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Afghanistan, Yesterday’s War

How are current U.S. policies toward Afghanistan continuing to hurt the security of both nations?

September 20, 2005

How are current U.S. policies toward Afghanistan continuing to hurt the security of both nations?

I had arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, in March 1986, having left behind 15 years of working at newspapers in Canada. I sold everything I owned, which wasn't much, and set out to become the foreign correspondent I'd always wanted to be.

The only way to get into Afghanistan then was to enlist the help of one of the seven main mujahedeen groups that were headquartered in Pakistan. One of them agreed to take me across the border. My first trip was in the company of one of the most radical of groups, Hezb-e-Islami, whose leader was the henna-bearded Maulvi Younis Khalis.

I struggled over several mountain passes, trudging behind donkey caravans loaded with weapons, spurred on by mujahedeen fighters.

The occupying Red Army was in the middle of its biggest offensive. The soldiers had been given carte blanche by Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev to exercise unrestricted brutality — to do whatever was necessary to destroy the mujahedeen resistance. There were more than 80,000 well-armed Soviet soldiers in Afghanistan.

The mountainsides were on fire. Napalm bombs pounded Afghanistan's eastern border with Pakistan, which was the staging arena for the resistance and the supply depot of weapons and ammunition financed by the United States and other Western countries.

We did most of our traveling by night, scaling wave after wave of mountain peaks that run like a seam along Afghanistan's border with Pakistan, cautiously making our way along narrow footpaths that snaked up the mountainsides.

Not far from the border, we came across a minefield. We had no choice but to navigate through it. I put one foot in the exact same step as the mujahed in front of me. Progress was excruciatingly slow. I felt that I didn't dare to breathe, I was too afraid.

Suddenly, there was a loud explosion, it seemed as if it must be right next to me. I felt a nauseous surge of fear — the mujahed beside me had stepped on a mine. It killed him instantly.

The Afghan countryside was littered with explosives. Tens of thousands of small brightly colored land mines had been dropped from Russian aircraft, mostly along Afghanistan's southern and eastern borders with Pakistan.

The cynical targets of these particular mines were children, hence the bright colors. The idea was not to kill but to maim, to force villagers — who were feeding and sheltering the mujahedeen — to flee Afghanistan in search of medical help for the injured children, thereby choking off their support to the mujahedeen.

Soviet aircraft could fly in low then. The mujahedeen's best weapon was the Sam-7 heat-seeking antiaircraft missile, which could be easily fooled and thrown off target by decoy flares dropped from the rear of a Russian aircraft.

Occasionally, a mujahed would get off a lucky shot with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher and hit a helicopter gunship. But the upper hand was with the Soviet pilots.

I remember hiding beneath a clump of trees as a helicopter gunship hovered overhead. I knew their guns could cut us down. It was terrifying. Would they see us? Would they leave without firing? I could hear the whir of the blades. I tried to disappear inside the tree trunk.

The experience of the Soviets trying to subdue the Afghan mountains should have indicated to anyone who believed that it would be easy to capture Osama bin Laden from his hideouts how wrong they were.

I understand the difficulty of finding anyone in those forbidding mountains, whose hulking granite innards once saved my life.

We were traveling on a bright sunny day, when suddenly the sound of a Russian bomber approached. I hid in one of the thousands of caves that burrow deep within the rock faces.

The Russian fighter jet flew low overhead, too low, I thought. I can still hear the drone of the engine, so close it seemed to be at my ear. My little hiding place was snug and I could just peek out. The pilot was flying so low I could see his face. He had fair hair. I was struck by the roundness of his face.

He didn't see me, but when he bombed nearby, the earth shook with a ferocity that made me want to run out of my hiding place, to get somewhere, anywhere, where I wouldn't feel like I was going to be buried alive. But I couldn't move. I just hugged the ground and shut my eyes so tight my head hurt. But the pilot never saw us, missed us even though we were right under his nose.

Toward the end of 1986, the United States gave the mujahedeen the weapon that would win them the war, the sophisticated Stinger antiaircraft missiles, which could lock in on an aircraft and not be diverted by decoy flares.

The Stinger missiles forced the Soviet bombers and helicopter gunships to fly above an altitude of 20,000 feet. That meant the mujahedeen could move more freely, get more supplies in, ambush with greater success and cause the Soviet Union heavier losses, such as several multimillion-dollar fighter aircraft and gunships.

Like all the other weapons that came into Afghanistan for the mujahedeen, most of the Stingers were given to the most radical of Islamic guerrilla groups.

Washington should have been nervous, though, because it wasn't long after the mujahedeen were given their first Stingers that some were sold to Iran. At the time, Washington denied it. But it happened. Some of the mujahedeen involved in the deal told me the story.

Two Stingers were sold, handed over to the Iranians on the western border of Afghanistan. Several hundred thousand dollars exchanged hands.

But the mujahedeen made good use of the ones they didn't sell, which was most of them. It was the Stingers that finally forced the Soviets to the negotiating table.

The last Soviet soldier left Afghanistan in February 1989. By the end of 1989, just months after the Soviet withdrawal, the Berlin Wall came crashing down, communism was defeated and the Soviet Union began to disintegrate.

Afghanistan was yesterday's war. The wider world had done the most dangerous of things. It had stuffed this tiny country with massive amounts of weapons, including the precious Stingers, turned over the countryside to the volatile discordant mix of mujahedeen factions — and then had walked away.

For the United States, the war it was really interested in had been won. The proxy war was of little interest. The mujahedeen were the victors, the Communists were the losers.

It didn't matter that the mujahedeen leaders had proved themselves to be murderous men who had signed and broken several accords. They vowed to put aside their territorial, ethnic and religious divides, even traveling to Saudi Arabia to visit Mecca, Islam's holiest site, to seal their promise. But they never kept their promises. And no one cared.

From the book “I is for Infidel: From Holy War to Holy Terror: 18 Years Inside Afghanistan” by Kathy Gannon, Copyright © 2005. Reprinted by arrangement with PublicAffairs, a member of the Perseus Books Group.