The Tragedy of Abdul Haq
Commentary / Robert McFarlane / Wall Street Journal 2nov01
Mr. McFarlane served from 1983 to 1985 as President Reagan's national security adviser.
More than a year ago it became clear to any casual reader of news from Afghanistan that there was growing opposition to the Taliban. The resistance came not just from the Northern Alliance, but from villagers and fighters throughout the country, especially in southern Pashtun areas. This ought to have been a clear signal that the Taliban were vulnerable, and that the opposition could play a critical role in bringing them down. It should have led the CIA to engage with grass-roots opposition, to support and nurture people like Abdul Haq, a commander who last week was caught and executed by the Taliban.
Unfortunately no such effort was made. And therein lies a scandalous, tragic story of bureaucratic incompetence with profound implications for our national security in the years ahead. Let me go back to the beginning.
At about this time last year, I was approached by Joseph Ritchie, a successful Chicago businessman and friend who had spent much of his childhood in Afghanistan. He shared my sense of the potential for Afghans to take back their country from the Taliban, and asked my advice as to how they ought to go about it. I felt that the organizing and support of any effort to bring down the Taliban was beyond the means of, and inappropriate for, private sponsors. It was a role for governments, and I offered to help him bring the concept to the attention of appropriate officials in Washington.
Together we first reconnected with one of the most successful commanders from the struggle to force the Soviet Union from Afghanistan in the 1980s, Abdul Haq. I had first met Haq while serving as President Reagan's national security adviser in 1984. When he came to the White House, Haq had already established a reputation as a courageous combat leader and brilliant tactician. President Reagan and later Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher were equally impressed.
Through our talks over the next several months, culminating in February of this year, I became convinced that with fairly modest support Haq and 50 to 60 of his fellow commanders had the forces, and the necessary skill and determination, to take on the Taliban. I believed, however, that parallel to his military campaign, there needed to be a political framework -- a process to form a post-Taliban government -- that would bring civil order back to the country and manage its reconstruction. Abdul Haq and Joe Ritchie agreed and devoted several months to enlisting the former king of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, to serve as the catalyst and moral foundation of this process.
We received attentive hearings and encouragement at the departments of State and Defense, as well as the White House. In each case, however, we were told that the CIA had responsibility for this mission. Unfortunately, the CIA made it clear that it was reluctant to take on the assignment.
In a series of meetings, we urged that CIA officials begin planning with proven commanders with well-documented track records. They responded with flimsy criticism of the commanders, all of it based on hearsay. Disclaiming any personal stake in our preferred nominees, we then asked only that they go into the field and do their own due diligence, and especially talk to the dozens of commanders who were disposed to help. To this we received only dismissive comments and indifference. In one astonishing exchange we were told, to paraphrase, "We don't yet have our marching orders concerning U.S. policy; it may be that we will end up dealing with the Taliban." Such an attitude obviously turns the mission of intelligence gathering -- to inform policy makers -- on its head.
Faced with this persistent recalcitrance, Haq -- who had been reluctant to seek U.S. help and never expected to get it -- decided in mid-August to go ahead and launch operations in Afghanistan. He returned to Peshawar, Pakistan, to make final preparations. After six weeks' work coordinating with other commanders, and a short trip to Rome to coordinate with the king, on Oct. 21 he re-entered Afghanistan and headed for Jalalabad. He knew that he had been under surveillance by Taliban operatives in Peshawar and was very vulnerable, but believed he could evade them and join up with his colleagues.
Unfortunately, due to his popularity, he was recognized -- and compromised -- as he transited villages along his way. After four days, while proceeding with his party up a narrow road in the mountains near Jalalabad, he was ambushed. While under attack his nephew, a member of the group, called Joe Ritchie's brother, James, in Peshawar and asked, "Can you do something?" James called me, and I, in turn, called the CIA operations center. An unmanned surveillance aircraft was vectored to the battle area. It successfully attacked a convoy at some distance from the ambush, but by then, almost five hours later, Haq had already been captured. The next day the Taliban executed him.
The tragedy here is not just the loss of a man of courage and excellence to whom the U.S. owed a great deal, but the dysfunction within the CIA that his loss underscores. It was implausible that this 11th-hour request for help would have succeeded. The calamity is the CIA's failure to engage with him -- or with any of the dozens of other capable Afghan commanders -- a year earlier and to put in place the coordination that could have avoided his loss. Such planning would also have put us in a position today to work with Haq's fellow Pashtun commanders.
Abdul Haq is gone. Fortunately, his brothers-in-arms remain committed to toppling the Taliban. They constitute a capable alternative to a large deployment of U.S. forces if we will devote the appropriate attention and planning in the days ahead. These Pashtun field commanders are driven to take back their country not for us -- since we abandoned them after the Soviets withdrew, they have little confidence or respect for us -- but for themselves and their countrymen. It is undeniably in our interest that these fighters be given a chance -- and any support they might request -- to do this job.
