Atlantic Unbound | November 2, 2001
The foreign correspondent Robert D. Kaplan talks about his days among the mujahideen, the killing of Abdul Haq, and why the U.S. must not be afraid to be brutal
Robert D. Kaplan was one of the few journalists who did cover the war, and during the mid- and late eighties he spent several long stretches of time in Afghanistan and in Pakistan's Northwest Frontier along the Afghan border, traveling with the mujahideen, getting to know their commanders, and filing reports for The Atlantic and other magazines. The result of his travels was Soldiers of God, first published in 1990 and being released in mid-November for the first time in paperback, with a new introduction and conclusion. His profiles of fierce mujahideen warriors who, as he wrote, "seemed an extension of an impossible landscape that ground up one foreign invader after another"; his in-depth consideration of the tribal tensions that have shaped Afghanistan; his observations of the mujahideen's tendency toward a pure, unpoliticized form of Islam which did not draw its power from hatred of the West—all provide valuable context for understanding the events in the region today.
Kaplan spent time with several of the mujahideen commanders, but the one he seemed to have the most respect for and the best rapport with was Abdul Haq, the Pashtoon leader who was executed by the Taliban last week, after sneaking into Afghanistan in an attempt to draw moderates away from the movement. Haq was once one of the three most effective military commanders against the Soviets, but at the time Kaplan met him Haq was efficiently organizing his resistance efforts from an office in Peshawar, having lost his foot to a landmine. Kaplan's portrait of Haq as a man who was a brilliant strategist, knew how to consolidate support among fellow Pashtoons, and had a fundamental understanding of the West—which he was frustrated by but not hostile to—makes it clear why his death is a profound blow to the U.S.'s efforts to replace the Taliban with a stable, less antagonistic government.
A decade after Kaplan wrote Soldiers of God, he returned to the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan to see how the region had fared during the intervening years, a trip he chronicled in "The Lawless Frontier," which ran in the September, 2000, Atlantic and serves as a coda to Kaplan's reissued book. What he found was that the anarchy and Islamic fundamentalism endemic in Afghanistan in recent years was seeping into Pakistan as well—a development that could eventually cause the country to break apart under the strain of "too much poverty and ignorance, too many ethnic and sectarian rivalries, too many pan-Islamic influences, too many weapons filtering back from Afghanistan." Though Pervez Musharraf's fragile government is now allied with the West, Kaplan observed during his travels that the sympathies of many Pakistanis, especially in the Northwest Frontier, lie with Osama bin Laden:
Low-walled fortresses of red brick were scarred with graffiti that read, in English and Urdu, LONG LIVE OSAMA BIN LADEN and WE WANT ISLAMIC LAW. Throughout the tribal lands of Pakistan people are naming their newborns Osama. To these people, Bin Laden represents an Islamic David against a global American Goliath.Pakistan, like Afghanistan, Kaplan believes, will not fade gently from the news.
Kaplan is a correspondent for The Atlantic Monthly, and has written several books, including Balkan Ghosts,The Coming Anarchy, and the upcoming Warrior Politics, to be released in January.
I spoke with him by telephone on October 19 and October 30.
It was very physically punishing and lonely. You kind of left your life behind when you did so. You left all your Western clothes behind. You bought a shalwar kameez, a traditional garment that I call a pajama suit, in the local bazaar in Pakistan. And you took very little with you—just toiletries, a short-wave radio, your notebook, of course, and that's about it. Just enough to carry in a light bag. Because any weight you had made it difficult. Anybody can hike, and anybody can climb high mountains, but what's hard to do and what these trips were all about was hiking and climbing high mountains for days on end with little food in your stomach. And often being sick, because of the little you did eat. We would eat boiled rice, turnips, some maize that we literally picked off the stalk as we walked through fields, green tea with very little caffeine content, and often that was about it. Because remember, Afghanistan in the eighties was a landscape of war, so there wasn't much harvesting being done, or livestock being grazed. So finding food was difficult. And often these trips would last weeks or even months.
