The location of Afghanistan astride the land routes between the Indian subcontinent, Iran, and central Asia has enticed conquerors throughout history


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The Demise of the Soviet Union, 1991

With the failure of the communist hardliners to take over the Soviet government in August 1991, Najibullah's supporters in the Soviet Army lost their power to dictate Afghan policy. The effect was immediate. On September 13, the Soviet government, now dominated by Boris Yeltsin, agreed with the United States on a mutual cutoff of military aid to both sides in the Afghan civil war. It was to begin January 1, 1992.

The post-coup Soviet government then attempted to develop political relations with the Afghan resistance. In mid-November it invited a delegation of the resistance's AIG to Moscow where the Soviets agreed that a transitional government should prepare Afghanistan for national elections. The Soviets did not insist that Najibullah or his colleagues participate in the transitional process. Having been cut adrift both materially and politically, Najibullah's faction torn government began to fall apart.

During the nearly three years that the Kabul government had successfully defended itself against mujahidin attacks, factions within the government had also developed quasi-conspiratorial connections with its opponents. Even during the Soviet war Kabul's officials had arranged case-fires, neutral zones, highway passage and even passes allowing unarmed mujahidin to enter towns and cities. As the civil war developed into a stalemate in 1989, such arrangements proliferated into political understandings. Combat generally ceased around Qandahar because most of the mujahidin commanders had an understanding with its provincial governor. Ahmad Shah Massoud developed an agreement with Kabul to keep the vital north-south highway open after the Soviet withdrawal. The greatest mujahidin victory during the civil war, the capture of Khost, was achieved through the collaboration of its garrison. Hekmatyar's cooperation with Tanai, the Khalqi Defense Minister is discussed above.

Interaction with opponents became a major facet of Najibullah's defensive strategy, Many mujahidin groups were literally bought off with arms, supplies and money to become militias defending towns, roads and installations. Such arrangements carried the danger of backfiring. When Najibullah's political support ended and the money dried up, such allegiances crumbled.

The Fall of Kabul, April 1992

Kabul ultimately fell to the mujahidin because the factions in its government had finally pulled it apart. Until demoralized by the defections of its senior officers, the army had achieved a level of performance it had never reached under direct Soviet tutelage. It was a classic case of loss of morale. The regime collapsed while it still possessed material superiority. Its stockpiles of munitions and planes would provide the victorious mujahidin with the means of waging years of highly destructive war. Kabul was short of fuel and food at the end of winter in 1992, but its military units were supplied well enough to fight indefinitely. They did not fight because their leaders were reduced to scrambling for survival. Their aid had not only been cut off, the Marxist-Leninist ideology that had provided the government its rationale for existence been repudiated at its source.

A few days after it was clear that Najibullah had lost control, his army commanders and governors arranged to turn over authority to resistance commanders and local notables throughout the country. Joint councils or shuras were immediately established for local government in which civil and military officials of the former government were usually included. Reports indicate the process was generally amicable. In many cases prior arrangements for transferring regional and local authority had been made between foes.

Through mid-1995 these local arrangements have generally remained in place in most of Afghanistan. Disruptions have occurred where local political arrangements have been linked to been linked to the struggle that has developed between the mujahidin parties. At the national level a political vacuum was created and into it fell the expatriate parties in their rush to take control. The enmities, ambitions, conceits and dogmas which had paralyzed their shadow government proved to be even more disastrous in their struggle for power. The traits they brought with them had been accentuated in the struggle for preferment in Peshawar.

Collusions between military leaders quickly brought down the Kabul government. In mid-January 1992, within three weeks of demise of the Soviet Union, Ahmad Shah Massoud was aware of conflict within the government's northern command. General Abdul Momim, in charge of the Hairatan border crossing at the northern end of Kabul's supply highway, and other non-Pushtun generals based in Mazari-i-Sharif feared removal by Najibullah and replacement by Pushtun officers. The generals rebelled and the situation was taken over by Abdul Rashid Dostam, who held general rank as head of the Jozjani militia, also based in Mazar-i-Sharif. He and Massoud reached a political agreement, together with another major militia leader, Sayyid Mansor, of the Ismaili community based in Baghlan Province. These northern allies consolidated their position in Mazar-i-Sharif on March 21. Their coalition covered nine provinces in the north and northeast. As turmoil developed within the government in Kabul, there was no government force standing between the northern allies and the major air force base at Begram, some seventy kilometers north of Kabul. By mid-April the air force command at Begram had capitulated to Massoud. Kabul was defenseless, its army was no longer reliable.

