DEATH by a thousand cuts – this is the time-honoured tactic of the guerrilla army against a large conventional force. In Afghanistan it was the only way to bring the Soviet bear to its knees; the only way to defeat a superpower on the battlefield with ill-trained, ill-disciplined and ill-equipped tribesmen, whose only asset was an unconquerable fighting spirit welded to a warrior tradition. Ambushes, assassinations, attacks on supply convoys, bridges, pipelines, and airfields, with the avoidance of set piece battles; these are history’s proven techniques for the guerrilla. For four years, from 1983-1987, it was my task to plan and coordinate these activities.
I was an infantry brigadier in the Pakistan Army when I was suddenly summoned to take over the Afghan Bureau of the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). I went reluctantly, and with foreboding. The ISI has, like most covert intelligent organizations an intimidating reputation both inside and outside the Services. It is considered to be the most effective intelligence agency in the third world. It is also vast, with hundreds of officers, both military and civil, and thousands of staff. Its head – the Director General – who was the then Lieutenant-General Akhtar Abdul Rehman Khan, was the most powerful man in the armed forces, with daily direct access to President Zia.
When I received the news of my posting over the telephone I was a brigade commander on a divisional exercise at Quetta. I could not believe it, and asked the staff officer to recheck as I had never had intelligence training, never held an intelligence appointment, and so felt sure there had been an error. To my dismay there had not. I was to report to Islamabad within 72 hours. It was unbelievable. For a while I thought it was the end of my professional career. Such a posting is generally not welcomed by senior officers as, invariably, you make more enemies than friends. Overnight you become a different person in the eyes of your peers. Even superiors outside the ISI regard you with deep suspicion, as part of the ISI’s function is to keep careful watch on the generals to ensure reliability to the regime.
Certainly in those days of martial law under Zia, apprehension even fear, of what the ISI could do was very real.
The next day General Akhtar telephoned me and I took the opportunity to protest that I had neither the experience nor the aptitude for a job within the ISI. His curt response was that neither had he when he first took over as Director-General. He did, however, assure me that the job he had in mind would be to my liking. And so it was.
As it turned out I was not directly involved in intelligence gathering. My duties, month after month, year after year, involved operations; operations against the second most powerful superpower in the world — the USSR. It was the most momentous challenge of my life. The responsibility was frightening. As Director of the Afghan Bureau of the ISI I was tasked not only with training and arming the Mujahideen (Soldiers of God), but planning their operations inside Afghanistan. When I looked at the enemy order of battle on the map in my operations room I counted no fewer than one 4 star, five 3 star, and some fifteen 2 star Soviet generals, not to mention at least twenty-five Afghans, all of whom outranked me.
Throughout my time in the ISI I was concerned with formulating and implementing a military strategy to defeat the Soviets. My aim was to make Afghanistan their Vietnam. Operations were of course also directed against the communist Afghan Army, but I emphasize that my main enemy was the USSR. It was the invader. Without its massive presence the conflict would have been over long before I took up my post in October, 1983. My duties were military. Although I was keenly aware of the effect of politics on the outcome of the fighting I was seldom, if ever, directly involved in political decision-making. Nevertheless, as time went on, the whims and prejudices of politicians, including those within the Mujahideen, often made the actual fighting of the war a nightmare of frustrations and disappointments. Had it not been for General Akhtar, my only superior during most of my time in the ISI, shielding me from the political intrigues I would surely have resigned within months.
Despite this the reader will need to understand that there are seven recognized Mujahideen political parties, headquartered in exile, in Pakistan, each with a leader. Of these, four can be broadly classified as Islamic Fundamentalists, while three are Islamic Moderates. They are referred to in the text as the ‘Parties’ or the ‘Party Leaders’. These Leaders are not to be confused with the Mujahideen commanders in the field. They all belong to one of the Parties, but are termed Commanders.
My time, until late in 1987 when I retired from the Army, was spent in trying to organize and administer rival Mujahideen groups so that they might present some sort of unity on the battlefield. I had to attempt to coordinate one of the largest guerrilla campaigns in modern times, with a staff of sixty officers and 300 senior NCOs and men from the Pakistan Army. To the
Mujahideen I could issue no orders — an advantage taken for granted by my Soviet and Afghan opponents. I had to achieve operational results by cajoling and convincing, not commanding. Somehow I must continue to improve and develop on what had been achieved by my predecessor so that eventually the tactics of a thousand cuts would produce such a haemorrhaging of men and money that the burden would be unbearable.
