How the Soviet-Afghan War Made the Taliban
The new book 'I Am Akbar Agha' offers unique perspective from someone who was ideologically aligned with the movement but remained independent during its years in power.
Akbar Agha at his home in Kabul, Afghanistan. Photos courtesy First Draft Publishing
In a new book called I Am Akbar Agha, the former Taliban insider recounts memories of jihad and the 1980s that forged the militant group's identity. What follows is the book's foreword by Anand Gopal, whose own book—No Good Men Among the Living—was just nominated for a National Book Award.
Early one morning in May 1987, Soviet tanks rolled across the Zheray desert into the lush district of Arghandab to launch the last great offensive of the Soviet-Afghan war. The villages surrounding Kandahar city had steadily fallen to the Islamist insurgents in recent years, and a 6,000-man Soviet-Afghan force had mobilized to clear the area, comprised of Moscow’s 70th Motorized Rifle Brigade alongside Afghan army units under the command of Ismat Muslim and Gen. Abdul Rashid Dostum. The troops were converging in a pincer movement on the village of Charqulba, a de facto mujahedeen headquarters on the Arghandab river’s western bank.
Fighting from irrigation ditches, the mujahedeen were able to slow the Soviet advance, and tanks got bogged down in the dense patchwork of pomegranate groves and apple orchards. As one week turned to the next, Soviet and Afghan army casualties mounted. Air support plowed the area with ordnance, but the mujahedeen were able to survive by spending days on end in bunkers and irrigation ditches. The tanks retreated to the open desert, acting as rear artillery for the Democratic Republic of Afghanistan’s (DRA) infantry, which pushed through the orchards on foot.
Neither side was able to dislodge the other, and the battle settled into a protracted, bloody routine. “The enemy would begin the morning with an aircraft and artillery bombardment from the south and southeast,” said Akhtar Jan, a mujahedeen commander. “Usually, they would then send eight helicopter gunships to work over the area. Then, they would launch infantry attacks. The mujahideen would emerge from their bunkers, occupy fighting positions and wait for the approaching infantry.” Losses mounted on both sides. Soviet and DRA army morale plummeted, and the mujahedeen food supplies dwindled.
Then, the Soviets made a tactical error. They began filtering in from the northwest of Charqulba, through the holy village of Jelahor, which had been emptied of people over the course of the war. And a second group pushed in from the opposite bank of the Arghandab river, through the village of Char Bagh, which was a base of poor religious students who had formed units of their own to fight the Russians. These students, called taliban in Pashto, had been among the earliest to take up arms against the Soviets. Akbar Agha was one of them.
The battle raged across multiple fronts, the Soviet-Afghan force pressing closer to Charqulba, the mujahedeen sneaking out at night to mine the road ahead of their advance. The sky thrummed incessantly, and Char Bagh was regularly in flames. On June 3, nearly two weeks into the fighting, a series of 122 mm Soviet Howitzer shells struck the main taliban base in the village, killing the legendary taliban commander Lala Malang—perhaps the most important mujahedeen leader in all of Kandahar. The news prompted taliban from around the province to descend upon Arghandab, sparking one of the most intense battles of the entire Soviet occupation. The fighting continued for weeks, and when it was over, hundreds of mujahedeen were dead. But they did not cede ground. In the face of such steadfast resistance, scores of Afghan army conscripts defected or simply threw their weapons in ditches and fled. On a July evening, after 34 days of fighting, Soviet forces abandoned Arghandab forever.
The Battle of Arghandab forms a central part of Kandahar lore, but you won’t hear about it in most accounts of the Taliban movement. Instead, according to the well-known story, the Taliban arose in extremist madrassas in Pakistan, spread across war-weary Afghanistan in two short years, and imposed an alien theocracy on the population the likes of which the world had never before seen. They were a phenomenon unprecedented in Afghan history, this story goes, a symptom of the hyper-regionalization of the conflict. Their ideological origins were rooted in prominent Pakistani madrassas and in an austere, imported brand of Islam called Deobandism.
In Kandahar, though, you will hear a very different history. The origins of the Taliban, and indeed, the entire post-Soviet order in the province, lie in experiences like the Battle of Arghandab. They lie in the shared memories of suffering, bravery, and friendship, forged in the trenches of a cataclysmic upheaval that reverberates to this day.
In recent years, a steady trickle of insider accounts of the Taliban have attempted to retrace this history, and by doing so challenge the prevailing story of the movement’s origins. The seminal work in this genre is My Life in the Taliban by Mullah Abdul Salaam Zaeef. I Am Akbar Agha follows in this tradition, presenting a detailed chronicle of the Taliban’s beginnings, along with the unique perspective of someone who was ideologically aligned with the movement but remained independent during its years in power. In it, we find the most comprehensive look yet of the 1980s taliban fronts, autonomous bands of religious students who fought alongside the mainstream mujahedeen in the southern provinces of Kandahar, Helmand, and Zabul. His account, and others like it, show that today’s Taliban is a homegrown phenomenon, with roots in these 1980s taliban fronts and antecedents dating back centuries. If we start from here, much of Afghan history over the past few decades begins to look different, and, I’d venture, more coherent.
Sayyed Muhammad Akbar Agha was born in the 1961 in Jelahor village of Arghandab, home to Sayyeds, a tribe which, Afghans believe, consists of descendants of the Prophet Muhammad. This lent a scholarly and religious air to Jelahor, and for as long as anyone can remember, it has been one of the most prominent centers of spiritual instruction in southern Afghanistan. As a young talib, Akbar Agha took lessons from a number of scholars in the village. Unlike most future Taliban leaders, though, he continued his education in Pakistan, returning for the outbreak of jihad upon the Russian invasion. The experience abroad appears to have given him a less provincial outlook than other top Taliban figures, many of whom had never left greater Kandahar until capturing power in the 1990s.
