ASADABAD, eastern Afghanistan – It’s 7am in dirt-poor, semi-devastated Martyr’s Square in this town in the heart of Kunar province. The sun is already shining high and the big, brash American anti-terrorist show is in town.
And what a show it is. Nine vehicles, ranging from Humvees to Toyota HiLux vehicles customized with machine guns, carrying as many as six soldiers each, all engineered to raise serious hell, take possession of the square. The whole town is watching. A commando group climbs up the rickety stairs to the balcony of the Istiqlal – the only hotel in town and whose unbelievably filthy washrooms are crammed with graffiti of the new jihad against America – and engages in a search-and-destroy operation against two “culprits,” as the local Pashtuns put it: this Asia Times Online correspondent and his companion, Pashto-speaking, Peshawar-based journalist Majeed Baber.
The Special Forces are relatively polite – but firm. Identity documents are checked and then digital still photos and video footage is erased – under severe vigilance. Next time, the cameras will be confiscated. Although the whole process is totally illegal, all is justified in the name of the “tense” security situation. Scott, one of the soldiers, is a little more affable than the others, who share a uniform blank, psychopath-style gaze. Scott confirms on the record – and he will be the only one to do so – that the real mission is “to get Hekmatyar,” the former Afghan premier and famed mujahideen warlord, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, leader of the Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan (Islamic Party).
Scott argues the footage and photos might fall into the wrong hands. “They might see how many we are, what we are doing.” As if “they” didn’t know already. Some intelligence information is exchanged and the show departs with a bang to look for the bad guys. Later, the whole town will keep coming back to ask in utter perplexity, “What were the Americans telling you? Have you done anything wrong?”
Make no mistake. This is it. One year after September 11, this is the ultimate frontline, the last, crucial battle in the new Afghan war – as the best Pakistan-Afghanistan insiders have been predicting for months. Or maybe the battle is just beginning. The fact is that now between 300 and 400 American Special Forces – according to different estimations of local Pashtun commanders – are now based in Kunar in hot pursuit of the newly-promoted number one “dead or dead” enemy in the war against terrorism in Afghanistan: Hekmatyar, the Pashtun leader and the only premier in history with the dubious distinction of shelling his own capital, Kabul, in mid-1992, causing the death of as many as 25,000 people, until his bases were destroyed by the Taliban in early 1995.
Even though the war against terrorism costs roughly US$1 billion a day, Osama bin Laden has not been found. Ayman “The Surgeon” Ayman al-Zawahiri, al-Qaeda’s number two, has not been found. Taliban supremo Mullah Omar – who escaped from B-52 bombing last November on the back of a Honda 50cc motorcycle – has not been found. So the new bogeyman is Hekmatyar, who is gathering forces for his new jihad to drive foreign troops out of Afghanistan.
Scores of international journalists are gathering at the Tora Bora to “commemorate” September 11 – perhaps hoping to shoot a bin Laden video in one of the myriad caves in which he was reputed to have hidden before escaping well before the advancing US troops arrived. Asia Times Online, instead, is trying to confirm privileged information according to which Hekmatyar is hiding somewhere in Kunar; former mujahideen leader “Professor” Abdul Rassoul Sayyaf – renamed by his Arab patrons Abd al-Rabb al-Rasul Sayyaf – has been to Kunar; and bin Laden and al-Zawahiri may or may not have recently been in Kunar.
The American Special Forces – housed in a huge compound that used to be the local jail on the outskirts of Asadabad – have been camped since the end of June; in the beginning they were less than a dozen, now they’re hundreds, but still they haven’t found what they are looking for. The search – for Hekmatyar, for al-Qaeda, for supporters, for clues in the middle of ever-shifting alliances, for escape routes – is a complex puzzle. There’s only one way to go – and it is to criss-cross information volunteered by all the major players. What we find is a dizzying web of political, military, tribal and religious friction.
