World affairs expert and intrepid travel journalist Robert D. Kaplan braved the dangers of war-ravaged Afghanistan in the 1980s, living among the mujahidin—the “soldiers of god”—whose unwavering devotion to Islam fueled their mission to oust the formidable Soviet invaders. In Soldiers of God we follow Kaplan’s extraordinary journey and learn how the thwarted Soviet invasion gave rise to the ruthless Taliban and the defining international conflagration of the twenty-first century.
Kaplan returns a decade later and brings to life a lawless frontier. What he reveals is astonishing: teeming refugee camps on the deeply contentious Pakistan-Afghanistan border; a war front that combines primitive fighters with the most technologically advanced weapons known to man; rigorous Islamic indoctrination academies; a land of minefields plagued by drought, fierce tribalism, insurmountable ethnic and religious divisions, an abysmal literacy rate, and legions of war orphans who seek stability in military brotherhood. Traveling alongside Islamic guerrilla fighters, sharing their food, observing their piety in the face of deprivation, and witnessing their determination, Kaplan offers a unique opportunity to increase our understanding of a people and a country that are at the center of world events.
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The Growth of a Commander
As we all know, memory is selective. Individuals, like tribes and nations, continually revise their own pasts to conform with current self-images. This was especially true for the Pathans. "Facts," observed a British friend, "were so interwoven with fiction on the Northwest Frontier that one might as well unstitch all the carpets in the Khyber bazaar before finding a stitch of truth."
Between trips inside, I fell into a pattern of seeing Abdul Haq at least two times a week. I have only Haq's word for the seminal events of his youth. But that was all I wanted. It was his attitudes and image of himself, rather than the bare-bones literal truth, that I was after.
Haq's headquarters in a guarded Peshawar villa was one of the few places in the Third World I'd seen where real work--rather than the usual conspiracy-mongering over endless cups of tea--seemed to be done, where I knew that I was taking up valuable time. In the waiting room I always saw a group of muiahidin nervously clutching notes, waiting to see "Haji Sahab" (Mr. Haji). One entered Haq's private office only after removing one's shoes. Apart from that, his office had a surface resemblance to that of any businessman or lawyer in the West. Haq would usually be talking on one of his two desk phones while simultaneously reading a report and writing notes on a separate sheet of paper. Next to the two phones were a small globe and a red desk lamp. Papers were stacked at neat right angles to the other objects on the desk and separated into "in" and "out" piles. Behind the desk on the wall was a large map of Soviet posts in Kabul. (In the adjacent "war room" was a nine-foot- high Soviet wall map of Afghanistan, with a sandbox that had markers for planning battles: this was the room where John Gunston's pictures were displayed.)
Haq, always dressed in a gray shalwar kameez and vest--the equivalent of a pin-striped suit in the West--would be on the phone for a few minutes after I came in the office. Inevitably, a succession of mujahidin would file in, take seats opposite him, make a request, and give him a note to initial before being ushered out to receive a stack of money from Haq's Tajik accountant. The tone of each man was submissive. Listening to their requests, Haq looked discerning, impassive, and slightly smug, as if he knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that he could accurately size up the character and actions of every man under his command. His was a face that at times reminded me of Marlon Brando playing Don Vito Corleone in the opening scene of The Godfather.
Profusely apologizing for the interruptions, Haq would hobble over to the couch opposite me, order tea, and patiently submit to my queries about his life. He took only one lump of sugar in his tea and didn't smoke--unusual for an Oriental male. Scratching his beard, he would joke: "The eyes of a journalist scare me almost as much as the eyes of a doctor with a knife about to cut into my foot."
Abdul Haq was born Abdul Rauf on April 23, 1958, in Nangarhar province west of Jalalabad. But he spent his first years in the faraway southern province of Helmand, near Iran and Pakistan, where his father, Mohammed Aman, was the representative of a Nangarhar construction company. A clash of wills between the two dominated Haq's first childhood memories. In his mind, he and his father were the only actors on stage. The rest of the family didn't exist. The eerie Helmand steppes provided a beautiful yet threatening background.
"I was on a bus with my father," Haq said. "For hours I was asking him questions. I don't remember about what, but I kept asking them. He got so tired of my questions that he started screaming and slapped me. Everybody on the bus was a stranger. We didn't have any friends in Helmand. I was four. It is my earliest memory.
