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War at the Top of the WorldThe Struggle for Afghanistan, Kashjmir and Tibet
By Eric S. Margolis
Taylor & Francis GroupCopyright © 2002 Eric S. Margolis
All right reserved.
Soldiers of Allah
Oh, Lord Shiva, save us from the claw of the tiger, the fang of the cobra,
and the vengeance of the Afghan.
Old Hindu Prayer
Speak not of those who are slain in the way of God as
dead; for they are alive.
JALALABAD, AFGHANISTAN, May 1992
The first 107mm rocket arced across a flat, arid plain of scrub and rock toward the enemy position, a high, flat-topped hill, about half a mile (1 km) distant from where we stood. The rocket's fiery backblast produced a cloud of swirling black smoke and a thunderous roar that seemed to advertise our exposed position to everyone within the great amphitheater-shaped valley surrounding the besieged city of Jalalabad.
The missile hit the Communist position at its center. First came an elongated puff of gray-black smoke. Then, a few seconds later, there was a loud explosion whose deep roar echoed off the dark mountains towering over the Jalalabad plain. It seemed to me a good time to take cover, but our leader, the venerable Hadji Ajab, and his nine men continued to stand proudly upright, and in full view of the enemy position, unconcerned that we offered a splendid target to the now aroused Communist garrison.
Curiously, the enemy remained silent. Hadji Ajab suggested in strongly flavored Pushtun that the Communist dogs were too frightened of the mujahedin to fight. The Hadji was a grandfatherly seventy-two, a tiny, frail-looking man with a gentle smile and a wispy white beard that curled upward at the end. He had commanded mujahedin bands in battle against the Afghan Communists and the Soviets for the past eleven years; he was also the imam (prayer leader) of his small village, which was located some 9 miles (15 km) south of our position. Somehow, the ancient mountain warrior had twice found time during the long struggle to make the hadj--or pilgrimage--to distant Mecca. Hence his much-respected title, Hadji, which gave him the right to wear a green turban and to lead his men both in prayer and in battle.
Hadji Ajab ordered another round to be fired. Selim, a skinny youth of eighteen who had been appointed our band's military technician on the basis of once having briefly worked in a Kabul garage, fiddled with the leads of a battered red car battery that he had wired up to the Chinese 107mm multibarrel rocket launcher.
A second rocket roared off, producing the usual dramatic pyrotechnics. As it arced toward the enemy position, the mujahedin cried out, in unison, "Allah Akbar!"--God is great--the ancient Muslim war cry first heard in AD 622 when the Prophet Mohammed and his tiny band of companions were fighting for their lives against superior forces.
When the second rocket hit the Communist position and exploded, the old Hadji cried out, "Al-hamdililah!"--Allah be praised. We joined him lustily, waving our arms, shaking our fists at the foe, yelling, "Al-hamdililah!" Thirteen hundred years seemed to vanish. The alchemy of battle had magically returned us to the time of the Prophet, as the holy warriors called upon the one, true God like the embattled Companions of the Prophet Mohammed, to give their arms strength to smite the idolaters.
We fired off ten more rounds in rapid succession, alternating more cries of "Allah Akbar" when they were loosed, and "Al-hamdililah" when they exploded. The Islamic barrage finally produced an angry response from the Communist garrison. They opened up on us with mortars. White puffs of smoke burst around our position, but none of the shells caused injury. Then two T-55 tanks, dug in atop the enemy redoubt, opened rapid fire. The flat-trajectory tank shells made a sharp crack. While we could usually observe the mortar shells flying lazily through the air toward our position, the flat-trajectory, high-explosive tank shells came in too fast and level to be seen. Their explosions threw up big clumps of dirt, produced clouds of gray-black smoke, and sent red-hot shrapnel ricocheting off the rocks and boulders that lay scattered about us.
To my very great relief, Hadji Ajab finally ordered his men to squat down and take shelter behind the rocks. The blizzard of steel was becoming too much even for them. Adding to the danger, more enemy mortars took our position under fire. I crouched down and watched the explosions mushroom around us. Taking incoming artillery fire is one of life's more disagreeable, nerve-racking experiences. I attempted a Chinese meditation technique that I had recently learned in an effort to distance my inner self from the explosive outer reality around me. My meditation abruptly ended when a piece of hot shrapnel whistled by my right ear and ricocheted off a boulder.