In Hekmatyar America has a formidable foe, as the Soviets found out to their cost in their Afghanistan adventure in the 1980s. He issued an anti-American fatwa in June, and last week he reconfirmed a jihad against “American invaders” and the “persecution of Pashtuns.” His Hezb-i-Islami Afghanistan now runs the show and Hekmatyar can count on hundreds of loyal and very experienced commanders – such as Maulana Jalaluddin Haqqani, the former number one military commander of the Taliban. Al-Qaeda is collaborating with Hezb-i-Islami, but only in a supporting role.
The Hezb-i-Islami – 75 percent of it made up of Pashtuns – is the most revolutionary and disciplined of all the Afghan Islamist parties. It’s nothing remotely similar to a bunch of turbans roaming around in pick-up trucks, as often the Taliban were. The Hezb is a modern organization. Recruitment and promotion is based on skill and merit – and not on social roles or how well one can recite the Koran. Hezb leaders have all been educated in Afghanistan – not in Pakistani madrassas (religious schools). Hekmatyar is a radical Islamist. During the anti-Soviet jihad his party was the absolute favorite of the Afghan refugees in Pakistan, where Islamabad helped the Hezb control 250 schools – from which 43,500 students graduated. These students are the core of the party’s new generation, and they make up most of the soldiers of Hekmatyar’s conventional military force, the Lashkar-i-Isar (Army of Sacrifice).
During the anti-Soviet jihad, Hekmatyar received tens of millions of dollars from Libya and Iraq. And prior to Saddam Hussein invading Kuwait in 1990, the Saudi and Kuwaiti governments and private donors had provided as much as a billion dollars to Hekmatyar. The Hezb was also the darling of Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and the Islamic conservative wahhabis from Saudi Arabia. It was also the favorite of moderate Pakistani generals and – the icing on the cake – the operations wing of the US’s Central Intelligence Agency.
This went on until late 1989, when Bush senior’s administration realized that the USSR was collapsing – and Afghanistan lost its strategic importance. When the priority was to “kill Russians” – according to the crude lingo of the times – the US gave free reign to the ISI to distribute cash and weapons in Afghanistan, with no American supervision. The lion’s share always went straight to Hekmatyar and Sayyaf.
It is fair to say that practically every Pashtun tribe or clan had or has a branch or faction with a link to Hekmatyar. So it is no wonder that the man is now skillfully playing the ethnic card. In his most recent audiotaped address to people all over the Pashtun belt to the east of the country he asks rhetorically why only Pashtuns are being bombed, arrested or killed by the Americans. Hekmatyar touches the right chord in any tribal Pashtun heart when he says that Pashtuns have been humiliated by Americans searching their houses without any warning, confiscating their weapons and – an unpardonable sin in Pashtunwali, the tribal code of honor – physically searching their women.
Pashtuns in Kunar and Nangarhar are convinced the Tajik-dominated Northern Alliance was behind the killing of Haji Abdul Qadir – the only Pashtun vice-president in President Hamid Karzai’s government in Kabul. Portraits of Qadir are ubiquitous in Nangarhar while not a single Karzai portrait is to be seen. Karzai, although a Pashtun, is widely despised as an American puppet and a hostage of the powerful Northern Alliance ministers, such as commander Mohammed Fahim, the Afghan Defense Minister. Karzai’s own security service is totally infiltrated by experienced Hezb-i-Islami operatives, possibly why he now relies on US bodyguards for his personal protection.
Haji Matheullah Khan Safi is the core commander of Kunar. In theory, he is working with the Americans. He says that he used to speak English – but adds, emphatically, that “with this war I forgot everything.” According to him, the Americans have been in Kunar for at least two months. “When they got here, we had problems with local commanders in different checkposts. Now this is finished. The province is under a single administration.”
Haji Matheullah is the first to tell what will be a recurrent story of how a group of high-ranking Arabs escaped from Jalalabad after the city fell to the Northern Alliance on November 12. “There was a huge compound full of Arabs. The most important escaped to Kunar.” The Arabs were helped by Hezb-i-Islami people, by Haji Roohullah (a Kunar wahhabi rising star, recently arrested and now in American custody at Bagram air base on the outskirts of Kabul) and Kashmir Khan (a high commander close to Hekmatyar whom some define as a gangster). “There were only nine Arabs at the time. But one of them was severely injured, died, and was buried near Asadabad. The eight that remained arrived in Daish and then the valleys of Shigal. There were at least four important people among them – maybe Abu Zubaida.” Zubaida, an al-Qaeda strategist, was later arrested in Faisalabad, Pakistan, in late March.
