|11 September 2001>News Stories>Blowback From the Afghan Battlefield
Blowback From the Afghan Battlefield
Tim Weiner . NYTimes . 13 March 1994
Under a relentless sun, Noor Amin traverses the lunar terrain of Afghanistan. A commander of the Islamic Party, Afghanistan's best-armed and most radical political faction, he has just finished a two-month stint running a military training camp outside the ruined village of Jaji.
Battling the wheel of his four-wheel-drive truck, he drives past miles of poppy fields where boys scrape brown opium into burlap sacks. To the east, inside mud forts in the mountains, laboratories turn the opium into heroin. He crosses the rutted highway running from the Khyber Pass to Kabul, the capital, past checkpoints manned by soldiers of the Islamic Party, their posts adorned with the grim image of their leader, Prime Minister Gulbuddin Hekmatyar.
Heading north, he enters a ruined Eden, a natural paradise strewn with man-made disaster. Jade and silver rivers tumble through green valleys where every house, school and mosque is destroyed. Burned-out tanks litter the land like the carcasses of prehistoric beasts. The villages look like archeological sites. Hardly a stone stands upon a stone, save in the graveyards where thousands of slate shards are stabbed into the rocky earth. This is the last great battleground of the cold war, in which the Afghans, backed by the United States Central Intelligence Agency, fought off the Soviet Union in the 1980's.
In the five years since the Soviets withdrew, tens of thousands of Islamic radicals, outcasts, visionaries and gunmen from some 40 nations have come to Afghanistan to learn the lessons of the jihad, the holy war, to train for armed insurrection, to bring the struggle back home.
For nearly a generation, blood and bones were sown into the Afghan dust by the weapons of the superpowers, and now the land bears a harvest of holy war and heroin. The sole field of victory for C.I.A.-backed "freedom fighters" in the 1980's has become an international center for the training and indoctrination of terrorists. The veterans of the jihad have taken their war abroad to Algeria, Azerbaijan, Bangladesh, Bosnia, Burma, China, Egypt, India, Morocco, Pakistan, Sudan, Tadzhikistan, Tunisia, Uzbekistan, Yemen -- and the United States.
"Yes, the whole country is a university for jihad, exactly as they say," Noor Amin declares proudly. He has come home to Asadabad, the ruined capital of Kunar Province, in northeastern Afghanistan. Inside a fortified warren of mud huts, he gently leans his automatic rifle against the wall of his one-room house.
"There are many formal training centers and the Islamic Party has many such schools," like the one near Jaji, he says. "We have had Egyptians, Sudanese, Arabs and other foreigners trained here as assassins."
As in any outlaw culture, guns, drugs and money are interchangeable here. Nonetheless, the unfailing wellspring of cash is the cultivation, sale and processing of opium from fields and labs controlled by rebel commanders. Government estimates vary, but Afghanistan now produces roughly a third of the heroin reaching the United States. Hundreds of tons of opium base are refined into heroin and shipped via Pakistan, Turkey and, increasingly, busy new routes in the Central Asian republics and the Balkans.
The heroin boom is not only predictable but necessary, say Afghan leaders and American officials. It is Afghanistan's only real cash crop, and no outside authority has the influence or muscle to prevent trafficking in what is essentially a lawless country. There is no civil law, no government, no economy -- only guns and drugs and anger.
And that rage is kindled every night in the campfires of the holy warriors. "The jihad, in the opinion of the the United States, was finished when the Communists were defeated," says Noor Amin, draining his tea and dashing the dregs in the dust. "But jihad has no end. It goes on forever."
MOST AFGHANS WANT nothing more than to end the fighting and try to rebuild their prewar lives. But they know that's not going to happen. "For us, Afghanistan is destroyed," says Abdul Haq, a politically moderate mujahedeen commander responsible for the Kabul region during the war. "It is turning to poison, and not only for us but for all others in the world. If you are a terrorist, you can have shelter here, no matter who you are. Day by day, there is the increase of drugs. Maybe one day they will have to send hundreds of thousands of troops to deal with that. And if they step in, they will be stuck. We have a British grave in Afghanistan. We have a Soviet grave. And then we will have an American grave."
In a sense, there are already at least eight American graves.
