From the Soviets to the Civil War: A Brief History of Afghanistan, pt 1

Part 1 | Part 2

Mostly taken from No Good Men Among the Living by Anand Gopal. This is part 1 explaining the context of the Soviet invasion and its resulting civil war which led to the rise of the Taliban, coming up in pt 2.

In the 1950s a wave of reforms swept Afghanistan and much of the country became very progressive, especially in big cities like Kabul. “Photographs from the era show besuited men accompanied by women in short skirts and beehive hairdos; there are movie theaters, broad paved roads, and tree-lined sidewals.” However, out in the Pashtun (about 40% of Afghans are Pashtuns, basically a term for various related tribal peoples) countryside and mountains, conservatism still reigned. The state was largely absent from these regions and thus, politics worked through kinship and clan leaders and landlords basically ran their own fiefdoms. If you managed to make it to Kabul to attend college, you came away with a tantalizing taste of what your country could be come and a sense of the inadequacies of the world you left behind. As with so many other developing nations of that critical and historical era, this disjuncture created a crisis of modernity, and the urban intelligentsia struggled to articulate a response. Two rival currents emerged: one embracing Communism, which looked to the Soviet Union and third-world liberation movements. The other, an Afghan form of Islamism, inspired by the Muslim Brotherhood and related trends in the Arab world (note: the Arabs are not a good model to emulate…).
For many years these were merely undercurrents, but they rushed to the surface in the 1970s. In 1978 the Communists rallied against the government for killing Mir Akbar Khyber, one of their leaders. Waving flags of Che Guevara and Karl Marx with symbolically tied cloths around their own jaws, the way Afghans did with a corpse to prevent its mouth from swinging open, they chanted slogans and some fired rifles in the air. This was the first time the Afghan people raised their voices. The Communists used the killing of their leader as a pretext to launch a coup against dictator Daud Khan (note: turned out to be a bad idea). Within days, army units had seized the palace and executed Khan and his family. But the Communists themselves were riven into two feuding factions, which immediately conspired against each other. The next year was gripped with chaos as Communist leaders pushed land reform, killing thousands of tribal elders, landlords, and religious figures, and plotted to knock one another off. The government seemed on the verge of devouring itself. So on Christmas Eve in 1979 the Soviets invaded, ostensibly to end the internal conflict and put in place a more stable leadership. Atheism was promoted and Muslims were pitched as backwards people, thus worthy of death and persecution in some Communist and Soviet eyes. The West (esp the USA and Saudi Arabia) took to supporting the opposition, the Mujahideen, among them Osama Bin Laden. Foreign fighters from the Arab world flooded in to fight the unholy atheist Commies, bringing a violent Salafi/Wahhabi ideology. The Soviet occupation only worsened the bloodshed in a 10 year war: over a million Afghans were killed and 5 million became refugees. 1 in 3 Afghans were killed, wounded, or displaced. Soviet bombers wiped whole villages off the map, while Soviet troops imprisoned and tortured thousands. Nothing for Afghans would be the same.
While the Communists waged devastation on the countryside, they won support in the big cities through development and services. They built modern housing complexes and subsidizes health care and basic foodstuffs. Record numbers of women went to college. Kabul was built up and the universities were packed.
Even before the Soviet invasion in 1979, a movement of Islamists had sprung up nationwide in opposition to the Communist state. They were at first city-bound intellectuals, university students and professors with limited countryside appeal. But the unrelenting Soviet brutality and violence they began to forge alliances with rural tribal leaders and clerics (note: they aren’t exactly highly educated University of Malaysia grads, they have their own culture infused with Islam). The resulting insurgents, the mujahideen, became proxies in a Cold War battle, with the Soviets on one side and the USA, Saudi Arabia, and Pakistan on the other. As the Soviets propped up the Afghan government and communists, the CIA and other intelligence agencies funneled millions of dollars in aid to the mujahideen, along with crates and crates of weaponry. In the process, traditional hierarchies came radically undone. When the Communists killed hundreds of tribal leaders and landlords, young men of more humble backgrounds used CIA money and arms to form a new ruling warrior class in their place. In the West, we’d call such folks “warlords,” in Afghanistan they’re “commanders.” Whichever term you use, they represent an unprecedented phenomenon in Afghan history. Now, each valley and district had its own mujahideen commanders, all fighting to free the country from Soviet rule but ultimately subservient to CIA guns and money.
