The water in Afghanistan must boil at the right temperature.’
President Zia-ul-Haq of Pakistan to Lieutenant-General Akhtar Abdul Rehman
Khan, December, 1979.
QUETTA is the capital of Baluchistan Province in Pakistan. My life as a soldier was completely changed because of Quetta, which has been a garrison town since the last quarter of the 19th century. Its name is a variation of the word ‘kwat-kot’, signifying a fortress, as it is the southernmost point in a line of frontier posts that date back to the days long before the partition of the Indian sub-continent into Pakistan and India in 1947. It grew from a dilapidated group of mud buildings into a thriving market community, and one of the most popular stations of the old British Indian Army. The military Staff College of Pakistan, which I had attended as a young major, was originally established at Quetta in 1907, and is today a college of international repute, with potential senior officers from many foreign countries competing for places. Students from Britain, Canada, Australia, the US, Egypt, Jordan, Thailand, Singapore, Saudi Arabia and elsewhere had all rubbed shoulders with me on the same course. The Quetta earthquake of 1935 flattened the town, killing some 40,000 people and making it the most destructive quake of modern times, until the June, 1990, one in northern Iran. Today it is an important Pakistan Army garrison town with a large military cantonment area housing numerous units and a corps headquarters. It is the centre of a base area for possible operations in Baluchistan, or along the border. A hundred kilometres to the NW, over the Khojak Pass, is the southern gateway into Afghanistan (see Map 1).
I was in Quetta when I received the telephone call that was to send me to my new posting with the ISI. It was September, 1983, and I was taking part in divisional war games as a brigade commander. Later, I learned that it was the so-called ‘Quetta incident’ that had resulted in that call being made. Some months before there had been a corruption scandal within the ISI, involving three Pakistani officers who had been arrested for accepting bribes from Mujahideen Commanders in exchange for the issue of extra weapons,
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This map shows Afghanistan and surrounding areas.
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well above their allocation. These arms would fetch high prices in the frontier areas of Pakistan. The officers were court-martialled and imprisoned, while the brigadier, whose job I was to take, was moved sideways. As I was soon to discover, Quetta housed a forward detachment of my new organization, the Afghan Bureau of the ISI.
I was told to fly to Islamabad immediately and report to the Director-General of ISI, Lieutenant-General Akhtar. To say I was apprehensive would be an understatement. I was filled with misgivings. I knew nothing of intelligence matters, my career had followed the clear-cut pattern of a regimental infantry officer, with tours of duty with my battalion alternating with operational staff jobs, then as a commanding officer. As a full colonel I was on the operations staff of a corps; at no stage had I had any intelligence experience. So why was I being summoned to the ISI? Of all the thirty or so brigadiers whose postings were announced at that time I was the only one destined for an organization most officers regarded with intense suspicion, if not fear. The ISI was considered all-powerful, and the Director General second only in authority to President Zia, although he was outranked by numerous other generals.
The ISI had responsibility for all intelligence matters at national level. These covered political and military, internal and external security, and counter-intelligence. I knew of its role in outline and its reputation in some detail. The ordinary career officer felt, with justification, that the ISI was watching him personally, that it had its informants reporting on his attitudes and reliability. If an officer was on the ISI staff his peers, and indeed his seniors, tended to shun him socially. I had even noticed this myself in the few hours I spent at Quetta after my posting became known to my comrades on the exercise. I was no longer one of them.
Another reason for my anxiety was having General Akhtar as my immediate superior, not only because of his appointment but because of his daunting reputation. An artillery officer by training, he had fought against India three times, and as a very young officer had witnessed the horrors of mass murder at partition. I believe his hatred of India stemmed from those atrocities at the time of Pakistan’s independence. He had a cold, reserved personality, almost inscrutable, always secretive, with no intimates except his family. Many had found him a hard man to serve due to his brusque manner and his reputation as a disciplinarian. He had many enemies. His success in reaching such high rank had been due to his energy, his boldness and his readiness to drive his command to its limit. I had served under him once before as a battalion commander in his division, so I knew at first hand what a difficult taskmaster he could be. He was totally loyal, totally dedicated to his profession, and, as I was to quickly realize, totally determined to defeat the Soviets. He was later to
confide to me that it was his cherished wish to visit Kabul after the war had been won, to offer his prayers of thanks for victory. Although he lived to see the Soviets in retreat, he never got his wish.
