A meeting in Kandahar with a former general turned MP
KANDAHAR: The last time I saw Nur ul-Haq Ulumi was on a street in Kabul 18 years ago wearing a general's uniform.
He was going to hand over power to the mujahideen, who had set out from Pakistan in a huge motorcade of pick-up trucks following the fall of the Soviet backed Afghan regime.
As the convoy arrived and he told the mujahideen's acting president he was in charge, the street erupted in the most astounding barrage of celebratory gunfire I have ever witnessed.
Today, Mr Ulumi was holding court in more modest surroundings at a house on the outskirts of this troubled southern city. It is bedecked with national flags and campaign posters.
He is a member of Afghanistan's parliament and is running for re-election in polls expected in mid-September. The trajectory of mister, formerly general, Ulumi's life tells one a great deal about this society, where it has come from, and the state it is in now.
In the first place some might find it surprising that a leading member of the leftist regime is not only alive and well but engaging in politics. He is not the only member of that class, denounced at the time by the mujahideen as 'puppets' and 'collaborators' who have carried on living here and involved in public life.
Do not forget that they and their Soviet allies devastated great tracts of this country.
So while their last leader, Najibullah, was lynched by the Taliban, many of the old regime's ministers and generals have found a place in their society now. Today Mr Ulumi is at no more risk of being attacked than any other member of parliament, although one has to concede that risk is considerable.
The first lesson then is that while Afghanistan is a country often known for great savagery or revenge it is also a place where there can be forgiveness.
Talking to him today, the former party boss of this part of the country reflected that the insurgency has got so bad in the south because, "today there is no address, nowhere for people to take their problems to be dealt with honestly".
Mr Ulumi argues that while his and Najibullah's People's Democratic Party was in charge people knew they could come to the government and get redress in a way that was not coloured with tribal politics or corruption.
His is a rose tinted view of an era that was without doubt also filled with strife, but his remarks about the lack of justice today or the corrupt nature of the government ring true with what other Kandaharis have said to me during recent days here.
It is also true that many people in this country are today nostalgic for the Najibullah period - particularly that time between 1989 and 1992 when for three years after the departure of the Soviet Army, he held power.
The socialists who formed the People's Democratic Party (whose numbers were estimated to range between 20,000 and 200,000) formed a cadre of dedicated supporters who, for the most part were prepared to act in a non-sectarian and non-tribal way.
So this then is another lesson that Mr Ulumi is all too keen to ram home.
"When the Russians came here", he argues, "they came to back a government. When the Americans came here there was nothing".
Once again, his argument might contain a healthy dose of hyperbole, but the key point, that the Soviet backed Afghan leaders had a solid corps of ideologically-committed people behind them is undoubtedly true.
Bereft of a party of his own, President Hamid Karzai had been forced to fall back on tribal solidarity and financial incentives. In this city, the activities of the president's brother have, for this reason, been deeply divisive.
The other area that I wanted to discuss with Mr Ulumi was how he (as a former commander of the army's Kandahar Corps) and his Russian backers had secured this southern city.
What did he think Nato and the modern Afghan army were doing wrong?
There was plenty of fighting around Kandahar and other southern cities back then, but it is also true to say that the mujahideen never stood a chance of taking these places, even after their Russian backers had left.
Back in 1989 I came into Kandahar province with a mujahideen group that promised to take me into the city but could not deliver - after a couple of days we had to return to Pakistan. Gen Ulumi and his subordinates undoubtedly ran a tight ship.
The Najibullah regime held out for three years after its foreign backers left and finally fell not to the western backed mujahideen but to military coup by one of the regime's generals. The west's clients had been incapable of taking power, but once the regime buckled, they soon exploited the vacuum, producing that last meeting between Gen Ulumi and myself back in 1992.
It was in the last question, that of security, that what he had to say most surprised me.
Today Mr Ulumi insists that the Soviet Army simply supported the Afghan party and in a real sense took orders from them about securing the country. The ranking Soviet officer was called the Chief Military Adviser whereas Nato, he argues, "insists that they are in command".
There is much that is objectionable in this - not least that the Russians murdered one Afghan party leader they didn't like (in 1979) and staged a constitutional coup against another (Najibullah's predecessor, pushed out in 1985).
He is right, however, in one detail at least - the title given to the senior Soviet general in the country was that of 'adviser' not commander.
In a broader sense, it is also true that the Soviets did rely extensively on Afghan political knowledge and intelligence in order to shape their operations here.
However, the deeper issue remains: that President Karzai was installed by US military action and has struggled to become his own man ever since.
Today, Nato generals are all too well aware of the need to produce better 'governance' here. They know about the widespread belief in corruption and the problems caused by the absence of a party system.
Very few Afghans would like to see the return of the type of party led by Mr Ulumi and others back in the 1980s.
Today his National United Party of Afghanistan can expect to receive only a slim percentage of the votes. But he is well worth listening to both in order to understand some of the successes that were achieved by the Najibullah government but which westerners, convinced they 'won', often refuse to recognise, and to appreciate some of the inherent weaknesses of the government edifice Nato is now trying to shore up.