After a half-hour that seemed to last for three days, the Communist barrage let up. Selim and two other gaunt mujahedin jumped up and began reloading the Chinese rocket launcher. The Hadji stood erect and peered at the enemy position through his aged, watery eyes, thoughtfully stroking his beard in the manner of Islamic wise men. "Fire," he ordered. Once again, we jumped up and chorused, "Allah Akbar," as a ripple-fire of rockets flew toward the enemy redoubt.
There was a huge detonation that must have been audible in Kabul, 70 miles (113 km) away. One of the rockets had hit and penetrated the redoubt's ammunition bunker. The entire Communist position was swathed in thick, billowing smoke, from whose center bright orange flames shot skyward. It was an enormously satisfying spectacle. We hugged and kissed one another, laughing joyously and yelling, "Al-hamdililah! Al-hamdililah!" until we were hoarse and exhausted. There was no return fire from the Communist position: its garrison had probably fled for their lives from exploding shells in the ammunition bunker.
For the rest of the afternoon, we kept firing rockets at the smoldering Communist position and at supply depots located behind it. Our little victory must finally have galvanized the Afghan army command at Jalalabad, because, around 4 p.m. concentrated fire from two different batteries of highly accurate, Soviet-built D30 122mm howitzers began to bracket our position. At the same time, we saw three T-54/55 tanks and four BTR armored personnel carriers moving toward us about 2 miles (3 km) away. The Hadji's men had no antitank weapons. We were also down to our last wooden case of Chinese rockets.
"Mr. Eric," the Hadji politely asked me through his son Jamal, who spoke some English, "would you like to stay and fight some more?" I didn't want to appear timid before these intrepid warriors, but I had to go back through the Khyber Pass that night to get to Peshawar, from where I was due to take a plane to Lahore next morning to interview Pakistan's prime minister, Nawaz Sharif.
"Please inform his Hadjiness that I think it would be better to go home now since I still have a long trip tonight." All this seemed very surreal, as if I were declining another cup of tea. Two 122mm shells exploded just to our right, showering us with dirt.
Almost reluctantly, Hadji Ajab and his band of holy warriors packed up their gear and manhandled the rocket launcher into the back of one of the white Toyota Land Cruisers--the favored vehicle of all Third World warriors--that had brought us to the battle. The investment of Jalalabad was a commuter's siege. The besiegers got up in the morning, drove or walked to the front lines, fought for four to six hours, and then often returned home for the night. The Hadji's men had been blessed with jeeps, thanks to the grace of Allah, and Saudi largesse.
This, however, was an exception. Many of the less fortunate mujahedin in other parts of the war zone were so poor they didn't even possess coats or shoes. Against the stabbing cold of the Afghan mountains they had only thin wool shawls. The mujahedin would walk to battle barefoot, through deep snow, sometimes for two days and nights, carrying 90 pounds (40 kg) of mortar shells or rockets on their backs. Then they would trudge home, dodging inevitable counterattacks by Communist artillery, or the far more fearsome Hind helicopter gunships, which hunted the mujahedin across the open plains of Afghanistan, where the only cover was an occasional boulder or gully.
Off we drove, out of the depression in which the jeeps had been hidden like so many docile ponies from an earlier age of war, and up into full view of the by now very angry Communist forces, who reopened a furious fire on us. Our drivers zigged and zagged across the rough ground as shells exploded around the racing jeeps. Death from a broken neck in the violently jolting vehicle seemed as real a peril as being shredded by red-hot shrapnel. The Afghan warriors, however, seemed to find the death-defying ride a romp: they laughed with glee as the jeeps careened perilously or hung on two wheels, as lethal white puffs of smoke from exploding shells blossomed around us. Finally, after what seemed hours, but was probably no more than five minutes, we rounded a knoll and moved out of the enemy's direct line of fire.
