18 December 2009

The destruction of Kabul

The pick of the reading in today’s newspapers is Kabul: A tale of two cities, by Afghan born Australian resident freelance journalist Frud Bezhan, published in today’s edition of The Age.

Bezhan’s article contrasts the Kabul he grew up in, and which his family fled in May 1992, with the wreck that is today’s Kabul.

Of the Kabul he grew up in, Bezhan says

Kabul, before the onset of war in 1978, was a liberal and progressive urban centre. Known for its cosmopolitan culture and its educated and open-minded population, it was regarded by many as the “Paris of Asia”. Thousands of hippies stopped over in Kabul every year, smoking hasish and listening to music in the sunshine, before going to makeshift nightclubs in the evening. During prayer times, you could hear the sound of the Rolling Stones playing during the muezzin’s call to prayer from the local mosque.

The local cinemas screened the latest films from Hollywood and Bollywood. Young girls and boys flocked outside the cinemas, eager to see their favourite stars.

Local men, clean shaven, walked to work dressed in suits and carrying briefcases. Women walked freely and without covering, their laughter and chatter filling the markets, parks and sidewalks.

It was compulsory for girls to go to school and women worked outside the home as teachers, doctors and engineers. They also made up the majority of students and teachers at Kabul University and had their own political group, the Women’s Democratic Organisation of Afghanistan, which defended and fought for women’s rights.

It was a time when people were happy with the little they had, when, even though they lived in what was then, and still is, one of the poorest countries in the world, they did not beg. There was an unflinching dignity in them, born out of a hard but proud life, inherited from their ancestors in this harsh land.

Of today’s Kabul he writes:

...Thousands of beggars swarm the streets....

 Nowadays, women walk the dusty pavements of Kabul draped in burqas that cover them from head to toe. Always accompanied by a male relative, mostly a son, they float around the city like forgotten ghosts. Gender segregation, another visible characteristic of this new Kabul, has gone beyond that of the public sphere, where men and women are divided in schools, hospitals and restaurants. Even within families, men and women eat and socialise in different rooms.

According to UNICEF, more than 30 per cent of primary school-age children are working on the streets in Afghanistan and are often their family’s sole breadwinners. This means that more than 3 million children are not receiving an education.

What brought about this catastrophic transformation of Kabul? Ten years of Soviet occupation? Not really; regrettably the main villains of this particular piece are the Pakistanis, with substantial financial and other support (but nothing like the effective control that support might be expected to bring) from the United States.

With the collapse of Soviet power in Afghanistan and Central Asia, Pakistan began to develop regional ambitions, and decided that in order for those to be realised it needed to be the new dominant intervener in Afghan affairs. 

Since the mid-1980s the United States had been channelling weapons and money to the anti-Soviet Mujahideen through Pakistan, specifically through the military intelligence organisation ISI (the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence). Amin Saikal comments that no mechanism was put in place to check the credentials and future usefulness of the individuals who received this largesse. The question of how to distribute the arms was left entirely to ISI, allowing it to favour whomever it wanted. Of the consequences of this stunning negligence on the part of the United States, Saikal writes in his Modern Afghanistan (page 204):

It was in this context that one of the most destructive forces in the Afghan resistance was nurtured: the extremist Hezb-e Islami (Islamic Party) of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar. As a self-styled radical Islamist, Hekmatyar had been from the start an obedient client of ISI, which bolstered his Hezb-e Islami for no other purpose than to enable Pakistan to control the Afghan resistance and to be in a strong position to place its own clients in power in Kabul after a Soviet withdrawal. As a result, Hekmatyar emerged not only as the most single-minded and power-hungry strongman, but also the best armed and wealthiest, among the Mujahideen leaders. Because of his lack of popular support, this made him a destabilising factor in the resistance during the Soviet occupation and the most destructive force after the collapse of communist rule. Despite repeated warnings by serious analysts of Afghan politics, and by the British Government from 1986 on, Washington continuously turned a blind eye to the ISI’s transfer of the lion’s share of its arms to Hekmatyar.