Their effort would benefit enormously from local intelligence and material support. Moreover, the undoing of the Taliban by Afghans would remove any claim of martyrdom from Osama bin Laden, as well as reduce the risk of losing our Muslim coalition partners. The alternative is for much larger U.S. forces to do the job. They would surely succeed, but at a much larger cost in lives.
The best bet is cooperation. The U.S. military is superbly prepared to engage in this kind of war. For 20 years we have been perfecting a solid capability for rapid reaction, small unit raids in remote areas, and special operations behind enemy lines. The Joint Special Operations Command is a magnificent fighting organization comprised of the best-trained, combat-ready troops available from the Army, Navy and Air Force. They will surely dominate every battlefield on which they are deployed.
As in all combat operations, however, success begins with intelligence; you need to know as much as you can about the enemy. Even the best force in the world will fail without solid intelligence. The CIA cannot provide it; it has utterly failed to do its job. But the military can. By working together, the Pashtun commanders and our special operations forces can win in Afghanistan.
For 25 years national-security professionals have lamented the decline of the CIA, especially its clandestine service. The Church and Pike committees destroyed it in the mid-1970s and no meaningful rebuilding has occurred. Sadly, we must accept that in this war, the CIA will be on the sidelines. But surely the attack of Sept. 11 removes any illusion that we can continue to ignore our void in human intelligence. The overhaul of the CIA requires focused presidential direction. But while that long-term process gets underway, we should focus on helping the Afghans to win the war in their country -- and this time helping them rebuild when the fighting is over.
Remembering Abdul Haq
Afghan freedom fighter's son says he 'died for the people'
Charlie Goodyear / SF Chronicle 5nov01
Abdul Majeed Arsala, 16, son
of Abdul Haq, prayed with others during a memorial service for his father
in Hayward. Chronicle photo by Michael Macor
Dozens of mourners gathered at a Hayward mosque yesterday to honor Abdul Haq, a famous Afghanistan war hero -- and resistance leader -- whose dangerous life ended on what many believe was a mission of peace.
No one ever expected the charismatic Haq, 43, to stop taking risks. But the legendary fighter -- who lost a foot during the Soviet occupation of his country -- apparently had become more recently known for his humanitarian work.
Haq was widely seen as the best chance to lead a democratic government that could replace the Islamic fundamentalist Taliban regime.
So when he slipped into Taliban-controlled Afghanistan last month in an attempt to persuade some tribal leaders to switch sides, friends and family worried that Haq might be captured but did not think he would be executed as he was on Oct. 26.
"We were shocked to learn that the Taliban -- who are Afghans after all -- hanged him and riddled his body with machine gun fire," said Omar Akbar, who helped organize yesterday's memorial.
Haq, one of several prominent Afghan exiles working to turn the nation against the Taliban, was renowned for his role as a commander of the Islamic resistance against Soviet occupation between 1979 and 1989.
Haq's eldest son, 16-year-old Abdul Majeed Arsala, and the slain leader's nephew, Khushal Arsala, also paid tribute to his memory, calling Haq a "hero of peace.
"All the best qualities in the world were in him," said Khushal Arsala. "He was respected by all Afghans."
Majeed last spoke with his father on Oct. 20 and talked about the dangers that Haq faced in resisting the Taliban regime.
"He said, 'In life you have to take risks,' " Majeed recalled in a soft voice as he stood on the floor of the mosque. "I'm proud that he died for the people."
Although several mourners said they were disappointed the U.S. military was unable to respond to a call for help from Haq shortly before his capture, Haq's family rejected the theory that the "Lion of Afghanistan" had been working in concert with the CIA.
"He was always independent in his decisions," said Khushal Arsala. "He took these risks on his own. He died for his country, his people and the free world. "
About 100 men entered the doors of the mosque, which bore pictures of the bearded, bald-headed Haq. They removed their shoes and sat along the edge of the building's main room. There were no tears, not even from his son, only the keening sounds of prayer. Women and young children waited outside.
Said Safi, who was related to Haq by marriage, said the fabled commander had "a very big heart" but had grown weary of politics. Haq, he said, wanted to bring peace to his people but not necessarily become their president.
"He was thinking like Gandhi in India," Safi said.
Many mourners noted Haq's popularity across a range of often-fractious tribes in Afghanistan. "He was just about to prove to the world that the Taliban don't even have the support of a majority of Pashtun tribes," said Eshan Ayar, a member of a Tajik tribe and not a Pashtun like Haq.
Ayar called Haq's death a "major loss," but added, "Time is on our side, and we will win the war against the terrorists."
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