The war fundamentally changed the very core of rural culture. With Afghan schools destroyed, millions of boys were instead educated across the border in Pakistani religious schools, or madrasas, where they were fed an extreme, violence-laden version of Islam. Looking to keep the war fueled with fresh recruits, Washington, where the prevailing ethos was to bleed the Russians until the last Afghan, financed textbooks for schoolchidren in refugee camps that were festooned with illustrations of AK-47s, swords, and overturned Soviet tanks. One such edition declared: “Jihad is a kind of war that Muslims fight in the name of God to free Muslims…if infidels invade, jihad is the obligation of every Muslim.” An American text designed to teach children the Persian (Farsi) alphabet began:
Aleph is for Allah, Allah is One
Bey is for Baba (father); father goes to the mosque
Tey is for Tofang (rifle); Javed obtains rifles for the mujahideen
Jeem is for Jihad; Jihad is an obligation. My mom went to the jihad.

The cult of martyrdom, the veneration of jihad, the casting of music and cinema as sinful—once heard only from the pulpits of zealots—now became the common vocabulary of resistance nationwide. The US-backed mujahideen branded those supporting the Communist govt, or even simply refusing to pick sides, as “infidels,” and justified the killing of civilians by labeling them apostates. They waged assassination campaigns against professors and civil servants, bombed movie theaters, and kidnapped humanitarian workers. They sabotaged basic infrastructure and even destroyed schools and clinics. This litany of terror pales in comparison to Sivet brutality, but is relevant for what came next.
With foreign backing, the Afghan resistance eventually proved too formidable for the Soviets and they withdrew in 1989, leaving a battered nation, a tottering government that was Communist in name only, and a countryside ruled by warlords. For 3 grueling years after the withdrawal, the CIA kept the weapons and money flowing to the mujahideen, while blocking any peace deal between them and the Soviet-funded govt. The CIA and Pakistani ISI (their spy agency) pushed the rebels to shell Afghan cities under govt control, including a major assault on Jalalabad that flattened whole neighborhoods. As long as Soviet assistance continued, the govt withstood the onslaught. Until 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and Washington and Moscow agreed to cease all aid to their proxies. Within months, the Afghan govt crumbled, and the question of who would fill the facuum and build a new state has not been fully resolved to this day.
The mujahideen burned the books in the library at Kabul University, confiscated alcohol and crushed them with a tank, and banned female television announcers. Some warlords were tyrranical: one commander in the northwestern province of Faryab decreed it permissible to rape any unmarried girl over the age of 12 (note: this is absolutely forbidden in Islam). In Herat to the West, authorities curtailed musical performances, outlawing love songs and “dancing music.” It was the mujahideen, not the Taliban (who did not exist yet as a group), who first brought these strictures into politics. Many of these same commanders would be returned to power by the US to run the country after 2001.
Soon, the Supreme Court demanded that the govt oust female employees from their jobs and girls from their schools, because “schools are whorehouses and centers of adultery.” It decreed: “women are not to leave their homes at all, unless absolutely necessary, in which case they are to cover themselves completely; are not to wear attractive clothing and decorative accessories; are not to wear perfume or jewelry that makes any noise; aren ot to walk gracefully or with pride in the middle of the sidewal; are not to talk to strangers; are not to speak loudly or laugh in public; and they must always ask their husbands’ permission to leave the home.”
