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Part II The Pech Uprising
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Part II
The Pech Uprising

4. A Son of Safi

I will tell you the story of the Khalqis. It’s interesting. When the Khalqi coup d’état occurred, [I was with] a guy by the name of Habib who worked with me at the journal Erfan. He was a Khalqi of the first degree, but he didn’t know what was happening. A person would think that they had just captured some thief or something. There were some gunshots coming from in front of the presidential palace [arg-i jumhuri], but not a lot. It didn’t seem important. We were close by, so we went to see what the firing was all about. Then we realized that it must be a coup d’état or some other matter.

We went from there, and finally we discovered that it was a coup d’état. While the coup d’état was going on, everyone left work, and I climbed up the shoulder of Asmai Mountain and saw that the presidential palace was under bombardment. It all really happened while I was sitting there. The airplanes weren’t using explosive bombs. They were engaged in tactical maneuvers over the palace, not destructive bombing. It was late afternoon, Thursday.

I was happy about this, that the airplanes were maneuvering over the palace and attacking. I was happy. I don’t know if it was conscious or unconscious, but I was happy. I went from there to the house. When I came in the house, I was still happy, and I told my wife, “Something very good has happened.” I told her how I had seen the bombardment of the palace with my own eyes. I wasn’t able to see the people who would flee, the oppression that would come upon them, and everything else. I didn’t see all of this when I was looking at the palace, but when I saw all of [the airplanes] overhead, I became happy. I was happy.

The radio went, “Dong, dong, dong, dong.” It’s the late afternoon, and all of a sudden, for the first time, [Aslam] Watanjar is speaking. I didn’t recognize his voice. There’s a shop nearby, and occasionally, in the late afternoon, Watanjar and I would sit and chat, but I knew him only as “Jaghlan Saheb,” not as Watanjar. He would sit and wrap a turban on his head. He would rarely come dressed in his military clothes. It was a shop on the biggest street in Kabul. It was a pharmacy. The owner of the shop, who was named Wali, was martyred later on in the uprising in Chandawal. He was a very manly person. I would never have foreseen that. He fought well and was martyred.

This man, his voice came on, but I didn’t recognize it. Right after that came the voice of Hafizullah Amin. Since I had known him from long ago, I was acquainted with his voice, and earlier I had heard that they [the Khalq party leadership] had been arrested and were in prison. Therefore, I realized that since it was he, this coup d’état must be a Marxist coup d’état.

I had a cigarette in my hand. I threw the cigarette in the ashtray like this. I let out a sigh and stretched back in the chair.

My wife said to me, “Up until now, you’ve been happy. What’s wrong?”

I told my wife, “Until today, I was the father to my children, and you were their mother. After today, from this minute, you are both their father and their mother.”


I said, “The Russians have taken our homeland. The Marxists have come to power.”

My wife said to me—she was trying to understand what I meant—“It’s Hafizullah Amin’s voice?”

I said, “Yes.”

She said, “He’s your professor and also the friend of your father and your personal friend. So why?”

I said, This isnt a personal matter or a question of friendship. Hes the servant of Russia, and as far as our friendship is concerned, how was I to know hed take power? Our relationship was personal, but no one would approve of his taking power into his own hands. By whatever name they call themselves, the people of Afghanistan dont want foreigners, and these are the servants of Russia.[1]

The success of the Marxist coup on April 27, 1978, initiated a struggle in Afghanistan that continues to this day. For Samiullah Safi, the struggle was not simply about ideology and political control. It was also intimately tied up with his personal and family histories. Like other educated Afghans of his age and status, Samiullah, who is known to all as “Wakil” (representative) for his years spent as a parliamentary deputy, [2] was acquainted with many of the principals in Afghanistan’s political struggle, from the former king, Zahir Shah, to leaders of dissident political parties, including the Marxist Khalq party, which succeeded in taking power in the Saur Revolution of April 1978. The single figure whose story was most intimately bound up with Wakil’s own, however, was probably President Muhammad Daud himself, who was engaged in an ultimately futile gunfight with rebel officers in the inner chambers of the presidential palace at the very moment that Wakil was watching the aerial maneuvers of rebel air force officers from the heights of Asmai Mountain. Daud’s involvement with the family had begun thirty years earlier, when the Safi tribe had risen up against the government and then General Muhammad Daud had been dispatched to end the hostilities. When Wakil saw the palace of Daud under siege, he had reason to rejoice since this same man had been responsible for exiling his entire family far from their home in the Pech Valley in eastern Kunar Province to the western part of Afghanistan.

