Afghanistan's 'Ox'

April 19, 1992|By MARK FINEMAN

The man so big in stature and so brutal in technique that he was nicknamed "The Ox" was clearly in a good mood that day, beaming broadly as he predicted confidently that history would remember him as the savior of his nation.

Seated at the big wooden conference table in an office ringed by security men, President Najibullah banged the table time and again to make his point. He belly-laughed, told stories of swimming against virtual tidal waves in the Caspian Sea and finally lowered his voice, narrowed his eyes and jabbed the air with a beefy finger as he summed up his five years at the helm of a nation at war with itself.

"If the objectives are honorable, if it is all ended by the man himself or even by someone else, then the honors will go to the one who has begun that," Dr. Najibullah said that chilly afternoon in mid-March.

"When you bring the broken boat to the coast, if somebody else unloads it, no problem. Everybody who is on board that boat will see who has saved them."

That was one of the 44-year-old Dr. Najibullah's last interviews as president. On Thursday, under intense pressure both from within his authoritarian regime and from the Muslim rebels closing in on his capital, he gave up the ship.

The collapse of Dr. Najibullah's government, more than three years after his Soviet military backers left him, followed weeks of internal plotting in which some of his most staunch supporters within the ruling Homeland Party abandoned him. It brought to an end a succession of Soviet-installed leaders who were used by Moscow to rule its southern neighbor by proxy. And it ended an era of rule that confounded outside analysts by the sheer longevity of a leader so embattled.

The president, known almost universally among Afghans simply

as Najib, was largely a Soviet creation. Trained as a physician, he was the chief of Afghanistan's dreaded, KGB-trained secret police when he was elevated to the presidency by the Soviet military leadership that occupied Afghanistan at the time. Earlier, during a period of extended exile in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1978 and 1979, he was housed, fed and financed by the Soviet government.

Born Najib Ahmadzai in a small Pushtun tribal village near the Pakistani border, Dr. Najibullah spent most of his life as a committed communist cadre, working his way up through the ranks of the People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan, which took power in a Moscow-inspired leftist coup in 1978.

During the past three years, since the Soviets withdrew the last of their estimated 115,000 troops, Dr. Najibullah spent much of his energy simply trying to survive, largely by recasting himself as a born-again democrat in the eyes of a world fast rejecting the communist ideology of his ruling party. He changed the party's name, spoke of privatization, a free-market economy and the joys of Islam in his speeches and even added uddin ("of God") to the end of his name.

Dr. Najibullah was aided by his shrewd ability to manipulate the nation's ancient ethnic divisions through the generous Soviet arms shipments that he used to buy off his potential enemies within the country.

Under an agreement reached between the Soviet Union and the United States, the rebels' largest benefactor, those arms shipments stopped at the end of last year. And it began to become clear that the regime that had resembled a monolith was merely a carefully crafted facade.

By the end, Dr. Najibullah had lost all popular support, with most residents of Kabul confiding their hatred for him and their respect for Ahmed Shah Masoud, the rebel commander who joined forces with Dr. Najibullah's own military leaders in easing him out Thursday.

Even within the ruling party, cracks began appearing. By last month, the government was in tatters, divided along traditional ethnic lines. Less than 100 yards from the office where he spoke that day, in the heart of the Homeland Party's office compound, the party's deputy leader, a dynamic Tajik, already was plotting against him.

His apparent inability to read the seriousness of the internal threat against him was, according to several Afghans close to him, typical of Dr. Najibullah's self-image of indestructibility. One of his key supporters once described it as "an iciness in his veins."

It was with that same bravado that he met the intricate plots that were being woven against him last month.

"Najibullah has faced in this time many waves," the president said, concluding last month's interview and referring to himself, as he often did, in the third person. "I think in the course of the last five years, even if I did not know how to swim, in this course I have not only learned how to swim well, I learned to pass through the waves. And I know how to swim both on sea and on land."

"I'll tell you a story," he said. "In the last 13 years, I have gone on vacation only twice -- both times in the Soviet Union. Once we were by the seaside, and when the intensity of the waves is too much, they hoisted three balls on a station on the beach and they didn't let you swim.

"On this day I remember there were five balls. My hosts wouldn't permit me to swim. But when they were trying to prevent me, I just dove into the water.

"So, you see, one should know how to live in water and on the land. And one should also know how to live in a balanced way, both in the domestic environment and the foreign environment."

On Thursday, it appeared that Dr. Najibullah may finally have the chance to demonstrate that kind of adaptability. Sources close to the president said that, if he manages to leave Kabul alive, he already has accepted the inevitability of living the rest of his life in exile.

Mark Fineman is a correspondent for the Los Angeles Times.

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