The Bear Backs Off
`To those who flee comes neither power nor glory.’
Homer, The Iliad, XV
IN late March, 1987, General Akhtar was promoted to four-star rank. This meant he had to relinquish his post as Director-General of the ISI and take up duties as Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff Committee. His promotion was not welcomed by the Parties, the Mujahideen, myself, or indeed by the General. For eight years General Akhtar had been the architect of the strategy for the Jehad. Under his overall direction the war had been brought to the point where ultimate military victory for the Mujahideen was in sight. It had been his recommendations to the President at the outset that had put Pakistan behind the guerrilla campaign. He had battled successfully on the political front to keep some semblance of unity among the Party Leaders, but only as a prerequisite tor an outright military victory. He well understood the Afghan psyche and the imperative need to achieve military objectives before introducing the distractions of political wrangling. The Mujahideen Leaders and Commanders could only cope with one at a time. No one perceived better than he the debilitating effect of the premature debut of political power grabbing on the Jehad.
During 1986 he had seen the Soviet resolve beginning to crumble. That was the year when President Gorbachev told the 27th Communist Party Conference that ‘counter-revolution and imperialism have transformed Afghanistan into a bleeding wound’. In May of that year, at the UN-sponsored Geneva peace talks, the Soviets had offered a four-year withdrawal timetable. In July they actually withdrew a token force of 6,000 men, which, significantly, included two MRRs and a tank regiment, as well as three, obviously superfluous, anti-aircraft artillery regiments. 1986 was also the year of the Stinger.
General Akhtar was going to a job that carried little authority or influence. From the most powerful position within the military in Pakistan, from a job that for all those long years had involved the struggle with the Soviet superpower on the battlefield, he was being ‘kicked upstairs’ to a sinecure.
For two weeks Akhtar did not hand over his Afghan responsibilities to his successor, Major-General Hamid Gul. There was talk of his retaining these duties in his new position. This is what he hoped for, as, for personal and professional reasons, he very much wanted to see the Jehad through to final victory. But it was not to be. President Zia did not relent, so, reluctantly, he handed over to Gul. It was the first of a series of major setbacks to the war that occurred both before and after the Soviets’ withdrawal, and would eventually lead to the Mujahideen snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. General Akhtar was, I believe, the victim of American pressure. It was pressure that had been evident for years, but in April it finally coincided with our President’s wishes. Although the US Ambassador protested to him that General Akhtar should retain his Afghan obligations, he did not speak with conviction. The Americans had never been happy with Akhtar as head of ISI.
For a number of years the US had made no headway with General Akhtar over a number of issues. At the start of the war the objective had seemed clear cut — to drive the Soviets from Afghanistan and make them pay for the US humiliation in Vietnam. It was primarily a military matter, involving massive support for a guerrilla campaign. But, as the tide of battle began to turn slowly in the favour of the Mujahideen, as the Soviets began to show they were less than totally dedicated to remaining in Afghanistan, that in fact a military pull-out was possible, so the Americans began to look at an Afghanistan without the Red Army. What they saw alarmed them. They did not believe the Afghan communist regime would survive a Soviet withdrawal any more than the South Vietnamese had survived the US retreat from Vietnam. They saw an Islamic fundamentalist government in Kabul. They saw leaders like Khalis, Sayaf, Rabbani and particularly Hekmatyar, establishing an Iranian type of religious dictatorship, which would probably make Kabul as anti-American as Tehran. For this reason the US sought, with increasing vigour, to break the hegemony of the Leaders. They wanted to exploit the differences between the Parties and their Commanders. General Akhtar understood their aims and methods and opposed their every move.
The CIA had always argued that ISI should issue arms direct to Commanders, by-passing the Parties. This, they claimed, made sense militarily. The CIA would have dearly loved to decide who got the weapons and who did not. Although we explained that our method was based entirely on operational factors, they would not accept this and grew increasingly frustrated with ISI’s refusal to change the system. Had we distributed arms direct to Commanders it would have resulted in corruption, chaos and confusion inside Afghanistan. Interestingly, this is the situation today. In 1990 the Americans got their way. Weapons are now largely given to Commanders, with the ensuing infighting and lack of control. Commanders attacking Mujahideen convoys to steal arms they feel should have been given
to them is now commonplace. This suits the US and the Soviets, who are equally fearful of a fundamentalist regime in Kabul aggravating their own problems within their adjoining Muslim republics.