Very rarely was the landscape green. I would define hiking through Afghanistan during the war with the Soviet Union—and it hasn't changed now—as like discovering Utah in the mid-nineteenth century. There are stories of how John Wesley Powell, the explorer of the Rocky Mountain West and the Colorado Plateau, had these adventurous hikes and journeys through the Southwest. The landscape of Afghanistan was very much like that.
On some of the more difficult stretches you must have wondered why you were there, and if you were ever going to come out.
Well, why I was there was easy for me, because I never enjoyed covering stories that many other journalists were covering. I had no ambition whatsoever to be one of a hundred correspondents at a press conference in the West Bank, hosted by Arafat or some Israeli general. So I always looked for stories where if I wasn't there, the story wouldn't have been covered. Afghanistan in the 1980s, though it was by far the largest war of that decade in terms of loss of life and the intensity of bombardments, was also among the least covered. The Soviet war lasted ten years. During that time there were several reasons why it received relatively little coverage. The overwhelming reason was the difficulty in getting to the story. In Lebanon and El Salvador the war front was very close to urban centers that were reachable by commercial airplanes, and it was close to luxury hotels. Whereas to cover the war in Afghanistan, you had to go from a Pakistani border town into Afghanistan and usually that meant walking, for weeks, over difficult terrain. A penniless freelancer was at no disadvantage compared with a staff correspondent with a huge expense account from a TV network or newspaper. The major newspapers and TV stations didn't cover it because they couldn't use all their money and resources to their advantage. This was before you could bring satellites in there, before e-mail. It was kind of an earlier, Kiplingesque era, where you literally had to copy things in your notebook and then come out with the story, and then type it up and send it to Telex.
Given your experience in Afghanistan, what do you think it will be like for the ground troops who go in there?
The first thing to recognize not just about Afghanistan but about any poor undeveloped country is that as big as it looks on the map, it's much bigger when you're there. You cannot cover large distances fast, because the roads aren't as good and it's dangerous. For instance, Sierra Leone is a tiny speck on the map of West Africa, but it's huge when you're there; it can take you ten hours to go forty miles. And Afghanistan in the eighties was even vaster, because you couldn't really use vehicles. Afghanistan is full of winding, tortuous canyons. It's a landscape more designed for special forces than for regular armies. But one advantage to the terrain is the lack of tree cover. Except in some oases around Kandahar and Jalalabad, it's generally a dry country. Again, think of Utah or the Colorado Plateau. The lack of tree cover makes it very usable for all kinds of surveillance. Obviously if someone's in a cave you can't do much with that. But in terms of human beings moving on the ground, they're very exposed.
How involved do you think the mujahideen will be in the war? Will they join with the Taliban troops?
I think we'll be fighting mainly a limited number of Afghan troops that are still loyal to Al Qaeda and the Taliban. By limited number that could still be in the thousands, but it is a minority of the number of armed people there.
So it's not going to be the same sort of thing that the Soviets faced.
No, the differences are great. It's really a deceiving partial truth to say we're getting into the same situation they were in. First of all, the Soviets had big goals. They wanted to occupy the country and run it according to their ideology—establish collective farms, etc. We really have little interest in how Afghanistan is governed, how religiously governed it is. All we want is a relatively minimal level of stability and a government in place that will not provide a base for anti-American terrorism. Those are minimal goals. Though the Soviets did use quite a bit of special forces, they mainly relied on regular army troops. We won't be doing that. And also we will be fighting against a government that for a long time now, for two or three years, has been terribly unpopular among its own people.
Much of this book was written more than ten years ago, and you admit in the new introduction that you were "caught up in the struggle to liberate Afghanistan, and my lack of objectivity shows." What do you feel you missed, or would have done differently?
Criticizing myself from hindsight, I would say I was too occupied with the now rather than what was coming next. I was concentrating too much on the war against the Soviets, and not enough on what extreme Islam was doing to Afghanistan and Pakistan. It was a problem of emphasis on my part. Another thing I just basically missed was the phenomenon of Wahabis, Saudi extremists, joining the mujahideen. It was a relatively small number of people, and because of that I assumed they weren't that important. It turned out they were.
