WASHINGTON — Abdul Haq, a leading Pushtun commander against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, was executed last month by the Taliban. He would have figured prominently in any post-Taliban government in Kabul and was among the most interesting political-cultural figures to emerge in the greater Middle East in many years. He combined a deep religiosity with a rich tribal tradition, a startling analytical mind and an expert knowledge of the West. Whereas the philosophy of the Taliban is the conception of uneducated people inhabiting the insular wastes of the Kandahar region in the south of Afghanistan, Haq was a product of an educated clan of wealthy landowners in the heavily traveled region of Nangahar, between Kabul and the Khyber Pass, on the border with Pakistan.
Haq, whom I knew for two decades, spoke profanity-laced English, didn't flatter and got swiftly to the point. It is thought that the forceful impression Haq made on President Ronald Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher was pivotal in their subsequent decision to supply the Afghan moujahedeen ("Islamic warriors") with Stinger missiles in 1986, something that turned the tide of battle against the Soviets and contributed to the collapse of the Berlin Wall. (Complaining to the British prime minister, Haq told her that the British had invaded Afghanistan twice in the 19th and 20th centuries in order to thwart the Russians, only to do nothing once the Russians actually occupied his country.)
Ahmed Shah Massoud, the fabled ethnic Tajik who led the Afghan resistance against the Soviets and later the Taliban until he was killed in September by two suicide bombers allegedly dispatched by Osama bin Laden, operated in rural landscape perfectly laid out for guerrilla warfare, with many canyons and side valleys. By contrast, Haq staged numerous attacks against the Soviets in Kabul itself. Thus, he had to fight an urban war of sabotage, which required greater organization than Massoud had mustered. And he had to do this with Pushtuns, who, because of their clan rivalries, were harder to organize than Tajiks.
By the standards of the West, Haq was a fundamentalist. He refused once to eat in a Lebanese restaurant in London until the cook assured him that the food was halal. The idea of an Afghanistan not ruled by Islamic law was anathema to him. Yet, he was no fundamentalist. A fundamentalist is someone whose traditions have been threatened by modernity and thus needs to reinvent his religion in a more severe and ideological form to battle the demons of Westernization. In the Middle East, where cities have grown by leaps and bounds since World War II, fundamentalism is an urban disease of slum inhabitants and the disaffected sons of the middle class. But Haq never lost his Pushtun traditions. He represented an Afghanistan that is still essentially rural, even as trade and smuggling link it to the outside world.
Haq emblematized the only realistic counterforce to Islamic extremism in the greater Middle East, a region governed by faith to a degree that the West has not known since it was called "Christendom." Here, notions such as "secularism" or "separation of church and state" carry little meaning. Fighting extremism requires a quiet religious reformation that reconciles Islamic orthodoxy with modern scientific civilization. This has already happened on an individual level among millions of Muslims, but has proven elusive on a nationwide scale.
Democracy seems to be the answer in developed societies like Turkey and Iran, despite recent setbacks there. But Afghanistan, because of its fierce ethnic and clan divisions that could bedevil any democratic experiment, requires a leader who embodies a devout Islam sufficiently sure of itself so as not to feel besieged by the West or Hindu India. Haq could have been this kind of leader.
Unlike the Taliban, Haq was an authentic Afghan. Afghans, who were never successfully colonized by a European power, lack the sense of insecurity and grievance of other Muslims. Indeed, the Taliban was less a product of Afghanistan than of globalization: Their extremist ideology was influenced by ideas imported from Muslim centers in Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, north-central India and elsewhere, all facilitated by the Information Age. The moderation that we seek in Kabul can come only from an Afghanistan recovering a sense of itself and of its traditions, and that is what Haq represented.