The lost lion of Kabul

In 2000, after the flight of the mullahs, one Pashtun warlord offered a viable way of uniting the fa

A decade after the fall of Kabul to western-backed forces, the war in Afghanistan remains intractable. On 29 October, 13 Americans were killed in a single suicide attack in that city, and the country's government is becoming more, not less, dysfunctional: President Hamid Karzai now openly suggests that he would side with Pakistan in a fight against the west.

But what if the US had been able to topple the Taliban without the need for external military intervention, coming up with an Afghan-led consensus to govern? What if I told you that our leaders and western intelligence agencies - the CIA, followed slavishly by MI6 - not only ignored this option in the weeks after 9/11, but did everything they were asked not to do by those undertaking the alternative plan, preparing the ground for the present disastrous situation? You might think I was joking. I am not. This is the story of the man who could have stopped a war. His name is Abdul Haq.

Hollywood Haq

Among the Afghans, Abdul Haq's nickname was the "Lion of Kabul", because he was the only significant commander of the anti-Soviet guerrilla war of the 1980s to take the fight to the capital and the heart of the communist regime. Born in 1958, he was one of eight brothers known as "resistance royalty" for their charis­ma and effectiveness as commanders.

The extended family was the chief clan of the Ghilzai Pashtun, from Jalalabad in the south-east; the clan has a long historical relationship with the tribes of Afghanistan's four eastern provinces. And even among his brothers, Haq stood out. In 1986, he blew up a seven-storey Soviet underground munitions dump, an act which turned that war in the west's favour, and his clever asymmetric operations caused him to be feted by both Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher.

He walked with a distinctive gait, having lost a foot to a Soviet landmine while conducting an operation - and yet CIA officers who lingered in the comfort of Islamabad, as the war took place across the border in Afghanistan in the 1980s, referred to him snidely as "Hollywood Haq". This was an attempt to diminish him, because he spoke out to journalists against the folly of the CIA's policy of channelling its Afghan war chest through the Pakistani secret service, the ISI. As a veteran journalist later told me: "The cure was so simple: do not rely on single-source intelligence. But the US did; they relied on ISI, fundamentalists with political agendas."

In the years following the 1989 Soviet pullout, the mujahedin commanders turned on one another as they struggled for dominance. Haq did not join in - he had not fought the Russians only to kill Afghans, he said - and left for Dubai. When the Taliban came to power in the 1990s, he returned to the region, working from an office in Peshawar, Pakistan, to provide an alternative to a regime run by religious zealots. In 1998, his wife and four-year-old son were killed at the family's villa; it was widely believed to be the work of the ISI.

If the intention was to deter Haq, it did not work. He began to rally support around the former king Zahir Shah, a unifying figure for disparate groups. Haq managed to build consensus among Afghans, including those who were part of, but fed up with, the regime, as well as tribal leaders waiting it out in their regions and men he had commanded during the jihad in the 1980s. Because of his history, he was respected and trusted by many. And although he was part of an Islamist political party, he was considered to be a moderate, one who believed in education (he sent his children to school in the US).

Abdul Haq's plan was significant because he understood that the Taliban contained only a slim majority of Arabists and hardliners, the rest being decent Afghan nationalists who wanted peace after the mayhem of the early 1990s. Haq was a patriot, but not a Pashtun nationalist eager to take on Pakistan over its problematic western border with the Afghans, the Durand Line. His efforts were supported by two independent groups of well-connected westerners. The first was led by two American brothers, James and Joe Ritchie, who had made money on the Chicago options market and now wanted to do something for the country where they had lived as children when their father was an engineer in Kandahar.

Impressed by Haq and his option for an alternative to the Taliban, they were happy to back him, providing money for satellite phones and vehicles to distribute to field commanders. They also financed meetings between him and those Afghans willing to coalesce around the ex-king in Istanbul and Bonn, a plan known as the "Rome process".

