NON-FICTION: AFTERMATH OF THE BATTLEFIELDS

Published September 1, 2017
A 1980 photograph of various Afghan Islamist groups in Peshawar that began gathering in Pakistan after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 | Dawn file photo
A 1980 photograph of various Afghan Islamist groups in Peshawar that began gathering in Pakistan after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan in 1979 | Dawn file photo

Whispers of War: An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s Account of the Soviet Invasion is a compilation of diary entries, written over a 10-week period in 1986, by Masood Khalili — diplomat, poet and former member of the Afghan Mujahideen. Currently serving as Afghanistan’s ambassador to Spain, Khalili was a member of the Jamiat-i-Islami faction of the Mujahideen and a close associate of Ahmed Shah Masood. So close, in fact, that he was present with the commander on that fateful day when the latter was assassinated by Al Qaeda agents posing as journalists. Khalili was severely injured in the attack, losing sight in one eye and ending up with over a thousand pieces of shrapnel in his legs. His survival was miraculous. He subsequently went on to make a career as a diplomat.

The diaries date from the height of the war against the Soviet Union, when Khalili begins his journey from Chitral in Pakistan, traversing six provinces in Afghanistan before ending his sojourn in a small village, Kayee Dera, once again near the border with Pakistan. Along the way, Khalili meets a raft of memorable characters, from an old Afghan refugee in Chitral who prays for patience and claims that he could be happy anywhere, even in a refugee camp, to the 22-year-old Nooristani who wants to buy his fiancée a radio so she can spend her time listening to Indian film songs instead of worrying about the war. The book is peppered with these little character sketches that serve to distract from the more difficult underlying theme — Khalili’s bearing witness to the misery and deprivation that war wreaked upon his beloved country.

While the people he encounters are almost without exception hospitable, welcoming and dignified, there is no getting away from the desolation of the Afghan countryside and the grinding poverty in which these isolated communities exist. It is heartbreaking to think that more than 30 years on, things may not have changed much for the communities Khalili visited all those decades ago.

A former member of the Afghan Mujahideen recounts his experience of living through a war

From a Pakistani’s perspective, the book also makes for difficult reading as Khalili’s suspicion of, and hostility towards, what he sees as Pakistani machinations in Afghanistan is evident throughout. On the 10th day of his journey, Khalili enters a village in Nooristan, near the border with Chitral, where he encounters a village headman who follows a “newly imported” from Pakistan, Salafi school of thought. During his conversation with Khalili, he is interrupted by three Arabs who rudely question Khalili on his work and mission in Afghanistan, and also want to know why he is travelling with Europeans (whom they classify as unbelievers). Khalili reacts with rage — aghast at being questioned by foreigners in his own country. But it is also clear that, for him, this encounter is an early realisation of the tortuous path his country’s freedom struggle would take.

This sense of foreboding dogs the account throughout. In almost every village that Khalili enters, he comes across mothers who have lost sons to the war, children who have suffered horrific injuries and villagers weary of endless strife. In an interesting sequence, he ponders over the thoughts of the pack animals — the donkeys carrying their luggage and supplies across mountain paths — his group is using. He wonders if the donkeys, too, think that war is futile and that humans are wasting their talents attacking each other like this.

Perhaps the most insightful sections of the book begin after a month of travel, when Khalili finally meets up with commander Masood. Here, again, their discussions on Pakistan will be of interest to domestic readers. They talk about how they don’t know whether the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) is their friend or a hostile agency, and they discuss how the agency seems to be wary of Mujahideen commanders — such as Masood — who are too independent. At the same time they agree that they cannot afford to alienate the ISI. The record of the discussions with Masood is full of obvious affection and reverence for the commander and often touches upon on the personal. Masood talks to Khalili about his family, his school in Kabul, and his love of poetry, football and good coffee. After two weeks with the commander, Khalili once again moves off, this time heading back to Chitral via Nooristan.

The most poignant section of the book is the epilogue, written just a year or so ago, in which Khalili looks back on the last 30 years. He recalls his compatriots victoriously entering Kabul in 1992, having seen the Russians withdraw three years earlier, and finally defeating the communist regime that they left behind. But in no time at all, this victory is rendered bitter as the worst civil war in Afghanistan’s history engulfs the city. Then comes the Taliban government with its unique brand of fundamentalist ideology that provides space to Al Qaeda to take root in the country. Post 2001, with commander Masood having been assassinated, war in Afghanistan takes on new forms.

Khalili is quite clear about the reasons behind Afghanistan’s unfortunate recent history. He blames corrupt Afghan leaders, interference from neighbours (particularly Pakistan), forces of global terrorism and the West’s abandonment of Afghanistan post the Russian withdrawal. None of this is new, yet these are also facts that are difficult to refute.

Yet, through all this, Khalili continues to have faith in his people and believes that the Afghan nation will rise once more. To him, the inherent dignity and pride of the Afghan people will carry them through and they will march on towards a better future. For all of our sakes, not least for the sake of Pakistan, one hopes his optimism is not misplaced.

The reviewer is a research and policy analyst

Whispers of War: An Afghan Freedom Fighter’s Account of the Soviet Invasion
By Masood Khalili
Sage, India
ISBN: 978-9386062772
300pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, September 1st, 2017

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