Regime and Violent Bandit Are Uneasy Allies in Kabul

Times Staff Writer

By all accounts, Ismat Muslim is a violent and treacherous man, “a legalized criminal,” according to a Western diplomat here.

Muslim, who sometimes wears an army general’s uniform and sometimes a traditional loose shirt and pajama-type pants with a knife at his waist, commands a tribe of brigands who are known to have smuggled everything from opium to English wool across the border into Pakistan.

He drinks great quantities of vodka and bets heavily on the dog fights that take place near Kabul’s airport every Friday morning. He has at least six teen-age wives, in houses scattered around this dusty capital.


His parties are famous for drugs, dancing girls and danger. After one, a diplomat whose residence is adjacent to one of Muslim’s houses reported seeing a dead man, who appeared to have been tortured, hanging by the neck on Muslim’s porch.

Even in untamed Afghanistan, Ismat Muslim is considered an unsavory character. Yet Muslim, who is about 40 years old, is the only important resistance leader the Soviet-backed Afghan regime has been able to win over to its side in the eight years that Soviet troops have occupied this Central Asian country.

Since January, when President Najibullah announced a plan of “national reconciliation” and offered gifts of money, land and a chance to take part in a coalition government to any rebel leader who would switch sides, not one of the dozen or so major rebel leaders has taken the bait.

Late last month, in a speech to pro-government tribal and political leaders in Kabul, Najibullah again asked the rebels--known collectively as the moujahedeen, or Holy Warriors--to join the government.

Call to Rebels

This time, he called on several of the most famous field commanders by name, including Ahmad Shah Masoud, who operates in the Panjshir Valley, Mullah Jalaluddin Haqani of Jadran and Turan Ismael of Herat. Najibullah said he would remove Soviet troops from the territory of each man and make each a virtually independent ruler if he would accept the government’s offer.

The Soviet troops, he said, would withdraw and “return to their peace-loving country first of all from those provinces where a commitment is made.”

Najibullah, 40, is a former chief of the secret police who took power in May, 1986, after his predecessor, Babrak Karmal, proved unable to unify the ruling People’s Democratic Party. Karmal had been installed in December, 1979, just after Soviet troops entered the capital. He served as general secretary of the party and president of the Revolutionary Council until he was replaced by Najibullah.


Karmal, who now lives in Moscow, is a Dari-speaking native of Kabul and the son of a general, with little support in the countryside, where the majority speaks Pushtu. The Soviets hoped that Najibullah, a Pushtu-speaker from a prominent family in Paktia province, would be attractive to Pushtu-speaking rebels who account for the greater part of the resistance.

Islamic Cast

Since taking power, the mustachioed, 250-pound Najibullah has stripped the ruling party of its revolutionary rhetoric and given it an Islamic religious cast.

At a recent loya jirgah, the traditional assembly of tribal leaders and politicians, Najibullah presided over the drafting of a new constitution that establishes Islam as the national religion and permits, in theory, the existence of opposition parties. The 1,400 delegates to the assembly elected him president of the Republic of Afghanistan, which until then had been known as the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan.

The reforms were carried out in the context of “national reconciliation,” a policy the Soviets hope will lead to a political solution to the eight-year war and enable them to withdraw their troops, now estimated at 115,000.

Increasingly, the Soviets have hinted at their willingness to abandon Najibullah and the People’s Democratic Party if this is necessary to create an atmosphere that will enable them to pull out. In any case, it is widely believed by diplomats here that if Najibullah fails to attract any of the main rebel leaders to his government, his days are numbered.

“His speech before the loya jirgah was full of concessions,” a Near East diplomat said. “He was trying to find out from the opposition what his future will be. If after all these concessions there is still no response, then I feel he will leave the country.”


A Disappointment

So far, according to sources that include even people in the government, Najibullah’s reconciliation policy has been a disappointment. The government says that 110,000 Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran have come home under the program, including about 30,000 fighters of the moujahedeen.

Ironically, while Najibullah was calling for refugees to return, his younger brother defected to Pakistan. “He has left his ancestral homeland,” Najibullah admitted at a press conference.

If the government numbers are accurate, fewer than 3% of the estimated four million refugees have come home. And other sources here, including diplomats, say the actual number of returnees is even lower, probably no more than about 8,000.

A local businessman who promised the government he would entertain 150 returning refugees at dinner in a Kabul restaurant said the government was able to produce only 30 or 40 real refugees.

“The rest,” he said, “were truck drivers and people they gathered up on the street.”

Even if the number of returning refugees should increase dramatically, it would probably not help Najibullah, unless he can produce a true moujahedeen leader. And if the experience with Ismat Muslim is any example, it may not be worth the effort.

No. 1 Rogue

Muslim, according to party members, diplomats and Soviet journalists here, is perhaps the No. 1 rogue in Afghanistan since 1928, when the adventurer Baccha Saggao swept out of the mountains and captured Kabul. Baccha Saggao’s rule lasted a mere nine months.


Muslim, who was born into a prominent tribal family from Kandahar in the southwest, attended a military academy in the Soviet Union for three years before he was arrested, according to a Soviet source, for “smuggling gold and silver.” He was sent to a Soviet prison for six months.

After his release, he returned to Afghanistan and formed a rebel force near Spin Buldak, a strategic point north of the Khojak Pass that leads into Afghanistan from Pakistan. Nearby is the Pakistan city of Quetta, and the surrounding region is a major staging area for moujahedeen attacks, particularly on Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city.

During Muslim’s time as a rebel, the moujahedeen forces enjoyed easy passage into Kandahar. Muslim had control of the smuggling business. His men were fierce fighters feared by Soviet and Afghan government troops.

“He used Soviet military tactics to kill thousands of Soviet soldiers,” a journalist, who knows Muslim, said.

Defection to Soviets

Two years ago, Muslim feuded with other rebel leaders and defected to the Soviet side. Some rebels contend that he has been a secret agent for the Soviets since his time at the military academy.

After his defection, he was given the rank and pay of general in the Afghan army. He was made a member of the Revolutionary Council of the People’s Democratic Party and he was given the money to buy houses in Kabul and equip a private army.

But he was soon at odds with party leaders. Last May, several of his men were killed in a shoot-out involving a minister of the government over a woman Muslim had kidnaped.


Since then Muslim has terrorized the capital, kidnaping and brawling and ignoring security rules. Arriving for the recent loya jirgah-- he was a delegate by dint of his rank in the army and membership on the Revolutionary Council--one of his trucks rammed the entrance gate of Polytechnic University, where the meeting was taking place.

The next day, Monday, his men opened fire on Afghan security troops that challenged him on the road just outside the university. A 20-minute gun fight ensued, and 11 men are said to have been killed. Muslim was wounded but managed to escape by ordering a passing United Nations employee at gunpoint to drive him to a hospital.

‘Poisonous’ Alcohol

Najibullah, who has been surprisingly tolerant of Muslim’s behavior, blamed the incident on alcohol.

“Muslim is a sick man, making use of poisonous alcoholic drink,” Najibullah said. “His sickness is getting serious. Now he is in the hospital.”

As a result of the armed clash, Muslim’s loyalties are again in question. But according to several diplomats, the government must keep Muslim on its side or risk losing Kandahar, the city in the southwest where Muslim and his tribe are most powerful.

“They have to patch it up with him,” said a diplomat who is sympathetic with the Soviet-backed government, “or Kandahar will fall.”