Mohammad Najibullah (1947-1996) ruled the Republic of Afghanistan from May 4, 1986, until April 15, 1992, spanning a period during which control of the country by the former Soviet Union waned and one of the cold war's final proxy conflicts became, once again, a civil war. As the country dissolved into fighting between rebel factions, Najibullah survived four more years under the protection of the United Nations before he was captured and killed.
Najibullah (meaning "Honored of God") was born in August 1947 to a moderately prosperous family belonging to the Pushtun Ahmadzai sub-tribe of the Ghilzai. Though his ancestral village was located between the towns of Said Karam and Gardez, capital of Pakhtya Province, Najibullah was born in Afghanistan's capital city, Kabul.
Najibullah's father, Akhtar Mohammad Khan, who died in 1983, served during the 1960s as the Afghani trade commissioner and consul in Peshawar, Pakistan, where he established friendly ties with prominent Pakistani Pushtun tribal leaders. These included Abdul Ghaffar Khan, who, with his son Wali Khan, consistently supported leftist Kabul regimes in opposition to official Pakistani policy. A frequent holiday visitor to Peshawar during his father's tenure, Najibullah maintained these contacts to good advantage.
After graduating from Kabul's Habibiya Lycee in 1964, Najibullah entered the Faculty of Medicine of Kabul University in 1965 and received a medical degree in 1975. His academic career was plagued by interruptions, including two stays in prison (1969, 1970), because of his political activities during this period of liberal political experimentation in Afghanistan. Najibullah married a descendant of the royal line of King Amanullah (1919-1929). He and his wife, Fatanah, a headmistress, had three daughters.
The leftist Peoples Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) was launched on January 1, 1965. The same year, three PDPA candidates won seats in the Lower House of Parliament during the first elections held under the 1964 constitution. Among them was Babrak Karmal, who broke away in 1967 to form the Parcham faction in opposition to his Khalq rivals within the party. This continuing and widening split had more to do with conflicting personalities, family relationships, and urban-rural origins than ideology. Parcham, however, emphasized party unity and dialogue with national forces rather than the Marxist class struggle promoted by Khalq.
Najibullah, who joined the PDPA shortly after its creation, became a devoted follower and preeminent disciple of Babrak. He acted as a trusted bodyguard, writer for the newspaper Parcham, and principal organizer of the largely Parcham-inspired radical student demonstrations and strikes which beset Kabul during the late 1960s. Hard-working, self-assertive, and intensely involved, the imposingly tall and burly Najibullah acquired the pejorative nickname of Najib the Bull. Yet numbers of his classmates in exile today attribute their survival to the bonds of friendship established during these student days.
The disputes between Parcham and Khalq were bitter, but these were set aside ten years later when the two factions reunited in July 1977 to oppose the government of Mohammad Daud. The new ruler had accepted Parcham's participation in staging a coup on July 17, 1973, only to remove them from his administration over the following years. Najibullah was appointed an ordinary member of the PDPA Central Committee at the time of the 1977 reunion.
Less than a year later, on April 27, 1978, the PDPA staged a successful coup of its own, and with their assumption of power Najibullah's ambitious climb to the pinnacle began. He was promoted to the Revolutionary Council (1978); became secretary of the Central Committee and director-general for the State Information Service, KHAD (1980-1985); Politburo member (1981); general-secretary of the PDPA (1985); and president (1986).
The path to the summit, however, was far from smooth, for deep rifts within the party resurfaced almost immediately after the coup. In July 1978 when most of the Parcham leadership was exiled as diplomats by Khalq, Najibullah was sent as ambassador to Iran. He held this post only until October when he was dismissed and subsequently expelled from the party for alleged complicity in an attempt to overthrow the Khalqis in Kabul. Remaining at large, reportedly in Eastern Europe and the U.S.S.R., he was brought back to Afghanistan in the wake of the December 1979 Soviet invasion when Babrak Karmal was elevated to prime minister and general-secretary of the PDPA.