Wakil himself was a child of four or five when these events occurred, but he remembered some of them well. They were the formative events of his youth, and so when he talked of his initial happiness while watching the bombing of the presidential palace, he was speaking indirectly of this enmity and his family’s troubles, and his happiness was directly connected to the grief then being inflicted on his family’s old adversary. But Wakil’s euphoria was short-lived. He had only to hear the voice of Hafizullah Amin, the chief planner of the coup d’état and number two man in the Khalq party, announcing the destruction of Daud’s government over the radio to know that he could not remain inactive.

As Wakil’s wife indicates, Amin was a close acquaintance of Wakil’s. Amin had been his teacher in secondary school and then the principal of the teachers’ college he attended as a young man. They had stayed in touch over the years, and Wakil certainly knew about Amin’s involvement in Marxist politics. In Afghanistan, however, the only politics that mattered much in the half century prior to the Marxist coup were the politics internal to the royal family and the retinue of ministers and retainers that surrounded that family. But all of this had begun to change in 1973, when Daud had overthrown the king and dismissed the parliament. The Khalqis, along with their bitter Islamic rivals, had gone underground, and their activities had become more secretive and ambitious. The openly incendiary politics of parliamentary debate had been replaced by a covert politics of recruitment, organization, and plotting. Behind the scenes, as Afghans were well aware, was the specter of the Soviet Union, waiting its opportunity to place its own puppet rulers in power and make Afghanistan an extension of its own domain.

That was the common perception, and Wakil’s reported response to the radio announcement reflects this perception. But Wakil’s dramatic pronouncement to his wife that henceforth she must be both mother and father to their children has a deeper resonance as well that relates specifically to Wakil’s family history, part of which I recounted in Heroes of the Age. In that book, I transcribed verbatim a story told to me by Wakil concerning his father’s coming of age. Wakil’s father, Sultan Muhammad Khan, was a well-known tribal chieftain (khan) from the Safi tribe of Pech Valley, and part of his renown stems from this story—which begins with the murder of Sultan Muhammad’s father by political rivals whose lands adjoined his own. At the time of the murder, Sultan Muhammad was a young boy and had few paternal kinsmen to support him in the conflict, which was driven by the family’s considerable wealth but relative lack of male kinsmen who could help in defending the family’s lands and properties. In this situation, Sultan Muhammad was forced to leave his home and take refuge with a local potentate, the Nawab of Dir in present-day Pakistan, in whose court he became a respected scribe. But Sultan Muhammad knew that a day of reckoning would have to come. To accept the diminished status of a court scribe meant also turning his back on his tribal inheritance. So he returned and bided his time, waiting for his rivals to strike at him but knowing that he would have to strike first. The opportunity came when his rivals had become so brazen and sure of their own power that they accepted an invitation to meet in his guesthouse to discuss the terms by which Sultan Muhammad would turn over a portion of his family’s disputed lands to them. Sultan Muhammad, in league with a handful of kinsmen and tenant farmers, ambushed his rivals while they sat in his guesthouse, killing all seven of the brothers who had been responsible for his father’s death.

The story of Sultan Muhammad’s revenge told in its entirety is complex and primordial, and it was an important part of Wakil’s legacy. Even more than Taraki, he was a “child of history,” the son of a legendary figure whose life was dedicated to the unrelenting pursuit of honor. Sultan Muhammad’s life story demonstrates that the pursuit of honor, once embarked on, can never be abandoned; nor can the goal ever be achieved. Wakil inherited not only his father’s legacy, which would serve throughout his life as a goad and rebuke, but also the recognition that the pursuit of honor entailed costs and consequences for the individual and those around him. Wakil also grew up in a more complicated world than his father’s, a world where honor’s value was not so self-evident. Sultan Muhammad faced the choice between remaining in the relatively secure but socially debased position of a servant in the court of Dir or returning to the insecure, but more highly esteemed, role of a Safi tribesman—the son of a Safi father and the father of Safi sons. Wakil’s choices, as this chapter illustrates, were more varied. He could be many things, earn other laurels, and live in a variety of places inside Afghanistan and abroad. But always there was the specter of his father and his father’s commitment to honor and the recognition that in the land of his birth a man’s first obligation was to live up to the obligations that being a son of a renowned father entailed.

Wakil’s reported response to his wife on hearing the voice of Amin over the radio—whether it accurately reflects what happened or not—shows us the way that the past casts its shadow on the present and how some people at least gauged their response to the Marxist revolution in relation to traditional cultural understandings and modes of conduct. But also striking here is the extent to which traditional cultural understandings and modes of conduct didn’t apply. Afghans had never before faced a situation like this one, and their society was a good deal more heterogeneous than the one in which Sultan Muhammad and other remembered ancestors had made their fateful choices. The most straightforward of the changes impinging on Wakil’s life had to do with the division of the world into realms of tribe and state. In the past, tribes and states had interacted with and relied in various ways on one another, but the domains of tribe and state were governed by different moral understandings, and these differences were sustained by the continued existence of spatial separation and political autonomy. By the time Wakil came of age, however, such practical distinctions had blurred, as had many of the cultural underpinnings that someone like Sultan Muhammad could take for granted; the choices Wakil had to make were far more ambiguous in significance than any that had confronted his father. In the pages that follow, I chart the course of Wakil’s life history as revealed in his own words and stories and focus on what I take to be the pivotal moments when the moral logic of honor clashed with the exigencies of living in an increasingly modern and hybridized society.

