Mujahedeen Revisited

After yesterday’s interview with a former Mujahedeen commander, I was inspired to revisit him.  I was prepared to meet the ANA Brigade surgeon but I couldn’t locate Mir Wais, the interpreter.  I wanted to get his side of the story before confronting the ANA officer.  Since he wasn’t available I opted to visit the garrison Religious Officer.  He

ANA Brigade surgeon during the school supplies drop after some ANA soldiers say the convoy first dropped off some of the donations at the Surgeon's house.

agreed to bring in his revolver that was presented to him by his former commander Massoud.

As Omid and I walked to the RO’s office, I thought about the Brigade Surgeon and the allegations of him stealing the children’s school supplies.  As much as I want to confront him with these allegations, I also want to leave this country in peace and not be distressed during my final days here.  Last night it really bothered me, but my wife and some friends responded with some comforting words and support.  As such, I will leave this chapter unfinished and go forward with my journey because there would be no just resolution.  I will chalk it up to another case of corruption that is sadly destroying this country.

Major Shah and his assistant religious officer were in their office and must have been waiting on me because on the table was some Naan bread, Afghan- made cake, and empty chai glasses.  He asked Omid and I to sit down and they would join us.  Another soldier filled our glasses with some hot green chai.  It’s called green tea due to the leaves, but it has a yellow color in appearance.  In the corner, another ANA officer sat busy reading a book.  Major Shah introduced him and revealed this officer was also a former Mujahedeen commander who served under the Massoud the Lion of Panjshir.  I was rather excited to have two former Mujahedeen commanders in the same room.

Before we started eating, Major Shah presented his pistol to me.  I could tell by the way he gingerly handled it, this gift meant a lot to him.  By him placing it into my hands was a true gesture of friendship and trust.  As for the weapon, it wasn’t really anything special to look at.  It was a Spanish-made LLama, .32 caliber pistol and the pistol handgrip was severely worn.  But it held sentimental significance, because Massoud presented this to Major Shah shortly after his Mujahedeen fighters destroyed 5 Soviet Commando helicopters.  I found it ironic they used Soviet made Zeko 1 mortars to destroy the Soviet aircraft.

Pistol presented to Major by Massoud.

When I inquired about Massoud’s leadership traits, the Major could only praise his former commander.  He said, “Massoud was a devout Muslim who prayed 5 times a day” and he was not only known as a military strategist, but equally known for his kindness and forgiveness.  These personal characteristics also played an important role in his battle successes.  When the Mujahedeen would capture Soviet-Afghan soldiers, they were treated as detainees and given an option.  They could remain a detainee or they could return to the Soviet-Afghan Army and provide intelligence on the Soviet movements.  The Major referred to these former detainees as “friends” inside the Soviet Army.  Much of their plans for ambushing relied heavily on good intelligence reports from these “friends.”

Me with 2 former Mujahedeen commanders.

As I presumed, the turning point in the conflict with the Soviets was when the Mujahedeen acquired the shoulder-fired Stinger missiles.  This weapon system was an equalizer to the Soviet MI-24 gunship helicopters.  The rebels nicknamed this helo “Satan’s Chariot” due to its awesome firepower and bombing capabilities.  NATO refers to it as the Hind.  After the introduction of this heat seeking system and the downing of 270 aircraft, the Soviets were less reluctant to fly them into battle and by 1989, the Soviets completely withdrew from Afghanistan and the Mujahedeen declared victory.

After the Soviets departed, there was a vacuum of power and the Mujahedeen factions were fighting among each other in attempt to gain power and control of the country.  This allowed the Taliban to rise to power and Pakistan unleashed thousands of brain-washed Wahhabism students from the Saudi Arabian- financed madrassas to fill the void.  When asked, Major Shah said the Taliban are a much tougher opponent than the Soviets.   The Taliban coincidentally is also composed of former Mujahedeen fighters.  They are still employing the same tactics against the coalition forces as they did fighting the Russians.