General Akhtar was also strongly opposed to the Americans’ bright idea of bringing back the long-exiled Zahir Shah to head a government of reconciliation in Kabul. This was suggested in late 1986 and was just another ploy to cause more dissension between the moderates and fundamentalists. The latter regarded the former king as being, at best, a vacillating incompetent who had got through five prime ministers in ten years, or, at worst, an American puppet. Gailani, the Leader of a moderate Party, had at one time been an unofficial adviser to the King, so putting Zahir Shah forward was guaranteed to keep resentment and rivalries simmering.
Then there was the General’s resistance to the American and Pakistani foreign office demands that the Leaders call a Shoora (Council) to discuss arrangements for the future government of Afghanistan, on the basis of equal representation of each Party irrespective of its size. This would mean that some numerically large Parties, whose efforts and efficiency in the Jehad were poor, would have a greater say in politics and policy than some smaller ones who were more combat-orientated. Both General Akhtar and I were vocal against the injustice of this proposal. Similarly, we both opposed the formation of an interim government by the Parties until such time as the war had been decisively won, which to us meant when the Soviets had left Afghanistan and the Mujahideen had taken Kabul.
General Akhtar recognized, that these US/Pakistani foreign office proposals were designed to increase the polarization between the Parties and to encourage dissension between Leaders and Commanders to the detriment of their efforts on the battlefield. He and I never wavered from our belief that the Mujahideen must secure a military victory before a political future -for Afghanistan could be agreed. Once Commanders in the field became more interested in the politics in Peshawar than with fighting the war, they would soon, quite literally, abandon their operations to congregate in Pakistan. After all, why should they continue to prosecute the war with enthusiasm, at great personal risk, when potentially powerful political positions were up for grabs in Peshawar? Nobody was going to secure anything worthwhile unless they were there in person, to lobby and intrigue — as much a part of the Afghan character as fighting.
General Akhtar was conscious that if political activities were initiated before the capture of Kabul it would so weaken the Jehad that a military victory might prove unattainable. How right he was. Regrettably, General Akhtar had few friends. Within the military all the senior generals regarded him with a mixture of suspicion and envy. He was at loggerheads with the Prime Minister, while the Americans regarded him as the champion of the hated fundamentalists. The final decision to remove him from ISI was made
by one man – President Zia. If the President had wanted him to stay, then nothing could have moved him, but by early 1987 Zia also wanted a change at the top in ISI.
General Akhtar had achieved a miracle – almost. The possibility of the Mujahideen defeating the communist superpower was beginning to look like a probability. The Soviets were talking about troop withdrawals and the Stinger was now deployed against them. With a military triumph, Akhtar would be the hero; he had first advocated fighting, and he had devised and overseen the strategy of the war. It would be his victory. I believe that President Zia promoted General Akhtar so that the credit would be his, Zia’s. It would strengthen his personal authority and prestige enormously. He would be seen as the victor in the greatest Jehad for centuries, and it would surely have made his position as President unassailable. When these thoughts coincided with the other, American and Pakistani, pressures to move General Akhtar, the decision was irreversible. Akhtar was not the first senior officer to be dropped when it was felt he posed the slightest threat, direct or indirect, to the President’s personal interests.
My reaction to General Akhtar’s leaving ISI was one of dismay. As a soldier, I sought a victory on the battlefield as the first priority. My views on this coincided with the General’s. First win the war, then hand back authority to the politicians. I appreciate that this was perhaps too simplistic, naive even. Nevertheless, events were to prove that premature political squabbling was instrumental in bringing about the military chaos that reigns in Afghanistan today.