In my discussion of Sultan Muhammad in Heroes of the Age, I was concerned with the distant past, and the vehicle by which I sought access to this realm was a family’s legends of an ancestor’s youthful deeds. In this discussion of Wakil’s life, I move into a more proximate realm of history and rely on another resource—the personal memory of the person whose life is thus narratively shaped and fashioned. The stories that he told me, while they aspire to consistency and completeness, are still fragmentary in places, inconsistent in others. The voice I listened to was by turns vainglorious and uncertain, abject and self-serving. As history goes, Wakil’s account is probably badly flawed, and I don’t doubt that if it were shown to others who were present at the events recounted, his version might be challenged at various points. All this is to be expected and goes with the territory of oral history. But Wakil’s tale has a complicating element beyond that of most oral histories because of the looming presence in the background of the heroic father, Sultan Muhammad Khan.

A great man casts a long shadow, and we can see in the stories that follow Wakil’s attempts to come to terms with his father’s legacy—in particular, to make his own deeds live up to his father’s, even though the opportunities that life afforded him were not congruent with those his father encountered and despite his having values that diverged in important respects from those of his father. Wakil spent most of his life outside the insular world of the tribe and the valley; he lived in various provinces far from the frontier and in the capital of Kabul, and he attended secondary school and university. His horizons were thus a good deal broader than his father. But still there was that shadow, and the glories, the travails, and the ironies of Wakil’s life history are all finally bound up in the difficulties of finding a place for honor in the modern world.

First Memories of War and Exile

I think the Safi War [safi jang] was in 1945. It continued for a year and stopped in the winter of 1946. The government secretly planted some paid spies among the people. Approximately five hundred families were exiled after the war. I remember. They brought lorries. I was still small, and I was very happy that I would see a new world. The adult men and some of the women were crying. This exile suddenly came upon our family. I was just small, and I heard that my father had come. He had been in prison along with my uncle. Just one of my uncles was at home. One of my brothers was at the military high school. People arrived—all of a sudden. We heard. One or two people said, “Look!” They were all wearing normal country clothes—not uniforms. I thought that people were coming, and it was announced that my father had been released from prison. My father would be back home with us the next day. I was happy. [It was as though] the Jeshen (Independence Day) celebrations had begun. I was very happy. They were all armed, and as soon as they had come, they suddenly captured my family. Two or three hundred people, all dressed in civilian clothes, all are with the government, they captured us and said, “In the morning, you will be leaving.” [3]

This is one of only two stories (fragments is perhaps a better term) that Wakil told me about his life in Kunar as a young boy, stories that are from his own memory (see Map 1). There are probably others, but not ones that he considered appropriate or significant enough to share. The impression I received when I talked with him, an impression that has been reinforced by hours of listening to the recordings of our interviews, is that Wakil’s remembered life begins on the day the troops came to take away his family. Stories told about earlier episodes, including those involving the Safi War itself, were all impersonal. They are not part of his story. They belong to others, and it was clear even when he did not say so that these were events he had heard about and did not witness himself. All of this changes, however, from this point on. From the time the troops arrive at his family’s home through ten more hours of interview, it is Wakil’s story that is being told, and that story often has a harrowing quality.

Map 1. Eastern Afganistan
[Full Size]

In telling the story of the coming of troops to his village, Wakil’s voice became that of the small boy who witnessed the events described, and the story manages to convey the sense of enthusiasm that he must have experienced at the time as he watched the strangers arrive in his village. Were theirs the first motorized vehicles he had ever seen? There were many of these strangers, but since they were wearing the same sort of clothes as everyone else, he was not frightened by their appearance. To the contrary, it was all a great holiday for the young boy, what with all the activity and the news that his father might be coming back.

Along with the enthusiasm, one also senses the boy’s confusion, which is reflected in what appear to be inconsistencies in the narrative itself. When he saw the lorries, did he know that he would soon be leaving the valley? If it was such a happy occasion, why were “the adult men and some of the women” crying, particularly if his father would soon be home? Also, if he knew and was excited that they would soon be seeing “a new world,” why did he believe that his father would be returning, and why was it such a shock when the soldiers suddenly arrested his family? These elements in the story are unclear and cannot be easily resolved, but, instead of being instances of bad storytelling, perhaps they signify the bewilderment of the five-year-old child who has never before seen so many strangers in his village.

