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Book Review: How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, Sipah-e-Sahaba and the Hijacking of Afghanistan – Roy Gutman

BOOK REVIEW: Afghan war’s hidden blunders —by Khaled Ahmed

How We Missed the Story: Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and the Hijacking of Afghanistan
By Roy Gutman
Vanguard Books Lahore 2008 – Pp322 – Available at bookstores in Pakistan

The book brings clarity to the Indo-Pak war number four (or five?) relocated to Afghanistan with India firmly entrenched with the Northern Alliance and the Karzai government, and Pakistan with its proxies embedded in Al Qaeda

Journalist Gutman has certainly produced the most comprehensive and revealing account to-date of the post-Soviet invasion Afghan war. He has moved from the written sources available to all to interviews that he was able to conduct with such key personalities as were involved in the internecine jihad of the triumphant mujahideen after the defeat of the Soviet Union. Everyone who went into the savage cauldron of Afghanistan today finds himself defeated, including the two states that most preened themselves over the victory: the United States and Pakistan.

The story begins in 1988 with Pakistan in the driving seat, putting together a government in exile — Interim Islamic Afghan Government of the mujahideen — in Rawalpindi near the Pakistan Army headquarters. The 519-member shura that was to choose the government was nominated by the seven jihad militias located in Peshawar and was plied with $26 million from Saudi Arabia. Mujaddadi was chosen president but he travelled to Iran and promised the Shia leaders one hundred seats in the shura. Back in the councils of the Sunni seven, the view was different: one hundred was cut down to sixty after which the Shias boycotted.

Bravery comes only with myopia and that was what was practised by the mujahideen. The government represented only 30 percent of the population of Afghanistan. Saudi money ensured that Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, the Wahhabi warlord the Arabs liked, was nominated prime minister, and Pakistan was able to get its favoured warlord Hekmatyar nominated defence minister with Saudi help although the rest of the militia leaders despised him for his tactics. The 1989 plan to attack the Najibullah regime in Jalalabad and establish the jihadi government there was set afoot with ISI chief Hamid Gul promising Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto that the Afghan government would fall in one week (p.28).

The Jalalabad offensive was a fiasco. The great mujahideen suffered their first defeat after defeating the Soviets, one third of the 12,000 killed being theirs. Soon afterwards, the Massoud-Hekmatyar vendetta made its imprint, the latter’s commanders killing 30 of Massoud’s in an ambush. Mujaddidi denounced Hekmatyar as a criminal and Hekmatyar left the government as defence minister. Jamiat commander Massoud caught four of Hekmatyar’s guilty commanders and executed them. Defeats and killings were to have no moral impact on anything in Afghanistan after that. Those who backed the savages sustained all the damage and warded off punishment in Pakistan by the simple device of taking over power.

The second lethal defeat for Pakistan was the Jalalabad-like offensive of Mazar-e-Sharif in 1997, organised by the ISI once again, based on the defection of a Rashid Dostam second-in-command, Malik Pehlawan, in favour of the Taliban. This was the offensive from the west of Afghanistan; another offensive from the south was mounted after buying the defection of a Massoud commander (p.102). Seeing Pakistan involved, Iran weighed in on the other side, training the troops of Jamiat’s other commander Ismail Khan and airlifting munitions and Hezbe Wahdat Shia warriors to them. Uzbekistan sought to make its own chess-move against Pakistan, conscripting Uzbeks to help despatch supplies to Dostam. Uzbek-dominated Tajikistan came down on the side of Massoud.

Another ally of Dostam, General Abdul Majid Rozi changed loyalty in Badghis province and arrested Ismail Khan whom he handed over to Mullah Razzaq who proceeded to Mazar-e-Sharif to take charge of the city abandoned by Malik. Jamiat chief Rabbani fled to Tajikistan and Dostam sent his family away and made himself scarce too. The promise to Malik was that he would be made governor of Mazar, but soon Mullah Razzaq began to enforce the Sharia, beating up unveiled women and destroying shops selling ‘prohibited things’. He entered Malik’s room and tore down a painting of Omar Khayyam with a goblet of wine because that was ‘against Islam’ (p.104). All TV sets were smashed in the city and Malik was told to go to Kabul as a deputy foreign minister while his transport and other assets were simply taken over.

At this point Pakistan recognised the government of the Taliban, but Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif didn’t know who had okayed the recognition because he hadn’t. Foreign Minister Gauhar Ayub followed orders that came from a source other than the prime minister but that was more or less routine in Pakistan by then (p.105). Then the defeat started. Mullah Razzaq went to the Hazara quarters in the city and asked them to disarm. They refused, and already scared by the ‘enforcement’ of Taliban sharia, began hunting for the Taliban under Malik’s command. They killed 350 of them including Mullah Razzaq. They ended up bagging 3,000 as prisoners. What followed was a massive war crime. The prisoners taken in war were all executed.

The book says Pakistan was the dominant power behind the scenes, the ISI putting Malik in touch with Mullah Ghaus the foreign minister, telling the latter the Taliban could capture Mazar without a fight. But uncannily it also sent in Pakistani Kashmiri militants as military assistance. Hamid Gul told the author, ‘ISI brokered a deal but it was the wrong one’ (p.108). Col Imam, the ISI officer called Ruler of Herat, later denied that the Mazar defeat was a big fiasco and funnily also claimed that the Taliban who invaded Mazar were unarmed and were mostly traders! He also put the blame on Iran for asking the Hazara Shias to resist and start the massacre (p.109).

Col Imam was really the American-trained Amir Sultan Tarar, the commando officer who trained the mujahideen in camps run by Pakistan and the US. He was sent into Kandahar in 1994 to keep the Taliban going in the right direction but he soon moved to the more ‘strategic’ location of Herat, which was to put Pakistan and Iran face to face when the Taliban finally got hold of Mazar in 1998 with a massacre to shame all massacres, including the killing of the Iranian diplomats in the Mazar consulate at the hands of the Sipah Sahaba boys sent in from Pakistan. The book says they arrested the officers but, after taking their cash, handed them over to the Taliban for the killing (p.137).

This book is an epitaph for the doctrine of ‘strategic depth’, but the policy of playing proxies in Afghanistan was never abandoned after 9/11; so the war against India goes on while Washington thinks it is against NATO-ISAF. The book brings clarity to the Indo-Pak war number four (or five?) relocated to Afghanistan with India firmly entrenched with the Northern Alliance and the Karzai government, and Pakistan with its proxies embedded in Al Qaeda. The real epitaph will come later and it will be for a much bigger demise than just the fading of the doctrine of strategic depth. *



US government funded ISI which in turn funded Taliban and Sipah-e-Sahaba.

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Abdul Nishapuri


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