FAREWELL MARJAN... Marjan, the one-eyed lone
lion is no longer the king of
PICTURES from the grenade attack!
IN THE LAIR OF THE LION - INTERVIEW WITH COMMANDER MASSUD (2000)WW>A. Raffaele Ciriello
460798 Kwaja Bahuddin (northern Afghanistan), September 2000 IN THE LAIR OF THE LION
INTERVIEW WITH COMMANDER AHMED SHAH MASSUD
by A. Raffaele Ciriello
Darqad, northern Afghanistan
Three gas lamps delineate the uncertain contours of the landing zone and the helicopter, an old Russian MI8 which must have known better times lands in the twilights of this remote sector of northern Afghanistan among the Amu Darya's affluents, some 30 minutes flight far from Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan.
Commander Ahmed Shah Massud, Afghan Defense Minister and single strongest opponent of Red Army before and Taleban now, greets us wearing an immaculate shalwar kalmeez, the Afghan traditional dress with a long tunic opened down to the knee over wide linen pants.
Four years have elapsed since our last encounter on front line north of Kabul, in a busy fighting day when Taleban gained some ground which they would give it back to Massud's combatants within a few days.
Not long ago, the northern stronghold of Taloqan has fallen, stormed by the "Koran students" after a long siege. What is the current military situation?
The recent attack to Taloqan is only the final stage of an offensive which started at the beginning of summer when Taleban's number two, mullah Rabbani [no ties with the afghan recognized president, the tajik Burhanuddin Rabbani] has received from Pakistan president Musharraf more than 10,000 combatants, including 2000 regulars from Islamabad's Army.
One thousand men from "Al Quaida", the militia of Osama Bin Laden, the Saudi billionaire and several more volunteers coming from Arabia, Bangladesh or the Philippines also joined in.
The first offensive, under the command of the Pakistani brigadier general Sayed-ul-Zafar, took place on Shomali plains, straight north of Kabul, at the end of June.
At that time, we were able to push back six different attacks, giving them heavy losses - more than 500 dead and several thousand wounded - as confirmed by our intelligence in Kabul's hospitals.
The commander in chief, brigadier general Ershad was wounded as well. In this first stage, the support guaranteed from Pakistan proved truly effective; for the first time we had to confront armored forces maneuvering with great tactical skill.
After the second round of talks in Pakistan, the Taleban attacked our weaker position.
In the following weeks, they smashed to the north, in Tahrin and Inkamish, overtaking our dispositions in Bangi and getting finally close to Taloqan, where fighting went on for 33 days.
We had to face two Pakistani brigades plus an artillery battalion under commanders Afshad and Moonir. The underlying reason for their rage exactly at that time was the approaching of UN General Assembly where the Taleban would express official demand of recognition.
In Taloqan, therefore, I preferred sparing civilians the horror of an utmost defense and I ordered to withdraw. During the siege, we lost about 300 men. It was a well-planned withdrawal though and we left nothing behind for the enemy, not even one rounds case [evidences collected from direct witnesses confirm this aspect].
Enemy's losses were huge, about 2000 dead; Pakistanis alone suffered 70 dead and approximately 1800 wounded. Renowned colonel Jamil fell, too. He was commemorated a few days later at the Army Stadium in Peshawar, where he was remembered for his death as an hero... in Kashmir!!
This offensive, supported by huge military efforts to end the games before winter, went on in the following weeks, after the deploymwnt in Taloqan of nearly 15.000 men. The Taleban spearheads moved northeast up to the Kokcha river, where they were finally stopped. [we witnessed the Taleban's breakthrough on the front of Awar Soy, during the last phase of this offensive].
We know for sure the Pakistanis have supplied small boats, located in this moment in Charasyab which could be used for raids against us or even over the Amu Darya river, towards Tajikistan or Uzbekistan. In recent days, moreover, our sources informed us our adversaries are planning to attack Badakshan province [the last the United Front is in full control of]. The offensive could start straight from Dora Pass in Pakistan territory, where in fact they have already poured, through Chitral region, 2000 men, 1500 of which regular from Pakistan Army.
What are you doing to make international public opinion aware of the Pakistani support to your opponents?