The story’s inconsistencies cannot be reduced to this however. They are not simply the product of childish distraction, for there are also indications in this shred of memory of deeper confusions in a society that was in the midst of conflict and change. The relatively cohesive and integrated world within which Sultan Muhammad came of age was not the world that Wakil was coming to experience. The pole star of honor by which Sultan Muhammad was able to chart his life choices would not shine so brightly for the son, and this first memory gives preliminary signs of the atmospheric disturbances that will cloud the boy’s course.

Thus, for example, we see soldiers wearing civilian clothes, and we hear of tribesmen (Wakil’s older brother among them) who are not present because they have already been sent off to boarding schools where, the government must have assumed, their interests would come into alignment with those of the state. The old divisions were breaking down. The worlds of the tribe and of the state had always been linked by the binary logic of their contrastive moral codes (tribes defining themselves by what they were not—the state—and vice versa). However, in this slight, but revealing vignette, the lines of distinction seem to have blurred. People were not who they appeared to be, and one sort of thing was easily mistaken for another, as when the young boy compares his (soon-to-be disabused) happiness at the excitement around him to the happiness he had previously felt during celebrations of Independence Day.

The event that led to Wakil’s exile from Pech, the so-called Safi Jang, followed almost two decades of relatively calm relations between the Pakhtun tribes and the Afghan state, the last major conflagration having been in 1929, when the Shinwari tribe of Ningrahar Province and various of the tribes of Paktia Province had spearheaded the insurrection that toppled the regime of King Amanullah. The single most significant factor in inciting the Safi tribe to battle was a government plan to change the rules by which it conscripted tribesmen into the army. [4] For many years prior to the uprising, the accepted procedure for enlisting military recruits—referred to by the tribe as the qaumi, or “tribal,” method—had been for individual tribes to supply a certain number of men of their own choosing; these men would always serve together and generally in locations that were not far removed from their homes. [5] For several years prior to the uprising, however, the government had insisted on employing a system referred to as nufus, or “population,” in which the army conscripted its recruits directly from the population without consultation with any tribal body. The previous system of conscription was clearly beneficial to the tribe—especially the tribal elders, who decided who would serve. Under this system, the government recognized the tribes as part of the institutional apparatus of governance, and it also implicitly allowed the tribes to share in the exercise of force in the kingdom.

Underlying this arrangement was the practical reality of tribal power, dramatically demonstrated in the overthrow of Amanullah, who had switched to the nufus system; his successor, Nadir Shah, reverted to the traditional qaumi procedures. By the late 1940s, however, the government apparently felt itself to be in a stronger position in relation to the tribes and able to consolidate its position by eliminating the intermediate role of tribal elders in the recruitment process. A group of Safi leaders in the Mazar Valley resisted this initiative, however, and precipitated hostilities by capturing a detachment of troops that had been sent to collect conscripts. Following this incident, fighting quickly spread to the neighboring Waigal and Pech valleys, and before long all four of the Safi valleys (Pech, Mazar, Nur, Waigal) were involved in the insurrection, which continued for the better part of a year.

Wakil’s father, probably in his late fifties or early sixties when the Safi uprising broke out, was prosperous by local standards. According to Wakil, few people had as much land as Sultan Muhammad or such a big family: he had nine wives (although never more than four at a time, as allowed under Islamic law), along with eleven sons and thirteen daughters. However, as fortunate as his life had turned out to be, Sultan Muhammad’s prosperity could not be considered an unmitigated blessing. The more a man has, the more he has to lose, and never more so than in a time of strife such as the Safi War. Younger men could fight their battles, then flee to the mountains until it was safe to come down. For the man of property though—a “heavy man” (drund salai) in Pakhtun parlance—fighting the good fight was not as easy or straightforward, and consequently Sultan Muhammad, according to Wakil, demurred initially when others asked him to lend his support to the cause: “Listen Brother, you’re alone. You have a cart. You can put a bed in it. Your wife is stronger than our men. She can travel easily in the mountains. She can endure hunger. My wives are like invalids. Where could I take them? Even if we tried very hard, it would be impossible for us to move all our property. I can’t do these things. I can’t, but you can.” [6]

Sultan Muhammad resisted the commencement of hostilities and offered little encouragement to those among his tribe who first took up arms, but by the end of the rebellion he was considered one of the insurrection’s leaders. The primary event responsible for propelling Sultan Muhammad into the ranks of the rebels appears to have been an encounter with General Daud following the looting of the government treasury at the provincial capital of Chaga Serai. Until this meeting, Sultan Muhammad’s had been a voice of moderation in the tribe, but the confrontation with Daud changed all that, pushing him openly into the dissident camp and creating an enmity between the two men that continued until Sultan Muhammad’s death twenty years later.

