The last Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan have gone home, clearing the stage around Kabul and other cities for a major showdown between Soviet-supported government forces and their American-supported guerrilla rivals, the mujahideen. Conventional wisdom has it that the mujahideen are now in position to finally topple the Kabul regime. Former President Ronald Reagan based his policy on this premise — that peace in Afghanistan lay beyond a Soviet withdrawal and the overthrow of the Najibullah government. President George Bush, hoping to put his own imprint on what conservatives view as the one solid victory of the Reagan Doctrine, has decided to continue arming the rebels as long as the ruling People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) remains in power.

That may be for a while. The battle for Jalalabad, Afghanistan’s second largest city, began in early March. By the end of the month, many lives had been lost on both sides but the outcome was far from certain. Clearly the Kabul regime is not as weak and isolated as its detractors had contended. In addition, there are other outside forces meddling in Afghanistan besides the US and the Soviet Union, notably Pakistan. The events of March confirm impressions from a trip we made to Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Soviet Union in the weeks just prior to the final Soviet withdrawal.


All parties agree that some change in government is inevitable. In Moscow, I found increasing signs of an “Afghanistan syndrome,” testifying to the unpopularity of Soviet involvement in the war. Still, the Kremlin is doing what it can to prevent a takeover in Kabul by Islamist groups among the mujahideen, which officials fear would cause a long-term threat to Soviet security and have a demoralizing impact on Soviet foreign and domestic policy.

Foreign Ministry officials have been in frequent but quiet contact with the American Embassy, seeking restraint in US support for the Afghan rebels and support for a compromise interim government in Kabul. “The Soviets want to sit down with us and carve up Afghanistan and we’ve told them we won’t do this,” said an American official in Moscow. The Soviets have a different view. “The Americans are not living up to what they promised in Geneva, even regarding the agreement on so-called positive symmetry,” claimed one of the Kremlin’s foreign policy advisers. (“Positive symmetry” was the side agreement to the Geneva accords that allowed both the US and the Soviet Union to continue arming their respective clients as long as the other did the same, effectively rendering the main clauses of the accords ineffective.) “There was a gentlemen’s agreement,” the adviser said, “that we would tolerate this positive symmetry idea but that neither side should provide extraordinary aid. But the US continued to send in Stingers and increased its other supplies, which we could neither understand nor accept.”

Before departing Afghanistan the Soviets introduced sophisticated weaponry to bolster the government’s position and “to counter US supplies to the rebels.” They were also busy installing mechanisms that would allow Moscow to provide indirect support to Kabul after February. Visiting Kabul in mid-November, Oleg Baklanov, secretary of the Central Committee of the Soviet Communist Party, signed several final economic and military aid agreements which reportedly amounted to a blank check for Kabul. In January, Soviet Defense Minister Dmitri Yazov traveled to Kabul to assure President Najibullah that Moscow would continue its military supplies to his government. Yuri Vorontsov, Deputy Foreign Minister and ambassador to Afghanistan, shuttled between Kabul, Tehran and Saudi Arabia with desperate proposals for a broad-based transitional government. Meeting face to face with the rebels in Ta’if in December, the Soviets watched their proposals get summarily rejected.

Subsequent efforts by Foreign Minister Edvard Shevardnadze in Pakistan to encourage a settlement met equally cool responses from rebel representatives and Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto. Bhutto had in the past supported the formation of a broad-based coalition government in Kabul, but during the election campaign she toned down her enthusiasm for this project. After her People’s Party received a plurality in the November election, President Ghulam Ishaq Khan put Bhutto on hold before naming her prime minister. While she was kept waiting, Bhutto received visits from the Pakistani military, the US Defense Department and US Ambassador Robert Oakley. “Afghanistan was definitely one issue that both our military and the Americans wanted Ms. Bhutto to see eye to eye with them on,” a Pakistani analyst told me. “Since she wanted power badly enough she will let them deal with the war the way they want.”


One hundred miles from the Pakistani border, Kabul waits. Supporters and opponents of the government alike are apprehensive when talking about the future — especially civilians, who will suffer the most from continued fighting regardless of the outcome. The Afghan army may opt to use the bludgeoning tactics that the Soviets resorted to in their final days in order to beat back an assault. The Soviets’ weapons of choice were the Scud ground-to-ground missile and the various MiG bombers. The Scud, known as a “city-buster,” is a clumsy weapon for counterinsurgency. When aimed at an armed rebel caravan, it can wipe out a nearby village. And the MiGs have been the cause of most civilian and combatant deaths throughout the war.

