Saturday, December 25, 2010

From Indus to Oxus; Experiences, Observations and Travels in the Melting Pot of History




So it all begins!


It was July 1991. Standing on the Afghan bank of Oxus River, in cool whispering breeze, I could see the barren grey mountains of Tajikistan on the other side. In the bright morning sunshine and beyond the muddy water of Oxus or Amo Darya, I could see the Russian watch towers piercing the skyline. They must be watching us too, I wondered.

History moved in front of my eyes like a fast forwarded tape. Though Islamic armies had first crossed Oxus around 670 AD, the region was still considered the extreme boundary of another world in the writings of the oriental Muslim historians. Oxus was Nehr, meaning the river, in Muslim history and all Muslim Central Asia was Ma wara-ul-Nehr, what lies behind the river, a description to represent the territories on the very edge of the Muslim civilization when seen from Muslim heartland in Middle East and Arabia. For centuries, armies, civilizations and ideologies have crossed the Nehr, from both sides. But after the initial conquest by Islamic armies; mostly the flow had been towards the South directed towards Afghanistan and India.

I was here because the last of the invading armies had just been pushed back across to where it came from. An event of historic proportion had occurred. The three hundred years of Russian expansion had come to a halt in Afghanistan and a process of roll back had begun. The entire central Asia was in an upheaval against their former colonisers and one after another new States were declaring independence. Now I stood on the banks of Amo Darya, watched the defeated army protecting the borders of yet another occupied land from a possible reverse invasion. But the process of retreat was irrevocable. Just to give a helping hand, I picked up my rifle; a Russian captured AK-47, aimed at the mountains beyond the river and fired. I felt a rush of adrenaline in my body as the cracking gunshot echoed across the valley. An emotional but symbolic contribution to the freedom of Ma Wara-ul-nehr. All central Asian States were in the process of declaring freedom from Soviet control. Soviet adventure in Afghanistan had turned out to be a disaster of historic proportions for Kremlin. Couple of months later on 9 September 1991, Tajikistan declared independence.  

Standing in that bright morning sunshine, I reflected on the events which had brought me here. It had been a long, adventurous and treacherous journey for me to get to this point. For the last five years, I was associated with the Afghan resistance, from fighting as an ordinary foot soldier in the fiercest of battles to becoming a part time doctor, journalist, media consultant, photographer, technical assistant, propagandist and even a negotiator with Pakistan government on behalf of the resistance. My seemingly insane and adventurous travels into the killing fields of Afghanistan had taken me from Paktika in South to the extreme limits of Oxus on the border of Central Asia. I saw the making of history in the melting pot of Afghanistan. Witnessed millions of hungry and displaced refugees and vast empty spaces of wastelands which were once bustling villages and lush fields. Saw the heroic resistance of ragtag fighters and also saw the brute savagery and ruthless firepower of a modern super power. Saw many defeats and many victories, much bloodshed and many sufferings. I am a witness to epic tales of valour as well as disgusting incidents of treachery, betrayal and treason. Also saw the time when Mujahideen had actually begun to lose and also witnessed the Soviet withdrawal few years later. Had the opportunity of seeing and interacting with major Afghan Mujahideen leaders and commanders and with the brigades of Ansars, the international Muslim volunteer corps, which had come to join and assist the resistance. I also interacted with power players in Pakistan army responsible for inflicting the “death by a thousand cuts” strategy against the Soviets. I am a witness to their victories and to their failures.

My job was not done yet. There was still a long road ahead of me. Kabul was still in the hands of Communists and more important than that, Pakistan had begun to lose in Afghanistan after supporting the resistance for over a decade. Islamabad had begun to lose grip on the resistance once Russians left. Mujahideen groups which had remained somewhat contained under a loose alliance during the Soviet occupation began to pull in opposing directions once Soviets left. Personal, tribal and ethnic rivalries began to take precedence over common military threat which was now seen to be diminishing. While communist regime remained in power in Kabul and continued to survive as well, each Mujahideen group especially the two powerful ones of Hekmatyar and Ahmad Shah Masood planned independent wars to take the city ahead of the other. US interest in Afghanistan had suddenly evaporated after Soviet withdrawal and they were not willing to get involved to clean up the mess. Pakistani leadership failed to analyse the situation and was too slow to react. Arrogance, ignorance and incompetence make deadly combination of foes for any project, let alone one of this magnitude. 

Hekmatyar was fully backed by Pakistan while Masood felt abandoned by Islamabad. He was bitter indeed. But Masood was a brilliant warrior and a survivor and had chalked out an independent strategy to take Kabul from North. If he could capture Kabul on his own and beat Hekmatyar to the race, Pakistan would be net loser on all counts. Also, that would irrevocably divide Afghanistan for all times to come on ethnic lines. If somehow, anyone could convince Islamabad to bring these two charismatic resistance leaders together and back both of them instead of one, Pakistan had the most brilliant chance of securing a permanent foothold in the country and also assure long term peace in this region after decades of wars and bloodshed. Masood would never listen to Pakistan ever again if he takes Kabul on his own without Islamabad’s support. I needed to get back to Pakistan urgently. I could sense a disaster in the making. My own self began to melt as the intensity of thoughts and emotions was further heated by the rising warm sun. I picked up my camera, took few parting shots, lifted my gun and slowly began to walk towards the waiting rickety Russian jeep. It was time to go home but before that I wanted to take a closer look at the defeated Soviet army. I asked Najeem Khan to drive on the Afghan bank towards the Soviet border post nearby across the Oxus River…….


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Lots of water has passed under the bridge since my last and perhaps final visit to the Oxus in the territory controlled by Ahmad Shah Masood. He did capture Kabul next year, without Islamabad’s support. Hekmatyar could never enter Kabul ever since. Few turbulent years of Masood in Kabul, gave rise to Taliban who in turn drove Masood out back to his fortress of Panjsher. Taliban emerged as wildcards in the Afghan imbroglio and took both Pakistan and Afghan Mujahideen leadership by surprise. They declared war on all former Mujahideen leaders, including Hekmatyar, Masood, Sayyaf, Rabbani, Mujaddidi and Pir Gilani for betraying the Jihad and infighting amongst themselves at a time when Pakistan was still betting on Hekmatyar. All Pakistan’s hopes were dashed finally when even Hekmatyar was defeated by Taliban and had to abandon his base in Sarobi. Taliban were not created by Pakistan as widely believed, but were creation of chaotic circumstances in post Najeebullah era in Afghanistan. Why would Pakistan create Taliban when Islamabad was still putting all their eggs in basket of Hekmatyar to dislodge Masood from Kabul? Emergence of Taliban was a serious blow to Pakistan’s retarded Afghan policy as well which was thrown into a tail spin when volatile Mullah Omar destroyed every Pakistani asset in his venom against former Afghan Jihad leadership. Pakistan was forced to engage Taliban later on but had no hand in creating them as widely perceived. Taliban were too wild and volatile to be controlled by anyone.

No Pakistani religious party including the Jamaat Islami of Pakistan, which had always supported the Afghan Jihad since 1979, had any relations with Taliban when they rose from nowhere. Jamaat still does not have any relations with Taliban though they have also abandoned Hekmatyar these days. Qazi Hussein never speaks in favour of his life long friend Hekmatyar any more, who remains in hiding in Kunar province, abandoned both by his allies in Pakistan and his patron government in Islamabad. The Deobandi clergy, which claims to be champions of Taliban cause in Pakistan, began to support Taliban after they took power in Afghanistan.     

Then in 2001, Taliban too were over thrown by US, and Masood was assassinated by pro-Taliban Arabs. Afghanistan once again came under foreign occupation and they installed remnants of Masood’s men and few imported Afghans like Karzai to replace the clerical regime. Another war of resistance has begun in the country. Taliban as well as Hekmatyar have once again become resistance fighters, fighting against another foreign army and against their former allies during Soviet occupation. Now, Taliban and Hekmatyar have emerged as allies for common cause of survival. Both are angry with Pakistan. There is total chaos in the country with warlords and brigands controlling the countryside. Pakistan has emerged as the net loser in the whole episode. The pro-Masood elements controlling power in Kabul remain staunchly anti-Pakistan and have closest relations with India, Iran, US and Russia. For them, it is a blood feud now as they hold Pakistan responsible for death of Masood, when in reality Islamabad knew nothing about the Taliban/Osama plot to assassinate Masood. Afghan refugees still remain in Pakistan and have no plans to go back. Pakistan’s western borders remain insecure. Nearly a hundred thousand Pakistani troops are stationed along Afghan border fighting an array of enemies from Taliban remnants to Arab militants to local tribal sympathisers to infiltrators sent from Kabul and India. It is not just complex, it is also dirty.

My worst fears in 1991 have materialized. On my return to Pakistan, I could not convince Pakistan army to support Masood as well. They did not believe me that he had the potential to take Kabul on his own. A blunder of historic proportions. Pakistan kept betting on the wrong horse in a race which had only two horses competing. In 1992, when Masood was the defence Minister in Kabul after taking over the city under Presidency of Ustad Rabbani, I tried one more last ditch effort to bridge the communication and confidence gap between Masood and Islamabad. That failed as well after showing some signs of hope. Pakistan’s Afghan dreams were shattered and I was left heartbroken and have never gone to Afghanistan ever since.

Much has happened in Pakistan also since that time. During the 90’s, Governments came and went but there was no sense of loss or realization at the historic blunders. No government had any long term Afghan policy, nor there was any study and analysis of the debacles caused by the prejudices and incompetence of the Afghan war handlers. General Musharraf came in 1999 and inherited the Taliban legacy. Even he still does not have any defined or declared Afghan policy. It is all ad-hoc, reactive, based on daily basis doctrine of necessity. Even when there was a policy shift to finally abandon Taliban under US duress, Pakistan failed to take advantage of US desperation and its dependence upon Pakistan. The relationship was asymmetrical; in which US was the net gainer in the short term at the cost of moral, political and defence crisis for Pakistan. Taliban have now regrouped and are once again posing a real and close threat to US and its allied regime in Kabul. Soviets had nearly half a million troops in the country but could not tame it. Americans want to do the same with only 18,000 men on ground. A hopeless task to start with. It seems that it only a matter of time when situation really gets out of control for Americans too. This is continuing to date as Afghanistan continues to boil and melt in the cauldron of history with no apparent hope for future. 

Within the region and in the Middle East also, there is massive turmoil and unrest. After Afghanistan, United States, UK and their allies have invaded Iraq as well and are bogged in a bloody war with the Iraqi resistance. Iran and Syria are also on the collision course with Western powers. Saudi Arabia is facing the most severe internal turmoil within its 80 years of history. The entire Muslim world from West Africa to Indonesia is undergoing another invasion from the West which is military, economic and ideological at the same time with despair, hopelessness and frustration as well as humiliation and anger enveloping the Muslim world. In the absence of dignified religious and political leadership, Muslim world is passing through a critical time where its very survival as a civilization is threatened under massive invasion from the dominant western nations. The leadership vacuum is often being filled by radicals and extremists of all caste and creed in every part of the Muslim world. Some home grown, some planted form outside by vested interests. 

On the other civilizational axis, China is emerging as the main competitor for US after demise of Soviet Union, though Russia is not written off by any standards yet. The entire Asia and particularly the Muslim world have become the battle ground where major powers are competing for energy sources, trading routes, military bases and political control. India is taking a cautious view of this epic struggle and has designs of its own while other powers prepare for a showdown. Pakistan is the most powerful Muslim country but with the weakest leadership. It remains the prime target and the last hurdle in western attempts to totally over run the Muslim heartland. But it is totally surrounded by enemies from three sides, while China remaining its only ally in a pond full of alligators. A showdown of civilizations is inevitable. Pakistan is trapped in the middle of it. Just like the people of Europe in late thirties, before the start of Second World War, the world seems to be heading for another world war in not so far future or at least a war in which nuclear weapons would be freely used. The First and Second World Wars, fought with conventional weapons, killed 40 million people. The third world war would be fought with nuclear weapons and no one can predict the future.     

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Today is 2006. I am almost 42 now with grey and white linings appearing in my hair and an uncontrollable waistline betraying the apparently younger appearance which I try to put up. The risk taking, troubles seeking, fiery, emotional exuberance of yesteryears have honourably given way to a comparatively mature, serious, philosophical and pondering person. I have begun to love solitude and find peace in reflecting in my inner self in the serene company of nature. I am a very satisfied person, very contented within myself and have no regrets. It is a good life God has blessed me with, both past and present. I hope, my future would be blessed as well.    

But more seriously, I am beginning to feel that in a few years, I may not even be having that sharp memory which had been such a loyal friend during this adventurous and exciting lifespan. Even now, events are beginning to blur and fuzz triggering the urgency within to write what had been hidden in my soul and heart for so long spread over the last two decades. I had never maintained any organized notes during my adventures and now find it even more difficult to recollect all what has gone by. Though I still have a huge collection of photographs and many hours of video footage which does make a historical and rare archive of that turbulent era. I am sure, inshallah, what I write would be honest enough not to betray the history and that I would be guided to be wise enough not to deceive myself. I am only writing about what I have seen and experienced during my association with Afghan resistance between 1986 to 1992, the events which led to the mess what we see today in 2006. It is by no account a total history of that period nor do I claim to be a historian or an accomplished writer. I am what God has made me and accept my limitations and weaknesses though it is my desire that the experience which has been shown to me, should benefit all those who seek to make amends of the historical mistakes committed during this period. This fact makes me very concerned indeed that this nation and its pygmy leaders do not wish to learn from their errors. Did Pakistanis learn from the errors which led to the East Pakistan debacle? Why Pakistan lost Masood after cultivating and nurturing him since 1975? Was he really anti-Pakistan or a victim of vested propaganda? Who are the characters within Pakistan establishment responsible for shaping this disastrous Afghan policy of Pakistan especially in early 90’s? The players of yesteryears are still holding influence if not authority in the country today and may not like what I might have to say. Denial would be easiest of defence for them when there are no witnesses to corroborate the events in private rooms and dark alleys. 

Now when the world is being re-shaped and not just the politics but even the geography of the Muslim world is being changed with direct threats to Pakistan, the historical errors committed in Afghanistan and subsequently in Pakistan could prove disastrous. What I see is not pleasant but I would rather let future make them obvious for all to see than expressing them now. Right now, I only wish to write what has gone by.

There are reasons why I could not get myself to recollect my thoughts earlier. From 1992 onwards, I was involved in a more private struggle to rebuild my life from scratch after years of nomadic wanderings and romanticism with travels, adventures and wars. I migrated from Karachi to Rawalpindi during this time and with a faithful wife to support and three loving kids to raise, it was time that I give them back their lost dad for a change. For years they had been on the knife edge due to my own passions and had taken the brunt silently and steadfastly. Financially, those were times of struggle for us. To increase the family income, I began to write on Afghanistan and some of the articles did get published in national papers. Though motive for getting them published was more selfish than serving any higher ideals, it did give me a confidence boost that my travels are publishable and readable material. The thought of writing a proper compilation had been in my mind ever since.

It has all happened in the last 20 years and to a small degree I was close enough to the events to witness them take shape. The events are still taking form rapidly as I sit back and finally decide to write. These are the observations, experiences and travels of a young man who happened to drift right into the eye of the storm and in the cauldron of history to witness some amazing events. Some painful, some heroic, some thrilling and some heart breaking but nevertheless part of the untold history.




Part 2

All roads lead to Peshawar!

“Engineer Hekmatyar is coming to Karachi,” Dr. Hashim caught me by surprise, “Would you like to see him?” The information was pleasant and the offer was irresistible. On seeing the expression of approval on my face, Hashim made another generous offer, “Be ready tomorrow at four, I will pick you up.” I could already feel the excitement in anticipation of the event. After a year of waiting, finally, I thought, it’s going to happen.
Engineer GulbadinHekmatyar was the head of the HizbIslami faction of the Afghan resistance. A fiercePashtun character, he was one of the first few Afghan students to have crossed over to Pakistan way back in 1975, even before the Russian invasion, to try and launch a movement to overthrow the communists in Kabul. The then Prime Minister of Pakistan,Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto had always seen the growing Soviet influence in Kabul with suspicion and was also antagonized by the communist regime’s support to Pashtun separatists in Pakistani tribal areas.  Bhutto was a courageous man in much that he had managed to accomplish. He initiated Pakistan’s nuclear program and angered the Americans. He planned and launched a rebellion in Afghanistan against the communists and was hated by the Soviets. Hekmatyar was a student in Kabul’s engineering university at that time and was also a member of a politically active Muslim movement in Kabul, which drew its inspiration from Islamist political thinkers like Maudoodi, SyedQutb and Hasan-ul-Banna. His other famous colleague was a Tajik boy from Panjsher valley, Ahmad Shah Masood. Hekmatyar, Masood and a group of young Afghans from the Islamic movement came to Pakistan and were trained by Pakistan army in Cherat, a small town outside Peshawar and home to Special Services Group, the elite commando unit of Pakistan army. They went back after basic military training and launched an armed uprising in their respective territories against the communists. But at that time, the Afghans were not mentally and materially prepared to launch an assault against their own government on the directions of the Islamists and the rebellion failed miserably, despite some smaller uprisings all over the country. Hekmatyar and Masood both survived the persecution and had to wait till December 1979 to lead their own factions in resistance. As a result of the failed uprisings, the pro-Soviet government in Kabul launched a ruthless crackdown against anyone suspected of having links with the Islamists. Consequently, many top leaders of the Islamists were captured and killed.
In Kabul, the communist party was now broken into two rival and fiercely violent factions of Khalq and Parcham, and bothwere ruthlessly antagonistic towards each other. Coup after coup took place in Kabul and Presidents changed after brief intervals. SardarDaud Khan was the President of the Republic of Afghanistan from 1973 until his assassination in 1978 as a result of a revolution led by the quasi-MarxistPeople's Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA). Noor Mohammed Taraki was installed and eventually, on September 14, 1979, Taraki himself was killed by Amin. Hafiz UllahAmin too met the same fate. The Soviet Union, assassinated him and his followers, during the invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979 and BabrakKarmal was installed in his place by the Soviets. He was President from 1979 to 1986 when the Soviets finally grew tired of him and replaced him with Dr. Najibullah.Najibullah remained in power till 1992 but was executed by the Taliban in September 1996 in Kabul.
By 1985, Hekmatyar had risen to become a leading resistance figure, heading theHizbIslami faction of his party. Now he was coming to Karachi and I had a chance to see him in person. I was excited alright. I was 21 years of age, a university student, andnever expected any special treatment from the man who was supposed to be leading the resistance against the Soviet might. 

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“Engineer Sahib, this is brother Zaid. He is very keen to go to Jihad.” Dr. HashimWahaj, an Afghan medical student in Karachi, introduced me to Hekmatyar, in a crowded gathering of students and media men in Karachi on a warm September afternoon in 1985. I locked eyes with Hekmatyar, his gaze was deep and penetrating; with a smile, he spoke softly in broken English, before mingling with the crowed once again, “Come to Peshawar, we will send you across.” He simultaneously signaled to his reps in Karachi to take care of the formalities of my arrival. “That was quick,” I thought. Instantly, my somewhat reluctant heart made a firm decision. I was going to Afghanistan. I would see Hekmatyar once again in North Waziristan in spring of 1986 and this time he needed no introduction to recognize me.

