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With the Afghan Rebels

A recent visit of some weeks with the rebels in Afghanistan suggests two broad conclusions about the resistance movement. The first is that it is an extremely popular movement. It is not manpower that the guerrillas lack but weapons. The second is that in its leadership, organization, and coordination the Afghan movement is one of the weakest liberation struggles in the world today.

In most other national liberation movements and armed struggles in the Third World—in Vietnam, Cuba, Algeria, Guinea Bissau, and elsewhere—the principal task of the revolutionary vanguard was to win the support of at least a part of the population, and to build an underground political organization. In Afghanistan the pattern was different: a few months after the coup that overthrew Mohammed Daoud’s republic in April 1978, the Afghans joined in a spontaneous uprising against the new “socialist” government. The resistance grew steadily, although in a fragmented and uncoordinated way; even greater numbers joined the fight against the Soviet army and the regime it brought to power at the end of December 1979.

Today the resistance movement openly controls most of the countryside. The government and its Soviet military support hold the cities, the main roads, and military outposts scattered across the country. The rebels are mainly peasants and their local leaders are tribal chiefs.

There are more than half a dozen different factions within the resistance movement, which is based in Peshawar, the Pakistani city near the Afghan border. They have no general strategy, no coordination, no organization other than traditional ties to tribe, region, and family. The resistance has scarcely any political or social program, and no vision of the future. Unlike virtually all of the guerrilla movements of Asia, Africa, or Latin America, the Afghan rebels have nothing new to show the visiting observer: no newly elected village committee, for example, no program for the integration of women into the struggle, no newly created people’s stores or medical centers, no small workshops contributing to economic self-sufficiency of the sort one finds in guerrilla camps throughout the world. The Afghan rebels have undertaken no political experiments or social improvements.

In this respect, the Afghan movement resembles the insurrections of the Basmachis—the Muslims of the Boukhara emirate, now within the USSR, who resisted the Soviet takeover and the reforms that followed throughout the 1920s. Indeed many of the tribesmen in northern Afghanistan are sons and grandsons of Basmachis who fled across the border in the Twenties and Thirties, and they are traditionally anticommunist as well as anti-Soviet. Many rural Afghan tribes have also traditionally kept a distance from the central government of the country—whether the monarchy or the republic that replaced it in 1973. And issues of ethnic identity and autonomy have a long history in Afghanistan. The current Afghan resistance movement looks more like a traditional revolt of this kind than like modern guerrilla warfare.

But the fact is that the Afghan rebels violently reject the imposition of “socialism” by foreign tanks supporting a Marxist regime with no significant social base. Afghan nationalism has always been splintered by the ethnic loyalties of the different groups within the country—including Pashtuns, Tajiks, Hazaras, and Nuristanis, many of whom feel themselves more closely identified with their group than with Afghanistan. They have nevertheless come out in strength against foreign occupation, and may well find the current struggle an occasion to cooperate more closely. Indeed this war may encourage the creation of a more unified Afghan nation—one that will owe less to a rational design than to a popular struggle against a common foreign enemy. The war in Afghanistan is a struggle for freedom and independence by groups that have traditionally resisted both the authority of the state and the rule of foreign invaders, whether British or Russian. The people I saw had no clearly stated aims; they were simply fighting spontaneously for freedom from what they felt to be an oppressive regime.

The organizations based in Peshawar cannot be said to constitute a true liberation front, although five of them have formed a loose coalition called the Islamic Alliance, while also competing for aid from the various Arab countries that support the rebellion. The leaders and most of the members of these factions are of Pushtan origin, but all the ethnic groups take some part in the struggle. And while the factions include secular liberals as well as conservative monarchists, all of the three most significant groups have connections with local Islamic leaders. The National Front for the Islamic Revolution of Afghanistan led by S.A. Gailani and the National Liberation Front led by H.S. Mojadidi both belong to the coalition. A third major faction, which has no part in the coalition, is the Islamic Party led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. Both Gailani and Mojadidi are from prominent families of Muslim leaders and Gailani himself is a recognized member of the religious establishment. With the exception of the Hazaras, all the ethnic groups are Sunni Moslems, and while their religious leaders lack both the organization and the formal hierarchy of the Shiite Moslems in Iran, they have much prestige and have been important in focusing resentment against the secular leaders that have been in power since 1978. Insurgent leaders have said that the Afghans are a people fighting for their faith.*

