There was not much doubt in my mind that Barak Atullah, the Hizb-e-Islami brigade commander, was a man to take seriously. So I listened to him during those October evenings in 1985 when we talked about all sorts of topics in the spartan officers’ mess at his base camp on the southwest shoulder of Tora Bora.
I was there for two reasons: to see if I could come up with something for the Washington Post and to assess the capabilities and aims of Afghan-fundamentalist Gulbadin Hekmatyar’s troops for my friend and interlocutor Gen. Richard G. Stilwell at the Pentagon. Stilwell got his report, and I got a piece in the Post titled, “The Afghan War Is Over When the Afghans Say So.” That is worth repeating because I can guarantee that many of the Afghans I know do not think the latest Afghan war is over by any means. Now that we have invaded and embarked on the occupation of another Islamic country, the views, attitudes, and perspectives of Barak Atullah and his cohorts among Islamic fundamentalist armed cadres prey on my mind.
One of the things that surprised me, not only about the brigadier but also about the entire brigade officer corps, was the length of time they had been in the field. I had assumed that these units had begun forming up, if not subsequent to the Soviet invasion in December 1979, then at least no earlier than the Soviet-engineered Tariki coup in the fall of 1977. But it turned out that most of the officers and many of the troops had defected from the Afghan army and gone into their mountain redoubts as early as 1973 and in no case later than 1976. For more than a decade, they had been enduring the privations of life in the bush, organizing defenses, and preparing strategies that would ultimately lead them to success against the overwhelmingly superior forces of a global superpower.
According to Barak Atullah and his officers, though they were well established in the field and had lines of communication, supply, and intelligence firmly developed, it was more than two years after the Soviet invasion before Hizb-e forces began to mount serious organized operations. They explained this by alluding to the Soviets’ vastly superior technology and training and emphasizing their need to observe and monitor the Russians as they normalized their presence and established day-to-day routines. Only when they felt certain that the enemy had betrayed his vulnerabilities and weaknesses did Hizb-e do anything beyond small unit ambushes against targets of opportunity. As history records, once they began to move on the Soviets, the Hizb-e mujihadeen were a formidable and effective military adversary.
When queried regarding the conceptual framework behind this remarkable patience, the soldiers and officers of the brigade always referred back to the notion that they were serving a cause that was, to them, genuinely and explicitly sacred. In one sense, this idea of being on “God’s time” led to an extraordinary degree of patience and a willingness to see their villages overrun and occupied as they watched from their mountains with disciplined quiescence. Of at least equal importance is the sense that God’s time eliminates the need for “closure,” that grail with which contemporary Westerners, particularly of the American variety, can justifiably be characterized as obsessed.
Hence the alacrity with which the Bush administration declared and trumpeted its famous victory in Afghanistan before it had even secured the countryside, let alone stabilized the Afghan polity, economy, and society. By contrast, to the Hizb-e officer corps, this war, or more accurately, this phase of the ongoing war against Western intervention, can be safely said to have not yet begun. To have war, in the mind of Barak Atullah, invasion must be followed with resistance, attack with counteroffensive. Hizb-e and other like-minded organizations may be two or three years, perhaps more, away from launching a genuine counteroffensive and coherent resistance. But as long as they remain alive and can get their hands on weapons, they will surely do so.
As surely as the American soldiers and society will want to win and go home, these men do not need victory or closure in any comparable sense in order to justify their ongoing fight. Jihad means many things besides war, but when it means war, it speaks of war in which victory is already and timelessly assured. The mujihadeen, in this sense, buy into their mandated piece of the open-ended struggle between Good and Evil. Adversity, discouragement, and setbacks are never defeat; defeat is an epistemological impossibility except in the event that one ceases to believe. This is what accounts for that amazing patience and willingness to endure harsh conditions while maintaining extraordinarily high morale that characterizes the Afghan mujihadeen.