Najibullah had lost internal control immediately after he announced his willingness on March 18 to resign in order to make way for a neutral interim government. As the government broke into several factions the issue had become how to carry out a transfer of power. Najibullah attempted to fly out of Kabul on April 17, but was stopped by Dostam's troops who controlled Kabul Airport under the command of Karmal's brother, Mahmud Baryalai. Vengeance between Parchami factions was reaped. Najibullah took sanctuary at the UN mission where he remained in 1995. A group of Parchami generals and officials declared themselves an interim government for the purpose of handing over power to the mujahidin.

For more than a week Massoud remained poised to move his forces into the capital. He was awaiting the arrival of political leadership from Peshawar. The parties suddenly had sovereign power in their grasp, but no plan for executing it. With his principal commander prepared to occupy Kabul, Rabbani was positioned to prevail by default. Meanwhile UN mediators tried to find a political solution that would assure a transfer of power acceptable to all sides.

The United Nations Plan for Political Accommodation

Benan Sevan, Diego Cordovez' successor as special representative of the UN secretary general, attempted to apply a political formula that had been announced by UN Secretary General Javier Perez De Cuellar on May 21, 1991. Referred to as a five-point plan, it included: recognition of Afghanistan's sovereign status as a politically non-aligned Islamic state; acceptance of the right of Afghans to self-determination in choosing their form of government and social and economic systems; need for a transitional period permitting a dialogue between Afghans leading to establishment of a government with widely based support; the termination of all foreign arms deliveries into Afghanistan; funding from the international community adequate to support the return of Afghanistan's refugees and its reconstruction from the devastation of war.

These principles were endorsed by the Soviet Union and the United States and Afghanistan's neighboring governments, but there was no military means of enforcing it. The three moderate Peshawar parties accepted it, but it was opposed by Hekmatyar, Rabbani, Sayyaf and Khalis who held out for a total victory over the Kabul government.

Nevertheless, these four "fundamentalists" found it politic to participate in the effort to implement the UN initiative. Pressure from their foreign supporters and the opportunities that participation offered to modify or obstruct the plan encouraged them to be reluctant players. Pakistan and Iran worked jointly to win mujahidin acceptance at a conference in July, 1991. Indicating its formal acceptance of the plan, Pakistan officially announced the termination of its own military assistance to the resistance in late January 1992. Najibullah also declared his acceptance, but until March 18, 1992, he hedged the question of whether or when he would resign in the course of negotiations.

Sevan made a strenuous effort to create the mechanism for the dialogue that would lead to installation of the transitional process envisaged in point three of the plan. The contemplated arrangement was a refinement and a simplification of earlier plans which had been built around the possible participation of Zahir Shah and the convoking of a meeting in the Loya Jirgah tradition. By March 1992 the plan had evolved to the holding of a meeting in Europe of some 150 respected Afghans representing all communities in the late spring. Most of Sevan's effort was directed at winning the cooperation of all the Afghan protagonists, including the Shia parties in control of the Hazarajat. In early February, he appeared to have won the active support of commanders among the Pushtuns in eastern Afghanistan and acquiescence from Rabbani and Hekmatyar to the extent of submitting lists of participants acceptable to them in the proposed meeting. Simultaneously, Sevan labored to persuade Najibullah to step down on the presumption that his removal would bring about full mujahidin participation. Instead, Najibullah's March 18 announcement accelerated the collapse of his government. This collapse in turn triggered events that moved faster than Sevan's plan could be put into effect.

In the midst of hectic maneuvering to put the European meeting together, Sevan declared on April 4 that most of the parties (including Hekmatyar's) and the Kabul government had agreed to transfer power to a proposed transitional authority. He also announced the creation of a "pre-transition council" to take control of government "perhaps within the next two weeks." He was struggling to keep up with events which threatened to dissolve the government before he had a replacement for it.

In the end, some of the Shia parties and the Islamists in Peshawar blocked his scheme. They withheld their choices or submitted candidates for the European meeting whom they knew would be unacceptable to others. The hope for a neutral, comprehensive approach to a political settlement among Afghans was dashed. Sevan then worked to ensure a peaceful turnover of power from the interim Kabul government which replaced Najibullah on April 18 to the forces of Massoud and Dostam. In effect, the turnover was peaceful, but without an overall political settlement in place. Within a week a new civil war would begin among the victors.

The Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, Since 1992

Mujahidin victory was the result of the vacuum created by the implosion of Marxism-Leninism in Moscow and Kabul. The victors have perpetuated that vacuum by failing to find a common approach to government or a formula for sharing power among themselves. Their jihad experience committed them to attempt to create a political innovation for Afghanistan--an Islamic Republic, inspired by the revolution in Iran, but clearly to be different in structure and doctrine. Tragically, on the day the Peshawar parties reached a tentative agreement on how they would establish their Islamic republic, a new war for Kabul began.