My efforts were devoted to operations, but the intrusion of politics on to the battlefield was a part of my everyday life. Always it seemed that politics hampered rather than helped the Mujahideen. The Pakistani Foreign Minister, Sahibzada Yaquoob, was deeply committed to the UN-sponsored Geneva talks between Pakistan and the Soviet Union. He would brief the Leaders on progress at these discussions, but I found it frustrating to see the way he would only reveal what was already public knowledge, what had been reported in the press. He never took them into his confidence or disclosed his intentions. Nor was he prepared to accept their views. Our Foreign Office was determined to do a deal and under no circumstances would the Mujahideen’s leaders be given the right to veto any agreement. By the end of 1986 confidence and respect between the Leaders and the Foreign Office was at its lowest ebb. On one occasion the Foreign Minister asked the Leaders’ views on the Soviets’ withdrawal time-frame. Hekmatyar replied: ‘It is very simple. The Soviets should be given as much time for withdrawal as they took when moving into Afghanistan, i.e. not more than three days.’
The Leaders were of the view that the Soviets should be asked to negotiate with them directly. Whether the Soviets would have accepted this in 1986 I
do not know, but the Foreign Office was certainly not prepared to lose its importance or control over our side of the talks. The Leaders also insisted that they would never share any interim government with Najibullah or Soviet stooges, even for a single day. They were emphatic. Their struggle had been in the name of Allah and for the establishment of an Islamic government in Kabul. They spoke of such a sharing as a betrayal of the sacrifices made by millions of Afghans. Even President Zia tried to persuade them to show a little more political wisdom by sharing power in an interim government for a token period, but they could not budge. It was the Afghan at his most inflexible. In the end I gave up attending Sahibzada’s briefings; they were too depressing.
Major-General Hamid Gul replaced General Akhtar at ISI in April, 1987. He was to last two years. His previous post was that of Director of Military Intelligence at GHQ and I had heard much of his professional competence and strength of character. Looking back now, I can sympathize with him. He was destined to preside over a series of disasters which, despite the Soviet retreat from Afghanistan, culminated in the chaos of today. During his stint at ISI military victory was snatched from his grasp and instead stalemate was substituted.
Being a new broom, General Gul wanted to start sweeping immediately. He also needed time to settle in, to meet the Leaders, to start to understand the Afghan way, and so be able to sort out what was possible and what was not. At the beginning Gul sometimes found this difficult. As a soldier with a cavalry (armoured) background he was a forthright advocate of an army having a mobile, hard-hitting task-force as a reserve – a formation that could move at speed to a crisis point, influence the battle at the right moment, and with which to exploit success. A fine idea, essential for success in a conventional war, desirable perhaps in a guerrilla war, but an impossibility for the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. At the outset General Gul had little inkling of the infighting between Parties and Commanders, no idea of how this affected what was practical operationally, and had yet to realize that most Commanders would not tolerate Mujahideen from other Parties moving through their area, let alone allowing a large force to come and take over operations in their territory.
I pointed out these problems, but he rebuked me for being a defeatist and opposed to new ideas. Out of loyalty to my superior, I made strenuous efforts to collect Mujahideen from all Parties for training for this ‘strike’ force. For four weeks we struggled to sort out the difficulties of finance, logistics, command and control, but could make little headway. By this time General Gul was starting to grasp some of the quirks of the Afghan character and agreed with me to drop the idea for the time being.
By this time I knew I was retiring from the Army. I was told in late April, 1987, that the selection board had passed me over for promotion to
major-general. I was disappointed, but not surprised. Virtually none of the generals on the board knew me; I had not served under them in a senior appointment; all they knew was that I had been working in ISI for four years. They promoted the men they knew in preference to an unknown brigadier who had spent such a long time outside proper soldiering and in an organization they viewed with misgiving. I believe the President spoke out in my favour, but he was not prepared to overrule so many. For him it was not a crucial issue at that moment. I could have continued in ISI as brigadier, but this I refused to do. I had long before decided to retire if not promoted, so this is what I set out to do. The snag was that I could not retire with a pension unless given permission by the Army. As a brigadier I could have been required to continue to serve. This is what Generals Akhtar and Gul tried to convince me to do; even the President sent word that I should not be allowed to retire as I was still needed.
I was prepared to stay for a few months to settle in my successor, but no more. Having directed the war (I thought reasonably successfully) for so long my professional pride was hurt. But, much more importantly, I could detect the general atmosphere of change towards a policy that, in my view, would weaken the Jehad just at the time when military pressure had to be maintained. I was starting to lack confidence that an outright victory in the field was the aim of the game. The smell of political expediency and compromise was in the air. Even President Zia was talking to the leaders of sharing power within an interim government with Najibullah. To me this was anathema. With victory on the cards, I could see that the Americans were beginning to assume the war was won and to concentrate their thinking on how to prevent the fundamentalist Parties taking over in Kabul.
