A Dream of Afghanistan:
A Cold Blast

by: David Dienstag


We were fording up a stream near Do Bandi. Ahead was an old knocked out Soviet APC riddled with bullet holes. I was debating whether I should pull out my camera and take a picture when an old Afghan came running up to me in a frenzy. He fell at my feet midstream and began kissing my boots.

"Shumaa Amreekanst, tashakur, tashakur!" He went on and on emphatically thanking ME for American military aid and the Stinger missiles in particular.

I thanked him for his kind words and began to feel very embarrassed because American Aid in the '80s had, in fact, failed. I thought of my experience lobbying for aid to the Mujahedin for four years and the surprising twists that I had encountered. I thought of words spoken by Dr. Edward Luttwak who spoke at a conference we had organized: "Afghanistan," he said, "was characterized by contradictions". Amen. I wondered if any one was thinking anything about a government to install in Kabul.

An old man groveling at my feet; kissing them. He surely had nothing and even then, it was obvious that he was going to at least suffer for years to come. But he was thanking me.

Contradictions? Here's a couple: For six years after the Soviets invaded, CIA and State Dept. officials fought vigorously to keep Afghans from getting anything like effective air defense, allowing otherwise vulnerable Soviet helicopters to maul the Mujahedin while claiming to give moral support and supplying only enough weapons to keep things hot but not actually achieve victory. Finally, in 1986, Stinger missiles were released into the "covert" pipeline.

When the often fractious Mujahedin managed to pull together and send a delegation to the UN to request observer status, the State Dept. did everything it could behind the scenes, to torpedo the effort. I remember Zabi Mojadedi, a member of the delegation, fighting back tears trying to explain to me what had happened. It was a heartbreaking failure, one of many.

Then there were the contradictions presented by the Afghans themselves. Their greatest strength was a horrible weakness. The Afghan love of fighting virtually guaranteed that the Soviet host, descended onto them, was doomed unless they murdered every last Afghan. But as a national characteristic, it robbed them of an ability to get along with each other. Often factions in the resistance found themselves shooting at each other instead of the Communists. Many times, the rarefied atmosphere of Afghan guerrilla politics came to resemble their game of Buzkashi. Buzkashi teams are horsemen who try to snatch a goat's corpse and run it through goal posts. Players cooperate in attacking a rider holding the prize with a great deal of brutality. When one of them succeeds in wresting the goat and making a dash for the goal, then everybody else gangs up on him. The prizeholder's own team mates will come after him and attempt to wrest the corpse from him. Sticks and whips are acceptable for play. That pattern was infectious. Mujahedin political factions were choked by it and it even infected American support organizations competing for donation dollars. I had lived through the competition in Washington and it was one of my personal ambitions in Afghanistan to see a Buzkashi game. It looked like more fun than my experience in Washington.

Do Bandi had once been a beautiful village nestled in steep canyon walls and hidden among trees and greenery that still gave it a fresh smell. This was God's country and you became a believer if you weren't previously. Its simple buildings were now riddled with bullet and rocket holes and spoke loudly to what kind of obscenity had taken place there. I saw no civilians. No women, no children. Only fighters. At that time they were nominally allied to the NIFA organization led by the Gailani family. There was a campfire and several men were milling around it. The conversation was calm and it seemed like a quiet boy scout outing in many ways. I was struck by the rural beauty of the place as we ate boiled meat and drank green tea. I thought of a description of a previous Afghanistan that old hippies recounted wistfully.

During the sixties and early seventies, Afghanistan was a favorite route of hippies doing a trek from Europe, across Turkey to India and farther east. Afghanistan was the place that had the best hashish and most wonderful people who seemed to turn themselves inside out as hosts in spite of their extreme poverty. Perhaps most attractive to hippies was that the only real government was in a few blocks of Kabul. The rest of the country was a fragile working anarchy that had no need for money. It looked at contact with the outside world for its own entertainment but not for a model to live by or emulate. Villages and communities dealt with one another through councils of "graybeards" and occasional gunfire dictated by the Qur'an and the local codes of honor. When you shook hands with a man in resolving a dispute, you both used the free hand to sample the other man's beard. It seemed strange but that way, both men were sure that the other didn't have a knife held behind his back. That's Afghanistan. When an Afghan shakes your hand in friendship, he means it deeply. That's Afghanistan. Dry government handbooks described the life style as merely self-subsistent. The reality was poetic.

Not only did Afghan people live independent of cash, they wanted no part of modernity. They wanted to go home and live there, behind mud walls without electricity, gas, TV or radio. They had no particular hostility to the outside world. They simply chose a path that didn't need it. Life was about maintaining the animals and plants and keeping to the modest path described by their understanding of the Qur'an. The rhythm of life was set to nature and prayer. Now the outside world was transforming that lifestyle into something feral.