Haji Matheullah cannot or is not willing to confirm a now famous meeting in the beginning of August between Hekmatyar, Sayyaf and other key people that took place in Kunar. “It is not easy for Sayyaf to get into this area. But everyone knows their thinking is the same.” He comments with a Pashtun proverb. “If you don’t eat the onion, you don’t smell.” And then he adds, “Some activities in this area might confirm that Hekmatyar could be in the remote mountains northeast of Asadabad.” A few minutes later, though, comes a new twist: “If all the people are thinking that Hekmatyar is in Kunar, he may well be in Kunar. And if Hekmatyar is in Kunar, Osama and al-Zawahiri may be as well, because they are all in contact.”
We talk about how Hekmatyar – by satellite telephone, on the BBC Pashto service – announced that he supported a new jihad against the Americans, launched in Gardez and Khost, in Paktia province. “Are you sure it was a sat-phone, or tape?” He then switches to attack mode. “We did the jihad 20 years ago against the Russians, for the stability of the country and for the sake of Islam, and then we gave Kabul to these people – Hekmatyar, [Rashid] Dostum, [Burhanuddin] Rabbani, Sayyaf. What did they do to Kabul and the country? They destroyed Kabul, they destroyed the country and now they want it again.”
The situation in Kunar is increasingly tense. Two weeks ago, two missiles hit the American compound in Asadabad. Haji Matheullah finally fires on all cylinders and admits fighters, numbering about 500, are probably hiding in the mountains. “It takes 48 hours to get there, by walking. We heard they bought a lot of new weapons, RPGs, rocket launchers.” The route they most likely took is from Nawaqui, a village on the Pakistani border. On the Pakistan side lies the region dominated by the fierce black-turbaned Sufi Muhammad, who sent thousands of madrassa students in a jihad against the Americans last October. Most were killed or captured and Sufi Muhammad is now languishing in a Pakistani jail.
Haji Matheullah notes that the Americans in Kunar don’t have helicopters. Anyway, that would not help: “These people could stay in the mountains during the whole winter. They collected food. They have a lot of money. They have support from Pakistan, across the border. The only way for the Americans is to go there on foot, through the mountains and jungle.”
Kunar still holds a lot of sympathy to Wahhabism. “Twenty years ago, the Arabs got here and started their aid to widows, orphans, kids. There was a lot of money. When people saw what we call ‘load, coat and boot’, they converted to Wahhabism. The sheikhs, they wanted to spread Wahhabism all over Afghanistan, starting from Kunar. For this reason, the region still has a lot of relations with the Arabs.”
What Haji Matheullah is actually saying is that in the community there’s still a lot of support for al-Qaeda. That’s why people in Kunar are so incensed by the arrest of Haji Roohullah. But at the same time he is also saying that “the common people support Americans, they think they are helpful.” The characteristically Pashtun twists and turns of the conversation are spiced up: “Afghans never liked foreign invaders.” And then comes the punchline. “Afghanistan has problems with Pakistan and China. The Americans want to finish the influence of neighbors on Afghanistan. They [Americans] created a nightmare for us. When they create light, they can go.”
Haji Amanullah is the man responsible for Asadabad’s security. But, significantly, he is still a military Hezb-i-Islami commander. This flagrant contradiction requires extreme diplomacy. His basic judgment of the American presence is “if they want to stay long, for security reasons, and if they do not disturb the people, they are welcome. But if they continue to search houses, scare people – the people’s temperament won’t stand them for any more than three months.”
The security commander confirms that at the beginning of July Hekmatyar visited Kunar, and then went north into Nuristan. He was in touch with local commanders, “But people in Kunar told him they could not guarantee his safety. He might be in Xinjiang [western China].” But this is extremely unlikely as Beijing – ultra-sensitive towards the Muslim Uighur region in western China – would know it right away. In once again a characteristically indirect Pashtun manner, Haji Amanullah finally implies that Hekmatyar is alive – and in the region.