Afghanistan is where the man accused of assassinating two C.I.A. employees in the agency's driveway disappeared last year after fleeing the United States; where the men convicted of blowing up the World Trade Center, which killed six people, learned strategy and tactics; where the jihad called them and their spiritual leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, the blind Egyptian cleric charged with conspiring to overthrow the United States. Several of those convicted, as well as defendants in another indictment charging a conspiracy to devastate New York with bombs and political assassinations, raised money for or studied jihad with Hekmatyar's forces.
The C.I.A. has a word for this: blowback, a poisonous fallout, borne by political winds, drifting back home from a faraway battlefield.
"It's quite a shock," says Charles G. Cogan, the C.I.A.'s operations chief for the Near East and South Asia from 1979 to 1984. "The hypothesis that the mujahedeen would come to the United States and commit terrorist actions did not enter into our universe of thinking at the time. We were totally preoccupied with the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan. It is a significant unintended consequence."
The point isn't lost on Abdul Haq. "After the collapse of the Soviets, the biggest enemy of the U.S., what they hate the most is drugs and terrorism, yes?" he says. "Afghanistan is now the leader of the world in drugs and terrorism."
ABDULLAH JAN, THE GOVERNOR OF LAGHMAN Province, knocks back his sixth cup of after-dinner tea, pops a Russian candy in his mouth and mulls over the recent history of Afghan-American relations.
"So the C.I.A. says we are the University of Jihad?" He arches an eyebrow and smirks. "Why is the United States afraid? After all, it supported the faculty of this university." So it did, and it did so in one of the least morally ambiguous battles of the cold war.
The villagers of Afghanistan first encountered the wonders of modern technology in the form of Soviet jets, tanks and helicopters. Moscow's military juggernaut killed or maimed perhaps three million Afghans and sent six million fleeing west into Iran or east into Pakistan.
The Afghans took on the infidels. They died in uncounted numbers. They lived on stale bread and tea. They slept on stones in the mountains. And they drove the Soviets out. They fought their holy war with roughly $6 billion in weapons and materiel from the C.I.A., Saudi Arabia and an odd alliance of Iranian weapons procurers, Arab princes, Egyptian politicians and Chinese generals. Together, the Afghans achieved a famous victory. Some say it was the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union.
"But the people of Afghanistan, we have gone from one jail into another jail," says Abdul Hakim Katawazi, commander of the state police under the last king of Afghanistan in the early 1970's.
The prison guards are a God-mad rabble, the foot soldiers of a new Islamic order who received their advanced training in jihad in the military camps that now dot the countryside. Roughly 20 such centers exist in eastern Afghanistan between Kabul and the Khyber Pass, mostly under the control of Hekmatyar and his commanders. The camps have grown up around abandoned villages and battered Soviet military garrisons. Sacks of flour, some purloined from donations by the United States Agency for International Development, are stacked like sandbags in simple huts. Weapons, a good many of them taken from C.I.A.-supplied caches hoarded during the jihad, are plentiful.
In these training centers, the foreigners learn about guerrilla warfare, antiaircraft weapons and rocket-propelled grenades. Much in demand, but too precious to fire in training, is the Stinger antiaircraft missile, supplied by the hundreds to the Afghans by the C.I.A. in the 1980's. An unknown number are missing and unaccounted for; the C.I.A. is spending $65 million trying to buy them back.
The men fly to the bustling frontier town of Peshawar, Pakistan, to the east, riding buses or trucks over the Khyber Pass to Jalalabad, in Afghanistan. The provincial capital serves as a way station for the new arrivals heading for the camps. Here are Palestinians exiled from their native land; cashiered Egyptian army officers; Moroccans, Algerians and Sudanese intent on bringing down their Governments, and from time to time, Americans from New York, Detroit, Chicago and other cities.
The Afghans who lead the training, like Noor Amin, are in high demand wherever radical Islam is at war, for their victory was the first triumph of Islamic warriors over an infidel army since the 16th century. "Their jihad credentials, religious and political, are impeccable," says an American intelligence official. "They beat one of the world's two superpowers and now they're working on the second."
THE DEAN OF THE UNIVERSITY OF JIHAD, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, represents almost everything Americans hate, fear and misapprehend about radical Islam. The feeling appears to be mutual.
