Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

The Roots of Intolerance

In the second of two articles for IWPR, Anthony Fitzherbert looks at the roots of Arab fomented intolerance and divisiveness in Afghanistan.
By Anthony Fitzherbert
With the ending of the Cold War and the departure of the greater rivals for power and influence, the place of Soviet Russia and the United States in Afghanistan has been filled by a horde of lesser predators fighting and snarling like jackals over a corpse.



The Taleban are, as much as anything, the latest manifestation of would-be occupying powers. In this case, they represent the imperial and economic ambitions of Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, greedy to gain control of the resources of Afghanistan and Central Asia.



Until recent events, in northern Afghanistan, west of Mazar-e-Sharif, in the plains of Shiberghan, Arab and Pakistani engineers were striving to restore the sources of oil and natural gas hastily capped by the retreating Soviets. The last great cedars and firs from the once beautiful forests of Nuristan, Kunar and Paktiya were hauled out of the Afghan mountains by armies of mules marked with Pakistani army brands. Thousands of Arab and Pakistani fighters make up the core of the Taleban fighting force against the Northern Alliance. This army of fanatics have been responsible for some of the worst atrocities committed during Afghanistan's years of internecine strife. They are an alien force hated, despised and feared by most Afghans, powerless in the face of, or corrupted by, the economic resources that back them.



In December 1988, I was called at twelve hours notice from my desk in Rome to join a small joint United Nations agency mission in Pakistan headed for the Kunar valley in eastern Afghanistan, from which the Soviet forces had recently withdrawn, in order to assess the damage wrought by ten years of war and meet the mujahedin forces.



Starting from Peshawar, we travelled to the Afghan border, and because the roads on the Afghan side were all mined, walked into the Kunar valley from the top of the Nawa pass down a narrow track, very carefully one behind the other.



The formerly rich Kunar valley, irrigated by its wonderful river rising in the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, had been reduced to a desert by ten years of fighting. The villages all lay in ruins, the land untilled. The civilian population had long ago fled to refugee camps in Pakistan. The valley was strewn with the wreckage of battle: burnt out tanks and armoured personnel carriers and shattered artillery pieces.



We arrived that evening foot-sore and weary at the destroyed provincial town of Asadabad, sleeping on the floor of one of the few habitable buildings. All that night, the sky over the mountain tops to the west was lit by the flashes of explosions from the fighting that was still raging between the Soviet forces and the mujahedin round Shiwa, on the approach road to Jalalabad.



The next morning, our mujahedin hosts proudly took us out to watch a lashghar, a war party, set off down the valley towards the Jalalabad front. A motley force of Kunari Pashtuns and Nuristanis, variously arrayed and armed. Some were heavily bearded, others still beardless boys. Leading this force of warrior peasants on the march down the valley was a rather different group.



Strangers from another land, more disciplined, more uniformly dressed and armed, more implacable in aspect, who glared at us faranghis with loveless eyes. After a prayer recited in unison, they marched off down the valley chanting as they went "Jalalabad by the spring ! Kabul by the summer ! Bokhara by the autumn!"



Later, we learned that when they overran the villages of Shiwar and Shegy, which had remained within the Soviet security ring around Jalalabad throughout the Soviet war, the Arab forces fighting with the Afghan mujahedin committed some terrible atrocities against women. This was something new and traditionally quite outside the Afghan code of fighting, that had usually honoured the integrity of women, lest it lead to unlimited tribal feud.



Two years later in the spring of 1991 the agricultural rehabilitation programme that I was managing was engaged in an intensive programme assisting the population of Kunar, returning from the refugee camps in Pakistan, with seed to replant their fields, nurseries of fruit trees to re-establish their orchards, and assistance in repairing their irrigation systems, fallen into disrepair during ten years of conflict.



It was about this time that we started to meet increasing problems and harassment from Arab fanatics occupying a "training camp" near the old government agricultural station at Salarbagh. There were several training camps scattered up the side valleys in Kunar and we would meet these foreign mujahids from time to time, but did our best to give them as wide a berth as possible. They were mainly Arabs, but there were also groups from the southern Philippines and other areas of Muslim discontent.



We had been working in Kunar since the autumn of 1989 and up to that point had received nothing worse than black looks from these foreign fighters whenever we encountered them marching up the road or going to collect water from the river. They lived under the protection of the Afghan Wahhabis who controlled most of central Kunar, and who were being well paid for this "honour".



This most extreme branch of Sunni Islam had been brought to Kunar by Arab missionaries from Saudi Arabia well before the Soviet war. Acceptance of the Wahhabi view of life had, however, always been somewhat uncertain among the Kunari Pashtuns and Nuristanis. The extreme puritanical tenants of the Wahhabi belief runs contrary to the tradition of most Sunni Afghans, with its pirs and saints and zyarats, (the venerated graves of saints), martyrs flags and Sufi brotherhoods.



Among the Pashtun tribes the fierce code of honour, the famous pushtoonwali - the code of the Pashtuns - has customarily taken precedence over shariat law and the Nuristanis are comparative new comers to Islam, having been forcibly converted from their ancient pagan beliefs only a little more than a hundred years ago.



We had never had any problems with the Kunari Wahhabis themselves, who were always most cooperative, but that spring our difficulties with the Arabs began to increase until over a period of two days we were faced with a series of increasingly violent and aggressive confrontations.



The first of these incidents occurred as my chief engineer and myself were leaving a meeting with the Afghan Wahhabi commander where we had been discussing the priorities and progress of the irrigation rehabilitation work that we were engaged in at the time. Our meeting was entirely amicable and satisfactory.



