A brief history of the war in Afghanistan
King Zahir Shah ruled Afghanistan for 40 years, from 1933 to 1973. He was not regarded as an inspired or imaginative leader, and indeed he hardly led at all, preferring to take it easy and to let the tribes govern themselves. Not much good was said about Zahir Shah at that time, but today almost all Afghans long for his return, considering what happened after he was removed from power.
In about 1955, the Government of Afghanistan approached the United States of America for military assistance. Afghanistan wanted not only weapons but also to send her officers to the United States for military training. President Eisenhower considered this request but rejected it. Eisenhower said that Afghanistan was too far flung in location. American interests did not extend that far. Every country was asking for hand-outs, and the line had to be drawn somewhere. Eisenhower decided to draw the line at Afghanistan.
But the friendly Soviet Union up north was not so reluctant. After being turned down by President Eisenhower, the Afghans, in spite having misgivings about their northern neighbor, decided to seek military assistance there. The Soviets were more than happy to oblige. They gladly supplied military armaments. More than that, all top officers in the Military of Afghanistan were sent to the Soviet Union for training, where they became fluent in the Russian language and familiar with Soviet methods for putting down insurgencies. The Soviet Union also generously gave Afghanistan two roads. One led from the Soviet border down the Western side of Afghanistan to Herat and then to Kandahar. The other came past Mazar, through the Hindu Kush Mountains via the Salang Tunnel, which the Soviets built, and into Kabul. The Afghans immediately noticed that the Salang Tunnel was such an engineering marvel that even tanks and armored personnel carriers could get through it. Meanwhile, the Americans built a road from Kandahar to Kabul and then to Jalalabad and to the border with Pakistan, almost to the Khyber Pass.
In 1973, King Zahir Shah decided to take a holiday in Italy. While away on vacation, his cousin, Daud Khan, who was also the prime minister, decided to seize power. King Zahir Shah did not return to Afghanistan and did not contest the matter. He remains in Italy with his two sons, Ahmed Shah and Nadir Shah, to this day.
On April 28, 1978, an international conference on education was scheduled to be held in Afghanistan. Educators from all over the world were scheduled to attend. Because of the shortage of hotel rooms in Kabul, the Government of Afghanistan issued a decree. All foreigners were required to leave Afghanistan before April 28, 1978. This would leave all the hotels empty, so that the international guests would have a place to stay upon their arrival.
The education conference never took place, because, on April 28, 1978, tanks and troops came through the streets of Kabul. The Soviet built aircraft of the Afghan air force strafed the Kabul Radio and Television station. Daud Khan was killed. A Soviet backed government took power. Of course, there were almost no foreign witnesses, as all foreigners had been ordered to leave Afghanistan by that day. That was the reason that the Soviet sponsored group had picked that particular day to stage their coup.
A handful of United States Marine Guards were almost the only foreign eye-witnesses. It happens that the US Embassy is located next door to the Afghanistan Radio-Television Station. The first place that the insurgent group attacked, even before they attacked the Royal Palace, was the Afghan Radio-TV station. Why? Because the largely illiterate population of Afghanistan, living in a predominantly primitive rural country without even working telephones or most other methods of communication, rely extensively on radio and television for their news. In short: Whomever controls the radio station, controls Afghanistan.
While others hovered inside in fright, the United States Marine Guards climbed to the roof of the US Embassy to watch the fire fight. Soviet built Migs were making strafing runs on Afghanistan Radio-TV. The guards later reported that every shot from the fighter jets hit the intended target. Not a single bullet hit the US Embassy. They had never witnessed such precision accuracy. Even the top guns in the United States Air Force would have been hard pressed to match such a feat. Obviously, the pilots in the Afghanistan Air Force were well trained.
