The Mirage of Peace
By Chris Johnson, Jolyon Leslie
Zed Books Ltd Copyright © 2008 Chris Johnson and Jolyon Leslie
All rights reserved.
The mirage of peace
'Kaka, what are they afraid of?' (Small boy watching heavily armed US soldiers in Kabul, 2003)
The nights in Kabul during the war were eerily quiet. Curfew ensured that the streets became largely the preserve of the city's dogs after 11 p.m. unless you had the official password or could bribe your way past the soldiers with a packet of cigarettes. You could hear a child crying blocks away The days, however, were punctured by random rocket attacks, launched by the mujahideen from the outskirts of the government-controlled city The crude rockets supplied by the West for use against the Soviets and their allies usually missed their intended targets and smashed into the simple mud homes dotting the low hills of the city.
In the lulls between the rockets or the occasional skirmishes along the distant frontlines, life went on. But not as normal, for the inhabitants of the city lived in fear of the senseless, random attacks, and did what little they could to protect themselves. The doors of our nearby shop served as something of a barometer of what to expect of the day's conflict. The back doors of a powder-blue Citroën van, they were set into a traditional mud wall as though a parked vehicle had simply been assimilated into the street-front. Doors wide open for business, and piles of dusty fruit and vegetables laid out under the shade of the mulberry trees, signified an 'all clear'. When these goods were packed up inside the shop, with doors partly open, there was a need for caution, and passers-by quickened their step while mothers shepherded children inside the walled compounds. When the shop doors were drawn shut but not locked, the signal was one of high alert, and only the intrepid – or desperate – ventured out into the streets. Doors padlocked in the hours of daylight were a sure sign of trouble, and you stayed on the streets at your peril. Then came the eerie silence before an attack, when those lucky enough to have any glass left ensured that no one was near the windows.
Word of which areas were under attack and should be avoided spread like wildfire along the dusty alleys, as did the imminent threats to targets identified by the resistance in shabnama, notes pushed under the doors of homes during cover of darkness. Young children knew the 'song' that presaged the impact of a rocket which, if you could clearly hear it, meant that you were almost certainly too close for safety. Then came the crack of impact, the dust thrown up by the explosion, out of which rose the screams of the injured and shocked. Lined up for launching in clusters on the barren slopes outside the city, the US-supplied Sakr rockets would usually wreak a pattern of havoc, so people learned not to emerge until the salvo seemed to be over. Survivors would scramble through the dust to dig victims out of the rubble, while passers-by would commandeer taxis, or even bring wheelbarrows, to get the injured to hospital.
Illusions of peace
This was just another day in the life of Afghans caught in a sideshow of the Cold War that, with the withdrawal of Soviet troops in 1989, had slipped out of sight for much of the rest of the world. It was, as Felix Ermacora, UN Special Rapporteur on Afghanistan, put it in his report to the General Assembly in October 1990, a 'forgotten war' (Ermacora 1990). Talk of peace continued to screen acts of war, as matériel continued to be supplied to both sides. The few UN observers deployed to monitor the Peshawar Accords could do little but bear witness to violations such as rocket attacks on Kabul and occasional government forays against the resistance. The Kabul government lodged hundreds of complaints about alleged violations, but the UN seemed unwilling to draw attention to continued US support to the resistance (Gossman 1990). Ordinary Kabulis could no more comprehend this form of international 'engagement' in their country than they could the motivation for their countrymen to fire rockets at them.
While the West caricatures Afghans as a war-loving people, recent conflict has been largely fuelled by others. Just as the Russian and British empires during the nineteenth century had described their competition for influence in primarily defensive terms, so too did those who embarked on the twentieth-century Cold War arms race that cost at least a million Afghan lives. On the one hand, the Soviets provided on average $5 billion per year in economic and military support after 1979, while, on the other, the annual military aid allocations of the US administration for the mujahideen between 1980 and 1989 were of the order of $2.8 billion (Asia Watch 1991). The deadly symmetry of arms supplies was maintained beyond the withdrawal of Soviet troops, who handed over the bulk of their military supplies to the Kabul government, while the USA – which agreed to exercise 'restraint' only if the Soviets were seen to do the same – Saudi Arabia and Iran continued military support to their respective clients within the resistance. For Afghans, this offered a guarantee of further conflict rather than a hope of peace.
The departure of Soviet troops allowed factionalism to come to the surface within government ranks, as President Najibullah had to rely on deals with local militias to retain control over the major cities and access to key highways. The most important of these were the Uzbek Jozjanis under Abdul Rashid Dostum, who protected the road between Kabul and the north, and the Ismaili Hazaras, under Sayed Jafer Naderi, who kept the Salang pass and tunnel open. In time, both came to exercise as much independence as the mujahideen, whom they came to resemble in structure and tactics as well as in their opportunism.