So we inspected the burned out Soviet APC as a real alien thing. It was very much as if it had come from another planet. The notion of an armored column driving up a mountain stream to blast a village would in itself seem very much like a contradiction if you were standing there looking at its aftermath. Here was this rusting and obscene deathbox dropped into the middle of an idyllic rural village like a mini-junkyard. Utterly out of place. Out of time. Dead, useless. What had been accomplished? What did they hope to accomplish?

I climbed inside. Death must have been horrible. There had been a fire and it was full of bullet holes. The instruments were smashed and if there were any survivors they had probably met a most unfortunate end. One had to feel sorry for Russians in their teens caught in this awful predicament. Learning to hate. Learning to die as little more than slaves. A feeling washed over me at that moment that perhaps I ought to learn more. No magic, no oaths, no ghosts. Just a feeling. Maybe just a sad obligation.

I had been in Pakistan for a couple of months before I went into Afghanistan for a journey that changed me permanently. I had already developed the local concept of time which is that there is no such thing. In the bazaars of Pakistan there were shops that sold watches that had no working movement in them. My guide didn't know how old he was, 50, maybe 60. He didn't care. It wasn't important. Not to me; not to him. Beautiful. It seemed as if life was a privileged dream brought to you by Allah and you prayed five times a day in thanks. Life was tough for most Afghans, but filled with humor, music, stories and simple human pleasures. No Afghan was in a hurry to reach paradise. But in this burned out Soviet deathbox, I had this chilling sense of a dark eternity that contrasted so violently with what was immediately outside. I climbed out somber, reflective.

Up the embankment from the stream, someone had begun to cook up a meal for us. I was surprised to see it outside instead of in one of the buildings. The buildings appeared largely abandoned. Perhaps too much death there, I didn't ask. I was preoccupied with recent memories, refugee camps, Pakistani officials, Mujahedin officials, mosques great and small. But it seemed as if the delicate balance of the dream of Afghanistan had been knocked out of balance and was careening dangerously. I was turning over the possibilities in my head. Just how bad could it get? It was August 1988. When night fell, the temperature dropped and we froze in our thin Saudi sleeping bags under a starry purple sky.

I had put myself there and as often as I questioned myself, as difficult and frightening as it ever became, I never faltered in my commitment to what was vaguely described as the "cause of freedom in Afghanistan". It was an unfortunate Reagan-era phrase that completely missed the point. The Mujahedin leadership were privately troubled by the notion that the solution to Afghanistan's problems were solely military and entirely the fault of Communism. Even though every Mujahed deeply hated Communism, they knew that there was a civil and political component to a peaceful and stable aftermath. No one would have guessed that Washington was going to abandon its role in shaping that reality to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. It should have been "the cause of sanity in Afghanistan". These things were scratching and rolling around my mind as I shivered in the open night air.

Even now, I remember that haunted night so well. The cold was so pervasive that I could not sleep and my head became a movie theater of memories, recent and distant, that revolved around Afghanistan. The back of my eyelids were the screen showing vignette after vignette. I remembered Ya Ya, a Saudi who had gone to join the Jihad with the Wahabis. Only weeks before, I met him in the back of Green's Hotel in the "capsules", a section of economy "rooms" that were little more than closets with a bunkbed. It was the cheapest air conditioned rooming in Peshawar. Ya Ya had quit the cause and was returning home. He was one of the few Saudis who I liked. Most of them were exaggerated personalities in one way or another either preaching or profligate in some way. But Ya Ya was different. He was from some rural area in the north of Saudi Arabia that had not seen the enormous wealth that so many had come to know. He was simple, humble and depressed. He did not talk to me for a long time but I could sense him watching me. Over time, I think he let down his guard because I was friendly with Pakistanis and Afghans and spent comparatively little time with Westerners. We had this great card game in the community room of the capsules that was dominated by young Pak business men who were absolute card sharks and who had a sense of humor as sharp as their gambling skills. I lost money to those guys but was glad to do it for the company. Ya Ya saw us having fun and I sensed he wanted to join in to combat some deep sense of sorrow.

Even after we began to talk, he wouldn't tell me about it. In those days, there was a vast surplus of spies, mercenaries and bombers in Peshawar. There were so many that when you ran in to one of these miserable characters, twitching with paranoia, you took it for granted. It was part of the landscape and you had to remember to enjoy yourself because paranoia can be contagious disease. Ya Ya's paranoia and depression caused him to be torn between being forthcoming and discreet. His English was poor, but one finds in a place like that, if people want to communicate, they find a way. But what I could glean from him was this:

He had joined the Jihad from Saudi Arabia to be a good Muslim and to perform his Islamic duty. When he came to Pakistan, then a staging area for the Mujahedin, the Wahabis sent him to a training camp in the Kunar valley of Afghanistan. There he became vague. He did tell me that training was at best, flawed. Several volunteers had been killed that week training with mortars. The rounds apparently detonated in the tubes and killed entire crews. More than once. But over that, he said that something very bad was happening up there but would not elaborate. They were the early volunteers who began to gravitate around Osama. He said, over and over, "This is not Islamic".

