An inside view of an unholy war

Last month our Kabul correspondent was held for a week by one of the groups fighting for control of Afghanistan. It was an uncomfortable way of learning some things about why the stalemate in the civil war persists

Ahmad Shah Masoud, who controls Afghanistan's capital, Kabul, and Gulbuddin Hikmatyar, the country's nominal prime minister, are into their fifth round of fighting since the Islamic resistance defeated the communist government last year. In previous rounds Mr Hikmatyar has attacked Kabul, where Mr Masoud controls the remains of the country's army and government. The latest round took place in the Tagao valley, about 50 kilometers (30 miles) east of Kabul, where Mr Hikmatyar is defending his base in the nearby town of Sarobi. Along with Terence White, Agence France Presse's correspondent in Kabul, I went to watch the action.

We walked down the valley's single road towards the front. No more than 100 men (and boys) manned Mr Masoud's forward positions. Minutes after we reached them, Mr Hikmatyar's Hezb-i-Islami fighters began advancing. They drove Mr Masoud's men out of a ruined building on our left. A Hezb T-55 rounded a bend and began rumbling towards us. Something hit my left foot, and blood bubbled from a hole in my boot.

During the next half hour the fighting grew heavier, and the Hezb were getting the best of it. A Masoud commander tried to evacuate us journalists in a pick-up, but we abandoned the truck when it came under machinegun fire. We took cover in a shallow gully. Masoud fighters were retreating along the road. We tried to follow them, but, with bullets zipping by us, we got down on our bellies to await developments.

A handful of wild-looking Hezb fighters arrived. We put up our hands and tried to explain in broken Pashto and more passable Persian that we were journalists, not enemies. They were less interested in our credentials than in our money, cameras, binoculars and spectacles. Some of their colleagues arrived and decided that we might be French military advisers who, Hezb leaders tell their men (falsely), are helping Mr Masoud.

Some of our captors were smoking hashish; judging from their ravings, they had been for hours. We received some slaps, but before any damage was done their commander appeared. Fortunately, he recognized Terence from an interview with Mr Hikmatyar four days before. We spent a week in their company, and in the hours of talks with our minders we sought to answer this question: why is Mr Hikmatyar, with little popular support and no access to government weapons or finance, putting up such a good fight?

Mr Masoud's followers say the battle between the two sides is a power struggle, whereas Mr Hikmatyar's men still think they are fighting a jihad, a holy war. They therefore have a degree of fervor their enemies lack. They fight as Afghans have always fought - in lashkars, or raiding parties, rather than in a formal army structure. That was the method which Mr Masoud used successfully against the Russians. He is now trying a different, not-very-Afghan style of fighting, based on rebuilding the national army.

Afghanistan's shattered economy has helped Mr Masoud recruit otherwise idle youngsters. But there has been too much fighting and not enough money to train the army properly. Its units do not know how to work together, and at the front line the chain of command appears to exist only informally where it exists at all. Many of the recruits are too young to have done much guerilla fighting. The veterans of Mr Masoud's ``mobile units'', his lashkars from the 1980s, appear either to have returned to their farms or to be spread to thinly about the army to inspire new recruits.

Afghan society is not well suited to this sort of fighting. Even under communism the army was flawed along ethnic, tribal, regional and personal lines. The regime collapsed, with little bloodshed, because its military commanders began doing deals with guerilla leaders with whom they had links.

Still, in the short term Mr Masoud could benefit from his superior numbers. His men have moved in between Mr Hikmatyar's headquarters at Sarobi and his forward position outside Kabul. If Mr Hikmatyar is forced back from the capital, he will have lost his ability to shell it, cut off its electricity or block the main road.

When his journalist captives were returned to Kabul, Mr Hikmatyar sent a note apologizing for the length of the detention. He hoped we would understand that his men had been a little preoccupied at the time.

The Economist, 11 December 1993, p. 41