Differences between the resistance groups, once they no longer needed to respond to the Soviet presence, rendered their military activities less and less effective and reduced their ability to confront the government in Kabul. As the control that their sponsors had been able to exercise over the mujahideen disintegrated, they increasingly pursued individual and group interests, often with an ethnic dimension, while benefiting from an economic revival through the growing drugs trade. The hard-line factions who, as the most militarily effective opposition to the Soviets, had received the bulk of military support, dominated the political landscape, excluding the moderates who might have been more willing to negotiate.
The dividing-lines between government and resistance began to break down. Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who had received considerable US assistance throughout the jihad, attempted to form an alliance with fellow Pashtuns in the hard-line Khalq clique within the government, resulting in an attempted coup in March 1990. Defence Minister Tanai, an erstwhile Khalqi, attempted to bomb the presidential palace and broach the security cordon south of Kabul to allow Hekmatyar's troops into the city. For those of us who lived in the city at the time, this was a sign that things were beginning to unravel.
As Soviet support for the Kabul government dwindled, the scene was set for a new set of power-brokers. President Najibullah announced in early April 1992 that he would resign as part of a UN-brokered transition of power. A day later, the militia under Dostum (deputy Minister of Defence in the Transitional Administration) seized control of Mazar i Sharif, cutting off Kabul's line of supply from the north. Others also moved quickly to take advantage of the situation, with Naderi's militia seizing the strategic Salang tunnel, while Baba Jan, whose militias had defended the Soviet-built Bagram airbase, changed sides to the mujahideen. (This same Baba Jan was rewarded handsomely by the USA for his contribution to the campaign against the Taliban, and by 2003 was head of the Kabul police.) Elsewhere, the Qandahar and Herat garrisons struck deals with local mujahideen groups. Najibullah – curiously being driven to the airport in an armour-plated presidential vehicle which had been hastily fitted with UN plates – was stopped while attempting to fly out to join his family in India, and had little option but to take refuge with the UN which, it seems, had offered him safe passage out of the country (Cordovez and Harrison 1994).
For those of us waiting expectantly on a key intersection in central Kabul one April morning in 1992, the line of Saudi-supplied battle-grey pickups that raced in from the east represented a hope for an end to the rocket attacks and the growing shortages in the city. The convoy carried an assortment of resistance leaders coming to claim the government that had eluded them for so long. Under the terms of the Peshawar Accords, Sibghatullah Mojaddedi would serve as president for two months, to be succeeded by Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani for four months; at this point a shura would be convened to select a government for the following eighteen months, to be followed by elections. But the members of this 'alliance' had as much reason to mistrust each other as they did to join forces to ensure peace for their country.
No sooner was the announcement made of the formation of the new Islamic State of Afghanistan than the alliance fell apart. Kabul now became the scene for a power struggle between four main armed groups, Dostum's Junbish-e-Milli militia, Rabbani and Massoud's Jamiat-i Islami, Hekmatyar's Hizbe Islami and the largely Shi'a Hizbe Wahdat. While each had different ethnic compositions, all had overlapping areas of influence and, in some instances, shared sources of foreign support, which they supplemented with income from local taxes, customs or drugs. By the summer of 1992, the forces of Jamiat, Junbish and Hizbe Wahdat had repulsed an attack from the combined forces of Hizbe Islami and the Khalqis who had formed the military backbone of Najibullah's previous government. The groups soon staked out parts of the city along ethnic or party political lines. In the face of intimidation and rampant looting, tens of thousands of civilians fled their homes, braving the checkpoints set up by predatory factional fighters as they tried to reach areas where they hoped to find some degree of protection. Government buildings and property were looted, and the public services that the Najibullah regime had maintained were soon a thing of the past. Burnt-out buses were stacked on top of each other to form defensive barricades. Within months, not only was the social geography of the city redrawn but its proud landmarks lay in ruins.
An attempt in December 1992 by Jamiat to take control of the Shi'a neighbourhoods in south-western Kabul prompted Hizbe Wahdat to align themselves with Hizbe Islami, with whom they signed an agreement early in 1993. For similar reasons, Dostum broke ranks with Massoud and attacked Jamiat positions in the north in 1993, after which he was openly allied with Hizbe Islami. The signing in March 1993 between Sunni and Shi'a leaders of the Riyadh Agreement, under pressure from the Saudis, was an attempt to reconcile the groups, and was followed by a joint pilgrimage to Mecca where a collective oath was sworn by the signatories. The agreement, however, was clearly unworkable as it left Rabbani as President with his arch-foe Hekmatyar as Prime Minister. Using his new-found authority, Hekmatyar promptly dismissed Massoud as Defence Minister, a move which President Rabbani rejected, but which prompted Massoud's resignation, even though he continued to command Jamiat forces. On New Year's Day 1994, having been resupplied by Pakistan and Uzbekistan respectively, Hizbe Islami and Junbish joined forces to launch an assault on Jamiat positions in central Kabul.
