Memories of the Mekong

Robert Fisk

  • The Struggle for Afghanistan by Nancy Newell and Richard Newell
    Cornell, 236 pp, £9.00, August 1981, ISBN 0 8014 1389 3
  • Afghanistan by John Griffiths
    Deutsch, 225 pp, £7.95, June 1981, ISBN 0 233 97350 8

Soviet troops are not instinctive, rapacious killers nor are they the political descendants of Genghis Khan. The soldiers who put me on board their convoy in the snows of the Hindu Kush last year were polite, confused, under-trained, frustrated, pathetically anxious to appear civilised in a country whose people wanted to kill them. We had already been ambushed by the Mojaheddin north of Charikar and when we had been driving southwards for another five hours, the convoy commander sitting next to me in the Soviet Army truck asked me if I liked Afghanistan. It was a beautiful country, I replied with a journalist’s discretion. But what did he think of the Afghans?

The major stared gloomily out of the truck window at the Soviet armoured vehicle escorting us, its crew vainly trying to control the metal tracks as they skidded on the ice. His wife and daughter were in Tashkent and he had already vouchsafed his desire to return to them as quickly as possible. Some Afghan villagers, their heads cowled in shawls, watched us from the snow drifts beside the road. ‘The Afghans,’ the Major said at last, ‘are hitra.’ I made a mental note of the word and when we eventually reached Kabul, I looked it up in a Russian dictionary. Hitra, it transpired, meant ‘cunning’.

A few days later, on the low, humid plains of the Punjab, I was sitting in the office of an American diplomat who scarcely bothered to conceal his CIA connections. The air-conditioning had broken down and a grubby plastic fan was laboriously fighting the heat in the corner of the room. The American went over to his desk and produced a small rectangular document in Russian script which bore a photograph of a shy, desperately young man in Soviet Air Force uniform. ‘The Mojaheddin picked this up after his helicopter crashed,’ the American said. ‘Nice-looking kid. Why do they send these boys to Afghanistan to die? Didn’t they learn anything from Vietnam?’

The Russians did not, of course, and their blundering campaign in Afghanistan in the spring of 1980 demonstrated that the Red Army, far from being the invincible monolith that we remember from newsreels of the Second World War, was another unwieldy, over-armed colossus. The Russians might be able to stand astride the world but they could not, it seemed, even hobble across the Hindu Kush without taking casualties from peasants with breech-loading rifles. The myth came savagely to pieces for the Russians in Afghanistan and by all accounts the colossus is still learning its lesson. Does the Red Army have its Wilfred Owens and Siegfried Sassoons, one wonders, to catalogue its journey down that profound dull tunnel?

Nancy and Richard Newell’s book suggests that they do, quoting a poem by a Soviet paratrooper who was killed in Afghanistan more than a year ago, a young man who wrote to his lover about his own future death:

He did not live beyond the hour before dawn
He fell on his chest and closed up the ground with his wounds,
He fell on his chest not during war but in peace,
When spring ignites the stars of love for us.

According to the Newells, the Afghan guerrillas are the only people actively working against Soviet interference. The United States remains impotent, partly because it cannot achieve a worthwhile relationship with India – the one nation that might have some influence with the Soviets. The Kremlin now has to weigh the economic, political, military and moral costs of expanding the war in Afghanistan against its defence commitments along the Chinese frontier and in Eastern Europe. Only the prospect of mutual escalation between the guerrillas and the Soviet Army, the authors believe, could induce the Russians to give serious consideration to a withdrawal. But would the guerrillas really be capable of such an escalation, even if they acquired the weapons that many in the West would like to give them?

If John Griffiths’s book on Afghanistan is to be believed, the convoy major’s assessment of the Afghans contains some truth. Among the Pathans, Mr Griffiths tells us, ‘generosity and nobility of manner can yield to the most scathingly expressed form of contempt in the world: an ice-basilisk glance and a tiny gobbet of precision-planted spit at the despised one’s feet.’ The Hazara tribe possess ‘Mongoloid features and truculence of manner’. The Tajiks are ‘poets, dreamers, intellectuals’ – and you can tell that to the Red Army. At times, indeed, Mr Griffiths sounds like one of those 19th-century British civil servants whose North-West Frontier memoirs are currently being reprinted by the enterprising publishing houses of Rawalpindi and Lahore.

And like the British in India, he never quite seems to make up his mind about the Afghans. He refers to the Mojaheddin guerrillas as ‘freedom fighters’, although it is transparently obvious that the sort of freedom the Hezbi-Islami would visit upon their people has more in common with medieval serfdom than democracy. Enormously brave as they undoubtedly are, the Mojaheddin – the ‘freedom fighters’ – have also distinguished themselves in Afghanistan by burning down government schools, murdering teachers and sometimes whole families of government supporters. They use the tactics of terrorists, because, like all guerrillas, be they the Mau Mau, Fatah, the Irgun, the IRA or ETA, they are terrorists. And the Soviet-supported Afghan Government – like other governments which attempt to suppress opposition by aerial bombing, napalm and prison massacres – are using terrorist tactics too. Is it really adequate to slot the Afghan rebels and the Afghan Government into neat, supermarket categories?