"Another time, my father was driving hisjeep up a hill near our house. It was evening and he was tired. On either side of the road were mud walls. I stood in the middle of the road and refused to let him pass. He started screaming at me, but I wouldn't get out of the road. I hugged the ground with my body. Finally, he drove around me and crashed the side of the jeep into the wall. I was five, I think.
"I wanted to go to school like my older brothers, but my father told me I was still too young. I was only five and you had to be seven. I got so mad that I tore up my brothers' school books. So my father took me, unregistered, to the school. I remember once the teacher fell asleep. Maybe he was tired or sick, but I thought that rude and I went over to the teacher's desk and hit him hard over the head with a stick to wake him up. The teacher ran after me but I got away. I was always a little devil.
"My father liked to see children fight. I remember he would throw a coin up in the air and my brothers and I would scramble for it. I worshiped my father. I was six when he died of kidney disease. He was fifty-one. We left Helmand and went back to Nangarhar. We had no family in Helmand. In Nangarhar we did--lots of aunts and uncles and cousins to play with. We owned land and a big house and garden, and everybody in the village knew us. We always had lots of guests. This gave me a great sense of security after my father died. I found that I was part of something. From then on I had no doubt who I was."
Haq was wealthy by Afghan standards; nevertheless, when in Peshawar he lived in one room with his wife and two children in the same crowded house as the families of his two older brothers. Though he confided in foreigners and felt alienated from the rest of his family, he could not stand to live apart from any of them.
Haq's family is of the Arsala Khel, a subdivision of the Jabbar Khel, which is a leading landowning clan of the Ahmadzai--the great Pathan tribe that historically has been in conflict with the Durrani kings (also Pathans), who ruled Afghanistan from the middle of the eighteenth century through 1973, when King Zahir Shah was deposed and went into exile in Rome. The Jabbar Khel consists of over fifteen hundred prosperous families, who in days gone by robbed travelers on the Kabul-Jalalabad road. Jabbar himself is buried near the main road, and his grave is, according to one legend, a place of evil and a haunt of robbers and wolves. Haq's hometown of Fatehbad is synonymous with the deaths of many British soldiers during the disastrous British retreat from Kabul in January 1842. But in the last hundred years the clan has gained a reputation for government service. Haq's great-grand father on his father's side was Wazir Arsala Khan, a foreign minister of Afghanistan. Haq's cousin Hedayat Arsala was until 1988 an officer of the World Bank in Washington, D.C. The first time I met Haq, in his car after the mine injury, Hedayat Arsala was by his side, having flown over from Washington as soon as he heard about the accident. Haq, the maimed warrior in a shalwar kameez, and Hedayat in a gray suit and tie, looking like an international banker--it made for a deliciously interesting contrast and testified to the reserves of love, tradition, and talent in this Pathan family.
"I know little about the history of my family or my people," Haq said. "I feel humiliated that it is foreigners like you who have to tell me about the history of the Pathans. The problem is that I spent so much time fighting and in jail that I never had a chance to read books. When this war is over all I want to do is read about my own culture, nothing but read, so that I'll know what I was fighting for."
As a little boy in the Nangarhar village of Fatehbad, Haq went with his older brothers every morning at 5:30 to pray in the local mosque. Then came six hours of Koranic school, followed by lessons with a private tutor. "The mullahs were strict and kept us busy till the evening. If we talked or were late, we'd get a hard slap across the face. There were only the mullahs. The government in Kabul didn't exist for us.
"But we had a house in Kabul and spent the summers there. Kabul was cooler than Nangarhar. I love my village a hundred times more than the city. I hated to buy things from strangers and go into stores where we didn't know people.
"Everyone in my village was Moslem. It was something that you didn't think about or question. That's why the fundamentalists are so strong now against the Communists. To destroy one ideology you need another. I remember when I was eight I started at the lycée. One of the teachers, who I now realize was a Communist, told us we must go to war against Pakistan for Islam. So I asked, 'What about Panjdeh?' [Russia had taken this town in northwestern Afghanistan in 1885.] I had seen it on a map. The teacher ignored me. So I kept asking the same question over and over. Finally, the teacher hit me, so I hit him back. Then my classmates and I dragged him outside and dryshaved his head. I was taken to the principal's office and suspended from school for a time. But my family didn't punish me. This was my first political experience.