In order to defeat the Taliban, Major Shah listed several criteria.  First, the endemic corruption must be removed from all sectors of government to include the ANA.  He felt there is still too much nepotism and cronyism based on ethnic tribe origin, i.e.Tajik, Hazara, Pashtun.  The second factor is the people are not satisfied with the current government and they must unify.  Unity is the key and he repeated this theme several times.  Then he shocked me with his next statement.  He alleged Britain was supporting the Taliban.  I found this preposterous and gave him an opportunity to explain.

Maj Shah alleged Britain is playing both sides because they are supporting the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) in Pakistan.  The ISI in turn is supporting the Taliban.  For the next 20 minutes I defended Britain and the Religious Officer never answered my questions directly.  He claimed the security situation is worse in Herat because of the Brits and that they don’t suffer many casualties.  I strongly objected because Britain has the second highest casualty rate behind the United States.  He also mentioned something about revenge against the United States that didn’t make sense to me.  (Note:  After the interview I tried to discuss this in more detail with Omid and I got the impression what he was inferring that Britain wanted the United States to lose the war, the same way the Soviets did.  I recall a snippet from Secretary of Defense Robert Gates memoirs, “From the Shadows”, the United States saw an opportunity “give the Soviets their Vietnam” and they took the bait and invaded Afghanistan.)

I am still perplexed over this whole issue.  There were rumors that Britain used their helicopters and dropped off the Taliban fighters in the Mazir Sharif province.  But I explained to Major Shah, this is an example of how the Taliban spread rumors in the same way they allege American soldiers intentionally burn the Koran.  These rumors are propaganda and only incite violence, demonstrations and infuriate the Afghan citizens.  However, due to the high illiteracy rate, the people believe their religious mullahs and the rumors.

Our conversation continued and the other former Mujahedeen commander decided to join in this spirited conversation.  His father was a Mujahedeen who was killed during the Soviet occupation and this seemed to inspire his fight against the Soviets.  Seeing that our conversation was at a stalemate, he shifted the topic and directed his blame toward Pakistan’s interference.  He detailed how Pakistan arrested the two Taliban leaders who were going to meet with Karzai to discuss possible reconciliation.  He alleged Pakistan arrested them to prevent them from discussing peace propositions with President Karzai.  He said, Karzai asked Pakistan to release them, but they didn’t.

So I decided to dig further to understand the political ramifications of Pakistan’s alleged involvement.  This is when this commander informed me it’s not really political as it is economical.  Pakistan is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars in support to fight the Taliban and their country is being used as an avenue to transport fuel, food, equipment, etc. to the coalition forces in Afghanistan.  As such, they make a large profit off this venue.  The commander also said Pakistan did the same thing when the United States was covertly supporting the Mujahedeen.  He said Pakistan would take their share of profit before giving money to the Mujahedeen.  So basically Pakistan doesn’t want this war to end because they don’t want to lose the millions of dollars being provided by the United States.  “Pakistan has no motivation to stop the war or the money would dry up,” he said.  This same theme has come up in other conversations, except instead of Pakistan, it is Afghanistan who doesn’t want this war to end.  The corrupt war lords and government officials enjoy receiving million dollar contracts which they subcontract out for pennies on the dollar and in turn, they become wealthy.  So if the Taliban can be kept at a stalemate, the millions and billions of dollars in aid will continue to flow in, subsequently making government officials extremely rich.

I’m glad I went back for the 2nd interview, but still puzzled about the allegations against Britain. This time I can’t attribute the misinformation due to lack of education, because the people who I conversed with are educated and seem to be very well informed.  To my British friends and brothers in arms, I don’t believe this allegation for a minute.  So please don’t be upset with my entry, because I am only reporting information from an interview.  Surprisingly, this is the 4th or 5th person who has made this same claim.

WUSF Radio interview for March 30

This week’s conversation with WUSF’s Bobbie O’Brien covered our mission to a girls school to drop off donated school supplies and President Obama’s visit to Afghanistan. The story aired Monday during NPR’s “All Things Considered” and will run again this morning in the Tampa Bay area during “Morning Edition.” Or you can click on a link to the audio and the transcript here.

