Poster Boys of Afghan History

In the post-Taliban era, Afghanistan is seeking unifying national heroes from its past. But, as David Loyn explains, agreement on who should be celebrated is hard to reach. 

Portrait of the assassinated Mujahidin leader Ahmad  Shah Massoud, Charikar, Afghanistan.

Sir Francis Humphreys and two senior colleagues shot a snipe and a woodcock in a copse not far from the British Legation in Kabul they called Woodcock Wood. It was a poor bag, not helped by the weather. The entry in the legation game book for November 29th, 1928 recorded the ‘first fall of snow this season’. It would be the last entry in the book until 1930. Days later, 16,000 Afghan warriors descended on Kabul, opposed to the reform programme of King Amanullah. Humphreys spent the winter negotiating aid drops by the RAF and 80 evacuation flights out, including the departure of Amanullah on January 14th, 1929. According to the Pioneer newspaper, the king refused to leave his palace without a British escort. ‘Nothing would induce him to come out unless the safety of himself and his ladies was taken in hand by Englishmen’, reported one observer. The journey out was perilous. With the planes fully loaded, they could not fly over the frontier mountains, but were forced to navigate below the peaks through the Khyber Pass. Amanullah made an abortive attempt to reclaim power in Kandahar, the country’s second city, later in the year, but his years of reform were over. He had pushed too hard to modernise his country. 

Disputes over the history of this period are alive today. On September 1st, 2016 Kabul saw the first gun battle between rival militias since the Taliban took the city in September 1996. They were fighting over the reburial of Habibullah Kalakani, the Tajik warrior who ousted Amanullah, who had lain in an unmarked grave since his death less than a year after he took power in November 1929. What made the incident even more remarkable was that some of the gunmen were part of an unofficial private army kept by the country’s vice president, Abdul Rashid Dostam. Given Dostam’s power, the police were powerless to intervene.  

The standard western view of Kalakani was that he was a bandit who seized power, ousting the reformist Amanullah and looting Afghanistan’s treasury, before being gunned down by rival warlords. He is widely known by the contemptuous nickname, ‘Bacha-i-Saqao’ – son of a water carrier – a reminder of his lack of noble birth. But his cult has been growing in recent years, as the northern Tajiks, his tribe, search for heroes from their past. His image is seen increasingly on the streets, or stuck on the windscreen of vehicles, jostling with the faces of other leaders, in a power battle that pits different interpretations of Afghanistan’s past against each other to determine its future. A stall in the main bazaar in the centre of Kabul does a brisk trade selling posters and flags showing the faces of revered past leaders. 

This contest over history has filled a vacuum created by the lack of political parties. Since the reform movements of the 1970s, attempts by democrats to create functioning parties have always been resisted or ignored by those in power. The refusal of Daoud Khan to allow the emergence of a constitutional opposition after he took over in a palace coup in 1973 removed the pressure valve of informed debate and led to a hardening of views against him, ending in his violent overthrow in 1978. A year later Soviet troops invaded the country. Similarly, after the fall of the Taliban in 2001, President Hamid Karzai had little desire to see political parties emerging, governing as an old-fashioned tribal chief through patronage and mutual responsibility. His successor, Ashraf Ghani, prefers to rule as a technocrat and, even without organised political opposition, has enough trouble negotiating with the ‘chief executive’ Abdullah Abdullah, his rival for president, locked as they are in the power-sharing deal that broke the deadlock over the disputed 2014 election.  


There is little appetite in the Afghan parliament for issue-based political groupings. Members of the lower house, the Wolesi Jirga, should have faced an election in 2015, but with no agreement over electoral reform they remain in their seats. In the interim, many use their position to block appointments made by the president. This out-of-touch elite act in a way that would have been familiar to the British official who wrote of the 1929 revolution: 

The sordid commerciality of the sycophants and officials, the general treachery of all classes, the unscrupulous scheming for power and wealth, portray an Afghanistan despicable and unstable despite the veneer of civilisation imposed on it by Amanullah.

Western-imposed democracy is a pale mockery of the real thing: in a reverse of the demand that there be no taxation without representation, Afghanistan has representation without taxation, where elected officials depend mainly on western aid, rather than their electors.  

Education has done little to combat this failure to address the nation’s disputes over its past. Post-conflict curricula have been problematic in a number of countries, such as Bosnia and Macedonia, while school textbooks in Pakistan tend to ignore the country’s shared history with India. In Afghanistan, the study of modern history and international affairs stops in the 1970s. Students in humanities in the country’s most highly regarded state-funded institution, Kabul University, complain of being taught by rote by teachers with little appetite for debate. The decline in education began with the flight of 90 per cent of Afghanistan’s professors in the months after the 1978 revolution; it has never recovered. When I last visited a US-funded Afghanistan studies centre at the university, based around the magnificent collection of newspapers, pamphlets and pictures given by the late American scholar of Afghan history Louis Dupree and his widow Nancy Hatch Dupree, there were no PhD students using the archive. 

So what are the competing versions of history that fill this political void? Many of the leaders who are most revered are the Mujahidin warriors who fought the Soviet invaders in the 1980s. The best known of these, and the most frequently displayed, is the Tajik commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud, ‘the lion of Panjshir’. He was killed two days before 9/11 by a bomb concealed in the camera of an Arab TV crew, which turned out to be al-Qaeda. Massoud was an Islamic fundamentalist, beginning to agitate for a harder line in the early 1970s, 20 years before the Taliban came on the scene. The French anthropologist, Olivier Roy, wrote in 1985 of the way that Islam filled a gap left as state and other institutions collapsed: ‘The resistance movement has brought with it a strengthening of Islam’s role in shaping the social order.’ Sharia made sense of chaos, but Afghan society was coarsened by this process. In the refugee camps in Pakistan, where more than two million Afghans fled during the fighting in the 1980s, membership of one of the seven Mujahidin groups was an essential condition for receiving a ration card: violent Islamic resistance became a way of life and its martyrs are held in high esteem. 