Ninety minutes later we arrived at the Hadji's mud-walled village, which bore the scars of frequent enemy bombing and shelling. He invited me to stay for evening prayers and dinner, but I insisted that I must press on to Peshawar. I slowly embraced each member of the mujahedin band. One, named Gul Khan, a great strapping man with a ferocious-looking black beard, held my hand in both of his, Afghan style, and said, "Mr Eric, please do not forget us." A knife twisted inside me. I felt a coward, a deserter, leaving these splendid fighters, my comrades-in-arms, to their holy war, while I returned, the satiated voyeur, to the relative security of Pakistan and then to my distant home.
Two jeeploads of mujahedin bodyguards belonging to the renowned Commander Abdul Haq met me at the Hadji's village and escorted me on a long drive through blooming poppy fields to the border post at Torkham. This part of eastern Afghanistan was chaotic and extremely dangerous: bands of fighters from the seven different mujahedin factions roamed the countryside, sometimes clashing with one another; the Communist Afghan regime still had garrisons in the area and occasionally mounted offensive patrols; banditry and kidnapping were common, particularly among the wild, lawless tribes around the Khyber Pass.
The bodyguards had been arranged through the long arm of my friend, Lt. Gen. Javid Nasser, director general of Pakistani intelligence. Two jeeps are necessary to protect one vehicle in between: an ambush often knocks out the lead or tailing jeep. The minute that firing begins, the men in the second jeep can cover those in the first and the center vehicles, with their fire.
Some miles outside of Torkham, I stopped to pay my respects to Abdul Haq, the senior mujahedin leader of the region. We sat, Afghan-style, on delicate carpets in a long room without any furniture save bolster cushions placed along the wall, where the commander and his lieutenants reclined. The mujahedin sipped sweet tea and discussed the day's fighting, which had gone well.
Abdul Haq told me his forces were steadily outflanking the thick Communist defense lines around Jalalabad, which had for so long resisted their assaults. This heavily fortified city was the gateway to Kabul. Once it fell, the road to the Afghan capital would be open. The hated Afghan Communists were on their last legs. Now that their godless Soviet masters had fled Afghanistan, it was only a matter of time before the holy warriors would break the last enemy lines of resistance, march on Kabul, and hang Najibullah, the Afghan Marxist leader, from a lamppost, Allah willing.
We headed off for the Khyber Pass, which begins at Torkham. From there, I had to go on without my mujahedin bodyguards: they were banned from all Pathan tribal territory, including the Khyber Pass. So, too, were all Pakistani troops, except for the Khyber Rifles and the South Waziristan Scouts, who policed the turbulent Northwest Frontier from their high-walled medieval forts. An agent of Pakistani intelligence had warned me that Najibullah's Communist regime in Kabul had put a price on my head and had alerted tribal relatives among the Afridi to watch for my coming.
The Khyber Pass is a very narrow, twisting defile between 3,300-foot (1,006-m) peaks that begins, at its southern terminus, outside Peshawar, Pakistan. The pass then snakes north for 28 tortuous miles (45 km) over countless switchbacks and sharp curves to its northern end at Torkham, the first town one reaches in Afghanistan. Khyber is barren and bleak: its steep brown, gray, and black walls of broken rock and shale are devoid of vegetation or human habitation. The only sign of life on the pass is the large, rectangular fort of the Khyber Rifles, whose high, brown, crenelated walls and flag-surmounted towers lent it a wonderfully medieval flavor.
Though the pass seems uninhabited, Afridi tribesmen live atop the flat plateau on either side of the defile, and have made life miserable since the beginning of recorded history for merchants and armies seeking to transit Khyber. Alexander the Great and his Macedonian hoplites battled the Afridi when crossing Khyber in 327 BC, on their way to invading the rich plains of Punjab. Every invading army since then has pushed south through the fabled pass, from the early Aryan invaders of India; the Turkic-Afghan army of Mahmud of Gazni; the Mongol "tumans" of Timur the Lame; to the horse armies of Babur, the Mogul conqueror.
The armies of India's last invader, Britain, marched north through Khyber on their way to seize Afghanistan, battling the Afridi every bloodstained foot of the way. During the ferocious Afghan Wars of 1838-42 and 1878-80, battles between British forces and Pathans--mainly Afridis--raged the length of the pass, as well as at its southern and northern entrances. Afridis became rightly known by their British foes as among the bravest, and certainly the cruelest, of the notoriously cruel Pathan tribes.
