Afghanistan: Driven Toward God

The eight-year war has transformed and enhanced the role of Islam, but Afghanistan is not another Iran

LATE LAST WINTER, when international statesmen were suggesting that the exiled septuagenarian King of Afghanistan, Zahir Shah, could be a force for unity in the country in the event of the withdrawal of Soviet troops, some 4,000 Afghan resistance fighters gathered in an isolated valley across the border in Pakistan. There, framed by the peaks of the Hindu Kush and the foothills of the Himalayas, they spent several hours chanting “Death to Zahir Shah! Long live the mujahideen [’holy Moslem warriors’]! Long live Islam!” One fighter grabbed the microphone and declared, “So many mujahideen have been sacrificed for Islam that we don’t want to be ruled by anyone except God.” Although only four of the seven Pakistan-based Afghan resistance parties were represented at the rally, these four parties—all Islamic and all fundamentalist—were, and are, the four most powerful. Thus died, in the eyes of the mujahideen, the so-called Zahir Shah option. It was the victim of a religious rebellion that in fact broke out in Afghanistan more than a decade ago, before the Soviet invasion of 1979.

The Soviet Union has announced its intention to withdraw its troops from Afghanistan by February 15, 1989, leaving behind a government in Kabul that, under pressure from the mujahideen, may soon collapse. As the overestimation of Zahir Shah’s popularity showed, projecting the future of a post-Soviet Afghanistan is not a straightforward task, and it must begin with an understanding of the social and religious cataclysms that rocked the country prior to the Red Army’s arrival. For the Soviet invasion was a well-nigh inevitable climax to a series of developments that dragged the Kremlin, which had for years been quietly expanding its influence in King Zahir’s Kabul, deeper and deeper into Afghanistan’s internal politics. Only the fundamentalist Muslims saw this clearly at the time.

As early as 1970 the fundamentalists had become alarmed at the rate at which the King was allowing Afghan Communists to penetrate the state bureaucracy. The fundamentalists were so alarmed that they began forming secret “Islamic cells" within the army. In charge of one of these cells was Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was later to become the mujahideen commander in the Panjshir Valley, northeast of Kabul, where at least six huge Soviet ground assaults, reinforced by aerial carpet bombing, would prove unable to dislodge him. Along with many other devout officers, Massoud fled Afghanistan in 1973, when a coup toppled the King and brought his avowedly leftist cousin, Mohammed Daoud, to power. By 1975 all of those destined to become the most powerful mujahideen leaders in the fight against the Soviets were in exile and preaching rebellion against the Kabul government, which they viewed as a godless force seeking to extend its dominion into the countryside (where the central government had always been weak) and to subvert age-old religious and tribal traditions. “Religion was the sole motivating factor behind the original mujahideen uprising,” says Farouk Adam Khan, a Pakistani lawyer who, like many Afghans, is an ethnic Pathan—one of a score of ethnic groups in the country.

However premature and paranoid the fundamentalists’ warnings may have seemed at first, events subsequently bore them out. Like Zahir Shah before him, Daoud was eventually overwhelmed by the leftists whom he himself had encouraged. In April of 1978 Daoud was murdered and replaced by the Afghan Communist leader Nur Mohammed Taraki, who in the next six months signed some thirty bilateral agreements with the Soviet Union. For the first time in history Afghanistan’s government began intruding significantly into village life. Land was confiscated, and local mullahs, or religious leaders, were taken away and imprisoned. This sparked a guerrilla rebellion in the Afghan countryside and the first largescale migration of refugees to Pakistan. When the Red Army finally invaded, after another local Communist coup, the immediate consequence was to drive tens of thousands of volunteers into the arms of fundamentalist guerrilla commanders like Massoud and maulavia (high-ranking mullahs) like Yunus Khalis.

Rather than hijack a broad-based national uprising, as the ayatollahs did in Iran, the Afghan fundamentalists took control of a rebellion that they themselves had made possible. Islam quite naturally became the principal medium of political expression against the Soviets. And the chaos and destruction of the war, Yasir Abdul Rahman, a professor at Kabul University, told me, “drove the people even further toward God, as it was the only thing left for them.”

