Afghanistan: a Million Deaths Later

Thinking About Nonalignment
The most divisive issue in the disarmament movement concerns whether to be "aligned" with one bloc or the other in the Cold War. Activists agree that it is our duty to address the abundant errors of our own bloc. But to make peace with the Soviets, should we avoid mentioning what we dislike about their policies?
This issue arises in relation to the Afghanistan War, the abuses of human rights in the USSR, and the lack of autonomy in Eastern Europe. Some activists avoid these topics, while others consider it important to treat both superpowers equally -- a view called "nonalignment."
In this issue, for the first time, PEACE is dealing with this topic in detail, in the following four articles. This is a contentious issue and, as an open forum, PEACE welcomes well-argued responses. This debate is important for us all to work our way through. [Ed.]

By Ted Dyment | 1987-02-01 12:00:00

THE BANNERS AND SIGNS WOUND THEIR WAY up one street and down the next. I was drawn to the window overlooking the spectacle by the shouts and chants of the crowd. There were about 300 people marching, mostly men. Many of their signs were in what looked like Arabic. The chants were in a strange language. Suddenly, they shouted in clear English: "Russians out of Afghanistan!"

My friend, also a peace activist, joined me in watching.

"We should be out there with them," I said. "If they're organized enough to protest, why didn't we hear about it? I wonder if any peace activists even know it's happening?

My friend grunted as the banners moved on, "I don't think peaceniks would be very welcome in that crowd."

The security door didn't work. The elevator to the eleventh floor was scratched up and stale smells rose from carpets. Paint peelings and cigarette butts mingled with fallen plaster in the halls. This was one of those highrises built for storing Toronto's poor. I was seeking Ahmed's apartment. Ahmed is an Afghan refugee who had invited me for dinner with his family. I'd come to interview him.

My interest in Afghanistan as a disarmament issue was inspired by Daniel Ellsberg's listing of America's most recent threats to use nuclear weapons. The "Carter Doctrine" of 1980 was forged at a time when the Iranian revolution (remember the American hostages?) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan had traumatized American strategic planners. It was in this destabilized atmosphere that superpower confrontation in the Persian Gulf area was officially raised to equal that of Europe. The Soviet move into Afghanistan was seen as part of a plan to gain a warm-water port in the Gulf. To discourage such a plan, U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown let it be known that America would not restrict its arsenal to conventional weapons to defend against any Soviet invasions from Afghanistan. This threat was reaffirmed, in essence, by Reagan in 1981.

My knock was answered with handshakes and a warm welcome. The aroma of Afghan food filled the air as thickly as the giggles and screams of Ahmed's children (who swarmed over their father throughout our ninety minute interview). Saida, his smiling young wife, spoke little English and spent most of the interview cooking.

With surprise, I discovered that Ahmed was the man who had led those protesters three years earlier. My friend's words hung in my head. Would he have welcomed us peaceniks? My experience with Eastern Europeans suggests that even people who had been tortured under Soviet rule do not always oppose peace activities, as long as the human rights question is given more than just lip service.

I told Ahmed of ACT For Disarmament, especially our policy of nonalignment with any superpower. I spoke of our support of jailed Soviet peace activists, while we organize against the latest Canadian or American contributions to the next war. I said that nonalignment is increasingly being adopted by peace activists, including the entire Québec coalition (minus Communist groups).

His response made me kick myself for not joining his protest when I had the chance: "You people are doing a great job. I am glad you are searching in the right way and collecting facts to help your people use good reason to fight against the superpowers. You are not doing it for America and not for Russia. You're doing it for the peace, for the sake of the people."

I told him that many in the peace movement are suspicious of conflicts supported by the Central Intelligence Agency, particularly in Afghanistan, where the CIA injects at least $250 million into the war, not including the similar amount apparently being spent by Saudi Arabia. This does little to add legitimacy to the Afghan rebels.

He agreed that the CIA's involvement means that "Russia's going to spend all their forces and energy on that conflict, and [many] people will be destroyed." But he also pointed out that a starving man is not very interested in where his food comes from, as long as he is fed.

"I'm not entirely saying that we're against America. Americans have good hearts and they feel sad about our suffering, and they try somehow to rescue us. We really appreciate that and we'll never forget that. They're the only force that can stand up against Russia, since they are both superpowers. Like at the summit, Reagan put pressure on Gorbachev. You and I can't go to that summit. They have the power to say to Gorbachev, ´You made a mistake.' If America doesn't say it, who's going to say it for us?

