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"A warm and charismatic man with little desire for power"

Favorite rerun of 2001 article praising "their" terrorist.
A warm and charismatic man with little desire for power

By Ahmed Rashid

(Filed: 27/10/2001)

I HAVE known Abdul Haq for 20 years, ever since he emerged as a prominent commander in 1980 attacking Soviet forces on the Kabul front. He was in his early 20s at the time and was based in Peshawar, from where he would carry out daring attacks inside Kabul after meticulous planning.

He was already intensely charismatic and was lionised by his men. Young men would arrive from Afghanistan and beg to be taken into his guerrilla group.

A wonderful, warm, rumbustious human being with a rip roaring sense of humour, who could regale his friends with jokes long into the night over heavy meals, Haq was one of the most extraordinary Afghan characters thrown up by the war against the Soviets.

His office in Peshawar was often full of CIA and MI6 operatives who would supply him with satellite maps of new Soviet targets they wanted him to hit. Haq would insist on introducing them to me as "the spooks", even as they would go red in the face and insist they were aid workers or journalists.

He met Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan several times. I remember one night having dinner with him when he regaled us with jokes about his tour of 10 Downing Street and the antics of Thatcher's officials. He told her repeatedly to give him more weapons.

Another night we sat and watched a video taken by his men of his most spectacular attack - blowing up a huge Soviet ammunition depot at Kargha, outside Kabul, with mortar fire.

Breaking through five separate Soviet security rings, Haq and three guerrillas had smuggled three mortar shells close to the ammo dump, but the first two missed when they were fired. Haq slapped his thigh and told me he threatened, jokingly, to kill his gunner if he missed again.

The gunner's last shot was a bull's eye and the ammunition depot exploded, killing more than 100 Soviet troops. The depot burnt for three days, terrifying the Soviets. MI6 later provided satellite photographs of the destruction, which Haq proudly displayed on the walls of his office.

Young girls studying in Kabul during the Soviet occupation would hide his photo under their pillows and during several anti-Soviet demonstrations by female students they displayed his posters openly, despite facing arrest.

Haq was wounded 16 times in guerrilla operations and displayed a welter of scars that covered much of his body. He then lost his right leg after stepping on a mine. After surgery in Germany and Britain he returned with a new plastic leg and continued leading his men, even though he now walked with a limp.

My biggest surprise was meeting Haq in 1990 at the United Nations in New York where he had exchanged his guerrilla outfit for a sharp suit and tie. He insisted on being taken to New York's finest meat restaurant, where he devoured a huge steak.

When I spoke to him a few days ago in Peshawar, I joked about his pot belly and balding head. He told me we had to go and eat another good steak.

Haq's independent spirit brought him into frequent conflict with Pakistan's then military ruler General Zia ul Haq and the Interservices Intelligence (ISI), which delivered CIA supplied arms to the Afghan mujahideen and then determined which targets the Afghan groups should attack.

Haq always insisted on choosing his own targets and earned the wrath of the ISI, which would frequently cut off his ammunition supplies. By the late 1980s, Haq had moved from being an Islamic fundamentalist to an Afghan nationalist and patriot who wanted to try to create a modern government and army after the Soviet withdrawal.

After Kabul fell to the mujahideen in 1992, Haq tried to set up an Afghan police force in the capital to establish law and order in the city, but the warring factions refused to listen to him. He returned to Peshawar and resigned from active politics in disgust as the civil war in his homeland continued for the next decade.

With the advent of the Taliban, Haq returned to politics trying to mobilise the Pathan tribes against them. He paid a heavy price. Two years ago, two Taliban crept over the wall of his house in Peshawar while he was away on a business trip to Dubai, and killed his wife and daughter.

Haq's return to Peshawar last month to mobilise anti-Taliban supporters was always fraught with danger because he was known to be on a Taliban hit list. He said he never wanted power for himself. "Honestly, there are a lot of smart people in this country who do a better job than me," he said a few days before his death. "I am sick and tired of playing these games."

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