On 5 October 2001, the London Evening Standard reported that a veteran commander of the 1980s anti-Soviet jihad was calling for then-U.S. President George W. Bush’s imminent bombing campaign of Afghanistan to be delayed. The commander, whose name was Abdul Haq, needed time, he said, to implement his plan for an internal, peaceful toppling of the Taliban.
‘Every time I meet commanders who cross the mountains in darkness to brief me,’ he said, ‘they are part of the Taliban forces, but they no longer support them. These men will join us and there are many of them. When the time is right they and others will rise up and this Taliban Government will be swept aside.’
Haq went on to add: "The people are starving, they are already against [the Taliban]."
But his voice, so authoritative when visiting President Ronald Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher to call for more support to the mujahideen during the Soviet war, was barely heard in the aftermath of September 11. The bombing started, and Abdul Haq began his perilous mission. Two weeks later, on 25 October 2001, he was dead.
In November 2001, after his death, Abdul Haq’s obituaries were dismissive, even overtly condemning. Not only was the manner of his death questioned, but so too was his life and, implicit to that, his ‘value.’ When the New York Times described him demeaningly as "a middle aged man on a mule" or a "privately financed freelancer trying to overthrow the Taliban" the implication was that there should be nothing to regret about his loss. In London, an unattributed piece in Private Eye added snidely, "Like so many erstwhile terrorists, Haq managed to reinvent himself as a ‘moderate’ and a ‘peacemaker’ — so successfully that his murderous exploits were entirely omitted from every single obituary."
Other pieces begged to differ and one, written by a cultural anthropologist and former U.S. Diplomat to Afghanistan, had a different take on the story:
To hear them talk in Washington and Islamabad, you’d think there was some doubt. In fact, you’d think his death no great loss. Listen carefully. It’s scared talk, the kind of stuff you hear from bureaucrats whose backsides are exposed.
Abdul Haq, they rush to insist, was on a mission of his own. Maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t. Either way, it’s shameful to demean him.
There is some doubt about how the man died and where and when. We know he was ‘questioned’ and then executed. But was it by hanging with his body then used for swaying small-arms target practice, or was he shot in cold blood in a prison courtyard? It was in eastern Afghanistan — but Jalalabad or Kabul? It was two weeks ago — but late Thursday or early Friday? There’s some doubt about who sent him and who betrayed him. There could even be confusion about his name were it not so well known:
‘Born Hamayoun Arsala 44 years ago, he became "Abdul Haq" — Servant of Justice — in the crucible of our Cold War’s most decisive battleground.’
Kabul, January 2004
Towards the end of January 2004, I finally met the Taliban’s Deputy Interior Minister, Mullah Khaksar. It was his boss, the Taliban Interior Minister, Mullah Razzaq, who had apparently given the orders for Haq to be killed.
The family told me that Khaksar had visited Haq in Peshawar after September 11 and helped him with his plan to overthrow the Taliban, intending to work with Haq in forming a broad-based government. The plan was for Khaksar to work with Khan Mir, another of Haq’s jihadi commanders, in Kabul as Haq went into Afghanistan from the East on his mission. The two would work on turning over several divisions of the Interior Ministry. In the event though, Haq had been killed and captured before the fall of Kabul.
Khaksar had apparently turned himself over to the Karzai government following the routing of the Taliban and was now hiding out in a "safe house." At this stage there was still no Taliban Reconciliation Program.
I hooked up with my interpreter, Hanif and we headed in the direction of Khair Khana on a cold January day, the air thick with a winter freeze. Eventually we arrived at a rundown suburban house, stepped into a concrete hallway and were shown into a curtained room. The Mullah sat there alone. He had a shaggy dark beard, a voluminous dark grey turban and dark, spaniel-shaped eyes. I could see my breath in the cold air and was relieved when a young man arrived to stoke the bukhari stove heater and bring us green tea and nuts.
Khaksar’s dark looks were utterly incongruous with his quiet, high-pitched voice and the phone which periodically jingled ‘happy birthday’ from inside his salwar kameez. After some explanations of who I was, I asked whether, given the current situation, it might have been better for many members of the Taliban if Haq had not been killed?
Khaksar replied, "At the last days the friends of Abdul Haq in the Interior Ministry practically began a war. We were ready to act" he said, telling me Haq had wanted a broad-based government, like himself. Later, he had stayed at the Arsala house in Peshawar and spoken with Haq’s brothers Haji din Mohammad and Haji Qadir. He told me that he had known the regime would collapse two years before it did. I asked why Mullah Razzaq had wanted Haq dead and Khaksar said:
He used his competence as it was an emergency situation. But he also said that, at this time, the Taliban still did not believe they would lose their power. They thought, rather naively, that Afghans would rise up against the foreign invaders in their support. They executed [Haq] as they thought the USA would rescue him and then he’d stand against the Taliban again. But the act [of killing Haq] was against human rights law and [Islamic] law. As he was killed without a fight and without a trial.
As to why the Taliban had killed Haq so fast, he said:
If he was alive and his programme had been a success, then from my point of view he would now be President of Afghanistan…If they had put him in jail the people would have been rising up and pushing for a revolution.
Again, his phone tinkled ‘happy birthday’ from somewhere deep within his salwar kameez. Fixing me with his bottomless dark eyes he added, "A lot of people supported his plan, even in Khost, Paktia, Gardez and throughout Afghanistan."
These were the same places one of Haq’s British supporters, nobleman and famed Afghan war photographer Sir John Gunston, had mentioned as being the backbone of the Taliban’s hold over the south: the places which had fallen due to Haq’s commanders and the willingness of the people who were fed up with the regime. Not due to some ‘secret deals’ made by MI6 — as asserted in the British press — who had been nowhere to be seen when help was needed.
His comments echoed Gunston’s assessment of the sad irony that, in Kabul, Abdul Haq had been deemed a threat to the Taliban, yet in Washington and London, those charged with knowing better were just blithely unaware. I asked Khaksar if it was too late to include moderate Taliban in the government. "Yes of course," he snapped. "But if not 100 percent fruitful, it could be 20 percent at least." It was a short interview. He had people to see, but he agreed to meet again the next day to talk more about the circumstances surrounding Haq’s death.
Lucy Morgan Edwards is a former Political Advisor to the EU Ambassador in Kabul and author of The Afghan Solution: The Inside Story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and How Western Hubris Lost Afghanistan, from which the above passages are derived.