"So we appreciate this, and also the way they are supporting us by collecting money, clothes, food. But the CIA involvement is going to be dangerous for us. A lot of people don't like that; they say the CIA is like the KGB. I know that the CIA tries their best for us, but somehow that involvement... it's really hard to say."

I 'd heard the same defence given for Nicaragua's acceptance of Soviet aid in battling the American mercenaries. I did not stop supporting Nicaragua when the Sandinistas slagged-off Poland's Solidarnosc to ensure continued Soviet aid, so why should my support for the Afghan people falter when the Americans are the only straw at which they can grasp? Such moral quibbling is for those whose children are far from the battlefield.

It is like the pro-American attitudes of many East Europeans. They say to the peace movement, "I can't even get the Soviets to let my family come to the West, and you want me to support disarmament? Even if all the bombs disappear tomorrow, what sort of peace is that?"

If right-wing ideologues have monopolized solidarity with the victims of Communist terror, the peace movement has no one to blame but ourselves. We in the "left" remain silent. Stephen Lewis estimates that about one million Afghans have perished since the 1979 Soviet invasion. Amnesty International reports that torture by Afghanistan's government is often done in the presence of Soviet personnel. The U.N. estimates that over five million refugees now live in Pakistani and Iranian camps -- a third of the population of Afghanistan.

Out of this holocaust came Ahmed and his family.

I asked him why he stopped organizing demonstrations. He said that some of his family in Afghanistan got jailed.

I asked him what had happened to him in Afghanistan. He modestly preferred to speak of the Afghan people's struggle, but slowly his story emerged.

In 1978, Ahmed had finished his studies at Kabul University and was waiting for his diploma. By then, 200 students had been abducted and killed by the pro-Soviet government, headed by Taraki:

"I lived in a university dormitory. I knew that they attacked people during the night, so my friends and I slept in a house away from the university. They found out where we were, and at night they attacked the house. My friend and I jumped and escaped, but three people were captured. I don't know what happened to them.

"We went to a school and hid in a tank which provided water for the children. People were looking for us, but they never thought anyone would hide in the school, because armed guards were there. In early morning, when people went to pray, we sneaked out and went along."

Why had he come to Canada?. "Actually, it was when I was shot on the battlefield. I [was hit by] Russian bullets. I was a freedom fighter with 500 people under my command. Then I was injured and the people were attacked by the Russians. There was conflict between freedom fighters. Some of them put down their arms, because I had put this other guy in charge, but he was not capable.

"You have to be smart if you are fighting near the city of Kabul. I was fighting 33 kilometres north of Kabul. You have to study books about how other people struggled in other countries. We even studied books about Vietnam, because it's good for us to get experience. They were Communists, but it doesn't matter; I needed the experience.

"It's mostly in Kabul, where intellectual groups and educated people are fighting against the government. They do not belong to these fundamentalist groups.

"...We did many operations, like when we seized 500 machine guns from one of the Russian divisions. We had connections with militant [Afghan] officers, who would say, ´Prepare your groups and come during the night. We will kill the pro-Russian people who are in charge, and seize power over the division and we will go together.'

"After a while, the Russians killed the officers. They were our classmates and we knew them well."

Until recently, the covert war being waged by the West required that any arms sent to the rebels had to be untraceable. This meant that the weapons tended to be low-tech and with the appearance of Soviet bloc origin. Now, however, American Stinger missiles are sent to the resistance to deal with the planes and helicopters that stalk rebels.

How would this affect the rebels' fighting skill?

"...I wouldn't think [high tech weapons] work, because mostly the Afghan freedom fighters are not high trained people. High tech arms need high tech people."

I asked him about the deadly helicopter gunships.

"Doesn't work in the mountains. The mountains are a good strategic point for a freedom fighter. A tank can't climb a mountain. A helicopter can't shoot you if you are hiding behind a rock. All day they fly and can't kill anybody. Then at night you can attack again. Geographically, Afghanistan is very good for resistance. We can fight Russians 20 more years, with unity.