Within 72 hours of receiving the phone call, I was being ushered into General Akhtar’s house in Islamabad. As a soldier he looked impressive, with an immaculate uniform, three rows of medal ribbons and a strong physique. He had a pale skin and was intensely proud of the Afghan blood he had inherited. He carried his years well and I recall thinking he looked far younger than 59. He knew that I did not want the job, so he started by asking me how much I knew of the ISI’s role in the Afghan war. Apart from general rumours and the recent Quetta incident, I knew nothing, so he took considerable time to brief me, stressing that he had personally selected me for the job, and that his decision had the backing of the President. All very flattering, but I now knew the enormous responsibilities that I was about to shoulder. Like many of my contemporaries at that time, I was not convinced of the wisdom of our government’s policy on Afghanistan. I doubted whether the Soviets could be defeated militarily, and, with the presence of enormous numbers of refugees inside Pakistan, I felt that, sooner or later, we would face the same problems that some Arab countries were having from Palestinians on their soil. Within a few weeks I knew I was wrong.
In late 1983 Pakistan was a Muslim country under martial law. The Chief Martial Law Administrator was the President, Zia. There had been little exceptional about Zia the general, but Zia the politician was a shrewd and ruthless man, whose appearance belied his toughness. Benazir Bhutto once described him as ‘a short, nervous, ineffectual-looking man whose pomaded hair was parted in the middle and lacquered to his head’. I certainly recall that for the man who ruled Pakistan he seemed, on first acquaintance, somewhat inoffensive, always rising from his seat and coming forward to greet guests most effusively, never waiting for them to approach him. But those that underestimated him did so at their peril, the prime example being Benazir’s father.
The Armed Forces governed the country and Zia controlled the Armed Forces, the senior ranks of whom he watched and manipulated cunningly to ensure his own survival. Each province in Pakistan was then under a military governor, a senior general who owed his appointment to the President. Of these the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) and Baluchistan bordered Afghanistan. They were the front-line provinces, with a large proportion of the Pakistan Army deployed within their boundaries, watching the frontier, and able to move forward to previously reconnoitred battle positions should the Afghan war threaten to spill over the border. Pakistan felt insecure. India was on her eastern flank, an enormous nation of 800 million hostile Hindus, with whom Pakistan had fought three times. To the west lay Afghanistan
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The map shows PAKISTAN’S FRONTIER REGION.
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and the Soviets, a communist superpower whose army was now deployed within easy reach of the mountain passes into Pakistan. Potentially, it was a highly dangerous strategic situation. India and the Soviet Union were allies; should they combine, Pakistan faced the prospect of being squeezed out of existence. I was fully aware of these threats. Like all officers, I knew that our military contingency plans were drawn up on the basis of fighting the Indians or, since 1979, the Soviets. Our nervousness was heightened by the fact that the USSR was a nuclear giant, and India had developed a nuclear capability, which we were seeking to emulate for obvious reasons of self-defence.
Pakistan’s position was further complicated by the long-standing dispute with India over Kashmir in the NE, the simmering troubles in Baluchistan where there was a breakaway independence movement, and the centuries-old instability of the NWFP (see Map 2). The NWFP had always been a tribal area which defied control by a central government. In 1893 a British bureaucrat called Sir Mortimer Durand demarcated a new border, thereafter called the Durand Line, between what is now Pakistan and Afghanistan. While this line gave every strategic advantage in terms of dominating heights to Pakistan (then part of India), which suited imperial defense, it ignored tribal, ethnic or cultural realities. It cut through the Pushtun people’s homelands. Britain had never seriously sought to subdue these warring tribes and clans. Even those areas east of the Durand Line were left to their own
devices in the mountains. The whole of the NWFP had been an armed camp for the British, every regiment in India had its tour on the frontier, where the Pushtun tribesmen provided excellent training for the military, with an endless stream of incidents, and sometimes full-scale punitive expeditions. It was much the same for Pakistan. The Pushtuns were never ruled by the British, and at independence Pakistan took over the timeless situation whereby local tribes in this area continued to control their own affairs, and to move to and fro across the border much as they pleased. By and large we left them to get on with their trading and feuding without government intervention. The British had found this the easy option and so did Pakistan.
