By Richard Mackenzie
Days turned into weeks, as a team of 20 or so mujahideen and I waited around the clock for Ahmad Shah Massoud in the autumn of 1987 in the North Afghanistan wilderness. As time went by, more and more of the partisans fighting the Soviet invasion and the Communist regime continued to arrive. Waiting and frustrated by the fleeting time, I was welcomed, hosted and comforted by a former medical school student who now commanded the resistance in the area. Aged 36, married and the father of a growing family, Sayed Husain had years earlier joined an anti-Communist student group at Kabul University. Arrested before he graduated, he spent a year and a half in the infamous Pul-i-Charki prison but was then released. He found his way to the North where he joined and rose to help lead the resistance in Takhar Province. He had come south from Takhar to this village as part of a unification campaign that he helped launch with Massoud’s forces.
As night falls, we sit in a circle in our room by the light of a hurricane lamp, first for dinner and later to listen to the BBC on a small battery-operated shortwave radio, our only link with the outside world. Dr. Husain, as he is known to his team, leads lively discussions that occasionally stretch into the late hours. We talk not only about Afghan politics and the goal of driving the Soviet Union back across its border. They also ask informed questions about the next U.S. Presidential elections and America’s attitude to their neighbors, Pakistan and Iran.
I would later write that these mujahideen were an eclectic crew. They were unified by intelligence, strong morale and a sense of humor. In a country with overwhelming illiteracy, most of these young men have university educations. One in our group majored in Physics. Another studied Engineering. But the most important thing to them all, of course, is their faith. Every day is structured around their practice of Islam. They take turns leading prayers. Death is no threat in this group. It is a reward that awaits. As bright and engaging as they are, as strong as their devotion may be, the thought of these young men defeating the vaunted Red Army of the Soviet Union is tough to imagine. Even if they are waging classic guerilla tactics, a “war of a thousand cuts,” I question whether victory is probable or even possible. Is it all not just wishful thinking?
Dr. Husain smiles gently as he demonstrates one of his virtues that I have tested several times — his patience. He looks me straight in the eye and speaks as he might to a child. “It is not a question of ‘if’ the Russians will be sent back,” he says. “It is only a matter of ‘when’.”
I will later begin to understand more of Dr. Husain’s predictions when Ahmad Shah Massoud arrives and I get an “inside” and up-close look at his strategies and tactics, as his mujahideen venture into battle. Within two years, Dr. Husain will be proven right. The Red Army will indeed withdraw from Afghanistan. And their surrender will mark the beginning of the end of the Soviet Union. It would be several years before the Communist regime in Kabul would be overthrown. Sadly, Dr. Husain would not live to see that day. In the first week of July, 1989, he and more than 30 other of Massoud’s key personnel were ambushed and assassinated by a ruthless opposition group.