In mid-April 1992 the Soviet-installed Najibullah regime collapsed and Kabul was taken over by the Mujahideen, led by Commander Ahmad Shah Massoud. Afghanistan was declared an Islamic state for the first time in its history, but the government led by President Burhanuddin Rabbani, with Massoud as its military commander, was a moderate one which expounded a largely progressive Islamist ideology which was conducive to modernism while avoiding certain western cultural values and influences.

Hekmatyar was not at all pleased with Ahmad Shah Massoud’s rise to a position of such prominence, and neither were his ISI paymasters, who had been grooming him to take power once Soviet rule collapsed.  ISI well understood that the new Islamic Government leaders, and especially Massoud, would never subordinate their nationalist ambitions to Pakistan’s regional aspirations, and set about undermining the fledgling regime.

Hekmatyar kept his forces to the south of Kabul, and steadfastly refused to enter the city or participate in the power sharing arrangements that had been hammered out by Pakistan-based Mujahideen leaders and enshrined in the 24 April 1992 Peshawar Agreement. Ahmad Shah Massoud made frantic attempts to reach a face-to-face agreement with Hekmatyar, and stepped down as Defence Minister in an effort to placate him. All this was to no avail; Hekmatyar remained outside the city and imposed a blockade.  In early August 1992 he launched a barrage of rockets against Kabul, killing 1800 civilians and destroying a great deal of the southern parts of the city over a period of three weeks.

In the period which followed Hekmatyar established a secret anti-government alliance with two other prominent Mujahideen commanders, the Iranian-backed Abdul Ali Mazari, and the Uzbek warlord and former Ahmad Shah Massoud ally Abdul Rashid Dostum. On 1 January 1994, at the instigation of the Pakistani and Iranian intelligence services, this trio launched a savage attack on Kabul. By the end of 1994 their indiscriminate bombardment of the city had destroyed half of the city and killed 25,000 of its citizens, with massive human rights violations being perpetrated on all sides.

This protracted inter-Mujahideen fighting meant that Hekmatyar had failed to achieve what ISI had expected of him, but ISI had another card to play. In the mid-1980s, with US consent and Saudi funding, a chain of madrasas or religious schools had been established in Pakistan, to serve as a “religious-political belt along the Afghan-Pakistan border in order to support the combat spirit of Mujahideen”. The curriculum of these madrasas focused on a strictly puritanical form of Islam and they inculcated a willingness for self-sacrifice in the name of liberating Muslim lands from infidels and their Islamic surrogates.

From these madrasas ISI was able to draw numbers of ultra-orthodox Sunni Pashtun students as their new surrogate force. In November 1994 the Taliban (Islamic students) launched a surprise attack on Kandahar and pressed on to Kabul, their ranks swollen in short order from an initial 800 to about 25,000 by an influx of Pashtuns from the frontier tribes who had done service in the border forces of Pakistan’s Ministry of the Interior.  From March 1995 they periodically bombarded Kabul, and by September 1995 the Taliban was in control of 27 of the country’s 32 provinces. Wherever they went they established a particularly brutal rule, often described as mediaevalist, but I think that term is an insult to the liberal traditions and respect for culture and learning that prevailed in much of the mediaeval Islamic world.

The final struggle for Kabul came in September 1996, with generous logistic and combat assistance from Pakistan, even including the provision of night-vision binoculars, which had never been provided to the Mujahideen in their struggle against the Soviet occupation. In a subsequent Taliban attack on Massoud’s new stronghold of Mazar-e Sharif, as many as 1500 Pakistani military personnel took part in the attack.

The rest is pretty well known. The attack on the World Trade Centre on 11 September 2001 led to the invasion of Afghanistan by the United States and a range of its allies, and we are there to this day, fighting what some of our political leaders choose to describe as “the right war” (by contrast with the war in Iraq). This war in Afghanistan is supposed to make us safer somehow.

Nobody emerges from the tragic story of modern Afghanistan with much credit. In this “right war”, the one we “have to fight”, the one we “must win”, we are fighting monsters we helped to create, in the rubble of a country we helped to destroy.


Frud Bezhan, Kabul: a tale of two cities, The Age (Melbourne), 18-19 December 2009.

Amin Saikal, Modern Afghanistan: A History of Struggle and Survival, I.B. Taurus and Co Ltd, London, 2006.

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