By Richard Mackenzie
The last week or two, getting from Kantiwah to the edge of the Panjshir Valley went quickly. Or at least as quickly as slogging over monster mountain ranges can ever go. I can only thank my horseman, Rahman Baig, for the quick passage of time. He was endlessly helpful and endlessly cheerful.
We hit snowfalls high on one mountain range but that soon passed and we entered a side valley leading into the Panjshir. It was here that I saw Rahman Baig at his most joyful. The closer we got to the Panjshir itself, the more he smiled. We finally stood on a path overlooking the Panjshir River, its rushing water and the slopes of its mountains basking in the glow of a glorious sunshine. “This,” said Rahman Baig, “is my country.”
As I looked at my beaming friend, as I inhaled the air, and gazed at bowing poplar trees, I understood what he was saying — and why.
We stayed the first night with a family in a big house on the side of the mountain, isolated and with no other homes in sight. The man of the house was kind and welcoming. He and Rahman Baig seemed to have a lot to talk about. The next day we left early, trekking with our horses through a small village or two until we came to a house that was clearly a mujahideen military base, what they called a karagah.
It was there I was introduced to Saranwal Mahmoud Khan. A steely, beefy man, he is a graduate of the law school at Kabul University. He is at this time the Emir of Panjshir. It is soon obvious he rules his troops with organization and discipline as stern as his gaze.
In the late 1970s, before the Soviet invasion, he served six months in the Afghan Army. He then joined the Ministry of Justice and later practised law in Kabul. He gave up his law practice in 1982 to move to Panjshir and join Ahmad Shah Massoud’s mujahideen. Rahman Baig says that, if Massoud is his “big favorite, No. 1 leader,” Mahmoud Khan is his “little, favorite, No. 1 leader.”
His honorific, Saranwal, translates as trial attorney, often as prosecutor. His legal background emerges as he asks me about my journey. Surprisingly, he seems to know more about my difficulties and troubles than I would have imagined. I start by simply saying that it had its challenges. Eventually, I tell him that the guide and horsemen first given me by his colleagues in Peshawar had dumped me in Nuristan. I suggested that the Peshawar team would be advised not to assign those two to any more visitors. “They did not leave a good impression.”
“Don’t worry,” Saranwal Mahmoud Khan said icily. “They will not be working for us again.”
I could only begin to imagine what fate awaited these two as a young mujahid sat by our side, taking notes and writing down the names of Syed Mohammad and Suffi Moussa in a big book. As I looked across at Rahman Baig, I thought I saw him shudder.
That subject apparently closed, Saranwal Mahmoud Khan began describing what Massoud’s mujahideen are facing, an estimated 3,000 Soviet troops along with 8,000 Afghan Army communist forces in seven bases and six smaller posts. All these forces, he said, were in defensive positions, making them vulnerable. At the time, it’s hard to imagine that the Soviet Union would lose any ground in Afghanistan — despite the mujahideen’s optimism.
Saranwal Mahmoud would not say exactly how many mujahideen defended the Panjshir — but did say there were 18 karagahs.
Right now, he said, he was busy, preparing to send scores of mujahideen 40 miles north, a four-day walk across Anjuman Pass to the Kochka River valley. It was there I would meet Massoud and his young assistant, Dr. Abdullah. It was there I would join the Central Command of the resistance in the North of Afghanistan.
“You are a very lucky man,” Saranwal Mahmoud Khan said as I prepared to leave him. “You have come here at a good time, the time of a big, important battle.”
Rahman Baig and I then set out for his hometown, a small region near the northern tip of the Panjshir named Parion.
There, I would wait at another karagah as the mujahideen prepared for the march to the Kochka River valley. Like any other military operation in the world, it was a matter of yet more, “Hurry up and wait.”