At the very end of his book, Griffiths comes near to the point. The problem of Afghanistan, he admits, is compounded by the fact that ‘freedom and reform appear to be on opposite sides.’ Indeed they are. The feudal instincts of the Afghan tribes, the inequality of women, the refusal to pay taxes or contribute to a central state body which would at least give the nation some sense of coherence and economic stability, the conservative, often ignorant rule of the Mullahs – these features do not make rural Afghanistan an attractive place in which to live.

It is difficult not to feel some sympathy with the young Marxists who wanted to change this society, to create an economic infrastructure and to cut away at the occasionally pernicious power of the Muslim clergy. In the early days of the Taraki revolution, the Mullahs often refused to permit village women to attend high-school classes; when their teachers were attacked by mobs, the Afghan Army was forced to intervene. The fighting that sometimes ensued – and the deaths – was one reason why the Taraki Government lost its control of the countryside: which was one reason in turn why the Soviets had to enter Afghanistan to support the authorities.

But the conservatism of a rural population cannot just be wiped away. If people are not taught – induced, perhaps – to accept the advantages of social change, then no beneficial transition will come about. You cannot eliminate poverty by surrounding the poor with high-technology industry unless you train them to use the precision tools in the factories themselves. Reform in Afghanistan has always come from outside, from the monarchy and then from the Communists, from Kabul with its paved roads, its communications, its comparative wealth and, more to the point, its Pathan majority. So the peasants resisted and gave birth to a counter-revolution as popular as the original Taraki revolution was unpopular.

I recall a 12-hour bus journey through the snows from Kandahar one sub-zero February day, the old Mercedes coach packed with villagers who hissed and slid their fingers across their throats at the Soviet Army checkpoints and who insisted with characteristic generosity that all their food must be shared with the English stranger on the bus. Some Soviet Tajik troops waved at the passengers, who scowled back until they saw that the Russian soldiers had removed their hammer-and-sickle cap badges: then the Afghans nudged each other and nodded unsmiling at the soldiers. East of Ghazni, as a long Soviet troop convoy growled past in the ice and darkness, our bus stopped for the passengers to climb out onto the road. There, on the black ice beside the Russian trucks, the passengers knelt on their little blankets and prayed, the snow hissing round their hair and beards. Only annihilation could quickly break down such devotion.

But annihilation, or partial annihilation, seems to be something which the Soviets have more than contemplated. Some days later, I sat in the garden of the Spinghar Hotel in Jalalabad watching flight after flight of Soviet Hinde helicopters sweeping low over the town; and when I took a motorised rickshaw a few miles up the Kabul road with a colleague from the Guardian I soon realised what was happening: the Soviets were bombing the little village of Suk Rud, blasting it day and night with cluster bombs and sending the survivors fleeing across the river by camel.

Those young, frightened Soviet teenagers were like the soldiers of every army. Individually, they were friendly, polite, ill at ease with strangers, anxious to get home to wives and children. Collectively, they obeyed orders and re-created above the palm trees and pigeon lofts of Jalalabad the very aerial violence that we had watched on our television sets ten years before from the paddy fields of the Mekong Delta. At night, as the cicadas hissed in the bushes of my hotel, I could watch the tracer fire of the Mojaheddin crisscrossing the purple sky around the Jalalabad perimeter. Was it not like this at Phnom Phen before the end?

Mr Griffiths takes a less emotional view of Afghanistan – but occasionally one has to question his accuracy. How can he refer to ‘non-alcoholic Afghanistan’ when the country is awash with Czech beer and Polish vodka, legally sold at hotels in every town? Despite the rumours, is he really certain that Dr Anahita is – or was – Babrak Karmal’s mistress? He says that the Russian ASU 85 armoured vehicle ‘betrayed the identity’ of Soviet Parachute Divisions in Afghanistan: but this is nonsense. Soviet airborne units carry an insignia of wings and a parachute on the sides of their vehicles – I should know because the Soviet 106th Parachute Division arrested me in the Salang Pass in late January 1980.

Griffiths is on firmer ground when he writes about Afghanistan in its international context. The country was for more than a century a buffer state between East and West and now it is a buffer state no more. The West wants to re-create Afghan neutrality but a Soviet withdrawal seems out of the question. Could the Kremlin afford to pull out of Kabul and keep face with the Poles, the Czechs, the Hungarians and the East Germans? Could they present a credible face to the Chinese if they flinched before the stolen rifles of the Mojaheddin? Griffiths suggests the possibility of a Karmal coalition with Gailani, the more moderate of the guerrilla leaders, a formula which might give Moscow the opportunity of withdrawing in good grace. But what makes anyone think that the Soviets, who lost twenty million dead in the Second World War, are not prepared to take twenty thousand dead in Afghanistan? On the graves of Soviet troops who die in Afghanistan, the inscription is written: ‘They died for international duty.’ Down in Peshawar, the ivy crawls over the gravestones of the British troops killed by the Pathans a century ago. The British stayed for more than a hundred years. Why shouldn’t the Russians do the same?