I cannot resist quoting from a letter written by a well known Commander, Abdul Haq, to the New York Times on 1 June, 1989. Although it was written almost two years after I retired, the sentiments it expressed were exactly those of the rank and file Mujahideen throughout the war. Referring to the US government he wrote:
Your Government always claimed to support the resistance against the puppet regime of the Soviets. That puppet regime is still in Kabul. President Najibullah was not the minister of health or education, he was the minister of torture and killing [as head of KHAD]. Since he became President, we have had thousands more victims …. More than one and a half million people have been killed, 70 per cent of all the country has been destroyed, and five to six million people have become refugees.
It is said we should make a broad-based government with President Najibullah and his cronies. Yet American won’t give a visa to Kurt Waldheim because he was alleged to have a role in war crimes more
than 45 years ago. But you want us to compromise with the Hitler of our country.
For some time it was touch and go whether I would be allowed to leave. General Akhtar and I had a heated exchange in his office. He insisted I remain, offering me several other posts by way of persuasion, but I was adamant. At the end of the interview, when I had told him nothing would induce me to change my mind, General Akhtar lost his temper, telling me that under no circumstances would I be retired. I told General Gul that I was prepared to forego my pension and resign my commission if need be, but go I would. Thereafter, Gul did his utmost to convince the authorities to release me and eventually he succeeded. For this I owe him a debt of gratitude.
Before leaving the ISI and the Army, which I did on 8 August, 1987, I had promised the Military Committee that I would return as a civilian to offer my services to the Jehad as a private individual. After settling myself, and my family, back into civil life in Karachi, I booked a flight to Rawalpindi for 4 April, 1988. I was going back to the war. At the last moment I telephoned my successor in ISI to tell him of my intentions, but he advised me to postpone my journey as there was insufficient arms or ammunition forward with the Parties for any worthwhile operation. This was a bad sign, as the system called for a steady flow from the rear to the front. I decided to wait a bit. Within a week I received the dreadful news that all the ammunition stocks at my old headquarters at Ojhri camp had been destroyed in one devastating explosion.
January, 1989, was one of the coldest months in Afghanistan for a long time. By the middle of the month the bulk of Soviet troops had gone; many were back home in the Soviet Union leaving only the rearguards to ensure the withdrawal was complete by 15 February. Radio operator Vasily Savenok looked forward eagerly to leaving and to future reunions with his comrades in Moscow. He had spent a year in a small, fortified outpost overlooking the Kharga reservoir and the Ghazni road NW of Kabul. It was marked on the Soviet military maps as Hill 31. It had been built around an old, circular concrete water tank, with tunnels leading from it to underground command and communication bunkers. In the central dormitory bunker a wood fire burned, with the bodies of several soldiers wrapped around it, trying to thaw out before the next two-hour sentry duty outside, without gloves. On one wall a poster proclaimed, ‘Paratroopers, accomplish your duty in Afghanistan with honour’. Outside, the world was black and white and freezing. Dug into the hillside, and protected by sandbags, were two 122mm howitzers and a T-62 tank, each with piles of empty shell cases half-buried in the snow. The post was part of the inner ring of Kabul defenses, whose purpose was
to prevent the city falling to the Mujahideen as the Soviets left. The garrison waited impatiently to be relieved by the ‘Greens’, as the Soviets called the Afghan Army.
To the NE of Kabul, at the airbase, Colonel Alexander Golovanov had a heavy responsibility. His task was to keep the airfield open round the clock until the last Soviet unit had left. Although the great majority of the troops drove out up the Salang Highway, Kabul airport had never been busier, with Ilyushin military transport aircraft arriving every few minutes from Tashkent. Backfire bombers flew missions from the Soviet Union, dropping 12,000 lb bombs to secure the withdrawal route, while Colonel Golovanov organized continuous gunships patrols around the perimeter of the airfield to divert missile attacks from the transports. His comment to the Sunday Times correspondent was, ‘They [the Mujahideen] are well prepared and well trained for combat in mountainous terrain … they are still bandits. You never see them in the field face to face. They always shoot [from] behind the corner.’ A nice compliment to the guerrilla fighters.
