By Jamal Khashoggi
4 May 2015
On February 15, 1989, the commander of the Soviet Forces Boris Gromov was the last Soviet soldier to leave Afghanistan, crossing on foot the Friendship Bridge that connected Afghanistan to then-Soviet Uzbekistan. This followed an invasion and bloody war that lasted a decade and ended with the Soviets’ defeat, marking huge changes in his country and the whole region.
Victory was celebrated all over Afghanistan. It seemed like their fight was brought to fruition and that it was only a matter of time before the communist government of Kabul falls, after being left severely wounded by the Russians in the middle of a hostile and rebelling environment. Celebrations extended to the Afghan allies in Riyadh and Islamabad. A few days separated us from entering Kabul and celebrating our victory over this great country that had always threatened us.
The Mujahidin leaders gathered in Rawalpindi surrounded by hundreds of Afghans, from judges and politicians to field commanders, to merchants and immigrants in the biggest “loya Jirga” seen in the history of Afghanistan, all of them dreaming of building a new Afghanistan founded on Islam and freedom. On that day, I was one of dozens of journalists drawn to this cinematic scene extracted from the famous “Lawrence of Arabia,” especially the shots of Arabs gathering in a vast hall in Damascus: when Awda Abu Tayeh (played by Anthony Quinn) quarreled with Al Sherrif (Omar Al Sherrif) while everyone was transformed simultaneously into uncontrollable chatterboxes.
Afghans were doing the same thing. After two days, it seemed impossible to reach an agreement on forming an interim government that will be handed power from Kabul’s government. Even the Saudi and Pakistani intelligence and the Muslim Brotherhood leaders with great influence who flocked to celebrate the great victory failed to reconcile different views between the Afghan people or at least reach an agreement mechanism and bring to an end the majestic chaos prevailing in that great hall.
On the third day, Mawlawi Jalal Al Din Haqani entered the hall. He was one of the prominent Mujahidin leaders back then who joined the Taliban later and is wanted today by the Americans. He closed the hall’s doors with chains and his men stood there preventing representatives from leaving. The crowd finally calmed down and listened to the man who they respected or hated, but in either way feared.
He distributed to them his plan and asked from the leaders of the seven Sunnite parties and the two Shiite parties to choose 60 representatives from each party. The latters would be the influential elite who will choose by a vote the members of the interim government. That was the Afghans version of democracy. That day, the names of the president, the vice-president and government members were announced before sunset.
Saudi Arabia and Pakistan recognized the interim government that held its first session in a farm near Jalalabad. After a few weeks, a military operation was launched to liberate the city but failed and the Soviet government in Kabul did not fall. Then Saddam Hussein took over Kuwait and Saudi Arabia along with the rest of the world got preoccupied by this great challenge and all of them forgot about Afghanistan.
After two years, everyone was surprised that Kabul was about to fall in the hands of Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Panjshiri leader. The regional actors didn’t have time to resolve the situation. This led to Afghanistan entering the midst of a persisting and devastating civil war and is still paying along with the international community the price until now.
Lessons learned from this story is that important events happen regardless of any external factor. Everyone knows that Saudi Arabia is preoccupied with achieving victory in Yemen and is committed to provide it with peace and not only take the Houthis and Saleh out of Sanaa. This needs several months and Turks - more particularly the ruling party - is seeking to win the crucial legislative elections taking place next month which will allow him to amend the constitution and make the regime presidential. However, the Syrian rebels will not wait for them. They have become unprecedentedly united.
The regime is falling apart and victory has its own momentum that should be invested in producing other victories. With the regime falling apart comes moral collapse and cleavages, an opportunity that must be exploited. The cascading events in Syria cannot wait for a meeting to be held in Riyadh – the opposition claiming they received an invitation – or for a new round of negotiations with the U.N. envoy De Mistura to display untested ideas. The decision is now in the hands of the fighters who meet under an apricot tree in Idlib countryside holding Syria’s map and understand that only few kilometers separate them from Homs and Hama fighters. They communicate with their brothers in the South, in Daraa and the suburbs of Damascus; they analyze their choices and draw their plans. They know that Riyadh and Ankara won’t request their patience. These two countries would rather choose to be untroubled amid the international and regional crisis with Iran and Russia, and intervene later on as champions and blessed ones.
However, similarly to the events that took place in Afghanistan on April 1992, the “Conquest of Kabul,” as named back then by the Mujahidin, didn’t end the Afghan crisis but opened a new pricier and much more painful chapter. The same applies on “Damascus Conquest”. If, as from this day, no concrete action is undertaken by the Turkey-Saudi side in order to organize the repercussions of Bashar’s fall, history will repeat itself and an even worse fate than that of Afghanistan awaits Syria. Neglecting the latter was possible given Afghanistan’s distance. But Syria is among us.
Three dangerous challenges will be faced by the Syrian revolution after Bashar. The first and most dangerous one is: “the rebels’ unity” and preventing a certain conflict between them, not only because of the political differences between Islamic and secular references but also between cities, quarters and organizations. Syria’s problem is its need for a “De Gaulle” that will unite all the rebels. The core of the problem is that each one of them is a “De Gaulle” and the greatest gift Riyadh can offer them is a decision-making mechanism (similar to what Mawlawi Haqani achieved in Rawalpindi) that would pave the way for a constituent assembly leading to elections, a president and a constitution. It is a very difficult mission due to the variety of the rebels’ inclinations however the rules and means used in shaping the “conquest army” is encouraging and can be built upon.
The second challenge requires preventing Iran from implementing “Plan B”, that is, a confessional state in the seaside, a foothold that contradicts with the main objectives of the "Operation Decisive Storm" launched in Yemen which has an even broader mission. This plan engenders a division unworthy of the beating heart of Arabism and the home of the Arab unity dream, Syria. It is also a project seeking to divide the region on confessional and ethnic basis. Accepting this situation in Syria makes it a serious precedent that will spread everywhere.
It is not just an Iranian Alawite project but a virulent idea that will be endorsed by unpredicted parties in Israel and some European capitals. The last point illustrates the gravity of this project and the importance of an early counteract.
The last challenge is ISIS, the parasite that feeds on the rebellion’s victories. It lost its force thanks to the victories of the rebels, the moderate forces and the positive spirit injected by “Operation Decisive Storm” among the Muslim youth eager for change but remains a latent threat due to its concealed intentions and suspicious relationships.
Following the “Damascus conquest,” I wonder if only someone could raise the slogan “those who believe in Allah and the Last Day, let him only pray for ISIS’s defeat.” This group will only be defeated by fighters motivated by faith who experienced their evil. These fighters will confront them with the truth and the sword at the same time. ISIS will be infiltrated and disunited then will retreat after being defeated.
All those opportunities came combined, as if predestined. Seize them.
Jamal Khashoggi is a Saudi journalist, columnist, author, and general manager of the upcoming Al Arab News Channel. He previously served as a media aide to Prince Turki al Faisal while he was Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States. Khashoggi has written for various daily and weekly Arab newspapers, including Asharq al-Awsat, al-Majalla and al-Hayat, and was editor-in-chief of the Saudi-based al-Watan. He was a foreign correspondent in Afghanistan, Algeria, Kuwait, Sudan, and other Middle Eastern countries. He is also a political commentator for Saudi-based and international news channels.