The Peshawar Accord, April 25, 1992

By April 25, Massoud could no longer wait for an agreement by the Peshawar parties on arrangements for a new government. With the cooperation of Pushtun officials in the army and the interior ministry, Hekmatyar's troops were infiltrating Kabul. The situation appeared to offer the opportunity for him to take power in a sudden stroke, but his move was too late and too weak. Dostam's and Massoud's forces were better positioned and stronger. After two days of hard fighting Hekmatyar and his Khalqi allies were forced out of the city. A new struggle for power had begun.

For the moment Massoud had handed the Peshawar parties a virtual fait accompli, Kabul was theirs. He awaited their takeover of government. Although real power was being handed to them, the parties had reached no understanding on how they wished to govern. Under Pakistani guidance and some pressure they hastily agreed to rule through a leadership council and an interim presidency. This was to assure residual powers for themselves as party leaders. They gave no consideration to dissolving their parties now that their function of leading a war against communists was fulfilled.

The council--whose role paralleled that of the PDPA's Revolutionary Council--was to be made up of party staffers who in many instances were relatives of the leaders. A succession of interim presidents was named. Mujaddidi was to serve from April 28 to June 28, 1992. Rabbani then was to succeed him and serve until October 28. Between them they were to prepare a provisional constitution for the Islamic republic, which was to be ratified by a national shura later in the year. Meanwhile, the parties would share among themselves appointments to the cabinet, with Hekmatyar given the choice of becoming Prime Minister. Arrangements for actual government mirrored the distribution of power they had created for their shadow government in Peshawar. Its functions were paralyzed from the beginning while the contenders for total power maneuvered for advantage.

The Struggle for Kabul

Continual fighting over Kabul began, punctuated by assaults made by relatively small forces employing firepower never dreamed possible by the mujahidin in their guerilla phase. Short-range missiles with heavy explosives did most of the damage. They wreaked devastation, killing far more civilians than combatants. By early 1994 the city had been reduced to a shambles. Neighborhoods, mosques, and government buildings had been destroyed. A vagabond government shifted between surviving buildings. During the heaviest fighting it operated from Charikar, sixty kilometers to the north.

Despite the devastation Hekmatyar and the allies he gained in 1993 and 1994 were not able to defeat the government defenders. In January 1993 he was joined by the Shia Hezb-i-Wahdat faction led by Abdul Ali Mazari, who had Iranian backing and the support of many Shia residents living in the western sector of Kabul. On several occasions Mazari's forces and Rasul Sayyaf's Wahhabi followers engaged in vicious battles in Kabul's western outskirts. Dostam also came to Mazari's assistance. In turn Sayyaf sided with Rabbaani's forces led by Ahmad Shah Massoud.

A year later Hekmatyar overcame his loudly expressed contempt for Dostam as an ally of the communists and formed a tripartite alliance with him and Mazari. They organized the Shura-i-ala Humaagi inquilab-i-Islami Afghanistan (Supreme Coordination Council of the Islamic Revolution in Afghanistan).

On January 1, 1994, they launched the most devastating assault so far mounted against Kabul. It took several thousand lives and reduced Kabul's population below 500,000 (it had reached more than 2 million late in the Soviet war). During the first week government units lost ground in both Southwestern and Southeastern Kabul, but soon regained most of their positions. Massoud led an offensive in June which drove Hekmatyar's rocket units off two strategic hills. Sporadic fighting punctuated by rocket attacks on the city continued until early 1995.

As the fighting settled into a stalemate, several peace initiatives were attempted. The UN renewed its peace making role in April 1994. Leaders of the less powerful Mujahidin parties offered peace proposals. Ismael Khan, the government's powerful ally in Herat, hosted a large conference in July 1994 that agreed on a process for a transition to a new government. It was blocked by opposition from the Supreme Coordination Council and other commanders. Iran and the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) hosted a poorly attended peace conference in Teheran in November. On December 28, 1994 the presidential term that Rabbani, himself, recognized lapsed. With no resolution of conflict and no consensus reached on a mechanism for transferring authority, he kept the office by default, pending a new political settlement to be engineered by the UN.

Sudden, unexpected developments in early 1995 profoundly changed the situation. A new political/military force, the Taliban, sprang into existence. This movement, identified with religious students was centered among the Durrani Pushtuns who had been politically passive during the previous fifteen years of war and tumult. The movement took control of Kandahar in November, 1994. By February it was challenging the Rabbani government from Kabul to Herat. The Taliban were students or recent graduates of a network of traditional madrasas in southern Afghanistan and adjacent areas of Pakistan. The origin of the movement itself remains obscure, but once again a religious cause that offered political purification and an end to Afghanistan's suffering won widespread support.

