Published: 05 October 2005
I returned to Afghanistan in the summer of 1980, flying into Kabul with a tennis racket and an unbelievable claim to be a tourist. The Khad attached a cop to me this time and I was taken under escort to the Intercontinental, where I paid him off in return for a taxi ride around the capital.
The dust hung in layers of heat over Kabul and the Soviet soldiers were now on the defensive, escorting civilian cars in long armoured convoys across the highways of Afghanistan, their airbase at Bagram now flying bombing sorties against the mujahedin every three minutes.
Soviets now occupied senior "advisory" positions in all the Kabul ministries, their large black limousines gliding through the muggy streets of the city at midday, curtains pulled across the back windows and plain-clothes men peering from the front passenger seats. The occupants were not the large, bulky commissars of popular mythology but, for the most part, small, respectable men in glossy grey business suits, narrow, slightly unfashionable ties and hair thick with oil, family men from an autonomous republic with five-year plans to meet.
In the stifling summer, the Russian soldiers were wearing floppy, wide-brimmed sombreros and their trucks jammed the streets of Kabul. Their "limited intervention" had spawned a spring offensive - that tactic beloved of all generals confronted by an armed insurrection - which had now turned into a full-scale military campaign. Helicopter gunships stood in rows five deep at Kabul airport. Four-engined Ilyushin transport aircraft en route to Tashkent turned all day over the city, trailing fuel exhaust as they banked sharply above the international airport to avoid ground-to-air missiles.
At the airport, the two faces of Afghanistan's revolution could be seen within 800 metres of each other. Above the main terminal building, the faded outline of January's triumphant greeting to Soviet troops could still be observed - "Welcome to the New Model Revolution" - although the 1.5m-high letters had long ago been taken down and the sun had bleached the red paint a drab pink. Just across the airfield, at the eastern end of the main runway, lay the other symbol of Afghanistan's revolutionary conflict: a Soviet SA-2 missile with a 130-kilogram warhead, a range of 50 kilometres and a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet; this was the same weapon used with devastating effect against US B-52 bombers over Hanoi in the Vietnam war.
And Vietnam was the word that more and more Afghans were using to describe their own conflict. President Carter and Mrs Thatcher were urging the world to boycott the Olympics in Moscow. Kabul's schoolchildren were refusing to attend classes since hundreds of them were taken ill; rebels, according to the government, had put sulphur in the schools' water supplies. A thousand children had been taken to the Aliabad hospital in one week alone. At night, gun battles crackled around the city as gunmen attacked Russian patrols and rival Parcham and Khalq party members assaulted each other. A doctor who was a member of President Karmal's Parcham party was shot dead while visiting a patient at Bandeghazi - within the city limits - but the police could not discover whether he was killed by mujahedin or by Khalq agents.
One of the cops assigned to me was a Khalq man who, in the privacy of the hotel elevator, suddenly burst out: "It is bad here and I am sick. We want Soviet help - we need it. But if anyone stays longer than we want - anyone, and that includes the Soviet Union - we will shoot them."
On 14 June, Karmal ordered the execution of 13 former Khalq functionaries for "hatching conspiracies against the state". Most were minor officials - Sidaq Alamyar, the ex-planning minister, for example, and Saeb Jan Sehrai, who was in charge of "border affairs" - while the deputy prime minister, Asadullah Sawari, who was head of Taraki's secret service, remained untouched. I was lucky to have stolen 48 hours in Kabul, albeit under secret police surveillance.
When I was taken back to Kabul airport for my flight out, an Aeroflot jet was standing on the apron, its fuselage evidence for Mrs Thatcher's profound cynicism towards the Soviets. The aircraft bore Aeroflot's proud English-language slogan "Official Olympic Carrier" on both sides of its fuselage, but from its doors it was disgorging Soviet combat troops, young men - some with blond hair - carrying their rifles in the hot sun as they walked down the steps.
They looked happy enough - one raised his arms towards the sun and said something that made his comrades laugh - although their chances of returning home in similar mood had decreased in recent weeks. More than 600 seriously wounded Soviet servicemen had been admitted to the Kabul military hospital, another 400 to Soviet clinics near the bus station at Khai Khana; of these 1,000, 200 had died - and this figure only included those who died of wounds, not those who were killed in combat. The dead were loaded in square wooden coffins aboard Antonov-12 aircraft and no one knew what they contained until a young Soviet soldier was seen saluting one of the boxes. Even the Khad secret policeman who followed me so assiduously agreed the Soviet army was experiencing "very big trouble".
But back in that chill February of 1980, I still had two days of precious freedom before my visa expired and I was forced to leave Afghanistan. I decided this time to be greedy, to try once more a long-distance bus ride, this time to a city whose people, so we were told in Kabul, had rediscovered their collective faith in confronting the invaders of their country: Kandahar. I took the bus before dawn, from the same station I had set out from on my vain trip to Mazar, wearing the same Afghan hat and hunched under the same brown shawl.
Men and women sat together - they all appeared to be families - and the moment I announced my nationality, I was deluged with apples, cheese, oranges and the big, flat, sagging nan bread that Afghans use as an envelope to contain their food. When I gently expressed my concern that there might be "bad" people on the bus - the very word Khad usually had the effect of silencing any conversation for an hour - I was assured there were none. I would be safe. And so the passengers, with scarcely any English, gave me their silent protection on the 14-hour journey across the moonlike, frozen landscape to Kandahar.
