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The Faraway War

Report from Afghanistan

by Gérard Chaliand, translated by Tamar Jacoby
Viking/Penguin, 112 pp., $13.95; $4.95 (paper)

In Afghanistan: An American Odyssey

by Jere Van Dyk
Coward-McCann, 253 pp., $18.95

A Hitch or Two in Afghanistan: A Journey behind Russian Lines

by Nigel Ryan
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 210 pp., £8.95

Behind Russian Lines: An Afghan Journal

by Sandy Gall
Sidgwick & Jackson, 194 pp., £8.95

Afghanistan and the Soviet Union

by Henry S. Bradsher
Duke University Press, 324 pp., $32.50; $12.75 (paper)

Red Flag over Afghanistan: The Communist Coup, the Soviet Invasion and Their Consequences

by Thomas T. Hammond
Westview Press, 300 pp., $25.00; $10.95 (paper)

Four years have passed since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and we in the West still do not seem to know what to think about it, let alone what to do about it. For most of us it is still, as Czechoslovakia was for Chamberlain in 1938, “a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing.” In fact the Afghans are a great deal further away than the Czechs, both geographically and culturally; so our excuse for knowing nothing about them is somewhat better. But at least the Westerner who wants to know something about Afghanistan now has quite a lot to read.

Four of the books reviewed here are the work of Westerners who have been in Afghanistan, escorted by resistance fighters, since the Soviet invasion. Of these only Gérard Chaliand does not dwell on the physical hardships involved in the enterprise. No doubt he was hardened by his previous extensive experience of reporting guerrilla warfare in various continents. Jere Van Dyk, an athlete of international standard, became seriously footsore. Ryan and Gall, middle-aged television executives, used, in Ryan’s words, to a “soft urban lifestyle,” suffered agonies of privation and fatigue. William Branigin, who made the same journey a year later for The Washington Post, refers to part of it as “a nightmare that made me curse my editors, the entire newspaper business and my own folly for ever having accepted [the] assignment.”1 The trip, he writes, “made me painfully aware of a major reason for the relatively paltry international coverage of Afghanistan: the difficulty of gaining access to the country.”2

All credit, then, to those reporters who have made the trip, at the cost of great physical discomfort and considerable physical risk. Their reports make it that much more difficult for us to forget all about Afghanistan. They give the people there faces and names, reminding us that what is at stake is not simply a remote but potentially strategic space on the board of the Great Game. And each year so far they have brought the important news that the war is still going on, and that the Russians are not winning it.

Chronologically, the first of these authors in the field was Gérard Chaliand, who made two trips in 1980. But his book has a misleading title. It contains very little eyewitness reporting and is really more in the nature of a short essay. Whereas his successors have been content to give us an account of their own raw experience, Chaliand uses his experience to help him assess and analyze information from other sources, seeking to place the Afghan war in a global setting—both in the sense of its geopolitical significance and in the sense of comparing it to other guerrilla or liberation wars in other parts of the world. He summarizes his conclusion about the Afghan resistance as follows: “It is an extremely popular movement that has arisen spontaneously among many different kinds of people with varying motives,” but “in its leadership organization, coordination, and strategy, the Afghan movement is one of the weakest liberation struggles in the world today.”

Jere Van Dyk went in the fall of 1981, making two separate but immediately consecutive trips to different parts of the country: first to Paktia province, south of Kabul, with one of the socalled fundamentalist Islamic groups; then to Kandahar, much further south and west, this time with a “tribal” resistance group. The second experience was particularly valuable, both because he was able to witness a large-scale battle on the edges of Kandahar city (making it clear that resistance is by no means confined to the countryside) and because the “tribal” resistance is much less well known in the outside world than are the various fronts and parties that have their headquarters in the Pakistani town of Peshawar.

Sandy Gall and Nigel Ryan, old friends and big names in British commercial television, went together in late summer 1982 on an expedition to the Panjshir valley, northeast of Kabul, where the local resistance leader, Ahmed Shah Massud, was at the age of twenty-eight already something of a legend. On meeting him they felt themselves, as many others have, “in the presence of a man with a quite exceptional talent for leadership.” Ryan writes:

To the Russians, Massud was officially a “bandit” to be wiped out; but they had not been able to do it. By other standards he was a smalltime leader of a minority sect in a remote and puzzling country. Just then he was the absolute monarch of the 80,000 people in the Panjsher and had an almost mesmeric power over them; and besides them a growing adherence from over three and a half million Tajiks, a quarter of the nation, in other areas of the north-east.

From Massud’s elder brother Yahya, Ryan learned something of the leader’s biography: son of a soldier and of a mother who, most unusually for a woman in her position in Afghanistan at the time, had taught herself to read and write, Massud was a student at Kabul University in the early 1970s during the rise of the Afghan left. Rejecting Marxism, he chose the rival brand of student radicalism which the West has come to call “fundamentalist,” though the French word islamiste conveys it better—its essence being the adoption of Islam as an ideology and a sociopolitical project rather than its mere acceptance as a tradition.3

From Kabul Massud moved back to his birthplace in the Panjshir. Working on behalf of the Jamiat-e Islami (Islamic society), a predominantly Tajik fundamentalist party, he staged a coup in the valley, designed to coincide with a rising elsewhere by another fundamentalist party, the Hizb-i Islami, which is predominantly Pathan.4 By the account that Massud himself gave to Ryan, the coup failed because “the Pathans had changed their mind at the last minute.” Massud fled to Pakistan and somehow obtained training in guerrilla warfare, returning to the Panjshir valley after the communists came to power in Kabul in 1978.

Then in his mid-twenties, and starting out with less than fifty men, he built up a force of 1,000 or so in the Panjsher, taking care that everywhere he went he used locally recruited manpower and local organizations. Paradoxically, the result was to earn him what so few Afghan leaders in the past had earned: adherence in regions outside his own, as well as a nationwide reputation.

Ryan and Gall witnessed the second of three major Soviet offensives in 1982 against the Panjshir in which somehow, despite their enormous superiority in firepower, the Russians were unable to prevail. Early in 1983, in perhaps the most surprising development of the war so far, they pulled back to the entrance of the valley and negotiated a truce with Massud, which took effect in mid-March. The imposition of a truce on his followers is one of the severest tests of his leadership a guerrilla commander can face, and Massud appears to have passed it. In September 1983 William Branigin of The Washington Post found that “his writ appears to be spreading well beyond his Panjshir Valley.” 5

Branigin, whose series of seven articles in The Washington Post (October 16-22) is a model of foreign reporting and certainly deserves to be published as a book or pamphlet on its own, speculates on the Soviet motives for accepting the truce. They may have calculated, he says, “that it would further split the resistance and discredit Massoud.” If so, they were partially correct. Relations between him and the Hizb-i Islami group were already so bad that it may not have made much difference in this respect, but other groups too—and even the headquarters of Jamiat-e Islami in Peshawar—were, at least initally, confused and demoralized by reports of the truce, which Massud himself made the mistake of trying to keep secret. It may also be true that the truce freed Soviet forces to attack the resistance elsewhere, but if the Russians thought it would keep the Panjshir guerrillas out of action they were evidently wrong:

That was not the way Massoud chose to interpret the agreement. While observing the cease-fire in the Panjshir, he has sent his fighters outside the valley to attack communist targets and help other guerrilla commanders. During my visit, teams of 50 to 100 men were sent to ambush convoys at the Salang Pass [the crucial link between Kabul and the Soviet Union] to the west and to attack positions in Badakhshan and Parwan provinces to the north and south.

According to Massoud’s aides, at least 500 Panjshir guerrillas currently are operating outside the valley, and more are being sent.

The truce, which took effect in mid-March, was for six months. Massud told Branigin he would like it renewed “for the time being,” but “there were indications that he is under some pressure from the guerrilla commanders under him to break the cease-fire,” while he himself “said he has received word from informants inside the Afghan government that the Soviets are preparing a new attack.” (In 1982 Ryan had been impressed by the accuracy of Massud’s advance intelligence about Soviet and Afghan army attacks.) The truce, Branigin writes, “is now at an end”—though how exactly it came to an end is not clear, since Branigin had by then left the country.

All these reporters have in common a lack of specialist knowledge of Afghanistan. Although Van Dyk and Gall had made brief visits there before the Soviet invasion, and Branigin immediately after it, none had lived there for any length of time, or had more than a smattering of any of its languages, or had made a special study of its society and culture. The same is true of Thomas T. Hammond, author of Red Flag over Afghanistan, who is “an authority on Communist coups” rather than on Afghanistan as such. Henry S. Bradsher, author of Afghanistan and the Soviet Union, worked in Kabul as an Associated Press correspondent in the early 1960s and visited the country again for the Washington Star in the 1970s, but is primarily a specialist in Soviet affairs. Neither writer has used sources in Persian, other than radio broadcasts made available in translation by the Foreign Broadcast Information Service—though both have drawn on the expertise of the leading American scholar on Afghanistan, Professor Louis Dupree.

As a general history of the process by which Afghanistan came to find itself under Soviet occupation, Bradsher’s book is unlikely to be bettered. It is painstakingly thorough, clearly expounded, and eminently sane. Bradsher shows how the US, by refusing or ignoring Afghan requests for military and economic aid in the 1940s and 1950s, virtually obliged the country to rely on Soviet help, to a point where, by 1973, even a modest attempt to improve relations with its pro-Western neighbors “had an automatic but unfortunate connotation of moving away from Soviet influence.” He weighs very carefully the evidence for direct Soviet involvement in the coups of 1973 and 1978, and refrains from forcing out of it a more positive conclusion than it will sustain:

  1. 1

    The Washington Post, October 17, 1983.

  2. 2

    The Washington Post, October 16, 1983.

  3. 3

    See Olivier Roy, “La question de ‘l’idéologie’ Islamique,” in L’Islam en Afghanistan, supplement to no. 12-13 of Les Nouvelles d’Afghanistan (Paris), March 1983.

  4. 4

    The Tajiks, a Persian-speaking ethnic group, comprise between 25 and 30 percent of the Afghan population, grouped mainly in the northeast. The Pathans, who speak Pushtun, make up 40 percent, mainly in the south, and are traditionally the dominant group, having provided the dynasty which unified the country—although, confusingly, Persian was the official language used at court. (The word “Afghan” is actually the Persian for “Pathan.”)

  5. 5

    The Washington Post, October 18, 1983.

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