At night, dogs take over the streets of Kabul. Hundreds, perhaps thousands of them, roam the city, dig through garbage that’s dumped into the ditches during the day, and engage in vicious barking battles to defend their territories. The dogs are rarely bothered: Small groups of soldiers patrol the dark streets with machine guns, once in a while an army jeep hurtles by at breakneck speed or a lone tank rumbles over the pavement. The six-hour curfew each night—from 10 pm to 4 am—is a stark reminder that a part of the country is still at war.

As soon as the calls to prayer sound over its many mosques, shortly before four in the morning, Kabul begins to shed its night-time aspect. Life picks up at once. Water carriers bring their cowskins to the public fountains, then carry the full skins on their backs up the steep hills of Kabul to houses with no running water, to the bazaar area to sell to vendors preparing soft drinks, or to small merchants who want to keep their produce fresh. Five, six and seven-year-old boys take up their positions on street corners to sell cigarettes—by the piece, not by the pack—or other small items. Blind and crippled beggars are led to the spots where they will sit all day, repeating chants or simply saying “Allah, Allah.” The first taxis, yellow and white, cruise in search of customers. Peasants bring their donkeys to the bazaar loaded with eggplants, cucumbers, lettuce, tomatoes or squash. Banana sellers set up their small round tables on which they put their day’s share of the small, sweet dark-skinned fruit—most of it imported from neighboring Pakistan.

The bakeries set out the freshly baked, flat, long loaves of “nan.” (Often it is hung on hooks or strung up on walls for sale.) The sidewalks begin to crowd with merchants, many simply setting their wares on blankets on the dusty ground: rice, spices, clothing, dried fruit, shoes, sheep heads and popcorn, already popped, piled in tall white mountains. Letter writers take up their positions in front of the post offices.

Uniformed soldiers and members of the militia in civilian clothes begin their daytime patrols, carrying machine guns or automatic rifles. They occasionally stop men to check their identification cards, to see whether they have served in the military. At times, army trucks drive up on street corners, or into the bazaars: These soldiers are checking in earnest. Two or three young men who don’t have IDs are taken to the truck. After the operation is over, they are driven to the police station or the army barracks. Their families are notified, said one officer in charge, and if they still can’t produce documents that they have served in the armed forces they are drafted. Relations between the soldiers and the people are not visibly tense. The patrols stop to talk, exchange greetings; one frequently sees a soldier in uniform walking hand in hand with another man, as close friends often do.

It was May 1983 when I visited Kabul. I asked everybody I could about the military situation in the city, and how safe it would be to travel by road to other cities, such as Jalalabad, some 100 km to the east. In one instance I raised the question in a bank. Several employees told me right away they didn’t like the Soviet troops, but they took a poll, and concluded it would probably be safe to take a car to Jalalabad. Three Austrian journalists did that while I was in Kabul and encountered no problems. It is certainly safe in the city; there has been no fighting here for several months, they tell me. This matches other descriptions I get about the security situation. Indeed, security around most government buildings—the defense and interior ministries and the presidential palace are exceptions—seems lax. High-ranking military officers walk the crowded streets in uniform and without bodyguards.

The immediate area around the capital has reportedly been fairly quiet too. Earlier in the year some power lines were cut down outside Kabul, causing a temporary blackout. People described an attack on a police station several miles outside of the city during the night of May 25 and 26 as an “isolated” incident; machine-gun and artillery fire lasted almost all night and could be heard in downtown Kabul.

People in Kabul were quite frank about their political views. A janitor in a government-owned bank told me loudly that he wanted the Soviets out; several other employees agreed. A group of carpet merchants from the northern city of Mazar-e Sharif thought differently: in a little restaurant they invited me to join them in drinks “to the health of our beloved leader, Babrak Karmal.” A waiter got annoyed when I asked him what was true in Western press reports about government repression: “We are Afghans. We know what is going on in this country. The revolution is good.”

None of the government opponents I met claim to support the rebel movement fighting from Pakistan. “What do you want to see instead?” I asked, but I found no answers. Many people seemed to want Soviet troops out, but for those I spoke with, the alternative doesn’t lie with the Pakistan-based groups.

Afghan government officials were optimistic. I frequently heard that “The backbone of the counterrevolution has been broken.” Government officials readily conceded that they do not “control” the country militarily. In most areas, these officials said, the rebels are able to carry out hit-and-run raids. According to the deputy minister for tribal affairs, the government doesn’t even have administrative units in a region like Nuristan, a mountainous area close to the border with Pakistan with a long tradition of independence from the central government.

Nonetheless, there were indications that the military position of the government had improved in recent months:

  • Government ministers, including President Babrak Karmal, travel into the provinces.
  • The roads have become safer. For instance, transport of firewood from the northeast ran without problems last winter, and this year, fertilizer has been shipped from Mazar-i-Sharif all over the country. I saw soldiers board overland buses in uniform but without guns.
  • In May the government felt confident enough to release 1,500 to 2,000 prisoners described as former counter-revolutionaries from Pole-e Charki prison close to Kabul. The prisoners I saw freed looked healthy and well-dressed.
  • The army apparently has grown in numbers, and this year the government has not had to use militias from the trade unions and the youth organization at the front. In fact, the war appears to have changed from one that had clearly defined “fronts” to a war in which rebel units use hit-and-run tactics against government and Soviet troops.

