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Erwin Franzen has not received any gifts yet
The following article appeared in the Cyprus-based weekly English-language newspaper
Middle East Times on 17 October 1989, eight months after Soviet troops left Afghanistan.
Corrections/clarifications inserted in parentheses as the article was retyped some 15 years later.
Title: Fractious Afghans Need a Symbol of National Unity
By Erwin Franzen
Middle East Times staff
It is by now abundantly clear that those who predicted a quick victory by Afghanistan's mujahideen once Soviet troops pulled out hit very wide of the mark. Although they would have needed better military skills and equipment to ensure major victories over the Afghan army, the rebels' inability to unify their ranks and organize joint forces has contributed greatly to their failure to capture vital government targets.
In this context, the recent charges by a newspaper in New York that the giant American CBS television network broadcast faked combat footage from the Afghan war provides an interesting backdrop to the realization that many Western analysts in government and the media greatly overestimated the power of the mujahideen and badly misjudged the strength of government forces.
Regardless of whether or not the charges against CBS are justified, one is left to wonder how much distortion and, perhaps, outright fabrication may have been practiced by the media in an attempt to sensationalize the exploits of those exotic 'tribal warriors.'
An incident in northeast Afghanistan in October 1987 made me wonder about this. I witnessed a mortar and rocket attack by mujahideen of the Hezb-e Islami Yunus Khalis group on a small government garrison in Afghanistan's Kunar Valley, about eight kilometers upstream from the air base of Chagha Sarai.
The mujahideen scored a few direct hits from positions in the mountains but extensive minefields did not allow them to even get close to the treacherous Kunar River, which they would have had to cross in order to pursue their assault. There were mujahideen from at least four different and supposedly allied parties in the area but cooperation among them was very limited.
The Soviets, who at the time had several hundred well-equipped spetsnaz commandos (according to the mujahideen) stationed in three mountaintop bases above Chagha Sarai, and their Afghan allies retaliated by firing multiple rocket launchers (BM-16 «Bimsiezda») and heavy field guns (and big mortars) at mujahideen positions for several hours until long after the rebels stopped shooting. The artillery bombardment came from one of the spetsnaz mountain strongholds (this is an error; the rocket launchers were in the valley and I am not sure any of the rounds fired came from the Soviets at all) and two government bases in the Kunar Valley.
It was clear that those troops had a good idea of the exact location of the rebels' mortar positions, their zikuyak (14.5-mm anti-aircraft) machine gun nests, their hidden shelters and even the paths they used because a number of shells missed by less than 30 meters over distances ranging between five and 15 kilometers without the aid of spotter planes (at least none observed by me or the mujahideen I was with).
The mujahideen seemed scarcely able to capture the small forward base that they had attacked, much less Chagha Sarai or even the more exposed garrison of Asmar to the north.
After the attack, the rebels were suddenly anxious to send me and two European companions back across the border to Pakistan. They offered no explanation for rushing us back against our will other than that they planned a bigger attack that would invite much more intense Soviet retaliation and endanger our lives. There was no use in arguing that we were there just to witness such battles and were ready to face the risks (they were adamant that we had to go).
More than a week later in Peshawar a well-known American television cameraman (Kurt Lohbeck) told me that he had filmed a major offensive led by mujahideen from the same group against the Chagha Sarai base and the nearby town of Asadabad, the capital of Kunar province, two or three days after our departure. He said the mujahideen came close to capturing the base -- a claim that sounded totally ludicrous to me. I was unable to view his film because he said he had already sent it to New York for editing.
In the spring of 1988 the soviets pulled all their troops out of the Kunar Valley. The Afghan army redeployed some of its own contingents from Asadabad south to Jalalabad, apparently deciding that with Soviet forces leaving the country its troops would be needed more urgently for the defense of that major city on the important road linking Kabul to the Khyber Pass.
The decision meant that the government virtually abandoned the Kunar Valley to the resistance because it regarded the relatively remote area as being of little strategic significance. To the mujahideen, on the other hand, the Kunar Valley has always been an important infiltration route from Pakistan.
Nonetheless it took the guerrillas several months to defeat the few hundred government troops left behind. The mujahideen finally managed to capture Asadabad in October 1988, gaining complete control of the valley. But their obvious difficulty in achieving this victory made me wonder about what happened a year earlier during the offensive filmed by the American cameraman.
Why did the mujahideen force us out of the area before the big attack? Was it because the American wanted exclusive coverage and they considered him more important than us to the propagation of their cause? Or was there some plan to stage battle scenes and independent observers were simply unwelcome?
Whatever the case, it seems clear that the performance of the mujahideen on the battlefield in general has long been vastly overrated.
One major problem that has consistently stymied both the resistance and the Soviet-backed government is the strong tendency toward factionalism rooted in the ethnic, tribal and sectarian divisions of Afghan society. As a result, the country does not lend itself to strong central government.