The Soviet invasion was largely occasioned by the inability of the PDPA to put down the burgeoning armed resistance which threatened to collapse the Khalqi government. The identification of dissidents and the need to undermine and divide the resistance became key priorities and were undertaken by the Soviet KGB through its reorganization of the Afghan intelligence services into KHAD (Khedmati Etal'ati Daulati), the State Information Service. KHAD became the state's most effective and dreaded control institution, and as director-general Najibullah possessed great power, managing an enormous budget, up to 30,000 employees, 100,000 paid informers, and an army division complete with helicopters and tanks. KHAD was, as it was described by an Afghan, a state within the state.
Neither the harsh methods of KHAD nor the massive war efforts of the Soviet Union were able to diminish the success of the resistance, which was bolstered by foreign military assistance, including aid from the United States. Babrak's faction-rent government proving entirely ineffective, the Soviets selected Najibullah as his replacement on May 4, 1986. This led the pro-Babrak forces within Parcham to further splinter the leadership and Najibullah was unable to stabilize the situation despite efforts to legitimize and popularize his regime. He renewed calls for reconciliation and concessions regarding Islam, economic liberalism, and political pluralism, and constructed many ploys to turn resistance leaders and win over tribal groups, minorities, and religious leaders.
Growing Soviet disillusionment with the Kabul leadership, added to numerous other factors including changes taking place in the former Soviet Union, ultimately led to the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Afghanistan in February 1989. It was generally predicted that Najibullah would quickly fall. However, enormous Soviet military and economic aid estimated at $300 million a month continued to flow into Afghanistan. Although Parcham-Khalq infighting still raged, Najibullah retained his position with his usual outward air of self-assured confidence. Far from popular, he adroitly maneuvered his political opponents inside and outside Afghanistan.
As support of Najibullah's regime became more of an economic burden and an embarrassment to a fast-changing Soviet leadership, the superpowers negotiated an agreement to cut off arms to both sides of the conflict in 1991, thus sealing the fate of Afghanistan's president. Najibullah's political skills proved no match for discontent in the capital as supplies of arms, food, and money dwindled. Though he attempted to negotiate with the leaders of the rebel mujahedin, his political opponents were in no mood to compromise with a figure who purportedly engineered the torture and execution of tens of thousands of their comrades, stamping to death many of them personally, according to reports of former political prisoners.
With guerrilla factions closing in on the capital, Najibullah relinquished his power in mid-April 1992 and attempted to flee to India. His plan was thwarted, however, by troops of a former supporter and he was forced to seek protection from U.N. officials in Kabul.
With Najibullah no longer in power, rebel factions turned on each other in a conflict which would continue another four years, destroying areas surrounding Kabul which had survived years of mujahedin attacks on Soviet-controlled regimes, and killing another 30,000 people.
The guerrilla leader whose ascendancy had led to his election as interim president, Burhanuddin Rabbani, fell to an invasion in 1996 of the Taliban, a fundamentalist Islamic extremist movement which had formed two years earlier among refugees in Pakistan and had gained control over three quarters of the country. The Taliban entered the U.N. compound where Najibullah had been hiding with his brother, former security chief Shahpur Ahmedzi, and aides. Kabul awoke on September 27, 1996 to find the brothers' battered bodies hanging from a tower in an intersection outside the presidential palace. Crowds gathered to jeer the remains of the "Butcher of Kabul." Najibullah's personal secretary and bodyguard were hanged the following day.
After Najibullah's bloody death, the Taliban consolidated their hold on Afghanistan, putting an end to the fighting between warring guerrilla factions following the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, but introducing their own brand of state-sponsored brutality.
For more information on the period and the man, see J. Bruce Amstuz's, Afghanistan: The First Five Years of Soviet Occupation (1986); Raja Anwar's, The Tragedy of Afghanistan (1988); Amin Saikal and William Maley's, (editors), The Soviet Withdrawal from Afghanistan (1989); and Artyom Borovik's, The Hidden War (1990).
Nijibullah's loss of power, resignation, and eventual death are chronicled in many articles in the New York Times Magazine (December 29, 1991; page 14); Newsweek Magazine (April 27, 1992; page 35); The National Review (May 11, 1992; page 16); Time International Magazine (October 7, 1996); and Time Magazine (April 27, 1992); as well as in stories distributed worldwide on the Internet by the Associated Press, dated September 27, 1996 and May 26, 1997.