Round Table Discussion

Afghan kids playing near C-Wire.

It didn’t take long for Mother Nature to correct her mistake of yesterday’s warm weather and return us back to colder temperatures.  In fact in the afternoon, we were treated to some small snowflakes that subsequently melted and turned to ice as the mercury continued to plummet.  I’m sure the much higher elevations are experiencing even more frigid temperatures than we are exposed to, so I’m not complaining as long as our heater does not freeze up over night.

ANA PBO officer.

My mentoring session this morning turned into quite a surprise and disappointment.  I discovered my ANA PBO had accidentally deleted one of the spreadsheets we have been actively working on this past week.  He wasn’t going to freely admit his mistake except he was frantically populating data in a new spreadsheet.  Had this been a child, perhaps a good scolding was in order, but there wasn’t much I could say or do. Fortunately and unbeknown to me, I have been working on 2 different spreadsheets with the same data and he was cutting and pasting information.  So at least most of the English translation part was saved on the surviving spreadsheet, but the algebraic formulas I input have

Bilingual Dari keyboard.

disappeared into cyber space.  The PBO was planning to work late today in a valiant attempt to restore the lost data.

I purposely cut this mentoring session short so he could work on restoring the spreadsheet.  My interpreter and I hiked up over the hill to visit the ANA Sergeant Major.  He was already boiling hot water for chai in anticipation of our arrival.  I really enjoy talking with the SGM, because he is informative and brutally honest with me.  While the tea was brewing we talked about the Salang Pass and tunnel rescue operations.  His Kandak sent 17 soldiers to help with the rescue efforts to help pull out vehicles that were swept up in the powerful avalanches.  He said one car they helped to retrieve had 6 occupants.  Five of them were dead, but a 6-year old girl managed to survive the encounter.  If anything positive came out of this, was a sense of national pride as ANA, ANP, and government and private organizations aided in the rescue of over 2,500 people.

ANA soldiers training.

Tomorrow is Liberation Day celebrating the last Soviet soldier departure, 15 Feb 1989.  This led to the SGM giving me a little bit more insight what it was like when the Soviets finally left Afghanistan after 10 years of brutal occupation.  He contradicted a book I was reading about how Mujahedeen treated the Afghan soldiers during the Soviet era and the years that followed.  According to my book, The Other Side Of The Mountain:  Mujahideen Tactics in the Soviet-Afghan War, the Mujahedeen would try not to purposely kill the Afghan soldiers.  Often many of the Soviet-Afghans would run away from their posts or easily surrender to the Mujahedeen warriors.  But according to the SGM, this wasn’t accurate and the Mujahedeen would kill their own countrymen because they felt betrayal since these men joined the Soviet forces that were responsible for annihilating entire villages and over a million people.

We also briefly discussed the period following the Soviet departure.  This is was a dark time in their history and dominated by civil war between the competing warlords for power.  It’s also what led to the destruction of the city of Kabul and thousands of deaths along with indiscriminate destruction.  Some of these same warlords are the influential people who helped to keep President Karzai in power or currently hold high government or military positions under his administration.

In my attempt to understand the current state of affairs, I am trying to analyze the events of the past leading up to the present environment.  But it’s difficult to find historical testimony of what really transpired after the Soviets left and the vacuum of power that was eventually filled by the Taliban.  Most people are reluctant to discuss the civil war that took place between the factions.  Even in Khaled Hosseini’s, The Kite Runner, he subtly refers to blood money without explanation.  When I try to discuss this period with my ANA counterparts, they generally change the topic or offer little of value.  It’s almost like this is an issue of shame and perhaps only to be discussed and debated among their own people.   Their nonverbal gestures speak volumes too.  It’s quite common when this topic is brought up, their eyes drift to the ground or they nervously clasp their hands together.  My ANA SGM typically strokes his bushy moustache and purposely breaks eye contact with me.  Perhaps this is one area of questioning that should be left alone…to be Cont’d..