Prompted by a series of shabnama warning of the impending attack, the inhabitants of the Soviet-built MacroRayon blocks in the centre of the city packed what they could and trudged, under the cover of darkness, through the icy streets towards the relative safety of the western part of the city. Well after curfew, those of us who lived along the route were woken by the muffled sounds of the exodus and looked out to see a line of flickering kerosene lamps lighting the way for a huge column of families, clutching their possessions, walking or pushing wheelbarrows or bicycles. The only sounds above the fearful shuffle of thousands of frozen feet were the occasional cry of a baby, or bleating of a sheep. Doors soon began to open along the route, inviting those who were exhausted to rest, drink tea and tell their stories before heading on their way.
Few of those who witnessed scenes such as this can forget that such episodes were caused by men who, less than a decade later, have been rewarded with ministerial posts in an internationally-backed administration, on the basis of sacrifices they allege to have made in liberating their people. About 20,000 people died in the fighting between April 1992 and December 1994 that followed the 'liberation' of Kabul. Almost three-quarters of those who survived were forced to leave their homes and move across the city, or flee to squalid camps for the displaced in Jalalabad. The millions of Afghan refugees who had sought sanctuary in Pakistan from the Soviets were now joined by tens of thousands of families from urban centres, many of who had lost everything. The exodus of those who had kept the government going through the long conflict represented a new stage in the dismemberment of the state, which was reduced to a series of administrative fiefdoms that increasingly came to serve factional interests. Meanwhile, the looting continued. Travelling across the border at Torkham in 1994, trucks piled high with bullet-shredded traffic signs from Kabul were waiting to cross, destined for recycling in Pakistan.
Raising the stakes
Stripped and laid waste, with most of its remaining population reduced to subsisting among the ruins, Kabul continued to be the focus for rocket attacks from the outskirts until 1995. It then came under threat from a new phenomenon, the Taliban, who had pushed back the patchwork of commanders as they moved north from their base in Qandahar. Though led by people who themselves had often been mujahideen, the core of the Taliban were young Pashtuns from the south of Afghanistan who had been students in religious madrasas in Pakistan. They vowed to return Afghanistan to Islam and to law and order. While most commanders initially fled in the face of threats from the Taliban to deal with those who had created the situation of lawlessness, many fighters simply changed sides. One of the dividends of their control became evident as early as 1995, when those of us running aid programmes in the city began to receive turbaned visitors bearing lists of looted goods that had been abandoned by the mujahideen, and which the Taliban had come across during their advance towards the capital. This seemed to back up stories in the bazaar of how law and order had been re-established in areas from which the mujahideen had fled as the Taliban advanced. Their arrival on the outskirts of Kabul, however, plunged the residents of the city back into a sense of siege, reinforced by the Taliban's resumption of rocketing, a tactic of those they claimed to despise. It was not until September 1996, however, that the Taliban were in a position to take the capital and, in the face of an ultimatum, the Jamiat fighters defending Kabul vanished into the night.
The key image of the Taliban occupation of Kabul that registered in the international press was the mutilated body of Najibullah, banknotes stuffed into his mouth, strung from a lamp-post on one of the central intersections of the city The ruthless way in which he was hauled out of the UN premises where he had been given refuge for three years, and then butchered, seemed to epitomize all that was brutal about the Afghans and all that we did not understand about the Taliban. Even those Afghans who had suffered under Najibullah's cruel regime seemed shocked by his murder, and apprehensive about what lay ahead.
While serious concerns had been raised about their policies since their occupation of Herat in 1995, the international reaction to the occupation of Kabul by the Taliban was guarded. The mesmerized fascination with which the outside world had watched a raggle-taggle bunch of religious zealots from Qandahar take over more and more territory by eliminating or co-opting their adversaries gave way to a realization that they also had political ambitions. Having dislodged the fractious government of the Islamic State of Afghanistan from the capital, they now presumed to assert complete political control over what they chose to call the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Afghanistan by Chris Johnson, Jolyon Leslie. Copyright © 2008 Chris Johnson and Jolyon Leslie. Excerpted by permission of Zed Books Ltd.
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