All of these organizations compete with each other for support within Afghanistan and for international aid, especially from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait. Lacking a charismatic leader, the coalition is headed by Dr. Sayyef, a figure chosen less for his importance within the resistance than because he represented a compromise among the various groups. Gulbuddin is the only leader who refuses to join the coalition—more for personal reasons than ideological ones, although he is considerably more fundamentalist than both Gailani and Mojadidi, who tend to have fairly moderate views on questions of religion. The ideological differences among the groups are generally minor, certainly less divisive than the personal disputes among their leaders. But it is clear than many of the fighters inside Afghanistan are becoming impatient with these disputes and with the rifts between moderates and fundamentalists. This may eventually lead to further splits between the exiled leaders and the rebels fighting inside the country.

Most of the mujahidin, or freedom fighters, are based in provinces deep within Afghanistan, and have little contact with the leaders in Peshawar. Arms and medicine are sent across the border, but there are no hit-and-run attacks by guerrillas based on the other side of the frontier—operations of a kind common in other liberation struggles throughout the world. For the most part, the war in Afghanistan is an internal struggle fought by local mujahidin who rarely leave their own provinces.

Traveling to Afghanistan from Pakistan, you have to cross half a dozen police barriers between Peshawar and the border. These barriers, which are intended to separate the “tribal areas” populated by Pakistan’s Pathans from the rest of the country, cannot be crossed in either direction after seven o’clock in the evening. The rebel organizations ask foreign observers who want to enter Afghanistan to dress as Afghans so as to attract as little attention as possible. And although the Pakistani police sometimes stop journalists and send them back to Peshawar, most travelers have little difficulty getting through the barriers.

I spent the night in the small Pakistani city of Miramshah before crossing the border into the Paktia province with my guides from one of the resistance groups. We headed toward the cities of Tani, Khost, and Gardez, a round trip of about 120 miles on foot. At this time of the year, the humidity of the Pakistani monsoon season gives way to fresher mountain air as you approach the old British “Durand line” that marks the Afghan border. Unlike the Nangrahar and Kunar provinces, the hills in Paktia are still wooded. Caravans of camels, each carrying loads of four to six hundred pounds of wood, pass in the other direction on their way to Pakistan—a trek of some ten days across the mountains. There a load of wood bought in Afghanistan for 1500 afghanis can be sold for 4000 afghanis. Thus, little by little, the trees of Paktia are cut down and eventually erosion sets in, as it has elsewhere in the country.

The steep trails through this terrain look down on tiny streams of more or less drinkable water. You never feel alone on the march, since you constantly pass groups of mujahidin. Each wears a huge crested Pashtun turban, baggy trousers, and leather sandals with soles made out of car tires. A long bullet-studded bandolier, slung across the shoulder, holds in place the characteristic straight Pashtun dagger.

Most Afghans are good walkers and the daily march can last up to ten hours. This leaves little time during the day to observe guerrilla activities at first hand. We occasionally stopped at small tea houses, called chai khane, that served green Chinese tea and black Indian tea—both sweetened with large quantities of sugar which helps to relieve dehydration and loss of energy. In Afghanistan you rarely see extreme poverty of the kind found in Pakistan, but most Afghans live on very little. A typical meal would consist of tea and unleavened bread dipped in sauce. There are no vegetables or fruit, and meat is rare. Traveling with guides from the resistance groups, one usually spends the night in a camp built by the mujahidin or in a village. The fighters are generally treated hospitably by the local people, who serve them tea and buttermilk and what little food there is.

I observed only one military action during my stay, an attack on an outpost held by the Afghan army. The fighting began at about 8:30 in the evening, not far from the city of Khost, and it lasted for an hour and fifteen minutes. There was no clear outcome. Spectacular military action—the sort of fighting seen on television—is, of course, rare in guerrilla warfare. Decisive battles are even rarer. What I saw was an exercise in harassment, less effective as a military tactic than as a psychological one. The guerrillas’ aim was to remind the government forces that they were trapped in an isolated outpost and incapable of controlling the surrounding countryside. As far as I could see, there were no casualties. The Russian Kalashnikov automatic rifles of the guerrillas were completely useless against both the outpost and the tanks, which made a brief foray from the fort in order to impress the rebels. But machine guns and cannons fired blindly from within the fort were ineffective against the guerrillas, who were well hidden in the rocky hills. It was impossible to get anywhere near the fort because of the minefield around it.

