Originally posted December 2009
Saleh Mohammad and Ezzatullah Atif were among the angry young Afghans who, in the first three years after the 1978 coup, drove their government out of the countryside. Mobilizing the youth of their areas into clandestine networks and then refashioning these into jabhas (resistance fronts) was their first experience of leadership. Their successful mobilization laid the foundations of the war of attrition, which eventually defeated the Soviet Union and toppled its client government.
Through campaigns of intimidation and killing, they forced government officials and regime loyalists back to the city. They created a situation in which, beyond the city limits, no one dared openly cooperate with the government. Later, the government made periodic forays into the mujahiddin-infested villages, while the mujahidin used assassination and rocketing to project their power inside the cities’ security perimeters. The countryside belonged to the likes of Ezzatullah and Saleh Mohammad, who not only built up their armed groups but for a while also dispensed justice.
On September 5, 1978, a young man studying in a mosque in Panjwai packed up his books and headed to Kandahar City to join the underground resistance to the un-Islamic government. Saleh Mohammad was an orphan from a village in the foothills of the Band-e Turkestan. His earliest memory of poverty is of begging for milk for a malnourished baby brother. For Saleh Mohammad, the six years he spent studying in Kandahar’s mosques and madrassas had provided him with status, a peer group, and a means of survival. He was a classic talib. This country boy went on to establish a reputation as one of the top commanders of the jihad, his badge of honor a death sentence declared in absentia on national radio.
When he reached Kandahar City, Saleh Mohammad met up with fellow talibs who, five months after Taraki’s coup, were already active in the resistance. The talibs were cliquish and, as guardians of the religion, had a real sense of being bound to form the vanguard against the alien government, long before the tribes embraced the jihad. For a year Saleh Mohammad did “political work” — travelling throughout greater Kandahar to distribute anti-government propaganda, invite Muslims to join the resistance, and raise funds. Eventually government intelligence penetrated the talibs’ network, and Saleh Mohammad spent the brief period of Hafizullah Amin’s rule in Kandahar’s jail. Released after the arrival of the Soviets, Saleh Mohammad walked to Quetta and ten days later returned to fight. In the first half of 1980, he served a rapid apprenticeship in jihad, carrying a gun alongside Mawlvi Abdul Sattar, one of the early Kandahar commanders.
Then, in the summer of 1980, Saleh Mohammad struck out on his own. He moved to Malajat, a rural area adjoining Kandahar City, and started to build his own jabha. Saleh Mohammad chose Malajat because, from his days as a talib, he knew many householders who would take him in and give him shelter. He went there alone, and no other mujahidin groups were then active in the area. But “comrades have a way of finding each other,” and with forays to Panchwai and Arghandab, he located young men whom he knew from the talibs’ pre-war weekly social evenings. Within a year Saleh Mohammad found himself at the head of a group of 40 armed men.
In the first year, Saleh Mohammad and his comrades operated underground. They conducted guerrilla attacks by night and hid in the safe-houses by day. Although there were no other mujahidin groups in the area and the government was the dominant force, Saleh Mohammad could depend upon the population’s sense of Muslim solidarity for protection. In this stage of the struggle, they neutralized what remained of government influence in the villages of Malajat and the adjoining areas. “In Taraki’s period there were all sorts of government-formed Committees in the Kandahar villages. But the government did not arm them. At the start of Karmal’s period he gave them weapons and formed militias.” Saleh Mohammad and his group targeted anyone in the villages associated with the government, including the elders and tribal figures who had accepted government weapons. They posted threatening letters at night and conducted murderous ambushes. “Eventually all these people either left for the city or handed over their weapons to us.” And as Malajat was next to Kandahar, the new mujahidin used it as a base for raids into the city, assassinating Party members and officials in hit-and-run terror attacks.
After the group had severed the area’s links with the government, they established their front in a fixed base. Saleh Mohammad learned the techniques of fortifying sanghars and then taught these to the neighboring fronts. As the mujahiddin emerged from their underground phase, Saleh Mohammad started to take on more leadership functions. For a while in 1981 and 1982, he used to preside over jirgas, deciding minor disputes which people brought to him. Saleh Mohammad occupied the space which the government had vacated. His mujahidin had become the dominant power. But this was only a phase, because later a proper Islamic court was established in Panchwai, and, in any case, the intensifying conflict drove most of the population out of Malajat. The front made a transition to full-scale confrontation with the government. By the time of the Soviet withdrawal, Saleh Mohammad commanded 800 armed men in Malajat, Panjwai, Arghandab, and Shahwalikot.