"When I was a little older, about twelve or thirteen, I was taken with some other boys to be tutored by Yunus Khalis, who was a close friend of the family. He joked a lot, made me laugh, and gave me little presents. Khalis was good with children. I adored him and looked up to him."
Khalis, a renowned Islamic scholar and mathematician from the nearby town of Khogiani, ran a publishing house that printed the first Pukhtu translation of several Koranic commentaries from the original Arabic. The idea of such a scholar finding pleasure teaching unruly teenage boys was typical of Khalls, a salt-of-the-earth type with a ready sense of humor who was completely lacking in pretense. (Years later, Khalis would arrive barefoot to his first meeting with the natty UN special representative to Afghanistan, Diego Cordovez. In Khalis's hand was a rusty nail, which he used as a toothpick.) I'll never forget watching Khalis in his Peshawar headquarters while one of his commanders playfully yanked at his long red beard, which Khalis had just redyed with henna to impress his teenage wife. Khalis laughed loudly the whole time, slapping the man on the back. Afterward Khalls sat down next to me, smiled, and patiently answered my questions about Islam, which he lamented was "totally outside the thought pattern of the West, making it difficult for Americans to understand our struggle, even though they are helping us with arms." This is an ayatollah? I asked myself. A foreign policy bureaucrat in Washington might say he was. But had Khomeini ever let an American reporter into his presence and behaved like that? The answer, of course, was no.
Back in 1973, when King Zahir Shah was overthrown by his first cousin and former prime minister, Mohammed Daoud, fundamentalists like Khalis and Haq's older brothers, Din Mohammed and Abdul Qadir, cheered. Zahir Shah had held the throne for forty years, since he was eighteen, and to the fundamentalists he was a corrupt profligate who fiddled while Afghan Communists busily burrowed into the state bureaucracy. But the fundamentalists feared Daoud even more. He was known to be a friend of the Soviet Union and stood for a stronger, more efficient central government.
Daoud's coup was made possible by the assistance of cells of junior officers controlled by Parcham (Banner), the less extreme of the two branches of the Afghan Communist party. Parcham's influence in the army's lower echelon complemented Daoud's own clout among the generals. The combination made for a bloodless coup, in which all potential resistance was snuffed out. Because the Parcham Communists were crucial to Daoud when he first assumed power, he let them dominate the ruling revolutionary council. Eventually, Daoud purged the Parchamis from the council and tried to steer a less pro-Soviet path. As a result, not only were the disaffected Khalqis--the more extreme of the Afghan Communists--busy plotting against Daoud's government, but the Parchamis were too.
To Khalis and Din Mohammed especially, the Kabul government under Daoud was a godless force seeking to extend its dominion into the countryside in order to subvert age-old religious and tribal traditions. As reactionary and paranoid as this vision may have seemed in 1973, subsequent events were to bear it out completely, when the more extreme Khalqis overthrew Daoud. The most powerful mujahidin groups in the 1980s were the fundamentalist ones, simply because the fundamentalists were the first to decipher the course of events in the 1970s, and therefore the first to act.
Abdul Haq continued his story the next time we met: "Just after Daoud came to power, I remember we had a teacher at our school who, like the other one, tried to introduce Socialist ideas into the class. I objected to this." Haq formed a delegation that protested to the headmaster and demonstrated outside the school. "My family had a few acres of land, so I had a little money to spend on making posters and placards. I was arrested." That was the end of Haq's formal education.
"I learned how to use a Lee-Enfield rifle and explode dynamite at an early age. It was an easy way to hunt and fish and kill cats. I once killed a hundred fifty cats with dynamite," Haq bashfully admitted. "I attacked my first police station when I was sixteen. It was easy, but we didn't know what to do once we were inside. One of us was captured and tortured. I promised myself that I would never do anything like that again without planning every detail in advance. It was about then that I took the name of Abdul Haq, so I wouldn't get my family into trouble. But for months at a time I would use the name Saleh to confuse the police. I had other names too during that period. I can't remember them all.
"The first time I was caught with plastic explosive I told the policeman it was soap. He said, 'All right, light a match to it. We'll see if it's really soap.' I lit the match, and of course it didn't explode. It was a type of plastique called kama, which only explodes if it is lit from inside. You can hold a match around the edges all day and nothing is going to happen.