Rebel rocket attacks on cities have also taken numerous civilian lives. Some rebel groups apologetically call these victims “martyrs,” while others dismiss them as “regime supporters” because they live in enemy territory. Kabul residents fear a repeat of the “Kunduz affair.” Private Western aid workers confirm that women were raped and civilian men shot when rebel bands overran that northern city last fall. Mujahideen representatives in Peshawar privately admit that sometimes the lower ranks of their commands, “the guys who are not always fighting for the right cause, might get out of our control.” Even mujahideen sympathizers whom we talked with in Kabul’s main bazaar were worried about the potential chaos to come. “Jang” one older Tajik man said when asked what will happen next: war.

Some women of Kabul are the most critical of the rebel alliance. Kabul offers a striking contrast to Peshawar, where most Afghan refugees in Pakistan live and where the rebels have set up headquarters. Around Peshawar one rarely sees the face of an Afghan woman. In many refugee camps one does not see any women at all: Purdah is strictly enforced. In Kabul, young women in high heels and Western-style dress walk freely through the streets next to women fully veiled. “We are not following radical lines here,” insisted Masooma Esmatee Wardak, leader of the All-Afghanistan Women’s Council. “Afghan women will never be totally independent like your American women, but we do think we have the right to work.” Referring to Gulbuddin Hikmatyar and other radical Islamists who have vowed to restore the practice of purdah everywhere in Afghanistan, she said: “We will fight Hikmatyar or any other person who tries to impose such an alien form of Islam on us.”

The staying power of the government ultimately depends on the loyalty and effectiveness of its defense forces. There are five military branches: the WAD (previously KHAD), the secret intelligence organization numbering 10-20,000; Sarandoi, the 25,000-strong gendarmerie of the Interior Ministry; the army and air force comprising 40-50,000 men; and government-paid tribal militia who number as many as 65,000 and frequently change sides in the war. An elite presidential guard reportedly comprises some 10-20,000 soldiers, probably recruited from the other branches.

The quality and loyalty of these forces are difficult to gauge. The military, many here believe, is still riven by fighting between the Khalq (Masses) and Parcham (Banner) factions of the PDPA. US officials think that leaders of Khalq, the more radical faction that has traditionally dominated the military, may overthrow Najib and other Parchamis and launch a more militant counterinsurgency campaign. Another scenario envisions one faction of the army desperately buying immunity from the rebels by launching their own coup. Some US representatives told us they saw this scenario as “the quickest and cleanest way” to a change in power.

The head of the army, Lt. Gen. Shahnawaz Tanai, is a Khalq, but according to some he is a “closet Parchami, a protege of Najib.” A visible rivalry exists between WAD and Sarandoi. One Sarandoi officer highlighted the differences between his agency and WAD as to how to subdue the opposition, implying WAD too often opts for counterterrorist tactics that further alienate the people from the government — apparently referring to bombs in refugee camps and the torturing of suspected mujahideen collaborators. Because of Sarandoi’s strong tribal affiliations, its soldiers may be the first to defect once things become difficult.

The army and the air force, the core of the military, face major strategic and psychological problems, yet appear surprisingly calm and disciplined. Confidence levels seem to vary with proximity to the fortified capital. In November, at the huge Shindand air base in the west, Afghan pilots appeared relaxed as they prepared to carry out a bombing operation around the southern city of Kandahar, where government forces were barely holding on, but some Soviet advisers standing nearby mocked their Afghan counterparts as incompetent. Col. Subotin said that if the Afghans can conduct effective air operations they will hold onto the major cities. The colonel refused to acknowledge that some Afghan pilots have defected to Pakistan after escaping Soviet supervision. A shop in Darra, Afghanistan. The goatskin hanging by the door indicates that hashish can be purchased here.

An Afghan army commander in Kabul explained why and how his government’s military will stand strong beyond the Soviet departure. “Some of us still believe in what we are fighting for. Others, who know that the opposition has no mercy for so-called collaborators of the regime, are going to fight for their lives.” An informal adviser to Najibullah on Pashtun tribal affairs opined that “this government went as far as it could politically with National Reconciliation” — the ruling party’s political base-broadening program — “and now its back is up against the wall. It must either fight or step aside, and under these circumstances it will not step aside.”

From Islamabad to Washington

US and Pakistani intelligence are intent on wiping out the PDPA and replacing it with the anti-Soviet, Peshawar-based rebel alliance. Having helped create the alliance in the first place, the Pakistani Inter-Service Intelligence (ISI), whose role in Pakistani foreign policy has grown tremendously since the war began, hopes to influence an alliance-led regime in Kabul. Long concerned with Pashtun nationalism, the ISI has distributed CIA-purchased weapons with some favoritism toward those rebel groups which have no ambitions of creating a “greater Afghanistan” beyond the Durand Line.

