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Mainstream, VOL LV No 35 August 19, 2017

Graphic Account of Afghan Turmoil in the 1980s and Questions posed Thereafter

Sunday 20 August 2017, by Mahendra Ved



Whispers of War: An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s Account of the Soviet Invasion by Masood Khalili; Sage Publications, New Delhi; 2017; 275 pages; Price: Rs 495 (paperback).

Afghanistan’s Ambassador Masood Khalili is a born story-teller. This writer, whom he helped in the 1990s with information and insights in order to co-author two books, should know.

Even at the recent launch of his book, Whispers of War: An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s Account of the Soviet Invasion, he told an unknown story of how he foxed ‘sister’ Benazir Bhutto who summoned him from Kabul, whose special envoy he was, to “close down the Indian Embassy in the Afghan capital”. Benazir was then Pakistan’s Premier. Khalili says he “simply agreed” with her.

But he had “only one condition”. He told Bhutto and her colleagues: “You close the Indian Embassy in Islamabad at 9.30 am tomorrow, and I can assure you Kabul will do the same at 10 am.” The matter ended there.

Khalili himself became a ‘story’ – almost— on that fateful day of September 9, 2001 when two Al-Qaeda suicide bombers pretending to be journalists injured him grievously and snuffed out the life of Ahmad Shah Masoud, the legendary resistance commander of the Northern Alliance who was also popularly called the Lion of Panjshir. Khalili, sitting beside him as a translator for a would-be interview, was grievously injured. Two days later, Osama bin Laden’s men attacked the World Trade Towers in New York and unleashed a new wave of terror.

Long before he became Kabul’s envoy in New Delhi in the mid-1990s, to stay on for over nine years, a part of the period “in exile” since the Taliban seized control of his country, Khalili told himself, and his dear wife, stories in the diaries he maintained.

This was in the 1980s when he toured his country amidst cross-fire between the Soviet-backed government and the Mujahideen, the Islamist rebels. The diaries, eight of them, have been ably abridged and translated by his son, Mahmud, with quiet help from the mother to whom they were originally addressed.

India was on the “other side”, with Moscow, albeit with reservations, till the inevitable in the form of the Soviet forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan happened; and that contributed in no small measure to the breakup of the communist monolith. Yet, one cannot help empathising with Khalili and his people – more so because the conflict, one of the longest in world history, continues till today. Hence the question: will there be a dawn to the long drawn night of a troubled and war-ravaged Afghanistan?

THE first reverberations of the war that changed the fabric of Afghan society and altered the political landscape of the land-locked and what Khalili calls the “enemy-locked’’ country were felt when the Soviets invaded it in 1979. The face of the attackers or its surrogates may have changed in the three decades and more since then, but the country, that proudly resounded to the poetry of Rumi and other notables, is today singing elegies to the thousands who died in a war thrust upon it. It yearns for a future that will usher in the ever-elusive peace, end the era of terrorism, put a stop to foreign interference and allow its people to run their own lives.

The story of Afghanistan during the tumultuous 1980s finds a graphic account in the book by Khalili who first came to India as a student, then as an envoy and is presently his country’s ambassador to Spain. He left his wife and two sons behind in Pakistan in 1986, climbed mountains, forded rivers, rode horses, mules or donkeys (who were sometimes his only companions), lived on skimpy meals and traversed the countryside to mobilise the minds and hearts of people in the Resistance’s fight against the Soviet Red Army.

Brought out by Sage Publications, the book is a multi-layered tale—his as well as that of his country and its people. It is replete with home-grown philosophies, particularly those handed down by his father, the well-known Afghan poet laureate, Ustad Khalilullah Khalili, who had urged him to join the resistance movement, “live like an eagle even if it for one day and not like a crow even if it is forever’’ and “eschew from showing mercy to the wolf as it would be cruelty to the lamb”.

Although the battle against the Russians was won in the 1980s, the war didn’t end; instead, the country was gripped by “a new war and a new misery”. The Mujahiddin fighters, who won the war, lost the peace, the country slipped into a civil war in the early 1990s, the Taliban took control in the late 1990s and at different points of time and for different reasons other powers and countries, ranging from the United States and its NATO allies to Pakistan, Iran and Uzbekistan and forces like the Taliban and Al-Qaeda played stakeholders while Afghanistan bled and its people suffered and continue to suffer. China is a latter-day, but nevertheless the most important, entrant. Inevitably, “Afghanistan at Crossroads” has become the dominant theme of Khalili’s presentation and interaction.

WHAT would happen once the war against the Soviets was won? Rather prophetically, Masood says: “Every post-war situation is harder than even the war itself, especially in Afghanistan with its strategically difficult location. Undoubtedly, the fight for freedom is difficult but when you finally win freedom, you need stability and stronger leadership.”

“We have a government, we have parties but we have no leaders,” Khalili said during his book-launch, stressing the urgent need and importance of leaders with vision in shaping a country.

According to him, the problems Afghanistan faces today are manifold: there is poverty, political instability, insufficient rule of law and lack of security; the government is perceived as corrupt and neighbours like Pakistan are said to be openly interfering and encouraging terror.

“Always pray you have a good neighbour… because if you don’t have a good neighbor the whole neighbourhood gets affected,’’ said Khalili while underlining that it is imperative that Afghanistan becomes politically stable and strong so that no neighbour can “look at us”.

Where, why and how did things go wrong? Did the Mujahiddin pave the way for the Taliban? What are the challenges Afghanistan faces? Can the country get out of the vicious cycle of bloodshed, violence and terror? Is a solution anywhere in sight? What is the role of the United States and its new President Donald Trump? Where does India figure in all this?

Questions abound. But there are no easy answers to this seemingly unending conflict that is witnessing what is infamously called the fourth phase of the “Great Game”.

The reviewer, a senior journalist who worked in major newspapers in the Capital, is currently the President of the Commonwealth Journalists Association (CJA). He is also a columnist for The New Straits Times, Malaysia. He can be contacted at e-mail: mahendraved07[at]

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