The Russian journalist Dmitry Babich’s reminiscences of the chronicles of wasted time of the Red Army in Afghanistan in the 1980s invariably leap out of a morality play. He always has a Russian message for the West. He is consistent in lamenting that the United States and NATO should have consulted Moscow about how to handle the Afghan war so that the Russian mistakes were not repeated. Arguably, he has a point there — although it is far too late for lamentations now. But in his latest blog, Babich certainly goes overboard. This is when he discusses ‘warlordism’ in Afghanistan and blames the West for introducing this phenomenon in the Hindu Kush. I beg to differ. To my mind, the blame should be apportioned equitably.
I have heard from none other than Ahmed Shah Massoud himself how the Soviets struck a profound deal with him after the Red Army’s disastrous defeat at his hands in 1982-83. This conversation took place soon after I was given an extended ‘conducted tour’ of Panjshir Valley — first Indian to set foot there in very many years — and was briefed about the great ambush of the crack units of the Soviet army by the Mujahideen. At that time, the war having just got over, I could still see dozens of tanks and artillery pieces and heavy armour littered all over the valley — a great setting of breathtaking scenery with all that heavy iron and steel sitting and rusting for miles as eternal monument to human folly by the side of the Panjshir river which snaked its way shyly through the deep gorges guarded by towering mountains on both aides. You had to bend back all the way to catch a glimpse of the sky.
The Soviet officers just abandoned their weaponry and fled or were taken prisoner. Massoud drew the Soviet columns deep into the gorges and then cut them to pieces from the mountain tops where his guerillas were hiding. Later, when I was taken around to see Salaang tunnel, the Mujahidden commander who was escorting me explained part of the terms of the Soviets’ deal with Massoud — that he would allow the vital artery to be kept open provided the Soviets kept their part of the bargain. Babich is right that later it was Massoud who destroyed Kabul in the 1992-96 period. But Massoud enjoyed Russian support for a decade already prior to that. Sometimes I wonder how the percentage worked: to what extent Massoud allowed himself to be pampered by the French while trading with the Soviets at the same time.
Again, who raised Rashid Dostum, a lowly car mechanic in Mazar-i-Sharif, to the rank of an army general? I don’t think the West had anything to do with that. Babich is again right that it was Dostum’s back stabbing that brought down Najibullah’s regime. But how did that happen? Ambassador Yuli Vorontsov was partly right that when the Red Army pulled out in 1989, Najib was given some stocks of food and fuel reserve to last out in the event of a siege of Kabul. But what about money? I was in charge of the Indian embassy in Kabul for a while at that time and I am aware how Najib’s equations with Dostum gradually began deteriorating. Najib ran out of money to pay the monthly wages for Dostum’s Uzbeki militia who were a notoriously brutal lot (whom the Soviet commanders used to ‘pacify’ Pashtun provinces in the south and east).
But still, I don”t think Dostum would have defected to Massoud just like that. Dostum understood that the Soviet/Russian agencies were in touch with Massoud and covertly working on a transition to a post-Najibullah era in Afghanistan. And Dostum being Dostum, he wanted to be with the winning side. He linked up with Massoud despite the visceral dislike the two of them had toward each other, primarily because he got to estimate that with tacit Russian backing, Massoud was likely to beat Gulbuddin Hekmatyar in the race for Kabul.
The problem is that a great deal of what happened during those dramatic months in 1991-92 is still to be told and the one person who narrated a great deal to me subsequently (having been Massoud’s ace negotiator with the Russians and with Dostum in those tumultous months leading to the Mujahideen takeover), Dr. Abdurrahman, is no more with us. He was murdered in broad daylight in Kabul in 2002 while serving in Hamid Karzai’s cabinet as the civil aviation minister, by people who obviously feared that he knew far too much. By the way, Abdurrahman and I were good friends and when he last visited me in Ankara sometime in mid-2001 — he had come to attend the funeral of Dostum’s mother — he told me he already had a premonition that he would be killed soon. He had fallen out with the Panjshiris by that time. (Abdurrahman was a Nooristani himself). Indeed, 6 months later, he was murdered. I wrote an obituary on him.
Put simply, no one today wants to talk about all that happened. Babich’s narrative is hopelessly selective. Almost all foreign powers that dabbled in Afghanistan — including my country — have fostered ‘warlords’ some time or the other, as they found it expedient to do so in the ‘great game’. Shame on them all! Look at where all that skulduggery of realpolitik left the poor Afghan people!