I was compelled to operate under an elaborate smokescreen of secrecy. Most senior generals of the Pakistan Army had no idea of my duties. Even my family was unaware of the real nature of my task. This need for absolute anonymity stemmed from the official denial of the government that Pakistan was aiding the Mujahideen. No one in authority would admit that weapons, ammunition and equipment were being channelled through Pakistan, by Pakistanis, to the guerrillas. Even more taboo was the fact that the ISI was training the Mujahideen, planning their combat operations, and often accompanying them inside Afghanistan as advisers. Of course the arms supply was an open secret; everybody knew it was happening, but although the involvement of Pakistan in the field was guessed at, it was never, ever, publicly admitted. Throughout the war the diplomats kept playing their game of pretence with Pakistani ambassadors in Moscow and Kabul, and a Soviet one in Islamabad.
Because the role of Pakistan was so sensitive, because I had no wish to embarrass my country, or jeopardize its security, and would do nothing that might prejudice operations against the Soviets, the writing of this book was delayed. When I retired in August, 1987, the Geneva Accord had yet to be signed, no Soviet withdrawal had started, but the Mujahideen were gaining the upper hand. There was little doubt that the USSR had had enough. Mujahideen military victory was in sight. Although I spent the early months of my retirement recording the highlights of my time with the ISI, it was not my intention to write a book. Indeed, I was most strongly advised against such a course. Now, in late 1991, there is no danger of compromising either state secrets or the prosecution of the Jehad. The once covert activities of the Mujahideen, ISI, or Pakistan, are no longer secret, but common knowledge in my country, if not outside. With the retreat of the Soviets what I have exposed of the struggle against them is no longer of operational importance. Today all training activities by Pakistan have ceased, the training camps have been abandoned, ISI personnel do not venture inside Afghanistan, and Mujahideen no longer raid across the Amu River into the Soviet Union.
Even the system of distribution of arms has changed, while the quantity has been substantially reduced. The Military Committee of Afghan leaders with which I worked on planning operations, has been disbanded, and a new system of control by the Afghan Interim Government (AIG) substituted. So I am persuaded that this book may serve a useful purpose for posterity and for historians, if only to highlight lessons for political and military leaders.
There is much to be learned, or rather re-learned, about the conduct of guerrilla warfare from the Afghanistan experience. If some of these can be assimilated and applied in the future then writing this book will have been worthwhile.
After three years, things have changed for the worse with the Mujahideen in Afghanistan. In February, 1989, when the last Soviet soldier crossed back into the USSR everybody expected a Mujahideen victory within weeks. In Kabul resistance was on the point of collapse, its citizens faced starvation, the Afghan Army was supposedly about to surrender, and foreign diplomats were packing their bags. A second Saigon was about to happen. All Afghan watchers predicted a Mujahideen triumph, they only differed as to whether it would come in weeks or months. It never came at all. To a soldier, who had been so intimately involved, it was a devastating disappointment. Somehow a Mujahideen defeat had been snatched from the jaws of victory. This book is an attempt to explain why.
Nevertheless, I have not written a history of the Afghan war. My objective has been to set the record straight with regard to how things happened, and why they happened. I seek to explain the workings of a guerrilla army, how it operated, its failings as well as its merits, to record the reasons, as I see them, why a triumph for the Mujahideen was denied them in the months following the Soviet withdrawal.
Some, perhaps most, of the things I describe have never been made public before – hence the sub-title of the book – although I have been careful that nothing I say can damage current or future operations inside Afghanistan. For the first time the true extent of the assistance given by Pakistan to the Mujahideen in training, logistics and on operations is made known. During my four years some 80,000 Mujahideen were trained; hundreds of thousands of tons of arms and ammunition were distributed, several billion dollars were spent on this immense logistic exercise and ISI teams regularly entered Afghanistan alongside the Mujahideen. Certainly some of the motives and actions of the US to which I allude as being distinct possibilities will be denied – perhaps correctly. Where I feel that all is not as it seems, where doubt exists as to the cause of events, such as the air crash that killed President Zia, I attempt to set out the known evidence honestly, and then draw conclusions. These conclusions are entirely personal, but ones which I cannot wipe from my mind. Probably, I shall for ever remain uncertain.
Many books have been written on the war, some describe the cut and thrust of battle on both sides, year by year, while others, more numerous, are merely accounts of journalist’s journeys with the Mujahideen. Invariably these books flatter a particular Mujahideen Party or Commander, depending on who was the author’s host. It is extremely difficult for the media to know what is happening in Afghanistan. First, it is so remote. There are no comfortable hotels, the fighting is taking place hundreds of miles away from
Peshawar, in Pakistan, where most journalists congregate. There is no way of dashing out after breakfast, watching or filming a shootout in the streets, then getting a story to New York or London that evening. Secondly, and arising from the first, there is the physical stamina required to go inside Afghanistan. The gruelling effort of marching for several weeks in those unforgiving mountains without proper food or shelter deters all but the most hardy. Add to this the sickness and the danger and it is not surprising that Mujahideen Commanders assess prospective companions with caution. Only a few get taken in. Then, at the end of it all, they may see no action. Their supreme efforts in keeping up for day after day are often poorly rewarded in terms of a readable story.