Talking with Hekmatyar is like listening to wind chimes tinkling on the porch of a burning building. A disarmingly feline man, he purses his lips and talks dispassionately of the death of millions. His aim is to build "a true Islamic republic," under his dominion, and he has the will and the weapons to fulfill that dream. If it takes another generation of war, so be it.
"We have already had one and a half million martyrs," Hekmatyar said in a 1992 interview. "We are ready to offer as many to establish a true Islamic republic. We are ready to remain in the mountains for another 14 years."
Unique among the world's Prime Ministers, Hekmatyar has spent the past 22 months firing artillery shells and rockets into the capital of his own country. This act of political sadomasochism began the week the rebels took Kabul from the Soviet-backed regime. The barrage is aimed at the citizens of Kabul, whom Hekmatyar considers to have collaborated with the Soviet occupation, and at the armed forces loyal to Afghanistan's President, Burhanuddin Rabbani. It has killed more than 10,000 Afghans, driven hundreds of thousands into squalid refugee camps, created political chaos and blocked millions of exiles from returning.
Among the refugees is Mohin Ajan, a carpenter by trade, sent fleeing with his wife and seven children by Hekmatyar's missiles. "He rules us by the power of weapons," says Ajan, who lives in a tent amid several thousand other internal exiles on a dusty promontory outside Jalalabad. "He is the king of weapons, not the king of Afghanistan."
Hekmatyar's weapons, the source of his ministry, come mainly from the enormous arsenal sent by the C.I.A.. The United States and its allies gave him more than $1 billion in armaments: tens of thousands of assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, millions of rounds of ammunition, hundreds of the deadly accurate Stinger missiles. Hekmatyar put away enough weapons to make war for four more years.
No one doubts he will. Hekmatyar's jihad never ended. When he speaks of a true Islamic republic, he means a land without borders.
BY THE TIME THE SOVIETS LEFT AFGHANISTAN in February 1989, thousands of Afghan-trained volunteers were ready to carry on the war abroad. Thousands more took their place in the camps.
The militants took the torch of the Afghan rebels' holy rage and turned their energies to a greater battle. They saw the 1991 Persian Gulf war as a modern manifestation of the medieval Crusades, the Arab nations supporting the war as corrupt collaborators with Christendom and the United States and the United Nations as imperial knights with smart bombs. Their anger was focused on Arab leaders they saw as American agents, and on America itself.
By 1992, as Kabul fell into chaos at the hands of the holy warriors, posters of Saddam adorned Afghanistan's shops and bazaars, mounted next to heroic pictures of Hekmatyar. As freedom fighter fought freedom fighter over the nation's broken remains, the fire that fueled the jihad began to spread beyond the borders drawn by the 19th-century imperial powers, Russia and the British Raj.
To the north lay Tadzhikistan and Uzbekistan. Tadzhiks and Uzbeks by the millions live in Afghanistan; tens of millions of their Muslim brothers live in the former Soviet republics. Some 20,000 people have died and a half-million have been forced from their homes as Islamic rebels battle the pro-Communist regime still in control of Tadzhikistan. Russia still has thousands of soldiers stationed there, fighting guerrillas on both sides of the Afghan border. The President of Uzbekistan, Islam Karimov, says he expects the rebels to attack his country and Tadzhikistan this spring.
To the east, hundreds of Afghans allied with Hekmatyar have fought in the embattled state of Jammu and Kashmir, a territory disputed since the 1947 partition of India and Pakistan. Thousands have died in the struggle. In China, where Islam has been periodically suppressed, Afghan veterans have fought in two western provinces, Uighur and Xinjiang, where they have armed and trained Chinese Muslim rebels.
To the west, Hekmatyar has sent 500 mujahedeen to fight in Azerbaijan with Iranian forces, according to Haji Abdul Qadr, the Governor of Afghanistan's Nangahar Province. Hundreds of Afghans have fought against Serbs and Croats in Bosnia.
Nowhere have veterans of the Afghan war made a greater impact on society than in Egypt and Algeria. Since 1992, when a junta nullified elections that would have brought Islamic leaders to power in Algeria, more than 2,000 people have died in a continuing campaign of terror and reprisal. The Islamic rebels in Algeria have led a two-year struggle spearheaded by guerrillas who are known collectively as Afghans, regardless of their nationality.