The story that Safi told me of the confrontation between his father and Daud pivoted around an act of arrogance (kibr) on the part of the general. At one point during the meeting in the capital, he told the tribal elders, “If I give the order to my brave and courageous soldiers, you of the Safi tribe will surrender your rifles as though they were canes; you will turn them over like wooden walking sticks.” In response to Daud’s insult and threat to disarm them, Sultan Muhammad stood up and challenged the general, telling him, “These soldiers whom you call brave and courageous are the brothers and children that we have given you to protect the soil, the homeland, honor, Islam, and they must be used for this. You should not set brother against brother. How is it that my brother, who happens to be a soldier, is courageous but I am not? You should regret all that you have said and not say it again.” [7]

Sultan Muhammad was inspired to challenge Daud because of the nature of his threat. As Daud understood, taking away a tribesman’s rifle was morally equivalent to raping the women of his family. [8] A man’s rifle was categorized along with his land and his wife as his namus, which can be translated as both the substance of a man’s honor and that which is subject to violation and must be defended. The threat to have soldiers take away rifles as though they were the canes of old men was an attack on the elders as individuals and tantamount to a declaration that they and their tribe were impotent and incapable of protecting themselves against the basest sort of assault. In defending himself and his tribe against Daud’s insult, Sultan Muhammad took the moral ground away from Daud and humiliated him in front of the elders. According to Wakil, Daud never forgave Sultan Muhammad for the rebuke and used the pretext of the Safi uprising to sentence him to death, along with the rebel leaders more directly responsible for the insurrection.

Honor and Revenge

Following the defeat of the Safis, Wakil’s family, along with hundreds of others from their tribe, were exiled to the western city of Herat. During the first part of their exile, Sultan Muhammad was awaiting execution until Zahir Shah granted him a reprieve on the day of his scheduled hanging. Thereafter, he remained in prison, first in Herat, then in Mazar-i Sharif and other northern provinces until he was finally released during the period of democratic liberalization in the late 1960s. Sultan Muhammad’s family was free during his imprisonment, but they remained nearby, providing food and other resources.

In many ways, the most vivid of Wakil’s stories are those that date from his first years in Herat. This period of exile was not a time of isolation for the boy. A number of other Safi families accompanied them to Herat, and his own family included not only the several wives and numerous offspring of Sultan Muhammad but also various uncles and their families. The first story Safi told me of his time in Herat comes from the first days after their arrival, when the older members of his family believed that Sultan Muhammad would soon be executed by the government. For the family, this period was clearly a time of anguish and uncertainty, for not only was the family patriarch languishing in prison awaiting his death, but most of the other senior males of the family were also locked up in the Herat prison, where they were serving shorter sentences for their part in the recent hostilities. The first story that Wakil told of this period of exile has a feeling similar to that of his story of the soldiers coming to take his family from Pech. It is the quality of a fragmentary childhood memory, sharply focused in some places, but blurred in others:

One time—this happened when we were in Herat—my uncle told me to stay out. I was small, but the adults—my older brothers and uncles and cousins—met together in a room in the compound. One of my uncles was in prison. It was the other [uncle], but he had undoubtedly been in touch with [his brothers] in prison. They had gotten [his father’s and other brother’s] consent, and they were talking it over here.

Now I recall a letter that was written in green ink. I was watching from the doorway and listening to hear what they were saying. I was small, and they wouldn’t let me [be present]. They decided that since my father was under a sentence of death, they had to do something. “Since there is no way we can enable the women and children to escape, we will have to leave all of them in the house and then set it on fire. After that, the rest of us will escape. We will escape and go to the border. If we have the power, we will avenge our father. If we don’t, then we will move from place to place like madmen, like Majnun we will wander in the mountains. But, for us it would be very shameful if they killed our father while we remained in prison or continued living here.” [9]

As the narrator remembered the scene, he was a boy standing outside a room, straining to hear what was going on behind the closed door. Too young to be among the adults, he was old enough to sense the importance of the meeting. The memory was fuzzy, but a distinct image came to mind of a letter written in green ink. The adult Wakil could piece together what undoubtedly eluded him as a child: that the letter was probably written by the uncle who was then incarcerated in the Herat prison. That uncle would probably have been Abdul Qudus, Sultan Muhammad’s brother and the senior member of the family after Sultan Muhammad. The fact that the letter was etched in the adult’s memory indicates that the boy somehow knew it to be significant, but at the time Wakil did not fully realize that the letter was effectively a writ of execution for the boy and much of his family.

