Foreign Policy

In Afghanistan, the Lifeless Forged a Lengthy Shadow

On the second day of Eid al-Fitr, the Islamic festival commemorating the end of Ramadan, Hamdullah Mohib, Afghanistan’s national security advisor and would-be president, visited an inconspicuous burial site in the southeastern province of Paktia and dug up quite a stir. 

The grave belonged to Mohammed Najibullah, Afghanistan’s last communist president, brutally murdered when the Taliban took over Kabul in 1996. Mohib is the first post-Taliban senior government official to ever pay his respects there. The controversial visit had several objectives for Mohib: to court Afghans, especially many nationalist Pashtuns, who recall Najibullah as a charismatic Afghan patriot who launched a national reconciliation process, and also as a reminder of the enduring brutality of the Taliban, who again today stand poised to share power, if not take it outright, as Kabul, Washington, and the Taliban grope their way toward the conclusion of an agonizing peace process. 

But many Afghans, especially those who fought on the side of the mujahideen rebels in the 1980s, found Mohib’s actions provocative, even offensive. Mahmoud Saikal, a former Afghan envoy to the United Nations, criticized Mohib for visiting the grave of “a murderer of the people.” Others recoiled at Najibullah’s bloody record as head of the Soviet-backed secret police. “It’s a shame that he visited the grave of this murderer. Najibullah killed and tortured thousands of innocent people,” said Modaser Islami, a Kabul-based activist focusing on Islamic issues.

Najibullah, without a doubt one of modern Afghanistan’s most controversial figures, is at the center of a battle for Afghanistan’s historical memory. 

The young Najibullah, then a medical student in Kabul, joined the communist People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan, a faction of which launched the bloody coup in April 1978 against the nascent Republic of Afghanistan’s first president, Mohammed Daoud Khan. Daoud Khan was killed alongside his children, grandchildren, and wife in a manner grimly similar to how the Afghan communists’ ideological forebears, the Bolsheviks, disposed of the Russian royal family six decades earlier. 

The coup propelled Afghanistan into a spiral of war and conflict from which it still suffers. According to many of Najibullah’s contemporaries, historians, and analysts, including the Soviet Union’s own ex-archivist Vasili Mitrokhin, “Comrade Najib” was a brutal man wholly dedicated to supporting his party’s ideological goals. That ranged from the mundane—dropping the “-ullah” (God) suffix of his name in a deeply conservative, Islamic country—to taking personal relish in torturing and killing prisoners while head of the secret police at the height of the Soviet-Afghan War.

Abdul Latif, a former mujahid and victim of the secret police, recently detailed in a book how Najibullah’s subordinates tortured him with electrocutions, red hot skewers, and mock executions. According to the United Nations, Najibullah’s secret police also used sexual violence against both men and women, raping victims with bottles or bullets or, as Latif described, by sexually assaulting female prisoners in front of men.

That’s the man that the Soviets installed in 1986 as president with the hopes of reinvigorating what seemed a doomed communist project in Kabul. But with the inevitable Soviet withdrawal already on the horizon, Najibullah’s tone shifted. Sharp, savvy, and charismatic, a gifted orator in both Pashto and Dari, he started to shed his Soviet skin and portray himself as a nationalist. He talked of unity, and launched a program of national reconciliation with the mujahideen rebels he’d spent years battling and brutalizing.

At the same time, the army and his newly formed militias continued to attack Afghan villages, engendering distrust among the mujahideen who still remembered disappeared relatives and suffering in Najibullah’s dungeons.

But by bringing a measure of stability to war-wracked Afghanistan, Najibullah burnished part of his legacy. Even today, many in the current Afghan government look back fondly on elements of Najibullah’s rule, and see an example to follow. Meanwhile, for all the ink that’s spilled over the atrocities committed by mujahideen and other warlords during the civil war after Najibullah’s fall from power in 1992, the crimes of the Afghan communist regimes in Kabul are often whitewashed or downplayed by regime supporters or by younger generations who recall only Najibullah’s heartfelt, charismatic speeches still available on YouTube.

“Afghans who look back on the days of Najibullah as a time of peace have conveniently forgotten the thousands who were tortured and killed by secret police under his command. Was he willing to make peace at the end? Possibly. But if he was, we gain nothing by erasing the lives of those who suffered because of his part in the war,” Patricia Gossman, associate Asia director for Human Rights Watch, told Foreign Policy.

Najibullah’s complicated legacy explains the controversy over Mohib’s graveside visit, which many observers understood as a deliberate political message. A quarter-century after his death, Najibullah still has a strong base in the country’s southeast, a Pashtun heartland; in Afghanistan, the dead cast a long shadow. 

“Mohib wants to be politically successful, so he believes he needs Najibullah’s Pashtun nationalist supporters, who have become very loud during the last years,” said Sayed Jalal Shajjan, a Kabul-based anthropologist and writer. The visit was a reminder of Taliban brutality and a poke in the eye to Pakistan, a country whose intelligence services have long supported Taliban insurgents and a frequent target of Mohib’s verbal barbs. 

But Mohib apparently sought to hedge his bets with his Eid visits, paying homage as well to the grave of Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary commander of the mujahideen known as the “Lion of the Panjshir,” who fought first the Soviets (and Najibullah) then the Taliban, before he was killed by assassins linked to al Qaeda two days before the 9/11 attacks.

“Mohib did not do this without calculation,” said Shajjan. “He is preparing himself to become the next president, the leader of a new generation of Afghans. And to be successful with that, he visited the graves of both Massoud and Najibullah, two very contrary figures.”

Afghanistan’s bloody past—and especially the role played by the Taliban after a period of civil war—is again present as the country grapples with a solution to decades of conflict. When the Taliban, after years of fighting, finally entered Kabul in 1996, they broke into the compound where Najibullah had spent four years in hiding, brutally tortured and murdered him, then hung his mutilated corpse out on public display. 

Today, with the prospect of the Taliban returning to Kabul and taking a part in the new government, many have déjà vu. Like Najibullah, current President Ashraf Ghani comes from the Pashtun Ahmadzai tribe, prominent in the southeast. And like Najibullah, Ghani, who finds himself in an isolated situation between Washington and the Taliban, hopes to arouse nationalist and patriotic feelings among his Pashtun supporters to protect himself from Taliban reprisals. Although it appears very unlikely at the moment, some Afghans even fear that Ghani will eventually share a similar violent fate after the Americans withdraw and the Taliban reconquer Kabul. 

In a recent interview on the Afghan peace process, Ghani nodded back at the dissolution of the republic and the bloody fate of Najibullah—perhaps as a cautionary tale for Afghanistan’s road ahead. 

“Najibullah made the mistake of his life by announcing that he was going to resign,” Ghani said. “Please don’t ask us to replay a film that we know well.”

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