WASHINGTON --Renowned Afghan freedom fighter Abdul Haq is ready to slip through the Pakistan border into Afghanistan to organize insurrection against the Taliban regime. Experts see an excellent chance for success -- unless an attack by the Americans intervenes.
In a telephone conversation from Pakistan Friday, Haq told me he was "coordinating with other commanders" to plan the revolt. He described the Afghan people as "sick and tired" of the Taliban, adding: "There is no food and no freedom. They are beaten and insulted. There is no real support."
That is the message Robert (Bud) McFarlane, national security adviser in the Reagan White House, last week gave President Bush's highest-level advisers. He raised the prospect of prompt defeat -- perhaps within a month -- of the Taliban. He made clear that an aerial U.S. attack, inflicting collateral damage on civilians, would seriously undermine the revolt. "It would be horrible," McFarlane told me.
The president faces a difficult decision. Americans, typified by the cheering rescue workers Bush met in lower Manhattan Sept. 14, want violent retribution against the terrorists. Good Afghans overthrowing bad Afghans does not accomplish that. What that could do is get rid of a terrorist-aligned extremist regime, perhaps replaced by a constitutional monarchy, without inflaming Islam against the West.
Abdul Haq is a romantic figure even for Afghanistan. Taking up arms at age 16 against Kabul's pro-Communist regime, he became a leading commander of mujahideen forces that drove the 120,000-man Soviet army from the country. At age 28, Haq was invited to 10 Downing Street in March 1986 to meet the prime minister. "Fight on!" exhorted Margaret Thatcher.
When the Soviets left Afghanistan in 1989, the often-wounded Haq (who lost a leg) turned away from war but could not hide his concern. On Jan. 8, 1993, he took issue with State Department efforts to play down Afghanistan's problems. "It is not an issue to hide," he wrote Ambassador Peter Tomsen, U.S. special envoy to the Afghan resistance. "Afghanistan's potential for poverty, drug production and terrorism is a problem now, but if ignored, it is a certain recipe for embarrassing regional disaster." Earlier, Tomsen had written Haq that "success or failure" depends "on the Afghans themselves."
After the Taliban seized control in 1996, Haq left his country for Pakistan. His enemies followed him to Peshawar, murdering his wife and daughter in 1999. He then departed for the relative safety of the United Arab Emirates.
Earlier this year, Haq's emissaries sought out the new Bush administration's interest for overthrowing the Taliban (and thereby eliminating Osama bin Laden's terrorist sanctuary). No interest was expressed. Haq decided to try without Washington's help.
Sept. 11 changed everything. Bush officials listened to Bud McFarlane's presentation. Speaking from the home of exiled Afghan King Mohammed Zahir Shah in Rome, Haq estimated that one-third of 40,000 Taliban fighters are disaffected. He left Rome for Pakistan, preparing for infiltration into Afghanistan.
Haq is a master guerrilla fighter who fooled numerically superior Soviets into thinking they were surrounded. He quickly expects to "turn" two divisions of Taliban troops, with more to follow. This is no one-man show. Other experienced commanders will join Haq as would the Northern Alliance, which still holds 5 percent of Afghanistan. Taliban leaders in Khost, on the Pakistan border, have defected in an unrelated development. Haq is certainly not the recognized military commander of King Zahir, but the long absent monarch offers a symbol of unity for a nation that would no longer host bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization.
This would not be a smashing American military victory, but it might be prudent to let Afghan patriots do the fighting. One congressional aide with close Pentagon ties expressed doubt that Capt. Scott O'Grady would have survived had he crashed in Afghanistan instead of Serbia.
The danger was set forth more than a century ago in "The Young British Solider" by Rudyard Kipling: "When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,/ And the women come out to cut up what remains,/ Jest roll to your rifle and blow out your brains/ An' go to your Gawd like a soldier." Abdul Haq and his compatriots are
ready to bear that burden.