The voice coming from behind the closed door was unidentified, but the passage seems too well composed and complete to have been overheard and remembered almost forty years later. One senses that the boy must have later on pieced together snippets of overheard speech into a single coherent speech. Or maybe he did hear all these words, and maybe he was just old enough to understand what they meant, and this understanding permanently seared the words in his memory. We cannot know and perhaps cannot even guess unless we have been afflicted ourselves with such memories. For the men talking among themselves behind closed doors, it was a question of honor. The sons and kinsmen of Sultan Muhammad could not remain inactive while the great man himself was executed by the government. Revenge had to be taken; if it was not, then they had to relinquish any pretense to being men of honor. The usual routines could not go on under such conditions. Just as Sultan Muhammad had once had to leave his child behind to avenge his father, so his sons and kinsmen had to abandon the pleasures of domesticity until their relative’s death could be avenged. Since the enemy responsible for Sultan Muhammad’s death was not other tribesmen but the government itself, vengeance would not be easy to obtain. How, after all, was a group of (presumably) weaponless tribesmen hundreds of miles from their homeland to wreak vengeance on their enemies, and just who was it they should target as the responsible party?

The logic of honor does not translate easily to the more impersonal realm of tribe/state relations, so it is not surprising that the kinsmen of Sultan Muhammad were forced to imagine the unimaginable: the physical annihilation of the dependent members of their family and their own assignment to the liminal realm of the dispossessed, where they would wander until their deaths in the wilder regions of place and mind. The kinsmen of Sultan Muhammad thus envisioned themselves as incarnations of Majnun, the classic figure of romantic tragedy in Afghan folklore, whose love for the beautiful Leila was forestalled when her father married her to another. Before his death from grief, Majnun (whose name has come to be synonymous with madness) wandered in the desert, heedless of who he was or where he was going. Majnun’s love was so deep that, with the loss of the beloved, life itself became a trackless void. In similar fashion, the kinsmen of Sultan Muhammad recognized the impossibility of living a normal life in the absence of honor.

Majnun may be cited as the model for this sort of single-minded obsession, but we know that Sultan Muhammad himself was the model his kinsmen were emulating. Having such a man as the family patriarch imposed a special burden on his kinsmen, and the family elders responded in what must have seemed to them an appropriate manner to the prospect of Sultan Muhammad’s execution. It was one thing, though, for the men of the family to choose their path of vengeance, but one wonders what effect this plan must have had on the boy who overheard it and who was among those condemned to die. He and the other dependents in the house were to be the lambs on this sacrificial altar. If the plan succeeded, they were destined to become—quite literally—burnt offerings to honor, with no hope of some ultimate vindication or even of a future spent in heroic renunciation.

Since Wakil never informed me of his response to hearing the news of his impending death, I can only speculate what it might have been. Much later, he would have understood the cultural terms of his predicament, but, as a small child, he would have been old enough to understand only the words that were being said and their immediate import—not their larger significance or what was at stake for his family. The boy could not have made sense of or cared about these matters, and consequently I wonder in what ways this scene left its scars on him as he grew up. In particular, I wonder to what extent the adult Wakil’s more self-conscious and ambivalent attitude toward the ethos of honor wasn’t determined in part by his having witnessed this peculiar primal scene. Was Wakil’s later ability to self-consciously deconstruct the imperatives of honor in any way connected to such early experiences?

Wakil was a man who, when I met him, had never spent any significant periods of time outside Afghanistan, yet he had an uncanny capacity for reflecting analytically and dispassionately on the cultural logic of past and present events. Unlike the vast majority of tribal men whom I have interviewed and gotten to know—including many who have been abroad—Wakil had a keen ability to analyze his own society and anticipate how I, as an outsider, would respond as I learned more and more about its idiosyncrasies. This ability to see and interpret his own culture from the outside indicated to me that he also understood on some level that his society’s truths were constructed, not absolute, and I have wondered whether this sense wasn’t first instilled when he overheard his own sentence of death. Be that as it may, the plan was never carried out since word arrived after this meeting that the king had commuted Sultan Muhammad’s sentence of death.

Imprisonment and Relocation

Ill tell you of an incident that happened when I was a boy. This story happened in Mazar-i Sharif. . . . Since I was small, I would take some books and pens and papers and go to the prison, where I would study with my uncle. Every day in the morning, I would study with my uncle or my brother, who was also in prison, and then in the late afternoon I would return home with my cousin.

There is a room on the upper story of the prison. One day we were sitting there studying when we heard it announced that Muhammad Aref Khan, the minister of defense had arrived. All the soldiers there came to attention since the minister of defense was in the prison. Many members of the Safi tribe who were in prison had decided not to accept any land in Mazar-i Sharif: “Our land—whether it is good or bad—is in Kunar, and one stone, one seed on that land is adequate for us. It is our homeland. We grew up there. Even if we decide to move here, it will be under our own authority. We will not take this land that you are imposing on us. We will not give up this [land in Kunar] to take that [land in Mazar-i Sharif]. This would separate us from our tribe. We won’t do this.” They decided this.