"I used to hide large amounts of it in a shop. Then one day the police came and took away the shopkeeper. The plastique was taken too. Nobody ever saw the shopkeeper again. I never knew exactly what happened, whether the police had found the plastique or whether the shopkeeper was arrested for something unrelated. No, I didn't feel guilty. I didn't will the police to arrest him. If I was the one arrested, who was going to weep for me? By this time--it was 1976--my family was split up and Khalis and Din Mohammed and Abdul Qadir were all in hiding or already in Pakistan. No, never in my life have I known any self-doubt."
Before his twentieth birthday, Haq was involved at the fringes of two coup attempts against Daoud, shuttling messages and explosives between various rebel officers in the Afghan military. Haq was an early bloomer: a roughneck who thought quickly and clearly on his feet, undoubtedly blessed with an extraordinary natural intelligence--the quintessential guerrilla. He was becoming every bit an equal to those who had once inhabited thejungle of Algiers and were now dismantling Beirut, places where the competence of the inner-city combatants was much higher than the crude, comic-opera attempts of the Pathans, who fought well only in their mountains.
In April 1978, Haq slipped and fell off a friend's roof. So when the police caught up with him near Mirwas Maidan in downtown Kabul, with an unloaded gun he had just purchased, it was impossible for him to run away. "I just said, 'Bullshit,' and threw the gun at one of the policemen as hard as I could and then punched him in the face."
Haq was thrown into Pul-i-Charki. (Daoud had built the prison, and there, as fate would have it, Daoud would spend his last days, together with his family.) In the cell across from him was the infamous Khalqi leader Nur Mohammed Taraki. Haq studied his face for hours at a time. "So that's Taraki, I said to myself, the top Communist. Everybody in the prison knew who he was. No, I never spoke to him. I only stared. He was old. I thought, He's not so goddamned tough."
One overcast day the soldiers came to remove Taraki's handcuffs. It was the morning of April 27, 1978. Haq would never forget the moment. The Khalql's expression was fixed in stone. One minute a prisoner, the next the keeper and tormentor of other prisoners. Taraki inhabited a world of power and violence and terror; maybe it was all the same to him. Whatever his emotions were, he kept them hidden. The eighteen-year-old fundamentalist guerrilla, who to the new Communist ruler of Afghanistan was just another prisoner, read nothing in the old man's face. Taraki was murdered the next year by fellow Communist Hafizullah Amin, the same man who had let him out of prison that morning.
"A few hours later we were all freed. The warden said, 'Everybody out and fight the Daoud regime.' The next day I was arrested again and taken back to Pul-i-Charki. This time I was not allowed a radio or my Koran. I had to sleep on the cement floor. That's where I pissed, since I was no longer permitted to use the toilet." Others were soon being tortured. A broken Fanta bottle rammed up the anus was the most common method. Months later, when Soviet advisers came, the guards were taught how to wire the rectum, in addition to the ears, nose, and testicles, so they could administer electric shocks. When they came to take a man away, he gave his clothes and whatever else he had to the other prisoners. The man then simply vanished. The family was told nothing, not even that the man had been arrested in the first place. All that remained of him were his clothes, worn by other men who would give them away a second time when their turn came. Whenever the prisoners heard the rumble of trucks and buses outside, they knew that a lot of men were to be taken away at once to the "firing range." Sometimes they were killed with machine guns in the courtyard. Over a seventeen-month period, Taraki killed roughly twenty thousand people in this manner, more than the number of Egyptians and Israelis who died in the 1973 Middle East war. To Afghan Communists, this was the Saur Revolution, named for the Moslem month that corresponded with April 1978, when they removed Taraki's handcuffs.
When guards came to take away Haq, they placed a black hood and sheet over his head and body. "I gave one man my watch and another my shalwar kameez. I figured they were going to kill me." Instead, they shoved him into an automobile, and after driving for about forty-five minutes they took the hood off. "I was in the parking lot behind the Interior Ministry and KhAD headquarters. Okay, I said to myself. Now they're going to torture me. I knew this was where the special cases were brought. But they just held me for three months. I was treated better than in the prison. Then one night, around two a.m., they put me in a Volga and drove me to my sister's house and released me." As is so often the case in Afghanistan--where men keep in close contact all their lives with second, third, and fourth cousins through extended tribal networks; where blood is not only thicker than water but as persistent as the law and politics too--a distant relative was found who in turn had a relation at the Interior Ministry, and with their help, plus a $7,500 bribe, Haq was released. He was "young andjust irresponsible;' Haq's relative told KhAD officials during the negotiations.