The civil war began: the newly victorious mujahideen factions turned their guns on each other in a scramble for power. The first to make into Kabul was Jamiat-e-Islami (the Islamic Society) led by a professor named Burhanuddin Rabbani and among its ranks the war’s most famous commander, Ahmad Shah Massoud. A system of rotating presidents was established to share authority among the various factions, but Rabbani refused to relinquish power when his term ended. In response, a rival group, Hizb-i-Islami (the Islam Party), rained rockets down on the city from the suburbs. Their leader was Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, a CIA favorite known for his ruthlessness. A number of other factions jostled for power, forming alliances and switching sides with the seasons.
The civil war lasted from 1992-1996, and no one escaped unscathed. Some were eager participants, waging endless battles over tiny scraps of territory, but most had participation thrust upon them, such as Akbar Gul.
Akbar Gul grew up in Shah Shahid, a rough neighborhood with a life of pranks and street fights, barefoot poverty, and cousins too many to count. “People would call me badmash,” a sort of raffish hooligan, he said with pride.
For as long as he could remember, jobs had been scarce. His father never held steady employment, and he had always expected to get married, settle down, and grow old in a refugee camp somewhere. In the meantime he earned some notoriety on the streets as a quick-witted hustler, a lanky teenager with a penchant for mischief and an entrepreneurial eye, which is he took to Kabul’s scrap hards to scavenge spare parts for sale. Eventually he fell into drug running, one of the only sure forms of employment around, and wound up in and out of jail. Still, he harbored a secret desire to get out of the drug business and follow the path of his two older brothers, the pride of the family, who worked as policemen under the Communist govt.
With the outbreak of the civil war, govt functions ground to a halt and his brothers stopped receiving paychecks. The family spent whole days indoors, listening to the radio and waiting for word of the resumption of services. In the evenings, Akbar Gul and his cousin Manaf would climb onto the roof, stretch out under a warm summer sky, and talk themselves to sleep, dreaming idle dreams of escape. For weeks, he wondered whether he could make his way to Iran. Friends who’d gone there had found jobs–and girls, too. The problem, as always, was money. The Iranians didn’t hand out visas to just anyone, so you had to hire a trafficker to smuggle you across the border. The Hindu Kush was another possibility. He’d heard that in the peaks of the Panjshir Valley you could hunt for gemstones, that some mine floors were literally covered with them. But that was muhaideen territory, which both he and Manaf wished to avoid.
In time, however, the mujahideen came to him. Early one morning, militiamen showed up in his neighborhood, going house to house, banging on doors, ordering people out for “inspections,” and taking whatever they liked–jewelry, embroidered cushions, sometimes girls. They plundered so meticulously that locals christened them Gelam Jam, the Rug Collectors, for it was said that when they looted your home nothing would be left, not even the rugs. After Gelam Jam took over a nearby street corner, Akbar Gul stopped sleeping on the roof.
One afternoon, he was in a crowd of pedestrians on his way to buy motorcycle parts when a man stepped out of an alley and blocked their path. He was clutching an AK-47 and his eyes shone crimson. The stench of alcohol was unmistakable. “Where are you going?” he shouted. It was a mujahideen militiaman. Other gunmen stood farther back in the alley, watching. “We’re just walking, brother,” an elder said. “We aren’t part of this war.” The gunman stood glaring, and then his gaze fell upon a group of burqa-clad women. “Get on the ground,” he yelled. They did as they were told, no one uttering a sound. Keeping his weapon trained on the crowd, he walked over to the prone women and seized one of them. She screamed and struggled and almost broke free. “I’ll kill you now if you don’t shut up,” the militiaman snapped, dragging her into a giant shipping container by the roadside.
Akbar Gul kept his face to the asphalt, and for a few moments everything was still. Then he heard a long, shill scream and looked up to see the woman burst through the container door. Her burqa was torn, exposing a breast. An elder ran to help. A fighter leaned out of the shipping container and shouted, “we told you to stay down, you dog!” and fired two rounds into him. Another fighter chased down the woman and hoisted her over his shoulders. After returning her to the container, he slammed the door shut.