I am witnessing this from above. I am watching to see what happens. The tribe is standing all around. The soldiers are also standing. Muhammad Aref Khan is still living. He was next to a very large canal that flowed through the courtyard of the prison in Mazar. Alongside of this, flowerbeds had been planted. [Muhammad Aref] was sitting there in a chair. My father—only my father—was sitting in a chair across from him. They were talking, and he told my father, “You must accept this land. It’s so valuable, and this and that. However much land you want. I will give as much land as you want to whomever you want.”

My father replied to him, “You have your authority, and I have mine. If we are talking about the authority of the government, the situation is clear. You have taken my land, and I am in prison. If you wanted to, you could kill my children. My hands and feet are tied. You can kill all of us if you want. You can do whatever you desire. It’s up to you—what can I do? It is up to you. What is within my authority? I can refuse to give you one stone of Kunar for all of Mazar. If you were to give me the whole province of Mazar, I would not give you one stone from Morchel in Pech Valley. That is my right.” He said this with great force.

They argued on and on about this, but nothing came of it until finally [Muhammad Aref] told him that “the government has the power to force you.”

My father said to him, Yes, that is your way. Standing behind you is the army, the armed forces, soldiers. It is your custom to capture someone, push them around, and beat them. This is all through the force of soldiers and arms. But if I were to take this uniform of yours off your body, and I went in among the people, and you were also to go, you wouldnt find anyone who would flatter or pay any attention to you. Your power is the power of the government, but if the power of the government—these soldiers, the army—if these were not there and the political power was not in your hands, then you wouldnt even qualify as my servant!

This was a form of insult [paighur]. If something was in my father’s mind, it was also on his tongue. Truly, that’s the kind of man my father was. He was not afraid of this kind of talk. He was only satisfied when he spoke his mind and let whatever was going to happen just happen.

Then this Muhammad Aref threw a punch at my father. He hit him with a punch, and my father grabbed him by the belt. It was the kind of belt that had a buckle attached to it. When he grabbed the belt in his hand, it came apart, and then Muhammad Aref Khan jumped over the canal and shouted behind him, “Soldiers, soldiers, soldiers, soldiers!” My father was left on this side, and he jumped to the other side. Then the soldiers picked my father up by his two hands and two feet. They picked him up and beat him severely. In the course of the beating, his hand was broken, and the bone came out through the skin. It was just hanging down, and [he] was holding onto it.

My father raised his head, and Muhammad Aref said, “Enough!” He was thinking that certainly he had been convinced and would take the land. But my father said to him, “You are infidels [kufr]! You’re not Muslims!” What he meant was that they didn’t have compassion [rahm]. “Tell your men that they have injured my arm! The bone is broken!”

A strip of flesh was hanging down from his arm. Eight men lifted him up, and two men hit him with a stick from this side and two from the other. “At least take my hand.” Then they held his arm [off to the side] and hit him some more. His clothes were white, but it looked as though they had hung them on a piece of meat and then beaten it with a club. It was all cut up and bloody.

I saw this situation from behind; [I saw how they] had picked him up and beaten him. My older brother . . . was also in prison with my father. The soldiers grabbed him, and he started yelling at them and picked up a brick to throw at them. The other prisoners in that prison were all from our tribe, they also picked up bricks. It was like a rain of bricks, but the soldiers—it was really a small army—they were on the other side, and some of them took [my father] in one direction, and others went toward the other prisoners, throwing four or five in each cell and locking them up.

All this was still going on when I left the prison and ran home. I was afraid. When I arrived at the house, I didn’t say a word because—before I had left the prison—one of my brothers had said to me, “Be careful that you don’t say anything when you get home. Be sure no one at home hears about this, that you don’t tell the kids and the women and people we know.”

I went and quietly sat down—silent and stunned. I thought that my father had surely died from this beating. Then I saw the brother who had spoken to me and who had been in the prison come in. He was free. He wasn’t in prison. He had a little box in his hand when he came in. He went into his room. I realized that he had brought something. Maybe it was my father’s clothes. I was looking through a crack, and saw that my brother—he was a young man at the time, about eighteen or nineteen years old—he had taken my father’s clothes like this, and he was holding them over his eyes and crying. He had latched the door so that no one could come in. He was sitting in his own room with the clothes pressed against his face like this.