In his view the Kunar Wahhabis “got a lot of aid from the Arabs and Osama. They still have a lot of money. But they are not more than 10,000 followers.” Haji Roohullah, according to him, was and still is receiving money from Pakistan’s ISI.
The story of the Arab escape from Jalalabad receives a new, savoury twist in Haji Amanullah’s version. “I saw nine Arabs at the time. Commander Saburlal arrested them – and then he helped them to escape. They left all their own vehicles and money.” Saburlal was also arrested a few days ago, and is now under American custody at Bagram air base.
Raiz Khan Mushwani is only 18. With his boyish good looks and disarming smile he could be a heartthrob in a boy band or a Hollywood television series. But he is the son of Malik Zarin – the number-one core commander of Kunar (so one assumes that Haji Matheullah is in fact number two). Malik Zarin spends most of his time in crucial meetings in Kabul. His son stays in Asadabad . Raiz says that “more than 20 people” are working closely with the Americans. And he, at only 18, is their commander.
Raiz is happy as “the Americans are bringing peace.” Americans, he says, “choose their own informers,” “have one American Pashto-speaker, an air force soldier named Kay” and are not paying directly for information, “only for expenses.” The American morale, according to Raiz, is “fresh, there is no tension.” Their commander is one “Captain Ryan, who came from Bagram.” Raiz thinks that the Americans will stay for long. They have “no helicopters or tanks, but there is a helipad in the compound.” In fact, every night the activity is feverish, for as long as three hours – with surveillance by drones.
Raiz confirms that the mission is to get Hekmatyar. Not surprisingly, he does not know where bin Laden could be. “Sometimes, as a joke, the Americans ask me if I know something.” Everybody in Asadabad talks about how in a patrolling mission in ultra-sensitive Pech Dara a month and a half ago, four men were shot and killed by the Americans just because they were carrying a Kalashnikov. Another lethal case of cultural misunderstanding. Raiz insists that “the Americans recognized the mistake.”
Gradually, in the Kunar puzzle, emerges the crucial figure of another commander, Khan Jan. Khan Jan is a distinguished Hezb-i-Islami commander, as well as being the mayor of Asadabad. The Americans tried to arrest him and they raided and, according to some, even fired on his house. They think that he meets regularly with Hekmatyar, Raiz admits. “Khan Jan has popular support in the area.” As we talk to Raiz, we finally learn that none other than Khan Jan himself is in the same compound. He came to meet Malik Zarin – or Raiz – to complain about heavy-handed American tactics. But Raiz does not want to meet him. He belongs to the Mushwani tribe, while Khan Jan is from the Salarzai tribe. Tribal enmity is deadly – especially now that one of the tribes has been selected to work closely with the Americans. Raiz admits, “It is clear there is a movement among people to fight the Americans.” But the “jihad is over,” says the son of the most powerful military commander in Kunar – at least for the moment.
The plot thickens. Ahmadullah is a cousin of the crucial character, the Wahhabi superstar Haji Roohullah. He recognizes that Haji Matheullah and Malik Zarin are “well-relationed with the Americans.” But he quickly adds, “Zarin is creating problems because he targeted Haji Roohullah and his tribe.” He stresses that “people from all over Kunar demand the release of Haji Roohullah because he fought against the Taliban and took over the area. Americans have to tell us what charges they have against him.”
Last November, Ahmadullah was fighting against the Taliban alongside Hazrat Ali – the American’s favorite commander in Nangarhar province. After he came to the area, Haji Roohullah called him: he needed people to take over Asadabad. Ahmadullah confirms that commanders Sabarlal and Najinuddin Khan, among others, took over Asadabad “under the supervision of Haji Roohullah” and had been ruling the area ever since. But now both Haji Roohullah and Sabarlal are under arrest by the Americans.
