Had the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan not ended in 1989, there is a chance that Mohammad Najibullah would still be the President of Afghanistan. Of course, this assumes not only that the man who ultimately was killed at the age of 49 would have lived into old age, but it also assumes that his leadership would have been supported by a perpetual Soviet/Russian occupation (legal or otherwise) of Afghanistan. The fact of the matter is that while Najibullah was the UN recognised Afghan head of state until 1992, his power rested on the fact that the Soviet military was fending off the factions of those who wanted nothing more than to remove him from power at any and all costs. After 1989, he relied on aid from Moscow and when this dried up, so too did his time in power. In other words, Najibullah was only ever as powerful as his friends in Moscow. Without Moscow, there could have been no Najibullah.
In 1992, Mohammad Najibullah’s period in power finally ended as an economically bankrupt Russia could scarcely afford to provide his regime with military aid. As such, he relinquished power and a month later the Peshawar Accords were signed, thus creating the Islamic State of Afghanistan (no relation to the contemporary terror group Daesh).
During this time, Najibullah was quoted as being highly critical of his former Soviet allies whom he felt had effectively chewed him up and spat him out. But within four years of his fall from power, he had other things to worry about as a new force in Afghanistan, the Taliban seized Kabul and proclaimed a new state, The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. The new Taliban controlled state moved to arrest Najibullah and he was subsequently executed before his body was castrated and hung in central Kabul for all to see. The message was clear: there was to be no going back.
Najibullah’s ultimately ignominious life and infamous death continues to represent something more than just the death of a former leader. It represents the fact that all subsequent Afghan leaders at least ought to realise that unless they can command genuine support in the country, their very existence is dependent on the same foreign support that Najibullah’s was. This is not to imply an endorsement for any of the multiple failed and typically disastrous governments that have come and gone throughout modern Afghan history, but the fact of the matter is that whilst recent history has shown that the Taliban can exist and indeed thrive in Afghanistan without the explicit aid of Pakistan, anti-Mujaheddin/anti-Taliban factions cannot survive without the aid of a foreign superpower. This was proved to be the case in respect of Najibullah and it may well be the case in respect of Ashraf Ghani, the current UN recognised President of Afghanistan.
At present, even with the aid of US troops who have been in Afghanistan for nearly twice as long as the Soviets were, Ashraf Ghani’s government is thought to control less than 50% of all legally recognised Afghan territory. By some accounts, his government controls merely 30% of Afghan territory and this is with the help of the United States.
But just as the Soviet Union had all but come to admit that their intervention in Afghanistan had failed by the turn of the 1990s, so too does the United States seem to be slowly coming to the same conclusion. The fact of the matter is that just as the Peshawar Accords proved that Najibullah could not survive without a powerful USSR behind him, so too is Washington realising that something similar to a proverbial ‘Peshawar Accord 2.0’ (in which the Taliban would be a major party) is the only way that the endless cycle of increasingly costly violence in the country might ever end.
As such, in 2019, both the US and Russia, two former enemies of the Taliban and similar groups, are now engaged in self-described productive talks with the Taliban. The separate but generally similar aim of the Russian and American talks with the Taliban is to cement the terms of an all parties peace process in which the Taliban will ultimately be a more important party than a Kabul government that has thus far been shut out of the talks that two of the world’s three superpowers are holding with the Taliban.
Understanding that this new reality is taking shape, Ghani has vented his anger at both America and Russia for excluding him from their respective talks with The Taliban. And yet, while Moscow and Washington have almost certainly paid lip service to Ghani’s concerns behind closed doors, the writing is on the wall for Ghani and his government. Unless his fledgling government fully agrees to whatever peace process is finally consecrated between the superpowers and the Taliban, Ghani could easily end up like Najibullah.
In a country as historically politically underdeveloped as Afghanistan, peaceful transitions of power are virtually unknown. This has particularly been the case ever since the Saur Revolution of 1978. As such, it is difficult for anyone in Afghanistan to pretend to be in charge when in reality, the only powers that have actually been in charge of Afghanistan since the late 1970s have either been the Soviets, the Mujaheddin, the Taliban or the Americans. As soon as the Soviets withdrew their support to Najibullah – he was in office but without power. As the Americans look set to gradually withdraw their support for the increasingly useless Ghani, he will find himself in the same position. This is simply the reality of Afghanistan’s violent and unstable political atmosphere.
As Atatürk said “As they have come, so they will go“. This truism applies to Afghanistan more readily than any place on earth.