The steel barrier gate at Torkham swung open to allow our jeep to pass. I looked back out the window and, with a sinking feeling, waved farewell to my bodyguards. The Torkham gate shut behind us: we had now left the manifold dangers of Afghanistan for the even greater danger of the Khyber Pass.
My driver, a young Afghan named Ahmed, extinguished the Toyota's headlamps. It was necessary to make the run down Khyber in darkness: otherwise the lights of our jeep would be visible for miles as we twisted and turned down the serpentine pass. Pakistani regulations did not allow us to carry automatic weapons, or, for that matter, even rifles--certainly a curious prohibition in a region where even twelve-year-old boys went heavily armed and Afghans treasured their guns, placing a higher value on them than on their wives. Our protection consisted of one revolver and two automatic pistols. I cocked my 9mm, made sure I had a second clip handy, and wished mightily for an AK-47 and some grenades. We felt naked, and terribly vulnerable.
Ahmed accelerated to 70 miles per hour (113 km/h). Speed would have to be our main protection. The jeep roared around the treacherous hairpin turns of the grim Khyber Pass, illuminated only by the weak moonlight, which was often obscured by thick, low-lying clouds. We swerved with neck-breaking force to avoid rocks that had fallen onto the road. The steep black walls of the pass seemed to be closing around us. One turn taken too quickly and the jeep would go into a fatal skid, plunging off the cliff into the dark abyss below.
After what seemed hours of death-defying driving, which was probably only about fifteen minutes, we heard bursts of automatic gunfire. We kept up our headlong descent of the pass. Once, at a particular sharp turn, we came within inches of driving off the road. Falling rocks crashed into the top of the hurtling jeep. We paid them no attention.
As we rounded a curve, we saw a cluster of shadowy figures standing on the black-topped road and along its shoulders. They were holding rifles and AK-47S and were very likely preparing to ambush us, but our speed was such that the jeep was on them before they could even aim their weapons. The surprised ambushers scattered out of our way; we may have hit one or two, for I felt a strong jolt as we passed them, accompanied by cries. Shots rang out behind us, as the angry tribesmen opened fire at our jeep, but by then we were rounding another bend in the road, and soon lost sight of the Afridis--if that is what they were. It was impossible to know whether these were the tribesmen Najibullah had sent to kidnap me or simply ordinary bandits--local tribesmen attempting to collect an impromptu road tax from whatever passing vehicle they might manage to stop.
I told Ahmed to slow down somewhat: better to shoot our way through another roadblock than go off the road into oblivion. If only we had our bodyguards, I mused, and a few RPG-7 antitank rockets--they are so handy for blasting one's way through roadblocks.
We hurtled through the night. The jeep jolted violently, throwing us around the inside. I kept one hand on the dashboard and the other braced against the roof. I was afraid the shaking might make the pistol tucked into my belt accidentally go off. The Toyota skidded over a wet section of the road, lost traction, nearly rolled over, then righted itself.
Only the thought of falling into the hands of the vicious Afridis kept me from agonizing over the multiple dangers of our wild plunge down the winding pass. A relatively quick death caused by flying off the road or hitting a fallen boulder seemed much preferable to ending up an involuntary guest of the Afridis and then the Afghan secret police, both of whom had an unrivaled reputation for cruelty and sadism. My companions clearly shared my views. We hung on grimly, flying down the curves of the pass, tires smoking and squealing, pistols cocked, ready at each new corner for another ambuscade.
About an hour later we saw a bare light bulb ahead of us in the darkness, then a wooden barrier across the road, then a uniformed, turbaned sentry. We had reached the first checkpoint of the renowned Khyber Rifles. The guard saluted smartly as we drove through.
A little while later we rounded a corner and saw, spread gloriously below us, the twinkling lights of the frontier city of Peshawar--and safety. Armies since the beginning of time had marched down the Khyber Pass, but we may well have been the first to race through the pass in the dark of night. Ahmed looked at the city lights of Peshawar, gazed back at the dark mouth of the sinister pass, and spoke for all of us: "Allah be praised. Truly, it was His hand that guided us this night."
Excerpted from War at the Top of the World by Eric S. Margolis Copyright © 2002 by Eric S. Margolis. Excerpted by permission.
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