It is a situation already obvious to everyone. Last summer, gen. Parwez Musharraf, through an interview with BBC radio, guaranteed the Taleban all material support they could possibly need to end this game. The Pakistanis, fearing to be blamed by the international community for this interference, decided to make the maximum effort to get rid of us before the winter. Shortly ago, EU representatives in Pakistan discovered classified reports, as drafted from western diplomatic sources, that would prove undeniably the employment of regular troops from Islamabad side by side with the Taleban.
Notwithstanding, UN just accused Kabul's regime for human rights violations. We have provided many times the UN with names and figures of the Pakistani military deployed on Afghan land and captured, and with all the details and whereabouts of their capture. We did supply also plates numbers of vehicles transporting arms and ammunitions inside Afghanistan from Pakistan, pretending to be humanitarian convoys. Recently, also tanks have been ferried this way.
What is going on with peace negotiations? Are You still supporting the institution of a Loya Jirga?
I spoke over the telephone with Mullah Omar, not that long ago. First he accepted my proposal to have democratic elections, then he changed his mind, thinking this wouldnt fit well with the true spirit of Islam. We will never acknowledge the United Emirates of Afghanistan [new denomination from the Taleban regime for the former Islamic Republic of Afghanistan] and our adversaries are well aware of this. Instead, we are ready to support free elections, after the institution of a Loya Jirga (democratic assembly with representation of all the ethnic groups).
Our message to the Taleban is clear: if they are truly relying, as they state, upon the unconditioned support of the Afghans and above all the Pashtun ethnics, the largest in number, why do they keep on rejecting free and democratic elections? Why do they continue fighting when they are aware that, without the continued support of Pakistan, they could not last a week, notwithstanding the huge quantity of arms and means at their disposal, including Bin Laden's 3500 men?
How would you like to manage, in a near future, the thorny issue of Bin Laden? After all, the United States have never proven any evidence of his involvement in the terrorist attacks he is commonly tied to.
Osama Bin Laden is a terrorist and will be treated as such. A complex network of interests ties him since long to the Taleban and straight to their leader Mullah Omar, who has married one of the daughters of Bin Laden.
We know for sure that Al-Quaida [The Base, fighting group founded and sponsored by the Saudi billionaire] deploys on Afghan soil nearly 3,500 men under commander Abu Koubab. There is no external pressure that could persuade Mullah Omar to give Bin Laden out to an international court. And it is exactly what we will do, if circumstances will allow us to.
The aspect perhaps most criticized of the Taleban government is that of the human rights and the evident violations, markedly for women. What is Your opinion?
During 1994-1996, under the government of President Rabbani in Kabul, the maximum effort was completed to achieve respect and integration for ethnic and religious minorities. Women at that time, apart from being granted unconditioned access to instructions, could approach every profession. This is the system that we wish to reinstate again, starting with free elections with universal suffrage, one head one ballot. I haven't ceased dreaming for my daughters of a free life in their free country.
Recent offensives, and mostly those on the Shomali plain north of Kabul, caused an impressive number of refugees. What is the situation with them?
Total figures for refugees go up to about 150,000.
Many of them are based now in Panshir valley, and most of these come from Shomali area. Already in 1998 and 1999 they had fled their houses during summer advance of the Taleban, who destroyed villages and cultivations. Then we have the recent flood of about 19,000 refugees, moving north after the collapse of Taloqan. They know well the rule of Kabul's masters and have much better preferred to flee. With few exceptions - Acted of France - international humanitarian organizations are still missing, especially in northern Afghanistan. Next coming winter could be truly hard for these refugees. The traditional hospitality of other Afghans, who are glad to host many of these families in the villages closest to refugee camps helps, but is far from enough and the number of refygees is getting huge. It is definitely urgent for the international community to take care of them soon.
Aren't You afraid the Taleban regime could finally get recognized by the UN, after they control nearly 95% of Afghan territory now?
No, we are much confident this won't happen. Violation of most essential human rights is too obvious, markedly regarding women. Not to mention opium cultivation and smuggling, which allows our enemies, together with donations from Pakistan and Bin Laden as well, to fund a very expensive war.
Very expensive war, indeed. And You, how can You fund Yours?
Since long, we take profit of lapis-lazuli mines in Panshir valley, and also we are printing currency to purchase warfare on all available markets.
