SHIGAL, ASMAR and DANGAN, Kunar province – “Hekmatyar is not here,” the smiling young men answer in chorus when questioned about the whereabouts of Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, the famed mujahideen warlord busy gathering forces to kick foreign troops out of Afghanistan, a man desperately wanted by the US.
It’s 7am in the tiny village of Aman Koot, in Shigal district, and the convoy of the governor of Kunar, Sayed Muhamad Yusuf – packed with dozens of uniformed Kunaris armed with Kalashnikovs – is parked by the side of the dusty, rocky road.
The governor is inside a mud-walled compound, addressing a shura (meeting), trying to calm down the locals, all furious with the heavy-handed tactics used by American soldiers in searching houses for “terrorist suspects.” The landscape is breathtaking – like in most of Kunar: green maize fields, the Kunar river and the backdrop of stunning forested mountains. The mountains are part of the Kashmund Range – but the locals know them by at least five different names.
The American Special Forces are also on the spot – this time in four customized Toyota Hi-Lux vehicles equipped with machine guns – patrolling the road and combing the surrounding fields, although they are not with the governor. “We’re not with anybody. We’re Americans,” says one of the soldiers. They don’t confirm or deny that they are protecting the governor this morning – but they certainly prevent us from getting into the compound to follow the shura, although we have been invited by the governor’s people. All in the name of the “tense” security situation. There’s an eerie feeling that a missile could zoom in from behind the mountains at any moment. We are less than three hours trekking from the porous Pakistani border.
The young men crowded around us are eager to talk because with the Americans there’s no dialogue. “It’s not possible for us to support Hekmatyar in front of the Americans, now that jihad is finished.” The smiling crowd is “very hopeful” for the future: they list as their only problem the absence of a cricket pitch – with all those maize fields and mountains. And they insist that they don’t have “any concern” about the Americans: “We welcome them.”
They are not exactly welcomed back by the Americans, though, even if it is their own country. Kids swarm the dusty road. Some soldiers pick up a stick and start shooing them off. No chance for anybody to get even close to one of the Mad Max Toyotas. Two soldiers combing the fields with their precision rifles held high are surrounded by a mini-mob. Kids ask for pens. A few minutes later a local comes with a tin plate full of mutton slices – a characteristic sign of Pashtun hospitality. The soldiers recoil in utter disgust. Some start shouting “Back up!” to no avail. “Zai” – the Pashtun equivalent, would produce a better effect.
We depart following the governor’s convoy and soon stop at another dismal village where the four American vehicles are parked in a semi-circle, practically in combat-ready mode. They see us, they radio messages to each other – “Your Asia Times connection is here again.” It’s all part of a cat-and-mouse game developed over a few days. They know that we are here – and they don’t like it. We know where they are and where they’re going – and they don’t like it. Every night, when they patrol Asadabad, Kunar’s capital, they point their night vision goggles to the roof of the Istiqlal hotel where we are staying to check whether we’re filming them. On a visit to the American compound, in a former prison on the outskirts of Asadabad, we are met at the gate by two soldiers, one of them carrying a pistol in one hand and X-ray goggles in another. The armed soldier is very polite, but absolutely “no quotes,” not even a “How’s the weather?” unless we are cleared by Bagram air base on the outskirts of the capital Kabul.
After a quick stop in the village of Asmar, the crucial part of the governor’s day is spent at a jirga (council) meeting in the village of Dangan – reached by an absolutely hair-raising, back-breaking rocky mountain trail. It’s the first time ever that a Kunar governor has visited this village – which is not even on the map: that is a measure of the reigning tense situation. The convoy is greeted by a long circuitous line of very young madrassa (religious school) students immaculately dressed in blue. An armed sentry in a watchtower, next to the black-green-red Afghan flag, commands a spectacular view of the lush valley and the surrounding mountains – a landscape that evokes the most pristine mountain valleys in the Panjshir or in Kashmir. Before the jirga, some of the students engage in a heart-warming rendition of an Afghan national poem, whose lyrics say, “We know how to grow flowers in this land, we don’t need guns, we need pens.” Some elders weep. Then, in a fairytale courtyard naturally protected by trees from the scorching sun, the governor resumes his complex diplomatic ballet, forcefully telling the locals not to spread false information on Hekmatyar’s whereabouts. The Hezb-i-Islami supremo is extremely popular in the region.
On a more environmental mode, the governor insists, “You have to protect your forests from Pakistani loggers.” At the capital, Asadabad, the only business is the timber business – all of it controlled by six or seven powerful commanders, all of them with privileged connections with Pakistani companies. In Dangan itself, people diversify, and practically everybody is now back into cultivating poppy. The governor pleads with them not to.
