Farewell To A Friend

Less than a week before he was captured and executed by the Taliban, Abdul Haq sounded subdued and pensive on the phone. Gone was his habitual jovialness and off-beat sense of humor that had marked our 14-year-friendship. He was frustrated by the U.S. bombing of Afghanistan and his conversation was marked by deep sighs.

"How can I convince Taliban commanders to defect and help create a new, peaceful government when they think America is going to invade?" he asked.

Yet Abdul Haq--former guerrilla commander, planner, strategist, and fiercely independent maverick--must have believed that he could still pull it off. The day after our conversation, he and 19 men ditched Pakistani intelligence agents who had been trailing them to the Afghan border and crossed over with a handful of guns and the belief that they could set up a base and begin to negotiate peace in their homeland. In the pre-dawn hours of Friday, after trying to escape up a steep mountain trail, the Taliban captured him. Condemned to death for being a spy, he was hanged and his body was riddled with bullets before being thrown out on a street.

Abdul Haq's death is a major setback to any effort at creating a post-Taliban government and it leaves the United States with a dwindling number of choices in its Afghanistan strategy. For me, Abdul Haq's passing marks the end of an era. As the news filtered out yesterday, many of us who had known him reached out to each other via phone and email. The overwhelming feeling was of sadness not only for Abdul Haq but for a country that has become an engrained part of our lives.

At 43, Abdul Haq was a bear of a man, his curly black hair long gone and his beard white. Heavyset, he liked to hurl himself into chairs and gesticulate with his large paw-like hands. His one Western vice, he joked, was his passion for Diet-Coke.

As a teenager, Abdul Haq participated in four attempts to overthrow the Soviet-backed government of Mohammed Daud. At 17, he was arrested and condemned to death. His family organized his escape by bribing the prison officials. In 1977, Abdul Haq brought his family to Pakistan, joining the Islamic Hezb-I-Islami, one of the seven mujahedin parties. At 21 he had built a reputation as a talented commander by attacking Kabul and running an underground network of spies and informers. In 1987, he lost his right foot to a landmine. Unable to walk easily, he began directing many of his operations from Peshawar.

Pakistani intelligence tried unsuccessfully to undermine his independence by circumventing him and arming his commanders directly. The CIA nicknamed him "Hollywood Haq" and to this day likes to dismiss him as "immature and childish." But State Department officials and Afghan experts believed he was a critical and powerful commander. Abdul Haq typically shrugged off his critics with a bellowing laugh. In 1985 he met with President Ronald Reagan and spoke at the United Nations. Despite his travels, he never lost touch with his culture and family roots. He was a devout Muslim, praying five times a day and never touching alcohol or tobacco.

I first met Abdul Haq in 1988, in his walled Peshawar compound. Candid to the point of rudeness Abdul Haq liked to shock his visitors. His fluent English, learned on the road in Afghanistan from an Anglo-Dutch journalist, was peppered with the vocabulary of a drunken sailor. Over endless cups of sugared green tea and bowls of almonds, I tried to convince him to let me travel in Afghanistan with his men. He quizzed me on my personal life, joking that I should become his second wife and as recently as last week declared that he would find me an Afghan husband.

I traveled with him and his men to the outskirts of Kabul, rocketing the city and in 1989, he had me smuggled dressed as an Afghan woman into enemy-controlled Kabul to write about his underground network. He was blunt and daring and gave me the impression of moving into the unknown with great pleasure. His men, both in and out of his presence, worshipped him. Even though they belonged to a fundamentalist Islamic party and many were very conservative Muslims, they always treated me with respect and showed me endless hospitality.

Underneath the roughness, I discovered a soft and gentle heart. When my mother visited me in Peshawar, he promised her that his men would sacrifice their lives to make sure nothing happened to me. Tradition-bound, he had acquiesced to an arranged marriage but assured me his daughters would receive as much education as his sons. Religion was personal, he'd remind me. "We are Afghans, not fanatics. "

We remained friends long after I left Afghanistan. He always made a point of calling my mother when he passed through the United States and offered his friendship and support when my father died. He also was a deeply private man. His detractors say he chased after journalists. Yet I had to find out through friends that Taliban assassins had broken into his Peshawar house in 1999 and murdered his wife and 11-year-old son. He did not broadcast his return to Peshawar last month, laying low for five days before the journalistic hordes, desperate for news, found him out.

There was bitterness. He did not trust the American government. He was convinced that they would abandon Afghanistan as quickly as they had after the Soviet occupation. And he warned that the Americans would only fill body bags if their troops came in on the ground. He believed there could only be one solution: an Afghan solution. But he never doubted the viciousness of his own opponents.

"We may not know how to make computer chips, "he told me. "But we do know how to do one thing well. We know how to kill."

I lay awake last night, horrified by the way he was killed. And I wondered about his last thoughts, hoping that at least in his mind and heart he had found a small island of peace. For me, one last chance left to say goodbye. "Khoda Hafez." Go with God.