Across the Atlantic, the other group trying to get Haq taken seriously was comprised of a former head of the British Special Boat Service, "Ram" Seeger; an ex-marine named Ken Guest; and a former Rhodesian army officer, John Gunston. All three had spent a lot of time "inside" Afghanistan during the jihad, travelling with various mujahedin leaders.

But then, just as it seemed there was a chance that the Taliban could be deposed without western intervention, the 11 September 2001 attacks happened.

That is when my story intersects with Haq's. I first heard about him in the weeks after the terrorist attacks when he called on the west not to bomb Afghanistan. By that time, I had already worked in Kandahar for several months for the UN, a posting abruptly curtailed by the al-Qaeda bombing of the USS Cole in 2000. I would return again soon, in October 2001, to begin five years there as an election monitor, journalist and political adviser.

Through September of 2001, Haq tried to salvage his plan to remove the Taliban and instal the former king as an interim ruler in the face of a growing US political consensus that an invasion was inevitable. Gunston travelled to meet Haq and his commanders in Rome that month, and later told me he was astonished by the alliance of Afghans Haq had managed to build. "It's crazy you have this today," he said, "yet in Rome there were Pashtuns, Tajiks, Uzbeks, Hazara leaders. They were all ready to buy in to the process. . . to work under the king's banner for an ethnically balanced Afghanistan."

Gunston decided to visit Haq in Peshawar and was with him in his office as Taliban defectors and commanders came clandestinely to meet the Lion of Kabul. They included the commander of the Taliban regime's eastern corps, nicknamed Rocketti for his skill with rocket-propelled grenades.

“Rocketti had been one of Abdul's commanders during the jihad," Gunston told me. "Yes, he'd had a chequered past, but now he was earnest in what he wanted. Like [the] other Pashtuns, there was concern, after September 11, about the return of Jamiat." Jamiat was the Tajik faction, based in the north-east of the country, and led by Commander Ahmed Shah Massoud - the grouping to which the west has essentially given the lion's share of power since 2001.

“These guys took Kabul to the cleaners," Gunston said, talking of the previous time Jamiat had overrun Kabul, in 1992, leading to civil
war. "With that memory in mind, not just the Taliban but decent Pashtuns wanted a Pashtun who'd bring peace."

It wasn't only Rocketti who swore allegiance to Haq. Three division commanders in Kabul did the same, as well as the Taliban divisional commanders in the cities of Hezarac, Gardez and Ghazni. Some visited Haq in Peshawar; others sent word that they would turn their men over to him at the designated time. "He'd broken the back of the Taliban," Gunston said. "Just look at the map."

But Haq's plan relied on one critical factor: that there would be no western bombing campaign. He had warned western journalists from his office in Peshawar in September 2001 that a bombing campaign would change the politics of balance of power in Afghanistan overnight.

Haq told reporters he wanted Tony Blair to "put the hand of restraint on America". Of the commanders outwardly loyal to the Taliban, he told Newsweek: "They will be with us, if they don't have to worry about their own survival and security." He planned to move in with his own commanders, Taliban defectors and tribal representatives. "We'll just take down the Taliban flag and put up our own flag."

It is sobering to think that, a decade on, the Taliban strongholds that would have fallen to Haq - lying in an arc through southern and eastern Afghanistan - are now the locus of Nato's most insoluble difficulties. This is the heartland of the cross-border Haqqani network, an insurgent group that is widely thought to receive operational support from Pakistan's ISI. With the Haqqanis, too, Haq would have had influence - he had been trained in guerrilla warfare in the early 1980s by Jalaluddin Haqqani himself. Though Haq was not an extremist like his mentor, it is likely that the Haqqanis, whose tribe, the Zadran, was known as much for its support of the monarchy as for its resistance to foreign interference, would have bought in to Haq's process with the former king as a transitional figurehead.

In the meantime, Ram Seeger, Ken Guest and John Gunston had been continuing their quest in London for Haq and his plan to be taken seriously. It was futile. The former Liberal Democrat leader Paddy Ashdown told them: "You must accept there has to first be a fireworks display, a significant fireworks display. The Americans are demanding it, and not until after the fireworks display can we continue the debate." Ashdown was right. The west began bombing Afghanistan on 7 October 2001.