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It was not until March 1986 that I landed in Hizb’sguest house in University Town, Peshawar. With increasing number of Muslims arriving from all over the world to contribute their share in Jihad. Such guest houses, maintained by all Mujahideen groups, dotted Peshawar and the surrounding suburbs. Already about a dozen Arabs, Africans, Turks and Far Eastern young men were present in the one where I arrived. Some had already seen action in Afghanistan and had come back to rest, others had just arrived to be sent to training camps first.
Most of the boys had affiliations with Muslim groups and movements in their respective countries and had come with relative ease without any serious restrictions from Pakistani immigration authorities or their own governments. Jihad was in fashion and almost all pro-US Muslim governments were facilitating their young men to join the Jihad. Interestingly, pro-Soviet camp governments like Syria, Libya and Iraq were equally harsh on men trying to leave their countries for Afghanistan. While Saudis even offered discounted air fares for intending Mujahideen, Syria, Libya and Iraq would prefer to hang those found to have participated in Jihad. The assortment of young men present there was stunning. In the days and months that followed, I met men from Yugoslavia, Philippines, Chechnya and even European and American converts in these guest houses and on the battle fronts. There was no doubt that in those days Afghan Jihad was a romantic magnet for every Muslim group and political movement within the Muslim world. It was also deliberately orchestrated on massive media campaigns to inspire and attract these people. With the direct approval of the US and western countries, using ideological political Islam to counter Communist ideology, it was fairly easy in those days to reach Peshawar and young men reached in thousands from every corner of the globe. Little did I know then that in a few years, these same men or their next generation will be chased all over the world under a generic brand name of Al-Qaeda.
Sending these activists of political Muslim movements to Afghanistan served two purposes for the West and their allied Muslim governments: On one hand, this assured a constant supply of fresh emotional fighters to keep alive the Afghan cause against the Soviets. No one knew how long the Soviets would resist in Afghanistan and the US and the West were already working on plans to prevent battle fatigue in Afghans by constantly injecting fresh blood from all over the world to keep the emotional levels high. An entirely new curriculum and text books were formulated to be taught in Afghan refugee camps, based on the doctrine of war and Jihad to create future generations of fighters as Afghan casualties were running close to a million by mid 80’s, causing concerns in war planners about sustainability of the campaign. Ironically, these same text books are now being replaced with docile, harmless anti-Jihad material, when Americans find themselves at the receiving end of the new generation of Afghan students “Taliban”, who had been weaned on these US designed and supplied text books!! Nature has its own ways of settling scores.
Additionally and more importantly, all these Muslim governments were purging their own societies of those elements who in future could pose a challenge to them on political Islamic grounds. Saudis were offering discounted one way tickets for Jihad and the program was orchestrated by the then head of Saudi intelligence. The program seemed to work rather well as there were almost 20,000 Arab and foreign Muslim casualties in Afghanistan during this era with tens of thousands more being directly involved at one time or another. 
At this point it would be appropriate if I briefly discuss these volunteers from all over the Muslim world that had come to participate in Afghan Jihad, since till today, the issue remains most misunderstood, misperceived and misreported due to ignorance or malicious disinformation. There is no doubt that today there is a transformation of world opinion about these rather uni-focussed, anti-Soviet Arab Mujahideen of the 80’s. Who were these young men? What were their aspirations? Were they terrorists? There is no doubt that now these few remaining men have become radicalized and have adopted often unnecessary and violent means to express their frustrations and anger but there are reasons why they were pushed to these limits. The major players, who created them in the first place, share the burden of their guilt and crime today.
As mentioned earlier, Afghan Jihad in the early eighties became the first practical focal point for every Muslim movement in the world to vent their anger against a “super power”.  These men were idealistic dreamers. Not evil, just plain, simple idealists, sometimes bordering on being naïve.  Most of them were of simple, humble origins, minimally educated, high on emotions but low on worldly sciences or modern knowledge. Though highly qualified doctors, engineers and army officers later also joined the ranks, the majority were representatives of low education standards in the Muslim world. Most of them found it an easy path to paradise and flocked in thousands to fight along with Afghans. Their romantic dream of an Islamic “Khilafat” was the prime motivational factor in creating a strong moral legitimacy for Afghan Jihad in the Arab world and Islamic movements. They created personalities and figures with almost cult followings. UstadSayyaf was to be the next “Khilafa” and Palestinian Dr. Abdullah Azzam was the Amir of all Arabs and non-Afghan fighters. For the first time non-Afghan Mujahideen emerged as major players in the war. The amount of money, resources and assets which flowed into the Afghan war from Arab and non-Afghan Muslim connections is almost comparable to total aid given by UN, China and US during the Afghan war!
The Afghan war had created a new breed of fighters, who saw Afghanistan as a dream coming true: A base to establish the puritan Islamic State. These Arab fighters were extremely brave, robust, burning with a desire to go to paradise via shortest possible way but extremely short of vision and often full of anger and hate and imbalanced obsession against their own pro-West or pro-Soviet governments; such unreasonably volatile attitude seriously affected their capacity to think rationally. Some were even Takfiris, the most radical and deviant school of thought in which even the Muslims not fitting their version of righteousness were considered at par with infidels.    
However, the romanticism of creating an Islamic State was blown away when a civil war started between the Afghan Mujahideen after the withdrawal of the Soviets and the subsequent collapse of Kabul regime. UstadSayyaf was blown into obscurity and all the “heroes” of Jihad fought like cats and dogs over the spoils. It was a dream going sour. General Zia had already been killed in a plane crash in 1988 and then some months later, the murder of Dr. Abdullah Azzam in a car bomb in Peshawar, culminated in destroying the Arab network in Pakistan and Afghanistan. Arabs started to leave by the hundreds, some voluntarily, some deported by Pakistan. Those who had no place to go especially from dictatorial Arab regimes, were actually left without a State and held their ground in the Pakistani tribal areas.
Most of the Arab fighters who returned back to their native countries were arrested by their respective governments, especially in the socialist block Arab countries, and were hanged by the dozens. All the governments which had sent them in the first place to purge their own societies never wanted them back. There was no way out for these desperate groups. No study has ever been carried out on the behavior of these governments which used ruthless and excessive brutality to eliminate these returnees. For example in Algeria, these “Afghan” Arabs never resorted to violence initially and took part in democratic elections under FIS; but when their election results were scuttled and army cracked down upon them, they used their Afghan survival skills to fight back. It was very natural that these hunted men would resort to ferocity under such State violence. It does not mean that there were no radicals in their ranks but it also does not mean that all Afghan veteran Arabs or non-Afghans were or are terrorists and must be hunted down under a brand name of Al-Qaeda. This would be a historically incorrect presentation of their situation during and after the Afghan Jihad. Still, there are many Afghan war returnees all over the world who managed to go back to their homelands, andare today living normal lives, with Afghan Jihad being only an exciting and adventurous episode in their lives.
A huge contingent of these non-Afghan, homeless, desperate and hunted fighters landed in Sudan, where a much cooperating government existed under the command of a General who took religious guidance from Dr. HasanTurabi, a friend of Dr. Abdullah Azzam and himself an ex-Akhwan leader. Sudan invited all Afghan veteran Arabs who wanted to leave Afghanistan. The Afghan chapter was effectively closed for these Arabs. Among all those who landed in Sudan was Osama Bin Laden, known only as an ordinary Arab fighter but with lots of money and good family connections. He had already made his mark during the Afghan war by building tunnels and deep caves bringing in the experience of his family construction business in Saudi Arabia. Apart from that, there was nothing extra-ordinary about him. His lavish spending of money on poor Arab comrades did bring fame to him amongst the Arabs, who were now looking for an alternate leadership after the death of mainstream Arab leaders during Afghan Jihad. These young, simple Arabs need religious personality cults and are good at creating them if they do not have a genuine one.
These Arabs returned to Afghanistan, almost with the emergence of Taliban, after the former were kicked out of Sudan due to US pressure. Dr. Turabi was also not going along well with General Basheer and finally Dr. Turabi was arrested as well. Hence, Arab fighters lost all sympathy in Sudan. Afghanistan was once again to become their base but this time with a vengeance. Taliban regime was the last hope of these homeless Arabs, numbering a few thousand in Afghanistan. Osama, due to his money, name and family, emerged as their “Shaykh” as there was no one to challenge his authority. He is the most senior Afghan veteran left alive. He is an ordinary Arab with mediocre intellect but good mannered and soft-spoken but also typical in lacking vision. Osama was neither a thinker,    philosopher,visionary nor a military strategist. So now when I hear amazingly fantastic global exploits of terror attributed to him, I am often surprised as it does not fit the profile of Osama known to everyone back then.
During my entire six years association with Afghan Jihad, I never heard the term “Al-Qaeda,” either in Peshawar or in Afghanistan. There was a Maktab-e-Khidmat, or services centre which acted as a base for Arabs but nothing more. It would be an interesting academic and historical exercise to trace the origin of this boogey word which is now being used as a blanket term for international terrorism associating it with Osama. It never existed during the Afghan war. If these men have resorted to violence today, there are serious reasons for that. System never took them back or rehabilitated them after using them in the Afghan war. Saudis stripped Osama of his citizenship and made him Stateless, just like hundreds of his supporters. What else one can expect from a group of desperate, homeless and hunted band of war veterans? 
Of course, I did not know all this when I landed in Hizb’s guest house in University Town,Peshawar in March 1986. Little did I know that a most amazing, stunning, mesmerizing and adventurous phase of my life so far was about to begin….



Part 3
Into the killing fields!

Since I was an amateur young man in the books of Afghans, my first stop was also planned at a training camp in Warsak, near Peshawar. After an hour long drive across the black top road and a diversion into the hills, we reached Warsak camp, a bustling training camp of Afghan resistance, accommodating a few hundred fighters at a time, in an ongoing cyclic schedule. The camp commander received me in his tent and after a few cups of light black tea, which was to become my staple drink for the next few years in Afghanistan; we set about touring the camp. Various weapon-training sites were scattered all over the planes and hillocks. There were small groups of 15-20 men sitting around a specific weapon, with an instructor briefing them about how to use it and later allowing them live fire practice. Though this camp belonged to Hizb e Islami Hekmatyar group, which is a dominantly Pashtun party, the trainees came from various ethnic backgrounds – Pashtuns, Uzbeks, Tajiks. Most of these trainees were young men but some were also elderly, who had chosen to take up arms and liberate their homeland from the oppression of one of the mightiest armies in the world back then.

To be honest, I was surprised at the simplicity and limited variety of weapons at the camp. My perception of fighting a high intensity war was with heavy artillery, armory and jet fighters. I had no clue about how a guerilla war was fought and with which weapons. I needed to correct my mental bearings in quick time. The array of weapons at the camp included:

1.      Anti aircraft 14.5 mm single barreled guns called Ziguyags.
2.      Anti air craft 12.7 mm heavy gun called Dashekas.
3.      Heavy Machine Gun 7.62 caliber called Grunov.
4.      Light machine gun 7.62 mm with belt or drum magazine.
5.      Rocket propelled grenades RPG – 7.
6.      Light Cannon shoulder or tripod fired recoilless 82 mm.
7.      Light Cannon shoulder or tripod fired recoilless 75 mm.
8.      Mortars of various calibers like 82mm to 120 mm.
9.      Single barrel rocket launcher 107mm.
10.  AK-47 Kalashnikov.

“That’s it?” I thought, with some dismay, after completing my quick tour of the training posts. My confidence in the Mujahideen’s fighting ability, as well as my own chances of survival in the battlefield began to frizzle away. “Are these weapons enough? Are we supposed to fight the Soviets with just these?” I could not resist asking the camp commander. “These are good”, he replied with an amusing smile under which I detected a subtle taunt. “When we started, we only had homemade guns, First World War bolt actions and even shot guns”, he seemed happy at the progress made in six years of resistance. I was still not so sure. “Which weapon would you like to fire?” he asked. The offer was tempting but I only settled for the Kalashnikov; all other weapons seemed fairly simple, and with a surge of over confidence, I felt I did not need to use them here and preferred an on-the-job training in the battlefield.   

Later, when faced with the enemy, my apprehensions proved true, and even though the resistance was giving some serious, tough time to the Soviets with these light, transportable and shoulder carried weapons; the war had actually begun to swing in the favor of the Soviets due to their much modified tactics, superior air power as well as their use of high technology weapon systems, especially the feared MI-24 gunship helicopters and the modified armored plated Sukhoi bomber. These weapons, which had somehow managed to carry the war thus far for the resistance, were not going to be enough if the Soviets were to be driven out of Afghanistan. Within the next few days, fate was to present me with the opportunity of experiencing this phenomenon first hand.  

On a wooden target, placed at a distance of 200 yards, I prepared to fire my first shots of the AK-47. One of the instructors tried to brief me on magazine loading but I declined the offer. It was my time to make an impression. First, while standing and then sitting and taking aim, I fired 5 rounds each, hitting the bull’s-eye. Then lying down on my stomach, turning the selector switch to full auto, I fired short bursts into the target, generating some serious excitement in the small group of onlookers who had gathered to see the “guest” try his luck. Finally, it was time to really fascinate them. I flamboyantly fired a full magazine, in small bursts from the hip, without aiming into the target. Though not all shots struck home, it was impressive enough an attempt to draw a round of applause. “Where did you learn to fire like this?” The camp commander could hardly conceal his amazement, “At my university, in Karachi,” I replied with a smile, handing over the gun to another instructor. I could sense the commander’s disbelief, as I walked away triumphantly. 


********************************************


Finally on March 27, 1986, the moment of truth arrived. I was asked to carry my rucksack and join a group of about 20 Arab Mujahideen moving towards Paktia in Afghanistan via Parachinar, the last Pakistani town on Afghan border in Kurram agency, tribal region. It was reported that fighting had broken out there as a Soviet military column was bogged down while traveling through the province towards Khost. Ambushing convoys was a favorite pastime of the resistance. Arriving in Parachinar just after midday, we moved on to cross the border by afternoon, and then made a long trek through the mountains towards the closest Hizb base in the village of Chamkani inside Afghanistan, arriving there just after dusk. The Arab group, of which I was a part, was escorted by a local Afghan guide, armed with an Ak-47. None of the new recruits carried any weapons at this stage, which made me feel somewhat vulnerable while entering the war zone empty handed. But, Chamkani base was the closest to the Pakistan border and the Mujahideen had controlled the region fairly well thus far, as hundreds of fighters and vehicles crossed both ways almost daily, despite threats of Soviet bombers and Gunships.

For the first time, I experienced a surge of tension, seriousness and excitement building up. “This is for real”, I told myself, as I took stock of the battle hardened Afghan and Arab men surrounding me, wearing their battle gears and carrying weapons, discussing exploits of the bygone battles and preparing plans for the next day. One could hear the thunder of artillery in the distance and the reality began to sink home that now there was no turning back. I was in the battle field now. We were led into a small brick room, lit with kerosene lanterns, a typical example of local architecture; the ambiance created a mystifying aura about the place. Many such rooms dotted the harsh mountainous base, occupied by Arab and Afghan fighters. I was given a first world war Enfield 303 bolt action rifle with about 30 rounds. I was quite disappointed at not being given an AK-47, but then I convinced myself that in any real engagement, I would be able to take down quite a few enemies, even with this weapon.

Plans had been made to attack a Soviet convoy as well as a nearby enemy post the next day, therefore, we were told to take an early rest. The next few days had some shocking experiences in store for me and served as a tough initiation process into what was to come my way during the next six years. I had maintained a small diary, taking down brief notes as the perilous adventure unfolded itself. It makes fascinating reading and gives first hand insight about life on a typical Afghan battlefield during those days.

(Diary notes are in Italics and I have added extra commentary underneath now for clarity).

Date: 28.3.86: “From Mujahid camp to close to enemy positions, 5 km long tiring walk through mountains with heavy load of shells and guns. It is nearly mid-day now and we plan to attack the enemy with multi barreled rocket launchers. I have not seen enemy so far but, inshAllah, after a couple of hours…..”

 The Mujahideen attacked the Soviets with multi-barreled rocket launchers from across the hills into the plains, where the convoy was stuck. 12 thunderous 107 mm rockets would form a typical barrage onto the enemy positions, creating a fearsome onslaught of artillery for the enemy.  The Soviet response was swift and even more ruthless. For the first time, I saw the dreaded MI24 Gunships, hovering at a safe distance and firing salvos of rockets into the hills where MBRL was dug in. The action lasted for about 2 hours and then we started the retreat back to base.

The earth shook beneath our feet as bombs and rockets were fired at us from Gunship copters and jets, which kept on chasing us as we tried to make our way back from the battle front to the base carrying our dead, wounded and weapons. We had taken casualties and the MBRL position had taken a direct Soviet rocket hit, knocking out the launcher and killing a crew member. As we started the retreat, the Gunships gave chase. With only one single barreled 14.5 Ziguyag at the base to keep the fearsome MI-24’s away, we had little chance of survival but darkness became our ally. And then the jets arrived, dropping light flares and again all hell broke loose.

“Heavy bombardment from enemy with mortars, missiles, Gunships and Jets. Enemy suffered great losses due to Mujahideen’s rocket attack. We were hiding behind rocks with shells falling all around us. Only Allah protected us. A brother from Afghanistan was Shaheed.
 One Arab was wounded. He was taken to Pakistan. At night jets bombarded the place in flare lights. We were hiding in a cave. Allah saved us again. For the first time in my life I have experienced something like this, but this is Jihad…”


Date 29.3.86:  “Heavy bombardment again by jets, rockets fell close to us. We kept hiding behind the rocks. It is midday now and we are at a Mujahideen outpost close to enemy. We can see enemy camp and jets bombarding Mujahideen positions in different areas. We can see white mountains around us”.

 Early morning the next day, we were forced to leave camp by the Mujahideen even before day break and a column of about 20 men dashed out towards a forward post, but we were trapped in a small ravine when a squadron of Soviet jets attacked us, diving low, firing rockets and strafing right into the column. The column consisted mostly of young Arab fighters who had not seen much action before. They panicked. The group, including myself, desperately tried to take cover behind rocks and stones with Soviet jets diving in waves, releasing flares to prevent any SAM attacks. The roaring, whistling sound of aircraft, slicing through the wind was uncannily familiar, perhaps from the movies we had seen, and then panic and fear began to set in almost immediately.

I stared, horrified as three fighter jets formed a line and entered into a dive straight at me, strafing with bullets whizzing past me and hitting the ravine floor kicking clouds of dust. I was frozen in fear, almost into a trance of disbelief as the jets released their loads. The planes dived so low that I could see the helmets of the pilots when they flew past me. Luckily, bombs and rockets exploded on the hill slopes, missing the terrified young fighters in the ravine below, who lay there, hugging the ground as bullets whizzed past, miraculously missing the targets. This was my first ever experience of coming under a hostile fighter jet attack and made me freeze in sheer terror.

Till today, I regret not having shot at those aircraft, for I am sure that if I had, even with a bolt action rifle, I wouldn’t have missed. I had often gone duck hunting with my dad, and in retrospect, seeing those fighter jets sailing though the air, I could not help but compare them to fast teals and mallards that could have been shot down without much effort. But, at that point in time, I was too frozen with fear to even consider the possibility. Till that time, advanced surface to air missiles had not arrived in Afghanistan and Soviet planes released decoy flares but those were more of a precaution than due to a real threat from an advanced SAM.

We finally managed to move out of the ravine and into the observation post closer to the Soviet base in the valley below. We came back to our own base at night. For the next few days, our group used to move out to our outpost, OP, in the morning and return at night. Those days were of relative calm for me as I saw the war unfolding around us while we waited and observed Soviet positions and tactics. It seemed like watching a movie, only with real, deadly action taking place around us, without the rewind or pause buttons. 

Enchanting, snowy, mountainous landscape and the stillness of the serene environment, did not betray the immense bloodshed and butchery those valleys had witnessed. The Soviets had used brute and ruthless force to decimate almost every village they even suspected of hosting the resistance. Miles after miles, abandoned villages dotted the hills and valleys, their occupants having migrated to Pakistan with only fighters returning to continue the struggle. We were also lodged in one such vacated, mud and stone, double storied house.

It was here, for the first time, that I was properly introduced to the Arab fighters as well. I was the only Pakistani in the group and could speak English, a fascination for the Afghans and Arabs alike. My Arabic, Pushto or Dari was almost non-existent at the time and only Abu Hajir, from Iraq could speak English. We became good friends immediately. He had not met any Pakistani on the battle front before and was keen to know about Islamic movements in Pakistan. This small band of Muslim fighters comprised of young men from at least 10 different nationalities from various social and educational backgrounds, almost all meeting each other for the first time but united by the bond of a common sacred cause. Afghan Jihad was truly a Pan Islamic movement.