BY THE MOST conservative estimates, the eight-year-long war between the Afghan guerrillas and the Soviets has resulted in the deaths of more than a million Afghan civilians and combatants, out of a total population at the war’s outbreak of some 15 million. About five million people have been driven into exile in Iran and Pakistan, and another two million have been internally displaced. The fabric of village life, with its kinship patterns and power structures based on land tenure, has been replaced by the impersonal structure of the refugee camp. Islam is the principal social institution to have survived the Soviet invasion, and in the opinion of one Afghan psychiatrist I spoke to not long ago, Dr. Azam Dadfar, this simple fact has amplified religion’s psychological importance among the refugees. Also favoring the fundamentalists has been the flight of many Western-educated Afghan intellectuals to Europe and America, which has removed most secularizing influences from the refugee communities in Pakistan. With the khans (big landowners) and maliks (village headmen) deprived by exile of their local power bases, the Islamic clergy has risen quickly and easily to the top of the refugee hierarchy, to a place alongside the resistance commanders.

The mullahs and maulavia have used their newly established authority to try to protect Afghan culture from what they see as the corrupting influences of Pakistan. Pakistan, though officially an Islamic republic, enjoys a life-style that is less chaste and conservative than that of Afghanistan, where strict adherence to religious precepts is the seemingly natural outgrowth of a harsh mountain existence. Living in the crowded, polluted plains of Pakistan “holds absolutely no attraction for the refugees,” says Whitney Azoy, an American anthropologist and expert on Afghanistan. “They want to seal themselves off with their way of life intact.”

Nothing embodies this attitude better than the institution of purdah (literally, “curtain” in Persian), whereby women are kept hidden from the outside world behind closed doors and gossamer veils. In the villages they left behind, where almost everyone was related, women could work all day in the fields in full view of the men and have no need of a veil. But in Pakistan, amid thousands of strangers, Afghan women rarely go out in public, and when they do they are covered from head to toe. “In our own country, I don’t care if our women wear miniskirts,” one refugee acquaintance said to me, “but in Pakistan I don’t want even to see them in the streets.”

Education provides another example of the refugees’ insular attitude. Secular subjects like the natural sciences and the pre-Islamic history of Afghanistan have been struck from the curriculum in most refugee schools, which now provide mainly a Koranic education. Traditions are, then, the glue that holds Afghan society together in exile, and it is questionable how easily the traditions will be discarded after the refugees return home. Before the war, religion was indistinguishable from the other rituals of rural existence, and thus there was nothing especially political about it. But robbed of the certainties of village life, Afghan Islam has become more rigid and militant.

AFGHAN AND WESTERN scholars alike take pains to point out that the turning inward of the Afghan fundamentalists bears little resemblance to the experience of the Islamic radicals in Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere. Insofar as fundamentalism implies a political value system that is revolutionary and inevitably anti-Western, the term can be used to describe only a fringe element of the Afghan mujahideen. Olivier Roy, a French Orientalist and the author of Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan, eschews the very word fundamentalist when discussing the Afghans; he prefers the labels traditionalist and Islamist. Roy is not merely spinning a semantic web. The reason that heavily thumbed copies of his book are ubiquitous in Pakistan is that it is the only piece of recent scholarship that articulates exactly what diplomats, journalists, and relief workers have observed firsthand about the Afghans.

