11 FEBRUARY 1989, Page 11


Anatol Lieven takes a cup

with Afghan guerrillas in a devastated country

Peshawar We arrived in Ghaziabad towards evening, after a day's march through a deserted and largely desolate countryside. It seemed like a glimpse of an Afghan paradise under the mild winter sun: orange groves watered by streams flowing from the mountains, ave- nues of pine and eucalyptus, fields of opium poppy, and in the distance — for the idyll of a warlike people — the sound of gunfire.

The oranges and grapefruits of Gha- ziabad are the property of the Afghan state — wherever or whatever that institution may now be. They grow on the lands of four large state farms, established during a major state irrigation project in the reign of King Zahir Shah. Considerable care was evidently devoted to them. Nowhere else in Afghanistan today have I seen even the remnant of a modern agriculture. Today, their fruit goes to supply the mujahedin.

The younger ones of our party rioted in the groves like varlets in a king's garden,' clambering in the trees to shake down showers of ripe oranges. These state farms are also rapidly becoming a shadow of their former selves. They were not too much damaged in most of the nine years of war, being situated in a broad valley where the mujahedin could not safely operate, and where the Soviet and government forces therefore had no need of destructive air attacks. The buildings which had housed the managers and experts were, however, taken over by Soviet advisers and their families. Some relics of these — a few crumpled photographs, a torn and half- burnt book — can still be found there amongst their litter.

Two months ago the mujahedin, in a sustained offensive, swept down from the mountains and cleared the valley to within a few miles of Jalalabad. The lights of the city glow beckoningly against the night sky, as do those of Peshawar away to the south-east, across the Khyber Pass in Pakistan. The mujahedin, in the middle, live lives which seem very far away from those of both these local capitals. The state farms are littered with the debris of the December battle: shell- and bomb-holes, smashed armoured vehicles, heaps of ex- pended ammunition. In what was evidently a most satisfying conflagration, bulldozers and agricultural machinery joined the wreckage.

Mujahedin of all ages get a good deal of pleasure out of this kind of thing. Some of the buildings are burnt out. Others were stripped of everything that could be carried away and presumably sold. The bare rooms are occupied by the mujahedin, who have punched holes in the walls for the twisting chimneys of their stoves. The escaping smoke has blackened the walls, and the air is thick with it and the smell of unwashed bodies. The floors are deep in dust and rubbish.

Again and again in Afghanistan the impression returned of warrior bands squatting amidst ruins, in what seems sometimes the mere shell of a country. Both of the provinces I have visited, being next to the Pakistan border, have lost disproportionately high numbers of re- fugees, and in the absence of their care, and of water from now destroyed irrigation systems, much of the land is reverting to arid wilderness.

It is, however, an extremely beautiful country, and 'unspoilt' as we say. Evidence of economic development, or the activities of the modern state — except of course its military side — there is very little of, or at least very little left standing. It is the sort of place Western tourists might pay to trek in, and an atrocious one from which to have to extract a livelihood.

The inheritors of this desolation are the commanders and the representatives of Islam. Their authority is.democratic, in the sense that it seems to depend almost wholly on the respect of their followers, rather than appointment from above. Only once have I met a commander who obviously came from a different `class' from his men, and even he, in the field, lived no differently from them. Nor, at least in the Pakhtun area (the Tadzhik forces of Ahmed Shah Masoud are said to be more 'disciplined), is it easy to com- mand such men, in the sense that this would be understood in a modern regular army.

`Obedience' comes essentially from a mixture of consensus and individual force of character. As a mujahed put it to me in Peshawar, 'You know, all Afghans are lions, and one lion does not tell another lion what to do.'

Joint operations are laboriously arranged in personal discussions between commanders. This is what the endless tea-drinking of the mujahedin, it seems to me, is really about. In the course of my visits, I must have spent almost as much time drinking tea as marching, while the time spent under fire shrinks into insignifi- cance by comparison. This tends to drive journalists with deadlines to meet almost to the verge of madness, and would prob- ably do the same to any conventional generals who had to lead them.

It is over these cups of tea, however, that the commanders maintain the personal links with their men and each other on which the entire structure of the mujahedin military effort rests. In ruined and intact buildings, in fields, in a dugout before Kandahar and a cave outside Jalalabad, the immediate setting has been the same: a hollow rectangle of more-or-less dusty cushions, accompanied whenever possible with bolsters to lean against. Even in the furthest mujahedin position towards Kan- dahar airport, situated inside the concrete lock of a dried up canal, the entrance half blocked with the rubble of repeated bom- bardments, I found the same cushions and the same ritual.

This is the immemorial form of the Afghan mehmankhane, or hujra. The words mean guest room, but these rooms are in fact at the heart of Afghan male life. Everything that requires a meeting be- tween men not of the same immediate family goes on in them, so that the women of the family can be kept safe in their domestic prisons, unseen by outsiders. The ritual of cushions, tea, and formal greet- ings give a strangely courtly air to squalid circumstances and fairly rough company.

The sound of Afghans hawking and spitting after waking up has to be heard to be believed. On one occasion I escaped from it in the dim light of dawn only to fall into a sunken pen full of consequently irritated camels. As far as noises went, the difference was not readily apparent.

As to behaviour, I have seen no deliber- ate brutality in Afghanistan yet, except to animals, but by all accounts it has often

'Of course, there's no suggestion he ate them.'

been readily apparent when the mujahedin have captured cities. Both coarseness and ritual courtesy would have been present before the war. In Western armies in such a conflict, probably only the coarseness would survive. The survival of social rituals among the mujahedin is also a clue to their peculiar strength.

In most of Europe, and for that matter Asia, resistance movements have had to be constructed from the ground up. In Afgha- nistan, they stemmed directly from the nature of society — a warlike, feuding society, but one which has always re- spected certain clear forms and rules, aimed at achieving a consensus in matters of vital common interest. This mainte- nance of social forms has had its effect on mujahedin behaviour towards the ordinary civilian population. I have heard some stories of forced 'requisitioning' by mu- jahedin in 'liberated areas', but not nearly as many as the presence of such extremely wild young men with their forces would have led one to expect.

The utter conviction that they are fight- ing a holy war is also of course important: the mujahedin may be undisciplined in most things, but in one thing all of them. young and old, are regular as any army: at all the posts I have visited, whether 'Islam- ist' or 'moderate', the mujahedin have risen before dawn to answer the call to prayer. This is apparently very different from the attitude'to religious forms prevail- ing among Pakhtuns before the war.

The question of what will happen to these young men when the war against the communists is over is now central to the future of Afghanistan. I cannot see many of them returning to the boredom and the isolation of mountain villages, or at least not for long. They have got used not only to the free lives of guerrillas, but also to life in cities — both Peshawar and Quetta and the refugee camps, which arc in fact cities, and sometimes quite well-built ones by Pakistani standards.

A peaceful afternoon beside a stream near Jalalabad, the sound of bombardment thumping unobtrusively in the back- ground, was interrupted by the appearance of a gum-chewing youth crooning a Pakis- tan film hit, 'Turn Larki Number 1 Hat' (`You Are Number 1 Girl'). He himself probably does not realise how different he is from his fathers. An optimistic view would be that such youths will be able to find jobs in the formal and informal city economies on the strength of the aid that will flow in when the war is over.

It may be so, but it seems to me more likely that the only occupation that will support such youths in cities is that of gunmen in the service of their former commanders. It seems all too probable that they will not go short of work. That would be a sad ending for the jihad, with all its courage and suffering, but it can hardly be said that it would be out of keeping with Afghan tradition.