Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Spies, soldiers, diplomats and ordinary people

An old Tajik man at Jami's gravesite in Herat, prays for peace. Photo: Bob McKerrow

Shabibi Shah in Afghanistan during the 1960s

The old woman was gazing out of the glass doors into her small, neat, English garden. But as she talked, she was reliving a moment from her traumatic Afghan past.

"He was beaten," she said. "He lost his four front teeth."

Shabibi Shah was remembering her husband Zafar's emergence from prison. He had been jailed by the Afghan communists, who were then in power.

"He wasn't himself. We had to admit him to a hospital - a mental hospital.

"He went crazy for a while, until he got better - and then they put him in prison for other reasons. They were just trying to destroy people who were against them."

Eventually the family fled in 1980. Mrs Shah endured some of the hardest days of her life as she walked through the mountains with her children to the safety of Pakistan, before eventually settling in Britain.

I had asked her to tell me her story in the course of making a radio documentary - a history of modern Afghanistan.

Our project involved raking through three decades' worth of the BBC's archives. We contacted Afghans in Kabul and elsewhere, and spoke to soldiers and diplomats and former spies - Russian, American, British and Pakistani.


I was repeatedly and powerfully reminded of the sheer extent of the suffering that the many years of war and political upheaval have inflicted on the Afghan people.

Like Mrs Shah, almost every Afghan has an extraordinary story.

Abdul Baseer was just a teenager at the start of the communist era.

He told us how he was picked up on the street and flown by helicopter to a remote outpost in the mountains.

He was meant to be turned immediately into a soldier and put on the frontline in the regime's fight against the mujahideen guerrillas.

The mujahideen drove the Soviets out in 1989 with the help of US weapons

"They had mined the whole area around the garrison so you couldn't escape," said Mr Baseer. "People were obviously thinking about how to get out of that place rather than enthusiastically thinking about being part of that wonderful army."


One Russian officer, Oleg Kulakov, knew all about the brutal realities of life on Afghan battlefields.

He told the programme of the ambushes, and the fear and frenzy of mujahideen assaults in the night.

"Sometimes there was very close combat - hand to hand," he said. "That was very difficult. You are thinking about survival."

He spoke of dust, and blood and men crying out in the darkness.

"I know of no-one who would like to live it again," he said.

After being wounded for a third time the officer remembers convalescing in a military hospital in Afghanistan.

He took a walk in the grounds and came across a stack of coffins. He asked who they were for, and was told that they were being readied for Russia's "future losses".

Inevitably, he wondered if one of the coffins might one day be his.

But of course, the Russian officer was lucky enough to survive, whereas perhaps around a million Afghans were killed in the war that his army waged with much brutality.

There were many reports of villages being laid waste, and of atrocities.

I asked the officer if he was ashamed of that.

After a long pause, he replied: "Sometimes."


The mujahideen, with the help of American-supplied weapons, won their great victory and drove the Soviets out in 1989.

But they went on to disgrace themselves after eventually ousting the Afghan communists and seizing the capital.

A former soldier in the communist regime, Sami Dinarkhail, told us of the day that he watched his old enemies march into Kabul.

He said some in the city had looked forward to the arrival of the fighters, but that they were soon disappointed.

He described seeing gunmen who had perhaps never driven a car before taking vehicles and crashing them, then finding another - and then crashing it too.

Along with the looting, there was the start of the fighting between warlords that would ravage the country for years to come.

And from that chaos emerged the Taleban movement.

Initially their restoration of a kind of order was widely welcomed in their heartlands, and even in Kabul.

But again there would be much disappointment.

The Taleban brought with them an austere, narrow interpretation of Islam that involved banning what they saw as corrupting distractions, like television, music, dancing and kite-flying.

There were strict regulations on dress and appearance, and women were banned from most education and employment.

And even more darkly, a young ethnic Turkman, Rahmat Wali, told the programme about the Taleban oppression of ethnic minority groups in northern Afghanistan.

He talked of how his uncle Hamid was dragged from his home, forced into a pickup truck and taken to a detention centre.

Later the family identified his body, one among many. Rahmat Wali told me that marks on his uncle's corpse showed that he had been tortured.

Holy war

And of course the Taleban attracted a dangerous friend - Osama Bin Laden.

The whereabouts of al-Qaeda's Saudi-born leader remain a mystery
He had been among the young radicals from across the Muslim world who had been drawn to and inspired by the Afghan holy war against the Soviets.

Now the likes of Bin Laden were ready to focus on that other superpower, the United States.

We talked to the former CIA man Michael Scheuer, who headed the unit set up by the agency to track the al-Qaeda leader as he moved across Afghanistan.

Mr Scheuer told me of his deep frustration at the Clinton administration's passing up of what he believes was an extraordinary opportunity to kill Bin Laden in the governor's palace in Kandahar one night late in 1998.

And after studying his target very closely for years, Mr Scheuer drew conclusions about Bin Laden's motives that you might not necessarily expect from a CIA man.

"The war that America is fighting now has nothing to do with what any American political leader has been willing to tell the Americans," he said.

"We're fighting people who believe that our foreign policy is an assault on their religion and on the people who believe in that religion. You don't have to agree with that, but you have to be an adult in the sense of understanding what motivates your enemy if you hope to defeat him."


Among our interviewees there was much criticism of the strategy that the West has pursued on all fronts in the aftermath of the ousting of the Taleban.

It was argued that far too little in the way of troops and resources were thrown into the project, and that the Americans too quickly moved on to the Iraq war - imagining that their work was largely done in Afghanistan.

There was criticism too of the West's collaboration with the former warlords who have done so much damage to Afghanistan in the past.

But the former British diplomat Rory Stewart (below), who now lives and works in Kabul, took a slightly different line.

"To govern Afghanistan is a bit like being a Chicago ward politician in the 1920s," he said.

"It involves being very good in understanding power, understanding who has power in a local area, and an understanding that if you are going to remove them you have got to think very carefully about who you are going to replace them with."

Mr Stewart said that the aim in the long run must be to phase out the warlords. But, he said: "You're not going to get to the long run unless you make some compromises and are prepared to work with people who you might not like to have dinner with."

Thanks to Alan Johnston of the BBC for permission to use this.

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