The most significant and immediate result of the Taliban rise to power, was the ignominious collapse of Hekmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami as a fighting force. In early February his headquarters at Charasyab, twenty-five kilometers south of Kabul, became trapped between the government army and the Taliban. On February 15, Hekmatyar and his disintegrating army fled eastward toward Jalalabad leaving a large arsenal of weapons behind. Hezb was no longer a deadly threat to Kabul; the struggle for power had been profoundly changed.

Mujahidin Attempts to Govern, 1992-95

Mujaddidi had little chance to organize a government during his two months as interim president. Hekmatyar was an immediate threat: Mujaddidi was nearly killed when his plane was hit by a Hezb rocket. The cumbersome Leadership Council assured meddling by the parties, and the government's very uncertain security depended on a motley mix of army units taken over from Najib's government, Mausood's forces, and elements of Dostam's militia. Attempting to find maneuvering room, Mujaddidi favored Dostam as a regional power whom he might balance against Massoud, who had taken charge of the defense ministry. The President raised Dostam's rank from militia chief to senior army general.

Mujaddidi attempted to extend his short term, but lacked the political leverage to offset the military weakness of his party. His resentment toward Rabbani, his successor, would later add to the rivalries between mujahidin politics.

Rabbani and Massoud attempted to create a national army by recruitment of mujahidin rank and file primarily to gain government control over Kabul itself. It had been divided into separate armed camps of mujahidin who settled among their own ethnic groups clustered in separate neighborhoods. These efforts were interrupted by Hekmatyar's first major rocket attack on the city in August, 1992. His forces were pushed back jointly by Massoud and Dostam. Under Pakistani pressure Rabbani agreed to a cease-fire which brought general peace to the city for more than three months. Massoud attempted to recruit leaders from other parties, including the Shias, for senior military positions. Mazari's Hezb-i-Wahdat party was assigned two cabinet positions.

With Hekmatyar apparently deflated, Rabbani's government concentrated on preparing for a national shura which was to draft a constitution and choose an interim government for the next eighteen months. The accord reached in Peshawar in April called for elections at the end of the second interim period. The Leadership council gave Rabbani an extension until December to complete the drafting. His proposal for the next interim period was ambitious. He called for a Shura-yi-Ahl-i Hal-u-'Aqd (Council of Resolution and Settlement). A comprehensive effort was made to convene a large assembly representing sentiment in every district in the country. Some 1,400 representatives were brought to Kabul in mid-December where they overwhelmingly (916 to 59 with 366 abstentions) voted to elect Rabbani to a full two-year term, not the eighteen months mandated by the Peshawar accords.

The backlash from this decision reshuffled alignments and took the Islamic Republic's politics in an uncharted direction. Among the major parties only Jamiat (from which Rabbani formally resigned to assume the new presidency), Muhammad Nabi's Harakat, and Sayyaf's Ittehad accepted the election. Gailani and Mujaddidi (vexed already by the extension of Rabbani's term) joined Khalis, Hekmatyar, Mazari, and Dostam to oppose it on grounds that the election had been rigged and was not representative of the country. Rabbani had attempted to garner a popular mandate and instead had united his rivals, greatly strengthening Hekmatyar's position.

Rabbani was immediately thrown on the defensive, politically and militarily. Alienated by government attempts to get control of the city, the Shia Wahdat had attacked the government in western Kabul before the council met and was temporarily supported by Dostam's units on the other side of the city. These assaults were quickly repulsed, but immediately after Rabbani's election Hekmatyar attacked with Wahdat support. The city was again massively rocketed until mid-February. Only three foreign embassies remained open in the capital: Italy's, India's, and China's. For the government there was one compensation: Sayyaf, the most consistent ideologue of the party leaders, maintained his alliance with the government in order to pursue his sectarian struggle with the Shias

The Islamabad and Jalalabad Accords, March-April 1993

Worried over the prospect that the continuing turmoil might embroil themselves in the Afghan conflict, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and Iran put pressure on the mujahidin leaders to find a political solution. In Islamabad on March 7, 1993 they reached yet another agreement. Rabbani was to continue as president until June, 1994; Hekmatyar was to resume the prime ministership, the Leadership council was to be terminated--as Rabbani had attempted to do in December--and all parties were again to be represented in the cabinet. All three neighbors endorsed the agreement as did the Organization of the Islamic Conference. To reinforce their new commitment the Afghan leaders visited Mecca and the three neighboring capitals.