The leader of the Air Force squadrons which attacked the Afghan Radio-TV Station was Colonel Abdul Qadir. He also attacked the Arg, the Royal Palace of Daud Khan. The tank commander on the ground was Colonel Aslam Watanjar. Together, the troops under them took Kabul. The fighting was over quickly. Daud was dead. They could have split the power between themselves, and Afghanistan would undoubtedly be much better off today had they done so. Instead, after several days of internal power struggles, a Party leader and Marxist scholar named Noor Mohammed Tureki was allowed to become the President of Afghanistan.
There were primarily two Marxist groups in Afghanistan: the Khalq Party and the Parcham Party. Tureki was the leader of the Khalq Party. Dr. Salim Mohammed Zari and Hafizullah Amin, a former graduate student at Columbia University, were members of the Khalq Party. The leader of the Parcham Party was Babrak Karmal. In order to establish a Communist government in Afghanistan, the Khalq and the Parcham parties agreed to split the power. Half of the top positions were given to the Khalq, the other half to the Parcham. There was a third Marxist Party, the Shurli Javid, which followed Chairman Mao, but it was given no power.
This arrangement proved to be short lived. Only a few months later, Tureki felt that the had consolidated his power enough so that he did not need the Parcham any more. He sent Babrak Karmal to be the Ambassador to Czechoslovakia. Other Parcham leaders were made ambassadors to India, Iran and Turkey. As to other Parchamis, Tureki killed them or put them in jail, in Puli Charqi Prison, to be exact. By August, 1978, Tureki even was able to have Abdul Qadir, the man who had put him in power, arrested and put into Puli Charqi. However, Abdul Qadir remained popular in the military. Tureki was afraid and did not kill him.
Everything about this period in the history of Afghanistan must be understood in terms of the rivalry between the more moderate Khalq and the more radical Parcham parties. For example, on April 28, 1978, Abdul Majid Sarbaland was an obscure school teacher in Kandahar. He was also secretly a member of the outlawed Parcham Party. Only five weeks after the so-called “Saur Revolution”, Sarbaland was made the Governor of Helmand Province and was sent to Lashkar Gah. It was Abdul Majid Sarbaland who ordered me to be arrested. However, not more than one month after that, Sarbaland himself was arrested and put into Puli Charqi Prison, where he remained for one year. Then, when Karmal came to power, Sarbaland was brought out of the prison and made the Minister of Radio and Television of Afghanistan. By 1984, Sarbaland was considered to be a possible future president of the country. Where is Sarbaland today? Who knows, but he is probably dead.
The United States Embassy staff in Kabul adopted a sanguine view of these events. Everything was hunky-dory in Afghanistan, the Embassy said. It was true that there were reports of fighting and killing out in the countryside, but that was of no moment. Those remote desert tribes had been fighting and killing for a thousand years, and would be fighting and killing for a thousand years more. This was nothing for the US to be concerned about. The important thing was to do business as usual with the enlightened leadership of Noor Mohammed Tureki and not to let anything get in the way of the friendly relations between the US and the Government of Afghanistan. This was the official US position.
However, it happened by coincidence that the US Ambassador to Kabul had been rotated just a few days before the coup of April 28, 1978, leaving a charge de affairs to fill the temporary gap. A new ambassador had not been assigned. After two months, the Foreign Ministry of Afghanistan started to protest. It wanted official recognition from the US. The US State Department patiently explained that it is no longer the US policy to “recognize” governments. The US deals with whomever happens to be in power, without expressing any opinion as to whether that government is legitimate or not.
Nevertheless, the Tureki government made an issue over the fact that no US ambassador had been sent. The US explained that this was just a scheduling problem. An ambassador had been selected. He just needed to complete his work at his present post.
Finally, in August, 1978, the new US Ambassador arrived. He was a likable fellow named Adolph “Spike” Dubs. While not an intellectually gifted man, Good Old Spike made good friends with the Tureki government. As a suitable gesture, that government even let me out of jail. Spike’s main qualification for the job of US Ambassador to Afghanistan was that he had been stationed in Moscow and could speak Russian fluently. Spike was happy to do business as usual with the enlightened government of Noor Mohammed Tureki.