Into these frontier areas had poured a vast flood of refugees from Afghanistan. At that time over 2 million people had encamped along a 1500-kilometre stretch of border, from Chitral in the North to beyond Quetta in the south. Hundreds of tented and mud-hut camps teemed with people, mostly old men, women and children, all of whom were destitute. As will become clear later, the existence of these refugee camps played a key role in the struggle for Afghanistan.
When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan in December, 1979, Zia had immediately sent for his Director-General of the ISI, General Akhtar. He wanted an assessment of the situation facing Pakistan. He wanted answers to several questions, but most of all he wanted to know how he, Zia, should react. As a military man, he had turned, not to diplomats or politicians, but to a fellow soldier, a former military college classmate, for advice. He had told Akhtar to produce what soldiers call, ‘an appreciation of the situation’, but on a national, grand-strategy level. An appreciation is a meticulous, logical, step by step examination of a given situation, where all relevant factors are considered, along with likely enemy objectives, to produce a recommended course of action and an outline plan to achieve it.
Akhtar had made his presentation to Zia, forcefully recommending that Pakistan should back the Afghan resistance. He argued that not only would it be defending Islam but also Pakistan. The resistance must become a part of Pakistan’s forward defence against the Soviets. If they were allowed to occupy Afghanistan too easily, it would then be but a short step to Pakistan, probably through Baluchistan Province. Akhtar made out a strong case for setting out to defeat the Soviets in a large-scale guerrilla war. He believed Afghanistan could be made into another Vietnam, with the Soviets in the shoes of the Americans. He urged Zia to take the military option. It would mean Pakistan covertly supporting the guerrillas with arms, ammunition, money, intelligence, training and operational advice. Above all it would entail offering the border areas of the NWFP and Baluchistan as a sanctuary for both the refugees and guerrillas, as without a secure, cross-border base no such campaign could succeed. Zia agreed.
The President told his Director-General to give him two years in which
to consolidate his position in Pakistan and internationally. In 1979 Zia had just provoked worldwide consternation and condemnation by executing his former prime minister; his image both inside and outside Pakistan was badly tarnished, and he felt isolated. By supporting a Jehad, albeit unofficially, against a communist superpower he sought to regain sympathy in the West. The US would surely rally to his assistance. As a devout Muslim he was eager to offer help to his Islamic neighbours. That religious, strategic and political factors all seemed to point in the same direction was indeed a happy coincidence. For Zia, the final factor that decided him was Akhtar’s argument that it was a sound military proposition, provided the Soviets were not goaded into a direct confrontation, meaning the water must not get too hot. Zia stood to gain enormous prestige with the Arab world as a champion of Islam, and with the West as a champion against communist aggression.
Initially, for the first few months, the Americans disappointed Zia. They adopted a wait-and-see attitude. President Carter was locked into the intractable Tehran hostage crisis, which soured American opinion against Islamic radicals, while advice from the Pentagon and CIA was that, with or without Pakistan’s backing, Afghanistan was a lost cause. They believed that the Soviet Army would control the country within weeks. Why, therefore, get involved? Why throw good money after bad, and needlessly antagonize the Soviets by aiding the Afghan resistance? It was a country within the Soviet sphere of influence, and the US policy-makers had seen it slipping into the communist camp for over twenty years. They had been unwilling or unable to stop it then, so what chance was there now with the Soviet military in situ?
I had always been incredulous at the Americans’ Afghanistan policy over the previous two decades. Their response to Soviet encroachment had seemed to be based on ignorance, apathy and appeasement, so their initial slowness in reacting positively had come as no surprise to me. The communist coup in Kabul in 1978, the climax of years of political and economic infiltration and subversion, produced no expressions of disapproval, no break in relations, in fact quite the reverse – the new regime was given automatic recognition. A top expert in Soviet affairs, Adolph Dubs, was sent out as the US Ambassador on the basis of business as usual. Within months Dubs died in a hail of gunfire from Afghan troops, under Soviet advisers, as they sought to ‘rescue’ him from four kidnappers in a Kabul hotel room. His death merited a weak protest, and the start of the phasing out of the already stagnant US aid programme. Nine years later another ambassador was to die violently in suspicious circumstances, again with possible Soviet involvement. This time the reaction was a cover-up.