It was an epic of a country at war. Our coach passed the wrecks of countless vehicles beside the road. Sixty-five kilometres west of Ghazni, the town from which Gavin and I and his crew had fled the previous month - it already felt another life ago - a convoy of civilian buses and trucks had just been ambushed. All of the vehicles were burning fiercely, sending columns of black smoke funnelling up from the snow-covered plains. Small, darkened mounds lay beside the buses, all that was left of some of their passengers. Soviet convoys passed us in the opposite direction, each vehicle carrying a Russian soldier standing in the back, pistol in hand. The Soviets were now too busy ensuring their own safety to worry about the civilians they had supposedly come to rescue from the "bandits".
In one village, three Afghan soldiers, including an officer, boarded our bus and tried to arrest a postman who had deserted from the army. There was a brutal fist-fight between soldiers and passengers until two uniformed conscripts who were smoking hashish in the back seats walked down the aisle and literally kicked the officer out of the vehicle. So much for the morale of Karmal's Afghan army.
In another village, the passengers hissed at Soviet Tajik troops who were standing beside the barbed wire of a military depot. But the passenger behind tapped me urgently on the shoulder. "Look!" he gasped, and pointed to his forehead. I looked at his face and could not understand. "Look!" he said more urgently and placed his right hand flat on top of his head, as if it was a hat. Hat. Yes, there was something missing from the Soviet Tajik soldiers' grey fur hats. They had removed the red star from their hats. They stood looking at us, darker-skinned than their Russian comrades, bereft now of the communist brotherhood in which they had grown up.
I should have understood at once. If Soviet troops in Afghanistan - Muslim Soviet soldiers - would remove the very symbol of their country, the badge that their fathers had worn so proudly in the Great Patriotic War between 1941 and 1945, then already the cancer of Afghanistan must have eaten deep into their souls. They had been sent to war against their Muslim co-religionists and had decided that they would not fight them. No more telling portent of the imminent collapse of empire could have confronted me in Afghanistan. Yet my trek across the snowlands was so vast, the dangers so great, my exhaustion so overwhelming that I merely jotted in my notebook the observation that the soldiers had "for some reason" removed their hat-badges.
A few miles further on, an Afghan soldier could be seen standing in the desert, firing into the dusk with a sub-machine-gun at an enemy he could not possibly have seen. When our bus stopped at a chaikhana in the frozen semi-darkness, an old man from the burned convoy we had passed told us that of the 300 passengers taken from the buses, 50 were detained by more than 100 armed rebels, all of them told - quite openly - that they would "probably" be executed because they were party men. Each scene spoke for itself, a cameo of violence and government impotence that our frightened passengers clearly understood.
It was night when we entered Kandahar, the ancient capital of Afghanistan, our bus gliding past the shrine in which lay the cloak of the Prophet Mohamed, circling a set of 19th-century cannon that had belonged to General Roberts's army in the Second Afghan War. I was dirty and tired and checked into a seedy hotel in the old city, a place of cigarette smoke, sweat and overcooked meat. My bedroom was small, the sheets stained, the threadbare carpet smallpoxed with cigarette burns. But two big rust-encrusted doors led on to a tiny balcony from where I could see the moon and the stars which glistened across the winter sky.
I was lying on my bed when I first heard the sound. Allahu akbar. God is great. It was a thin, pitched wail. Allahu akbar. God is great. I looked at my watch. This was no fixed time for prayers. It was 9 o'clock. The curfew had just begun. Allahu akbar. Now the chant came from the next roof, scarcely 20 metres from my room, more a yodel than an appeal to the Almighty.
I opened the door to the balcony. The cry was being carried on the air. A dozen, a hundred Allahu akbars, unco-ordinated, overlaying each other, building upon a foundation of identical words, high-pitched and tenor, treble and child-like, an army of voices shouting from the rooftops of Kandahar. They swelled in volume, a thousand now, ten thousand, a choir that filled the heavens, that floated beneath the white moon and the stars, the music of the spheres.
I saw a family, husband, wife and a clutch of children, all chanting, but their voices were lost in the pulse of sound that now covered the city. This extraordinary phenomenon was no mere protest, a lament at the loss of freedom. When the Prophet entered Mecca in the year 630 of the Christian era, he walked to the great black stone, the Kaaba, touched it with his stick and shouted in a strong voice that supreme invocation of Islam: Allahu akbar. His 10,000 followers chorused those same words and they were taken up by members of the Prophet's own Qureishi tribe who had gathered on their roofs and balconies of Mecca.
Now these same holy words were being chanted by another 10,000 voices, this time from the roofs and balconies of Kandahar. A Westerner - or a Russian - might interpret this as a semi-political demonstration, a symbolic event. But in reality, the choirs of Kandahar were an irresistible assertion of religious faith, the direct and deliberate repetition of one of the holiest moments of Islam. In the last year of his life, the Prophet had entered the newly purified shrine in Mecca and seven more times chanted Allahu akbar. In Kandahar, the voices were desperate but all-powerful, mesmeric, unending, deafening: an otherwise silent people recognising their unity in God. This was an unstoppable force, an assertion of religious identity that no Afghan satrap or Kremlin army could ultimately suppress.
Extracted from The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk, published by Fourth Estate this week, £25.
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