The Afghan Resisters in a Holy War : Testimonies of Battle, Torture

<i> Lally Weymouth is a contributing editor to Opinion. </i>

Pir Syed Gailani used to be a religious leader in Afghanistan. That was before the Soviets invaded his country in 1979 to impose a regime led by Babrak Karmal. Now Gailani is a leader of one of seven Afghan resistance groups that have been fighting the Soviets for the last six years. Although President Zia ul-Haq of Pakistan recently told me that he believes the Soviets may be genuinely interested in reaching a political solution to the war in Afghanistan and withdrawing their troops, Gailani doesn’t believe the Soviets have such benign intentions.

He explained: “We consider the rumors of Soviet interest in troop withdrawal from Afghanistan a game to attract U.S. attention, so the U.S. might say, ‘OK, why all this assistance, if the Soviets will pull out?’ ”

Gailani met me in Islamabad, wearing a blue Western suit; his son Hamad sat at his side and helped with translation. His real base is the Pakistani town of Peshawar, where moujahedeen resistance leaders and fighters gather when they are not inside Afghanistan.

Gailani fled to Pakistan before the war, when the pro-Soviet forces began their campaign in advance of the 1979 Soviet invasion. At that point, he took up what he calls the “holy jihad” -- the war to oust the Soviets from Afghanistan. “My religious duty,” he said, “is to save the nation from the yoke of communism. They are anti-Islam, and we are anti-communists.”


The only hope for Afghanistan, according to Gailani, is for the West to increase aid to the moujahedeen. “If military pressure were imposed on a broader scale against the Soviets,” Gailani argued, “then they might seriously consider withdrawing. We see signs they are tired. By increasing the aid, the time to a withdrawal might be shortened.”

Although Zia has argued against such escalation, some U.S. analysts agree with Gailani. Sen. Gordon J. Humphrey (R--N.H.) is a leading advocate of increased assistance for the Afghan freedom fighters.

The main military problem for them, Gailani said, is the Soviet mastery of the skies, allowing them to use their air force with devastating effect, killing moujahedeen and bombing near the Pakistani border to prevent supplies from going into Afghanistan. “Their supremacy is in the air,” he said, and to counter it, “the West must increase the number of sophisticated weapons it gives to the moujahedeen-- anti-aircraft and anti-tank weapons.”

‘I’ve decided to stay and fight. I worked hard to become a doctor. I quit because I wanted freedom for my country.’


Gailani doesn’t believe Soviet-inspired propaganda claiming that the United States and the Soviet Union will strike a deal on Afghanistan over the heads of the moujahedeen. “We don’t believe the Administration would exclude the freedom fighters or isolate them in a regional agreement with the U.S.S.R.,” he said.

“If you isolate the moujahedeen today, you compromise Afghanistan. Tomorrow, the Soviets will step in somewhere else like Pakistan or Iran. We are not their final destination. Afghanistan is just a bridge for their achievements,” he warned.

“It is our faith and our strong belief that have kept us fighting,” Gailani said. He pointed out that the Soviets have used every means to break the will of the resistance--mines, chemical weapons, everything except the atomic bomb. He told of Afghans being buried alive with bulldozers brought in to cover them with dirt. He told of torture, of small children having their intestines torn out.

What political solution would satisfy the resistance? “We won’t compromise,” the Afghan leader said. “We won’t be a second Finland. We were and will remain a nonaligned country. A Soviet-controlled country will not satisfy us.”

Gailani’s perception is that while the Soviets are talking more softly, they are fighting more brutally and effectively. His view is shared by other moujahedeen leaders, including Dr. Shah Rukh Gran who met me in Peshawar.

Peshawar is the last stop on the way from Pakistan to Afghanistan--the gateway for both men and supplies. It’s also the arrival point for Afghan refugees fleeing Soviet terror. Peshawar is the Beirut of the Afghan war--but the war is being fought in another country and there is an absence of a world press corps to cover the battles. Pakistan is remote and Peshawar is particularly remote; in this Islamic city a visitor rarely sees a woman.