The arms used in this engagement provide a good example of the limited weapons the Afghan movement has at its disposal. Many of the fighters carried old-fashioned Lee Enfield rifles from World War II and some had automatic weapons made on the Kalashnikov model in Egypt. They had far too few heavy weapons. Throughout my stay, I saw only one heavy Chinese machine gun, one mortar, and two of the Soviet antitank weapons called RPG-2s. As a result, the mujahidin can undertake very little offensive action. Certainly they seem too weak to take over the government’s military outposts, which are surrounded by minefields that were installed fairly recently. The main tactic left open to them is to sabotage the traffic on the roads; although their light weapons are useless against tanks and helicopters, they can be effective against truck convoys. The mujahidin tend to exaggerate their victories and enormous losses have been reported on both sides, but in fact the military situation is a stand-off. On the one hand, the towns and outposts held by the Russians and the Afghan army are beyond the reach of the guerrillas. Government truck convoys are often intercepted, but troops in armored vehicles accompanied by helicopters travel freely throughout the countryside. On the other hand, the Afghan army cannot pursue the mujahidin into the hills and mountains they control.

Central to both the government and the opposition are the people of the Pashtun tribes, who make up about 40 percent of the population. They were directly involved in the creation of the Afghan state during the middle of the eighteenth century, and have been able since then to gain control of most of the wealth in the country: the wheatfields in the north, the pastures in the central plains, and, most important, the state administration, army, and police.

The bureaucrats who have controlled the government since the coup against President Daoud in 1978 are also Pashtun, whether they come from the faction called Khalq, which largely controlled the regime until December 1979, or the one called Parcham, which the Russians have now brought to power. The members of the Khalq faction, which is wholly Pashtun, are poorly educated and politically unsophisticated. After they seized power in 1978, they tried to bring about rapid reforms but failed; their group was split by the rivalry between Nur Mohammed Taraki and his successor Hafizullah Amin. The Parcham faction, which is more open to non-Pashtun groups, and more urbanized and better educated, also participated in the coup against Daoud’s republic, but its members were soon pushed out of power and their leaders either arrested or sent into exile as ambassadors. Babrak Karmal, for example, was posted to Prague in July 1978, while the Khalq regime was receiving Soviet military aid. In recent weeks President Karmal has purged a number of Khalqs, who still account for two-thirds of the members of the ruling People’s Democratic Party and 80 percent of the remaining officers of the army and air force.

Both groups are entirely secular. The shortsightedness of their regimes, the mechanistic way in which they have tried to “modernize” the economy, and their ignorance of conditions in the countryside have alienated them not only from rural Pashtuns but also from the other tribes that make up the population. There is, for example, widespread discontent among the Tadjiks, who are Persian-speaking and make up some 35 percent of the Afghan population. Both the Nuristanis, who constitute about three percent, and the Shiite Hazaras, who account for 10 to 12 percent, are fighting to establish local bases of power and to avoid centralized control. The Turkish population—which is made up of the Uzbeck, Turkmen, and Khirgiz peoples living in the northern part of the country—have also joined the resistance, as have the Baluchis in the south of the country.

Unlike in Iran, where the opposition to the Shah came principally from the cities, in Afghanistan the resistance is mostly rural and tribal, a response to the ill-conceived reforms of the Khalq regime. The agrarian reform instituted at the end of 1978 limited property holdings to fifteen acres of fertile land and up to 180 acres if the land were less fertile. But in redistributing the land the regime neglected to redistribute seeds or to take into consideration the ownership and control of irrigation systems. This meant that large numbers of peasants found themselves in possession of land they could neither plant nor irrigate, and many of them were forced to ask their old landlords to exchange some of their new land for seeds.

Another unpopular decree banned the traditional dowries that many tribes relied upon to discourage husbands from seeking divorce—since the dowry had to be returned in an unsuccessful marriage. The regime also established education for girls as well as boys, but continued to hire only men as teachers. Many fathers would not allow their daughters to attend classes taught by men, and in some cases teachers were killed by villagers. In several instances the army retaliated, causing even more villagers to go over to the resistance. Following the putsch of 1978, the Stalinist measures of the Khalq regime only embittered the rural people traditionally hostile to outside leaders. Largely ignorant of conditions in the countryside, the new regime was unable to carry out reforms or impose a new system of law and order. And their policies soon led to economic failure and to growing resistance to the army throughout Afghanistan.

