The choirs of Kandahar
Robert Fisk – The Independent October 5, 2005
I returned to Afghanistan in the summer of 1980, flying into Kabul with a tennis racket and an unbelievable claim to be a tourist. The Khad attached a cop to me this time and I was taken under escort to the Intercontinental, where I paid him off in return for a taxi ride around the capital.
The dust hung in layers of heat over Kabul and the Soviet soldiers were now on the defensive, escorting civilian cars in long armoured convoys across the highways of Afghanistan, their airbase at Bagram now flying bombing sorties against the mujahedin every three minutes.
Soviets now occupied senior "advisory" positions in all the Kabul ministries, their large black limousines gliding through the muggy streets of the city at midday, curtains pulled across the back windows and plain-clothes men peering from the front passenger seats. The occupants were not the large, bulky commissars of popular mythology but, for the most part, small, respectable men in glossy grey business suits, narrow, slightly unfashionable ties and hair thick with oil, family men from an autonomous republic with five-year plans to meet.
In the stifling summer, the Russian soldiers were wearing floppy, wide-brimmed sombreros and their trucks jammed the streets of Kabul. Their " limited intervention" had spawned a spring offensive - that tactic beloved of all generals confronted by an armed insurrection - which had now turned into a full-scale military campaign. Helicopter gunships stood in rows five deep at Kabul airport. Four-engined Ilyushin transport aircraft en route to Tashkent turned all day over the city, trailing fuel exhaust as they banked sharply above the international airport to avoid ground-to-air missiles.
At the airport, the two faces of Afghanistan's revolution could be seen within 800 metres of each other. Above the main terminal building, the faded outline of January's triumphant greeting to Soviet troops could still be observed - "Welcome to the New Model Revolution" - although the 1.5m-high letters had long ago been taken down and the sun had bleached the red paint a drab pink. Just across the airfield, at the eastern end of the main runway, lay the other symbol of Afghanistan's revolutionary conflict: a Soviet SA-2 missile with a 130-kilogram warhead, a range of 50 kilometres and a maximum altitude of 50,000 feet; this was the same weapon used with devastating effect against US B-52 bombers over Hanoi in the Vietnam war.
And Vietnam was the word that more and more Afghans were using to describe their own conflict. President Carter and Mrs Thatcher were urging the world to boycott the Olympics in Moscow. Kabul's schoolchildren were refusing to attend classes since hundreds of them were taken ill; rebels, according to the government, had put sulphur in the schools' water supplies. A thousand children had been taken to the Aliabad hospital in one week alone. At night, gun battles crackled around the city as gunmen attacked Russian patrols and rival Parcham and Khalq party members assaulted each other. A doctor who was a member of President Karmal's Parcham party was shot dead while visiting a patient at Bandeghazi - within the city limits - but the police could not discover whether he was killed by mujahedin or by Khalq agents.
One of the cops assigned to me was a Khalq man who, in the privacy of the hotel elevator, suddenly burst out: "It is bad here and I am sick. We want Soviet help - we need it. But if anyone stays longer than we want - anyone, and that includes the Soviet Union - we will shoot them."
On 14 June, Karmal ordered the execution of 13 former Khalq functionaries for "hatching conspiracies against the state". Most were minor officials - Sidaq Alamyar, the ex-planning minister, for example, and Saeb Jan Sehrai, who was in charge of "border affairs" - while the deputy prime minister, Asadullah Sawari, who was head of Taraki's secret service, remained untouched. I was lucky to have stolen 48 hours in Kabul, albeit under secret police surveillance.
When I was taken back to Kabul airport for my flight out, an Aeroflot jet was standing on the apron, its fuselage evidence for Mrs Thatcher's profound cynicism towards the Soviets. The aircraft bore Aeroflot's proud English-language slogan "Official Olympic Carrier" on both sides of its fuselage, but from its doors it was disgorging Soviet combat troops, young men - some with blond hair - carrying their rifles in the hot sun as they walked down the steps.
They looked happy enough - one raised his arms towards the sun and said something that made his comrades laugh - although their chances of returning home in similar mood had decreased in recent weeks. More than 600 seriously wounded Soviet servicemen had been admitted to the Kabul military hospital, another 400 to Soviet clinics near the bus station at Khai Khana; of these 1,000, 200 had died - and this figure only included those who died of wounds, not those who were killed in combat. The dead were loaded in square wooden coffins aboard Antonov-12 aircraft and no one knew what they contained until a young Soviet soldier was seen saluting one of the boxes. Even the Khad secret policeman who followed me so assiduously agreed the Soviet army was experiencing "very big trouble".
But back in that chill February of 1980, I still had two days of precious freedom before my visa expired and I was forced to leave Afghanistan. I decided this time to be greedy, to try once more a long-distance bus ride, this time to a city whose people, so we were told in Kabul, had rediscovered their collective faith in confronting the invaders of their country: Kandahar.
* Extracted from 'The Great War for Civilisation: the Conquest of the Middle East' by Robert Fisk, published by 4th Estate on 3 October, £25. To buy the book at the special price of £22.50, including p&p, call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798897, or visit www.independent booksdirect.co.uk
Last updated 07/10/2005