As we left the commander's base, we were confronted by a wild-eyed Arab, vowing our destruction, foaming at the mouth and screaming anathemas. He cursed me as an infidel dog and our Afghan engineer and driver as being worse than infidel dogs.



With us also was a charming Sudanese United Nations volunteer working for the World Food Programme - all six foot nine of Southern Sudanese Christian, who had joined the mission at the last minute at WFP's insistence. Particular fury and venom was aimed in his direction. It was only by dividing our forces and distracting the Arab's attention that we managed to make it safely to our vehicle and get back to our base in Assadabad, but not before he had ejected a great gob of spittle into my face.



We complained to the Afghan Wahhabi commander, who apologised profusely, and with shame, begging us to continue with our work, with the assurance that we would have no more trouble. "We have shut the dog in his kennel. You will have no more trouble," were his exact words.



That evening as we discussed the day's events our little team of Afghan engineers and driver passed many bitter remarks about these most unwelcome guests in their country. "They will be the final ruin of Afghanistan. Far worse, far more dangerous even than the cursed Shuravi (the Soviets)," was the general consensus. The language in which this was stated was less polite than is written here.



The following morning and despite the assurances we had been given the previous day, as we set off to inspect the work in progress, we were set upon and surrounded by about fifteen or twenty of these Arabs in the centre of Assadabad. They had lain in wait in a side ally from which they appeared, whooping and yelling, clinging to the sides of two pickups, like so many bearded Keystone Cops, mouthing oaths and curses and clearly bent on our destruction.



I will never forget my brave driver, Wassiullah, a diminutive Pashtun from the Jaji valleys in Paktiya, with a fine turban and a finer long black beard that any Wahhabi would have proud of. He scrambled out of our vehicle, against my orders, and put up his fists ready to take on the whole of Arabia in our defence or die in the attempt.



We were saved from a lynching by a huge Afghan Wahhabi commander, who with a group of his mujahedin arrived just in the nick of time and restored order. Picking up the slighter Arabs two at a time and tossing them to the right and left.



So we were able to return to our base where we were joined shortly afterwards by the deputy mujahedin commander of the area, a pleasant well-educated and reasonable man with whom we had always been on the best of terms. He was full of shame and swore that this was not the Afghan way. He assured us that we were their honoured guests.



We were helping them recover from the ravages of war. Again and yet again he repeated that this was not the Afghan way. We had to realise that these were not Afghans. These were Arab dogs and once more they had been "shut in their kenne !!" But he did not know how long they could be kept there and possibly it might be better if we left the Kunar valley for the time being until calm had been restored. They would provide us with an escort.



I replied that I knew that this was not the Afghan way, but why did they give shelter to such "dogs"? At this he indicated that there was little they could do to resist the power of money. "You know us," he said ingenuously. "We are poor men!". "But," and he grinned grimly, "When the money runs out, we will cut the dogs' throats!"



There was growing tension in the valley fomented by these Arabs, which broke into open conflict shortly after this incident and the work of rehabilitation came temporally to a halt. It was only a few weeks later that Saddam Hussein marched into Kuwait, and indeed for a short while the flow of money for these particular Arabs did appear to dry up. They were thrown out of Kunar and we resumed our work of rehabilitation uninterrupted and on our customary good terms with the local Kunaris.



This does not imply, in any way, that the Kuwaiti government was financing the operation, but certainly it indicated the direction from which the funds were coming. Unfortunately the Arabs returned later when the cash began to flow again and the Kunar valley is still, by all accounts, a favourite place for these training camps of mercenary fanatics.



Other more lethal incidents followed this one and the following year two United Nations internationals and another foreign aid worker were pulled out of their vehicle on the road to Jalalabad and shot through the head with cold deliberation. The perpetrators of this outrage were never officially identified or apprehended but the finger of evidence pointed directly towards the Arab "training camps" in Nangarhar.



I have never before and I hope will never again be confronted by other humans who quite so clearly saw neither myself nor my Afghan colleagues as fellow beings in any sense, but as creatures like cockroaches to be destroyed, crushed underfoot and eliminated from the face of the earth.



Before and since that time, I have been on countless missions into some of the furthest and remotest corners of rural Afghanistan. It has been my good fortune to be engaged in agricultural work and this has kept me in the countryside in the villages and among the fields and orchards rather than dodging the shells, rockets and mayhem in Kabul as many less fortunate colleagues have been.



Most of these missions have been without worse "alarms and excursions" than rough roads, long days and hard beds. Almost without exception I have met with the greatest courtesy, good manners and hospitality from rural Afghans whose own lives and livelihoods have been shattered, often repeatedly by conflict, the death of their families, the destruction of their homes and the dislocation of their lives and their country.



There have been crazed mujahedin commanders, opium trading mullahs, hashish hazed teenage mujahids, manning check-points with their AK 47s at full cock and their eyes rolling in their heads. But nothing has been quite so unnerving as the expression on the faces of these fanatics. Utterly malignant and pitiless! The face of the minds that blew apart the heart of New York. But they were not, as it happens, Afghan faces.



It is that first incident, when I was spat at full in the face by a man who I had never met before, with whom I had no quarrel and who was himself a foreigner in Afghanistan, that is indelibly and terribly imprinted on my memory. It is this visage so contorted with unreasonable hate that I see in my nightmares all of ten years later.



Unless we understand the reality in which this hatred lives, the world that created it and the powers that manipulate it in their own greedy interests, we can never adequately defend ourselves against it. It is neither as simple as bombing them with high explosive nor bombing them with peanut butter.



Anthony Fitzherbert - a specialist in agricultural and rural development - has had a long association with Afghanistan. He first visited the country in the late Sixties and early Seventies; his most recent trip coming on the eve of the September 11 atrocities.

More IWPR's Global Voices