After the governor’s speech, the village elder, the green-turbaned Sayed Mehbwob, takes the stage and delivers a blistering performance. Fiery eyes, booming voice and an expressive face straight out of tribal theater, he details to the governor how the Americans are disturbing the peace of his tribe.
Later, he spells out to us some of the grievances. According to Mehbwob, two months ago, when the Americans got to Dangan, someone fired an RPG at them. The Americans didn’t say who they were looking for. Three days later they came back and “struck the house of Zhulam Khan with mortars for four hours. There were people inside, but mercifully no one was injured.” Then, a few days ago, says Mehbwob, the Americans broke into another house at night: “They broke a lot of boxes [Pashtuns keep a lot of their possessions in tin containers]. They checked the clothes of the women. There were only women and children inside the house. Now everybody in the area is afraid. This is against Pashtun tradition.”
Mehbwob confirms that the Shinkai home of the very popular Hezb-i-Islami commander and mayor of Asadabad, Khan Jan, was also raided by the Americans “because they thought he had information that would lead to Hekmatyar.” Mehbwob is stinging: “We don’t know who they are looking for. Sometimes they say it’s Osama [bin Laden], sometimes al-Qaeda, sometimes Hekmatyar, and now they say they are looking for terrorists.” Another village elder cuts to the chase. “I think the Americans are foolish. There is tension everywhere in Afghanistan. What are they doing in this area.”
The head of education in Kunar, the affable Ghulam Ullah, offers a more nuanced perspective. “Kunar is part of a body that has 32 parts. We support the central government. Kabul is recognized by all the world.” He sees the war on terrorism being waged “by civilized nations. America is part of a coalition. We see the peacekeepers in Kabul and the American presence in this area in the same way. We do not see them as invaders. The Russians were invaders. We kicked them out. And we are here to help Afghans.”
But the Americans may be making serious mistakes, such as arresting the popular Wahhabi leader Haji Roohullah. “Roohullah is a national religious leader.” The motto at the office of Haji Roohullah is “Unity is the best policy.” The educator, on the arrest of Roohullah, says that “all the tribes have long enmities. One of them is creating problems [he means the Mushwani tribe]. Roohullah was the first to start loya jirga negotiations in Kunar.” Ghulam Ullah is absolutely right when he recalls that the Afghan jihad against the Russians in the 1980s “started in Kunar, through the family of Roohullah.”
Ghulam Ullah is among the few in the region who reject Hekmatyar’s ruthless methods: “We have a lot of differences with Hezb-i-Islami. In 1990, we had a parliament in Kunar, a democratic election for the chief of this area … Roohullah won. The Hezb-i-Islami started fighting because they lost. They killed 12 of Roohullah’s supporters. So we have no relationship with Hekmatyar, Hezb-i-Islami or al-Qaeda. Hekmatyar got Osama to north Kabul and then they sent an Egyptian to kill our religious leader, Maulvi Jamil Rahman Salafi. Hekmatyar and Osama were our first enemies. So how can we give them help.”
The real sensitive relationship, for Ghulam Ullah, is between Americans and local collaborators: “I’m not blaming Americans, because they don’t know our traditions. I’m blaming those working with them. They are kids [a reference to Raiz, the son of pro-American Asadabad commander Malik Zarin, and his army of teenagers]. They want to fill their pockets. And they want to obliterate Pashtun tradition.” Last week, Ghulam Ullah met with Afghan President Hamid Karzai and Defense Minister Mohammed Fahim in Kabul. He is hopeful. “I’m sure Haji Roohullah will come back soon. But these people who created problems for him must get behind bars.” It’s unlikely that the Americans will incarcerate their few local partners in Kunar.
Back to Asmar, at what the locals call the Capitol building, the governor is reclined in his cushion, surrounded by what amounts to an informal cabinet meeting, with everyone seated on carpets sipping green tea. Someone asks the governor point blank, “Are you going to search these disinformers and put them in jail?” There’s no clear answer. At 3pm the charismatic Khan Jan shows up – received with all-around reverence. The governor and Khan Jan launch into an elaborate conversation revolving around the relationship between the commander and Hekmatyar.
The governor says, “We have two types of mujahideen in Afghanistan. One of them was boiling tea for the mujahideen who were in the front against the Russians. The other was in fact in the frontline. The Taliban were boiling tea, and then they started creating problems. [Former president Burhanuddin] Rabbani is now creating all kinds of problems for the government. He had support in 1996, not anymore.” Khan Jan tells the governor that two days ago he went to talk to the Americans, and they told him that they had intelligence in the area proving that he (Khan Jan) was the problem.