In Kabul there was great elation among the resistance supporters. The Soviets were going. With them out of the way the Afghan communists could not last long. This seemed to be the view of the diplomatic community as well. Led by the Americans, most embassies were closing down. The diplomats and their families gave a good impression of scuttling for safety, from a ship they were convinced was about to sink. Perhaps they would all return as soon as a new government emerged in Kabul, but for the moment the city looked like being under seige for some weeks. I found it a bit odd, seeing the Americans pulling out at this moment. It seemed as though it was the Soviets that had been protecting them all these years, and now they feared for their safety, just as the Mujahideen appeared about to win the war. We were supposed to be their allies. The eleven staff, including four marines, watched sombrely in a biting wind as the national flag was hauled slowly down before hurrying to the airport. There they were disappointed. Heavy snow had delayed their flight for 24 hours. Next, the British abandoned their elegant colonial building. The following week it would be the French and Austrians — all promising to return when things had settled down.
The Soviets kept to their withdrawal timetable exactly. The last Soviet soldier to cross the bridge at Hairatan to Termez did so on 15 February, 1989. During the previous weeks thousands of troops had driven up the Salang Highway in tanks, trucks and APCs, running the last gauntlet before gaining the sanctuary of their motherland. They had left Kabul a battalion at a time, usually at night, overloaded with Panasonic TV sets and other Western electrical goods unobtainable at home. They wore their medals and some took their pet dogs. It was a more or less dignified departure. Their diplomats did not have to climb desperately on to the last helicopter from
the roof of their embassy, as the Americans had done in Saigon 14 years earlier. The next day in the Chicken Street bazaar, a trader commented: The Red Soldiers had no money and no manners. I had no time for them at all – they seemed like peasants to me. I think there will be a lot more fighting before we see the hippies back again.’
The very last man to cross into the Soviet Union was the 45-year-old widower, Lieutenant-General Boris Gromov. He walked over without a backward glance to embrace his teenage son, Maxim, who had been brought to welcome him. Gromov was a veteran of three tours in Afghanistan. His had been the difficult job of extracting the Soviet Army without a bloodbath on the way to the border. Although the Mujahideen did their utmost to hamper the withdrawal, the weather and the elaborate security precautions prevented any major Soviet disaster. According to Gromov, only one soldier died on 15 February. He had been shot by a sniper some 20 kilometres north of Kabul. Moscow was impressed with Gromov’s performance; he was to be promoted to command the Kiev Military District, an extremely prestigious appointment, and made a Hero of the Soviet Union.
On the same date, thousands of miles away, at the CIA headquarters at Langley, Virginia, William Webster, the man who had replaced Casey as director, gave a champagne party. The toasts were to victory; the Vietnam &bide had been reversed; now it was the Soviets in retreat and counting the cost in men and money of a nine-year war. The Soviets were out of Afghanistan. Revenge, for the rough handling the US forces had received in Vietnam, due in part to the Soviet Union’s supplying America’s enemies with the means to fight, was complete. I believe that, with the fulfilment of the Geneva Accord, which had been signed in mid-April, 1988, the US lost interest in finishing the war. From that moment on my doubts were confirmed and it became clear to me that their aims had now diverged away from a military victory towards a compromise peace, towards a stalemate. As I will explain in later pages, the objective of the US became to ensure that no Islamic fundamentalist government was established in Kabul. For the Americans, if that happened, it would merely be replacing one adversary with another. Ironically, in this they had the support of the Soviets, who were equally fearful of Islam stirring up religious or nationalistic feelings in their republics north of the Amu River. From the moment the Soviets agreed to quit Afghanistan it was in the interest of both superpowers to prevent an outright military victory for the Mujahideen.
