Q&A: Heela Najibullah
The daughter of Afghanistan’s last communist president reflects on politics and pluralism in the strife-riven state.
Kabul, Afghanistan – Heela Najibullah was only 10-years-old when her father became the president of Afghanistan. To Heela, Mohammad Najibullah was Aba, father, trying to create reconciliation among an Afghan nation divided between communists and Mujhaideen, religious warriors fighting soviet occupation.
Though Heela saw her father working towards an inclusive solution to the Afghan conflict, few in the general population could separate Najibullah the communist from Najibullah the president calling for reconciliation.
In the decades since, however, Najibullah’s image has undergone a transformation. Pictures of a man once tied to communism now hang in people’s cars, windows and shops.
In an interview Al Jazeera, Heela Najibullah talks about her father’s changing image 25 years after the soviet withdrawal.
AJ: How old were you during Dr Najib’s presidency? How old were you when he died?
HN: Aba [my father] became the President when I was 10. He was killed when I was 18; we had not met him for four-and-a-half years.
AJ: How do people react today when you say you are the daughter of Dr Najibullah? How, if at all, has that changed over the years?
HN: I usually don’t mention whose daughter I am. Recently, I met a young Afghan who was aware of my background and whose father was a Mujahid during the Cold War. Surprisingly, he also acknowledged “not reconciling with the Dr was a missed opportunity”.
Today he is viewed as a man of vision who understood the politics of his country in relation to the super powers and regional powers, a man who was progressive and yet respectful of Afghan culture, a man who wanted peace and an independent Afghanistan and a man who stood by his ideals. I also am often told how his predictions of the future wars and bloodshed came true, and that the Afghans paid with their blood and honor in the name of religion as he had foreseen.
AJ: How do you think people perceived Dr Najib during his presidency? How, if at all, did that change over the years?
HN: Aba’s Presidency and its perception were greatly influenced by the on-going super power rivalries. His image, as that of the entire Afghan political scene, was taken hostage. His reconciliation efforts and hopes for [a] peaceful Afghanistan were usually a target of Cold War propaganda because of his affiliation with PDPA [the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan] and the years he was head of KHAD [the Soviet-backed intelligence agency].
However, Aba’s government and his leadership gained popularity once the Soviets withdrew. The fact that his government survived the opposition’s continued offensive post withdrawal was a boost to the moral of Watan party members and the masses.
AJ: Those who opposed his government – political figures and average Afghans on the street- what do you think led them to that opposition?
HN: I believe that those political figures, who opposed Najibullah’s government, had started their political opposition before PDPA came to power. We all know today that their opposition gained strength outside Afghanistan.
It is hard to quantify how many of the average Afghans opposed his government. Afghan social structure is complex; one cannot put all Afghans in one basket.
AJ: How did you perceive his presidency, growing up? Has that changed over time for you?
HN: As a child I found it hard to adjust to our changing environment when he became the president. I remember praying he quits politics and starts practicing medicine so my sisters and I could spend more time with him. I followed closely the reconciliation process and often felt insecure about our future wondering what our lives will entail if the extremists took over.
Our movement was restricted because of security, schools had become irregular, [the] number of rockets and shelling had increased, I had already lost my first grade teacher and classmate in bomb explosions and my friends in school had started leaving the country.
Yet, Aba always reminded us that we were not any different from other Afghans and that he was doing his best to finalise the peace process through the United Nations for his people and us, the future generations of Afghanistan.
AJ: Growing up did you see a very different man in public and private? What were the differences?
HN: My sisters and I grew up with a father who watched movies with us, played sport, taught us how to recite the Quran, listened to Afghan Folk music and old Hindi songs, watched the football World Cup and told us stories of caliphates and emperors.
As a private person, he enjoyed living a simple life always appreciating friendships and nature. While in public, I always saw him as a dedicated leader who sincerely thought of serving his people and his nation hoping to bring peace and stability to Afghanistan.
AJ: What would surprise people about your father and his personality?
HN: People are surprised to hear that he was soft and sensitive inside and yet very decisive, strong and stubborn at the same time. When he made-up his mind irrespective of the risks and consequences, he would act on it.
Dr Najibullah's government had a solid political party system while President Karzai's government runs on alliances of power brokers along ethnic lines and old political affiliations.
AJ: Do you have a memory from your father’s time in Afghanistan that sticks out to you the most?
HN: Often Aba would tell us stories with a hidden message, one such story that he shared with my sisters and I, was about a mother, who assembled her five children and gave them each a stick to break. Once the children had broken the sticks into two, she collected them into a bundle and gave each the bundle to break, which none of the children could break. He concluded his story by telling us that the mother drew the lesson for her children that when you are alone you can be broken easily but when you unite no one can divide you.
I often remind myself of his story and hope that one day Afghans could realise their power in their unity.
AJ: How would you describe him as a father? Did that differ from how he was a leader?
HN: As a father he was a guide to my moral consciousness and as a leader, my hope for a stable Afghanistan.
AJ: Why do you think people are drawn Dr Najib rather than say Zahir Shah, Daoud Khan or even Amanullah?
HN: When one reflects on leadership in Afghanistan, Najibullah was the first and only leader to fight for peace and not power or territory. He publicly announced that for a peaceful resolution with his opposition, he was willing to accept their conditions to step down.
AJ: Some would say Dr Najib and Hamid Karzai are in similar situations, would you agree?
HN: I don’t think Najibullah and Hamid Karzai are entirely in similar situations. Najibullah’s government had no support from the international community while Hamid Karzai’s government has signed strategic agreements which shall last beyond the withdrawal of ISAF and NATO forces.
[The] Soviet withdrawal was enforced in less than one year, while withdrawal of ISAF and NATO forces are currently debated.
Dr Najibullah’s government was stronger and independent in terms of its decision-making processes and military capacity, while President Karzai’s government doesn’t enjoy the same capacity or independence.
Dr Najibullah’s government had a solid political party system while President Karzai’s government runs on alliances of power brokers along ethnic lines and old political affiliations.
Dr Najibullah’s reconciliation policy promoted political pluralism and national unity and indicated religious extremism and poor economy as the prime enemy for Afghanistan’s national interest.
While the Bonn Agreement was the foundation of a divided society based on ethnicity and selected historical victories of ruling factions who are negotiating the agreement to allow US bases.
However, what remains the same are the regional and international rivalries and continued involvement of Afghanistan’s neighboring countries in its internal politics.