Fear still rules Kabul, the Afghan capital, nearly two months after its citizens rose in open rebellion against the Soviet occupation forces. It was a bitter and sullen population that I encountered when I visited the city earlier this month, posing as a tourist. To be sure, the Kabul I saw is quiet. But it is the seething, time-bomb quiet of a city under foreign occupation. The Soviet armed forces have now largely removed themselves to barracks and other behind-the-scenes positions. But there can be no doubt in anyone’s mind that Moscow’s military might is the real power.
Tanks and armored personnel carriers, for instance, guard all major intersections and public buildings. Soviet-piloted helicopter gunships—the dreaded “flying tanks” that have claimed so many lives both in the capital and in the province—soar over the city almost hourly, reminding everyone that resistance will be dealt with swiftly and without mercy.
It is not always easy to gauge public opinion, for the citizens are not exactly forthcoming with their political views these days, especially to strangers. But despite the efficiency of the secret police, I soon discovered the key that
unlocked many closed mouths:
“I'm an American," stated clearly and often, was usually enough to start a lively conversation, notwithstanding the occasional glances over the shoulder. It’s not that Afghans love the United States. Indeed, they distrust the motives of all big powers. Rather, “Americai astum" shows that the stranger is not a Soviet citizen. And once that fact has been established the floodgates open. “We hate the Russians, but what can we do?” lamented one civil servant in a restaurant near the ministry of planning. “Why doesn’t the world help us?”
To many Afghans—whether they be guerrilla fighters in the countryside or residents of the cities—the interna-
tional response to Moscow’s take-over seems ineffectual. Humanitarian considerations aside, some people make a point of insisting it is in other countries’ own interests to help Afghanistan.
For most people, however, global considerations don’t figure high in the scheme of things. Their hatred of the Kremlin’s role is personal: a hatred born of friends and loved ones killed or sent to the infamous Pul-i-Charki prison; a hatred born of the legendary Afghan love of independence; and a hatred born of those calamitous disruptions in life that foreign invasions invariably bring.
A textile merchant on Kabul’s Chicken Street—a centre of trade with foreign importers—complained, for instance, that the Soviet invasion had crippled him. “You are the only American I have seen in two months,” he said. “Business now is finished, no one can come here anymore.”
Another sign of the depth of public feeling against the Soviet-backed regime was shown, interestingly enough, as I was arrested temporarily at Kabul airport on my way out of the capital (officials confiscated most of my film—all they could find—in a body search before letting me go). Two airport workers took me aside and quietly asked whether political asylum and jobs could
be found in the U.S. “I don’t want to live like this. Afghanistan is finished,” whispered one.
It was startling how many times people said they “don’t want to live anymore” or some other phrase to that effect. But what at first seemed like the words of a defeated, dispirited people were later shown to be reflections of the fact that Afghans feel they have nothing left to live for but to fight the invaders to the death. An example: several people recounted how, during last February’s insurrection, protesters would walk up to the machine-gun emplacements and dare the Afghan gunners to shoot them. “When one man would fall, another would take his place,” recalled a participant. “They did this until the soldiers became so ashamed they ran away.”
To be sure, not all oppose the Soviet presence. On my first night in Kabul, I took a room at the Darwaz Hotel—not knowing it was a popular night spot for pro-government youth, or Parchamis. By the time I realized this, the evening curfew was nearly in effect, so changing hotels had to wait. While assorted prostitutes, Parcham militants (some of them packing pistols) and even a few Russians mingled in the bar, I struck up
a conversation with two rather intoxicated youths. One, an engineering student, claimed that there were many new job opportunities under the Sovietbacked regime of Barbak Karmal. Incredibly (and perhaps in jest) he said the reason was “because so many have died lately.”
The next morning, I moved to the Plaza Hotel, scene of some of the bitterest fighting in February. The manager also defended the Karmal administration, though he hoped the Soviets would soon leave: “Since [former president Hafizullah] Amin was overthrown, we have more freedom,” he insisted. “I tell you honestly, you can go outside right now and tell any policeman that you hate the government. He will not do a thing.” As he spoke, I looked over his shoulder at a Soviet tank not 50 yards from the hotel’s front entrance and decided not to put the theory to the test.
Indeed, Kabul is a study in contradiction—between the pervasive official line and the reality which so effectively refutes it. Sound trucks cruise the streets exhorting the masses to “defend the gains of the revolution.” Yet the famed rooftop protests—with hundreds shouting “Allah o Akbar!” (God is great!)—continue during the darkness
of the Kabul night, showing the disdain with which many regard the so-called revolution. The regime talks of a “people’s government.” Yet I saw the secret police arrest one man in the street. And who are all those tanks and gunships aimed at, if not the very people Karmal and his Soviet protectors claim to represent?
The government celebrated Farmers’ Day, April 1, while crops and villages were razed to the ground in saturation air attacks in the provinces. The March 31 issue of the English-language Kabul New Times—a wondrous example of Orwell’s 198k doublethink—carries a snappy article about women’s changing role in the “new society.” Meanwhile, women and children are shot down as they flee from tank and air attacks on villages near Jalalabad, and there are reports of Soviet occupation soldiers raping even 12-year-old girls.
Everybody’s happy. Why is no one smiling?