So many times we used that phrase in Peshawar. The Wahabis who marched around Peshawar were so unselfconsciously obnoxious that it became a joke. "This is not Islamic." We used it at the dinner table, we used it in the restrooms. "This is not Islamic." The gag was that virtually nothing that one does in daily life was acceptable to the Saudi zealots in their immaculate white robes. You couldn't sneeze without offending a Wahabi Allah in some way. You couldn't smile, you couldn't laugh, you couldn't sing, you couldn't dance. It is not "Islamic". It is also very much like the world shaped by recent Taliban decrees. Then there was poor Ya Ya. His basic inner decency rebelled against all that was around him and he went home. That was Islamic. God bless you Ya Ya wherever you are.

In the cold night air of Do Bandi, I was tucked in the tightest fetal position I have been in since birth. But my feet were freezing. I put my wool pakula hat over them but it was not enough. Now my head was cold. It was too cold to sleep. My mind's theater spun on. Everything about Afghanistan seemed to be a contradiction of some sort. It was August and I was cold. There were houses and I was sleeping outside. I was using my hat for my feet. But there were larger contradictions that had much greater consequences. I thought of my friend, Carlos Mavroleon.

I first met Carlos in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel in NY in 1985. I was there to show the flag for a small lobbying organization that I worked for that was in support of the Mujaheddin. We didn't have a mission so much as we needed to be present in solidarity with an Afghan mission to the UN. I was talking with a Hizbi Islami political officer when Carlos walked right up and volunteered to the delegation seated around us. He spoke at length in Pashto. Volunteering to fight in Afghanistan was rare enough among Americans. I was one of the few who had. But conversing in Pashto was rare indeed and right away everyone including myself asked. "Who is this guy?"

He wore an old army M-79 jacket, very much out of place in a posh Midtown hotel like the Roosevelt. But it was absolutely the right fashion to join with the Mujahedin. I was struck by this subtle prescience. Every member of the delegation was not only fascinated by him, they fixed their attention on him like smiling cobras. They simply forgot that I was there. It was very frustrating given my intentions. But Carlos and I became fast friends.

Carlos had an Etonian English accent and sounded like a spitfire pilot in a WWII movie. Half Greek, Half Iranian, he was strikingly good-looking and had a natural air of cool confidence that masked some deep inner tragedy with a pencil-thin-mustache smile. The whole impression was out of its time and made no sense but it worked. Carlos was a master of appearances. You could never fathom a person like that, only accept him and exchanged friendship. Like so many friends I had in those days, there were a lot of questions that occurred to me that I didn't ask. In those days, so many things didn't make sense, you'd get tired of wondering, or asking. You just accepted it, made a note of it, and pushed on.

There were so many bigger questions to concentrate on. Why did the CIA actively oppose air defense weapons for the Mujahedin for six years while Afghans were being mauled by Soviet helicopters? It was one of those contradictions. The director, William Casey, was known to be a passionate anti-Communist. But his Deputy director, John McMahon, lobbied vigorously against the shipping of Redeye missiles to the Mujahedin. Why?

Years later, I ran into Carlos in Peshawar. I didn't recognize him. He was dressed as a Pashtun tribesman. He cautioned me not to call him "Carlos", the name I knew him as. His new name was "Kareemullah" now and he was a fighting cadre of Younis Khalis, an enigmatic political leader/warlord who operated on the road from Khyber to Khost and was among the first of the Mujahedin to be exposed to Arabs beginning to flood into Afghanistan. He numbered Arabs in the thousands and said that most Afghans hated them. He said that they frequently lectured Afghans about God and religion, something no Afghan needs to learn about. They would descend upon a village and buy every scrap of food in it, consume it wastefully and leave nothing behind for other Mujahedin. No American intelligence officer seemed especially concerned about it. Embassy spooks insisted that their numbers were no more than a hundred or so in spite of reports and indications of much greater numbers. Even more alarming, they were extremely anti-American and even engaged in firefights with other native Mujahedin more than they fought Russians. They were concentrated with Professor Sayyaf and Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, both well known to be Islamic radicals who were well supplied by the CIA in spite of venemous anti-West rhetoric. Gulbuddin was famous for his friendship with Charlie Wilson, a congressman from Texas who steered congressional efforts for Afghanistan. They seemed to be good friends by the congressman's own account. Then Gulbuddin would go back to Pakistan and go back to his hateful rhetoric. Another contradiction.

I told Carlos aka Kareemullah of the Washington paradox and he told me of the Arab problem, both with the blessing of the CIA. He couldn't quite believe me and I couldn't quite believe him. We were both anti-Communist zealots and were uncomfortable in the mold of conspiracy theorists. That was a playground for liberals, not us. I shivered in the cold mountain air wondering, shivering and lost in a war of contradictions.