The US has yielded to Pakistan’s “forward policy” throughout the war. This was partly in return for Pakistan’s willingness to harbor the rebels and refugees and partly because such a policy seemed to further its objective of forcing a Soviet withdrawal, even if it meant supporting the most radical rebel factions — the “Islamists” as opposed to the “traditionalists.” A Pentagon document describes the head of ISI, Hamid Gul, as “a real firebreather on religious matters.”

The ISI saw the Hizb-i-Islami (Islamic Party) faction headed by Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, as an effective and reliable military instrument, and an unusually tight political party consisting of northern Pashtuns and Tajiks whose primary goal was to Islamicize Afghanistan while downplaying ethnic identity and loyalty. To the CIA, he was the head of the most militant and organized group that, it was thought, would make the best use of American-supplied weaponry. Since last year, however, the CIA has shifted its focus away from Hikmatyar and other party leaders to certain commanders operating inside Afghanistan. A CIA military situation map of Afghanistan shows that Hikmatyar’s forces have not performed that well after all. The State Department, furthermore, was growing concerned about the implications of fueling a political party bent on carrying their jihad into the Soviet Central Asian republics. “His group served its purpose, they performed well for a while, and now we’re concentrating on helping those groups which are less divisive,” explained a US official who insisted on anonymity. Hikmatyar’s group, though, has stockpiled unknown quantities of weapons for possible use against rivals within the rebel alliance.

The late US ambassador to Pakistan, Arnold Raphel, had the mission to convince President Zia ul Haq to reduce support for Hikmatyar and to work more closely with the internal commanders. Zia agreed that as the Soviets withdrew, the course of the war necessitated more direct support for the internal commanders. Pakistani soldiers were sent across the border in greater numbers to assist the mujahideen in conventional warfare tactics and to help operate communications equipment designed to coordinate rebel attacks. But Zia did not stop his support for Hikmatyar.

Zia and Raphel were killed in a mysterious and fatal plane crash in August, and were replaced by Gen. Aslam Mirza Beg and Ambassador Robert Oakley. No newcomer to the Afghan war, Oakley had been senior director for Middle East and South Asian affairs on the National Security Council. Beg, a Bihari who concurrently commands the Sind Regiment, is “widely believed to feel that the military…has been weakened by its constant involvement in politics and diversion from its strictly military tasks, and that a return to the barracks is the only way to restore full professionalism to the armed forces,” according to a US Defense Intelligence Agency biographical sketch.

But Beg, with his non-interventionist views, probably does not have as much control over the ISI as Zia did. The CIA military pipeline has been directly with the ISI, which still wants to see an Islamist-dominated government in Kabul and is doing what it can on the battlefield and in Islamabad to pave the way for one.

While arming the internal commanders for strategic reasons, Washington still officially supports the political aims of the Peshawar Seven. Beyond this, the US attitude toward the nature of a transitional mujahideen government is not clear. One faction is angered by ISI’s attempts to install a “fundamentalist” government in Kabul, while another faction, led by Ambassador Oakley, cautions against damaging what it sees as a good working relationship with ISI. US officials confidently predict that the Kabul regime will “unravel” rapidly, though a Pentagon intelligence report admits that “disunity among the principal insurgent parties could handicap a coherent strategy aimed at reducing the Kabul redoubt and capturing the capital.” The key to the war’s outcome may hinge on the rebels’ success in encouraging mass defections. “If this tactic fails,” the report predicts, “the mujahideen will carry out direct assaults.”

Most rebels we interviewed hoped they would not have to resort to this, and thought that a successful shura would prove the difference. Edmund McWilliams, previously deputy chief of mission at the US Embassy in Kabul and now Oakley’s special assistant on Afghan matters, has been helping to coordinate rebel political and military strategy. McWilliams has been in touch with the various commanders and party leaders to keep them working together at least until Kabul has fallen. “Unfortunately, the Afghan way of doing things is to go into a village, rape and plunder it and then sit down to divide up the booty,” explained one US official. “So McWilliams is trying to keep their nose to the grindstone to get them to plan ahead, because Kabul isn’t your average village.”

Rebel Splits

Disagreements continue among the various rebel factions over the composition or mission of an interim government. The Islamists proposed a shura consisting mainly of party representatives and commanders. For years, the traditionalists favored a loya jirga, or Grand National Assembly, which would name a new government. The jirga would consist of the woloswali (administrative civic units) tribal elders, religious leaders (pirs), and representatives of the exiled intelligentsia. “Hikmatyar and the others are afraid of a jirga because they know they have no political base in Afghanistan,” claimed an Afghan tied to a traditionalist party. The Islamists fire back that a jirga would bring to power supporters of the old monarchical system, whose tolerance for secularism and Soviet influence lay at the root of Afghanistan’s present problems. Complicating matters are demands from Iran-based Shi‘i rebels for more representation in a shura than the ISI or Islamist groups are willing to accept.