On 24 October, Haq went into Afghanistan with his small group of followers. He was concerned that without a Pashtun rebellion from the east, the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance strongmen would take Kabul alone, leading to a repeat of the chaos of the early 1990s. He ignored the warnings from those who said such a move would be suicidal, believing as he did that it was important to get "the right structure" in place.

Death in the mountains

“Alhamdullilah!" the shout went up. "We've caught the American and British agents!"

From the darkness, the Taliban commanders emerged. Abdul Haq knew the situation was hopeless. Earlier in the day, he and his men had left their weapons at a village where they had been eating with the elders, and now they were defenceless. It was 25 October. Haq had been in Afghanistan for little more than 24 hours and already the Taliban had trapped him in the hills of Tera Mangal. The steepness of the terrain was such that he had been forced to dismount from his pony, slowing him further. He decided to give himself up in the hope that the Arab Taliban forces would not find his men.

“Move, go!" one man screamed as Haq stepped forward, still holding the pony by its bridle. "I can't walk without the prosthesis," Haq said. The Talibs weren't listening; they led him away. Aga Jan, who was with him on this last mission, told me he heard several shots being fired. However, it seems Haq was not killed there and then, but was taken to Kabul and executed the following day by the Taliban interior minister Abdur Razzaq, who shot him with a pistol borrowed from his bodyguard.

The US could have saved Haq but did not attempt to do so; as a CIA agent told a well-connected journalist at the time: "Let the one-legged bastard walk out of Afghanistan." Even after his death, the cities along the Taliban backbone of the country, lying in an arc from the south to the east, fell swiftly to his men. Yet just as Haq had foreseen, the Allied bombing of the country enabled the Tajiks to take Kabul and gain control of most of the power ministries and security infrastructure. They argued against including moderate Taliban in the government from the outset.

Over the coming days, the small window of opportunity that had existed to achieve a more ethnically balanced post-Taliban political settlement between the September 2001 attacks and the fall of Kabul closed. The former king was swiftly sidelined and humiliated, while the CIA - already distributing sacks of cash to commanders on the ground - was able, with Haq out of the way, to do things its way. The Americans in effect "bought" the short-term goodwill of strongmen.

In 2004, I asked the Taliban deputy interior minister Mullah Khaksar why they had killed Haq so quickly after his capture. He said the Taliban hardliners could not afford to leave such a popular leader alive; in prison, he would have offered a rallying point for people "pushing for a revolution". Khaksar was assassinated in 2006.

Afghan solution

After ten years of a failed policy in Afghanistan, the west desperately wants to leave. The narrative is that Nato will simply "hand over" to Afghan security forces by 2014. But once the west is gone, Hamid Karzai's government will struggle to hold its ground and the country seems certain to return to prolonged civil war.

Despite the vast sums the west has spent on its military campaign in Afghanistan (as much as $500bn from the US alone), it has succeeded only in destabilising the region further, leaving most Afghans as poor as they were when the west intervened in 2001. The 2011 UN Human Development Index still shows Afghanistan at the bottom. It is a sad irony that a Pashtun commander who remains a national hero to many Afghans offered a viable "Afghan solution", yet is hardly known in the west.

A decade after the fall of Kabul and having its "fireworks display", the west accepts that, to extricate itself from Afghanistan, it needs to foster internal leadership, negotiate with the Taliban (and the Haqqani network) and wise up to Pakistan's duplicitous game of taking money from the Americans while giving covert support to insurgents. Much of this is unlikely today but, tragically, Abdul Haq was well on the way to achieving it when the west dropped its first bombs in October 2001.

Lucy Morgan Edwards is the author of "The Afghan Solution: the Inside Story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and How Western Hubris Lost Afghanistan" (Pluto, £20). To order the book for £14.99, including UK post and packaging, visit: bit.ly/afghansolution