But did you sense the tenor of the fight against the USSR changing as fundamentalists from other countries filtered in to fight with the mujahideen?
No, you couldn't notice it then. What really created Afghanistan as a kind of center for world terrorism was what happened in the mid-nineties, after I left. It was the failure of the mujahideen to consolidate a workable government that created a fundamentalist nightmare out of the chaos. Had the mujahideen managed to return Afghanistan to some stability, the Taliban never would have come to power, and we probably would not have had the problems we're having now.
You point out in your book that in the eighties the U.S. government supported the most extremist and anti-American of the mujahideen groups, led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, because that was the group that Pakistan wanted us to support—a decision that led indirectly to the rise of the Taliban. Could the U.S realistically have supported anyone else?
I don't think we could have. The problem with a lot of journalistic criticism of how the U.S. operated in the mid- and late eighties in Afghanistan is that journalists operate in this perfect universe, where every option is possible, while policy makers usually only have bad choices. And the bottom line was it was impossible to support the Afghans against the Soviets without the complete cooperation of Pakistan, because Pakistan provided the rear base. And Pakistan demanded a price. The price, though we were uncomfortable with it, was nevertheless still worth paying, in my opinion. Because what it led to was the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the liberation of Eastern Europe. To say that supporting the Afghans against the Soviets was not worth it is like saying fighting World War II was not worth it because it led to a forty-four year Cold War.
It seems like we're in a similar situation with Pakistan today—we're dependent on them, and therefore may have to accept an Afghan government that the Pakistanis are partial to.
Yes, we face the same challenge, and this is an issue that's going to come to the fore in the coming weeks and through the end of this year. Right now, as at the end of the eighties, we're between a rock and a hard place: on the one hand we have to support Pakistan, because the government of Pakistan has put itself out on a limb for us. The government of Pakistan now, like thirteen years ago, has taken a tremendous risk to openly promote American objectives. Nevertheless, what the Pakistani government wants now, as then, is ultimately bad for Afghanistan. Pakistan demands a government in Afghanistan that it can control. In the late eighties that meant a fundamentalist government. Now it doesn't so much, because there are some moderates whom the Pakistanis will accept. But, both then and now, the Pakistanis are insisting on Afghans who have little internal support and therefore are totally dependent on Pakistan. And what that led to the first time, a decade or so ago, was an Afghanistan so weak that it fell into chaos. And the same thing can happen again. The Pakistanis have been the instigator of much of the trouble in Afghanistan over the years and decades, yet at the same time we have no choice but to deal with them. That is the incredible policy challenge. The Pakistanis will not help us unless they are guaranteed basically a puppet government in Afghanistan. They want an Afghanistan that is pro-Pakistani and anti-Indian.
Your description of Pakistan—as a place rife with tribal and ethnic strife, sandwiched between India and Afghanistan and between its allegiance to the Taliban and dependence on the United States—makes one wonder how long it's going to be around.
The overarching issue in South Asia is the ongoing institutional meltdown of Pakistan. Right now we're focusing on a specific objective in Afghanistan—getting out a pro-terrorist government and capturing or killing terrorists. But this phase will not last forever, or too long. And then, even if we're successful we'll be back to the main problem of this region, which is the weakening of the Pakistani state. This is why I think that while Afghanistan may not stay in the news beyond another six months or so, Pakistan will be on and off the front pages through the decade. It will be a major story.
Pakistan's leader, Pervez Musharraf, seems to be in an especially difficult position. How do you think he's doing under the circumstances?
