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15 October 2001

When David took on Goliath

War on Terror: Afghanistan - The mujahedin were hailed by the west when they fought, and be

By Sandy Gall

On one journey into Afghanistan, in 1984, I met a boy of 12 who had already been a mujahid for two years. Gripping a Kalashnikov that was almost as big as himself, he said proudly, in a voice which was just breaking, that he had already taken part in the ambush of a Soviet convoy. He was the youngest of 13 brothers, all in the mujahedin, who took turns to fight in the jihad: six were in Afghanistan, and seven were in the refugee camps of Pakistan. One brother, the local commander, said that young Mohammad was “always volunteering” for action.

In all, I made three long journeys into Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation of 1979-89, always travelling with the mujahedin. The word means Islamic fighters, or “holy warriors”, as the press grandiloquently labelled them. However holy they were, they took aspects of their faith extremely seriously, praying five times a day, even during battle. These trips took two to three months, and involved a great deal of riding or walking over extremely harsh, mountainous terrain: the eastern half of Afghanistan consists largely of the Hindu Kush, where the highest peaks rise to 25,000 feet, higher than anything in Europe or Africa.

The first thing I noticed when I recovered my breath was the sheer beauty of the landscape: another Switzerland, without the mod cons. The next thing that struck me was the stamina and hardiness of the inhabitants. They could cover vast distances without effort, it seemed, and drove us on mercilessly. They were also infuriatingly vague about time and distance.

Once, exhausted after walking most of the day and fording the Kabul River at night, I asked Gul Bas, our escort, how far it was to the next village, where I hoped we would stop. “Nim szad [half an hour],” he said. It turned out to be three times as long. I refused to go any further. Gul Bas strode up to me and, angry that he had such a sissy on his hands, flung his torch on the ground. In the end, he won me over by promising that it really was “nim szad” this time.

My first journey – with an arms convoy – taught me how bitterly divided Afghanistan was, ethnically and politically. It took us from the border crossing point of Terri Mangal, near Peshawar, north through a string of Pashtun villages, in what is now Taliban territory, to the Panjshir Valley. The valley was already famous in 1982 for the resistance of its dashing young commander, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Massoud was assassinated by Arab suicide bombers, posing as television journalists, on 9 September, two days before the terrorist attack on America. His followers accuse Osama Bin Laden.

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Massoud’s mujahedin were Tajiks, and members of Jamiat-i-Islami, the biggest mujahedin party in the country. We would often bypass a village because it belonged to a rival party, Hisb-i-Islami. Its leader, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a sinister-looking Pashtun from the north, was said by our Tajiks to be more interested in fighting them than the Russians. They even accused the Hisb of giving Russian troops free passage through one of their villages to attack an unsuspecting Jamiat group. Taken by surprise, they lost 20 men.

Several times we were buzzed by Russian helicopters, which alarmed some of the younger mujahedin. One lad, probably on his first operation, became tremendously excited, screaming “Roos, Roos” as he pointed skywards, and ordered me to hide in some bushes. Fear of Soviet gunships and jets persisted for much of the war, and must often have inhibited mujahedin activity. The Russians retaliated against ambushes and hit-and-run attacks by bombing the nearest village. Sometimes they sent in their tanks.

In one notorious case in 1980 or 1981, they surrounded a village and, when the men took refuge in the qanat, the underground irrigation system, the Russians pumped in a napalm-like liquid, incinerating all the men. As the war ground on, the Russians applied scorched-earth tactics to rebellious areas such as the Panjshir. More than one million Afghans – mainly civilians – lost their lives, but the morale of the mujahedin remained unbroken.

Massoud became the most successful Afghan guerrilla commander because he insisted on training. Routed and wounded early in the war in a skirmish with Russian troops, he decided the price of survival was “training, training, and more training” – a message no doubt reinforced by his secret visit to Cumbria in the early 1980s for instruction by the British army. The difference between Massoud’s men and the average Pashtun fighter was well illustrated on my second trip to the country, when I accompanied the Hisb-i-Islami Khalis party, led by an old fighting mullah with a hennaed beard called Younis Khalis. He boasted that, although aged nearly 80, he had just married a teenage bride and fathered a child. Despite his virility, I was surprised, after the professionalism and almost western mindset of the Tajiks, at the amateurish approach to war of the Pashtuns – the same Pashtuns, or Pathans, that the British had found such formidable foes, and later such excellent recruits.

