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Murder of a president: How India and the UN mucked up completely in Afghanistan

Haunted rubble.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Mohammed Najibullah Ahmedzai was the president of Afghanistan between 1987 and 1992. The Taliban, which captured the capital, Kabul, in September 1996, executed him and brutalised his body under full international glare. The following excerpt describes the political, diplomatic, and moral dilemmas that the United Nations, India, and various Afghan forces faced in the run-up to Najibullah’s killing.

Najibullah was a lonely man on the morning of April 17, 1992.

His one chance to escape from Kabul, at around 3am, had failed miserably. Looking forward to joining his wife and daughters, who had left two weeks before for New Delhi, he had planned a secret flight to India along with Benon Sevan, head of the UN’s humanitarian aid division to Afghanistan. To prevent India-Pakistan bilateral relations from worsening further over Najibullah, Sevan had already taken Pakistani PM Nawaz Sharif into confidence before requesting India to give the embattled Afghan president political asylum. It had taken India’s PM Narasimha Rao less than an hour to communicate that India would host Najibullah as state guest in New Delhi.

Former Afghan president Mohammed Najibullah Ahmadzai.

On that fateful morning, however, driving with his armed bodyguard and a team of UN officers, Najibullah’s convoy was refused entry into the Kabul airport. The password he used throughout the journey from home to the airport did not work at the penultimate checkpoint. The airport was under the control of Abdul Rashid Dostum, an Afghan of Uzbek heritage, who led a local militia against the Mujahideen in the northern province of Jowzjan, and had been receiving political, financial, and military patronage from Najibullah. In a total “wild card,” as the then Indian ambassador to Kabul Vijay K Nambiar terms it, Dostum turned hostile towards his patron, and shut down the airport for the next 24 hours. On the airport’s runway stood a plane, and in the plane awaited Sevan. Dostum’s men had decided not to storm the plane, and Sevan had decided not to disembark.

After a furious exchange of abuses with and impotent threats to Dostum’s men, Najibullah turned his convoy around. But he would not return home. He feared that the people who sabotaged his escape would not let him live. His minister of state security, General Ghulam Faruq Yaqubi, was found dead in his house. While some allege that he committed suicide, Nambiar, who was in touch with Najibullah and his UN handlers, does not rule out assassination. Either way, Najibullah was escorted to the UN compound instead of the presidential palace.

Friends who ditched

Not just Dostum, most of his partymen had also abandoned Najibullah. Foreign minister Abdul Wakil and army chief General Mohammad Nabi Azimi, keen on their own political and physical survival, wanted to offer Najibullah as a prisoner to the advancing Mujahideen forces. They had rushed to the airport on getting news of Najibullah’s escape attempt, and asked Sevan to disembark the plane to avoid further embarrassment and potential violence (they wanted Sevan alive and safe given his UN connection). Wakil, accompanied by many other members of the Watan party, castigated Sevan for trying to get Najibullah out of Afghanistan secretly. In his next step, an angry Wakil sent out a national broadcast via Radio Kabul stating that “Najibullah tried to escape but had been stopped by the armed forces…He must be held to answer certain questions to the Afghan people. The government had no intention of killing him. The soldiers at the checkpoint could have killed him, but did not.” In a matter of hours, Najibullah had become a “hated dictator” for Wakil, and Massoud, who was leading the Mujahideen into Kabul, had become his “esteemed brother.”

New Delhi was worried about potential reprisals against the Indian community in Kabul.

Sevan had wanted to save Najibullah from exactly such a fate. The plan was worked out with the Indian leadership’s political approval. At about 3.20am Najibullah’s UN handlers informed Nambiar about Dostum’s sudden intransigence, and at 4.35am Nambiar promptly reported to the UN compound. He was the first ambassador to meet with Najibullah that morning. Such were the UN and Indian expectations (or miscalculation in hindsight) that they had not thought of a “plan B,” in case the exfiltration plan failed. Still, on being pressed by the UN officers, Nambiar agreed to look into giving Najibullah asylum at the Indian embassy complex on the condition that the UN would make an official request for the same. Using a “ham radio” that was available to him at the time (only the UN had an INMARSAT phone), Nambiar contacted New Delhi to report the developments and sought official clearance for hosting Najibullah in his residential compound. However, protecting Najibullah and his family in Delhi was one thing, but giving him protection in the Indian embassy compound in Kabul, quite another. At 5.15am, India refused to grant Najibullah asylum in its embassy. Nambiar argues that “he [Najibullah]was far safer in the UN compound…[by sheltering him in the] Indian mission, we would have suddenly walked into all kinds of subcontinental rivalries, and problems would have then visited on us…and there was no way in which we could reasonably expect security and safety for Najib in the Indian compound.” New Delhi was worried about potential reprisals against the Indian community in Kabul if people found out that Najibullah was hiding in its embassy.

Asylum: To give or not to give

JN Dixit, who was India’s foreign secretary (1991–94), and who championed Najibullah in the early 1980s, was concerned that offering him protection in the embassy would further complicate the situation politically. India may never be able to build strong relations with the Mujahideen on a fresh note. Dixit could not voice this dilemma openly. There were many in India who wanted to give Najibullah asylum on the grounds that he was just 44 years old with political constituencies among Pashtun communities, and argued that giving up on him would imply capitulating to the Mujahideen.

Najibullah himself had earlier confided to Nambiar that he might be able to influence Afghan politics, however limitedly, from outside Afghanistan more than from the inside, in the face of the Soviet disintegration. The remaining secular and nationalist elements of the Hizb-e-Watan, it was calculated, would remain in Afghanistan and be represented in a coalition government that the UN was trying to cobble together. However, there were others in India who argued that giving Najibullah asylum would further antagonise the Mujahideen leadership, something that India should avoid. The assumption was that once the anger settled, the Mujahideen would not throw away a beneficial relationship with India.