Well, it's impossible for a Pakistani leader under these circumstances to be more pro-American than he has been. It's an irony, but I will state it: the United States is fortunate, because there are two dictators who are in power. One is Musharraf in Pakistan. Let nobody be under any delusion: had we still had the democratic regime of Benazir Bhutto, we would be in a much worse situation now, because we wouldn't get nearly the cooperation we're getting, and the government we'd be dealing with would be far weaker internally. The other dictator is Islam Karimov, the ruler of Uzbekistan, who has allowed us relative carte blanche. And if Karimov had been overthrown or had held elections, as people had been demanding, Uzbekistan would be in even worse shape than Pakistan. It's another country where there seems to be no alternative except tyranny or anarchy. Because of two dictators, the United States is able to place troops on the ground, in places contiguous to Afghanistan. Karimov and Musharraf have really come through for us, and there is no chance whatsoever that any other kind of regime in either of those countries would have performed as well.
In writing Soldiers of God, you got to know various mujahideen leaders, especially Abdul Haq, who was executed last week by the Taliban. What are your thoughts on him and on what just happened?
I knew Abdul for more than a decade, and of all the Afghans I've met, he was the only one with real leadership qualities, other than Ahmad Shah Massoud. He was charismatic. He had a sharp, analytical mind; he got right to the point. He understood the West, probably better than any other Afghan, without being Westernized. He was counterintuitive, and ahead of the curve. In the late eighties he was already saying that America's support of fundamentalists was going to blow up in our face. He was talking about this before anyone was. He exuded strength and power. He was probably the Pashtoon most likely to have real support in Afghanistan and also to be able to make a coalition with the Northern Alliance, who represent different ethnic groups.
It was because of the support he had inside Afghanistan—particularly in the most important part of the Pashtoon region, which is Kabul and Jalalabad, where his family is from—that he was able to even contemplate going into Afghanistan and rallying Pashtoon defectors from the Taliban. None of the other purported Pashtoon leaders in a post-Taliban regime would even contemplate something like that. None of them were even in a position to think about it. Only Abdul Haq could do that, though it was a very desperate attempt.
The Pakistanis never liked Abdul Haq, because he had this support inside, and also because of his personality. He was very, how should I put it, he told you what he thought. He wasn't diplomatic. He didn't take orders, and the Pakistanis said, This is a man we cannot control. Because the Pakistanis didn't like him the Americans and the Brits couldn't help him, since the Americans and the Brits have basically decided to do what the Pakistanis want. So they were very cold to Abdul Haq and gave him no assistance. Of course, the moment the news came out that he'd been killed, the U.S. and the Brits and the Pakistanis were quick to say what a hero he was. There's a lot of hypocrisy going on.
How big a a setback is Haq's death to Afghanistan and to U.S. hopes there?
This was a real policy tragedy, in addition to a personal one, because whatever Abdul Haq's faults were, and they were many, there was no other Pashtoon with his credibility, internal support, and actual command battlefield experience inside. Now there really is no one on the horizon to unite the Pashtoons. What you have is the same squabbling, pathetic people who have basically led the country into chaos in the early and mid-nineties. It's a much more negative situation now that he's been killed. And this is why I would have hoped that the Brits and the Americans would have given Haq more support. If he had been given more support, diplomatic and otherwise, he might not have had to launch this desperate mission.
He recognized that the Taliban is kind of a generic word, it's kind of like Wal-Mart. You go into Wal-Mart and you find all these different products, some good, some bad. The Taliban is a bit like that. There are a lot of elements in it that would sign on to a much more moderate regime if they saw the balance of power shifting. So Haq saw some opportunity to wean away some of these people. It turned out to be a stupid move that he paid for with his life.
What does this mean now for the Taliban, and for how difficult it will be for us to get rid of them?
The bombing so far has ended the Taliban as a government, but they're still a guerrilla force, and rooting out a guerrilla force is harder. So we'll see where this goes. And they have obviously been strengthened by these killings. Ahmad Shah Massoud was like a myth, he was indestructible. The Russians could never find him, and yet if you're willing to commit suicide, you can get these guys. They got him, then they got Haq. In the minds of the Afghans this means that the Taliban is strong, and people go with who's strong. That's how it works in parts of the world where institutions are weak. And this builds up their aura of power. The only way to tear it down is to be very brutal, unfortunately.
But politically, how brutal is the U.S. in a position to be?
