Obituary: Dr Najibullah

Najibullah (like many Afghans he only had one name) was a great survivor at a time of particular turbulence in Afghanistan. Installed as president in 1986 during the Soviet occupation of his country, he clung to power until 1992 - for nearly three years after the Soviet Red Army had pulled all its troops out. But he met an especially violent end at the hands of the victorious Taleban movement, just hours after their forces had swept up from the east and captured the Afghan capital, Kabul.

On Thursday night Najibullah and his brother were pulled out of a United Nations compound in the centre of the capital, where they had lived in refuge since Najibullah's fall from power. They were shot dead and their bodies were then strung up on a pole outside the presidential palace. The manner of their deaths outraged the head of the United Nations mission to Afghanistan, Norbert Holl, who promptly issued a statement expressing dismay that they were also killed without a legitimate triall. Holl said it violated international law, and jeopardised the efforts being made to secure a peaceful settlement to the conflict in Afghanistan.

Najibullah (whose name means "noble man of god") was born in 1947 to a middle-class Pathan family in Gardez, in the eastern provincial province of Paktia, and spent much of his childhood in the Pakistani frontier town of Peshawar. His father was a government official representing the Afghan government in Peshawar with a brief to cultivate contacts among the warring tribes of the frontier, giving the young Najibullah his first lessons in politics.

He graduated from high school in Kabul in 1965, and then spent 10 years studying medicine. He qualified, but never practised, as a doctor. At university he became a student leader of the Parcham wing of the fledgling Communist Party. He was jailed twice, once for leading an egg-throwing attack on the car of Spiro Agnew, the former United States vice- president, who was visiting Afghanistan. A big man, Najibullah earned his nickname, the Ox, while at university, where he developed a keen interest in weightlifting and wrestling.

During the years of supremacy of the other wing of the Afghan Communist Party, the Khalq wing, Najibullah was sent into virtual exile, along with other Parcham leaders. He became ambassador to Iran, but absconded to Eastern Europe, only to resurface again in Afghanistan in 1979 - when he returned to Kabul with Babrak Karmal, the new president, leading a government supported by Moscow and dominated by the Parcham faction.

His loyalty to the faction was rewarded when he was made head of the KGB-trained secret police, known as Khad, in 1979. It was a position he was to hold until he took over as president in 1986 (formally from the following year) from Karmal, who stepped down and left the country, ostensibly on health grounds.

When the last Soviet troops pulled out of Afghanistan in February 1989, there was an almost unanimous prediction that Najibullah would soon fall. Diplomats predicted that the mujahedin, who had fought against the now- departed Red Army, would topple Najibullah within a matter of months. But he managed to cling on, not least because of the almost total inability of the diverse mujahedin factions to fight together against their infidel foe.

Najibullah, who had espoused Communism during the Soviet period, also changed his ideological spots to suit the times, in an attempt to broaden his appeal to Afghans tired of nearly a decade of a very bloody civil war. He was, however, widely hated, not least because of his links with the Soviet leadership, but more for his reputation as head of the secret police, when he allegedly tortured and killed hundreds of his enemies.

A highly intelligent man, he was reputed to understand his countrymen better than almost any other Afghan leader, before or since. Many governments eventually came to feel that Najibullah had a firm pair of hands that might well have held Afghanistan together.

But his fall from power and subsequent incarceration in the UN compound in Kabul were a result of a fairly extraordinary succession of events. Najibullah agreed in UN-sponsored talks that he would step down to make way for an interim administration which included the very people he had been fighting against. But he agreed before a deal had been made with his enemies.

Once it was assumed he was on his way, one of his main commanders, General Abdur Rashid Dostam, swapped sides to the mujahedin forces. Najibullah's position in Kabul became untenable, and the UN special representative, Benon Sevan, tried to get him out of the capital. A convoy of UN cars was sent to pick up Najibullah after midnight to take him to the airport on 16 April 1992. But he was turned back from the airport by troops once loyal to him. He then took refuge in a UN compound until his death this week.

The UN had for all the intervening period tried to get him safe passage out of Afghhanistan to join his wife and three daughters abroad, but without success. Kabul was largely destroyed in the civil war between the warring factions after Najibullah's fall from power. People in the city, who strongly disliked him while he was president, would often say that they wished he was still in charge.

Najibullah, doctor and politician: born Gardez, Paktia province, Afghanistan 1947; President of Afghanistan 1987-93; married (three daughters); died Kabul 26 September 1996.

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