From then on, even life’s simplest acts took on a new meaning. Akbar Gul learned to plan walks to the grocery store meticulously, and to go only when absolutely necessary. For families with children, school was out of the question. Women stopped going outside. Yet the looting and killing and rapes continued. At the time, historian and Kabul resident Muhammad Hassan Kakar wrote that “adults wish not to have new babies,” and if they have them, “they pray to God to give them ugly ones. Women hate themselves for being attractive.”
At home, Akbar Gul’s family was finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The city faced acute food shortages. Meals had become nothing more than stone-hard, days-old bread soaked in water and parceled out, the smallest children and the elderly getting priority. Finally, Akbar Gul’s oldest brother, Muhammad, decided to brave teh streets and head for the police precinct office to see if he might collect the salary he was owed.
He did not return that afternoon. The family waited into the evening, but he still did not come back. Akbar Gul spent the night in front of the house, but he saw no sign of his brother. The next afternoon, as Akbar Gul was floating in and out of sleep, he heard a knock on the door. It was a neighbor, looking nervous and uncomfortable. He said to come quickly but wouldn’t explain why. A sick feeling overcame Akbar Gul. Whatever it was, he wanted to hear it first with his own ears. Finally, he forced out the words: “Did they kill him?”
“Pray for his soul,” the neighbor answered.
The rest of the day was a haze of wailing women and visiting relatives. Even amid his tears, Akbar Gul simmered inside. Muhammad had been the trailblazer in the family, the first one to land a job, the first one to marry. He had done everything the right way, while Akbar Gul had taken the easy path. Fate, it seemed, had picked out the wrong man. Mujahideen were killing the good ones, the honest ones, and it filled him with disgust.
In search of a fresh start, his parents decided to abandon Kabul for Pakistan, and in short order his sisters and cousins, too, fled the country. Only Akbar Gul, his cousin Manaf, and his remaining brother stayed behind, planning to sell the house and the family’s possessions before joining the rest. Yet they could not find any takers, for everyone in the neighborhood appeared to be doing the same. Moving to Pakistan did not come cheap–for a start, you’d need to bribe dozens of warlords who had set up checkpoints along the way. Akbar Gul’s brother had an old friend in the neighborhood who owed him money, and he felt that he had no choice but to venture out and track him down. This time, Manaf tagged along for protection.
Later that evening, Akbar Gul learned that his brother and cousin had been stopped on a street corner and, along with other military-age males, ordered to the wall. In full sight of the passersby, they were executed.
For weeks, Akbar Gul could hardly eat. He spent his days in bed, blaming himself for letting the two of them go. The bitterness he felt was deep and growing. In every militiaman who passed his window he saw the men who had ruined his family. It felt as if God Himself were taunting him, sparing the wicked and condemning the just, rewarding criminals like Gelam Jam (mujahideen criminals) and idlers like himself. He had visions of living in a refugee camp in Pakistan while Gelam Jam fighters occupied his home, trekking through in their shoes, spitting and hacking where they pleased, bringing in people from the streets to do what they pleased.
It was time for a change. He would honor his brothers, live by their example, live an honest life. He’d stay behind, guard the family home, and help ensure that no one else suffered what his parents had. But how? All around him, families were crumbling. There seemed to be no rhyme or reason to it–it didn’t matter what you thought, whether you supported the mujahideen or the Communists. The only households surviving unscathed, he knew, were the neighborhood’s few Uzbek families, members of the same ethnic group as Gelam Jam.