True to the Afghan form of storytelling, the history Akbar Agha recounts here is a pastiche of tense stand-offs, daring escapes, and battlefield miracles. There is little attempt to thread a linear narrative, illustrating the way the war is remembered and spoken of today. So it may be helpful to trace the outlines of the jihad in Kandahar: the first anti-government activity began following the Communist coup in 1978, largely due to imprisonment and torture of landed and religious elites. But full-blown insurrection took place only after the Soviet invasion of 1979. In the early years, there were eight mujahedeen parties in Kandahar: the seven official, Pakistan-sanctioned organizations and Fedayeen-i-Islam, a Salafist-inspired outfit based in Spin Boldak under the command of Ismat Muslim.
Around this time, religious students in Zabul province began forming autonomous groups, and the phenomenon quickly spread to Kandahar and Helmand. Often, these groups were tied to particular areas and so came to be called “fronts”—the Nagehan front, the Tur Taaq front, the Pashmol front, and so on. With the patrimonial structure of the jihad, though, in time certain commanders became associated with fronts, and so, confusingly, there are also fronts named after individuals or even institutions. A talib could switch fronts, and indeed, this happened often, creating a regularly morphing taliban network. The taliban fronts were nominally aligned to one of eight mujahedeen groups; many of the Arghandab fronts initially had ties with Fedayeen-i-Islam, until its commander Ismat Muslim switched sides and joined the Communists in 1984.
Though the taliban fronts were, by most accounts, appreciated and respected in Kandahari society, they were not a significant military force on the battlefield—if only because the bulk of funding and weapons went to the official parties. Akbar Agha’s account, however, is told almost entirely from within the perspective of these fronts—with only rare mentions of “non-talib” mujahedeen—which gives a sense of just how insular the talib’s world was.
In the jihad’s early years, the two sides battled to a stalemate, but an influx of US funding and weapons after 1984 began to turn the tide. In Kandahar, there was little linking a commander to one of the seven Pakistan-based parties except for the availability of these weapons. As a consequence, whenever arms flows changed course, mujahedeen units would shift alliances accordingly. The funding increase of those years sparked a battlefield restructuring as many groups, including talibs, switched from Harakat-i-Islami to Hizb-i-Islami Khalis. By 1986, the US was supplying stinger missiles and upped funding to unprecedented numbers. Insurgents were now able to temporarily overrun government bases and district centers, setting the stage for the pivotal 1987 Battle of Arghandab.
Arghandab had all the makings of a insurgent stronghold: its dense pomegranate groves provided ample cover for guerrilla ambushes, its proximity to government-controlled Kandahar city allowed for frequent raids, and its charismatic mujahedeen leaders, such as the colorful Mullah Naqib and the intrepid Lala Malang, made for easy recruitment. The Arghandab river, which gives the district its name, bisects the area into sociologically distinct halves. The eastern bank has the choice land, in part because of a large canal, and is populated by the Alikozai tribe. Historically, this area was more integrated into the central state, with Alizozais forming part of the tribal aristocracy that has ruled Kandahar for generations. The western bank, which abuts the Zheray desert, is poorly irrigated. Here, the population is mixed between Alikozais and a number of tribes of lesser political importance. After 1979, many of the tribal elite from the eastern bank fled to Pakistan, leaving a vacuum of political power which lowly mullahs and impoverished religious students from the western bank soon filled. Then, as today, most fighting took place on the western bank, while the eastern shore functioned as rebel redoubt and civilian zone.
Akbar Agha fought in a series of taliban fronts around Arghandab and west of Kandahar city, in villages like Pashmol. Many of the individuals he describes fighting alongside would later become leading members of the Taliban government and the anti-American insurgency. When the Taliban movement emerged in 1994 to sweep through the south, Akbar Agha remained on the sidelines; his intimate knowledge of the leadership together with his position outside the organization make him unique in this regard, and here he offers intriguing criticisms of the 1990s regime.
In 2004, Akbar Agha launched an anti-American insurgent group called Jaish ul-Muslimeen, which denounced Taliban leader Mullah Muhammad Omar and called for a break with the old guard Taliban. The group kidnapped three foreign United Nations workers, demanding a ransom and the release of Taliban prisoners. After negotiations, the three were returned unharmed, and Akbar Agha was quickly apprehended by Pakistan and handed over to Afghan security. Akbar Agha claims that members of his group had acted without his imprimatur, whereas the Afghan government alleges that he in fact masterminded the whole affair.
In 2008, I visited Akbar Agha in prison a number of times. I didn’t get any closer to the truth of the matter, but I was struck by how well connected he remained to Taliban leaders. He was released in 2010, and recently formed a new group, Khlasoon Lar (‘The Salvation Path’), aimed at promoting peace talks between the Taliban and the Afghan government.
An eventual peace and reconciliation process will need to help Afghans come to terms with the type of history contained in these pages. The fragmentation of Afghanistan over the past three decades has meant the fragmentation of its memories, too. There are certain prevailing narratives about the course of these wars, but there are other, equally important, stories that deserve to be told: the Kandahar jihad, the brutal civil war in Kabul and elsewhere, the great suffering of northern communities at the hands of the Taliban, the continuing suffering of rural southern communities by all sides. Akbar Agha’s book is an important step in this direction.
Anand Gopal is the Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at New America Foundation. His book No Good Men Among the Living was published in April by Metropolitan.
I Am Akbar Agha is on sale online in Paperback and electronic versions via firstdraft-publishing.com or Amazon, iBooks, Nook and other ebooksellers.