In early August 1988, after the Soviets began their withdrawal, commanders loyal to the traditionalist wing attempted to capture the southern city of Kandahar and set up their own government. Reportedly they were negotiating with government military units and tribal militia to support their takeover, after which they would fly in ex-King Zahir Shah (who happens to be Pashtun), to call a loya jirga. The ISI learned of this plan and informed Hikmatyar, who led a delegation to Kandahar. He failed to impose his own alliance, but government military units fearing retribution by Hizbi forces refused to defect.

In early November, members of the other Hizb-i Islami, led by Yunis Khalis, closed in on Afghan troops guarding the southern border town of Torkham. When an estimated 60 to 70 surrendered, they were quickly executed and their bodies dumped by the side of the road in tea crates. Remaining troops rallied, reasserted tenuous control of Torkham and pushed Khalis’ forces back to Pakistan. Subsequently, representatives of the traditionalist group led by Ahmad Gailani and Sibghatullah Mojadidi went to Torkham and successfully negotiated the defection of many remaining government soldiers, convincing them their lives would be spared.

A representative of the traditionalist wing told us that the ISI simply warned them that if they did not go along with a shura they would be cut off militarily. The apparent US favorite alliance party now is the Jamiat Islami (Islamic Society) of Burhannudin Rabbani, who talks about a “shura-quasi-jirga.” “The problem with the jirga is that it is associated with the king,” explained Massoud Khalili, political adviser to Rabbani. “A mixed blend,” he explained, “could satisfy everyone, maybe even the communists, because in a shura one is elected. If the people of Kabul want to elect a communist they can do it.”

Such private comments do not jibe with public ones, or with what most people believe. Still, this moderate tone has earned Rabbani increased US support. Last fall Rabbani visited advisers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Tehran and George Bush at the White House, showing that he was a “pragmatic Islamist.” Jamiat Islami is, by most accounts, the strongest militarily. Its commanders, among them the famous Ahmad Shah Massoud, control more territory than the other parties, including much of northern Afghanistan. Massoud operates in the Panjshir Valley, through which thousands of Soviet soldiers had to ride home. Reportedly, US and Soviet officials agreed before the Geneva Accords that the US would restrain rebel attacks on departing Soviet troops as long as those troops did not conduct offensive operations. Hence Rabbani’s group was not cut out of the arms supply circuit as much as the other groups. The ISI is also comfortable with Rabbani and his followers, mainly northern Tajiks who have no interest in fomenting Pashtun nationalism along the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Target: Kabul

The ongoing battle for Jalalabad shows clearly that to take major cities, the commanders must coordinate their forces with those of other factions. Last fall, Pakistani military officials traveled to the Panjshir Valley, reportedly to help prepare Ahmad Shah Massoud’s forces for an eventual attack on Kabul. It is still uncertain whether other commanders around Kabul will cooperate. To get to Kabul, Massoud’s forces would have to travel through territory controlled by Hikmatyar, who may have his own plans for an attack. On the other side of Kabul sits Abd al-Haq, another famous commander and rival to Massoud. His cooperation would be essential to a successful attack. Recognizing the difficulties of coordinating an attack if the regime fails to crumble from within, US officials recently have discussed the possibility of launching a coup by mujahideen infiltrators and sympathizers.

The commanders are more unified than the alliance parties who continue to dominate the politics of the opposition. Recognizing that “Pakistani interference” has caused last minute problems for the mujahideen, some US officials have increasingly revealed their differences with ISI and are “trying to curb Pakistan’s appetite” in Afghanistan. Ironically, the organization that helped execute US policy in Afghanistan and grew in size and influence as a result of that policy has come in for US criticism in the final stage of war. But US support of the alliance’s political aims remains steadfast.

When alliance representatives met Soviet officials for the first time in Saudi Arabia in December, the Islamists flatly turned down Soviet proposals to allow for a minor PDPA role in the next government as part of a ceasefire agreement. Backed by the Pakistanis and the Americans, and "recognized" by the Soviets, the Islamist-dominated alliance sees little reason to negotiate its way into a power-sharing agreement when it thinks it can fight its way to complete control. The US, in the meantime, may be preparing to step out of Afghanistan, confident of an overthrow but wary of the resulting mess. Besides, as one Pakistani military official put it, “The initial CIA-ISI agreement was to knock out the PDPA. After that it was Pakistan’s affair.”

How to cite this article:

Steven Galster, Jochen Hippler "Report from Afghanistan," Middle East Report 158 (May/June 1989).

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