Sunday, January 23, 2011

Memoirs - From Indus to Oxus; Part 1


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. 
To be continued.....

3 comments:

basirat said...

Can't wait to read more of it.

chhipa said...

Nice and informative post on this topic thanks for sharing with us.Thank you


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Boundlesstech said...

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