Afghanistan: A Personal History

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Originally published on Mangal Media

It’s hard to talk about Afghanistan’s recent history without talking about a much longer history and tradition. Those of us who are the children of the Mujahideen grew up on stories of our ancestors defeating Alexander the Great and the British Colonial Empire. When I talk to my generation, who grew up when Afghanistan’s current fighting began, about 40 years ago, they talk about those days with a fervor – our families suffered immensely and sacrificed dozens of uncles and relatives to the struggle against Soviet imperialism, but this wasn’t something that happened in isolation.

We’re Afghans – we’ve been killing colonizers since our history began. Not only that, we’ve been taking down their empires with them. The oldest photo we have of our family was stumbled upon by my father who one day found himself looking at his ancestors staring back at him when researching the second Anglo-Afghan war. A proud moment for a man who prides himself on being from a long line of anti imperialists.

There’s a lot to say about Afghanistan’s history, but I think it’s important to start by addressing some of the horrifying revisions that are currently being made both inside Afghanistan, mainly in Kabul by elitists and sectarians, but also by journalists in the West who are eager to prove their versions of history through revisions and often blatant lies.

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We’re Afghans – we’ve been killing colonizers since our history began. The oldest photo we have of our family was stumbled upon by my father who one day found himself looking at his ancestors staring back at him when researching the second Anglo-Afghan war.

Journalists like Rania Khalek, and many elites in Kabul skip over the 1980s entirely while slandering our Martyrs and revising the root causes of today’s violence.
The most troubling for me personally is how the Mujahideen are completely dismissed these days. I grew up around these guys. They were my relatives, my uncles. My father was also involved, but on the political side of the resistance movement.

I don’t talk about these things very often because it’s something shared among the entire Afghan population. No one came out of any of this unscathed, but right now, with the amount of disinformation that’s coming out of Kabul and the mouths of Islamophobic, revisionist journalists it has become necessary to address these revisions.

The blame for the current violence in Afghanistan falls immediately and absolutely on the so-called or self-described communists.

In 1978 the communist factions Khalq and Parcham, backed by the Soviets, conducted a coup that they call the Saur Revolution, killing Daud Khan and massacring his family.  Once these factions were in control they began summarily killing just about anyone they remotely suspected of being in opposition. Going to the Masjid too often was enough for them. They were also killing each other.

Some of my uncles had already begun their resistance by this point. Muslim and Islamist activists at Kabul university were regularly fighting and competing against the various communist groups for control of the university’s student association. The communists had the jump on the university’s politically minded Muslims and were first to organize themselves – they were able to take control of KU’s student association at the university. However, Islamic groups started to organize on campus and grew rapidly, taking the student association out of the hands of the campus communists.

The communists, just as many of them do today, would call the Muslim and Islamists “reactionary” as well as “foreign agents” or “agents of the Muslim Brotherhood,” and the Muslim groups would call the communists “Kafirs” – they would fight each other constantly. This was essentially the power base of all political factions at the time. What happened at KU was a fairly accurate reflection of how things would go for the country.

The mass, violent repression and extrajudicial killings that the communists were carrying out pushed Islamic groups in Afghanistan into militancy. But it wasn’t until the wanton killings starting in 1978 that the Mujahideen went from being an underground resistance movement to a popular resistance movement.

My father wasn’t in Afghanistan when the communists killed Daud Khan and took control of the country; he was on his way back from traveling abroad when he got the news. He had already made the decision that if the communist factions inside the government took control, he would join his cousins who had begun taking up arms.

He was in Iran, but had enough sense not to try entering Afghanistan through the Iran-Afghanistan border. There was no way he could trust any Afghan security forces at that time. Mind you, my father was also in the air force at the time – I think he had stuck around after initially being conscripted. He made his way to Moscow and then flew to Tajikistan and from there he entered Afghanistan and made his way back to Kabul through Mazar-e-Sharif.