I last met Abu Hajir briefly after 4 years on my way to Takhar, towards regions of Ahmed Shah Masood in Northern Afghanistan 1990. Abu Hajir was trekking back towards Pakistan from Takhar on that grueling journey. Just before sundown, on a dusty, narrow dirt track in the Farkhar valley, he recognized me riding a horse, nursing my lacerated feet after days of walking. We embraced each other with excitement, shook hands, introduced each other to the comrades. He even offered me his own boots when he saw that mine were hurting me. I then rode into the wilderness, as Abu Hajir hastened on the opposite dusty track, disappearing into the darkening shadows. I never saw  or heard about him again. People just seemed to vanish in those killing fields.

Date: 30-3-86:  “Not much happened yesterday after midday. We came back from OP after dusk.     Today we pushed off very fast from our base and reached OP. Jets bombarding surrounding hills, probably our HQ as well. Came back late in the evening, saw enemy movements and Mujahideen firing rockets on enemy positions with enemy retaliating and us in the middle with shells flying over our heads. Sent a letter to Mom”

Date: 31.3.86: “Not much action for us all day except usual sights of jets bombing and rocketing. At night enemy attacked us with rockets. It was a surprise attack. Thank God no one was hurt.”

Date: 1.4.86: “Early morning left for Parachinar. Not much action here for a Kalashnikov. Decided to leave for other fronts. Arabs also coming back”
Date: 2.4.86:  “Back in Peshawar”.
These first four days on the front line were to change my entire perspective and outlook on life. Despite its harshness and ruthlessness, it was a surreal experience, almost mystical in intensity. The experiences of trials, human brutality as well as sacrifice, undergone during this span of time, taught me phenomenal lessons about life and death. Those of us who were alive did not know why they were spared and those who died, we did not understand why they were chosen. This dangerous, but extremely mystifying life was to be my destiny for the next few years.
During this first trip into the killing fields of Afghanistan, I was destined to undergo similar experiences in Jalalabad and Paktia. I had maintained a brief diary of these events as well, and this gives more insight into the ways and tactics of war being fought in those days: Earlier it was ambushing convoys, whereas now in Jalalabad, it was joining Mujahideen for attacking a fixed enemy post.
Very close to the Pakistan border was the Mujahideen base at Shalman Dakka. It was overseeing the road to Jalalabad from Torkham, Pakistan-Afghan border. It was a very strategic road for the Soviets, heavily guarded and bitterly fought for by the Mujahideen. Ambushing this road was a regular battle strategy. But to get to the road, one had to pass through many security posts or hilltop fortresses dotting the area. Therefore, this area was very suitable for post warfare as well.
I landed at Hizb e Islami camp in Shalman. The wide valley had a river running though it, with one exit towards Pakistan, hence making it easy for the resistance to cross the border and bring in men and supplies. The smaller side of the valley, where the Mujahideen had their bases was dotted with tents, caves and make shift shanties for all Mujahideen groups, having their camps side by side.  Hilltops were manned with anti-air craft guns to keep fighter jets and Helicopters away. 
I was received by a short, stout, well built, very confident middle aged, Mujahideen commander, Kochi Khan. He was a Pashtun from a nomadic tribe and interestingly his name Kochi literally means ‘nomad’. I was to spend the next 10 days with Kochi and he was to become my mentor in Dari/Persian, war strategy, guerilla war tactics and observations, lessons in ambushing convoys and in attacking posts. Though he was a Pashtun, he spoke Dari very well, and I immediately started to take my language lessons. Within a few days, we were communicating reasonably well in Dari, which was to become my second language during                                                                                                                                     all my adventures.
Somehow, I could never pick up Pashtu fluently despite my years of association with Afghan resistance and having Peshawar as my second home for this period, perhaps because of my focus on Dari, which was closer to Urdu and easier to learn and speak. Every educated Afghan is at least bilingual and hence Dari became and remained my first choice of language in Afghanistan.
Kochi handed me an AK-47 and I was ecstatic. That was to be my personal weapon from now on. I had a small camera with me as well and had been taking pictures all along. In those days, there were no digital cameras and old fashioned films had to be loaded, so one would only know after weeks or often months the results of their photography; but I kept on clicking. In the coming years I was also to become part of Mujahideen propagation department and produce hundreds of thousands of pictures, audio tapes and video films for the resistance. But at that moment, in Shalman, I was on my own, a young Karachi student who had enigmatically decided to abandon an engineering career and join the resistance as a foot soldier. 
One day, it was decided within the groups, to launch an attack on a post inside the enemy territory. The plan demanded that we cross the heavily guarded Jalalabad highway at night, penetrate deep near the target post, hide in the gorges and natural trenches in the day, dodge the hilltop posts on the way, make an attack in the afternoon and finally come out alive somehow. It was insane to start with but everyone was hyper charged, so I decided to go along silently. Every group contributed men and a total of 50 fighters were assembled for the operation. Kochi Khan was the commander of the combined force. The weapons included AK47’s and RPG’s with the troopers and only one 82mm recoilless rifle as softening up artillery, which was to be used by Kochi himself. As per battle plan, an assault team was to attack the post frontally, once it was softened by the 82mm rockets. Kochi wanted me to stay close to him, obviously for my protection. I wanted to go with the assault teams, a high risk preposition. Kochi was visibly uncomfortable about sending me along with the assault group. He was jealously protecting me like a guardian angel. I decided to go with the fighting group anyway and let the battle decide my position.
My diary entry reads:
Jalalabad 14-4-86:  “At night going for an attack, inshAllah. Hope to be back after two days. Saw target post in the day from an OP post. Enemy tanks and vehicles are close to it. About 50 Mujahideen are going. We will stay out at night and reach target area and hide. Next morning we will keep hiding till after noon and then attack and make our way back in the darkness. We are using Kalashnikovs, RPG’s, 82 mm shoulder fired recoilless gun. Attack will last one hour. If we fail, retreat. If we succeed, a full assault will be made. The one hour would be decisive”.

The awe-inspiring, mysticism of that particular night bewilders me even today. After dusk, men assembled at the rendezvous, verses from the Quran were recited, followed by a collective prayer for victory. Men were aware of the risks and were willing to take the chances with courage. It was an audacious plan and if the attack had taken place, many or perhaps all could have perished. There was a full moon, and the column started their march in single file almost in silence, only the rattling of the weapons and sounds of the marching footsteps on mountain stones broke the stillness of the night. It was my first experience to march with battle hardened Mujahideen on those treacherous mountain slopes and I was struggling to keep pace. Within the first hour, I was exhausted, carrying my load of weapon, about 250 rounds of ammunition, medical pack and some extra clothes. We crossed hills, dirt tracks, ponds, canals, mountain passes, drinking dirty sand infested water on the move, without stopping and then finally reaching the Jalalabad road around 10 pm at night after 3 hours of forced march. We had been observing this stretch of the road for days now and knew it was guarded with tanks and posts. Now came the tricky part: How to cross the road in a bright, moonlit night? The agitation and fear factor began to take over. Mujahideen and Kochi were unnerved.
It was decided to send small groups of men across the road one after another. Kochi went first, then another and then another. It was my turn now. Rising from the roadside ditch, I stepped on the blacktop road, precariously visible under the full moon. Crouching low, head down, anticipating hostile fire, I rushed across the road and dived into the ditch on the other side. Now we were officially in the enemy territory. My pulse began to rise.

On the face of it, it was insanity what Mujahideen had planned to do. Coming this far into enemy territory and so close to tanks and posts was bad enough. Now they planned to move deeper, passing many posts on the way and then hide near a selected post and spend the next days there, hoping that no one would see them. If we were to be seen by the enemy during daytime, there would be a massacre for sure, with no escape route. If we were to attack the post the next day and then try to make our way back through this same treacherous path, the probability of a massacre would still be strong. But now, we were across the road and no one was planning a retreat, not now at least.
The attacking column re-assembled in a single file once again, the standard marching formation in Afghanistan for fear of landmines. Another half an hour of silent march into the hostile territory and suddenly the leader signaled to everyone to stop and sit. There was trouble.
The dogs on the nearby posts had felt the movement of the Mujahideen and were barking uncontrollably, making the Soviet/Afghan army guards alert and nervous about possible presence of Mujahideen in the area. And then, all hell broke loose. All the posts started to fire simultaneously in all directions. It was obvious that they did not know our exact location, but were not taking any chances and multi directional, indiscriminate fire was the best insurance against sneaking Mujahideen fighting patrols. Our column sat in tensed silence as machine gun and AK47 bullets whizzed past our heads. The tracer rounds were particularly enthralling to watch as they left a trail of light when they passed. I saw two tracer rounds move at lightning speed towards me and just missed by a fraction. It was close. Very close. While the Mujahideen guide was desperately trying to find alternate route to move forward and the column was tensely ducking the incoming machine gun fire, the incredible happened. I went to sleep!
I was jolted from my deep sleep by an Afghan comrade minutes later and he asked “Tufung Kuja ast?” Where is your rifle? Panic and fear ran a chill down my spine. My rifle was gone.  I frantically searched all around in the darkness, not moving too far from the column for fear of losing it, keeping the head low to avoid the incoming sporadic fire. All my sleep, laziness, tiredness and fatigue vanished in a flash of sheer panic. Seeing me horrified, he reached behind a bush, pulled out my AK47, handed it over to me and gave me a survival lesson of a lifetime in a single sentence “This is not our base. Don’t ever sleep”.  I remembered this hard learnt lesson throughout my association with Afghan Jihad and never became casual on the Afghan killing fields nor separated myself from my weapon ever again and it did help keep me alive. The situation was getting desperate. If we had to get out before daybreak, we had to move out now; else, we would be trapped within the enemy zone and decimated. Kochi took a brave and pragmatic decision despite resistance by the younger, emotional members of the group. He ordered a withdrawal. 
My diary entry read:
15.4.86: “Attack called off. Reached enemy area near the target post but then it was discovered that more enemy posts are present then previously known. Enemy was all around us and we were trapped in the middle. If they had known our positions, some of us would not have returned alive. We made a safe entry and safe retreat. It was a long walk, mysterious but interesting, tiring and adventurous at the same time. At 8 pm we started and reached the target area at 12 midnight. Retreat was immediate and we reached back at 4 am in the morning at base. I was extremely tired and could not even lift my feet properly, desperately trying to find my way back in darkness”.
I could not make it back to the base by the first light but we were in the safe territory. We forced marched almost the entire night through the mountains and hills. My whole body ached with cramps and pains. Unable to walk any further, I sat between rocks along with a couple of Afghan Mujahideen and we made a makeshift sleeping arrangement. Here, I had no problem sleeping but still, tightly hugged my rifle and dozed off. Kochi had reached the base and waited for me, till I finally joined him just before noon. There was disappointment in Kochi at not achieving the mission but also a genuine satisfaction at pulling the group out alive without any casualty. He had a very sensible head on his shoulders. He knew it was a long war and had learnt the art of staying alive to fight another day. I was fast learning from his cool head, calm composure and brave attitude. It was amazing how a nomadic shepherd had turned into a genuine guerilla fighter against the mightiest army in the world.
It was time for me to take leave from Kochi. He was a mentor whose expertise and affection continue to inspire me. The next day I went back to Peshawar to plan my next move.
Three years later in 1989, I once again went back to Jalalabad to participate in the bloody fight for the city. After the Soviet withdrawal, Mujahideen had planned to capture a major city and make it their capital of the free government. The attack turned out to be a disaster of mega proportions on which I shall write later. On way to the battle front on the outskirts of the city, I drove from Torkham to the exact spot on the Jalalabad road where we had crossed 3 years earlier with our small battle group in the moonlit night and were almost killed in the subsequent confusion. Driving past that exact very point of crossing, memories of that night and its nostalgia took me by storm. My mind thought of Kochi.
In 1988, almost two years after my return from Shalman front, I was driving through University town, Peshawar and stopped by a house. The poor security guard, sitting on a chair, looked into my eyes and instantly called my name. I was a little surprised, trying to recognize the broken face of a very sad man. “mun Kochi astam”, I am Kochi, he said in Dari and then I recognized him, a little surprised at why he did not get up to greet me. I was excited, happy and wanted to embrace him but he kept sitting and then it dawned on me: One of his legs was missing!
Commander Kochi Khan had stepped on a landmine after I had left the base and had nearly been killed and ever since had been under treatment and now doing a part time job of a security guard. He did not have an artificial leg and used crutches. Now I could see tears of desperation and helplessness in his eyes. I was shattered.
The Commander Kochi Khan I knew was a tiger of the mountains, taking on the Soviets and charging on their posts. The Kochi whom I was meeting now was from another world. The Soviets had planted millions of land mines in Afghanistan and they continue to kill and maim Afghans even today. It is estimated that it would take 400 years to clear Afghanistan of all the land mines planted and dropped by the Soviets. It is a brutal and indiscriminate way of killing and maiming a nation. Thousands of Afghans have lost lives and limbs till today, and the toll continues to climb higher every week. Kochi was just one more statistic in this brutal war. I wanted to give him some cash as gift. He gratefully accepted. I still remember tears in his eyes when I left him there and went ahead to my duty. I am not sure whether he saw my tears or not. I could not even take his address and later I was told that he had moved with his nomadic tribe to where he belonged. He was a nomad, a free soul and could not do a job sitting in a chair. That was my last meeting with Kochi Khan. May Allah bless you Kochi, always and forever.


Part 4
The Night Sentry!

In mid April 1986, after returning from Jalalabad, I again landed at the Hizb e Islami guesthouse in University Town Peshawar. Since my arrival in Peshawar almost three weeks ago, I had already gone through a radical emotional and psychological transformation. Nothing transforms boys into men as rapidly as the ruthlessness of war. From an inexperienced, 22 year old city kid, I had metamorphosed into a serious, sober and hardened resistance fighter; who had not only witnessed death, survival, fear and courage, but also confronted the firepower of the most ruthless super power of the time, and had lived to tell the tale. This was a man’s world – real men played their destined roles with almost divine disdain, taking the most daring risks and severe loses in their stride, living through a dangerous life with such calm composure that it defied human logic.
This national resilience was the most stunning aspect of the Afghan resistance. It was a war of national liberation. A war of independence against foreign occupation, where the entire nation had risen spontaneously and collectively, cutting across all ethnic, linguistic and sectarian divides. A new culture of war and resistance had come into being in Afghanistan, where ordinary shepherds, farmers and students had banded together in strong bonds of comradeship to transform an entire nation into a fierce fighting machine – into the most efficient and ferocious guerilla force known to man in the 20th century; which was to bring down the entire Soviet empire after a decade of fierce fighting, which claimed over a million Afghan lives. The entire social fabric of the society was re-engineered to support a protracted war. Families migrated to safer sanctuaries in Pakistan or Iran. Almost 6 million Afghans migrated, clearing the Afghan countryside for men to carry on the fight freely for a protracted guerilla war. Men divided their time and turns between the battle field and supporting the families in refugee camps in Pakistan. From free and spacious living in Afghan villages to dusty, dirty and overcrowded prison like refugee camps in tents or mud houses without any sanitation, water, electricity, health or education facilities – the war was particularly tough on women and children. Not a single Afghan begged in Pakistan. Children as young as five would sell tissue boxes, matches and toilet rolls to support family income but would not beg. Elders would work as laborers, vendors or traders. Artisans started their businesses in Pakistan. The entire Afghan handmade carpet industry shifted to Peshawar.  Transporters started to ply trucks and busses on specially granted TRP (Temporary Road Permits) by Pakistan government.
Despite all the harshness of life in exile, not a single Afghan in Pakistan ever demanded that they should make peace with the Soviets and return back to their country. There were never any serious riots or law and order situation due to Afghan refugees who remained extremely peaceful in their new, adopted temporary home. Afghans hated and feared the notoriously corrupt Pakistani Police but still hardly any incident was reported of any civil disobedience by the millions of refugees and relations between local Pashtuns and Afghan refugees remained cordial.
Peshawar actually turned into an Afghan or Central Asian city in those days, with hundreds of thousands of Uzbeks, Tajiks, Hazaras, Pashtuns and Turkmen men and women in their colorful turbans and robes walking the city lanes, fascinatingly adding to the colorful variety of the old dusty city. Afghan restaurants were the new hit in town that rivaled and often won against local cuisine, creating an entirely new food culture in Peshawar. After coming back from the rough and harsh expeditions of the battle fields, having a sumptuous Afghan Pulao Kebab dinner, sitting on the old hand knotted carpeted floor, with Afghan music from the 50’s playing in the background, creating a mystifying, medieval aura, was a temptation I always indulged in. Till this day, visiting Afghan restaurants in Islamabad and treating myself to this Afghan cuisine remains my favorite indulgence. Just the aroma of Afghan Pulao and Seekh Kebab makes me nostalgic and reminds me of those adventurous, mysterious and fascinating days. 
The character of the Afghan nation was put to the test in this epic struggle for freedom, and there is no doubt they proved themselves worthy men and women of steel. With almost the entire nation of 15 million displaced through migration or forced into the war, it was a tragedy and a struggle of staggering proportions. No nation, till that time, other than the Afghans could take so much suffering and still remain calm, composed and determined. Later, the entire Muslim world was to take energy, courage and determination from the Afghan resistance and start their own liberation struggles in various occupied Muslim lands, from Kashmir to Chechnya and Palestine to the Philippines. These shall be written about later. 
One fact has to be very strongly clarified: It was not the CIA’s war against the Soviets, as the world is still made to believe. It was a war fought by the Afghans for the liberation of their land, joined and supported by all anti-Soviet camps in the world at that time, which overwhelmingly included the Muslim world, Muslim organizations and even China. For every American dollar, which came in, there were ten dollars to match from the Muslim world and China. Not a single CIA or American government operative fought or died alongside the resistance, but there were thousands of Muslim volunteers from the entire Muslim and even western world, who reached Peshawar and Quetta in droves and then moved into the killing fields across the border. Thousands got killed, some survived to return to their lands and some decided to settle and become Afghans. My own presence there was just a tiny speck of most humble contribution in that colossal, global effort to dislodge the Soviet empire from a Muslim land. This had never been done in the last 250 years of Russian expansionism in Muslim Central Asia, and the odds this time also were heavily against the resistance, no doubt. Still, we persevered, with the Afghans paying the heaviest price.
After returning from Jalalabad, I was even more determined to stay on, as incredibly enough, I had already gained the firsthand, exhilarating experience of the battlefield. The whole environment was surreal and electrifying, creating a powerful energy field, which kept pulling me back towards the frontlines like a magnet, despite the risks. It seemed insane, but I, like so many others, had made my choices. Already, I was intoxicated by the risks, fears, pains and the mysterious unknowns that lurked in those killing fields. I knew it back then that my probing expeditions into the Afghan war zones were to become my life for the next many years. Back in the guest house, I probed for other war fronts.