Ahmadullah was an eyewitness to the massive Taliban escape last November. “The Taliban crossed to Pakistan in Marawara” – the direction of Bajaur agency in the Pakistani tribal areas. Hazrat Rahman was another commander at the time in Marawara who supported the Taliban. Ahmadullah saw 48 trucks coming, carrying at least 12 men each, a mix of Arabs and Taliban: “Hazrat Rahman took all their weapons and helped them escape.” Then came another convoy of Pakistani Taliban, who also profited from the services of Rahman.
Ahmadullah fiercely criticizes “those people who are collaborating with the Americans” – meaning Haji Matheullah and, most of all, Malik Zarin: he is implying that the arrest of Roohullah is a power game between commanders of different tribes. Ahmadullah also stresses that “we are ideological enemies of the Arabs because they killed our leader in ’92, Maulvi Jamil Rahman Salafi.” The portrait of Salafi is displayed at most of Asadabad’s businesses. One Abdullah, an Egyptian, went to Bajaur agency and shot Salafi in a mosque in 1992 because he was against Arab proselytizing in the region.
Ahmadullah adds an extremely ironic twist to the American presence in Kunar. He says that five British, not American, special forces were the first to arrive in Kunar a little more than two months ago. They came escorted by none other than Roohullah, and his first cousin Haji Wali Ullah, the president of the World Relief Committee, an Arab NGO very much active in the region.
Personally, Ahmadullah claims “not to know if Hekmatyar is here.” But he assumes that Hekmatyar and Kashmir Khan are working together. Kashmir Khan “disappeared” a month ago and remains one of Hekmatyar’s top commanders.
Presiding over the Kunar puzzle is the governor of the province, Sayed Muhamad Yusuf. But he is not from Kunar: he is from neighboring Laghman province. He was appointed by Hamid Karzai’s central government and spends most of his time asking villagers to support Kabul – an unenviable task, as Pashtun houses are being permanently raided by bullish American soldiers. He insists that “all the nation is behind the Karzai government.” The recent assassinations in Kabul and the attempt against Karzai in Kandahar are dismissed as “the usual.” “President [John F.] Kennedy was assassinated, General Zia [ul-Haq of Pakistan] was killed.”
A long white beard disguises the steely character of Yusuf, a former jihad commander in the 1980s. The governor is playing a tremendously skillful diplomatic game, trying to accommodate the anger of local populations against American methods, the demands of the Americans themselves, and the conflicting interests of powerful and sidelined commanders. He insists that “all the people here are fed up with war. There is no chance of a battle in Kunar.”
The governor thinks that the Americans came “under the flag of the UN to create peace in the land of the Afghans. Kunar is too sensitive, a border province, the geographic situation is too important.” He does not think that Hekmatyar, bin Laden or al-Qaeda are in Kunar. He says “there’s only a 5 percent chance” of Hekmatyar and some Arabs being in the province. He hasn’t heard of any eyewitnesses: “The ideal place for them would be Nuristan.” This is a huge mountainous enclave between Laghman and Kunar, northwest of Asadabad.
The governor recognizes the mesmerizing cultural shock between America gung-ho culture and Pashtun culture. “I asked, why are you doing like this. They said because we receive information in a hurry, we don’t want to waste time. But they are not checking anything. I was in a jirga [meeting] and I told the people the Americans are coming to your villages because of your informers. And they are giving bad information.” So how do the Americans gather intelligence? “They ask us sometimes. But most of the time they do it on their own. Some teenagers, they told them they had seen Hekmatyar in Dangan. The Americans went there, stayed the whole night. They got into a house, they only saw women and kids.” He denies that the Americans armed eastern Afghanistan commanders, although “they did arm commanders in Kandahar.”
And then, in a slip, the crucial word “invasion” comes up. “The Taliban, they were Afghans, but they always made mistakes. Due to the Taliban we are now facing invasion of these forces.” If even the ultra-diplomatic governor commits a Freudian slip of this nature, in the dusty streets and tea houses of Asadabad there is widespread talk about “invasion.”
Ghulam Ullah, the head of education in the province, warns in a soft voice, “We all think Americans came here with the support of the UN. We don’t look at them as invaders. But we do not accept Americans as rulers of this country.”
This sums up half of the popular perception in Kunar. The other half is already involved – surreptitiously for now – in an anti-American jihad.