The background for the terse exchange, inevitably, is once again tribal enmity. The Americans are working with the Mushwani tribe – to which Malik Zarin, the core commander of Asadabad and his son Raiz, belong. Khan Jan is a member of the Alizai – a sub-clan of the Salarzai tribe. Mushwanis and Salarzais are “brothers” only in name: the atmosphere is more like fraternal hatred. The Salarzai are accusing the Mushwanis of spreading false information to the Americans. Malik Zarin fought against the Taliban. But the Taliban at one time were supported by Malik Zarin’s cousin. It soon became a battle of cousin against cousin. Now Salarzais believe that Malik Zarin is exacting his revenge.
The future of Kunar – the last battle of the new Afghan war, and the first frontline of the new anti-American jihad – will be decided by this cast of characters. Haji Matheullah – the number-two core commander – and Malik Zarin – the number-one core commander – plus his 18-year-old son Raiz and his army of teenagers, will keep working with the Americans. The governor will keep his skillful diplomatic balancing act. The local populations remain split between feelings of silent anger or joining Hekmatyar’s appeal for a jihad against the American invaders. Khan Jan, mayor of Asadabad, may be working secretly with Hekmatyar. There are no prospects of Haji Roohullah being released from Bagram air base. Hekmatyar may be hidden and plotting in the mountains, 48 hours on foot to the northeast of Asadabad. And the Americans are bound to keep treating the local populations with a total lack of sensitivity.
The crucial fact is that the post-Taliban Pashtun counterrevolution is already in full swing. And it’s once again Pashtuns against Tajiks: the Pashtun belt against a central government in Kabul dominated by the Northern Alliance, where the Pashtun President Hamid Karzai is derided as a mere American puppet.
Bacha Khan Zadran is a powerful warlord with a strong military presence in three key Pashtun belt provinces: Paktia, Paktika and Khost. He is openly confronting Kabul, which nominated what the Pashtuns call “a kid,” Abdul Taniwal, as the governor of Khost. Kabul is after Zadran. But Zadran’s tribe has forcefully asked Karzai to fulfill an earlier pledge and appoint him as head of the three provinces. A few days ago in Gardez, the simple presence of Zadran inside the American compound for four hours started a riot, because the locals thought that he had been arrested.
In Kunar, Haji Roohullah’s arrest is not reaping any benefits for the Americans. On the contrary. In Nangarhar the Americans have relied since the Tora Bora campaign on the wily Hazrat Ali, a Pachai: the Pachais are derided by the Pashtuns. Americans are only working with commanders recommended by the Northern Alliance. They are being fed bad intelligence, no intelligence, and in the process are being drawn into the tangled web of warlord tribal rivalry. Under these circumstances, “peace” is impossible: US National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice’s recent claims that the security situation in Afghanistan had improved in the past year is nothing short of ridiculous.
Hamid Karzai’s security services are totally infiltrated by ultra-disciplined Hezb-i-Islami operatives. The 4,800 international peacekeeping soldiers in Kabul are seemingly ineffective. Under their watch, two Afghan ministers have been assassinated in broad daylight and a car bomb exploded last week in Kabul, killing 30 people and wounding 167. An assassination attempt on Karzai was only narrowly averted in Kandahar.
The US – as did the former USSR – has underestimated the indomitable Pashtuns, at its peril. Many empires have already paid the price for this carelessness. The American strategy in the Pashtun belt has been the catalyst for re-starting the civil war in Afghanistan. On the night of September 10, eyewitnesses claim to have spotted Gulbuddin Hekmatyar himself not in Kunar, but in the Teraha valley, in Khyber agency (in Pakistan) – on the other side of the Tora Bora. Hekmatyar was deep in a conference with a group of influential mullahs.
What the US is up against now is a formidable coalition involved in a jihad to kick out what it sees as foreign invaders. The coalition groups Hekmatyar and the Hezb-i-Islami’s “Professor” Sayyaf, with his wealth of Arab connections and sponsorship; Ishmail Khan, the “Emir of southwest Afghanistan,” who is very close to Iran; Mullah Omar (still hiding in safety somewhere in Kandahar province) and his formidable former Taliban military commander, Jalaluddin Haqqani; plus vast middle-level support from Pakistan’s Inter-Services Intelligence.
At the end of a gruelling day, on the dusty Asmar-Asadabad road, Azad (his name means “free”), a Pashtun villager, definitely not a fundamentalist, stops the car to show us his house perched on a hill. The landscape around is breathtaking, as usual. The American Special Forces are only minutes away – we cross their convoy on our way back. Azad gazes at the classic Afghan panorama and murmurs, almost to himself, “The Americans are here because the world community has made a promise to the Afghan nation. But if they have their own agenda, I’ll have to take care of this. Because I am the owner of this land.”