It was 18 October, 1983, when I reported to the most carefully guarded office of the ISI, from which the war in Afghanistan was directed. Like all
the other staff in this Afghan Bureau, I wore civilian clothes, little realizing I would never wear uniform on duty again. My headquarters was established in a large camp of some 70-80 acres on the northern outskirts of Rawalpindi, 12 kilometres from Islamabad, where General Akhtar had his office in the main ISI buildings. Inside the high brick walls were offices, a transit warehouse through which 70 per cent of all arms and ammunition for the Mujahideen came, at least 300 civilian vehicles with garage facilities, several acres of training area, a psychological warfare unit, barracks, messhalls for 500 men and, later, the Stinger training school, complete with simulator. It was called Ojhri Camp. Outside was the main road between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Across the road was a Pakistan Army camp, and on the other sides the sprawl of houses that make up the fringes of Rawalpindi. International jet airliners flew directly overhead as they made their approach to Islamabad airport. Its very location within the confines of a major town made it inconspicuous. Of the countless thousands of passers-by none suspected it for what it was — the command post for the war in Afghanistan.
From being a straightforward infantryman I had become, overnight, a secret soldier. I referred to my staff by cover-names, never discussed work with my family, never answered the telephone directly, changed my car and number plates frequently, and never announced my travel arrangements in advance. Despite all these precautions I lived quite openly in a rented house in Islamabad. I normally carried a pistol but, as a mere brigadier, I did not rate an escort, or guard at my home. It was only towards the end of my stint with the ISI that I was told that I was near the top of the KHAD hit list, with a price of 10 million afghanis ($50,000) on my head. During those four years I was never aware of any personal danger to myself or my family. I put that down to professional incompetence on the part of the communist agents, as I was far from well hidden, although my social life was virtually non-existent. I never visited the US Embassy; I never attended diplomatic functions or formal military occasions. The only exception was with the Chinese. Every year General Akhtar and I would go to the Chinese embassy for dinner after the official signing of the arms protocol, whereby China agreed to supply us with specified types of quantities of weapons and ammunition for the Mujahideen. This was typical Chinese. They always insisted on absolute accuracy in all their dealings. I remember the colossal fuss that was made, involving high-ranking embassy officials, when just one small box of ammunition among thousands went astray. We later recovered it, but very politely they had insisted we move heaven and earth to do so. What a contrast to everybody else.
I was answerable only to General Akhtar; he reported to the President —it was as simple as that. Our chain of command completely bypassed the usual military hierarchy. Later, when we moved back to a more democratic government with a prime minister, Akhtar was supposed to report to him
as the chief executive of government. I can only say that it was nearly a year before we at ISI were allowed to brief him on our role in Afghanistan. Zia did not want to let anybody know what we were doing, even the prime minister, if there was any possibility of his not staying in the post. The role of my bureau was top secret. Although it was well known that Pakistan sheltered the refugees and the Mujahideen, and that supplies were channelled to them across Pakistan territory, officially it was always emphatically denied.
In theory the top post in Pakistan’s military establishment was that of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee (CJCSC). He presided over meetings of the three Service Chiefs of Staff (COS). The position was a sinecure, a post without authority or influence. For one thing the CJCSC commanded no troops, and for another with Zia still Chief of Army Staff (COAS) it made the holder senior to the President within the Services — an obvious non-starter. Eight years after Akhtar was made Director-General of ISI he was promoted to four-star rank and appointed CJCSC by Zia. This was less than 18 months before these two men died together in the plane crash.
On my first day I was taken round the offices, and to see the main warehouse, where I received my first shock. Lying in the open, in piles, under an arched roof were all types of small arms, mortars, rocket launchers and recoilless rifles, together with their ammunition. Just about every safety rule I had ever been taught for arms storage was being broken, and this within a densely populated area. The logistics officer’s response to my concern was, ‘Sir, we are fighting a secret war; you will soon get used to it’. He was proved correct.