Dubs was no doubt surprised when he was suddenly taken hostage. The hostage-takers presented a list of relatives whom, they said, were being held in Puli Charqi Prison. The Tureki Government, through its Security Chief, Syed Daud Taroon, replied that none of these individuals were in government custody. (Undoubtedly, they had already been executed.)
Apparently, the hostage-takers were even stupider than Spike Dubs (if such a thing was possible). Rather than spirit him off to Pakhtia, a tribal area where the government has never had much control, they holed him up in a hotel room in the run-down Kabul Hotel, while they presented their list of demands to Daud Taroon. Taroon was having none of this. Always a man to take the quickest route to achieve his goals, Taroon decided simply to kill them all. The US negotiator, Jim Taylor, was opposed to this. Taylor tried to meet with Taroon to explain that killing Dubs would not be a good idea. Taroon refused to meet. Taroon was a busy man. He had other things to do that day. Taroon gave the order. Surround the hotel room on all sides and simply fire AK-47s through the walls. Obviously, everyone inside the ill fated hotel room, which included Dubs, was going to be killed.
As it took several minutes to line up the gunners around the hotel room so that they would not shoot each other, Jim Taylor and the other US Embassy staff members conferred as to whether they should tell Dubs about all this. Perhaps, if warned, Spike Dubs could somehow duck or hit the floor in some way. Dubs knew Russian fluently, as well as German. The idea was to tell him through the door what was going on. However, this plan was rejected as “too risky”. It was possible that the mujahidin who were holding Dubs hostage also knew Russian and/or German and that this would cause a problem. As a result, Dubs was not informed.
The life of Adolph “Spike” Dubs ended in a blaze of gunfire, as shots from AK-47s ripped through all three hotel room walls. When the doors of the hotel room were finally opened, everyone inside was dead.
I knew Taroon well, because he was the man who personally had ordered my release from jail. In August, 1978, while wearing handcuffs and sitting with him alone in his office in the Wezarat-e Dakhila (Ministry of Interior), Taroon was talking on the telephone in Pashtu. When he got off the phone, Taroon said to me: “Do you understand Pashtu?”
“Not much. Just a little”, I replied.
Taroon said, “If you come again to Afghanistan, I will teach you.”
Thinking this to be a friendly remark, I moved closer. Then Taroon explained, “If you come again to Afghanistan, I will kill you.”
Taroon also told the United States Consular officer: “If Sloan ever comes again to Afghanistan, I will kill him.”
I was released from jail on September 3, 1978. I took Taroon’s advice. I never went back to Afghanistan.
In September, 1979, almost exactly one year later, there was a shoot out. The forces of Tureki tried to kill Hafizullah Amin, the Prime Minister. Taroon jumped in the way and took the first bullet, a bullet which was meant for Amin. The Amin group fired back, killing Tureki. Tureki and Taroon were both dead. Amin, a former graduate student at Columbia University in New York City majoring in Education, became president of Afghanistan.
Amin invited Herbert Penzl, a professor of Linguistics and German at the University of California at Berkeley who had written the definitive book on the Pashtu language, to come Afghanistan. Penzl went to Afghanistan and found Amin to be “supremely confident”.
This confidence was misplaced. In December 1979, the Soviets finally agreed to the persistent requests of Amin to send troops to Afghanistan. The first troop air transports arrived. The troops went straight to the Arg Royal Palace at Daruleman, where Amin was residing. The Soviet general in charge told the troops to guard the front door and to shoot anybody who came out of the palace.
The general went inside. He found Hafizullah Amin sitting at the bar with a beautiful Afghan girl. The general pulled out his gun and immediately shot dead both Amin and the girl. Wanting no witnesses, the general killed everyone else inside. He then went out the front door.
His troops had their orders. Kill anyone who comes out the front door. The Soviet general came out the front door. His own troops shot him dead.
With that moment, the history books say that the War in Afghanistan started. However, in reality, the war had already been going on for more than one year.