Caught in an awkward situation, India remained non-committal till the UN secretary-general Boutros Boutros-Ghali paid an unscheduled visit to New Delhi on April 22, 1992. Boutros-Ghali’s sole aim was to push Rao into taking initiative and exfiltrating Najibullah from Kabul (despite the UN’s abortive attempt) and give him asylum in India. After six days of deliberation on Boutros-Ghali’s request, which included detailed talks about possible options between Najibullah and Nambiar, home minister SB Chavan publicly announced that India would be willing to shelter Najibullah “if he so desires.” Playing upon a situation where Najibullah’s “desire” was the last element that would have helped his cause either politically or personally, the statement reeked of political caution.

In the light of changed circumstances, India had calculated that giving asylum to Najibullah might turn out to be prohibitively costly in political terms. If Najibullah would have escaped successfully, then India could have offered it as a fait accompli to the Mujahideen. Not anymore. India refused to undertake a follow-up covert operation, by air or otherwise, to exfiltrate Najibullah from Kabul. With the Mujahideen having formed an internationally recognised though practically dysfunctional government, undertaking such an operation would amount to undermining Afghan sovereignty.

India knew that negotiations with the Mujahideen would not work out.

Boutros-Ghali was informed that India was prepared to send a plane to Kabul only if the UN officially asked for it, and only after the UN reached a political agreement with Pakistan and the Mujahideen on the issue. But, as was being encouraged by the UN, India would not “spirit out” Najibullah surreptitiously. “We had discussions of various possibilities with Najib [who] himself knew that he couldn’t push India to take any kind of quasi-military action like this. It was not possible unless it was already discussed and negotiated [with the Mujahideen and Pakistan],” says Nambiar. And at that time, India knew that negotiations with the Mujahideen would not work out, especially after the failed escape attempt.

Either way, with a conservative Rao as PM of a minority government, and India’s ongoing economic woes, such a covert operation was not a feasible option. As Nambiar put it, “we didn’t want to do something flamboyant and then get caught with our pants down.” After years of partisanship towards the Mujahideen, in the wake of Najibullah’s unceremonious ouster, the logic of conciliation began resonating in India’s corridors of power. Apart from keeping its promise of supporting Najibullah’s family in Delhi, India did nothing more.

The ignominious end to the Najibullah affair underlined the limits of influence and capacity of both India and the UN in shaping events on the ground. The end of Soviet influence in Afghanistan, and India’s economic strains in the early 1990s severely limited New Delhi’s policy options in Kabul. As a R&AW officer recollected years later, “Dixit and gang had the guilt of not saving Najibullah. We sent the plane [in which Sevan was waiting for Najibullah, but which was not actually an Indian plane] to Kabul thinking that the Mujahideen would let him go. We told the world that we are taking Najib out, but had no understanding with Dostum. We should not have waited that long to take him out.”

Nambiar concurs that Najibullah could have left Kabul a little earlier, but he blames the UN, especially Sevan, for political and operational overreach: Let’s not forget that this [exfiltrating Najibullah] is really something that has to be done under national ownership. If you think you can carry such stuff and move around, then you must have the physical capacity to do it. You must have boots on the ground. That’s why even Najibullah had said, ‘we want boots on the ground,’ UN boots on the ground.

A haunting presence

Dostum, many years later, told an Indian intelligence officer that had New Delhi paid adequate bribes, Najibullah might have been a free man. Even if one agrees that the Indian leadership felt guilty for giving up on Najibullah, Dostum’s argument that India had the capacity to bribe Dostum’s men into letting Najibullah escape in those circumstances, fails to convince. Neither did India have the required capacities, nor Dostum (who had cut a deal with Massoud) the political will to let Najibullah go. “That criminal Najibullah who we trusted, he was selling us for his own interest,” Dostum had bellowed in May 1992 when Indian journalists sought clarification of his stance.

Najibullah had made the mistake of first creating an independent militia led by Dostum, and then trying controlling it by cutting supplies to keep the strength of his militia at a maximum of 10,000 men—both out of necessity as funds from Moscow were drying up, but also out of want, in order to keep Dostum’s political ambitions in check. The plan boomeranged.

Najibullah’s ghost, much like his bête noir Sarwari’s, would haunt India.

The Panjshiri leader wanted to ensure that Najibullah did not become New Delhi’s “trump card” in Afghanistan.

Indeed, in 1994 India dispatched senior diplomat, MK Bhadrakumar (who was director, 1989-91, and joint secretary, 1992-95, of the Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran desk at the ministry of external affairs), to meet with Massoud in Kabul. Then-Indian foreign secretary, Krishnan Srinivasan… had asked Bhadrakumar to consolidate India’s relations with the authorities in Kabul, reopen India’s mission there, and request Massoud to let Najibullah fly to India (though this was an ancillary issue). Massoud refused…it is highly possible that the Panjshiri leader wanted to ensure that Najibullah did not become New Delhi’s “trump card” in Afghanistan, and wanted to reserve that spot for himself.

India’s pro-Najibullah Afghanistan policy, as reflected in those highly tense but crystal clear moments, ended in failure. New Delhi’s inability to protect Najibullah, furthermore, earned it the label of being a reluctant and opportunistic neighbour who abandoned its sole ally in Kabul for new partnerships.

Excerpted from Avinash Paliwal’s book My Enemy’s Enemy: India in Afghanistan from the Soviet Invasion to the US Withdrawal with permission from Harper Collins India.

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