Book Review: Soldiers of God

Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan by Robert D. Kaplan, Vintage edition (November 27, 2001), 304 pages

Most people think that the decline of Afghanistan started with the Soviet invasion in December 1979, but it was not the case. On April 27, 1978, Nur Mohammed Taraki, a self-declared Marxist came to power in a coup. Following examples showed by illustrious Communists like Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot, they executed 27,000 political prisoners in the Pul-i-Charki prison located six miles east of Kabul. They enforced land reforms and extended secular education to the villages, but the way it was done was so brutal that even the Soviets were alarmed. The mujahidin revolt  and the refugee exodus to Pakistan was triggered  by this Communist land reform and was the first instance of organized repression in Afghanistan’s history according to Robert Kaplan.

Kaplan, who is currently the editor of Atlantic Monthly wrote the book by traveling with the Mujahidin into Afghanistan in the 1980s while they were fighting against the Soviet Army. This war largely went unreported according to him. None of the American TV networks had a bureau for the war in which the Communists killed 1.3 million people which is more than the deaths in the Iran-Iraq war and ten times the number killed in Lebanon in all years of civil conflict there. Kaplan quotes a Swedish nurse who lived through some fierce fighting in north Afghanistan saying that every day in her short-wave radio she would hear about people killed in South Africa, Lebanon and Sri Lanka, but there was no mention of Afghanistan.

It was not easy for Kaplan to cover this war as well. While on jeep between Quetta and Khandahar driving in a desert  he hears the drone of a Soviet aircraft. Kaplan panics and asks his driver about it. The driver without any signs of nervousness says that the plane is an Antonov transporting troops and they don’t bomb. As they reach the Arghandab River Valley, he meets Ismael Gailani, a commander while mortars are raining all around. One of the mortars land about a hundred feet away throwing dust into his tea. All this time the Mujahidin sat around him relaxed, smiling and impassive.

The image his words paint of the Mujahidin are quite different from the ones we have heard. They are not religious fanatics, but coarse peasants reacting to the invasion of their land. There were very few instances of mujahidin savagery and if there were some incidents they were mostly directed at the captured troops and not at the civilians. Compared to this, civilian massacres by the Soviets and Afghan Communists were the norm. Also Kaplan did not meet anyone who fought for money because the Mujahidin did not understand the concept of paying someone to fight their war. Mercenaries who landed in Peshawar found that they were unwelcome.

Kaplan’s first hand experience comes from the time he spent with Abdul Haq’s mujahidin with whom he made the trip into Afghanistan. Abdul Haq had established himself as a courageous leader and had met with President Reagan and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and convinced them to supply the Mujahidin with Stingers. He prayed five times a day, kept the Ramadan fast and did not smoke or drink. For the Pathans he was the Afghan Lion, like how Ahmed Shah Massoud was for the Tajiks. According to Kaplan, Haq was a clear thinker, good talker and persuader and he setup an underground network of several hundred safe houses in Kabul which he used to his advantage.

Besides other commanders, Kaplan also meets a thirty year old Hamid Karzai, a native of Khandahar and a spokesman for Afghan National Liberation Front. He was the son of the headman of the Popalzai tribe. When he was a student in India in 1979, he came to know that his father was imprisoned by the Communists. Karzai visited a refugee camp in Quetta and seeing the faith shown in him by his people, he felt that he had to give up his ambition and live for Afghanistan.

Kaplan also suggests that the United States made a mistake in outsourcing the war to Pakistan. After taking money and arms from the Americans, Zia and the ISI would decide to whom it would go. The ISI gave arms to those groups it could control and to those groups which let the ISI do the military planning. Abdul Haq thought that the ISI was run by Punjabis who knew nothing about guerilla warfare. Soon Haq was abandoned and Hekmatyar was the favorite. (Hekmatyar turned out to be a supporter of Taliban and after turning against Pakistan, he is in hiding).

Due to this outsourcing of the war, the Americans had to believe whatever the Pakistanis told them. While in Khandahar, Kaplan sees various Soviet aircrafts landing and taking off from Khandahar airport. At the same time, American Intelligence had told the State Department that no such activity was happening. Later Kaplan finds that the information to American Intelligence came from the ISI who had developed a pattern of exaggerating the successes of the Mujahidin.

Though there is not any mention of India in this whole book there are some anecdotes which show what the Pathans think of Hindus. The Pathans do not think very high of the Pakistani Punjabis whom they brand as weak and “brain dead”. In the Northwest Frontier the only people worse than Punjabis are Hindus since at least the Punjabis were Muslims and were supporting the war. The Hindus practiced a religion that was subtle which according to Pathans means feminine. The Hindus lacked all honor since India supported the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan.

Though the book was written about the war fought in the eighties, you will be amused to find that the same mistakes are being repeated again. In the hunt for the Taliban, the Americans are again taking the word of yet another dictator who is playing a game for his own benefit. Reading this fascinating book in 2006 gives an impression that nothing has changed in this part of the world.

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