*********
There were reports of very heavy fighting in Paktia once again and emotions were high in the guest house, as massive casualties were reported from the front line. I was told that Hekmatyar was also in the area and the Mujahideen were under severe pressure from the Soviets. These were the decisive moments, when the Mujahideen had actually begun to loose in Afghanistan against the Soviet military might and its technological modifications to defeat the resistance weapons. There were talks of a new bomber which was not destructible by Ziguyag, a 14.5 mm anti-air craft gun, the largest AA weapon in the Mujahideen arsenal. Those bombers were diving lower and taking out the mountain top posts of the Mujahideen, which otherwise were inaccessible by ground troops or artillery. Soviets had also deployed their elitist Special Forces troops, Spitnetz, who were using high technology, including night vision devices and silencered weapons, to make daring night raids into the Mujahideen bases and posts. Two Mujahideen bases or Ghunds, of Jalalud din Haqqani and Hekmatyar groups called Zawar and Jahadwal respectively, located on the Pakistan-Afghan border were under severe pressure from the Soviets, and it was being reported that Haqqani’s Zawar Ghund had already fallen to the Soviets. This was a dramatic development and a serious setback for the Mujahideen. The Soviet strategy was obviously not to hold ground so close to Pakistan, within the proximity of strong Mujahideen bases. They were on search and destroy missions, retreating immediately after taking control of the bases and destroying the weapons and ammo cache of the resistance. The Soviet air force, that comprised of their new planes with armored underbellies played a major role in this battle, actually terrorizing the resistance and shaking the confidence of the Afghan gunners who were not able to shoot them down even at close range.
The mood in the guesthouse was somber, angry and even of fearful. The stories circulating about new Soviet aircrafts and their newer, indestructible capability had taken the form of Chinese whispers, with more dramatic and dreadful capabilities being associated with those war machines by each story teller. For the first time since my arrival in Peshawar and association with the resistance, I felt panic and fear in the Afghans as well as in the Arabs. The manager of the guest house sincerely tried to convince me to stay in Peshawar for some more time, or go to another front where fighting was not so severe. But the lure of the Paktia’s raging battlefields was too strong for me to resist. Either I was too naïve and stupid or too numb to feel the seriousness of the threat there, but whatever be the case, Paktia was to be my next destination once again. This time, I was to cross the border from North Waziristan tribal region.
After a grueling journey in a double cabin, four wheel drive, we reached the Head Quarters of Hizb e Islami, in Miranshah. The huge compound was bustling with the activity of armed men arriving in and driving out in urgency. It was clear that we were in a staging camp for launching fighters into Afghanistan and the urgency suggested a war close at hand. To my surprise, standing amongst the fighters, I saw Gulbadin Hekmatyar, the young, charismatic leader of the Hizb e Islamic faction of Afghan resistance. His personal presence this close to the war front and among his comrades suggested the seriousness of the situation. When I saw him, he was interviewing his troops. Suddenly, our eyes crossed, he broke off his conversation and hastened towards me. With a few measured steps, he reached close to me a smile crossed his firm face, and he asked in Arabic “Jait’aa al aan?” Have you arrived just now? “Naa’m,” yes, I struggled to respond in Arabic. I was surprised and so was everyone else present in that circle. The Commander in Chief had just given me personal attention and that had impressed everyone there including me. Suddenly, many eyes were on me and I began to feel embarrassed.
In fact, I was the one who was most stupefied. My mind was racing fast with excitement. Has he recognized me after our encounter in Karachi? Does he think I am an Arab and is mistaking me for someone else? I decided to converse with him in English, removing all his doubts about myself, if he had any. I wanted to ask a million questions from him about the war, its strategy, their goals, training, supplies, support base, political strategies, international relations, and future of Afghanistan, but that was not the time. I could see he was in urgency. I just told him that I wanted to go in to join the fighting and he made sure that this happened, putting me up with a reliable commander whose troops were leaving in a while. I had a brief conversation with him here but that proved extremely useful for me, and later for my very concerned father also, who somehow managed to pull the impossible in those days and called Hekmatyar on a land phone from Karachi and asked about my safety and welfare when the news of the Paktia fighting reached international media.  Hekmatyar assured my father that I was fine, that he had met me and that I was inside Afghanistan. That conversation did satisfy my father for the moment but the reality is that once I took leave from him and went into Afghanistan and the Paktia killing fields, Hekmatyar had no idea what had happened to me. That, of course, he could not tell my father. 
My brief diary entry of this occasion and this surprise meeting with Hekmatyar read:   
Date: 21.4.86: “In Miranshah at midday. Heaviest fighting going on in Paktia. The camps of Haqqani called Zawar have fallen. Enemy has taken positions in the camp. Tonight Mujahideen from Hizb Islami are going to attack enemy positions and try to take back the area. Met Hekmatyar.”
Earlier, I had met two Afghan prisoners who had abandoned their posts and surrendered to the resistance. Both wore Afghan communist army uniforms and were with shaven heads and stood motionless and replied in short nervous sentences when interviewed by a commander. If they could not satisfy the commander, they faced the prospect of a firing squad and were visibly aware and fearful of the possibility. The Afghan government’s communist secret service Khad, routinely sent in spies and informers within the ranks of the Mujahideen and hence every deserter was carefully scrutinized.  I don’t know what became of them later when I climbed my pickup and rode off with the Mujahideen.
However, I could not go that day. Next day, around noon, our fighting group consisting of Afghans and myself as the only foreigner, embarked on a dangerous journey into Afghanistan, riding pickup trucks, through an open valley under constant fear of fighter aircrafts and gunship helicopters. As fate would have it, just when we arrived at the border, the fighter jets arrived. In a moment of panic and confusion, everyone jumped off the vehicles and dashed into the hills, but surprisingly the jets did not attack and just made a pass and went back. The excitement levels were extremely high with a gut-wrenching churn in the stomach, telling us that soon we will be at the wrong end of Soviet jets and artillery.
During the previous night, the Mujahideen had launched an attack to recover their base, and had gained some success. Hizb e Islami’s Jahadwal base had remained intact and was under Mujahideen control. The confused stories which came out suggested that Zawar base had fallen and then recovered, as the Soviet Special forces had withdrawn after taking over; but at that time, there was no way to confirm this news. However, the intensity and ferocity of the Soviet air attack on the bases suggested a fierce ongoing battle, and I was driving right into it.
My diary entry of the time reads: 
Date: 22.4.86:  “Not confirmed as yet but latest reports are Mujahideen have captured many positions in Zawar area in  last night’s offensive. Many hundred Mujahideen attacked from the front and nearly 100 from the back of the positions. In the morning I saw two soldiers of the Afghan army who had surrendered to the Mujahideen. Reports say that nearly all the area has been taken by the Mujahideen. Enemy was attacked by rockets first and then frontal assault by the infantry.
Reached Jahadwal. Heavy enemy bombardment. Nearly 100 sorties in a day. Soviet forces have left the area, only their jets are here. Good action for Ack Ack gunners”.
Once inside Afghanistan, we disembarked and started a long treacherous walk through mountains, hills, ravines and unexploded bombs which were littered in dozens along the way. Many were driven deep into the ground but failed to explode with their tail fins protruding out of the ground, making them a dangerous proposition as they could explode at the slightest of vibration or movement.
On a lighter note, which also explains the irony of that dangerous life, I would quote an incident here. We came across an unexploded bomb on our way into Afghanistan. The local Afghan guide asked me to stay away from it as it was still dangerous. I was nervous and cautious as its fuse was intact and it could actually explode at the slightest of vibrations. While I was thinking of how to skirt around the bomb, fighter jets appeared in the sky, diving and bombing around us indiscriminately. With no cover or shade to hide under, upon a reflex action, I dived behind that bomb and took cover. Moments later when the fighter jets left, the irony of the comical situation dawned upon me. With a sheepish smile and a quick trot, I tried to get away from the unexploded ordinance. Later I could laugh about it and tell stories to my children, but back then, I must acknowledge that I was too embarrassed to even share the comedy with anyone.
I actually experienced that in times of sheer fright and terror, the mind actually stops working if you are not trained enough to develop nerves of steel. I was thrown into that ferocious, messy war and was learning fast, making mistakes in the process and somehow surviving, though Afghanistan was not a very forgiving place for mistakes. This risky, dangerous life was the daily routine for anyone who has seen that war. Soon, one learnt to take the threats and risks in their stride, but at that time, I was still shaky, though determined enough to keep going.
I made my way on to a mountain top post, where about a dozen Mujahideen were based and manning a 14.5 mm anti aircraft gun. The area was all mountainous and dozens of such peaks in the entire base were dotted with such gun positions. In the valleys below, Mujahideen had their bases, tunnels and supply depots. The anti-aircraft positions were the first and the strongest defense line against the Soviet air attack and so were also the prime targets for the enemy aircrafts. When I reached there, the main battle for Zawar and Jahadwal was over and the rear action was in progress. Soviet Special Forces had withdrawn and now only their aircraft were busy targeting and taking out Mujahideen gun positions. On the mountaintop, these gun positions were exposed to Helicopter fire and precision bombings by aircrafts. Helicopters were particularly lethal, as they could position themselves at one point in the sky and take direct rocket shots at the positions from a safe distance. 14.5 mm gun does not have a very long range and the Soviet helicopters, while staying out of their range, could fire back at will. Jets normally would not come low and had to bomb from a height and that made them inaccurate. Subsequently, massive bombings were going on just before I arrived, but then it calmed down a bit as I made it to the post.
My diary entry reads:
Date: 23.4.86:  “Since morning enemy aircraft are coming but not bombing. Our gunners are ready too. I am close to Ack Ack positions. It’s good fun watching the jets around. It reminds me of duck shooting only that these ducks are a bit too dangerous.”
Date: 24.4.86: Heavy rainstorm makes Paktia a beautiful place. Changed my position once again. There might be good action in next few days. Mujahideen will try to capture Khost. It is an important strategic garrison. Heavy fighting is expected. Temperature has gone down. No sun and it is midday. I am literally shivering”.
I had begun to enjoy my new anti-aircraft gun position on the mountain top. The overall fighting in the area had slowed down. Ground troops were not engaged anymore, only air strikes were taking place on dozens of mountain top posts, dotted on the ridges in the Paktia range. When the fighter jet is not exactly targeting your own position, then it is a fascinating sight to see the desperate battle between a fighter jet and the defending ground anti-aircraft fire. After ambushing convoys in Chamkani and attacking enemy posts in Jalalabad, here I had ample opportunity to learn this sort of anti-aircraft warfare.
It was strange, almost unbelievable to see such light single barreled, anti-aircraft guns managing such critical air defense. My father was also from the air defense or anti-aircraft regiments of Pakistan Army, and I had often visited with him as a young boy to see live anti-aircraft fire. A full battery of guns would fire against a hostile target, still the aircraft or drone would sometimes escape. Pakistan army’s air defense units also use 14.5 mm anti aircraft guns for low level air defense, but they are often in Quad formations – that is four barrels are fitted to a gun and all 4 barrels fire simultaneously. That is a fearsome firepower. But here, on the Afghan battle fronts, I had to quickly re-adjust my mental bearings to the guerilla version of anti-aircraft artillery.  There is no doubt that experience of going on firing ranges with my father proved extremely useful on these real battle fronts, but there is also no doubt that what I saw here also defied all military logic of conventional air defense wisdom.
On these Afghan fronts, the gun on a mountain top post is fixed and cannot be hidden or change its position but it can revolve 360 degrees to fire in all directions. It also has a limited range of about 1 km in the air and does not have an air burst shell but solid 14.5 mm rapid firing projectiles, which have to make a direct hit to damage the aircraft; again, an almost impossible task against a fast flying fighter. But on the other hand, the gun itself is also a tiny spec on a mountaintop, making it a very difficult target for a fast attacking jet. Because the gun positions are widely dispersed, a jet can only attack one post at a time. If the jet tries to take a closer, accurate shot through rockets or cannons in a dive formation, it risks taking a hit from dozens of other anti-aircraft guns which open up simultaneously from all sides, with ferocious intensity creating a storm of steel. To stay out of troublesome, incoming anti aircraft fire, jets can maintain a higher altitude and drop bombs instead, but then they don’t remain accurate. In those days, Soviets were not using laser guided smart bombs, hence high altitude bombing was hardly useful against small mountain top gun positions, even though the indiscriminate bombings did cause some damage to structures, houses and roads. The fearsome Soviet MI24 Gunship helicopter, which was made to fight NATO and US forces, was the alternative for the Soviets to attack the Mujahideen posts with, and this did the job with good affect. Even though the MI24 Gunships were armor plated, they had their weak points as well, especially the cockpit and 14.5 mm fire could bring them down. It could hover at a point for hours, out of the range of the Mujahideen guns and then select its targets one by one to attack them with his deadly rockets. But still, if the Helicopter had to stay out of the range of these guns, the accuracy of its unguided rockets was low. The Soviets needed a radically different solution. By early 1986 when I joined the resistance, their new aircraft were deployed for the first time in this Paktia battle.
After almost 6 years of war, the Soviets had learned their lessons as well. Despite the limited Mujahideen anti-aircraft artillery and their guerilla strategy, the Soviets had a clear advantage of air power. But to press that advantage deeper and to be able to come lower and closer in a dive attack formation on Mujahideen posts, they came up with a newer and deadlier version of their Sukhoy bombers, with armored underbellies, which could take and deflect 14.5 mm shells.  
My diary entry reads:
Date: 25.4.86: “Cloudy day. Probability of aircrafts less. In recent attacks Russians used a new aircraft. The description given by the Mujahideen is “small black colored aircraft which deflects light anti-air craft fire”. It is probably armor plated. Russians have used it for the first time so far only on this front. But it can be dangerous if its widespread use is started. Russians probably gave it a trial performance here. Since that plane is exposed now, Mujahideen must find newer methods to counter it other than traditional Ack Ack fire. Temperature very low. Might get a windstorm too.
Three days ago in Miranshah and also in Paktia, also met Dr. Abdullah Azzam. Nearly 50 Arabs had come to Jihad with him”.
There is no doubt that the news of this newer version of the attack aircraft had created panic in the ranks of the resistance. This was the decisive moment in the Afghan Jihad when the resistance thought that from then on they may not be able to match the Soviet airpower. The resistance had taken a serious and deadly hit in this battle so close to the Pakistan border. Soviets had penetrated into a strong Mujahideen base, dropped commandos, then withdrawn and were able to use their airpower with devastating effect. I could see that the war was now turning against the resistance, unless something was done quickly against the Soviet air power.
Read the underlined text above. The ongoing experience had convinced me that a different, unconventional and more lethal air defense system would be required by the resistance urgently. The solutions were SAM’s (surface to air missiles) which till this time had not made their mark in the Afghan war. There were reports of few old versions of Russian or Chinese SAM’s, but the Soviets were not bothered too much by these. In my first encounter with Soviet jets in Chamkani few weeks earlier, I had seen them dropping decoy flares to deflect any SAM’s, suggesting that they suspected the resistance to have surface to air missiles. But in reality, SAMs had not made any serious mark till then. The Soviet air power had become the game changer against the resistance. If the resistance had to survive, they had to find a solution in quick time.
In these battles, many mountain top posts took direct hits from these aircraft, and massive losses were suffered by the resistance – in both men and material. My post was not attacked by the Soviet aircrafts yet but I did see them flying around and making dives on other hilltops. I began to pray for rain, as a cloudy day meant some respite from these fearsome fire- spitting, flying dragons. No matter how strong I pretended to be, the sights and sounds of a thundering and diving bomber always created a lump in my throat. I began to hate sunshine despite the freezing cold. Like so many others around me, my confidence in our ability to survive against Soviet airpower, had also begun to shake.
Date: 26.4.86: “Beautiful day and sunshine. Bombers expected. Last night, two Mujahids from a different camp were killed when a mine exploded under them. It was at a Mujahid forward post which enemy had tried to capture few days back. On failure to do so, it laid mines all around it on retreat. It is very difficult to detect mines in these mountains because of tremendous amount of metal which is present. Mine detectors simply do not work. Mujahideen have great problems in detecting minefields.
Nearly at midday, two prisoners escaped from Mujahideen base. A big manhunt is still going on but those communist Afghans are still not found….
Latest news is that they have been caught again….
It’s raining outside and now a mild hale storm along with it, which is making things very beautiful. Rain here is a true blessing from God because clouds cover the sky and bombers do not come…..”
Bombers were not the only threat we faced there. The probability that Soviets would launch another assault using their Special Forces, had created a high threat situation there. All posts were always on red alert for a possible intrusion. Then there were prisoners who would escape sometimes and cause damage to ammunition and men. Withdrawing Soviet forces had planted landmines on routes, trenches and bunkers which were now causing casualties. The security protocol was very strict on every post and guards had to be posted on every gun position and bunker for all night duties.
On my post, I was now not a guest but a trooper and was given my turn of night sentry duties. For the first time I was to take up this duty alone, on top of the peak, next to the anti-aircraft gun, with the remaining group of men sleeping in a dugout on the slopes of the mountain. The next post was a few hundred yards away, on another mountaintop and thus all posts were to operate independently without expecting help or backup from other groups. The duty shifts were for two hours each, with each guard informed of his duty timings in advance at night. The rules were ruthless and applied without mercy. Every night a new password was created to identify friends from foes. The guard would challenge anyone approaching the post and ask him to halt and then would verify the password. If the approaching person did not know the secret password or tried to escape, the guard had the right to kill him or arrest him based on his own judgment. The first guard would complete the shift and wake the next one up, and then he would repeat the exercise till morning. Normally four to five guards would be used in a night. The security of the gun, men and the ammunition depended upon this one man who was on the watch, hence the margin for error was zero. If the guard were killed or compromised by the enemy, the rest of the group would then also be compromised and perhaps killed in their sleep. No quarter was granted by the enemy or to the enemy, in these killing fields. Guards had been killed many times on various battle fronts, especially now when Soviet Special Forces had been pressed into action and they were using night vision devices and weapons with silencers for stealth movement and silent kill.
In the beginning I was excited about the duty, eager to play my miniscule role in this great war. But then, when my time came around midnight and I took my position along with my Ak47, the hopelessness of the task became apparent immediately. It was the darkest and the most frightening night I had ever seen. In the pitch darkness, with a cloud cover and chilling temperatures, visibility was almost zero. I was as good as a blind man in that darkness; fast howling winds were the only sounds in an eerie environment, which was shrouded in deathly silence, punctuated only by the occasional barking of dogs in the distance. All fires and lights were kept off during the night. Even the anti aircraft guns did not fire at night as their firing flares would give away their positions to enemy observers. So there was no possibility of me using my torch to reduce my nervousness. “I am a sitting duck here”, I thought when I was left alone to start my shift. Indeed a totally petrified sitting duck. Within minutes I was freezing, more so because of fear than the cold, expecting an enemy attack anytime. Not a very pleasant position to be in. If that wasn’t enough, it soon started to drizzle. Now I was in serious trouble. I did not have a rain coat. If I wanted to get one from the cave where the other men slept, I had to leave my position to get it, an unthinkable proposition. You can die but not leave your post when on guard duty except when to wake up the next man. I was beginning to get desperate. But somehow, held my ground.
In the distance, beyond the mountains towards the West, I could see the lights, the lights of my motherland, Pakistan. A strong and desperate urge erupted within me, to return to the safety of my homeland. I have always been fanatically patriotic, but truly Pakistan never seemed as beautiful as she did on that mercilessly cold, dark and fearful night. But then another realization gave me incredible strength to stay on and hold the fort. I suddenly realized that I was not just guarding my gun position but actually the last ridges of Afghanistan against the Soviet expansion towards Pakistan. If we fell on this post, Pakistan would be the next target. The war which I was fighting in the mountains and caves of Afghanistan would then be fought in the planes of Punjab and Sindh. I had already seen what Soviets had done to Afghanistan. Over my dead body would I allow them to do this to Pakistan. Never! I felt a surge of anger and determination within. With a rush of patriotic fervor, I promised myself never to let the Soviets cross the Durand line. I started to feel better. Fear began to give way to courage. Sitting alone as a night sentry on that dark, small mountain post, freezing with cold, the intensity, magnitude and phenomenal seriousness of the Afghan Jihad had hit me with full force. For the last 250 years, Russians had been advancing southwards towards the Indian Ocean, over running the Muslim Central Asia in the 19th century and now had entered Afghanistan in the last decades of the 20th century. The war in Afghanistan was not just a war for the liberation of Afghanistan but also the last battle line for the defense of Pakistan.
Few days later I was back in Peshawar.
Listening to the news on the radio in Peshawar, I came to know that the US government had finally decided to provide Stinger anti-craft missiles to the Mujahideen, to fight the Soviet air force. It became clear to me that the battles of Zawar and Jahadwal had changed the rules of the game in this war. The war in Afghanistan was about to swing radically in favour of the resistance.
(To be continued).

Part 5

The Enigma Unfolded!

After my first expedition to Afghanistan, I returned to Karachi by the end of April 1986. What I had experienced, seen and gone through in the last many weeks in Chamkani, Jalalabad and Paktia, had shaken my heart and soul to the core. I had undergone a transformation, becoming serious, silent and sober. Seeing death and brutal realities of war as well as experiencing the passions of romantic idealism against such impossible odds, with such staggering intensity had a life altering impact on me. My upbringing had already established my intellectual, spiritual and emotional bearings. Now my practical mission was also defined.

