abdi Samatar; Africa’s First Democrats: Somalia’s Aden A. Osman and Abdirazak H. Hussen (Indiana University Press, 2016).