Two days afterwards the Wahdat recommenced rocketing government areas. Disputes over selection of the cabinet and an attack on Rabbani when he attempted to meet Hekmatyar in a Kabul suburb negated the agreement.

Hekmatyar now demanded the removal of Massoud from the government and the setting up of commissions representing all parties in the ministries of Defense, Interior and Foreign Affairs. Rabbani insisted on having the right to veto Hekmatyar's choices for the cabinet. Hekmatyar launched a major attack on April 24, which continued until mid-May. The mujahidin council governing Jalalabad then hosted a three-week conference in which leaders of all parties were confined within the conference building with much public pressure to reach an agreement.

On May 18, 1993, the previous agreement was essentially re-instated. Additional refinements authorized Hekmatyar to chair a commission governing the Interior ministry, with two commissioners appointed from every province. Rabbani was to chair Defense with a similarly unwieldy commission. This charade was to ensure that Massoud's authority would be swamped and he formally resigned, apparently leaving government for a short period. A new high council of party members and notables also was reinstated, presumably to oversee Rabbani.

Rabbani had been politically outflanked. For the first time his forces suffered significant setbacks in the Darulaman and adjacent southeastern sections of Kabul. Wahdat induced defections from the pro-government Shias led by Sheikh Asif Muhseni and there were further defections from former DRA units. Rabbani appeared cornered. At this point, the momentum appeared to shift again. In April, Massoud's forces had consolidated control of the highly strategic Shomali region north of Kabul. Rabbani's powerful regional commander, Ismail Khan, extended his authority from Herat to include much of Helmand Province in the south by reaching alliances with Durrani affiliated commanders. This strategy enabled him to drive out forces allied with Hekmatyar.

Meanwhile Hekmatyar demonstrated his well-known caution by refusing to enter Kabul. He preferred the command center he had created at Charasyab. Arrangements , but many were missing and refused to go to Charasyab to conduct government business.

Throughout the rest of 1993 fighting near Kabul was reduced to occasional rocketing, except for heavy fighting between Sayyaf and Mazari's Wahdat over the proposals for applying the Sharia in the proposed constitution. Sayyaf was chair of the drafting commission. Meanwhile there was much political maneuvering. Dostam visited Kabul in July, allegedly impressed by the defense the government had mounted. There were rumors his impressive military establishment at Mazar-i-Sharif was running out of funds and he had fallen out with his major ally, Sayyid Mansor of the Kayan (Ismaili) militia, who controlled much of strategic Baghlan Province. Dostam saw Massoud and he also met Hekmatyar. In August Massoud, himself, extended a wary hand to Hekmatyar.

These intrigues ended abruptly with 1993. In the new year, Hekmatyar and Dostam mounted their joint assault on Kabul and also on Massoud's position in the northeast. The government's defenses held through five months of fighting and then counterattacked in June. Rabbani hung on to his shrinking legitimacy as president, and a quest for a political solution began in earnest.

1995: A Changed Situation

The dramatic events early in the year drastically altered the struggle for control of what was left of central authority. For the first time the Islamic Republican government secured the capital and found some breathing room to begin the enormous tasks of restoring order, basic public services and credible central authority. Beyond these lay the daunting challenges of uniting and rebuilding the Afghan nation as a whole.

Hekmatyar's fall did not diminish conflict. Branding the Rabbani government as corrupt and venal as the rest of the Mujahidin leaders, the Taliban claimed the exclusive right to rule. After two weeks of negotiations, government forces drove the Taliban and the Hezb-i-Wahdat out of Kabul's southern suburbs. Within a week, the Taliban were forced back into Logar and Wardak provinces and the capital was freed from rocketing. The offensive it had launched against Ismael Khan's positions in southern and western Afghanistan were repulsed in April and May. Yet, by early summer the Taliban had stabilized their positions on all fronts. After three months of fighting the government had failed to dislodge it from Maidan Shahr, twenty-five kilometers south of Kabul. In addition to its core region centering on Kandahar, the Taliban continued to control parts of Wardak, Logar, Helmand, Farah, Nimroz, and Uruzghar provinces. By mid-June a short ceasefire with the prospect of negotiations was agreed on.

Its spectacular emergence notwithstanding, the Taliban leadership confronts an anomalous situation. In negotiating with the Rabbani government, it runs the risk of losing its aura of deliverance and being perceived instead as another regional warlord power. How that might affect its popular support or the elan of its soldiers is not yet clear. It has dramatically changed the Afghan political equation, but its emergence as a major contender has made a political solution leading to peace more problematic.

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