Even since I was a child, I had always desired passionately to join the Pakistan army in the footsteps of my father. My psyche was programmed, and still is, to view Hindu Brahmin Zionists as the eternal enemy of Pakistan and Muslims. Fighting Indian Zionists to defend Pakistan and to settle the scores of 1947 and 1971 were fiercely passionate lifelong dreams. Jihad was in my blood. Both my parents had migrated from India at the time of partition through trials of blood, fire and sword. They had brought me up on the romantic narrations of Muslim warriors, stories of sacrifices at the time of creation of Pakistan and on tales of valor and heroism in Pakistan-India wars of 65 and 71. My father was a gunner officer during both Pak-India wars and had amazing stories to tell to further fire our passions and love for Pakistan. My passionate and courageous mother, who herself is from Indian occupied Kashmir, had taught me how to fire weapons at the tender age of 7 years, when 1971 war was raging and my father was on the battle front. She had brought me up to be a soldier of Rasul Allah (SAW) and Pakistan and had already tasked me to liberate Kashmir from Indian yoke. Allama Iqbal and Naseem Hijazi’s romantic, historical and passionate works had already set my emotional and intellectual direction. Consequently as a career, I had planned to join the Pakistan army after getting my engineering degree.

But nothing had prepared me for the spiritual and emotional thunderbolts I had received in Afghanistan during my first visit. Those were the most decisive moments in the 22 years of my existence. My whole perception and planning for life, career, vision, mission, passion and duty was about to be radically and permanently altered. I had to make life-altering decisions. I had seen the desperate situation in Afghanistan.  The Soviets had reached our western borders, threatening Pakistan’s existence in the immediate short term, emerging as the new unforeseen but real threat. It was obvious that before I could settle the scores with Indians on the eastern theatre, Soviets had to be pushed back from the western front to secure our strategic depth. That would mean I would have to forego my passion for a career in Pakistan army for my immediate duties of defense of Pakistan as a volunteer fighter in Afghanistan alongside the Afghan resistance. While the ultimate passionate objective of defense of Pakistan remained unchanged, the war theatres and my subsequent career changed radically. I opted for Afghanistan. For the next few years and perhaps even to this day, this dangerous and insanely adventurous life was to become my new career.  

My survival defies logic, really. Realistically, I should not be alive today. During the course of my adventures, I had stepped and driven into active minefields, had the closest shave with air raids of Gunships and fighters jets, took direct tank, artillery and rocket fires, lost my way in hostile territories, had fallen asleep under fire, almost losing my weapon, was nearly kidnapped by Uzbek militia in Kabul, had been shot at point blank range mistakenly by our own troops, was nearly shot down in a helicopter in Kabul and almost fell off a cliff in a weird travelling accident. I had trekked across the most dangerous snow clad mountains, narrow cliffs and raging rivers and slept in the open in sub-zero freezing temperatures of Badakhshan. Once I was even forced to drive in pitch darkness, without headlights right past the enemy post, unaware of the mine fields, while the enemy fired in all directions forcing our jeep to crash. I managed to survive dozens of battles and firefights where the intensity of fire would make it impossible for even a bird to fly through. Not to mention the tense standoff with Soviet troops across Oxus River and the spookiest flight in a falling apart, Russian transport plane from Kabul to Peshawar. Every day was a struggle for survival against impossible odds, staring death right in the eyes, and somehow lived to tell the tale.

It was a war and a brutal one indeed. Risk and survival is an integral part of any war, let alone a war of this magnitude where few rag tag men were thrown against the mightiest armies of the world. What the resistance lacked in weapons and technology, it made up for in raw courage, sacrifice and by taking death defying daring risks. For an ordinary rational man, this would be insanity pure and simple, especially when there was no official compulsion for us to join the resistance. It was a volunteer army, devoid of any career perks, pensions, benefits or medical facilities. We often had to spend from our own pockets and had to buy our own food and battle kits. But when seen from sublime dimensions, it is this romantic insanity that creates history, carves destinies and achieves the unthinkable impossibilities. This is the stuff real men, mysterious legends and true tales are made of. Once you continue to survive, you keep on taking more risks till your fate is decided. Some of my finest friends and comrades died in this struggle. Those of us who survived don’t know why we are still alive. For those who died, we don’t know why they were chosen. The mysterious all powerful hand of God is overwhelmingly dominant, and puts you in awe and humble submission to His will and wisdom. Seeing death so often and so close at hand is truly a humbling experience.

However, by no means was it an easy journey for my parents and family. While I enjoyed the adventures, they lived on razor’s edge all the time. In those days, there were no cell phones, computers or internet facilities. Even landlines were a luxury in tribal areas where our bases were established. Only postal service existed at urban centers and a letter could take about a week to reach its destination. I could’ve vanished without a trace in those killing fields, weeks or even months before my family would hear anything about me or receive a letter written weeks ago. I am truly blessed that my parents are genuinely noble and brave souls. I don’t find myself courageous enough to let my son do to me what I did to them and they took it with such sublime dignity against such crushing trials and tests.

Out of four children, I was their eldest son and all their future hopes for old age depended upon my pursuing a successful career. I had an elder sister and two younger brothers, the youngest being a special child needing constant care and attention to this day. When my father had retired from military service in 1977 after 30 years in uniform, I was still a child in the 7th grade. An honorable man as he is, he had always lived on his salary and had no income or savings once retired from service except his pension. With great difficulty and financial constraints, they had managed to send me to the finest engineering university in Karachi.

By 1986, I was in the third semester and life had begun to sail somewhat smoothly, but then a calamity struck the family. My elder sister was diagnosed with cancer with only a few years to live. She eventually passed away in 1993, after a long and painful bout with the disease. It was during this era of shattering trials and tests that I decided to join the Afghan resistance. When I informed them of my sudden and seemingly insane decision to follow a risky unpredictable journey of passion, they accepted it with pride and allowed me to pursue my passion, duty and mission for the sake of their unshakable faith in the glory of Islam and their love for Pakistan and backed me with full support as comrades in arms. During those years, they had to tend to a terminally ill daughter and a special son, while their eldest was lost somewhere in the killing fields of Afghanistan. My younger brother Junaid, was by their side always during these difficult times. He, to this day, remains the central pillar of our family. Junaid has just lost his loving wife in the Airblue plane crash, on July 28thin Islamabad.  




On my part, while I was at the battlefront, I would try to keep them informed of my welfare and my father would keep a keen track of battlefield developments in order to assess the risks involved for their son. Very few family letters from that era have survived and here I would like to copy two of them, which capture the true intensity, love, concerns and environment of that fascinating saga in the family.  These letters and the memories still make me nostalgic.

Letter written from Peshawar on my first visit in 1986. Original was in Urdu.  

In the name of Allah, the Beneficent, the Merciful

Peshawar
March 24

Dearest Dad and Mom,
Assalam alaikum.  By the grace of Allah, I have reached back to my base this morning. Have met a lot of people and still have to meet a lot. I hope to go to province of Paktika but it seems that I may have to wait in Peshawar for 4 or 5 days. Have met a commander, Dr. Qasim from a region of Paktika province. May Allah protect him. He is a great Mujahid. Remember me in your prayers. InshAllah shall write details later.

Need your prayers

Your son                            

(underneath, a map was drawn to show where Paktika was located in Afghanistan)



In April 1986, when I was in Paktia, a fierce battle for Jahadwal and Zawar was fought where I had met Hekmatyar as well. As the news of the battle and the casualties began to arrive, my father became very anxious. He wrote a letter to Hekmatyar and also made telephonic contact with him.


Immediate / Urgent.                                                                       April 24th, Evening.

Respected brother and great Mujahid Hekmatyar sahib,

Assalamalaikum. Our son, great Mujahid, Zaid Zaman Hamid is with you in the Jihad. Through newspapers and media, we continue to get your news. We are constantly praying to Allah (swt) for you and for the glory of Islam. We have not received any letter from Zaid after the letter of 15th. Please let us know about the welfare of Zaid immediately. We shall be obliged. You may send the news to your Karachi address. We shall collect from there.
With respect and dua
Your brother

Mehmud Zaman Hamid

The letter never reached Hekmatyar but my father did talk to him on phone and found out that his son was still alive. This was to become a routine exercise for the next 6 years. There is no doubt that I would not have been able to do what I did if I were not blessed with such parents and family. They bore the brunt themselves and backed me strongly to follow my passions. While the war was getting intense in the mountains and gorges of Afghanistan, our family was fighting its own battle against severe odds and fears but never wavered from their romantic dreams.

I could not go to Paktika on this first visit in March/April 1986. But in November 1986 I received reports of a possible major assault on an enemy garrison in Paktika. This time I was determined to be there.


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 Peshawar University Town guesthouse of Hizb e Islami was always the center of energized activity of foreign Mujahideen from all over the world. Young volunteers would come individually or in groups and were dispatched to various fronts on a daily basis. Returning groups would rest, regroup and then either proceed to the next battlefront or to the airport to take the flight home. In those days, it was actually that simple to join the resistance against the Soviets. Thousands of Arabs, Turks, Africans and even European and American volunteers were pouring in from across the globe and meeting each other for the first time in such guest houses run by every Afghan Mujahid group. The synergy was electrifying and passions ran high. These were the finest of the youth the Muslim world could present in that era. Ideologically driven, highly motivated, passionate about the Islamic ideology and burning with zeal to liberate Muslim lands from foreign occupation.
Many of such finest young men I met in those days would never return to their homes and would perish in various battles in the plains and gorges of Afghanistan. Thousands of unmarked graves in Afghanistan and in Pakistani tribal areas and even in the refugee camps around Peshawar, bear testimony to this heart breaking but romantic chapter of a heroic struggle. Each grave has a strange and painful heart wrenching story to tell which would send shivers down the spine. Muslim Ummah has paid a staggering cost and has sacrificed the salt of the earth to liberate Afghanistan. Now when I see Afghanistan once again under foreign occupation and sacrifices of these brave men going waste, it causes my heart to bleed. I have been there, done that, have seen the cost we had to pay to reclaim our freedom. They were great men, so few, so brave. They left their homes, families, careers and luxuries of modern materialistic world to choose a romantic and spiritual path of honor, courage and chivalry. They lived with dignity and they died with honor. They were buried in far off lands in unmarked graves where their loved ones could never visit them. I am truly honored to have been in their company when it mattered most, to break bread with them, to fight alongside them and to bury a few of them, alhamdolillah.  
Indeed, right from the beginning of my first visit, I was thrilled to be in such dignified and honorable company and the collective energy was almost palpable enough to decisively convince you to choose this dangerous, passionate and adventurous path as your future career in life. My first visit to Chamkani battlefield was with one such group and I made many friends including Abu Hajir, the Iraqi whom I met later on way to Takhar as well. Khamees was a 22 year old, humble boy from Bahrain who was later shot through the cheeks in a battle, shattering his jaw and teeth. He went through major surgeries in Peshawar and was fitted with braces which made it impossible for him to open his mouth for weeks, only taking liquids through a straw. In this painful condition, he was later arrested by immigration officials in Karachi because his visa had expired and then he had to spend 2 weeks in Karachi jail before I could pay his fine, have him released and send him back to Bahrain. In Jalalabad, again on my first visit, when I was with Kochi Khan in Shalman base, I saw graves of many such Arab fighters buried alongside Afghan Mujahideen, neatly lined up along Kabul River and heard soul shaking stories of their raw courage and humble backgrounds.
Earlier, also during my first visit, I had met Sheikh Abdullah Azzam and a group of battle hardened Arab and foreign fighters in North Waziristan and then met them again inside Afghanistan when I was there for the battle of Jahadwal. Pakistani Mujahideen were a rare phenomenon in such camps which were primarily represented by Arabs or foreigners. Standing outside a long tunnel, which was packed with fully armed and very awe inspiring and impressive Arab Mujahideen, Dr. Abdullah Azzam’s first question to me, upon getting to know that I was a Pakistani was, “Why are Pakistanis not coming to Jihad?” “I will go back and tell them about Jihad”, I replied. “No, stay here”, he responded almost in a pleading manner, “Jihad needs you.” Then he insisted that I have dinner with them. I so desperately wanted to stay and spend time with these fascinating men who had come from across the globe and had been there for years and were now experienced battle hardened veterans. There was so much to learn from them about Jihad, its strategies, its needs and the inner strengths and weaknesses of the resistance. The entire Muslim world and its various Islamic political movements were represented there. But the sun was setting fast and cloudy weather had increased the possibility of showers, I had to get to the mountain top anti-aircraft post where I was to perform as night Sentry on the gun position, so I begged leave and hurried up the dusty track carrying my beloved AK47 on my shoulders. It is true that students and youth from Pakistani elite and even middle class society were not coming in numbers for Jihad except for those few who were connected to Jamaat Islami, but Pakistani youth from Madrassas and religious schools were coming to Jihad on a different axis which will be explained later.
Later on, I did go back to Karachi ever more determined to re-group, re-organize and then come back to join the resistance in whatever capacity I could contribute. It was during this first expeditionary visit to Afghanistan that I met Abu Ayesh and Mohemmed, who were to be my closest friends, buddies and comrades throughout my association with the resistance. Abu Ayesh was of Chechen descent who looked more like Santa Claus with a flowing silver beard, cascading down to his stomach and Mohemmed was a pure blooded Irish convert, with red flowing hair testifying to his European lineage. Both were incredible characters, hard headed, extremely brave, hilariously jovial, brilliant cameramen and photographers and were managing a Mujahideen film- making and photography project called “Mirror of Afghan Jihad” or MAJ.
MAJ remained my strongest base for contributing to Afghan Jihad throughout the duration of my association with it. For the next six years, together we produced hundreds of thousands of emotional audio and videotapes and cassettes in multiple languages, and distributed globally millions of photographs, slides, posters and albums and other information material on Afghan resistance. Everyone who came to Peshawar from around the world picked up material produced by us at MAJ for global distribution and spreading the message of Jihad. MAJ crew would go into battle fields, film and photograph live action, war, wounded, refugees and training camps and then the raw footage would be converted into emotional and dramatic Jihad movies with real footage of war. War movies were the most popular source of entertainment among millions of Afghan refugees in Pakistan. These were in great demand globally by international media as well as Muslim movements.
Afghan war was a videocassette war, extensively covered, photographed and documented by international as well as Muslim sources. Mujahideen, through the help of Arab groups, used this media very powerfully to generate global support, especially within the Muslim world. After my first meeting with Abu Ayesh and Mohemmed in April 1986, I had volunteered to be by their side and they had graciously accepted. From then on, each trip I made to every battlefront in Afghanistan, I carried a CannonA1 and sometimes a video camera as well, documenting the action and then coming back to Peshawar to convert it into strong information warfare weapon system. Even today, my office walls are decorated with stunning pictures of war zones which I took with my faithful Cannon. Thousands of photographs and many videotapes still remain in my personal archive, always making me emotional and nostalgic when I sit and relive that romantic era through them.   
Ironically no one has realized the strategic and stunning impact of these Afghan war videos and photographs that we at MAJ produced, on global Muslim resistance movements of that era. Muslim groups in Kashmir, Palestine, Chechnya, Philippines and even in Yugoslavia would watch these extremely emotional and motivating videos with great interest and learn the irregular guerilla war tactics. Not just the war tactics but the ideology was also powerfully communicated through these extremely moving productions. We deliberately focused on a strong ideological content. It was due to this stunning phenomenon that the war in Afghanistan was able to galvanize the entire Muslim world’s resistance movements in the occupied lands. Kashmiris, Chechens, Palestinians and even Pilipino Muslims started their freedom struggles almost simultaneously around 1988 after the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan. During the Soviet Afghan war, they were being trained physically in the battle fields and psychologically through our media productions.
By 1988, I had already secretly met Yugoslav Muslims at MAJ office in university town Peshawar and they had told us of their desire to seek freedom from communist Yugoslavia. They had come covertly to Afghanistan for training and to take back motivational videos for Muslims back home. We gave them all the Jihad material we had produced which was later smuggled into communist Yugoslavia, triggering the Muslim desire for freedom. Later in the early 90’s these groups, which had come to Peshawar to meet us and get training, were at the forefront in the Balkan war when Bosnia fought to secure its freedom and liberty. Thousands of Arabs, who were also Afghan Jihad veterans, had joined the Bosnian war for freedom by then. Our MAJ associate Abu Sayyaf, originally from Chechnya, actually went back to Chechnya to join the resistance against the Russians and later died there in action. All resistance movements were inspired by the Afghan Jihad and by the powerful documentaries and movies we made within it. I am truly honored that Allah blessed us to contribute our humble share in instigating these global Muslim uprisings against the tyranny of occupation and slavery, to reclaim the lost glory of the Ummah. Allah be praised!
Today, when I do my television programs and lectures on National Security and Ideology and fight the information war on the airwaves for the defense of Pakistan, the memories of those days pour in with graphic intensity. Back in the mid 80’s, destiny had trained me to perform this duty today. Back then, we had contributed our humble share to ignite passions for freedom and honor across the occupied Muslim lands; today, drawing from our experience and training at MAJ, we at Brasstacks fight the same war for Pakistan on a larger canvas, with even higher stakes. What we do today has an experience of almost 24 years sutured into it, lessons learnt the hard way, through sweat and blood, passing through the trials of fire and sword under impossible conditions in a war of liberation. It is unbelievable that a journey of this staggering magnitude which continues to this day, started from the humblest of origins when I, as a raw novice volunteer, walked into the Hizb guesthouse in Peshawar way back in March 1986.
In November, I was back in the same guesthouse and was now rearing to go to Paktika.    