Neither the Soviet invasion nor the Parcham faction it brought to power has been able to solve these problems. However willing it may be to carry out reforms, the new regime has been too weak to do so, and because of its ties with the Soviet troops it has been unable to link its social policies with a nationalist program that would appeal to the rural populations. Of the 80,000 men serving in the army when the regime came to power, some 50,000 have either deserted or rallied to the cause of the resistance movement. In May of this year, an attempt to enlist young men from the cities ended in failure. And the fragmentary and uncoordinated nature of the resistance makes it considerably more difficult to control. The struggle between the government and the resistance is not restricted to the border regions but has spread throughout the provinces of Logar, Wardak, Ghazni, Parwan, and Badakhshan. Other provinces, like Hazarajat and Nuristan, are natural mountain fortresses, wholly inaccessible to regular government troops. There are also widespread reports of sabotage and other forms of resistance in the cities, particularly in Jalalabad and in the capital Kabul.

For the USSR, the situation is much more complicated than it seemed a few months ago. The Soviet invasion has rescued the “socialist” regime and the remarkable brutality of the Amin government has been softened. (There is no basis for the accusations of “genocide” that some Afghans have made in the European press.) But the intervention has also made the regime even more unpopular in the countryside. The resistance has not been weakened, and it continues to attack the military outposts of the government. The guerrillas may lack an ample supply of arms but they have strong morale, which remains the most vital resource of any army whether traditional or irregular.

Between the mid-1950s and 1973 much of Afghanistan’s foreign aid came from the USSR. Soviet economic aid and military equipment and training cost approximately $2.5 billion before 1973, and then over $1 billion between the years 1973 and 1978. Now the cost is even higher. Suppressing the Afghan resistance will require more manpower and more money from the Soviet Union as well as considerably more time, especially if the resistance soon gets the weapons it seeks, including anti-tank weapons such as the British LAWS-66s and the Soviet RPG-2s. Up to now, financial support has come largely from Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, light weapons from Egypt. The USSR can continue to create refugees by destroying homes and villages—a tactic which undermines the effectiveness of the mujahidin working in the provinces along the border—and by sending more troops into Afghanistan.

The refugees come from provinces where the fighting is heaviest, particularly the strategic provinces on the Pakistani border. When they cross the frontier they come under Pakistani control, and are sometimes given tents and other supplies. The Pakistani regime is cooperative, but the aid the refugees receive is wholly inadequate. The UN High Commission for Refugees, which estimates that there are some 800,000 to 850,000 Afghans now in Pakistan, also contributes aid. But the commission has begun to receive complaints that part of that assistance is now going to Pakistanis rather than to the refugees it is intended for. When I was in Karachi, several boatloads of medicine had been sitting at the docks there for some two months, much of it undoubtedly spoiling in the heat. There is no work for the refugees in Pakistan, where unemployment is already high. And they live in appalling conditions, much worse, for example, than those of most Palestinian refugees. It is estimated that there are also some 50,000 Afghan refugees in Iran.

The most serious weakness of the Afghan resistance is its lack of decisive leadership. It has no modern leaders capable of organizing and coordinating the movement or creating a political hierarchy that could rival that of the government. It also needs skillful cadres to organize local fighting units. The resistance movement is a traditionalist revolt, not an expression of popular demand for economic and social change. Yet it represents a widely felt opposition to the brutal and mechanistic rule of the government—opposition that could in time produce a movement of a more modern kind. Assuming that the resistance receives the aid it needs to continue fighting, young leaders will eventually emerge from the struggle with their own demands for broader, more modern changes.

The Soviets are unlikely to withdraw for a long time. They would not have invaded in the first place if they had not intended to stay until they had guaranteed the survival of the regime, and they are still far from having accomplished this. The Russians seem to believe their strength in southwest Asia and elsewhere is based on the assumption that others see them as invincible. This is why withdrawal at this stage is unthinkable. The new Afghan war will go on. To believe it possible to return to a neutral Afghanistan is wishful thinking.

  1. *

    The other rebel factions are the Islamic Society of Afghanistan led by B. Rabani, the Islamic Revolutionary Movement led by N.N. Mohemedi, and the Islamic Party of Yunis Khalis, which is based in the Nangrahar province and whose leader, unlike the others, is fighting alongside his men. Finally, there is the Afghanistan Islamic and Nationalistic Revolutionary Council led by Z.K. Nassry, an American citizen born in Afghanistan.

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