Government officials attribute this change not so much to military victories as to successful negotiations with tribal leaders and rebel commanders inside the country. According to government figures, almost 300 rebel commanders had “surrendered” to the government in the months before May 1983, bringing with them some 20,000 armed men. While I could not verify these figures, a trend toward defections of rebel military commanders inside Afghanistan from their Pakistan-based leadership seems to have become a major factor in Afghanistan’s political development.

I spoke with one of these commanders, a young man named Malang. He had been the leader of a 200- to 300-man detachment in Kabul province, and a member of the Islamic party of Gulbeddin Hikmatyar. Malang joined the “holy war” immediately after Soviet troops entered the country. He said he soon became disenchanted with the political leadership of the Islamic Party, after he went to Pakistan several times to pick up arms and get training. The leadership impressed him as corrupt and money-hungry. At the same time, Malang claimed, he came to see that the government reforms benefited the people. He decided to open negotiations with the government last year. The government accepted, and Malang and his men went over to the other side. Malang, now a lieutenant in the Afghan army said he is determined “to make up for my crimes.”

I met Malang in the Afghan Defense Ministry, the only government building I visited where I saw numerous Soviet advisers, officers and civilians. Many office doors had both Russian and Dari signs on them. Malang is a young man, no older than 30. He seemed almost shy when he talked about his “activities as a counterrevolutionary.” According to Malang, popular support for his detachment decreased soon after December 1979. He then had to forcibly recruit young men. “We sent them to Pakistan for ideological and military training.” His detachment “terrorized” the population, stealing what they couldn’t get otherwise, and killing people who did not support them—at times, he said, killing people just for wearing Western-type clothes.

In June 1983, the government concluded another successful negotiation: Ahmad Shah Massoud, a prominent rebel chief in the Panjsher Valley, agreed to a truce. This valley, just north of Kabul, is probably the single most important area for the government. Before I left the United States, I had seen press reports of large-scale Soviet bombings of Massoud’s positions in the valley, resulting in a new stream of refugees into Kabul. In Kabul itself, no large numbers of new refugees are in evidence, and nobody I talked to, including opponents of the government from this valley, had heard about this “stream of refugees.”

Government officials were also negotiating with tribal leaders who had been hostile to the government. Deputy Minister for Tribal Affairs Shafi conceded that the resistance of many of these leaders is the result of grave mistakes committed “in the first phase of the revolution,” the years 1978 and 1979. The government of Babrak Karmal has changed its approach to promoting reforms in “the second phase of the revolution.” Instead of constantly challenging the established power structure, the government tries to work with it. In the literacy campaign, for instance, people are urged to learn how to read and write in order to more fully understand the Qur’an. Some of the courses are now taught in mosques. To better implement the land reform, study teams have been sent into many provinces to examine the local conditions. “In the first phase of the revolution,” land at times was taken from tribal leaders whose power was not based on their being landlords but on other social factors, and this created considerable resentment.

The biggest challenge the government reform program presents to the established social structure concerns guaranteeing equal rights for women and men. Jamita Nahid of the Democratic Women’s Organization told me that organizing in some rural areas has met considerable opposition. The DWO recruits members through the literacy campaign and the women’s clubs, where women meet to produce handicrafts and talk about their concerns. The DWO sets up child care centers so women can attend the clubs and literacy courses. In many areas, women still have to get permission from their husbands to leave the house to visit their parents, and all the more so to attend literacy courses. Thinking that women are inferior is deeply ingrained after centuries of reactionary rule, says Nahid; even some of the more conscious men and party members have problems implementing the laws in their own personal lives. She believes it might be another generation or longer before significant steps will be made for women’s rights. And, she says, that might also be the amount of time necessary to bring peace to the country.

She might be right—even optimistic. The government has made military and political gains and broadened its base. Movement toward an internal political solution is underway, but a political solution in an international framework appears out of reach for the time being. The Reagan administration is committed to supporting the Pakistan-based rebel organizations in an operation that appears to be the largest CIA paramilitary campaign since the Angola war—even greater than Nicaragua in dollar terms. Pakistan’s ruler, Zia ul Haq, appears nervous about domestic repercussions of the rebel presence, but his options are quite limited by his close ties to Washington.

The Soviet and the Afghan governments do want the Soviet troops to leave, but neither are prepared to return to a pre-1978 Afghanistan, or to share power with the rebel chiefs in Pakistan. The Soviets and the People’s Democratic Party seem confident they cannot be defeated militarily but, for Reagan, it’s a cheap way of tying down Soviet troops and scoring points in the propaganda campaign against the Soviet Union.

How to cite this article:

Konrad Ege "Letter from Kabul," Middle East Report 119 (November/December 1983).
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