"A few days later I escaped to Pakistan," Haq said. "That's when I really started fighting."
Abdul Haq spent only two weeks in Peshawar before joining the forces of an older and already established mujahidin leader, Jallaluddin Haqqani, who had just opened a front against Taraki's regime in Paktia, an eastern province south of Nangarhar, along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan.Jallaluddin taught Haq how to fire and repair all types of machine guns and other ordnance that Haq had not yet encountered.
But fighting with Jallaluddin had made Haq realize "how stupid the mujahidin were. We would build huts that leaked snow from the roof. We would start a fire and burn our faces while feeling cold on our backs. We would go for days without food, when a little planning would have allowed us to eat whenever we wanted. We suffered for no reason because we had no experience in surviving for long periods outside in the snow."
Haq left Jallaluddin after a few months and started his own front in Nangarhar, where Khalis's Hizb-i-Islami enjoyed strong local support, thanks to the stunning personal example set by Khalis himself in the jihad: here was a man in the seventh decade of life, with one kidney, who nevertheless sported a pistol in his belt and had lived outside in the snows of Nangarhar with Din Mohammed since the first year of the fundamentalist revolt against the Daoud regime.
Haq harbored deep love and respect for his older brother and Yunus Khalis, but he was not blind to their faults. Din Mohammed and Khalis both had plenty of faith and heart, but that's all they had. In the eyes of Western diplomats they may have been fundamentalist radicals, but Haq saw them as overly conservative and hopelessly out of date when it came to develcoping a strategy that would allow the mujahidin to survive against a modern superpower's army.
"I knew I must start a front on my own in Kabul," Haq told me. "Khalis had nothing there at the time. All of our strength was in Nangarhar and Paktia. Khalls and my brother said, 'No, the government is going to kill you. You are too young and don't know what it is to fight the regime in Kabul. You are not ready to fight there.' I had lots of arguments with them about it. It was the first time I ever fought with them. Finally I said, 'Look, I'm going to start a front in Kabul whether you want me to or not. Can you help me with money or arms?' They said no. I got really angry and told them that the machine guns and other arms I captured in Nangarhar were mine to keep, and I was going to take the guns with my friends to Kabul. I left Peshawar without saying goodbye. I was really mad. I felt deserted."
Abdul Haq once claimed to have started his Kabul front with three other mujahidin and 300 afghanis (under $5 at the time). No doubt he exaggerated. Nevertheless, in his mind it was something he accomplished on his own, without the help or encouragement of those he had always loved and looked up to. He had at last broken away from the family fold. Years later, when Western analysts discerned that Haq had kept his distance from the family interest in Khalis's Hizb-i-Islami, they couldn't have known how right they were.
Of the three original fighters who crossed into Afghanistan with Abdul Haq in the first weeks of 1980, two are now dead. One of the two was a Kabul police officer, Zabet Halim, who defected with arms, a car, and several other men and joined up with Haq in the forests of Paghman, west of the city. More weapons came from Haq's other brother, Abdul Qadir, who had more confidence in Haq than Din Mohammed or Khalis had. Qadir had smuggled the guns across the border from the arms bazaar at Darra without Din Mohammed's knowledge.
Haq's mujahidin then numbered about a dozen. They lived in the fields, in the snow, and attacked small Communist posts in the outskirts of Kabul. Halim's stolen car was used to make night forays into the city--easy at the time, since this was before the Soviets had established a formal security perimeter. Haq spent his time in the capital meeting with the few friends he could trust, to explain what he was trying to do and to ask for their help. He also sent messages to Khalis and Din Mohammed, begging them to reconsider. He needed more arms and more money. No answers came. He eventually cut off all contact with them.
What People are Saying About This
“Robert Kaplan [is] a scholarly and adventurous journalist. . . . He draws attention to long-term trends that other writers have little noted.” —The New York Times
“Soldiers of God is a thoughtful, insightful, highly readable book. Battlefield smart, rock solid.” —Dan Rather
“Affecting and informative. . . . [Kaplan] answer[s] a number of important political questions.” —The New Yorker
“[A] first-rate account. . . . [Kaplan’s] combination of firsthand war experience inside Afghanistan and extensive reporting . . . makes him sensitive to distinctions that often escaped even devoted promoters of the muj[ahidin].” —The Wall Street Journal