They – or rather their Pakistani advisers – had drawn up an over-ambitious plan to ambush a Russian convoy on the main road from Jalalabad to Kabul. The chief Pakistani adviser, Faisan, explained what was to happen. That night, the mujahedin would climb down the mountain to the bottom of the gorge and plant about 80 Chinese anti-tank mines on the road. They would then lie hidden until the Russians came along and blew themselves up, whereupon they would leap up and seize what remained of the convoy.

Unfortunately, they made so much noise that the Russians spotted them, halted the convoy and called in air strikes. When they started firing mortars at the hillside from where we were filming, we beat a hasty retreat. In short, the operation was a fiasco. When I pointed out that by walking about on the skyline on the eve of the attack, the mujahedin had given the game away, Faisan said: “The mujahedin don’t bother about being seen. They say the Russians are frightened of them, and simply turn their backs, pretending the Afghans are not there.” Sounded like Pashtun bravado to me.

The same lack of professionalism struck me when the rebels besieged the government fort at Hisarak, astride one of the principal mujahedin infiltration routes. It was well defended and the attack consisted of a lot of rather indiscriminate, long-range mortar and recoilless rifle fire. No ground attack was launched, mainly because the Khalis group – rather like the Americans in Kosovo – did not want to incur casualties. This was partly the result of a weak command structure, and partly because of the nature of Pashtun tribal fighting. Din Mohammed, the leader of our hundred or so mujahedin, was a politician, and unable to dictate to the military commander, a local man, who was anxious to avoid casualties. In late 1986, the CIA supplied the mujahedin with Stinger ground-to-air missiles, and the war changed dramatically. The days of Soviet helicopter supremacy were over.

Massoud never received the magic weapon, but when I visited him again that summer, on my third trip, he was busy training an embryo “national army”. In 1989, soon after the Soviet withdrawal, the CIA and its Pakistani equivalent, the ISI, planned a combined mujahedin assault on Jalalabad, which they hoped would open the road to Kabul and the defeat of President Mohammed Najibullah’s puppet communist government. I reported part of this non-offensive, which was a failure from the start: bad advice, amateurism and lack of training again. Massoud refused to participate, but took the CIA/ISI warriors by surprise when he captured Kabul three years later, becoming defence minister in the mujahedin coalition government under President Burhanuddin Rabbani. The coalition did not last very long, and on New Year’s Day 1994, in a bout of backstabbing in the worst traditions of Pathan – or Scottish – clan warfare (I speak as a Scot), Massoud found himself attacked by his erstwhile allies – the Uzbeks under General Abdul Rashid Dostum, the Shias under Abdul Ali Mazari, plus his old foe Hekmatyar. It was a miracle, as Massoud himself said later, that he survived.

Nemesis, however, was hovering near. The Pashtuns, in the shape of the Taliban, were about to take their revenge. After a year’s siege, Kabul fell in 1996. What transformed the amateurish, undertrained mujahedin I had seen trying to ambush a Soviet convoy and besiege Hisarak into a successful, if still relatively primitive, guerrilla army? Undoubtedly, the Taliban bandwagon had attracted some useful recruits, including Russian-trained former Afghan army officers. Their gunnery had suddenly improved, an officer in Massoud’s army told me one day, as the Taliban forces laid down a salvo near where we were standing on the Kabul front line.

Most significant of all, however, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia decided to increase their support in dramatic fashion, the former by vastly expanding its military assistance programme, the latter by opening its already generous coffers. In 1996, just before the Taliban took Jalalabad and then Kabul, Prince Turki, the Saudi intelligence chief at the time, flew to Afghanistan and handed the Taliban several million dollars, according to Ahmed Rashid, the Daily Telegraph‘s well-informed correspondent.

The flood of petrodollars not only helped to provide more guns and equipment – including new four-wheel-drive Toyota Land Cruisers, which the Taliban used for their own version of blitzkrieg – but, even more importantly, it provided the wherewithal to buy over neutral, and even opposition, commanders. Such horse-trading was nothing new in Afghan history. Massoud, increasingly isolated in Kabul, found himself at the wrong end of a takeover bid. Seeing his support melt away like the snows of the Hindu Kush in summer, he opted for a tactical withdrawal, and lived to fight another day.

Now, with President Bush declaring war on terrorism, the Pakistanis and the Saudis, the two main props of the Taliban regime, have been forced to abandon their creature. As the bombs fall, it will be interesting to see how long the Taliban can withstand American firepower. They will probably break and run, which would be sensible in the circumstances. But when the Northern Alliance makes its inevitable drive for Kabul (its front-line positions are only 20-odd miles away), they will have to stand and fight, or give up their dream of conquering the whole of Afghanistan.

One way or another, it looks like the end of the Taliban.

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