Nonetheless, it is evident from historical experience that Afghanistan needs a symbol of national unity that the majority of its people would welcome.
The withdrawal of Soviet troops removed the symbol of a common alien enemy that had provided a focus for the joint struggle of the Afghan resistance groups. Even though they managed to form a government-in-exile, internecine strife has intensified both on the political level and in the field this year, leaving a few dozen mujahideen in Afghanistan and several resistance party supporters in Pakistan dead.
On the government side, divisions between the Khalq and Parcham factions of the ruling People's Democratic Party of Afghanistan are far from resolved. The army is dominated by Khalqi officers, many of whom have grudges against the Parchamis led by President Najibullah.
A good example of the extent of the divisions on both sides is the coup plot discussed in July by the most radical of the exiled mujahideen leaders, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, with Kabul's Defense Minister General Shahnawaz Tanai. Under the plan, Tanai was to launch a coup with other Khalqi officers opposed to Najibullah and to seize power with the aid of Hekmatyar.
Both Najibullah and Hekmatyar's colleagues in the Afghan government-in-exile got wind of the plot, however. Tanai and a number of Khalqi officers were placed under surveillance, while others were jailed. Hekmatyar had to face the music from his angry colleagues and he later suspended his participation in the government-in-exile.
This incident and other reports of secret contacts between some of the mujahideen leaders in Peshawar and Kabul government officials have another dimension -- that of tribal links across the ideological divide. Hekmatyar and Tanai, for example, are Ghilzai Pashtuns, whereas Najibullah and many senior Parchamis belong to the rival Durrani Pashtun tribe that ruled Afghanistan for centuries before the 1978 communist coup.
At the same time, neither the Najibullah regime in Kabul nor the government-in-exile in Peshawar can count on the cooperation or support of the most powerful mujahideen commanders in Afghanistan. The most well-known of these commanders, Ahmadshah Masood, continues to fight for the ouster of Najibullah, but he also rejects the Peshawar-based guerrilla party regime as unrepresentative. Many other commanders apparently feel the same way as they have refrained from endorsing the government-in-exile.
Masood has organized a military and civilian administration among minority ethnic groups in the rugged northeast of the country centered on the Panjshir Valley in the Hindukush Mountains. He and most of his fighters are ethnic Tajiks, who represent perhaps 30 percent of the Afghan population. The various Pashtun tribes make up around 50 percent (some say only 40 percent).
Despite the best efforts of the United Nations and other would-be mediators, there seems little hope that the complex web of alliances and intrigues that characterizes the Afghan political scene can be pushed toward the formation of the broad-based Islamic and nonaligned government that all interested outside powers profess to support.
But one major problem, the lack of a symbol of national unity, can be resolved.
An independent survey conducted by Afghan journalists among the three million refugees in Pakistan found that more than 70 percent favored a return of exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah as at least a figurehead leader. Regardless of whether or not this survey is reliable, it is clear that the king is the only political figure who could serve as a symbol of national unity for Afghanistan. To exclude him from the search for a political settlement, as Hekmatyar and a few other mujahideen leaders demand, would be unconscionable.
Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan for 40 years during a time of relative peace and stability until he was overthrown in July 1973. Since then he has lived in exile in Italy, and he is now well into his 70s. He has said that he is ready to participate in forming a broad-based government in Kabul if he is invited.
Both the United States and the Soviet Union have had contacts with the king in apparent recognition of the useful role he could play. At least two of the leaders of the Afghan government-in-exile, including President Sibghatullah Mojaddidi, strongly support a major role for the king in any settlement, while some others do not object to his participation. The Najibullah government has also expressed readiness to include the king.
Earlier this month, Pakistan and the Soviet Union agreed on a draft resolution that calls for an end to the fighting in Afghanistan and talks on the formation of a broad-based government. The draft was to be presented to the United Nations General Assembly in November (1989).
But at present there is no way to bring officials from the two rival governments in Kabul and Peshawar to the same negotiating table. It would be equally difficult to attract guerrilla commanders from the Afghan countryside to the table. Kabul says it wants the mujahideen to join its regime and the guerrillas want to see that regime dissolved.
Perhaps the United Nations, with the support of the United States, the Soviet Union and Pakistan, could appoint Zahir Shah as chairman of an Afghan national conference, known as loya jirga, that would discuss the political future of the country. All participants with the exception of the king would be equal. There is little doubt that the three countries and the United Nations together would have the power to twist any recalcitrant radicals' arms and persuade them to participate in such a conference.
Erwin Franzen is senior editor of the Middle East Times. He has paid four visits to Afghanistan, one in 1972 before the ouster of the king and three with the mujahideen between 1984 and 1987.