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I waited for couple of days but could not find anyone who was interested in Paktika front. Entire Afghanistan was a huge war zone with many “hot” battlefronts and multiple options were available to the volunteers depending upon the time they had and the effort they wanted to put in. I was impatient. I insisted that I should be sent to Paktika but there was no transport available. Perhaps they did not want to send a full vehicle to South Waziristan for just one man. Recklessly naïve as I was, I insisted that I would go by public transport on my own only if I was guided to the route. Little did I know that I had asked for serious trouble and now just getting to the Mujahideen base in South Waziristan would be a long, tiring and risky adventure in its own. South Waziristan is the wildest, most dangerous, forbidden and remote tribal area within the Pakistani FATA regions. The British were never able to penetrate it, let alone control it even when the sun never used to set on the British Empire. In recent days, the most ruthless terrorist group TTP has made the region as its base and for years the Pakistan army could not penetrate the harsh regions.
Using a public transport to get to the region was a nightmarish idea to start with. But it had its own comical side to it and if now I can laugh my heart out over it, back then it sent chills of panic down my spine. Within hours I landed in a situation, which I had grossly miscalculated.
I had never seen the region or knew anything about it. A city boy from Karachi, I could neither speak Pashtu nor had any knowledge about the local culture. In fact, I did not even know where South Waziristan lies or which route should be taken, there was not a single familiar soul within hundreds of kilometers in the region to seek help from in case I got into trouble. I was clueless about the location of  the Mujahidins’ base. I was given a reference letter in the Peshawar guesthouse to be given to the Hizb commander in the base in South Waziristan but it had no address, no number. I was verbally told to find the base somehow.
There was no direct bus service from Peshawar to South Waziristan, so a guide was arranged with whom I went in a small bus to Bannu, a journey taking about 6 hours from Peshawar. Upon reaching Bannu around midnight, we rested in a shabby hotel till 4 am, when my guide hurriedly shoved me alongwith my backpack into a small waiting bus, which was to take 14 hours to reach the village of Bagharh on Pak-Afghan border. Just before leaving the bus, the guide asked an old Afghan man sitting next to me to inform me about the location of Hizb e Islami base near Bagharh. Then he shook hands and left, leaving me surrounded by 60 fierce looking Wazir and Mehsud tribal’s, in a rickety bus which jerked into motion soon after. So the journey began.
Soon, I realized the absurdity of the situation. The bus stopped every few hundred yards to pick and drop passengers. After a while, the bus carried fruit crates, bicycles and even chickens and goats inside the cabin alongside the passengers. People kept boarding and disembarking but I was as good as a mute, for lack of knowledge of local language, not that anyone was interested in talking to me. Even though I was dressed in local clothes, my face and glasses betrayed my foreign origins. Many took me as an Arab but left me alone.  After many hours of the grueling journey, the bus reached Wana, the last major bustling town before it would head for the border. My old Afghan companion had a brain wave to get down and have a cup of tea. Mindlessly, I agreed and disembarked with him to get to the nearby hotel, leaving my backpack in the bus. While I was having tea, the old man got up and asked me to wait and went to relieve himself somewhere behind the building. With hundreds of armed people walking and shopping all around, I lost my Afghan companion. He did not return for some good 20 minutes and I began to panic. Impulsively, I decided to get up and head for the bus and then it struck me. I had lost my bus too. There were dozens of buses parked on the roadside and they all seemed the same to me. In fact, I had failed to make a mental note of my bus when I got off neither had I registered its number and now could not find it within the dozens of buses parked there. I felt my guts wrenching. Fear and panic struck me like lighting. Frantically, I searched for my bus or the old Afghan and found neither. Now I was in real trouble. My backpack was in the bus too. I had very little money and was already contemplating spending the night on the roadside. I had never felt such a rush of panic even in the battlefield. Suddenly, my Afghan companion appeared from nowhere and guided me to the bus, which was about to leave giving up on both of us. Now back in my seat, I tried to gather myself, feeling sheepish and drained, my head bursting with migraine and my body breaking into a cold sweat, recovering slowly from the panic attack. I swore never to get off the bus again till I reached my destination.
Almost after 14 hours, it was just close to dusk that we were travelling across the most rugged, lonely, fearsome and narrow mountain passes, when my Afghan companion suddenly asked me to jump off the bus and pointed towards the jungle saying that Hizb Islami base was in that direction. I got off with my backpack and the bus moved on leaving me alone on that dusty track in the middle of nowhere in fast receding light. This was total wilderness where an unarmed Karachi kid was standing alone in the most inhospitable terrain and hostile land with thousands of armed men, gangs and militant groups lurking in the area. Within minutes it would be totally dark and then I would be in real trouble. I decided to move fast. My second panic attack within a span of few hours was setting in equally rapidly.
The direction in which the old Afghan had pointed, lay an unfathomable jungle. I decided to venture into it away from the road. After walking for about 15 minutes, I found nothing but more jungle and more darkness and more panic. It was nearly dark now. I knew I would be in a serious life -threatening situation if I did not find the base within minutes. It was freezing cold in South Waziristan in November but I was again sweating feverishly. The wind hauntingly howled and my stomach again churned with panic. But I did not dare to stop and kept moving, hoping to find the signs of a Mujahideen base.
It is difficult to express and explain the feelings of bliss and gratitude that I felt when suddenly I saw a flag with a typical Mujahideen insignia on it fluttering on a huge gate marking the entry of the base. If I had not seen it then, the total darkness, which had already enshrouded the region, would have made it utterly impossible for me to find it. It was hidden and camouflaged by trees and bushes to prevent hostile aircraft from spotting it. The camouflage was so perfect that even from ground I could not find it till I had arrived right at the gate. Upon reaching the gate, I just stood there silently, trying to recover my breathing and calm my nerves. I had not met anyone yet but I did not care. I was close to collapsing but sanity got the better of me. I decided to move in and introduce myself.
Later, sitting in a mud house around a warm fire, after a delicious but simple dinner, I reflected on the events of the day. It all seemed like a bad dream. I was drained physically and mentally from the extreme roller coaster stress. I learnt my most valuable lessons that day. In a childish reverie, I now recall the lesson Mufasa the lion gives to his cub son Simba, in the famous animated film, Lion King. The shattering journey and its incidents taught me, “We should be brave only when we have to be. Being brave does not mean we should go looking for trouble”. In my youthful desire, impulsiveness and eagerness to be on the battle front, I had thrown caution to the winds and had taken totally unnecessary risks and troubles, which could have cost me my life due to sheer stupidity. Afghanistan was not a forgiving land. Mistakes were punished severely here. There was no margin for error. Never again did I travel into Afghanistan without local escort nor got too impulsive to go looking for trouble. Patience is a treasured virtue, I learnt. Stupid men don’t last long, I realized. There is a very fine line between courage and recklessness, it dawned on me. Always carry a torch and keep your backpack light, the lessons were learnt the hard way. 
I then remembered the words of advice from the veterans: “It’s good to die for a great cause but it’s even greater to live for it”. In the next six years of my associating with Afghan Jihad, I took many death defying risks but never recklessly, impulsively or impatiently. Risks were calculated and were taken because they had to be taken and when there was no alternate option. When there was an option, we preferred the safer route to live to fight another day.
That night when I went to sleep, I was a different man from the one who had started the journey from Peshawar. Afghan Jihad was also a crash course into sobriety.
Next day, we drove into Afghanistan from the last Pakistani border town of Angoor Adda, to the province of Paktika where Hizb e Islami commander Khalid Faruqi awaited our arrival. I was finally on the front line once again.
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Part 6

In theChilghoza Grove!

It was November 1986. I began my early morning bumpy ride in an open back, Toyota pickup truck from the border village of Angoor Adda in South Waziristan,into thePaktika province of Afghanistan. Our destination was the rear Head Quarters of Commander Khalid Farooqi of Hizb Islami. Being a guest, I was given a preferential treatment and got my seat next to the driver. All other men, weapons and supplies were loaded in the open back of the truck. Winter had started to set in and there was a biting edge in the morning breeze. I was comparatively comfortable in the cabin but the men at the back were already feeling the slicing cold; the realization made me feel thankful atbeing treated as a guest. I had already received my AK-47 from the base, and now held my weapon tightly as we jerked through our treacherous journey.
Entering the killing fields of Afghanistan was always a sobering experience. As always, the rush of adrenaline and excitement caused a quivering sensation deep inside me. In the shining morning sun, our pickup truck was driving fast into the open plains. Getting caught in the open by Soviet Gunship helicopters was not the desired option and our route was also under the observation of the Communist army posts, dotted at various locations. Around eight, fully armed, tough men were in the truck, silent but observing the sky and the plains for possible threats.I have to confess, my heart was pounding faster than usual. This sudden change of mood and atmosphere was sharply visible even amongst the Afghans in our truck. Just a few minutes earlier, the group was jovial, laughing and in a light mood,while in their camp in Pakistan. Crossing the border into the front lines had affected them as well. Now they were serious and sharp eyed, anticipating the unexpected.
The region of Paktika was mountainous but had wide valleys, almost turning into plains at many locations. This entry point from Pakistan into Afghanistan was an important staging area and a logistical route for the resistance for Eastern and Central theatres and was therefore, hotly contested by both, the resistance and the Soviets. Soviet planes and Helicopters would regularly bomb Angoor Ada and the routes coming into Afghanistan from it. Urgoon was the major town in the region under the control of the Kabul regime and the plains had many strong and fortified mini garrisons and posts, not just in the valleys but also on many deeper mountain ridges, which they could hold. The front line posts were all manned by the Afghan Communist army, with tanks and artillery, while the Soviets provided them air cover through their fearsome MI24 Gunships and MiG bombers. Enemy spotter planes for spying and observation would regularly fly high, keeping a close eye on all Mujahideen movement from Pakistan into the eastern regions. In those days, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) or Drones were not around and the Soviets relied upon small planes for spying and observation.
The Mujahideen, on the other hand, were based in small camps inside Afghanistan,with their backs towards Pakistan,dug into the foothills or on the mountain slopes and ridges overlooking the plains. Often the Afghan army would make advances towards the foothills and ridges and would be met with fierce resistance from the Mujahideen. The ridges overlooking the plains and the passages into Afghanistan were prized targets and bitterly contested. TheSoviet and Communist army objectives were to block these routes and dislocate the resistance. The Mujahideen were determined to hold their ground and keep the supply routes open. If these routes were to be blocked by the Soviets, the entire resistance in the eastern and even central Afghanistan would be choked. The stakes were extremely high for both the warring factions and this region was under severe pressure since the beginning of the war in 1979.
The Communist army would also set up ambushes on the Mujahideen trails and convoys, planting landminesto block the convoys and then attacking briefly, before withdrawing into their fortified posts. Here it was purely post warfare but with regular bouts of fierce clashes in the open after which both sides would withdraw into their fortresses and hideouts. On their part, theMujahideen would also plant landmines on the roads and routes between various posts andused to raid the garrisons and posts to capture them. Due to the lack of any air support or ability to shoot down the Soviet aircraft, theMujahideen could not stay in the plains for longand had to retreat quickly into the safety of the mountains, else they would be made minced meat by the Soviet air power. With their bases and lairs hidden in the safety of themountains, theMujahideen landmines and fire was a constant nuisance for the Communists military convoys and posts,often irritating and provoking them enough into launching a major offensive towards the hills and ridges in order to dislodge the anti-aircraft guns of the Mujahideen dug in there.
The entire population of the region had migrated towards Pakistan, leaving their homes, lands and dry fruit orchards behind; thus creating a haunted aura about the whole region with thousands of houses and villages dotting the slopes and plains but not a soul within. One would get an eerie feeling walking through them. Now only the resistance or the occupation forces and their allies fought bitter battles within these villages and plains.
For the resistance, it was an exciting, yet unforgiving life,full of all the ingredients of abrutally ruthless,real life, action packed suspense thriller, with zero margin for error. The beautiful land was now the most cruel and unforgiving territory.I was indeed mesmerized by the beauty of the countryside already, but was also well aware of the threats and dangers that lurked all around. “Only yesterday there was an air attack on this road on one of our trucks”, the driver broke the news, making me a touch more anxious than I already was. “So, what happened to the Mujahideen?” Iasked, pretending not to be moved by the possibility of a similar scenario being repeated for us as well. I also wanted to calculate the risk factor for our own survival. “MashAllah, they all became Shaheeds. May Allah accept their sacrifice”, he said in a casual manner,with his right index finger pointing towards the sky followed by agesture of a prayer for them.I tried pretending to be unmoved,nodding my head in agreement, but acutely aware of a little knot forming in my stomach and a lump rising in my throat. With my eyes now firmly fixed on the sky, we had no further conversation for the next one hour till we finally reached the base camp of Commander Khalid Farooqi.
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I instantly liked him and felt that he was pleased to see me as well. Seated in a warm mud house, on a cotton mattress over Afghan carpets, dressed in traditional Shalwar Qameez suit, Commander Khalid Farooqi was a burly Pashtun, with a thick beard and a pleasant face, clad in a large brown turban and a gun belt holding a holster with a Tokarov TT Pistol and a row of rounds shining on his chest. Two pens flashed their caps in his breast pocket and a couple of handheld walkie -talkie units lay close by.
Khalid Farooqi
In the Afghan society in those days, and perhaps even today, little things signify huge messages. In a country where literacy rate wasin single digits, a pen in the breast pocket was a proud sign of a literate man; two pens meant a very educated man and three perhaps were only reserved for Nobel laureates! Pistol gun belts, reading glasses, pens, walkie- talkies, binoculars and a pickup truck with a driver, were respected signs of a real Commander. Junior warriors would compete to have any of these trophies and display them with pride, as these drew admiration and respect from the fighters and the community alike. Khalid possessed everything that signified a Commander or Qomandan,in local dialect.
I was exceptionally eagerto have a detailed discussion with Khalid. It was incredible that while I was just 22 years of age and fresh on the battlefront, with onlymy fourth expedition since March, my perceptions had become acutely alive to the global geo-politics and local dynamics of the resistance. I was observing, noting and analyzing the war and its direction, implications and fallout. The role of the present day super powers, the political developments, strengths and weakness of the resistance as well as the Soviets and the role of contemporary Muslim world were of great interest to me in the light of the global history of former Muslim resistance movements. History of the Muslim warriors, conquests, defeats and the wars of resistance had been my passionate subject always. I was sadly aware that since the last 250 years, Muslims had not won a single war of resistance against the dominant occupation forces from the West. Muslims were passionate resistance fighters but had always lost the wars despite decades of resistance. The statistics were frightful.
The tide of history in the past few centuries had been againstMuslim resistance wars.Siraj Ud Daula and Tipu Sultan lost to the British in 1757 and 1799respectively. The War of Independence of India was lost in 1857. Imam Shamilin Chechnya lost tothe Russians in 1861. Central Asian States of Samarkand, Bokhara and Tashqand were also lost to the Russians during the same era in the late 19th century. The Ottoman Empire was dismembered in the post world war period. Umar Mukhtar in Libya lost to the Italians in 1931, Palestinians lost to the Jews in 1948 and Kashmiris lost their freedom in 1947. Even as a child, in the books of NaseemHijazi, I had read about the treachery and betrayals withinthe Muslim resistance movements as well as the failure of the Muslim community at large,to rise in times of crisis. I was also aware of the political and diplomatic blunders, which had caused the Muslim military advantage to collapse on so many occasions. The Muslim experience with the Russians was particularly painful, considering the last 400 years of debacles since the Russian empire started to roll down from Moscow, overrunning the Muslim state of Tataristan in times of Ivan the Terribleand Peter the ‘not so’ Great,in the 16th and 17th centuries, sweeping through the entire Caucasus region and the then Central Asia in the 19th century, and finally rolling into Afghanistan in 1979. Before this time,the Russians had not been defeated by any Muslim resistance group,despite their heroic sacrifices throughout the centuries. I was eager to know if the Afghan resistance would also meet the same fate, or whether this time destiny had other plans in store? Why this time it would be different, if it were to be, from the sad and tragic historical experience of the Muslim resistancewars in the past?
These were critical questions itching for answers. My heart, mind and soul had been ignited into passionate and serious ponderings and readings since my first interaction with the resistance forces,just a few months back,to search for the answers. Within my heart, I was determined to play my role in proving history wrong this time. Whatever I had witnessed by this time had shown me that the Afghan resistance leadership was yet again hopelessly short of vision, courage and wisdom to play a decisive role on the global canvas. The real fears were that the gains made on the battlefield, through staggering sacrifices of over a million people thus far, and theatrocious reality of dislocating over 6 million Afghans, would ultimately be lost on the negotiating table, when the major power players of the world would achieve their objectives in this new great game. The Afghan resistance was hopelessly divided politically as well as militarily, though the presence of a common Soviet threat had maintained some semblance of a unified resistance front.
Little had I known at that time, that these passionate pursuit for answers to the complex questions haunting the Afghan resistance, were training me to become a Security and Defense analyst in the later years. Today, after nearly 24 years, when I run my own Security and Threat Analysis Think Tank, addressing the same security and political issues which were once haunting Afghanistan and Pakistan, gives a feeling of déjà vu.Now, in retrospect, I can see that nature herself had conspired to turn a young engineering student into something he could never have become otherwise. While thousands of young volunteers came and participated in the Jihad at that time, their role remained focused on pursuits of their passion or duties. Some were plain foot soldiers, some doctors, some engineers, some educationists and others media managers. They did their duty with courage, passion and honor. Some died in the battlefields and some went back to their lands with great stories of courage, passion and valor. When the history of Afghan resistance will be written, such honorable men will be remembered with respect. Many greater men will remain unsung, unknown. They were the best this Muslim Ummah could produce at that time. When there was total darkness and theUmmah was directionless,with Muslim lands under siege and occupation, they sacrificed their families, homes, careers and wealth to live and die by the sword for a noble cause they so passionately believed in. They were the true salt of the earth. They gave their best and InshaAllah have received the ultimate reward from their Creator.
It was at the very onsetof my Afghan adventures that I had startedto realize that perhaps Allah (swt) had destined my humble role to be more encompassing, far reaching and on a higher plain, than the rest of my comrades in arms. Allah had created such circumstances that I was given the exposure and the experience the others never had. I was thrust into certain circumstances that the others could not even dream of. I had interacted with the leaders at all levels and was shown what the others perhaps overlooked. I was protected and guarded even in the face of death as if angels had been appointed to pull me through against all odds. I could see and feel dangers being diverted when I would pursue them knowingly or unknowingly and sometimes even foolishly. On thevery private and personal level, the Afghan occurrence was truly a mystical experience for me. There were forces operating on plains which were beyond intellect, beyond experience, beyond any logic. They could be felt but not explained and they were affecting meprofoundly from a sublime, transcendent level. I take no credit for all these blessings for I know how vulnerable I was on these battlefronts and how totally dependent upon divine mercy.
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Now, I was seated in front of Khalid Farooqi and wanted to pick his brains on the issues that were making me uncomfortable. We had a detailed discussion on all these issues. He was candid, open and frank. Even now I get an eerie,nostalgic feeling, pondering over the fact that the critical issues raised and discussed on the Sarobi base that day, actually came back to haunt the resistance a few years later and degenerated the Jihad into a ruthless civil war, leading up to another foreign invasion and occupation of the country in 2001. Khalid Farooqi, for that matter all Mujahideen leadership, collapsed when the time for closure came after years of bitter war and resistance. Though they succeeded in reversing the tide of history at least on this count that the Soviet Empire was forced to roll back from a Muslim land for the first time in 4 centuries, and the Afghan Jihad became the first organized Muslim resistance to defeat a super power of the time. These are great achievements no doubt, but greater and more honorable heights could have been reached had the Afghan leadership been taller in stature and sharper in vision and spirituality. In November 1986, as a 22 year old novice into the war, Allah had shown me the painful shapes of things to come.
My diary had saved some of the questions I had written for him, though our discussion revolved around tactical, battle field operations in the theatre under his command. From the government in exile to the role of Geneva talks, to theunity within theAfghans, to the role of the UNO and OIC, as well as disputes within the Afghan resistance, came under discussion.
As per the fears raised by me back then, a couple of years later, the Afghan cause was sold in the Geneva accord after the Soviet withdrawal and the Afghans were abandoned by the US, theUN as well as the OIC, leaving them to fight a bitter war within themselves and against the last remains of the Communist army of Najeebullah. Afghan Mujahideen could not form a government in exile after the Soviet withdrawal, nor could theycapture any major city, which would have acted as their new Capital. The bloody and failed battle of Jalalabad in 1989, doomed all hopes of a Mujahideen government, and thus till 1992 Najeebullah held his ground, till he was finally overrun by the alliance of Tajiks, Uzbeks and Hazaras, threatening the Pashtuns of being sidelined in the new power struggle. A bitter civil war with thePashtunsensued, which later,in 1996 invited thePashtunTaliban and then the Americans in 2001, as allies to the non-Pashtuns, who had by now formed their own military coalition of Northern Alliance. The Afghans have not seen peace ever since. In 1986, when I,as a youngster,could foresee this tragic end in the making, it is strange how the major power players in the world, Pakistan or among the Afghan Mujahideen leadership, could not see it coming. Perhaps they saw it and it was also a part of the plan not to give any closure to the Afghan resistance after the Soviet withdrawal, and to create the chaos we see today in order to create circumstances for the American invasion in the 21st century. 
Back in Sarobi camp, my diary entry had these painful questions noted down:
1.      Government in exile.
2.      Air defense systems against new black jet used by red army.
3.      Coordination, cooperation between different Hizb’s.
4.      Mujahideen membership of OIC and UNO.
5.      What do theMujahideen require and expect from the Islamic world. What is your call to the Islamic world?
6.      Any chances of Soviet pullout and political solution, is Jihad the only way, any optimism regarding the Geneva talks?
7.      In Afghanistan, Russians are working on a mass program of intellectual revolution and nearly 25 thousand children are taken to Russia for education. How do you think you will tackle this problem as it can tremendously affect the future of free Afghanistan?
At the tactical level, the needs and requirements of the Mujahideen had already been written by me and shown to Khalid. He approved of them as well. It was shocking for me to see that the resistance was paying with blood for equipment, which could have been easily procured off the shelf and used in making life comfortable for the resistance, both in transit and in the battlefield. It was even stranger that such a rag tag army was nailing down the mightiest Soviet army, for which NATO had spent billions of dollars to counter. Winter had almost set in and I was seeing men without socks, without gloves, without backpacks to carry their stuff into the mountains. The wounded were carried in cloth sheets, as there was no concept of field stretchers.Hardly anyone carried water bottles or tied military belts around their waists to hold bottles or knives,for none were available despite the desperate need for these most basic items. For lack of ear guards, the ears of theMujahideen would bleed, as their shoulder fired RPG launchers or recoilless rifles would be helduncomfortably close to the ears for multiple fires. For absence of Range finders, many precious rockets or shells would be wasted in trying to find the range of the target through trial and error, which would not onlywaste ammunition andalert the enemy,killing the advantage of surprise,but would also give away the friendly position, which would then receive hostile fire causing casualties. Binoculars were rare even at the front line posts. Even on my very first visit, I could see the absence of this most basic but vital battlefield equipment,but those providing billions of dollars of weapons and ammunition, somehow failed to notice. Later, when I was back in Pakistan, we created a supply line of this equipment for the fronts, sending in thousands of such needed items and units, though considering the size of the resistance and the need, our entire effort was just a drop in the ocean.
In this aspect, my diary entry read:
Requirements of the Mujahideen
1.      Range finders.
2.      Ear guards.
3.      Binos.
4.      Stretchers.
5.      Belts.
6.      Backpacks
7.      Gloves
8.      Socks
I spent a day with Khalid on his base, picking his mind and mixing with the resistance to get the feel of the battlefield.TheMujahideen were preparing for a major attack on a post before the snow fall and onset of winter, which would slow down the operation. Khalid wanted me to stay close to him but I insisted in going to the forward attacking base. I could sense the same protective care in him which I had felt in Kochi Khan in March, atJalalabad, when I insisted on going in the open assault and he wanted me to stay close to him, near the recoilless rifle. Finally, I had my way and Khalid reluctantly allowed me to move to the forward base and handed me over to Dr. Awwal Jan, the front line operational commander of Sarobi front for Hizb e Islami.
My diary recalls these very nostalgic moments when I had moved to the forward location:
“19th November 86
It’s my fifth day with the Mujahideen Sarobi in Paktika. Preparing for days for a big action. Commander Khalid is leading the Mujahideen united front against one stronggovt post. Attack would be in a few days and preparations are underway for the big show.
I had good sittings with Khalid. He is a fine Mujahid with good tactical sense.  During the attack he wanted me to stay at the AckAck guns, being used in anti-personnel role against the government post, but I want to go with the mujahideen in the open assault. Let’s see what Allah has for me. Still have few days to go for that.
I am thoroughly enjoying the feeling of spiritual purity only reserved for the battle fronts. May Allah accept our humble effort and bless us and the Jihad with His help and pleasure. (Ameen)”