How well popular opposition against the Soviets is organized is open to question. A host of problems confront the fledgling Afghan resistance: a relatively untrained leadership, lack of organization among the various rebel
ordinated military campaigns and an extreme lack of modern arms. Yet there are signs that some progress is being made in forging an insurgency capable of challenging the occupation forces.
A step toward creating a unified fighting force was taken, for instance, when five of the six major rebel groups based in Peshawar across the border formed the Islamic Alliance for the Liberation of Afghanistan two months ago. But at best that is only a first
step—the insurgent groups have yet to integrate their military and political commands or agree on common policy and tactics. And guerrilla spokesmen concede that their movement has few leaders experienced in military, political or economic affairs.
Says Alliance president, Professor Saiyaf:“Intellectuals, trained people, men with knowledge of organization, leaders who can command the respect of our countrymen—all have been wiped out by the Russian puppets in Kabul over the years.”
Indeed, Amnesty International reports that since the first of the proSoviet Afghan regimes came to power in April, 1978, human rights violations in Afghanistan have centred on these social groups. And Saiyaf maintains that this repression was deliberately aimed at crippling potential resistance;
and that the killings have reached staggering proportions.
“We estimate that the number of executions is so high as to produce a
statistical decline in our national literacy rate,” declared the Alliance leader, a former professor of Islamic law at Kabul University and himself a political prisoner for six years. With current estimates showing that barely 10 per cent of Afghanistan’s population of 17 million is literate, Saiyaf would seem to be talking about executions in the range of 100,000 people or more. Though that is far more than the admit-
tedly limited Amnesty
International figures, he sticks to his claim. What this means for the guerrillas is that: “Essentially, we must start from scratch.”
Another factor tending to limit their effectiveness is that, by all accounts, the Alliance commands only about 30 per cent of all the mujahidin (Islamic guerrillas) now fighting in Afghanistan. The majority battle on under the independent leadership of tribal or religious elders. “Every family, every village, has declared its own individual war,” notes Aziz-Rahman Ulfat, a leader in Younis Khalis’ wing of the Hezb-i-Islami party and the son of renowned Afghan poet Gul Pacha Ulfat. But while this situation certainly demonstrates the breadth of anti-Soviet feeling, all it achieves from a military standpoint are unco-ordinated actions. There are indications, however, that
the Alliance is beginning to weld the disparate tribal and ethnic fighting groups under its command. In late March, for instance, a religious leader of several million minority Hazara Afghans came to Peshawar for talks with Alliance leaders. Sheik Ali Osukul Islam claims to command a militia of nearly 60,000 men which has been
fighting independently for 11 months in three provinces. “We don’t want to join just one of the political parties here; we want to be part of the whole Alliance,” said the sheik. “This is the only way to liberate Afghanistan.”
Undoubtedly, the sheik’s situation is common throughout the country, where many people have probably not yet even heard of the Alliance. To this, Saiyaf replies: “The majority of Afghans will rally to our leadership only when we can fulfil their needs for the jehad [holy war].”
There are signs, too, that the sectarian bickering between tribes is abating. Six months ago, when I travelled for the first time behind rebel lines, it was not uncommon to hear a Pashtun tribesman deride the sincerity or fighting skill of a minority Hazaras or Uzbek. Recently, however, one Pashtun leader cited the Afghan tradition of Tiga-ekhodil (laying stone), when mutual animosities are put aside so that all tribes can unite to repel the foreign invader.
The area where the rebels are most vulnerable, however, is in the acquisition of the sophisticated military equipment they need to deal with the Soviet Union’s 80,000 occupation troops.
To a man, guerrilla leaders insist that no outside government has provided military or economic assistance. And observations confirm that the basic weapon of the majahidin remains the Lee-Enfield rifle, circa 1916, or a handmade copy of the same. Perhaps 10 per cent of the fighters also have automatic weapons, usually captured Soviet Kalashnikovs. Against the near-indestructible Mi-24 helicopter gunship, the tank columns, the MiG bombers and the lethal gas attacks (see box), which refugees and majahidin alike insist are taking place, the insurgents have practically no defence. “We rarely even shoot at the helicopters anymore,” maintains Jamal Ahmad of Gulbuddin Hekma-
tyar’s Hezb-i-Islami party, the one group based in Peshawar that has yet to join the Alliance. “It’s just a waste of very expensive bullets.”
It is clear that until the Afghan insurgents acquire sophisticated weapons, either through capture or outside aid, they will at best only be able to harass the Soviets and disrupt Moscow’s efforts to consolidate the occupation; and even that will be a difficult task. A guerrilla “night letter,” haphazardly produced and distributed, remains the only counter in Kabul to official propaganda about the “collapse” of the insurgency. Most of the resistance groups based in Pakistan say they have members underground in Kabul, and the February revolt was evidence of a sort in support of this claim. But much difficult, dangerous and patient work will be needed before the underground can tackle the regime in its own backyard. “We know there are majahidin [Islamic guerrillas] here,” a Kabul University student confided. “But we don’t know where to find them.”
Yet without doubt they are there, waiting—for that exposed Soviet back, for the badly guarded arms or gas dump—and preparing for the straggler of the army patrol in the mountains, for the next round of the struggle. And the population of Kabul, chafing under the yoke of the Soviet superpower, waits too. It waits like a bomb waits for its fuse to be lit.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.