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Authors: Ed Darack

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Pakistan, which had won its independent statehood through partition from British India in 1947, has maintained a tenuous relationship with Afghanistan for decades. While those unfamiliar with the region might believe that the two countries have enjoyed close, almost familial ties (if for no other reason than they share Islam as a national religion and
stan
as the last syllable in their names), Pakistan aligned itself strategically on the other side of the table from Afghanistan’s global commitments—with the United States—while the Soviets embraced Afghanistan. Few can forget the shoot-down of American Francis Gary Powers’s USAF/CIA U2 spy plane over the Soviet Union—or Khruschev’s ominous PR move of drawing a red circle on a map around the city from which Powers launched his craft: Peshawar, Pakistan.
Afghan-Pakistani relations have been marked by tension ever since Pakistan emerged as an independent state. In 1955, hostilities over their shared border culminated in Pakistan closing its trade route with the Afghans, threatening to harm Afghanistan’s fragile economy—an act Pakistan would repeat through the years. But then the Soviets intervened and provided an alternative logistical plan, which furthered the bond between the Afghans and the Soviets. The Durand Line was also a source of conflict between the two countries. The Durand Line effectively split in two a region known to the Pashtuns as Pashtunistan, and many Afghans to this day refuse to acknowledge it, crossing unchecked over the invisible line just as people in the southwestern United States pass from Utah to Colorado. Afghans, during the drawing of their borders, sought to have included as part of their country those areas now known as the Northwest Frontier province and the Federally Administered Tribal Areas of Pakistan; although this effort was to end in failure, the Pakistani government, in a wink-and-nod style compromise, pretty much keeps out of many of these regions, allowing the people to govern themselves.
The greatest single element shaping Pakistan’s strategic planning and positioning through the years, however, lies to its east: India. Pakistan and India have fought three bloody wars throughout the years, and as India developed close ties with the Soviet Union in the decades following World War II, Pakistan felt increasingly squeezed by inimical flanking powers, particularly in the late 1970s with the aggressive Soviet influx into Afghanistan. Furthermore, many historians believe that Pakistan has long considered Afghanistan to be a buffer zone, providing “strategic depth” into which Pakistan can retreat, regroup, and realign its forces in the event that India overruns its eastern border. In the late 1970s, Pakistani president Zia-ul-Haq envisioned a continuous Islamic union, stretching from Pakistan, through Afghanistan, to Iran. As the Soviet-backed campaign against the mujahideen exploded in magnitude and viciousness, Zia felt that providing support to the resistance was not only necessary, but that Pakistan’s very survival hinged on supporting it. But he’d have to do this covertly, as a direct war with the Soviet Union—which India could easily join on Pakistan’s eastern front—would virtually assure Pakistan’s demise.
Still reeling over the U.S. military pullout from the Vietnam War, in which the Soviet Union was globally regarded as the behind-the-scenes victor over the United States, many officials within U.S. national security circles began to pay ever-closer attention to the Soviet’s involvement in Afghanistan in the late 1970s. The United States had been monitoring the steady inflow of financial, human, and military resources over the years, and when the Communist Taraqi government engaged the mujahideen in “hot” military campaigns, many in these circles smelled blood—of a thousand little insurgent cuts. Chief among these U.S. strategists was President Carter’s national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who believed that if the United States jumped in early enough, the Soviets could be pressed to move from shadowy military enablers to front-line fighters—and hence, front-line casualties. He formulated what would become the strategically vital Operation
Cyclone
. Put into motion with Carter’s signature on July 3, 1979, a little more than a year after the first shots rang out in Nangalam, the operation initially authorized millions of dollars’ worth of aid to be secretly funneled to the anti-Communist guerrillas. The project, which would remain top secret for years—unknown even by U.S. congressmen and senators at the time—would mark the beginning of a near decade’s worth of covert military aid to the mujahideen that would ultimately total billions of dollars. But again, like President Zia’s wishes to keep Pakistan officially uninvolved, the United States would have to execute the plan not just delicately, but with the utmost secrecy. And that would involve dealing with Pakistan—again, not official state-to-state cooperation, but through members of the CIA working with one of the most effective yet feared intelligence organizations in the world, Pakistan’s ISI.