Dr. Awwal Jan was a very pleasant, tall and firmly built man in his mid 40’s. We both took instant liking to each other, and from here onward, he would play the role of my mentor and guardian angel. From the rear base of Khalid, we drove next to the foothills, further into the mountains overlooking the plains towards Urgun. It was here that in a narrow ravine, the Mujahideen, under the command of Awwal Jan, had their base hidden deep in the jungle under the overhanging peaks. Consisting of few grey tents and dugouts on the mountain slopes, it was an ideal defensive position and almost totally camouflaged from the air. A small stream of ice- cold water ran right through the narrow canyon housing the base. Trees of special pine nuts, called Chilgozas grew in thousands, laden with ripened fruit. In Pakistan one could only dream of having Chilgozasdue to their high cost, but here we were based in their jungle. Throughout my life before or after, I have not eaten so many Chilgozas as I did in those few days, with the Mujahideen of Sarobi. There, I also tasted the true flavour of another kind: Dr. Awwal Jan taught me Pashtu,which I noted down in my faithful little diary.

The base consisted of about 40 Mujahideen, who were basically at a screening position to give time to rear bases to prepare and respond in case any attack came from the enemy posts, and were also serving as fighting and reconnaissance patrols for area dominance and surveying in the region. Each day, the fighting patrols would leave the camp and would look for enemy movements, ambush opportunities, battle field reconnaissance and mine clearing operations. It was exciting work and excellent education for me, very necessary for training and orientation of the guerrilla war tactics.

Dr. Awwal was a trained mine sweeper as well. Every day, he carried a long mine detector in his hand, followed by his men, including me, and would go to clear landmines from the posts and passages, which were planted by the enemy. Enemy scouts would deliberately plant mines inside empty Mujahideen foxholes and trenches on the ridges, making it extremely dangerous to step into trenches without sweeping them first. Once, in my naivety, during a patrol, I moved ahead of the group and tried to enter a small foxhole on the ridge overlooking the plains. If Awwal Jan had not shouted in time to warn me, I would have lost a leg for sure. He pulled me back, swept the ground inches away from me, with his minesweeper. His headphones made small beeping sounds which only he could hear, but the expression on his face showed that he had found something. Circling the round metal disc over the suspected area, he asked one of his men to dig out the mine. Using a bayonet to prod the earth surface lightly, he found the deadly trap, removed the dirt from it carefully, and then lifted it from the base using the blade of the knife. It was for the first time I witnessed a live mine being taken out from the land, a spot I had almost stepped on. A shiver of chill went through my spine. I was red with sheepish embarrassment. Very carefully, Awwal Jan unscrewed a small bolt on the side of the mine and jerked it slightly, bending it sideways. A small fuse like detonator fell out. He put the bolt back and then pressed the top of the mine with both hands,it made a small “clicking” sound. Now the mine was safe. If the detonator had not been taken out and I had stepped on the mine, it would have blown away my leg. He looked at me kindly, not saying a word but performing the whole operation right in front of me, to teach the invaluable lesson once again without saying it – stupid men don’t last long!


Afghanistan has millions of mines planted across the country by the Soviets. It was a brutal way to fight the population that offered such stiff resistance. It is estimated that with the present demining pace, it would take almost 400 years for the country to be cleansed of all the deadly traps spread all over the countryside in farms, around rivers, lakes, plains and in fields. In later years, I had more close shaves with landmines in every region of the country. It is nothing short of a miracle that I am alive today after so many close encounters with these elusive and deadly foes. It was due to the threat of these weapons that the Mujahideen had developed the practice of single file marching, in the suspicious zones. Each man would step into the footmarks of the one ahead of him in order to avoid making contact with unsafe ground. The first man of the column was always at risk and had to be the bravest. That day, we pulled many more mines from trenches and foxholes. The Mujahideen were preparing for a major offensive, and clearing the area was necessary. These patrols were invaluable in battle field orientation and survival tactics. I was relishing every moment of these, under the patronage of Dr. Awwal Jan.
A Hizb camera team from Peshawar also arrived which intended to film the entire operation. Daud was the chief cameraman. Those were the days of VHS video cameras which recorded on tapes. Also, the digital age of still cameras had not arrived and still pictures were taken on film cameras. A film roll would take weeks or months to be taken from the battlefield to get back to Peshawar for processing, and only then one would know what had come out. Daud had a passion for his work. A young, sober man of medium height, in his mid twenties; we became instant friends. We talked about each other’s lives, passions and ambitions. We promised to meet again in Peshawar when I would return. I noticed two pens in his breast pocket!
That night I had insisted upon being given the night sentry duties. My turn of guard was near dawn and by the time I completed two hours of my duty on the hill, it was daybreak. Days started early on those fronts. Everyone was awake, leisurely and casual. Some were busy in preparing breakfast and others trying to snuggle back into their sleeping bags after prayers. It was a beautiful cold morning and hardly anything signaled the bloody adventure that was about to hit us like a thunderbolt.
Around 7o’clock in the morning, a young man came rushing in through the narrow gorge, which housed our base. He was one of the Mujahideen from a nearby similar camp. He was breathless and in obvious panic. He charged into our tent where about 20 Mujahideen had gathered in and around, and made a loud announcement in Pashtu, “AskarRaghley”, the enemy troops have arrived! He then quickly delivered the rest of the message that the enemy had attacked at dawn and was rapidly gaining ground towards the foothills, backed by tanks and the infantry!
What happened after that was even more stunning for me. For a second, the listening crowd remained dead silent and frozen to allow the messenger to complete his message. Then suddenly, the casual, leisurely crowd exploded into an electrifying flurry of battle preparations. While everyone prepared to get their gear for moving out to face the enemy, I just watched in amazed silence. In less than five minutes of receiving the news, the first batch of Guerillas had already geared up and left for the battle! The sheer pace and the flawlessefficiency with which these seemingly carefree, sleepy young menwere transformed into hardcore war machines, would put any professional army to shame. Even the most highly trained Special Forces of any country could not have moved out as quickly as they did on that particular day.
One young man who led the first batch out was, Baryaley. He shouted at everyone to follow him and those who were ready were led by him into the battle. He had the courage, the flair and the initiative. I could see a leader in him. I still see him in my memory, moving rapidly and then stopping briefly to turn around and making a “follow me” gesture. The image is permanently etched in my memory.
I waited, observed and then left with Dr. Awwal Jan, who was delayed because he was busy opening the boxes and distributing the ammunition. Once all were fully armed, he too left with about 20 remaining men including myself. We marched through the narrow gorge at a fast pace and advanced forward towards the foothills. The excitement was razor sharp. We could hearfierce gunfire at close range, signaling that the fight was already hot and close. Daud also had left earlier, with an advance group.
We reached a “Y” junction within the gorge. I could see that Awwal Jan did not want me to go with him to the front. Already the sounds of gunfire had become rapid and loud. His guardian angel mode had been switched on. He ordered me to turn right, climb the hills and get on to the high ridges along with 10 older men, who he thought would find it difficult to keep pace on the deadly mountainous tracks. We were told to hold the ridge. I wanted to go with him and so I insisted. He paused, looked at me, and I saw a painful smile on his face. He glanced back where his Mujahideen were charging fast and then turnedtowards me with a silent but firm plea, “You are holding me back. Please go!” I could clearly see the love, care and concern on his face as well as the desperation to go with his men, but he wanted to make sure that I would be away from harm’s way. I decided to obey him and turned right. A relieved Awwal Jan turned left and charged down the valley to join his men. I climbed and reached the ridge. There lying on my belly, I lifted my head to see the battle in the valley below. It was an awesome and formidable sight!
 The mountain foothills as well as the entire valley plains were within the range of my view, clear as a picture, in the early morning sunshine. I was at an ideal position to observe the tactics of the battle. In the plains right in front of me, was a column of enemy tanks pointing their guns straight at us and advancing towards the mountains. They were about 3 kilometers away. I could see the enemy infantry following them too. On my left towards the foothills, theMujahideen were seen breaking out from the mountain slopes and moving into the plains. It was going to be a face to face infantry battle now. Suddenly I saw a huge flash above the tank and before I could react to it, a tank shell flew inches over our heads with a massive, whistling “whoooosh”, and crashed with a cracking,thunderous explosion in the mountain side just behind me. God! That was scary! It had shaken me completely. The tanks were now taking direct aim at the very ridge I was lying on,but I had learned somethingas well. The flash on the tank would signal a fire and we would quickly slide backwards into the safety of the ridge slope. The shell would fly over our heads and hit the mountain behind us and then we would rise again to see the action. It was naïve of us to think that a few feet of ridge would protect us against a direct, high explosive or armored piercing tank shell. If the ridge edge had taken a direct hit, it would have blown us all into oblivion. At least a dozen shells were fired at us but all went inches above our heads and missed the ridge slopes.
It was around noon now, and the battle had been raging for a few hours now. I could see that it had come to a stall with neither side making advances, but the firing continued. Suddenly, I heard a huge explosion, which once again shook us all, but somehow, something was different. There was no flash of the tank barrel, so what could have caused this explosion? Then we saw a plume of thick black smoke emerging from under the leading tank. The tank was smoking heavily and had come to a stop. It had either hit a Mujahideen anti-tank mine or was hit by a recoilless rifle or RPG,which had broken its tracks, grinding it to a halt. Once we realized that it was incapacitated, we were ecstatic. Screaming “Nara e Takbeer” at the top of our voices, I felt a deep personal satisfaction at getting back at this particular tank. This was the one that had fired the maximum number of shells at us, served it right;it was personal now!
Moments later, we heard another similar bang and another plume of smoke rose from the tank behind the first, wounded one. The second tank had come closer to the first one to tug and drag it away from the battle field. The rescue tank itself struck a landmine and was also incapacitated. We were now truly delirious, screaming our hearts out with excitement. With two tanks damaged and abandoned, the enemy attack began to fizzle out and the remaining tanks and armored cars began a slow withdrawal, allowing the Mujahideen to advance a little further. Then tragedy struck.
The Mujahideen were using 14.5 mm and 12.7 mm anti-aircraft guns positioned in the mountains, in anti-personnel role in this battle. These guns were also firing on the enemy tanks and armored cars in the valley, from around 2 kilometers away. One Mujahid had advanced forward and was able to climb the abandoned wounded tank, and had turned its 7.62mm Granov machine gun around to fire at the retreating enemy. This was an act of mad bravery and raw courage. TheMujahideen, anti aircraft gunners could not tell the difference between the government soldier in uniform and the Mujahid on top of the tank. They zeroed on the tank and fired, killing the Mujahid. 
At night, when we were all safelyback at the base, I was shattered to know that the killed Mujahid was none other than Baryaley. 
There were more sad news to come: Daud had been wounded as well. A mortar shell had landed near him while he was filming the action, wounding him critically. He was taken out towards Pakistan and no one knew about his condition.
My diary records the day’s events in these words:
20 November 86.
Praise be to Allah, the Lord of all the worlds.
Today, we had a long action day in actual battle. The enemy attacked us in the morning but by the grace of Allah, the Mujahideen were able to beat off the attack. It was a full day’s action with heavy casualties to the enemy both in men and equipment, the Mujahideen gave one shaheed and two wounded. One of the wounded is my friend Daud. I have not seen him after his injury but I am told he is serious. May Allah accept his effort in His way. He was a member of the camera team, which had come from Peshawar to film the Jihad. I only participated in watching the whole action and seeing the miracles in the Jihad. The enemy was very far from my post to fire upon, but by the grace of Allah I had a good view of the live action, something that pays an important role in the training of a soldier. We thank Allah for his mercy upon His humble servants. All praises are for Him, the Greatest, the Almighty.

I was glad to see Dr. Awwal Jan safely back. He was dusty and tired but very happy. He was a graceful man and showed emotions with a flair of dignity. I could see that he was happy to see me safe as well. At night, after everyone had had a warm meal, there were a thousand stories to tell over the hot cups of Afghan chai. Each man excitedly narrating his tales, around the warm campfire in the bitter cold.
The fact that there were no enemy aircraft deployed on that day, was surprising for me. TheMujahideen had come out in the open to confront the advancing Afghan army. We too were highly exposed on the ridges. It was easy picking for the Soviet air force, but they did not show up. The reports of a proposed Mujahideen attack on the nearby post had reached the enemy too. They had launched this attack to throw the Mujahideen off guard and to disrupt their attack plans. It was clear that the enemy did not want to capture territory nor came with a determined plan to push the Mujahideen back. It was a pre-emptive strike in order to cause panic and confusion, in which they failed, and incurred severe losses in the process.
At night when I went into my sleeping bag in the tent, I pondered over the day’s events. It was a massive educational process for me, witnessing the entire battle in a kaleidoscopic sequence and in understanding the tactics of the war being fought. It was often said within the Mujahideen ranks that Afghan army were cowards and that they would not fight well in a battle. There was a general tendency within the resistance and even within the Arabs and Pakistanis, to rubbish the Afghan army. I saw the Afghan army fight that day, and they fought well. They came out of their fortresses and into the open. They took the war to the Mujahideen without the Soviet support and without any air cover. They fought a bitter battle all day and then withdrew by the evening, after giving a dawn surprise to the resistance. I began to take the Afghan army seriously. The Communist army comprised of Afghans as well, and all Afghans are natural born fighters, irrespective of their religious beliefs or ethnic distribution. In the later years this fact was proven beyond doubt. After the Soviet withdrawal in 1988, the Afghan communist army held their ground on their own for almost 4 years against the combined might of all Mujahideen groups. This underestimation of the Afghan army caused many debacles in the years to come, the biggest one being the defeat of the Mujahideen at the hands of the Afghan army at Jalalabad in 1989. I was there too and experienced their tenacity first hand once again.
Two days later, while we were preparing for our attack on the Afghan army post, I received the very sad news – Daud had died too!