"But the Parties fight amongst each other, so a lot of people go over to the government's side. You see this in Lebanon: Moslems fighting against Israel are fighting amongst themselves. In Lebanon, you have media, but in Afghanistan, you have no media to find out what's going on between these freedom fighters. Everyone says, ´the Russians did this or that.' Russians are the main cause of problems, and they do very bad things, but the freedom fighters make a lot of mistakes, too. Why do they have twenty parties? They are in danger of losing their country, but they are crazy about having power in the future!"

From my reading, I had the impression that Afghan rebels were not just rebelling against the Soviet military occupation, but were also against the Western industrialized culture that came with the Soviets. I asked, "Is it so?"

"With the fundamentalists, yes. But the moderate Islamic resistance are pretty civilized people. They agree with development, and are not against the culture of Western nations. They need to collect knowledge and make their country prosperous."

He seemed to think that moderate parties were more popular than those of the fundamentalists. I thought this odd, given how frequently the fundamentalist Islamic parties are referred to by the Western media. I asked him if we in the West have misconceived the Afghan resistance.

"Yah! Because they [the fundamentalists] spend their money to do that."

What was he doing the day the Russian tanks rolled in?

"The day after we seized those arms, they attacked villages and killed suspect peoples. Whenever they point their guns they kill those people.

"[Most Afghan men owned guns] but then they said, ´whoever has a gun should return it to the government'. After that it was illegal to have guns. ... To have arms was part of tradition. After they said to give the guns to the government, they would kill anyone they found with a gun. Often they attacked and killed innocent people.

"They surrounded the village at night and in the morning searched the houses. When they found people over sixteen, they knew they were not pro-Russian, so they killed them. On July 19, 1980, they killed seventeen young guys in the same village....We were fighting outside. When we returned, we put them in coffins and buried them. Everybody was crying, mostly ladies from the top of roofs; they were screaming. Even as I remember this, I feel that my brain is burning.

"The villages were in the flat [area] where it was hard to fight unless we hid and attacked their soldiers when they were few. In a big attack against us, we had to go to the mountains. Then they killed the village people."

So, badly wounded, and with his subcommander botching the job, Ahmed decided to take his new wife to Pakistan and then on to Canada. But his problems weren't over. His family was to feel the Russians' bloody hand.

"At that time I became so sad. I'd lost many members of my family. When they attacked my house, they captured arms. All of my large family and friends were killed."

I asked him if the Russians struck his family because they knew he was a Commander of these freedom fighters.

"Yah. It's really hard. Actually it's really hard."

I want to encourage readers to honor the Afghan people by raising this touchy subject within the groups in which you move. Do so with the same courage that has allowed the Afghans to hold off the world's second largest military power for the past seven years... and counting.

What is the prospect of peace? Even Yuri Andropov said that the Afghan war was "bad for us, bad for our relations with neighboring states, bad for our standing in the Islamic world, and bad for our relations with the United States..." Within Afghanistan, Pravda admits that "far from all" Afghans, even among the working classes, accepted the Communist takeover.

In America, the obvious propaganda value of perpetuating the war with arms and training funnelled through Pakistan is losing ground to proponents of the "India Card." Through direct U.S. military aid, and by skimming aid sent to the freedom fighters, Pakistan's dictatorship has been able to create an arms build-up on its frontier with India, its long-standing enemy. The elected government in India has turned increasingly to the Soviets to help their economy and provide the technology to counter the Pakistani threat. With its army already 80 percent Soviet supplied, India's policies are increasingly aligned with those of the USSR. An alarm is being sounded within the U.S. state, warning of the growing imbalance of influence within India which, with its 700 million people operating the thirteenth largest manufacturing economy in the world, is quickly being recognised as a regional superpower. To lose such a plum to the Soviets may not be worth the continued focus on Pakistan and the Afghan war.

The result of these trends can be seen in the increased jockeying for position between the superpowers over the terms of a mutual pull-out from the war, including the nominal withdrawal of some 10,000 Soviet troops last summer (from the estimated 115,000 occupiers). Already, talks between the U.S. and the USSR have arrived at some basic agreements, namely: that the Soviet Union and the U.S. will observe the agreement, that the pull-out of Soviet troops will take no more than six months, and that all Afghan refugees will be allowed to return to their country. Everything appears to be primed and waiting for something to happen and, although an end may still be several years away, when the superpowers agree on something, they usually h ve their way.

Ted Dyment, a Toronto graphic artist, works with ACT.

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987

Peace Magazine Feb-Mar 1987, page 21. Some rights reserved.

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