Ballots over Bullets

Dipping finger into indelible indelible ink.

Dipping finger into indelible ink.

August 20, 2009 marked a historic day in Afghanistan’s continuing history.  Since the ousting of the Taliban in 2001, the second-ever presidential and provincial council elections were held.  Despite brutal threats by insurgents, millions of people defied the Taliban and chose ballots over bullets.  This is not to say there weren’t any incidents.

Waiting in line to cast their votes

Waiting in line to cast their votes

The insurgents held true to their threats and approximately 6-7% of the 7,000 polling stations were closed down for security reasons.  According to local sources, at least 90 people died on Election Day including 11 election workers.  Approximately 120 rockets were fired in the Kandahar area and the insurgents attacked our COPs and outposts.

Young Afghan voter

Young Afghan voter

Two voters had their fingers chopped off and it was also reported 2 people were hung after they voted.  This show of force still did not deter millions of voters who sought to exercise their democratic right to vote.

Election irregularities were expected and several hundred allegations of fraud have been filed with the Afghan International Election Commission.

Purple ink stain after voting

Purple ink stain after voting

One reporter stated over 5,000 ballots were placed into the ballot box before the polling station even opened.  Another report stated a high ranking police officer conducted the voting process at his house [to intimidate voters].  Dr. Abdullah one of the leading candidates has alleged ballot stuffing in Kandahar.  His spokesperson claims only a 10% turnout in Kandahar, while incumbent Karzai’s party boasts a 40-50% turnout.  So now the nation is in limbo while the ballots are counted.  Both Karzai and Abdullah have claimed victory.

Perhaps the biggest question is whether the public will perceive this as a legitimate election or will there be a run-off.  If neither candidate receives greater than 50% of the public vote, a run-off will be scheduled in October.  Its estimated 40-50% of the people cast their votes on Election Day.  This is much less than the 70% turnout in the previous election.    In a few days the election commission will announce the preliminary results.

ANA soldiers voting

ANA soldiers voting

There was one story in the local paper here that caught my attention.  It detailed about an ANA soldier who went home to cast his vote in the provincial elections.  Afghanistan does not have an absentee ballot system.  ANA soldiers are allowed to vote at any polling station in the country for the presidential candidate, but they must travel to their home or tribal province and be present for the provincial council elections.  A soldier by the name of Lutfallah was traveling in his car after he voted.  The insurgents set up a roadblock and a passenger bus was stopped at an insurgent checkpoint in front of his car.  They forced the passengers off the bus and were examining fingers for purple indelible ink.  Lutfallah did not turn around his car and run from the enemy.  Instead, probably knowing his fate, he engaged the enemy with his weapon and killed at least 2 insurgents before they gunned him down.  In my eyes, Lutfallah is a hero and a model ANA soldier.  He sacrificed his life for something intangible he believed in.

Chinook helo transporting ANA soldiers to remote polling area

Chinook helo transporting ANA soldiers to remote polling area

As for my ETT team, we stood guard with our ANA soldiers and were prepared to intervene if requested.  The call never came.  Two other members from my team ferried ANA soldiers in Chinook helicopters to a remote village inaccessible by vehicle.  Meanwhile, my team and I stayed at a historic outpost without showers or bathrooms.

AF Captain waiting on Chinook helicopter

AF Captain waiting on Chinook helicopter

[If you really want to know, an empty wooden ammunitions box and plastic bags provided the solution.]  Anyhow…..Did I mention James Carville, the Democratic strategist was here in country too.  Apparently he was visiting with the 3rd-leading candidate Ghani.  I will let you draw your own conclusions about this visit.

So now we too are in limbo as we await the outcome of the election results.  The next Afghan president whoever it might be faces a lot of challenges and could directly affect the strategy of the coalition forces and the direction or path that his country will follow.

Special thanks to PAO for all the election pictures.

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