The Abdul Haq fiasco
11/1/2001 12:00:00 AM - Robert Novak
WASHINGTON -- Unnamed CIA officials flat out lied when they told reporters that the first they had heard from Abdul Haq was his futile plea to be saved from the Taliban fighters who surrounded him and then murdered him last Friday. That fits the pattern of deceit, arrogance and ignorance that describes the U.S. role in the murder of the legendary Afghan commander.
Actually, the Central Intelligence Agency had been in contact with Haq's representatives since last February. It was not a congenial liaison. The CIA's reaction to plans for overthrowing the Taliban regime was apathy. Even after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, when Afghanistan became elevated to the top U.S policy priority, highest-level Bush administration officials were indifferent about Haq's unequaled potential to "flip" Taliban commanders.
The background of losing the one Afghan opposition leader most capable of uniting an anti-Taliban coalition contributes to the mood of foreboding in the fourth week of the aerial war. Haq's dreary relationship with the CIA brings back unwelcome memories of the Vietnam War's early stages when the U.S. wanted the South Vietnamese to stand aside while the Americans won the war.
I spoke on the telephone twice with Haq in Peshawar, Pakistan, prior to his disastrous incursion across the border into Afghanistan, once before and once after the U.S. bombing began Oct. 7. While he was optimistic about winning support from military commanders anxious to desert the Taliban, he complained -- not for publication -- about premature aerial attacks making his mission all the more difficult.
Robert (Bud) McFarlane, national security adviser in the Reagan administration and longtime student of Afghanistan, was advising Haq and his American supporters, Chicago millionaire brothers Joe and Jim Ritchie. In early October, McFarlane pleaded with senior Bush officials not to begin the aerial war before Haq had a chance to build a revolutionary army. They were not receptive.
Meanwhile, the CIA was keeping in close touch with Haq's friends but providing more criticism than help. The Afghan freedom fighter who was honored by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher during the war against the Soviets became "Hollywood Haq" to the CIA. He was described by the agency's operatives as "unruly and immature."
Although the CIA is now quoted as saying Haq moved too quickly, they were nagging his friends over whether he ever planned to get going. Haq requested substantial help, especially Kalashnikov rifles. All that was offered was the one item Haq had in abundance: satellite telephones (purchased by Haq in Dubai before he came to Pakistan a few weeks ago). Haq's friends suspected the CIA wanted to track his movements.
The 19-man, four-rifle expedition, intending to build support from Taliban defectors, was a fiasco. The Taliban quickly trapped Haq, who perhaps was deceived by a compatriot. Hampered by a broken prosthetic (in place of a leg lost in earlier Afghan wars) and riding a donkey, he called the CIA for help.
That may have been a mistake, say Haq's friends. The same CIA that could not spare weapons dispatched an unmanned Predator plane armed with a missile. Haq had already been captured when the missile was fired at a nearby Taliban convoy. Whether this influenced the Taliban, Haq was convicted in a drumhead court-martial and promptly executed.
Senior U.S. government figures mentioned the passing of the 43-year-old hero only when asked, and then with dispassion. "Clearly he was, among other Afghans, a person who opposed Taliban," said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. "And it's certainly regrettable that he was killed."
Haq was not the only important leader from the dominant Pashtun ethnic group who might head an indigenous force against the Taliban. Hamid Karzai is reported to be in southern Afghanistan. But his chances will not be bright if he receives the same loving care from Washington that Haq did.
More than 30 years ago, pacification expert John Paul Vann explained to me how the U.S. military had disdained support from South Vietnam's army. Get out of our way, the Americans said, and let us do it. Afghanistan is surely not Vietnam, but the bad memories of a generation ago return in a war that is a long way from being won.