Massoud at prayer,  an image reproduced on a carpet for sale in Kabul’s market, 2016.

Massoud is everywhere, with one of the capital’s main intersections outside the US embassy named after him. Mujahidin Day, April 28th, is a day of celebration for his supporters. With the streets empty for a national holiday, young men race around Kabul, weapons bristling from the windows of Toyota Corollas, waving Massoud flags. Opposition to this festival is seen as unpatriotic. Communists and minorities, particularly Hazaras, keep their mouths closed and stay indoors. 

Other former Mujahidin leaders have their followers, too, among them Abdul Rassul Sayyaf, who stood for president in 2014, and Ishmael Khan, with his power base in the west of the country, who was Sayyaf’s vice-presidential running mate. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a Pashtun thug whose speciality as a student leader in the 1970s was throwing acid in the face of women with their heads uncovered, recently negotiated a deal with the government to come in from the cold, after opposing the US engagement until this year. His followers, too, display his picture. General Dostam, the current vice president, whose followers attempted to stop the reburial of Kalakani, is widely displayed. Hazaras also show their heroes. This community is increasingly wealthy and assisted in social progress by allowing women to work – almost all the female cadets at the British-funded officer training academy are Hazaras. Both Ghani and Abdullah have Hazara deputies and images of war leaders such as Karim Khalili are displayed prominently in Hazara areas.  


The differences dividing these former allies against the Soviet invasion are not over political policy, but patronage. Government jobs, even university lectureships, are handed out through a careful balance of opposing tribal and jihadi interests, in an effort to keep the state from blowing apart. Dostam is powerful in the north and demands roles for his Uzbek followers. Hekmatyar has solid support among the Ghilzai Pashtuns, the sub-group of Afghanistan’s largest tribe, who are strong in the east and straddle the frontier with Pakistan. He has burnished his Mujahidin credentials by continuing to fight until now. Sayyaf has a following in Paghman west of Kabul, with support across Pashtun lands, his assumed name meaning ‘one who is good with a sword’. He had contacts with extremist Arab fighters and is believed to have facilitated Osama bin Laden’s return to Afghanistan in 1996, into an area then not yet under Taliban control. He has also been named by human rights investigators for several assaults on civilians, including the worst incident of the civil war in Kabul in the early 1990s, a massacre of Hazaras in the Afshar suburb of Kabul in 1993. 

The head of the civil service, Nader Nadery, currently attempting to reform the administration and open up recruitment, once ran the well-funded Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Commission, which exposed violent acts by former warlords, including the Afshar massacre. But the men whose images are carried so proudly in the streets of the capital won immunity from prosecution in the early years of the Karzai government and have since succeeded in entrenching their influence in a country whose modern institutions are too frail to resist their power. 

This is not the only version of recent Afghan history. Support for Najibullah, longest-serving of the Soviet-backed leaders in the 1980s, was once kept quiet. Shopkeepers might keep a discreet picture of him in the back room, which is now openly displayed. He is remembered as a competent, tough administrator, the sort of person Europeans might say ‘made the trains run on time’ – if there were trains in Afghanistan. He stabilised Afghanistan after taking office in 1985 and succeeded in holding the country against the Mujahidin even after Soviet forces withdrew in 1989, losing power only in 1992 when Russia stopped giving him financial support after the collapse of the Soviet Union. He had little difficulty in recruiting volunteer militias to defend Kabul, including women’s brigades, opposed to the arrival of Islamic fundamentalists from the mountains. Attacks on women’s rights did not begin with the arrival of the Taliban, but when the Mujahidin took over after ousting Najibullah in 1992. Open support for Najibullah in the 21st century is not just the post-Taliban confidence of people in a more free society; it is a reaction to the dominance of the old warlords and support for the aspiration that Afghanistan might be better governed. 

The appearance of ‘Bacha Saqao’, Habibullah Kalakani, onto this crowded stage of historical figures jostling for attention, has taken some by surprise. It denotes increased frustration by the Shura-i-nazar, the northern alliance, a mainly Tajik grouping once led by Massoud. Its present leader is another former Mujahidin warlord, Mohammed Atta, who governs Balkh province, the wealthy northern gateway to central Asia. He is openly hostile to President Ghani, but too powerful to dismiss. The Shura-i-nazar are using Kalakani as a new totem to combat the received wisdom that Afghanistan cannot be led by anyone but a Pashtun. Kalakani was put into an unmarked grave when his revolution was swept aside less than a year after he took office by an army led by the former commander of Amanullah’s forces, Nadir Shah, who then became king in turn – a Tajik stabbed in the back by a Pashtun according to the Shura-i-nazar view of history. 

The decision to move his grave was prompted by the discovery in 2008 of Daoud Khan’s remains in a mass grave with other family members who were killed with him in the Saur Revolution in 1978. He was positively identified and reburied with full national honours on a discreet hillside in a military training area to the west of Kabul. If the nation would honour the disgraced Daoud in this way, went Tajik rhetoric, then they should look after their own. 

The other person whose face is often displayed – and more acceptable officially than the ad hoc windscreen snapshots of the Mujahidin – is Amanullah, the reformist king ousted by Kalakani. He can be seen on the walls of police stations and army bases, dressed in grand robes, and wearing an Afghan astrakhan hat, more revered now than when he was alive, a reminder of a period of reform in a country where stable progress remains elusive.

David Loyn is Visiting Senior Research Fellow in the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London. He was BBC Afghanistan correspondent until 2015.