He took a bit of time before reporting back to duty, but had already begun forging documents stating that he was ill so he could avoid a certain death if he had stuck around – many of his friends and acquaintances were being arrested and disappearing. He managed to get out duty before the noose closed in on him.

My father and his younger brother, Sami, started their activities with simple leaflets and anti-Soviet propaganda. They would stay up late and write communiqués. They were basically an underground printing press that worked by hand. They’d drop them at the doorstep of houses at night or simply leave them in a park for the wind to take – they called these “night letters”.  During one of these messaging operations, meant to inspire people to join the growing resistance against the communists, my father accidentally dropped off a stack but forgot that he had a legal document with his name and address on it that he had left along with the leaflets. He had left the stack of papers under a tree in a park, but luckily the stack was still there when he came back.

My uncle Sami was arrested in our village after someone snitched him out for housing one of my uncles and Mawlawi Mohammed Younus Khalis (Note: Khalis together with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar led the Hizb-i-Islami political party until they split. At this point in history, Hizb-i-Islami was two branches – one led by Khalis, the other by Hekmatyar)

My father’s older brother, Yacoub, had established a group that was opposed to the communists,  comprised of lawyers, intellectuals, former parliamentarians and so on that he had hoped would be integral to whatever came after the inevitable collapse of the communist regime. He was arrested in his office. Apparently the group he created had been infiltrated, as he had once warned my father of the possibility.

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My father’s older brother, Yacoub, had established a group that was opposed to the communists, comprised of lawyers, intellectuals, former parliamentarians.

My father never saw either of his brothers again, and although we had our suspicions,  we didn’t have definitive proof of their extrajudicial murders until the “Afghanistan Deaths List” was released in 2013.

Agents had been showing up at our village home in Nangarhar by this point so my father started cycling  between Kabul, Jalalabad and anywhere else he had contacts he could trust, nearly every other day. Left without any options, he first got my mother and my older sisters out of the country – the oldest was 5 or 6 at the time, one was an infant. I believe one or two of my aunts were there as well. They walked from Nangarhar all the way to Pakistan through mountainous terrain dodging military checkpoints and tanks.

He left my brother with some people he knew, I’m not sure exactly whom, but they smuggled him out through the Torkham border with Pakistan by making him dirty and passing him through security as one of the poor locals kids who worked in the area. My father himself went back to Kabul during melon season and forged some documents that would allow him to pass through Torkham into Pakistan as a fruits merchant/trader. He was also able to make it out.

Once in Peshawar, my father began working with his cousin, who was younger than him by about a decade. His cousin was now a leader in the Khalis faction. My father was set on joining the armed struggle, but was chosen instead to be on the political side of the Mujahideen by his younger cousin – a position he admittedly took without resisting. He had 4 young children and a wife and wasn’t used to the conditions his cousins had been enduring in their struggle.

By 1980–1981 the Germans, at least in the west of the country, were playing propaganda games against the Soviet Union and allowed some of the first wave of Afghan refugees into the country. I don’t know how my father did it, but he made some ridiculous passport that had the entire family in one picture and boarded a plane to Germany from Pakistan. There he joined other Afghan refugees who had set up committees to support the Mujahideen resistance. Shortly after joining he was elected the president of their association for all of Europe. The German’s never gave my father any legal documentation to stay in the country so he was not allowed to work. That, coupled with racism from the local German population, pushed him to seek other options.

That’s around the time I was born in late 1981.

By 1982, our papers for asylum had been granted by the USA. My father was under the impression that due to the Afghan struggle and US support, the US would be a better option and we’d receive some type of emergency aid and shelter upon arrival. He was dead wrong – we ended up living in  San Francisco airport for a month before moving to several impoverished neighborhoods within San Francisco during the crack epidemic.

Nevertheless, my father continued his work for the Mujahideen and became the head of the Afghan community’s support for the Mujahideen in the USA. He would go back and forth to Pakistan and Afghanistan constantly once my siblings and I, as well as my mother had been settled.