Among Afghan fundamentalists, Roy writes, one finds neither a hatred of the West nor the anti-Semitism that is characteristic of Islamic radicals elsewhere. To some extent this is a matter of politics: the Afghans have been fighting the Soviets, not the West, and Palestinian groups are generally viewed by Afghans— rightly or wrongly—as pro-Soviet. But the Afghans’ disinclination to hate the West and Israel has a deeper explanation—one that gets to the heart of what makes the Afghan mujahideen so different from all other fundamentalists and proponents of Third World liberation movements. As Roy explains it, the Afghans, unlike the Arabs, the Iranians, and many Africans, have never in their history been subjected to the kind of Western cultural penetration that can lead to humiliation and identity crises. Without those ingredients, anti-Western fanaticism can take hold only with difficulty. Between the invasion of the Mongols under Genghis Khan, in the thirteenth century, and that of the Soviets, in our own, no foreign invader was ever able to overrun Afghanistan, or very much affect its culture. The British invaded twice in the nineteenth century and once in the twentieth. They never got beyond the main roads, and each time they were driven out. Of all the Muslim peoples in the Middle and Near East, only the Arabs of North Yemen and the Anatolian Turks have proved as fierce and as successful as the Afghans in repelling foreign intruders.

Secure from the outside world, Afghanistan also never went through a process of Western-style industrialization. In Iran and Egypt fundamentalism emerged out of the urban slums, from among a newly created and rootless proletariat. In contrast, Afghan fundamentalists have in a cultural sense never left the village. “ Though they now wear beards,” Roy writes, “this does not mean that they have embarked upon that false search for tradition which is so often found in Iran, the Maghrib, and Egypt.”

Roy’s argument is embodied in the person of Yunus Khalis, the head of Hizb-i-Islami (“the Party of Islam”). Khalis is an archetypal Afghan fundamentalist, whom two decades of war and political unrest have improbably elevated to power. At first glance Khalis looks to be the Afghan equivalent of the Ayatollah Khomeini, only wilder. He wears a coiled turban and a fiery-red beard. At sixty-eight, he has two wives, the younger in her late twenties. He speaks no Western language. Appearances can be deceiving, however: at his first meeting with a United Nations special envoy, Diego Cordovez, in the Pakistani town of Peshawar last February, Khalis wore no shoes, but he proved to be an impishly sophisticated guest in the Oval Office (where he wore shoes), and he enjoys manipulating Western newsmen. At a recent press conference in Peshawar he said, through a translator, “I know how difficult it is to be a journalist. So my opening statement is going to answer all your questions so completely that you won’t want to ask me anything afterward.” Khalis then made a few brief remarks, stood up, and left the room. An American who is very close to him remarked, “Khalis knows that foreigners find him disarming, and he obviously relishes it.” But what most clearly distinguishes Khalis from Islamic fundamentalists elsewhere is his toleration of different points of view. Unlike the clergy in Iran—whom he shuns—he acts like a man at peace with himself, and therefore with others.

Following the assassination, in Peshawar, last February, of Sayd B. Majrooh— a killing that remains unsolved—Khalis attended the funeral of the exiled University of Kabul professor and told the crowd that although he did “not always agree” with Majrooh’s Westernized outlook, “Afghanistan needs intellectuals” like the slain professor “to help rebuild the country.”

OF THE THREE other fundamentalist parties in the seven-party alliance, two espouse the same moderate politics that Khalis’s does. The exception is a party that, confusingly, has the same name as the one that Khalis heads— Hizb-i-Islami. This party, however, is led by a thirty-nine-year-old former engineering student, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who is something of a firebrand. Khalis and Hekmatyar parted ways in 1979 before the Soviet invasion, and they share few values. Hekmatyar has cobra-like eyes, obvious charisma, and a totalitarian method of operation that the other mujahideen leaders reject. The atmosphere at his headquarters is sullen and intense. No one smiles. Like some Iranian and Arab radicals I have interviewed, Hekmatyar’s lieutenants behave with a kind of stiff politeness that borders on outright rudeness. In nearly every remark they extol the virtues of “Brother Gulbuddin.” Hekmatyar has built a tightly structured party apparatus that openly seeks to dominate the other parties in order to create an Islamic state under his leadership. His group stands accused of kidnapping and murdering foreign journalists and relief workers, and of interfering with the military operations of the other guerrilla parties. His financial backing has at times come from Pakistan, whose President, Mohammed Zia ul-Haq, while a staunch American ally, has employed the rhetoric of militant Islam to consolidate his rule. A Western diplomat told me recently, “Hekmatyar says his money comes from Allah, but in this case Allah’s name is spelled Z-i-a.”

