When the Lion Roared: How Abdul Haq Almost Saved Afghanistan

10/17/2011 03:56 pm ET | Updated Dec 17, 2011

Although for one to suggest the U.S. had any alternatives to leveling Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11 is to invite ridicule, legendary Afghan resistance commander Abdul Haq had, in fact, an indigenous remedy for overthrowing the Taliban, rounding up al Qaeda and establishing a legitimate government in Kabul.

However, according to Lucy Morgan Edwards in her new book, The Afghan Solution: the Inside Story of Abdul Haq, the CIA and how Western Hubris Lost Afghanistan, the U.S. chose to force regime change from without while marginalizing Haq, who still valiantly tried to activate his plan on October 26, 2001 but was assassinated by the Taliban (although local sources claim his executioners were tipped off by certain foreign intelligence agencies). A decade later, it has become quite clear why Haq's solution was -- and still is -- the only solution.

Edwards' perspective is shaped by her experience living in Afghanistan for the better part of six years as an aid worker during the height of the Taliban regime, an election monitor, a political adviser to the EU Ambassador in Kabul and as a freelance journalist. Some of the most captivating scenes in her book come from the months she spent living in Eastern Afghanistan with Abdul Haq's well-respected family -- the Arsalas -- a khan khel (chief clan) within the Ahmadzai tribe of the Ghilzai Pashtuns. There she receives a real world education on Afghanistan's resilient tribal structure, which the Western alliance has tried to replace with "modern" governing models.

Edwards sets out to understand why the U.S. would abandon such a pro-Western leader like Haq -- a brilliant military strategist whose heroics played a large part in defeating the Soviets in the 1980s. A moderate Muslim, Haq despised Islamic extremism and, above all, he was a nationalist whose popularity uniquely transcended the country's ethnic, tribal and sectarian divisions.

Haq was praised by major political figures such as Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. Reagan national security adviser Robert McFarlane and former U.S. Ambassador Peter Tomsen actively supported Haq's initiative, both believing he was the only one who could unite the country.

Haq's "internal" solution would operate under the auspices of King Zahir Shah, who oversaw a 40-year reign of peace. Haq knew the symbolic power of the monarchy could unify the nation and restore Afghanistan's delicate ethnic and tribal balance. A legitimate sovereignty would then be created by leveraging a sacred centuries-old mechanism -- a gathering of tribal elders called the Loya Jirga, decisions from which are considered the highest manifestation of the people's will.

A pivotal moment of the investigation arises in fall 2003 when Edwards meets up with Sir John Gunston, a former British officer with an encyclopedic knowledge of Afghanistan who embedded with the mujahideen as a photojournalist during the 1980s. Although a shadowy figure with MI6 connections, he was undoubtedly committed to Haq and his vision.

It can't be overemphasized how immensely unpopular the Taliban had become by 2001 -- not only among the local populace but within the Taliban's very command structure. Haq well understood the key to ousting the Taliban was to undermine their central leadership, which he always stressed was a very small and closed elite. Hence, especially after September 11th, Haq calculated that Mullah Omar and his ruling cabal were ripe for implosion.

Haq had struck deals with moderate elements at the highest levels of the Taliban military and government, many of whom he commanded during the Soviet jihad. After 9/11 the Taliban's Eastern Corps Commander, three divisional commanders in Kabul and three others in Hezarac, Gardez and Ghazni all agreed to turn over their entire units upon Haq's command.

At this point Edwards seems to experience an epiphany of sorts, realizing how close Haq really was to decapitating the Taliban overnight, and with little bloodshed. It's hard not to be gripped by this scene, as Edwards writes:

My eyes widened as Gunston went on: "Do you understand? He'd broken the back of the Taliban. Just look at the map!" It was true. The places he'd mentioned -- Ghazni, Gardez and Hezarac -- were all former Taliban strongholds, lying in an arc throughout the southern part of the country.

Although Haq was on the verge of breaking the key vertebrae of the Taliban movement, he knew a U.S. bombardment would foil his entire strategy. The Afghans would unite against any invader, despite their differences, as they have for centuries. To understand why, Gunston tells Edwards one only has to remember Churchill's quote from the Malakand Campaign, 1898: "Khan assails Khan, valley against valley, but all unite against the foreigner".

Haq's tragic flaw was that he was his own man. He drew the CIA's ire when he denounced their outsourcing of Afghanistan's future to Pakistan's spy agency, the ISI, during the war against the Soviets. The ISI funneled millions in CIA cash to the most radical elements of the mujahideen while neglecting traditional tribal leaders like Haq. Pakistan did everything in its power to thwart the establishment of a nationalist moderate government in Afghanistan, preferring to install messianic extremists beholden to Islamabad. Sadly, the ISI was so threatened by Haq they killed his wife and children in 1999.

It didn't matter how remarkable Haq's plan was, because the Bush administration wasn't interested in anything short of "shock and awe". Edwards quotes UK parliamentarian Paddy Ashdown explaining to a colleague why Haq's peace plan had to be deferred: "... you must accept there has to be a fireworks display, a significant fireworks display, the Americans are demanding it and not until after the firework display can we continue the debate."

Haq tried desperately to convince Bush and Blair to postpone the attack by three weeks so he could execute his plan. They ignored him and did the complete opposite of what he recommended. The U.S. began bombing Afghanistan on October 7, 2001 while it paid off Northern Alliance warlords to rout the Taliban.

Edwards was a witness at the 2002 Loya Jirga stage-managed by U.S. diplomats who stiff-armed King Zahir Shah aside, installed preordained candidate Hamid Karzai as head of state while imposing a Western-style, over-centralized corrupt government upon the Afghans against their will.

Not to mention, high-level cabinet positions were gifted to Tajik war criminals, thereby alienating the Pashtun majority, upsetting the ethnic balance and fostering a culture of impunity. Since then, the Karzai government's avarice has fueled the Taliban resurgence while a peace process remains nonexistent.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, the northern Tajik commander, has been deified by the media as the primary hero of the jihad, dubbed the "Lion of Panjshir". Haq didn't achieve the same level of notoriety as Massoud, but he had earned such nicknames as the "Lion of Kabul" and the "Lion of Afghanistan" for his brave exploits. It's amazing to look back at Gunston's map and consider the magnitude of what Haq had accomplished. For, upon the Lion's roar, the Taliban would have collapsed.

James Ritchie, a wealthy options trader who spent part of his youth in Afghanistan and helped fund Haq's plan, near the end of the book tries to spell out for Edwards the significance of losing the Afghan Lion. Although sounding simplistic on the surface, Ritchie's words were nonetheless foreboding, seeming to hang in the air:

"Haq's death has removed the chance for peace in Afghanistan. Now there's no one left who could hold a candle to him."

By Lucy Morgan Edwards

Release Date: October 18, 2011