In Egypt, an unending series of assassinations, attacks on Government officials and local insurrections can be traced to the work of al-Gamaa al-Islamia, the Islamic Group. This organization, blamed for the 1981 assassination of President Anwar el-Sadat, established headquarters in exile in Jalalabad and in Peshawar in the mid-1980's. One of the most prominent figures at those new bases was Mohammed Shawki Islambouli, the brother of one of Sadat's assassins. In 1988 and 1990, he played host to Sheik Abdel Rahman, a spiritual leader of the Islamic Group, who struck up a personal and ideological friendship with Hekmatyar.
The Prime Minister reaffirmed his relationship with the sheik in July. As one set of United States authorities weighed deporting the sheik and another prepared an indictment against him, Hekmatyar offered him political asylum in Afghanistan, calling the cleric "a leader of the Islamic nation."
Among the sheik's followers is Mohammed Salameh, a Palestinian who in addition to being convicted in the World Trade Center case, raised money for the mujahedeen in Brooklyn. His roommate in a Jersey City apartment was Ramzi Ahmed Yousef, an Iraqi who fought in Afghanistan and arrived at Kennedy International Airport on a flight from Pakistan in September 1992. On that flight was Ahmad Ajaj, a Palestinian fresh from Afghanistan, whose suitcase bore bomb-making manuals. Ajaj was convicted in the trade center bombing, as was Mahmud Abouhalima, who also raised money for the rebels; friends say he went to Afghanistan to fight. Arrested in Egypt, he allegedly told Egyptian officials -- who may have tortured him -- that the World Trade Center bombing was planned in Afghanistan by veterans of the jihad, with the approval of Iranian intelligence officers and Rahman.
THE FURY OF HEKMATYAR AND HIS DISCIPLES may yet accomplish what Alexander the Great, Genghis Khan, Tamerlane, the armies of the Raj and the tanks and helicopter gunships of the Soviet Union could not. It may destroy Afghanistan.
After 60 centuries, the villages persist amid a lacework of rivers in a wilderness of stones, terraced fields of grain, orchards of apricots and oranges and mulberries. The people there are as strong and as beautiful as any on earth. A great many of those who have survived the war -- commanders, elders, headmen -- are trying, against great odds, to save the surviving villages. They are not terrorists or drug kingpins. They despise Hekmatyar and his eternal jihad.
In the shade of an arbor by the banks of the roaring Kunar River, Haji Rahmat Khan holds court. An ancient man with a long gray beard and glittering eyes, he tells a sad story often told in his province.
"It's a Kunar story, but it's the story of Afghanistan," he says, his hands plucking at his bandolier.
It is the story of Jamillur Rehman, once Hekmatyar's commander in Kunar Province and the most famous of the mujahedeen in these parts. In 1984, he was enticed to leave his command and join forces with well-financed fundamentalists called the Salafis, bankrolled by ultrareligious Saudis.
"He became a rich man," Haji Rahmat Khan says. "He took money from Saudi Arabia. All the Arabians gave him cars, money, everything." The money drew thousands of Arabs to the jihad, and today those men are fighting in Cairo and Khartoum and Algiers. After the Soviet withdrawal, the Salafis battled Hekmatyar's troops. The fighting destroyed most of what remained of Kunar Province. Jamillur Rehman was assassinated two years ago by Hekmatyar's forces.
"Those who killed him were not Russians or Americans," the old man says, his voice rising. "Afghans killed him. Those who killed him wanted the country for themselves. Now Hekmatyar and the rest of our stupid leaders are killing all our brothers, making them die like donkeys, not like heroes. We can't get rid of them -- we'd be killed or jailed.
"We didn't choose these leaders. The United States made Hekmatyar by giving him his weapons. Now we want the United States to shake these leaders and make them stop the killing, to save us from them.
"There is a fire burning in Afghanistan. Now, if there is a fire in my house, and my neighbor won't help put it out, what kind of neighbor is he? Doesn't he understand that his own house may burn?"
Tim Weiner, a correspondent in the Washington bureau of The Times, has reported on Afghanistan since 1987.