A controversial, shadowy organization within Pakistan’s military, the ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence), maintains as its official role the defense of Pakistan’s interests through the gathering and analysis of intelligence both inside Pakistan and in neighboring countries. In reality, however, the ISI, particularly after Zia resurrected the organization (it had withered in power under Zia’s predecessor, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto), would fight Pakistan’s “shadow wars,” keep tabs on internal media, and attempt to influence political machinations within Pakistan and even India—and, of course, carry out its official duties of gathering information. Many in Pakistan, even those in their military, however, feared the ISI, as they operated virtually autonomously, with utmost anonymity, and wielded almost unlimited power. They were the ideal conduit through which the United States could secretly effect misery on the Communists.
In September of 1979, Hafizullah Amin, an American-educated rabid Communist whom Moscow eyed suspiciously as harboring anti-Soviet sentiment, assumed the presidency of Afghanistan after forces loyal to him murdered President Taraqi. But the situation throughout the nation continued to collapse at an alarming rate. Amin had tens of thousands of political prisoners executed, and began to drive hundreds, ultimately millions, of Afghans out of their homes into refugee camps. The Afghan-on-Afghan fighting crushed morale in the army, engendering mass desertion—and those deserters quickly joined with those fighting the growing, albeit disorganized jihad. In October of 1979, the mujahideen of the valleys surrounding Sawtalo Sar took up arms once again—outside of Nangalam, in the Chowkay, the Korangal, and throughout the Kunar Valley including the city of Asadabad (also known to locals as Chagha Serai). From that point onward, they pledged to never lay down their arms until the Red Kafirs had been obliterated.
Just a few months later, “the most serious threat to peace since the Second World War”—as stated by President Jimmy Carter—began with the raid by Soviet Spetsnaz special operations forces, who quickly took Kabul, killing Amin, and installed Babrak Karmal as the country’s third president. The world’s outraged eyes focused on the Soviets, now pouring into the seemingly helpless country from the north in armored personnel carriers, tanks, and heavy trucks, as destitute men, women, and children, carrying the barest of their possessions, marched into Pakistan. Brzezinski, ever the anti-Communist hawk, looked upon the situation with delight, writing in a memo to Carter: “We now have the opportunity of giving to the USSR
its
Vietnam War.”
The Afghan Bureau of the ISI now assumed the critical role of enabling a coordinated insurgency against the Soviets. As the Soviet Bear lumbered throughout Afghanistan indiscriminately swatting at the small groups of mujahideen with tanks, helicopters, artillery, and machine-gun rounds, the bureau worked feverishly to coalesce the seven main “parties” of mujahideen, each with thousands of fighters, into a unified force. The party leaders, who based themselves just a few miles from the Afghan border in Peshawar, Pakistan, while single-minded in their determination to destroy or drive the Red Infidel from their home-land, nevertheless held deep-seated animosities for one another. Of the seven parties, three held moderate beliefs, and four were led by die-hard extremists. Chief among the most radical, Gulbadin Hekmatyar, the youngest and most aggressive of the leaders, founded Hezb-e Islami Gulbadin (HIG) in 1975 in Pakistan after spending two years in a Kabul prison for murder (of a fellow PDPA member). With his establishment of the HIG in Pakistan, Hekmatyar gained a wide range of ties in the country, leading the ISI to believe that he was “their guy” more than any of the other seven leaders. And while on paper all seven would be treated equally, HIG fell perfectly into President Zia’s strategic outlook for influence of Afghanistan for Pakistan’s needs.
The methods by which the Soviets engaged the Afghan populace and the mujahideen would provide the Marines of ⅔ great examples—of how
not
to fight a conflict. The storied Soviet warrior of World War II who selflessly and valiantly defended the motherland against Nazi assault was nowhere to be found in Afghanistan. Mostly conscripts, the Red soldiers in Afghanistan lived in squalor, could barely aim their rifles, wanted nothing more than to go home, and many became addicted to hashish. They also arrived with old, clunky equipment, ill suited for war in the mountains: tanks and heavy transport vehicles incapable of negotiating narrow, twisting mountain roads armed with guns that could elevate to just thirty degrees, leaving high-perched mujahideen well out of the range of potential fire. While the Soviet paratroopers and the Spetsnaz performed better, too few were deployed to Afghanistan to make much of a difference in the long run. During their studies of the war, however, the Marines found the most important lesson learned to be the aggressor’s apparent outlook on winning: the Soviets seemed to believe that they could just arrive in Afghanistan and reinforce the Afghan Communist army, who would do the majority of the work of quelling the insurrection. Most Afghan soldiers defected and joined the mujahideen, however, forcing the poorly trained and equipped Soviets onto the front-line fight. But they would be fighting a counterinsurgency, a complicated—at times ultrafrustrating—type of warfare requiring heavy, heavy,
heavy
interaction with the locals to engender working relationships that enable the rebuilding of a nation and the flushing out of the enemy. Instead, the Soviets just bombed much of the country into oblivion. What they didn’t bomb, they shot, and what they didn’t shoot, they shelled with artillery, and what they didn’t shell with artillery, they rocketed. And so on and so forth. The Soviets committed the most gruesome and widespread acts of inhumanity since World War II. Genghis Khan would have been proud—and jealous—of the Communists’ modern, efficient weapons.