The Soviets set about achieving this by pouring in vast quantities of military hardware for the Afghan Army. In fact, as I know full well, General Gromov was certainly not the last Soviet soldier in Afghanistan. Several hundred remained in the guise of advisers, and to service and fire the Scud medium range, surface-to-surface missiles that were to feature prominently in the battle for Jalalabad in mid-1989. Their Afghan venture had cost the
Soviets over 13,000 dead, 35,000 wounded and 311 missing. Reportedly, it had required one million roubles a day to keep the war going. In terms of cash, the price rose steeply as soon as they withdrew. Only the most massive logistic effort could keep Najibullah’s men fighting, and the Soviets supplied it. American officials estimated that Afghanistan received military supplies worth up to $300 million a month after February, 1989. In the six months following their withdrawal at least 3,800 aircraft flew in, carrying food, fuel, weapons and ammunition. Compare this with the US aid for 1988, valued at $600 million, and the imbalance is crystal clear.
There are those who say the Soviets did not suffer a military defeat in Afghanistan. As a soldier who fought them for four years I disagree. Without the efforts of the Mujahideen on the battlefield no amount of political expediency would have got the Soviets out. At no time during the war were the communists able to do other than hold the towns and bases, try to secure their lines of communication and carry out a series of search and destroy operations of varying sizes. By and large the Soviet soldier fought poorly, as he lacked motivation. He was frightened of night operations, he seldom pressed home attacks, he was casualty shy and kept behind his armour plate on the roads instead of deploying into the hills. With the introduction of the Stinger, which boosted aircraft losses to an average of one a day, the Soviet high command tacitly acknowledged they could not win the shooting war. If you cannot eradicate a guerrilla army you have lost. The Soviets acknowledged that when they left Afghanistan. To win in the field would have meant a vast escalation of men, money and equipment. There was no way that Gorbachev was even going to contemplate such a price.
Gorbachev, who had nothing to do with invading Afghanistan in the first place, must have been hugely delighted with the kudos he gained from withdrawing. The invasion had cost the Kremlin dearly in terms of international goodwill. It had antagonized the Muslim world, damaged Soviet influence among the non-aligned nations and set back Sino-Soviet reconciliation. When, as I am sure they did, the Soviet supreme command told Gorbachev the costs of a military victory, he quickly decided to make the best of a dignified pull-out. The blaze of international publicity was just what he wanted. The Western nations were eager to see Gorbachev as the great reformer, and the Afghanistan invasion would be quickly forgiven and soon forgotten. At the time of writing (September, 1990) this is the precise position, with the Soviet Foreign Minister at the UN castigating Iraq for its invasion of Kuwait, as though his country could never contemplate such aggression, let alone carry it out. Politicians’ memories are conveniently short.
With the signing of the Geneva Accord, the whole fabric of the strategy to win the war started to come unravelled. Incredible though it may seem,
when the Soviets left Afghanistan and military victory by the Mujahideen was anticipated by everyone, including both the Soviets and Afghans, there was a deliberate change of policy by the US to prevent it. Both superpowers wanted a stalemate on the battlefield. The Soviets sought to achieve this by their massive beefing up of the Afghan Army and Air Force, by the importing of Scud missiles, by the continued use of advisers and by getting the Afghans to concentrate their forces in a few strategic cities and bases, particularly Kabul, with orders to hold them at all costs. Above all else they had to keep Kabul. To do this they had merely to stay dug in, stay on the defensive, make the maximum use of airpower and missiles and keep open an air and land bridge to the Soviet Union. The Soviet planners had grave doubts as to whether or not the Afghan army could survive after they withdrew. If Najibullah could hang on to what he had got, then the chances of a compromise political solution were good. On the battlefield winner takes all. Neither the Soviets nor the Americans wanted to see the Mujahideen in that position.
The US now had the same goal as the Soviets. They set about achieving it by both military and political means.
First the military. Although there was no agreement with the Soviets in the Accord that the superpowers were to cut back on arms supplies to their respective allies, this is precisely what the US did. In order to hinder the Mujahideen, who were determined to harass the withdrawal, there was a substantial cut in arms shipments. I was told that this was to ensure the Soviets had no excuse for delaying their departure, but I believe this was a cover for a real change in their policy, as the cutbacks continued after the Soviets had gone.
Mujahideen supporters in Congress voiced their concerns. Two US senators requested a congressional inquiry into why arms shipments had been curtailed. As the Washington Times reported in early April, 1989, Senator Orrin Hatch, a member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, wrote to the chairman requesting an inquiry as to what the CIA was up to in Afghanistan. Mr Hatch was worried by the rate of the Soviet arms build-up, whereas, by contrast, US weapons shipments ‘have slowed down to nothing’. Four months later the Times of London reported the chairman of the Intelligence Committee as confirming and supporting the cutback. Mr Anthony Beilenson stated, ‘Supplying military aid to the Afghan rebels is no longer in our interest now that the Soviets have withdrawn’. There can surely be no clearer statement of the new American policy.
