NEW YORK - Last week, Afghanistan's Deputy President, Hadji Abdul Qadir, was gunned down by unknown assailants in the center of supposedly secure Kabul. After recovering from the shock of losing an old friend and benefactor, I vividly recalled Abdul Qadir warning me a decade ago: `Never travel without two jeeps with guards, one behind you and one in front. That's the only way to prevent an ambush.'
In the early 1990's, civil war was raging across Afghanistan following the Soviet pull-out. I had just come from a fierce battle against communist Afghan forces at Jalalabad. Hadji Qadir, southern Afghanistan's most important warlord, gave me the hospitality of his large, walled tribal compound near Jalalabad. I stayed with him as an honored guest and joined him in audiences with tribal elders and mujihadin fighters. As governor of one of the nation's richest provinces - thanks to legal and illegal trade - Qadir commanded great influence and large numbers of tribal fighters.
To protect me during my forays in the countryside, which was completely lawless and afflicted by roving bands of communists, mujihadin, bandits, smugglers and heroin traders, Qadir sent two jeeps filled with heavily armed gunmen to accompany the Land Cruiser in which I was traveling through the war zone. Thanks to his timely aid, I survived unscathed.
Ironically, when Qadir was assassinated in Kabul, he appears to have been either riding alone in his trademark Toyota Land Cruiser - the vehicle of choice of all Third World warriors - or with only a single vehicle carrying bodyguards.
Qadir's murder, staged in the very midst of western troops protecting the US-installed Kabul regime, underlined Afghanistan's continuing instability and lethal internal politics.
Hadji Qadir- `hadji' is an honorary title for those who have made the pilgrimage to Mecca - was a leading figure in the anti-Soviet struggle during the 1980's and a close ally of both Pakistan's ISI intelligence service and CIA. Qadir and his younger brother, Abdul Haq, an old comrade of mine from Peshawar and the anti-Soviet jihad, were two of the most renowned Pushtun warriors. Abdul Kadir was quiet, thoughtful, and dignified; his younger brother was hot-blooded and a born fighter. Both aspired to become leader of Afghanistan. Abdul Haq was captured and killed last fall by Taliban in the course of an abortive CIA-mounted mission.
When Taliban seized control of Afghanistan in 1996, Hadji Qadir joined the Northern Alliance, which is dominated by Tajiks and Uzbeks, and armed, financed, and directed by Russia's intelligence services. Qadir was considered a turncoat by fellow Pushtuns, who detest the Northern Alliance. He was a foe of al-Qaida. The US had considered making Qadir leader of the post-Taliban regime it installed in Kabul, but chose Hamid KarzaI, another Pushtun, because the latter spoke far better English than Qadir, an essential quality in the media war for foreign public opinion. But Qadir remained a threat to Karzai and the Northern Alliance.
Among the many suspects in Qadir's murder must be counted drug runners. According to the UN's drug office, Taliban managed to almost totally suppress cultivation of opium poppies, Afghanistan's premier cash crop, except in areas controlled by the Northern Alliance. Since the overthrow of Taliban, the US and Russian-backed Northern Alliance revived and now controls most of the drug trade, which provides 65% of Europe's heroin and a growing share of America's imports. Drug money has become the fuel on which dirt-poor Afghanistan now runs. America's Drug Enforcement Agency has been ordered to shut its eyes and freeze activities in Afghanistan and Pakistan so as not to interfere with the drug business of Washington's local allies.
President George Bush's War Against Drugs collided head-on with his War Against Terrorism - and the drug crusade has lost. Washington's complicity with drug dealers brings back nasty memories of Central America and Vietnam, where the US allied itself with Saigon river pirates and drug-dealing army officers, even providing air service to opium-morphine-heroin gangs. Like Indochina and Central America, drugs are the real currency in Afghanistan. Getting involved in narcotics seems an inevitable byproduct of politics and covert operations in such nations.
Hadji Qadir's murder is a heavy blow to the Karzai regime and its American protectors. His death came soon after a US C-130 gunship massacred at least 44 people and wounded 150 - mostly women and children - at an Afghan wedding. The attack, shrugged off as a `tragic mistake' by US officials, was another example of the Pentagon's shoot-first, look later policy in Afghanistan, in which crushing air power is used to intimidate or terrorize into submission anyone who dares resist - including, lately, tribesmen and politicians who do not cooperate with the Karzai regime.
Many Afghans believe the attack on the wedding party was meant to punish the region, from which Taliban leader Mullah Omar hails. At the very least, the attack was an example of the same super-aggressive, trigger-happy behavior that led to the accidental killing of four Canadian soldiers in Afghanistan by a US warplane.
Qadir's murder is more very bad news for long-suffering Afghans. A notable leader who might have united them now lies dead.