If he is still alive, Barak Atullah is in some very well-fortified camp somewhere just inside the Iranian or Baluchi border. He is secure because local authorities are either sympathetic or have been bribed or intimidated, and to the Iranian or Pakistani governments the cost of taking out his base camp is prohibitive. Through his complex information-gathering network based on family and tribe, he is closely monitoring what is going on in Afghanistan. With his shortwave radio he is keeping fully abreast of what is happening in the world. Deutsche Welle used to be his favorite news service, but he knows something about the utility of scanning a variety of sources that his adversaries do not. He is carefully sifting through all of this and will occasionally go to very secure and low-profile leadership conferences as he devises a campaign to punish the latest set to invade his homeland. It is not his job to drive the “coalition” out; his job is to make them pay. Allah will see that they are driven out when it is his will to do so.
Barak Atullah is not a terrorist. It is inconceivable to him that he would come and attack New York. But he probably admires bin Laden much as he hates him for being another one of those foreigners who bullied his way into Afghanistan only to bring bloodshed and hardship to the Afghan people. He no doubt hated the American invasion of Iraq but not as much as he loves it because it disperses and therefore weakens his enemy. He no doubt expected that; it is the nature of Westerners that once they have tasted Muslim blood and touched Muslim treasure their appetite becomes insatiable. But this is always their downfall.
The connection between a man like Barak Atullah and events now unfolding in Iraq goes beyond strategic questions of dilution of his enemy’s forces and efforts. Unlike his Hazara (Shi’ite) or Turkomen counterparts, as a Pathan, he would have no ethnic or tribal ties to anyone in Iraq. As a Sunni fundamentalist, he utterly despises Saddam Hussein, something he made clear to me in 1985, and he would undoubtedly consider the current situation in Iraq to be the best of all possible worlds. He is realistic enough to know that the U.S. will eventually get Saddam, but he would be equally sure that the Anglo-Saxons would never be able to secure and stabilize Iraq.
He knows that because he is something of a borderlord himself and understands what borders do and do not mean in his part of the world. To him, the lines drawn by Mr. Durand, or Messrs. Sykes and Picot are an artifice of European invention, splitting tribes and ethnic groups, slicing through millennia-old patterns of commerce and migration, and impossible to secure.
So morale is likely to be very good right now in the Hizb-e camps; patience is rewarded with improving opportunity. God’s time is unfolding. It’s probably not time for any major offensive yet; certainly the U.S. Special Forces troops are at least as tough as the Soviet Spetznatz and far, far better equipped. So perhaps it would be good to wait a while; maybe rocket a compound somewhere, kill another one of Karzai’s lackey ministers, or blow up a bridge just to let your people know you’re still out there. The U.S. may need its Rambo guys in Iraq or for Kim Jong Il, or to go and snatch the nukes in Pakistan when Musharraf goes; the way things are going, the U.S. probably will not be able to keep them here too much longer. In the meantime, it is a good idea for Hizb-e fighters to wait and see what happens; they’re good at that. Then they can go and make no-quarter war in Afghanistan on God’s time; they’re good at that too.
Reflecting on how Barak Atullah might view his situation and the events now unfolding brings to mind some of the other Muslim fundamentalist fighters and leaders I encountered in those days. I suspect that the Ayatollah Koosrushahi, the Iranian legate to the Vatican and the man many identified as the mastermind of Iranian terror, or Muhammad Hamid Abu Nast, the Supreme Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, or Hekmatyar himself would each view events now unfolding with a great deal of enthusiasm and optimism.
Like Barak Atullah, they would enjoy the downfall of that Stalinist Saddam. They would rejoice in the daily weakening of the moderate Arab regimes they despise. The increasing diplomatic isolation of the Anglo-Saxons and tremendous revulsion for the U.S. growing among the peoples of the world would be seen as just retribution for appalling arrogance. They would see Bush’s malaprops about “crusades” and his administration’s alienation of all sectors of the Muslim community as a gutting of the organism of the War on Terror, which, a year or so ago they would have seen as extremely dangerous to them. They would know that the army and police colonels who know them best, and whose collaboration with the West is indispensable to the counterterror campaign, will be further mired in ambivalence each day that U.S. occupation of the Muslim heartland proceeds. n
Jim Pittaway is a freelance writer who has lived and worked in the Middle East. His work has appeared in the Washington Post and the Atlantic Monthly. He lives in Missoula, Mont.