Meeting the various officers of my staff quickly gave me a better understanding of how we ran the war, although I was not impressed with the atmosphere of distrust, and apparent lack of cooperation within the Bureau. Several officers warned me to watch my back as they felt some of the staff had been imposed on us as spies from the Director-General’s office. Our main headquarters and warehouse were located at Rawalpindi, but there were two forward detachments, one at Peshawar and another at Quetta. Each had operational, intelligence, logistics and liaison duties. They were located close to the offices and warehouses of the various Mujahideen Parties and Leaders to facilitate cooperation between ourselves as the supplier, and them as the receiver of the weapons and ammunition. The Quetta detachment had its own small warehouse because of the great distance from Rawalpindi. This enabled supplies arriving at Karachi by ship to be moved directly there instead of via our main warehouse — a substantial saving in time and cost.
During my time with the ISI the momentum of running a large-scale guerrilla war increased tenfold. The workload quickly threatened to overwhelm our original establishment, so I was authorized to expand. From
1984, through to 1987, over 80,000 Mujahideen went through our training camps, hundreds of thousands of tons of weapons and ammunition were distributed, while active operations were being planned and carried out in all of the 29 provinces in Afghanistan. I eventually had an establishment of some 60 officers, 100 Junior Commissioned Officers (JCOs), who approximate to US or British warrant officers, and 300 NCOs.
My headquarters had three branches. Under a full colonel was the Operations Branch, which also included training and intelligence. This branch was responsible for controlling the day-to-day planning of operations, the selection of targets in accordance with the overall strategy, and the allocation of tasks to the Mujahideen. It also coordinated operational intelligence from various sources and supervised training courses for the Mujahideen, which at that time were few and ill-coordinated. The next branch, also commanded by a full colonel, was in charge of logistics. Its primary task was the collection, allocation and despatch of weapons and ammunition. The third section was a lieutenant-colonel’s slot. It dealt with psychological warfare — the operation of three border radio stations, distribution of leaflets and conducting interviews.
The Afghan Bureau which I controlled could not cope with all aspects of supporting the war. General Akhtar had set up another department, also under a brigadier, responsible for what I would term the ‘software’ of war —the provision of clothing and rations (in this case rice, pulses and flour) for the Mujahideen. These were purchased in huge quantities throughout Pakistan, with CIA money, for distribution to the guerrillas. I cooperated closely with this department. Over two years after my appointment yet another branch was created on the express orders of the President. Because of the rampant corruption within the Pakistani-staffed Commissionerate [sic] for Afghan Refugees (CAR), which was handling the supply of food and clothing for all refugees in Pakistan, the ISI was required to take over these duties for Afghan villagers remaining in Afghanistan. This policy of trying to alleviate the suffering of these people was an attempt to get the population to remain in areas of Mujahideen operations so that they would continue to provide information and succour. It was another brigadier’s appointment, but although it was funded largely by the US Congress these funds were separate from the arms money.
During my first few weeks I resolved to listen and learn. I decided that 1984 would be the year for making changes and increasing the tempo of our activities. It would be foolish to try before I had fully grasped what was possible, what was not, and I had met some of the Mujahideen Leaders and Commanders. One thing that pleased me was that my new job was operations orientated. I was not directly involved in intelligence gathering, but rather in controlling active operations in a war against the Soviet Union. It was a daunting, but immensely challenging undertaking. As a professional soldier
it was to be the ultimate test of my abilities. By coincidence, not long before my posting to ISI, I had had to organize a divisional study period on the Soviet Army, its tactics, organization, capabilities, and the threat it posed to Pakistan. My research had led me to rate the Soviet soldier highly for his performance in World War 2, but that was 41 years ago, when the Germans had marched on Moscow. Then the Soviets had been defending their homes; now they were themselves the invaders with entirely different motives for fighting. It was time I studied the Soviets’ more recent performance. Before I attempted to plan anything for 1984 I needed to know what had been happening inside Afghanistan over the last four years. I needed to know about my enemies, their strengths and weaknesses, their locations and objectives, and I needed to learn a lot more about the Mujahideen if I was to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan.