Afghanistan’s Other War

“The wounded I have treated here have a determination that I have never seen before,” a Moslem doctor said, describing Afghan patients who have been wounded by Soviet bombs, mines, or artillery. “I have never met a wounded or amputated man who is defeated, sad, or sorry, I have never heard a woman cry, a woman shouting, a crowd of people mourning…. I come from a Moslem country that mourns its dead for forty days. I have never seen anything like this.”

The doctor, an Egyptian orthopedic surgeon named Mahmoud Booz, runs a voluntary hospital for Afghan war-wounded in Peshawar, in the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan where several million Afghans have temporarily fled. He is not alone in his admiration of their spirit, which he considers more Afghan than Moslem. Like others who know the Afghans, he believes that the jihad, the holy war that they have been waging for seven years against the Soviets, is as much a struggle for Afghanistan’s freedom and integrity as it is a fight for Islam. He is convinced that the Afghans will be victorious “despite the superior technology in the hands of the Russians.” And he believes that the Soviets will also fail in the “other battle” that is being waged in Afghanistan—the battle to win over the Afghan children.

Amid the rubble of Afghanistan’s devastated villages and cities in chaos, a new generation of Afghans, unlike any other, is coming of age. Both the Soviets and the Afghan resistance—known as mujahedin—seek to influence this generation. The Afghan children, already battered by war, are being treated as the prize in a contest of ideologies in which the Soviets may have met their match.

Those Afghan children who live in cities under Soviet control are being subjected to a Soviet-style education aimed at creating a new, communist Afghan. Thousands, including children orphaned by the war, are being sent to the Soviet Union for long-term indoctrination. Still others are being trained as spies and assassins. But most of Afghanistan is not under Soviet control. Children living in regions where the resistance forces are fighting are growing up imbued with the same fierce spirit that drives the mujahedin. And among the five milion refugees who have been forced over the borders (one third of Afghanistan’s prewar population), about 48 percent are children, many of whom are being trained by the resistance to take up the fight to free Afghanistan from the “Russian infidels.”

The Russians, known for their staying power, will probably be in Afghanistan for a long time. They intend to win both militarily and ideologically, to create an Afghanistan run by leaders and bureaucrats loyal to their Soviet sponsors. The communist education of the young, intrinsic to Soviet strategy elsewhere, has taken on added importance in the confrontation with the Afghans. “They saw that they couldn’t conquer us,” a resistance commander told me, “and they realized that there is no way to change the people. That’s when they decided to take the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.