He wasn’t interested in this war, but the war seemed interested in him. There were no more innocents, no more neutrals, only sides already chosen for him.The choice was clear: pick a side, or end up like his brothers. It would have been unthinkable before the war, but now he felt he could trust only his fellow Pashtuns. They had borne the brunt of Gelam Jam in his neighborhood, it seemed. At first, they had hidden their ethnicity, speaking only Farsi in public, but soon they were getting plucked from their vehicles to have their pronunciation checked–and if their speech sounded Pashtun, they were often killed on the spot. This was a war against people who spoke like him, who looked like him, and if that’s what the enemy had decided, then he’d play by their rules.
So one morning he went to a camp of Hizb-i-Islami, a Pashtun-heavy militia, and sought an acquaintance. “I want to do jihad,” he announced.
The man broke into a broad smile. “Welcome,” he said.
Thousands of young men, many of them now orphans and widowers, flocked to the various factions feuding for power in the civil war. There were no heroes; each group proved as responsible for the bloodshed as the next. Broadly, the factions were organized along ethnic lines–not so much due to ethnic nationalism but because in the face of perpetual instability, with a weak or absent state, you allied with those you knew and trusted. In fact, it was often unclear what ideological differences, if any, divided the men fighting each other on Kabul’s streets. Still, the struggle for power and survival was imbued with meaning: more than simply a battle of wills, for many the war was “jihad.”
The West responded to the civil war by simply ignoring it, and after the 2001 invasion the years from 1992 to 1996 were all but stricken from the standard narrative. It was dangerous history, the truths buried within it too uncomfortable and messy. If the mujahideen had been no better than the Taliban or al-Qaeda, any attempt to bring the principal actors of that period to account could only lead to the highest echelons of Hamid Karzai’s government, and, by extension, to American policy of the previous 30 years.
Yet it isn’t difficult to uncover this history, for every Kabuli has a story to tell. Deadly roadblocks, disappeared neighbors, and decaying bodies were woven into the fabric of daily life, like going shopping or saying your prayers. Every day brought fresh destruction; any date picked out of the calendar is the anniversary of some grisly toll. (the following is quite violent/graphic).
On May 4, 1992, for example, Sher Muhammad climbed to the roof of his house in southern Kabul to wash his face under the spring sun. He had just returned to Afghanistan after ten years as a refugee, hoping to relaunch his singing career. As he stood there, a Hekmatyar rocket crashed into the nearby Brezhnev Bazaar, a sprawling market of corrugated tin roofs that had once sold stolen Soviet supplies. Seven people were killed, including an orphaned boy. Then another rocket overshot its target and slammed into Muhammad’s house, killing him and three others.
Or take February 2, 1993, when Muhammad Haroun was arrested by an ethnic Hazara militia as he walked past a school. Fifteen days later, after surrendering a fortune in bribes, his mother was led to his body. It lay in a dry well, burnt from head to toe, the eyes gouged out.
That same year, Hazara militiamen stormed the house of Rafiullah, a Pashtun vegetable peddler. His hands and feet were bound and he was thrown into a corner of the room. As he watched, the militiamen forced themselves upon his screaming daughter. After finishing, they seized his wife and did the same. Unable to face their community after the attack, the family fled, leaving most of their possessions behind. Later, it was said, his daughter committed suicide by throwing herself down a well.
November 25, 1995: Gelam Jam (mujahideen) fighters broke into apartment number 38 of the Microrayon housing complex. They killed a pregnant woman and her three children, then stripped the apartment clean. A month later another group came to the housing complex, this time to apartment number 4, killing a woman and kidnapping her daughter. She was never seen again.
May 24, 1996: A rocket struck the house of Abdul Karim, injuring him and killing his three-year-old son. When his wife went to visit him at the hospital, she was abducted and gang raped.
And so it went.