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One of my favorite memories was in February 1989 because we all skipped school to celebrate the last of the Soviet occupying forces leaving Afghanistan.
One of my favorite memories was in February 1989 because we all skipped school to celebrate the last of the Soviet occupying forces leaving Afghanistan. I remember my father getting a call when we were getting ready for school – his face lit up in excitement and so did mine when he told me we didn’t have to go to school – I was eight at the time so besides knowing that something terrible had happened and that clearly we were out of place in the US, I didn’t have much more understanding of the war’s effects on our family at the time.

In all, some two million or more civilians were killed throughout the conflict (1979–1989).

The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991.

This was a brief period of hope when everyone knew it was only a matter of time before the Mujahideen would make it to Kabul, ending the communist regime’s reign. That happened in 1992.

My father became Afghanistan’s deputy ambassador to Russia in the first mission back after we had kicked them out in a humiliating defeat. The embassy was still full of communists. Our diplomatic apartment in Moscow was full of booze when we got there. He threw out all the booze at both the embassy and the apartment.

The hope we had faded quickly however, when the civil war of the 1990’s began. The principled Mujahideen dropped their guns, whilst  others ravaged the country – the blame falls on everyone involved, whether that’s Dostum, Hekmatyar, Massoud, Rabbani, Sayyaf, Mazari or whoever else participated in the vicious civil war that destroyed all of Kabul and disgraced the name of the Mujahideen and the tens of thousands of Martyrs we lost.

This was not the whole of the Mujahideen however and this is where the most amount of revisions occur; many Mujahideen, including some of the most important Mujahideen commanders, did not participate in the civil war.

Most notable would be the guerrilla commander Abdul Haq, my father’s first cousin. He was only 15 or 16 when he began his resistance and quickly gained notoriety for his skills in guerrilla combat. He used to visit us in the USA whenever he was in the country for meetings. When we moved to Peshawar in 1994, we initially lived with him until we got back on our feet. He was killed in October 2001 in an attempt to thwart the then impending US war against Afghanistan by convincing his old contacts, those who fought under him in the 80s and sympathetic Taliban leaders, to join him in changing Afghanistan’s system before the US could invade. He was only 43 at the time of his death.

After my siblings and I missed nearly a year in school while living in Russia due to the high costs of international schools and our difficulty adjusting to Russian public schools, my mother took us back to the US while my father stayed behind.

I found out later that the principal motivation for his decision to take a position in Russia had to do with his brothers. Apparently, my father had been visiting any jail he could while in Moscow to find out what had happened to his brothers, in a shot in the dark chance that they had been brought to Russia for interrogation.

I think eventually he had enough of missing his family and opted to take a position at the UN as a representative for Afghanistan so we were in New York City by 1993.

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In 1994 he quit in protest of the civil war taking place back home and we left the USA for Peshawar.

In 1994 he quit in protest of the civil war taking place back home and we left the USA for Peshawar.

Currently, there’s a concerted effort within Kabul to rebrand the days of communism. If these people were serious about the future of Afghanistan,they would  be having a national dialogue on land reforms, free housing, education and health care, as a communist society would naturally work towards, but what these current day supposed communists are talking about is cultural liberalism and not systemic changes.

Afghanistan is currently being rebuilt in more ways than just its infrastructure. A new national narrative and identity is being built as hundreds of thousands of Afghans continue to pour in and out of the country. As the foundations of Afghanistan are being solidified it’s crucial that Afghans who are interested in a true national reconciliation challenge the assertions of apologists for the communist regime’s brutality and repression, while also accepting the shortcomings of our martyrs.

In a country where over half the population is under the age of 25, we Afghans are going to have to decide whether we want a country whose foundations are grounded in historical truths or if our next generations will continue to succumb to factionalism through ignorance and lies.

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