Right now we're in a serious bind. We're under a lot more constraints than they are. For them, public opinion doesn't matter. They'd be willing to kill large numbers of civilians. So the fact that we're not doesn't mean that they respect us more. They respect us less for it. But we can't operate the way they can, there would be a loss of public support. So it's going to be very difficult.
What's going to impress the Taliban and the Pakistanis is our ability to be tough and not be dissuaded by the fact that here and there we accidentally kill civilians. What Americans can't face is that one of the reasons that the Russians and the Chinese were so impressed with us during the Cold War was the fact that Nixon and Kissinger went on bombing despite public reaction. That's the kind of thing the Taliban respects. I think we're going to need significant patience.
In order to win the Cold War, the U.S. had to take an "end justifies the means" approach—in supporting terrible, but anti-Communist regimes, and supporting anti-American fundamentalists in Afghanistan in order to help them defeat the Soviets there, and so on. Will it be necessary to take a similar approach to contain terrorism? Do you think the public these days has the stomach for this sort of thing?
Let me answer it this way. We needed to be at our most flexible when we were at our weakest point. In other words, When were we negotiating arms deals with the Soviets and yet supporting bad regimes within Greece and Chile? In the sixties and seventies, when there were demonstrations at home, when America was divided, and when the Vietnam War was lost. When the Communists seemed at their strongest and we were at our weakest. That forced us to be incredibly flexible in our methods. But when we were strong in the Cold War, in the eighties, Reagan had the luxury of being inflexible and more clear cut. I always say that the only difference between Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon was that Reagan was lucky and Nixon wasn't. Nixon just happened to be President at our weakest moment, and Reagan just happened to become President when we were strengthening. So let me apply that to your question. The more we maintain the upper hand, the less flexible we'll have to be. But if there are, God forbid, more attacks against us and this war drags on for years and years, or if terrorism becomes a kind of chronic ailment of the international situation, that is going to force us into similar levels of flexibility and into cutting all kinds of deals over the long run.
Do the American people have the stomach? I think that the more vulnerable they are, the more stomach they'll have. We've seen in recent weeks how even people on the left have come out in support of the war. I was at a Quaker college in Ohio the other day, and Quakers, as you know, are pacifists. Well, they're reexamining their pacifism in this particular instance, which is an incredible thing. This is all the result of September 11. Now, imagine if we were attacked again in a big way. I think that would move the U.S. population to an even greater war footing in terms of public opinion. In that case, I think the American people simply aren't going to care about the significance of civilian casualties. The reason I say that is because we weren't very concerned with civilian casualties in Germany and Japan during World War II, and that was because we were threatened. I don't think Americans would get frightened into compromise; I think quite the reverse.
You describe Central Asia as a potential shatter zone of collapsing states. Even if we are successful in taking power away from the Taliban and making Afghanistan inhospitable to terrorists and terrorist camps, do you think it's likely that another country would soon fill Afghanistan's role?
Terrorism can go anywhere where there is not strong government, or government that cannot control its hinterlands. Wherever you have weakening states and turmoil, you will have a fertile petri dish for terrorism. So it's certainly possible that we could win in Afghanistan and then months or years down the road see a rebellion in Central Asia that will lead to terrorism there. Because the key thing to remember about Central Asia is that while the Soviet Union collapsed ten years ago, Central Asia is the part of the ex-Soviet Union that has still not gone through a transition. It is still being run by these ex-Central Committee men, Communist dictators from the Communist era, who have not really reformed at all. And that cannot last forever. Ultimately people like Islam Karimov in Uzbekistan will go. What will replace them will probably be more unstable, and that will present a real foreign-policy challenge for the United States.
Knowing this, is there anything we can do proactively?
Well, do you ever have that experience in life where you can see things coming but you don't know what to do about it? Foreign policy is like that, too. You know what's going to happen, and yet there often isn't much you can do about it. The U.S. just can't micromanage the internal political transition of all these places.
Links referenced within this article
Soldiers of God
Soldiers of God
"The Lawless Frontier,"
The Coming Anarchy,
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