By 1993, Ahmad Shah Massoud had allied his forces with those of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, an Islamist professor and mujahideen leader. A staunch fundamentalist, Sayyaf would one day invite Osama bin Laden to take refuge in Afghanistan. (Nevertheless, he would be counted as a US ally during the 2001 invasion, eventually landing in parliament). On February 7, 1993, Massoud and Sayyaf’s forces attacked Afshar, a Hazara enclave in western Kabul. They began by lobbing mortars blindly into the densely populated neighborhood, killing scores. Then soldiers went door to door, seizing able-bodied men, lining them up against the walls, and executing them in full view of their wives and children. As news of the massacre spread, residents began to flee. Massoud’s forces, on a mountain overlooking the neighborhood, fired down at the crowds, killing many more. Meanwhile, the house-by-house manhunts continued. Militiamen stormed the home of a woman named Mina and carried her husband away. Later that afternoon, a second group of fighters forced their way into the home; finding no adult males left to kill, they seized her eleven-year-old son. “They him and asked where his father was,” Mina said later. “They aimed their guns at him and I threw myself over him. I was shot in the hand and leg, but he was shot five times. He died.” As she lay bleeding next to her son’s corpse, three soldiers held her down while a fourth raped her. Then they took the rest of the women in the house, including two teenagers, to the basement for their turn.
Like victors in a medieval battle, the mujahideen attacking Afshar hauled captives and booty away. Some Hazaras, like resident Abdul Qader, was forced into slavery. First, he was pressed into service carrying loot from his neighborhood; then was taken to a militia base outside the city, where he was jammed into a giant shipping container with other prisoners. Eventually he was moved to another base, forced to work for his captors by day and kept manacled at night. He would remain enslaved for three years.
After two days of bloodshed, most of the population of Afshar was dead or missing. Nearly five thousand homes had been destroyed. An unknown number of people–probably at least one thousand–had been killed. Photographs of the aftermath show a stricken neighborhood: Swiss cheese holes in concrete walls, hallowed-out buildings, and bones–many bones. Sometimes, it seemed that killing alone was not enough. An old man named Fazil Ahmed was decapitated and his limbs sawed off; his body was found with his penis stuffed into his mouth. It was as if the violence sprang from some far deeper, more complex drive than simply planting flags in a civil war. Could it have been a collective post-traumatic stress disorder response to years of Russian brutality? It’s hard to say, especially since there has been no national reckoning with the civil war, no truth and reconciliation process.
What is certain, however, is that the Asfhar violence had clear enough political motives: to eliminate a Hazara militia stronghold. Human rights investigators subsequently found that senior mujahideen commanders were aware of the massacre and, in many cases, helped carry it out. At the top of the chain of responsibility sat on the operation’s architects, Massoud and Sayyaf. (Despite this, Massoud is still considered a hero in some circles). A number of their sub-commanders bear direct culpability, yet every one of them ahs emerged politically unscathed. Marshal Muhammad Fahim, who oversaw the operation and commanded an important outpost during the siege, became a key American ally during the 2001 invasion, earning himself millions in CIA dollars. Eventually, he became vice president of Afghanistan. Baba Jan, who also helped plan and execute the siege, became a key Northern Alliance commander. After 2001, he grew extravagantly wealthy as a logistics contractor for the US military. Mullah Izzat, who commanded a group that led house searches, also struck gold after the invasion–counting, along his considerable holdings, Kabul’s only golf course. Zulmay Tofan, complicit in the house searches and forced labor, reaped his post-2001 windfall by supplying fuel to US troops.
The twin dislocations of the Soviet invasion and CIA patronage of the mujahideen irrevocably reconfigured Afghan society, leading directly to the horrors of the civil war, then to the Taliban, and ultimately to the shape of Afghan politics after 2001. Still, when Zbigniew Brzezinski, who as a national security adviser to President Carter helped to initiate Washington’s anti-Soviet mujahideen policies, was asked in the late 1990s whether he had any regrets, he replied: “What is more important in the history of the world? The Taliban or the collapse of the Soviet empire? Some stirred-up Muslims or the liberation of Central Europe and the end of the Cold War?”

Read part 2

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