[Panshir is a legendary, vertical rock-walled valley, located northeast of Kabul, originating from the buttress of the Hindu Kush which then turns into the roots of the Himalaya range.
Commander Ahmed Shah Massud, born in the village of Jangalak in 1953, has made Panshir his impregnable shelter. Still examined in military strategy textbooks, are seven unfruitful offensives by the red Army aimed to annihilate the Lion of Panshir, during the invasion. The last impressive attempt in 1984, after deploying more than 50,000 men, tank and fighter bombers Sukhoi and Tupolev, would evoke, as reported in the weekly magazine Time "the admiration of Gengis Khan".
Regarding currency, we testified the arrival in Afghanistan of suitcases of fresh Afghanis from Tajikistan. This currency adds to the Afghanis printed by president Rabbani in 1994-1995, and to those printed at the same time by general Rashid Dostum, Uzbek warlord, then opposing Rabbani-Massud coalition, and finally to the currency the Taleban are having currently printed in Sweden. Common goal is to damage the economy of the opposing parties and guarantee at the same time one's own. The local exchange rate was recently equal to 66000 Afghan for one dollar].
Not that long ago, it was the fourth anniversary of the arrival of the Taleban in Kabul. At that time, you fled the city with your men without shooting a single round. Would you have done the same if you had known that four years later You would have been confined in such a small pocket of territory or don't You think perhaps You should have confronted the incoming Taleban?
No, I am still convinced it was a clever decision. The arrival of the Taleban in Kabul's outskirts was totally unexpected; a last-minute defense would have meant to tear apart the city and to exact an unbearable toll of victims among civilians.
How healthy is the United Front (the multiethnic anti-Taleban alliance)? The defection of commanders to the enemy with all their men seems to be daily routine...
The United Front is compact and just petty commanders happen to defect. It's the Taleban who have been losing in recent times the support of ethnic Pashtun commanders of Pashtun ethics in the north [the Pashtun is the dominant ethnic group in the southeastern Afghanistan, cradle of the Taleban]. Commander Arit was recalled in Pakistan and assassinated there. The same happened to Bashir Baghlani who was arrested. Dont forget that this is not a war of religion. People are spontaneously opposing to the politics and ideology of the Taleban. And we are ready to open new fronts. Inshallah, before winter, Taloqan will be in our hands.
[In the next following days after this interview Commander Massud met in Mashad, Iran, the uzbek warlord general Rashid Dostum, who can rely upon many followers in northern Afghanistan (20,000 alleged of them in Samangan province only) and Ismail Khan, former governor of Herat (1992-1995) and Major General in the Afghan Army, who got renowned after leading the mutiny of the garrison in Herat, during early resistance to the Soviets. Imprisoned by the Taleban in Kandahar in 1997, Ismail Khan could flee earlier this year and reach Iran. Dropping apart their past grudges, the three leaders seem to have found an agreement to intensify joint military operations against Taleban].
The falling night with its long shadows allows us just one more question. A few months ago, a Taleban jet was reportedly downed by Massud's men with an anti-aircraft Stinger missile, the first one ever used since many years. We ask if this couldnt be considered as a sign of imminent military recovery. The US-made Stinger surface to air missile was deployed on the Afghan theatre first in 1986, gaining a well-earned reputation as the cornerstone single weapon which would finally drive the red Army out of the country three years later. This kind of things, in Afghanistan, doesnt get forgotten easily.
At my question, a flash bursts through Commander Massud's eyes. One second later, he is smiling at me.
English translation kindly revised by Mrs. Francine Pierce.
Farewell, good ol' Marjan... The lone king of Kabul zoo succumbs to his age at 48, after surviving years and years of deprivations and symbolizing to kabulis the spirit of resiliency itself Well.....that's sad news, indeed. To my eyes, Marjan symbolized hope. However, in thinking about that dear old lion's death I choose to believe that when he heard the swoosh of kites flying over Kabul, heard the roars from the football stadium, experienced the renewed sounds of music in the air and heard the click-click of chess pieces being moved around chessboards....well, the old guy knew that there was plenty of hope around and it was okay for him to let go and fly off, amid kite strings, to wherever it is the spirits of animals go.
Peace to you Marjan and peace to Afghanistan.
[Diana Smith, via the Internet]