Part 7


Angels and Demons

The Paktika battle front led by Hizb Commander Khalid Farooqi was bursting with hyper excitement in preparation for the upcoming battle. After the last engagement just a few days earlier, in which the enemy had brought the battle to the Mujahideen, taking them by total surprise, costing us the precious lives of Daud and Baryaley, there prevailed a seething sense of anger and a desire for revenge. Everyone in the camp was hurt deeply over their Shahadat. The Communist army had gotten the wind of this planned Mujahideen assault and had launched an invasion to thwart this attack. However, our own plans remained unchanged, and the Mujahideen got busy with troop distribution, ammunition dumping, gun position preparations and mine clearing operations. This was also to be the last major engagement of the year before the snow would signal the close of the war season, hence the preparations were even more aggressive in order to make it a final and fierce parting shot, till the combatants would engage once again, with full force in early spring next year.
For the Soviets, the war in Afghanistan was “death by a thousand cuts,” as one Pakistani army officer later described it. The previously undefeated, ruthless Soviet bear was trapped in a hopeless situation in the gorges of Afghanistan, surrounded by the hungry and ferocious mountain tigers that were attacking with stealth and speed from all sides, raking away its flesh slowly and painfully with every attack. With almost hundreds of attacks all over the country against the Soviet forces on a daily basis, the cumulative damage to the morale and the fighting capacity of the army of the Soviet Empire, was severe. Fighting would even continue in winters but on a reduced capacity for the resistance.
The lack of winter survival equipment, blockage of routes and mountain passes due to snow and difficulty in logistics would create a relative lull in fighting in the mountainous regions. In plains and deserts, the operations would still continue in winters but ammunition dumping had to be done in the summer season when the passes were still open, as fresh supplies from Pakistan would be a logistical nightmare for the resistance. In regions where snow would make it impossible for the resistance to move freely for large scale operations, the focus would only be on maintaining the defensive positions and on harassing actions against the enemy posts or convoys through rocket or artillery fire or by planting landmines on convoy routes.
The Soviets had the upper hand in winters. Snow has always been their ally throughout the history of warfare. Napoleon was defeated by “General Winters”. The German military offensive during the Second World War also froze in the Russian snow. In Afghanistan also, they had the advantage of technology, mobility, logistics and firepower against the resistance, which was highly vulnerable and exposed to the extremes of weather. The Soviets would try to exploit this Mujahideen weakness in winters to dislodge them from their mountain top dugouts and bunkers. In these times, the Soviets had even started to use stealth technology like Night Vision Devices (NVD’s) and Silencers on their weapons in order to launch night time daring Special Forces raids on the hopelessly ill equipped Mujahideen outposts, which were totally cut off due to snow or were completely blinded due to blizzards in dark nights. Once the poorly equipped, freezing and disoriented night sentry was killed by the Soviet snipers using silenced weapons and NVD’s, the fate of the entire Mujahideen group, which was sleeping at the post, was sealed. In 1987, a year later, in the province of Kunar, I witnessed the gruesome proof of such a deadly, winter night raid on a Mujahideen front line post, where the resistance group was caught unawares and dozens of men were butchered in their sleep by the Soviet Special Forces. This was the reason why all small Mujahideen outposts were called back in winters from the vulnerable regions and consolidated into strong, fortified bases or Ghunds, like Jahadwal and Zawar, in Paktia where I had gone earlier in March.
The Mujahideen were purely a volunteer militia and the most ill equipped resistance group in the world. The farmers, shepherds, students, shopkeepers and nomads had signed in to form lose bands of militia under six larger parent Organizations in order to fight the mightiest army of the world. These six parent groups were based in Peshawar, called the Six Party Alliance, and their battle field commanders were manning thousands of posts, bases and bunkers spread all over Afghanistan, waging a fierce and protracted guerilla war. Every group would wage an independent decentralized uncoordinated war against the Soviets, making it absolutely impossible for the Soviet military to identify and neutralize the centre of gravity of the resistance.
Since the resistance was so loosely coordinated and was operating independently as various groups even on a single battlefront, under commanders from different parties, it possessed incredible flexibility as well as the tenacity to sustain the Soviet military pressure. Even if one group from one party was penetrated through intelligence and spies or decimated through military action by the Soviets, the groups from other parties were always there to replace the loss and to offer the resistance. It was a highly frustrating war for the Soviets. The advantage of surprise was always with the resistance. The Soviets had to fight on hundreds of fronts and posts every day, taking severe loses in men and material as their troops remained under constant fear of death, ambush or capture. They would often win in the battle and were able to beat off almost all frontal attacks, but in the end they lost the war! It was more of the psychological, emotional and mental stress than physical defeat or military weakness, which crippled their capability to sustain the occupation. Perpetual fear of the unknown is the biggest enemy of a soldier. It eats away the very will to fight, despite having the advantages of technology and superiority of weapons. The pressure had forced many Soviet soldiers to turn to drugs, defection or surrender, and sometimes even to commit suicide. By the time I joined the resistance in 1986, the morale within the Soviet ranks was fatally low.
The Soviet army launched a last ditch effort in early 1986 to snatch the Afghan theatre from the resistance and deployed latest weapons, including armored aircraft and novel battle tactics, deploying audacious use of Special Forces. The Mujahideen had taken serious hits in March, when their strong bases had fallen to Soviet Special forces in Paktia, but that was the final serious spark in the Soviet military strategy and operational tactics. By mid 1986, the resistance had acquired the stinger anti-aircraft missiles and that broke the back of the Soviet air power as well as their military advantage. The losses incurred while attempting to sustain the occupation for almost a decade, had not just crippled their army as well as the economy, it also ultimately led to the destruction of their empire, which they had so painstakingly built in the last 400 years! For the Soviets, it was a mistake of staggering proportions to confront the wrath of the Afghans.
Today, it’s de javu for me, when the US and NATO soldiers are going through a living hell in the killing fields of Afghanistan and feeling the precisely similar, dreaded emotional and physical trauma of occupation as the Soviets had gone through a couple of decades ago. The same ferocious Afghan resistance under the contemporary brand name of Afghan Taliban, has once again picked up arms and has simply gone to business against another occupation force, doing precisely what they do best – wage a ferocious, ruthless, decentralized, protracted guerilla war, delivering “death by a thousand cuts,” once again! I have been there, done that. Today, the western forces in Afghanistan are hopelessly on the wrong side of history as they look down the Afghan gun barrels.
Driven by the Islamic ideology and the fiercely patriotic desire to liberate their homeland, the resistance forces during the Soviet occupation days, were never paid for fighting the war. In Islamic law, there are codes to financially sustain such volunteer armies. The parent organizations of the fighters had deployed those laws on the battle fronts wherever possible. Whatever war booty was captured during the fight, it was divided into five parts. The parent organization would take one part and the four parts would be divided amongst the resistance to sell and make their living. If an attack delivered 10 AK47 rifles as war booty to the fighting group, the parent organization, say Hizb e Islami, would keep 2 rifles and 8 weapons were sold and their proceeds distributed within the fighting group. Fighters were allowed to sell them into the open market in the arms bazaar in the Pakistani tribal areas or the parent organization itself would buy those weapons from the fighters and increase their own armory for future wars.
It was much later that some of these Mujahideen parties, on a few battlefronts, formed their own semi regular battalions, which were given monthly salaries and not the share from the war booty. In the Hizb e Islami post where I was deployed, all the fighters were volunteers from very poor backgrounds and were dependent upon either their war spoils or would return back to Pakistan in winter season to look for jobs and to spend time with their families. Normally these fighters were natives, fighting on their home ground. Not just that they knew the valleys and the mountains like the back of their hands, they also had the added emotional incentive to liberate their own homes, villages and districts. This blend of romantic Islamic ideology, fierce national patriotism and dreaded tribal sense of revenge, created that fiery combination that the Soviets found too hot to handle back then, and now the US and NATO forces are experiencing its heat firsthand. 
***********
I was with Dr. Awwal Jan at a post that was a front line screening position and was to be totally abandoned after the planned attack and during the winter season.  At our position, there was not much to do as such, and mine clearing in the proposed battlefield around the targeted post, remained our main objective. However, watching the men silently clean their weapons, bring in ammunition and prepare for the anticipated action had created an aura of serious excitement and anticipation – as well as a degree of fear. I was trying to remain calm but I knew I had become somber and a touch nervous. The deaths of Daud and Baryaley just a couple of days earlier had brought me face to face with the harsh reality once again. I thought about my own death, my parents and family. There was no turning back now but no matter how hard I tried, the knot in my stomach would just not go away.
****************
On the battlefront, it was a mortal crime to show that you were afraid. It was a harsh, brutal war with no place for boys or weaklings. The proud Afghans were a martial race and natural born fighters and had, by default, adapted to their new life of war after the Soviet invasion. It was an incredible phenomenon how an entire nation had risen in arms across all sectarian and ethnic divides in all regions of the country, once the call for Jihad was given against the atheist invaders. It is also equally fascinating to note that the bulk of the fighters and their commanders were either illiterate, rural men or students from universities who had abandoned their studies to join and then lead the resistance. The affluent, middle and upper urban classes of the Afghan society had either sided with the Soviets or left the country to avoid the conflict. Therefore, most of the commanders or leaders who were called Doctors or Engineers were not exactly graduate professionals. Almost all of them, with very few exceptions, were actually medical or engineering students, who had joined the resistance but were called by their titles as a sign of respect in a society where education was a rare luxury reserved for the very privileged. Hekmatyar was called Engineer too but in reality he was an engineering student when he decided to come to Pakistan to get help against the communists, with Ahmed Shah Masood, another engineering student, way back in 1975 even before the Soviet invasion.
On this Paktika front as well Dr. Awwal Jan had not completed his education but was still called by the respected title. It was not long before even I was being called ‘Engineer sahib’, once they knew I was from an engineering university, though I felt very awkward at this unexpected promotion since I was only in the third semester and hardly knew anything about engineering. If the boys back in my university had known that I had been awarded this laurel without having to toil for it, they would have ragged me to pulp; but I must confess that the ego boost was quite satisfying at being elevated to such grand heights in a fighting group where almost all were illiterate village boys and young men.
My pocket radio, camera, pencil torch, reading glasses, medicine pack, pen and diary and even my tooth brush and toiletries were objects of sheer amazement for these simple and humble souls. They would touch them with respect, almost bordering on reverence or envy. I was an entity they were curious to know about. They would ask me innocent questions like, “How many classes have you studied?” And when I would tell them that I had studied 14 classes so far and intend to study more, they were awe-struck at my “high level” of knowledge and education. They would be mesmerized in admiration when I would write my diary in English and listen to BBC English service.
They would ask me about my monthly income and when I gave them a figure of just a few thousand rupees, which was my father’s tiny pension from the army, they would hold their breath in silence at the fortunes I possessed. They would ask me why I had come to these killing fields when the Soviets had not invaded my home, and unlike them, I had no compulsion to fight or to leave the comforts of my home. I told them that I was there to be by their side in these testing times under the call of my faith, at this response some doubted my motives, some considered me insane, and others revered me as an angel.
My green eyes and fair complexion, thanks to my Kashmiri mother, would lead them to believe that I was an Arab, hiding my identity for security purposes. There were time when I got frustrated trying to convince them that I was a pure blooded Pakistani, to which some of them would politely remind me that lying was a sinful habit and would promise to keep my secret if I told them which country of Arabistan I came from. They would test me with whatever few words of Urdu they themselves knew, to check if I were really a Pakistani. When I would pass their test, they would be impressed and then would tell their comrades, whispering in Pashtu that this Arab guest had also learnt Urdu!
They would ask me to take their pictures and when I asked them how and where they wanted me to send those to them after being printed from Peshawar, they would look at each other in puzzled silence at this awkward question, for only then they would realize that they had no return postal address. Then they would excitingly come up with a brilliant solution: “You take our pictures and keep them yourself.”
They would be healthy and fit as mountain tigers but suddenly would fall awfully “sick” en mass, when I would open my medical pack, loaded with first aid medicines. Each mujahid would come to me with a new disease and ask for medicine. In the beginning I was baffled at this strange behavior. How can they all get so sick so quickly all at once just at the sight of my medical pack? It was only later that I realized that that they would pretend the sickness to take medicines for diseases they might suffer from in future but then I may not be around with my medical pack, so as a preemptive measure would simulate the disease now and take the medicine for the ailment that might befall them in the future!
It was impossible not to be touched by their childlike innocence; I would be amused, sometimes baffled, sometimes irritated. It is almost a surreal phenomenon that this war against the mightiest army of the world was fought and won by such amazing breed of illiterate, innocent village boys. It was almost impossible to change their outlook, ideas and views of the world around them and even more difficult not to fall in love with these humble souls and the beautiful country they were fighting to liberate. Their preconceived ideas, cultural, tribal and social values and single-minded focus to eject the foreign invaders, were as solid and resolute as the mountains they dwelled on.  
Here, I was a guest, and all guests were a privileged class in Afghan culture even in the theatres of war. Almost to every Afghan front I went, I found this identical social pattern. Paradoxically, Afghans are an exceptional breed of war machines, with a remarkable human touch, provided you are not on the wrong side of their guns.
However, they collectively possessed one stunning quality, without any exception, which I envied, respected and craved to have the most. In those killing fields, I would have happily given up all my worldly possessions just to be blessed with an iota of the quality they possessed so naturally, but the acquisition of which was a constant struggle for me. Despite all my education, exposure to the world and the respect they would show to me, ultimately it was I who was humbled before them: It was their raw courage, their unbelievable fearlessness, and bizarre ability to smile in the face of death!
We were going for battle very soon. I was beginning to get nervous as the D-day approached. For the first time since my Afghan adventures had begun, I felt it strongly, within my soul that I many not survive this battle. I was inwardly embarrassed for my fears. My mind kept warning me that the odds were heavily against us this time and that I still had time to back off while my heart convinced me to stay firm and hold my ground. The battle within me raged fiercely as I tried to fight my own demons.
People often ask me today if I had ever felt fear when I went into battle. To be honest, there were occasions when I was not afraid – I was terrified! Despite all the valor, chivalry and romanticism of Jihad, we were humans. Young boys from urban streets who had never been exposed to the brutalities of the real war and had to go through the crushing experiences of fire and sword in real life, in a very short span of time.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                  I matured and grew in wisdom on the battlefronts, learning that feeling fear or terror is a natural human response towards oncoming violence, no matter how courageous or emotionally charged you are about the wars you fight. Courage is not the absence of fear, it is the ability to overcome that fear with grace and dignity.
During the initial days of my very first visit to Afghanistan back in March, I was with a group of inexperienced young Arab boys and we were all trapped in a ravine by a formation of Soviet bombers, were rocketed by Soviet gunship helicopters and pounded by their artillery, resulting in numerous casualties. Within a few hours, the shockwave engulfed us and we all wept bitterly at the hopelessness of our situation, with death staring us in the face. We were shaken, nervous and close to breaking down. But somehow, the group held together and we managed to hold our ground, overcoming our fears and shame, defeating our demons within, participated in the combat and even survived to fight another day. The desire to return to the safety of Pakistan was strong, but the urge to stay and confront the enemy was stronger. There was safety in returning but then the shame and guilt would have killed us. There was great risk in staying but the dignity we felt within was exhilarating. There is a very thin, razor sharp line between shame and dignity; we opted for dignity. 
Jihad has taught me this invaluable lesson by putting me through the test of fire and blood, that feeling fear is natural, succumbing to it is cowardice and overcoming it is courage. No one knows this better than a soldier in the battlefield. There is no shortcut to experience this phenomenon, but to see death in the eye and then try to hold your ground. A brave man is not the one who feels no fear but the one who has the courage to overcome his fears, and then risk his life for the higher ideals and values he so strongly believes in. Even the bravest feel fear but what transforms them into legends is that they opt for a life of dignity and a death of honor. Only faith in Allah (swt) and belief in ones moral values and sacredness of ones mission, gives the strength to overcome the demons within, not the weapons that one carries or the training one has received. The American and NATO forces are suffering the same trauma as the Soviets did two decades ago. Fear of death is a mortal disease.
On the Sarobi battle front, I was about to be shaken severely once again. While the Mujahideen prepared for the upcoming assault, I decided to discuss the battle plans with Dr. Awwal Jan and what he had to say me, made me genuinely concerned. I could see a massacre in the making.
It was a very strong tactical enemy post with about 200 Afghan army men based there with armored cars, tanks and artillery. There were no Soviets in it. The post was tasked to block the Mujahideen penetration from Pakistan, ambush and interdict Mujahideen supply convoys going into central Afghanistan, and to intercept Mujahideen wireless conversations in order to gather intelligence on the resistance. It had the backing of other Afghan army units from the neighboring posts and garrisons, and could even call in air strikes from the Soviet and Afghan air forces. In simple words, this post was a serious pain in the neck for the resistance since long and needed to be dealt with severely. It was this very post which had spearheaded the previous attack on our position just a couple of days back. 
Geographically, it was in the middle of an open plain on a slightly higher ground. The plains around it had no cover and offered no protection from air strikes. The post had a grand and panoramic view of the entire valley, foothills and the mountains all around it with a dirt road leading towards it. The terrain in the plains around the post was not exactly flat but had many smaller hills, ditches, water drains, dried riverbed as well as some undergrowth and foliage. One, at the most two men could get very close to the post without being noticed, but it would be impossible for a large fighting group to remain undetected in daylight if they tried to approach the post. Getting caught in the open by Gunship helicopters would have been a nightmare. The entire terrain around the post, except the road leading towards it, was heavily infested with anti-personnel landmines. The minefield stretched from the post towards the plains downwards in a spiral all around it, for up to about 75 yards, making it impossible for any human or animal to approach the post from the plains without getting blown up. From the rear staging area of the Mujahideen to the post, it was a distance of about 3 kilometers, which we had to force march in order to get closer to the launching position.
The Mujahideen had no anti-aircraft weapons that they could carry into the battlefield. Stingers had not yet reached this front. The Mujahideen anti-aircraft guns were located on the mountain tops, too far for any effective fire support cover in this action. Our artillery was only 1 multi barrel rocket launcher with 12 tubes of 107 mm rockets. These launchers could release 12 rockets in rapid succession at the maximum distance of 10 km. They would take around 5 minutes to reload and then again would release their salvo. These rockets were not the most accurate weapons and would land in a large dispersal area within the target region. They were affective in a positional war against large army concentrations or against a fortified city, but targeting a rather compact mountain top post would be a major range-finding challenge for the Mujahideen gunners. The infantry group which would then lead the assault after the artillery barrage, was only to be armed with AK47 assault rifles, RPG’s and light machine guns.
The artillery barrages would continue till the post was “softened” enough for the open infantry assault. This did not mean that we would not face any resistance once the post would be stormed by us. There would always be enough fight left in the defenders within the post to engage us in a bloody battle. They would go deep into the bunkers during the artillery barrages and then emerge once the infantry attack began. For the Mujahideen, success depended upon causing maximum damage to the post fortifications, heavy weapons as well as to the troops in the initial artillery attack in order to shock them physically and psychologically to make it easy for the assault teams. Each Mujahid would carry around 250 rounds, including 4 loaded magazines for their rifles and a few grenades. This kind of firepower with the assault teams was enough for only an hour of intense fight. Resupplying the ammunition during the battle was impossible. That means, that if the defenders in the post could survive the initial artillery and just hold the ground long enough till the Mujahideen ran out of ammunition, even then they would survive and the Mujahideens’ mission would fail.   
Considering that we had no anti-aircraft weapons and we would be in the open plains, the situation demanded that the cover of darkness be used as a tactical ally in the attack. The assault was scheduled after the sunset. But that also created more problems for the artillery observers, as they would not be able to do the real time battle damage assessment after the Mujahideen rocket salvos on the post. The Mujahideen did not have night vision devices hence they were seriously handicapped in observing the accuracy of their fire or damage inflicted on the post from a distance. Also, in pitch darkness, the assault teams would find it almost impossible to watch their steps or detect the minefields. Even loading the guns or bullets into the magazine would be excruciatingly taxing, almost as if being done by blind men. If one was lost or separated from the group in the ensuing confusion, which was bound to happen, there would be no visual contact between the fighters. Identification of friend or foe would be totally impossible once the battle began or assault mounted from the three sides on the target post. There was a high probability that friendly fires would kill fellow fighters, just as Baryaley had been killed a few days ago. 
From a military perspective, this was a very dangerous mission indeed, with very little chances of success and very high probability of friendly casualties, even a massacre. I could sense the dangers, but was not prepared for what Awwal Jan told me at the end, when I asked him about his plans regarding the minefield around the post. As per his plan, once the assault began from a distance of about 200 yards and the group moved forward under incoming fire, Awwal Jan would lead a small detachment towards the edge of the minefield, and start to clear the mines with his metal detector, and would try to cut a corridor wide enough for at least one man, from where the entire assault team would try to penetrate in a single column uphill, towards the outer walls of the post, which they had hoped to breach through earlier rocket barrages and then from close range, using the Rocket Propelled Grenades (RPG’s) which the assault teams would carry on their shoulders! I was shocked. How on earth would Awwal Jan clear a 75 meter, mine infested piece of territory in pitch darkness, under hostile fire, within 45 minutes till the time our ammunition lasted and then cut a passage for all of us to charge through to the post? “He cannot be serious!” I thought, trying to find the humor in it, but Awwal Jan’s demeanor was cold as steel.
Having seen the desperate battle plan and the hopeless situation we were in, I was left with only three options. I could decide to opt out from this suicidal mission and stay back with the cook, or I could stay at a safe distance at the rocket battery, as Commander Khalid Farooqi had earlier suggested, or I could defeat my demons and opt to go with the assault teams in the open attack. Option 1 and 2 would have kept me safe but killed me with shame. Option 3 was a sure suicide mission, but it would be a death of honor and somehow if I lived to tell the tale, I would live with my head held high and a glorious sense of honor within.
This was the most difficult phase in my entire association with the Afghan resistance. Although I faced more death defying situations during my further adventures, but never did I experience such an intense conflict within, which I suffered that day. I am truly grateful to Allah (swt) that at that moment, His mercy enveloped me entirely and prevented my demons from getting the better of me. I know that at that moment I would have opted for the path of least resistance if Allah’s mercy had not held me together. If I had lost to my fears that day, I know that I would have carried the guilt to my grave. Alhamdolillah, I decided to go with the assault teams despite the staggering odds. But there was one, last crucial bit that I needed to do before embarking on this fateful mission. I had a strong feeling that I was not coming back alive from this one.
I had to send a parting letter to my parents and that is when I decided to write my will.

(To be continued)



7 comments:

mohaiman saleem said...

MASHALLAH.......

Bilal said...

MashaALLAH
we r in this mission till the last drop of our blood.

Humaira Naz said...

Congratulations on the new blog!

Humaira
Core Team

saeed ullah ch said...

mashaAllah amazing n courageous story,congrates on new platform.

Tariq said...

Salam sir! That is a massive piece of information...I will keep reading!!! JazakAllah Khair!!!

Zohaib said...

MASHALLAH..!!!
Hazaron saal nargis apni be-noori pe roti hai..
Bari mushkil se hota hai chaman me de-dawar paida.

Glor said...

MashaAllah...

Sir jee... Some suggestions...

1. Please make sure that this book is published in English as well as in Urdu and infact get it translated into Pushto as well as Dari if possible

2. You can put in a brilliant touch by starting chapters with verses of the Quran Majeed and Ahadith related specifically to Jihad fe Sabeelilah

3. You can send me an autographed copy of the book... I shall pay for the book and special delivery... JazakAllah Khair :)

4. This point is for all readers... I have a feeling Zaid sb could become our next president... If so please make sure that before we open the eastern front against India, we have declared the return of the Khilafat... Ghazwa e Hind has to be fought against the Kuffar under the vision of a Caliph instead of the corrupt democratic system that we have today in Pakistan... So Khilafat before Jihad...

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