For a few all this was quite unacceptable, so they would persuade a Commander to set up a mock battle, sometimes with Mujahideen in Afghan uniforms, buildings wired for demolition in advance, all in true Hollywood style. The Mujahideen enthusiastically rushed around firing all types of weapons, there was much smoke, much noise, much enjoyment and much filming. Of course the journalists had to pay, give the Commander publicity and prestige, but the films sold well in the US or elsewhere. It was an altogether more civilized way to wage war, and for both parties to make money. Even when writing a genuine article, it usually became a channel to promote the views and aspirations of the Commander who took them in. He is their hero, his views are expounded, while the reader gets an overly extravagant picture of a personality, his performance and his importance.
To avoid falling into this trap I have seldom mentioned Mujahideen Commanders by name when describing a particular operation. I have chosen examples that I believe to be typical of the fighting, some of which were failures, but I have not praised one Commander while disparaging another on the basis of the old Army dictum, ‘No names, no pack drill’. Similarly, I have not named people who are still serving, or who operated under the veil of secrecy, where this could damage their reputation or endanger their lives. Apart from this the names used are the real ones.
Despite the above safeguards there will be some who oppose this book’s publication, if only for the sake of perversity. My immediate superior at the time of my retirement, while showing an interest in the idea, insisted, that I should get any draft approved by the Army. This would have been the kiss of death to my efforts. The Pakistan military would have chopped it to pieces in their efforts to eliminate criticisms. So when, after two years, I decided to put my handwritten notes into a more presentable form I could seek no official help.
My first problem was that nobody in the family could type. I bought a typewriter and persuaded my eldest daughter that she should learn on my manuscript. I give her credit for eighty pages of laborious two-finger effort before she gave up in disgust. Next, I had to resort to letter-writers in
Karachi, pretending that it was some sort of official paper rather than a book. I could not just hand it over and await its completion. This would have been to court disaster, as what I was doing would be public gossip within days. To use just one writer was out of the question, so I visited five or six. To each I would give 15-20 pages to work on, while I stood around the shop, sometimes peering over his shoulder, sometimes shooing away other curious customers, and generally becoming thoroughly bored and frustrated. At the end of the day I would collect up all the pages and take them to the next man the following day. To type and correct over 400 pages at this rate takes time, especially when I often had to wait up to a week before I could find a writer available. After a while I ran out of letter-writers, and had to start again with the first one. A dreadful experience.
Still I was far from finished. If publication in Pakistan was going to involve endless bickering and bureaucratic delays, with no guarantee of a book at the end of it all, then the answer seemed to lie in the USA, my ally in the war. As a former ISI officer, whose inclination to write about his experiences was known to some, I resorted to sending the manuscript to a friend in New York, who introduced me to Mark Adkin. This book is the outcome of the ensuing partnership.
I have endeavoured to convey the ‘flavour’ of this guerrilla war by describing my experiences, or those of others known to me, during my tenure with the ISI. It was, while the Soviets occupied the country, a campaign in which a late twentieth century army fought against an early nineteenth century one. The Afghans who annihilated the British during their winter retreat from Kabul in 1842 were virtually identical to those indestructible fighters who killed over 13,000 Soviet soldiers and wounded some 35,000, and sent its army scurrying home after nine years of bitter fighting. The people have not changed much over the centuries; even Alexander’s Macedonian pikemen who marched up the Panjsher valley 2300 years ago would easily recognize the jagged, barren, rocky skyline today. Time does not change much in Afghanistan.
To my knowledge the mystery of why the Mujahideen never marched into Kabul within weeks of the Soviet withdrawal has never been fully explained. It has usually been put down to internal feuding. I believe this is only part of the answer. To me the evidence, albeit circumstantial, points to a covert decision by their main backer — the US — that the Mujahideen should not be allowed an outright military victory. I believe they could have had their triumph despite their quarrels if it had been in the US interests. Unfortunately it was not. Both superpowers are much more comfortable with the present stalemate.
Nothing in this book is official history, but I have made every effort to get my facts correct. Any errors are mine, as are the opinions and comments. I wish to concede, without any reservations, that I could have achieved
nothing during my time with ISI without the devoted, unstinting and unending labours of my officers and staff. They worked day and night, without any public recognition, for the success of the Jehad. I owe them a lot. I hope that this book will, in a small way, be seen by them as an acknowledgement of their contribution.
Finally, I salute the Mujahideen who, for all their faults, have once again proved an unbeatable opponent. No matter how many political reasons may have been espoused for the Soviet’s retreat from Afghanistan, they would never have gone without the efforts of these Soldiers of God.