Even my friend Charles Wilson has, I understand, lost his former enthusiasm for a military victory. As I know from experience, most American officials were always resentful of the ISI, and how my bureau would brook no interference with arms allocations or operations. The Americans always wanted to control the war. With General Akhtar gone, and myself retired,
the Americans were able to concentrate their efforts on the less experienced newcomers to ISI. House of Representatives member Bill McCollum from Florida put it neatly when he was reported by Insight magazine in April, 1990, as saying that all US military assistance to Pakistan, the third largest recipient of US foreign aid, should be re-evaluated, if not cut off, if ISI was not brought under control.
Next, the Americans’ political tactics to secure a stalemate. In this they played on the well-known tendency of all Afghans for political infighting and the rivalries between Parties. With the Soviets out of Afghanistan the Mujahideen had achieved a notable victory, the Jehad had succeeded, the infidel had been driven from their homeland. This common enemy, this common mission, had gone a long way towards uniting normally irreconcilable and fractious Mujahideen groupings. Without the Soviets there was bound to be a tendency for Parties and Commanders to think more in terms of their future political positions and authority. Old jealousies and ambitions that had temporarily submerged in the anti-Soviet crusade would rise to the surface again. The US deliberately set out to encourage these dissensions. They now wanted to direct the attention of the Mujahideen from military to political matters. The more the Mujahideen squabbled, the more their Leaders and Commanders concerned themselves with what was happening in Peshawar rather than in Afghanistan, the less likely they were to win on the battlefield. The US promoted the idea of bringing back Zahir Shah, supported the calling of a Shoora with equal numbers of representatives from each Party, irrespective of its size, and encouraged the setting-up of an interim government of Afghanistan in Pakistan, knowing it would be recognized by nobody, including themselves. I have no doubt all these things were designed to foster the break-up of Mujahideen unity in prosecuting the war.
In this endeavour they were assisted, unknowingly, by the actions of General Gul. It was to be expected of him that he would wish to make his mark professionally, that he would institute changes to the existing system in order to prosecute the war more effectively. He seemed to want to give the Mujahideen forces a more conventional flavour and he obviously wanted to deal more directly with the military leadership of the Jehad, rather than through its political Leaders. It was in furtherance of this that he took over the chairmanship of the Military Committee. Gul felt, and in this he had the support of the President, that some Leaders were getting too powerful. To reduce their authority and, at the same time, he hoped, improve the combat effectiveness of the Mujahideen, General Gul re-started the system of allocating weapons direct to Commanders. This delighted the US and CIA who had advocated this method from the start.
During my time at ISI the Americans genuinely believed that giving arms direct to the people they wanted to use them would lead to a better battlefield
performance by Commanders. While this might have been true in the short term, or for a special operation, we knew from past experience that in the end this method led to corruption and chaos. Certainly it cut out the Party Leaders from the supply system, and thus antagonized them, but it also promoted infighting between Commanders, as those who could not get the weapons they considered their entitlement from ISI resorted to looting from fellow Commanders. How could ISI deal directly with hundreds of Commanders? This was the system that had led to the ‘Quetta incident’ in 1983, which had been instrumental in my appointment to ISI.
Another facet of this new arms distribution system, and one which was to have a catastrophic effect on supplying the Mujahideen during the actual withdrawal, was that it necessitated the build-up of stocks at Ojhri Camp. This ISI arms and ammunition depot had to hold the bulk of the weapons destined for the Commanders. The individual ‘packages’ had to be sorted out at Ojhri, as it was no longer policy to keep stocks moving quickly to the Party warehouses. In early April, 1988, a few days prior to the Soviets signing the Accord, we lost the entire stock of arms and ammunition at Ojhri in a devastating explosion. Add to this the US cutback on supplies and the disastrous strategic error of the attack on Jalalabad a few weeks after the Soviets had left Afghanistan, and the real reasons why the Mujahideen snatched defeat from the jaws of victory become clearer.