I was in Afghanistan when mujahideen guerrillas fought Soviet invaders. Three decades later, security remains precarious and peace a distant dream.
It was a short walk with mujahideen Islamist guerrilla fighters from the Pakistani border to the bridge to Afghanistan.
Steel cables hung from brick towers and bounced as we crossed from the Pakistani town of Chitral and entered the Afghan land of shattered mud houses, some of them still burning.
It was 1988, and the Russians wanted to get out of Afghanistan, just as the Americans do today in 2020.
As we advanced on foot, a bombing attack by Russian-built jets showed the Afghans the way things were going to be — at least in Moscow’s eyes — once the Soviets left after a bloody decade of war. The Russians lost 15,000 troops in the fighting. One million Afghan fighters and civilians died.
For nearly the last 20 years, the United States has played the Soviet role, unable to end fighting but keen to get out of a country called the “graveyard of empires.” Proud Afghans threw out Alexander the Great in 330 BC, tossed out the British in 1842 and forced the Soviets out in 1989.
On that day 32 years ago, we joined a column of fighters walking towards the Afghan border town of Baricot, the first Afghan town abandoned by the Soviets. In a bitter farewell, silvery Russian jets bombed the village center as we walked nearby. On my face, I felt the pressure wave from the bombs. The Afghans looked up and wondered if the jets would come again.
“Are you a Zionist spy?” a mujahideen asked. “No. A journalist.”
Even in victory the Afghans were divided.
Tajik Afghans loyal to Ahmed Shah Massoud greeted me with a traditional handshake and touch to their hearts. One fighter showed me cartons of Russian cigarettes. Another had pay schedules with photos of Afghans fighting for the Russians. The bearded leader told me his sons were dead, buried under the smoldering remains of the house they had the misfortune to sleep in the night before.
“Come and stay with us in Baricot,” said the leader. The prospect of another visit by Soviet jets was not appealing, so I headed back to the bridge to Pakistan.
After a few dozen yards, the door to a compound swung open, and I was facing three young men with guns, ordering me to come with them. They were the most anti-American of the mujahideen groups – Hezb-e-Islami.
“Are you a Zionist spy?” one asked.
“No,” I said. “Journalist.”
Some white-bearded elders sat down at a table for a sort of tribunal.
“What is your religion?” one of the elders asked. “Are you Muslim?”
“I cannot answer this question,” I replied. “In my country, no one can ask anyone else what their religion is. This is between a man and God– Allah,” I said, raising my arm to the heavens. “And between a man and his family. And his masjid (place of worship).”
After a brief consultation, the leader of the judges spoke. “That makes sense,” he said, directing the young gunmen to lower their weapons.
Afghanistan still sits on a knife’s edge.
In a few minutes, I was out the door heading for the bridge. Behind my back, the seeds of civil war were taking root, and for the next few years factional and ethnic war would add to the Afghan misery. Only when Pakistan’s military intervened several years later, supplying weapons to the Taliban, did the civil war end.
But when the Taliban allowed Osama bin Laden to settle and operate strikes in New York and against the Pentagon in September 2001, the United States intervened.
A recent peace pact hammered out by U.S. and Taliban negotiators in Doha leaves a lot to overcome before ending the long Afghan conflict that began in 1979.
An Afghan peace pact must survive ethnic, religious and linguistic divisions once U.S. troops leave. To bring the Afghans together, the central government must share foreign aid with local provincial leaders. Each local government would have to lay out its plans and work with the Kabul government to protect roads, schools, clinics and industries.
Above all, security matters. Otherwise, anyone crossing that bridge to Baricot might still find it a troubled place indeed.
Ben Barber has reported since 1980 from the Middle East, Asia, Africa and Latin America. He has written for Foreign Affairs, Christian Science Monitor, USA TODAY, Baltimore Sun, Toronto Globe and Mail, American Legion Magazine, Huffington Post and others. He was State Department Bureau Chief for the Washington Times and editor of the newsletter of USAID for seven years.