Considering his ample resources, it is striking how little support Hekmatyar has been able to generate among Afghan refugees. According to Sayd Majrooh, whom I interviewed the day before he was assassinated, “Both Marxism and [Hekmatyar’s brand of] fundamentalism are revolutionary and without roots in Afghan history. Each represents a strong, centralizing force, which Afghans—who have always resisted concentrations of power—completely reject.” Distrust of central authority is the most emphatically recurring theme in Afghan history; strong government, as it exists in Iran and almost every other Middle Eastern state, has never existed in Afghanistan, where the terrain is impossibly mountainous and tribal authority is absolute. Many observers cite the relatively small number of mujahideen willing to fight for Hekmatyar as proof that the Afghans, when the Soviets complete their withdrawal, will not institute a coercive theocracy like Iran’s.

The loose structure of the mujahideen alliance is, of course, a product of Afghanistan’s centrifugal tendencies. While the experience of war has, in a broad sociological sense, fostered more cohesion—people for the first time are calling themselves Afghans rather than Pathans, Tajiks, Uzbeks, or Turkomans—the power established by individual mujahideen commanders in various parts of the country remains the only tangible administrative outcome of the fighting. Commanders like Massoud, in the Panjshir Valley; Abdul Haq, in and around Kabul; Ismail Khan, in the Herat region; and Jallaluddin Haqani, in Paktia, have emerged as de facto governors, with near total control over vast tracts of land. These commanders collect taxes and run schools and courts with the help of local jirgas, or councils. Though these men, and most other leaders, are officially aligned with one or another of the seven resistance parties, often these links are tenuous. For example, Massoud, a member of Jamiat-i-Islami (the Islamic Society), has not met with the Jamiat leader, Professor Burhanuddin Rabbani, since the early days of the war. Massoud’s rule, like that of Abdul Haq, Ismael Khan, and Jallaluddin Haqani, is based on his personal charisma and proven ability to rout the Russians. It is doubtful whether any new government established in Kabul would, in the foreseeable future, be able to supplant his authority or that of the other commanders.

Another source of disunity in the withdrawal period could be the almost one-million-strong Shia community that inhabits the Hazarajat region, in the very center of Afghanistan. The Shias are not strongly identified with any of the seven resistance parties. Owing in part, perhaps, to a Soviet policy of courting them as a potential fifth column, Hazarajat has been the quietest theater of the war. Some of the Shia militias also maintain close ties with Iran, a country viewed with deep suspicion by the mujahideen, because of Tehran’s stinginess in providing material support and its abrasive way of doing business.

In addition to the problem posed by the Shias, Afghanistan will have to deal with a dearth of educated people and a surplus of small arms and militarized youths. The potential for civil conflict is great, and could provide the Soviets with a measure of leverage even after their troops pull out. Anarchy, not religious tyranny, appears to be the immediate risk.

There is no modern equivalent of what has been happening recently in Afghanistan. The closest parallel is a nineteenth-century one: the Greek war of independence against the Ottoman Turks. The nineteenth-century Greeks were at a stage of development similar to that of the Afghan peasants today. Like the Afghans, the Greeks were an unruly hodgepodge of guerrilla bands, fortified by a fervid religious faith (in their case, Orthodox Christianity). The Western powers that helped Greece achieve independence soon earned the nation’s wrath by imposing a king and meddling in the country’s internal affairs.

For the moment, pro-American feelings are widespread in Afghanistan. “The Americans, though they are not believers, helped us more than people of our own religion in the Middle East,”one of Yunus Khalis’s fighters said to me. If such an attitude is to last, American officials would do well to steer clear of Afghan politics. Attempts like the one to bring back Zahir Shah, to which the United States was a party, must not be repeated.

“The world must realize that Afghanistan can never be like Sweden,” says Abdul Haq, the mujahideen commander in the area around Kabul. At best what it can be, he adds, is simply an Islamic state, but one that leaves its own people, and its neighbors, alone and at peace.

—Robert D. Kaplan