Gran, a military commander with the Gailani group, was taking a few weeks off from the war. He said the Soviets have been fighting harder during the last year. “They are able to replace their casualties and get more troops. “They have supplies. We’re doing our best, but if they lose one tank, they can bring in two more. If we lose one gun, we may not be able to replace it within a year.”

Although dedicated to the struggle, Gran is worried about time being on the side of the Soviets. The moujahedeen may be worn down, he cautioned, or the Pakistani opposition might come to power and cut off aid to the resistance. He dropped the bravado of most resistance fighters and said simply, “If you know there is hope, you have morale. If you start hitting your head against a wall and find it’s hopeless, you start to lose morale.”


Echoing Gailani, Gran said the moujahedeen urgently need anti-aircraft weapons, plus mine detectors, clothing and training. Increased Western aid, he said, would at the very least make the war expensive for the Soviets.

Gran practiced medicine in Kabul before the Soviet troops invaded. He continued his practice after 1979 but worked after-hours for the resistance--a dangerous pursuit. His house was once searched for weapons. He avoided arrest in 1983 through a tip from a sympathizer in the secret police and fled to Pakistan.

He said he could go to the West and practice medicine, a profession he loves, and marry his fiancee, a woman who lives in Atlanta. But, he explained, “I’ve decided to stay and fight. I worked hard to become a doctor. I quit because I wanted to gain freedom for my country--because I couldn’t see the Soviets inside Afghanistan.”

“If Russian soldiers started to walk in New York and kill your parents,” he told me, “then you would start to fight for freedom. I’ve seen people tortured in prison--needles put between their nails and their skin. I’ve treated a person tortured by electric shock as well as a girl injected with something to cause pain in her joints. I’ve seen people who’ve lost their minds through torture.”

Does religion motivate him more strongly than political ideology? It’s a mixture of the two, he said: “Islam and Nationalism are mixed. They are communists, so we fight them from a religious point of view. Moreover, they have invaded our country. It’s freedom and religious beliefs. It’s also a revenge for those who have been killed, for families who have suffered. They didn’t have any right to take over our country.”

In the Afghan Surgical Hospital at Peshawar lay wounded moujahedeen, members of an extremist resistance group with ties to Iran.

One whose arm had been amputated told me he wanted to return to Afghanistan. “Why should I not fight?” he asked. An injured 24-year-old put it this way: “I don’t bother about my life. I want to offer my head.” Speaking in Farsi, he called for better arms, saying it is impossible to shoot down Soviet planes with rifles. And days later the United States reportedly decided that anti-aircraft Stinger missiles would be made available to the Afghan resistance.

Although such arms are welcome, the young moujahedeen told me he saw no difference between the Soviet Union and the United States. He claimed the United States is supporting Muslim freedom fighters only because they are anti-Soviet and he accused America of victimizing Muslims in other parts of the globe: “In Palestine, it is the U.S. which is supporting the Jews to kill Muslims.”


The Nasir Bagh Refugee Camp on the outskirts of Peshawar is where some of the 3 million Afghan refugees are housed. Afghan determination is being taught there to the young. About 30 children, ages six to eight, stood in a classroom. Their teacher said she was teaching them “that they came to Pakistan due to the atrocities of Soviet forces. The Soviets are irreligious--their enemy.”

A young girl stood in front of the class and led the others in singing: “Give me my gun. I’m going to the jihad. Children of martyrs that have many hopes. Let’s win our objectives by going into the field.”

To meet Gailani and his allies is to encounter a kind of fanatical determination almost impossible to imagine by Western standards. For the last six years this resolve has enabled the poorly armed and ill-clad moujahedeen to take on the Soviet army with considerable success. How it will end is impossible to predict.

Burhannuddin Rabbani, an Afghan political leader, says the Afghans will fight to the last man. On the other hand, Syed Bahaouddin Majrooh, director of the Afghan Information Center and a knowledgeable observer of the war, warns that with the recent Soviet escalation in the field, “unless Western assistance is increased, the resistance is doomed to go down.”

Hamad Gailani told me that Gran would soon return “inside.” Did Gailani worry about Gran’s safety? No, he replied; a moujahedeen who dies, dies for millions and lives on in the minds of the others. Yet Hamad himself confessed that he had cried for friends who had been killed: “We have hearts, you know.”