Meanwhile, the Afghan Bureau of the ISI inhaled money from the United States throughout the 1980s, acquiring arms, food, and supplies from countries around the globe, and training the mujahideen in camps along the border. Not wanting to tip off the Soviets that outside forces had been aiding the fighters, the ISI didn’t procure fancy, state-of-the-art gear, but run-of-the-mill weaponry: AK-47s, rocket-propelled grenades, light machine guns, grenades, recoilless rifles, mortars, Chinese 107 mm and 120 mm rockets, and other basic light infantry implements. As well, they kept representatives of the CIA and other American agencies strictly separated from the mujahideen themselves, ostensibly to maintain the illusion that the insurgency was self-supported, but in reality to maintain complete control of which parties received the money and how these funds were used.
But America wasn’t alone in its desire to repulse the Soviets. The Saudi Arabian government matched the United States in funding during the 1980s; the Brits, too, chipped in, as did Kuwait and some other Arab states. Of course, every nation sought to influence the war for different reasons—Pakistan to maintain “strategic depth,” the United States to beat down the Communist Soviets, and the Saudis in their desire both to free their fellow Muslims from the Communists and to spread their official state religion, that of the Salafi school of Sunni Islam.
By the mid-1980s, that part of the Hindu Kush to which ⅔ would deploy two decades later became a tempest of clashing external interests. While the Soviets had retreated from most of the area after 1980, having pushed into the Chowkay (out of which the residents quickly and handily blasted them), Saudi Arabians, dressed as local Pashtuns, meandered down the Kunar Valley with suitcases stuffed with tens of thousands of dollars—money to be handed out to help build mosques and madrassas that would teach their brand of Islam. Other Arabs, unaffiliated with the Saudi government, showed up, too. Based out of Peshawar, these “Afghan Arabs” represented the most radical of all the Islamists in the world, even more so than the followers of Hekmatyar. Their beliefs were guided by the teachings of the “Muslim Brotherhood,” an organization founded in Cairo, Egypt, in the 1920s, and based on the teachings of the Salafiyya movement, and some in the jihad movement saw them as arrogant, hateful—even toxic. The Afghan Arabs had come not so much to help free the Afghan people or to stand with them in Muslim solidarity on the front lines, but out of a burning hatred of the European Infidel, and included among their ranks the son of a wealthy Saudi businessman the world would come to know all too well: Osama bin Laden.
Fueled by money from the United States and Saudi Arabia, and armed with high-resolution and time-relevant satellite imagery and other intelligence from the CIA—as well as, later in the war, the much-hyped Stinger missile, which leveled psychological “what if” blows to Soviet pilots more than actual aircraft downings—the mujahideen froze the Soviet’s war effort into a virtual stalemate. True, the Soviets had control of the cities and major highways, but they rarely dared emerge from behind their encampments’ perimeters or step from their armored vehicles. The Soviets, having surmised that the ISI was responsible for training and equipping the mujahideen, struck back at Pakistan, not with bombs or rockets, but with Afghans themselves—chased out through the intentional attacks on civilian targets for the sole purpose of causing a humanitarian and economic crisis by inundating Pakistan with masses of refugees, many of whom arrived maimed by one or more of the millions of land mines the Communists had scattered throughout the Hindu Kush. Newly elected Mikhail Gorbachev, under intense and growing pressure from within as well as from countries throughout the globe, realized that he had no choice but to pull his troops out of Afghanistan. The Soviet Bear had been brought to its knees by the mujahideens’ ‘thousand little cuts.’
BOOK: Victory Point
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