In Paghman, 300 miles to the northeast of Saleh Mohammad’s battleground, another Afghan “orphan” emerged as a commander and leader of his people. Ezzatullah recalled his sense of loss. “I was three years old when my mother died. If you lose your father, it is not so difficult, but if you lose your mother and have to grow up without her, then you resent the world.”
Ezzatullah’s family claims descent from Qais bin Lais, the original Arab proselytizer reputed to have brought Islam to Kabul, and family members played a prominent role in the resistance to the British in the Second Anglo-Afghan War. The family’s status ensured that despite the loss of his mother, Ezzat was brought up in the family home and was able to attend high school.
Ezzat was 16 and studying in 11th grade when the Communists grabbed power. Khoja Musaffar Lycee was a much more politicized environment than Saleh Mohammad’s pre-war Kandahar. Ezzat had witnessed the tussles of the Ikhwanis, Communists, and Maoists in student politics. He had heard speeches by Rabbani Atesh, an early inspiration of the Muslim Youth, and knew that Communist leader Hafizullah Amin was from the same valley. In the high school playground, Ezzat built up a schoolboy gang nicknamed the Yaran. The political factions each had a form of address. You called your associates “rafique” (comrade) if you were Communist and “baradar” (brother) if you were Ikhwani. Ezzat’s gang used the super-informal “yar” or mate. The Yaran was a gang of mates, too relaxed to be Ikhwani and too Muslim to be Communist.
After the Communist coup, Ezzat started underground resistance against the government. He describes sneaking out of his first floor bedroom window at night and climbing back in undetected before his father rose for morning prayers. The charismatic schoolboy turned the Yaran into a clandestine terrorist group.
They started with shab namas for propaganda and intimidation. In the early days the Yaran reproduced their pamphlets with carbon paper and delighted in messages such as “death to spies.” They raised money and bought and stole a few light weapons. Then they launched a terror campaign against anyone associated with the government in Paghman. First they went after Party members and officials, ambushing them outside their homes. By the end of 1979, those who had escaped assassination fled to the city, as it was no longer safe for them in the villages.
In Paghman too the government initially tried to control the villages through the numerous revolutionary committees, through arming militias, and through co-opting tribal elders as spies. The Yaran next targeted these collaborators, putting on shows of force in their villages, intimidating and assassinating until they broke from the government. Beyond the Company Bridge, the boundary of the city and Paghman, no official was safe, and any patrol risked ambush.
For Ezzatullah too, once he had established himself as the leader of a group and had driven the government out of the area, the transition from hit and run attacks to a fixed jabha started with interaction with older mujahidin and a trip to Pakistan. Over time, an infusion of cash and weapons allowed him to build up a standing army of some 6,000 men. But alongside the military struggle, Ezzatullah also emerged as an amir-e mantaqa — a local chief of his home area. He became the senior figure in his Arab tribe and the dominant personality in his locality, to whom people looked for the resolution of disputes and protection from harassment by state or jihadi groups alike. Although Ezzat’s military power declined after the collapse of the PDPA government in 1992, he continued to act informally as amir-e mantaqa in subsequent periods.
From 1978 to 1982, variants on the story of these two commanders were acted out by hundreds of others across Afghanistan. Men with the capacity to lead first assembled their peers then mobilized the population through appeals to the spirit of jihad and threats of violence. They systematically applied terror to separate state from population and neutralize all state efforts to reverse this process. For the rest of the jihad period, in the areas where this mobilization had taken place, a dualist system of Pale (government territory) and Beyond the Pale (mujahidin territory) prevailed. There was no question of government providing security for population Beyond the Pale. Government survived by defending the Pale.
But to appreciate the significance of the revolt by those who practiced intimidation and terror from 1978 to 1982, you have to consider their subsequent careers. Drawing upon the prestige and influence they had accumulated as jihadi commanders, Saleh Mohammad and Ezzatullah both went on to become pillars of post-2001 Afghan society. Ezzatullah became a property developer, tribal chief, and confidante of many figures inside the post-2001 government. Saleh Mohammad dabbled in business, was elected to Parliament from his native province, Badghis, and discovered a passion for reviving juniper and pistachio forests.
Twenty-five years after Saleh Mohammad packed up his books and Ezzatullah climbed out of his bedroom window, another generation of angry young Afghans invoked the spirit of jihad, resorted to the same instruments of intimidation and terror, and pushed the state back into the Pale. Some of their leaders have even been students of Saleh Mohammad. It remains to be seen whether the evolution of the conflict and political context eventually will allow the latest generation of Afghan rebels to apply their talents to peaceful leadership or even to reintegrating Pale and Beyond the Pale.
. This essay is based on the author’s interviews with Saleh Mohammad and Ezzatullah Atif. They are better known by their jihadi aliases of Mullah Malang and Mullah Ezzat.