I saw this scene. I saw this scene and suddenly burst into tears, sobbing. Then my brother came out, aimed a stone at me, and I fled. He was angry because he didn’t want anyone to find out. [10]

Sultan Muhammad and the other Safis had been in prison in Herat for about a year when the order arrived from Kabul that they were to be transferred to a prison in Mazar-i Sharif and that the exiled Safi families would also be given land in the north. Since the reign of Abdur Rahman, the government had used the northern plains of the country as a site for relocating dissident Pakhtun tribes. One such mass resettlement occurred after the Ghilzai Uprising in 1886–1888, and many other small outbreaks had ended with the perpetrators relocating in the north. Resettlement accomplished the double goal of removing troublemakers from the heartland of the kingdom and seeding the ethnically distinct northern areas, where Turkic and Tajik populations predominated, with Pakhtuns. As Abdur Rahman had guessed, Pakhtuns who created difficulties for the government in their home areas tended to become loyalists of the Pakhtun-dominated Kabul government once they were placed in areas where they were in the minority, especially when surrounded by Uzbeks, who had long been their enemies. [11]

In the case of the Safis, the government decided to provide generous tracts of land to the families while the prisoners continued to serve their sentences. The government’s intention was to encourage the Safis to stay on in the north even after their prison terms had expired, and eventually that is what tended to happen: many families decided to settle in the north rather than return to their relatively impoverished native valleys in Kunar. In the short run, however, the government plan ran into considerable opposition as many Safi leaders recognized the government’s intention to split off the dissident leaders from the rest of the tribe. Sultan Muhammad was one of those most steadfastly opposed to taking the land, and this refusal estranged him from some of his fellow Safis, as well as earning him the animosity of the officials who were trying to co-opt tribal support. [12]

In the story of Sultan Muhammad’s beating, several narrative elements stand out. First one gets a sense of the illicit nature of the events depicted because of the observer’s having witnessed these scenes from a place of hiding. It is the same sense that one gets from the tale of Wakil eavesdropping on his elder kinsmen in Herat. In that story, the boy was listening from outside a door to a conversation being carried on inside. Here, the boy was watching, unnoticed, from a balcony of the prison as his father was beaten, and then later we see him again looking through a crack at his brother weeping over the bloodstained clothing of their father. In each of these scenes, the boy has unintentionally become a witness to adult concerns that are beyond his ken. He has intruded into a realm of violence from which children are normally excluded, and this presence makes the actions described all the more startling.

A second feature of this story that is found in the others as well is the sense of helplessness it conveys. In every story that Wakil recounted from his childhood, he is seen as powerless to affect the outcome of events, and this quality is made all the more dramatic for being demonstrated in relation to the larger-than-life figure of Sultan Muhammad. The son was not the father however. He seems, in many respects, a more interesting and empathetic character because he is more human and introspective than his father appears to have been and because he seems capable in a way that his father never was of revealing parts of himself. The father kept his emotions tightly leashed. Wakil does not. He tells of his fear, and in his personal history he allows himself to be pitiable in a way that the father probably would not have. At the same time, however, Wakil is still the son of a great man, and the prevailing tension in his life—a tension that is first hinted at in these early memories—is how he will live up to his father’s example.

A final element of the story is the brutality itself and the boy’s response to it. In Afghan prisons during the time Sultan Muhammad was incarcerated, the wealthier and more influential prisoners received better treatment than the poorer men. Thus, if you had the money to buy food or other commodities, you could purchase them through the guards or have your family bring them to you on a regular basis. Those who had nothing had to work for other prisoners or do other services to receive anything beyond bread and gruel. This feature of the prison system meant that Wakil was frequently enlisted to carry supplies to his imprisoned relatives and consequently saw firsthand the degradation that went on behind the prison walls. On many occasions, he witnessed the poverty and debasement of the prison’s lower classes and the brutality of the guards; these experiences left their mark on him and made him sympathetic to leftist calls for social and economic reform. Even as he rejected the way radical leaders wanted to transform the country and how they went about taking power, he still understood the need for social change. [13]

In the years to come, the government moved Sultan Muhammad to various prisons, sending him finally to Shebargan (in northwest Juzjan Province), which was about as far from Kunar as the government could send him and a place—to quote Wakil—“where people don’t even understand Persian, much less Pakhtu.” To increase the family’s isolation, the government split it up so that only the wives and dependent children of Sultan Muhammad were allowed to accompany him while his brothers and grown sons remained in prison in Balkh. As a result, Wakil grew up far from his own society, in a family environment dominated by women and in an alien social milieu where the language and customs were unfamiliar to him. His was thus a hybrid upbringing, surrounded beyond the compound walls by Turkmen, Uzbeks, and Tajiks, but overshadowed within by the powerful but absent father.

Pech Valley itself was a distant memory, and while he certainly knew about the culture of honor that flourished there, his must have been a largely abstract familiarity since he did not have around him the society of close tribal kinsmen in relation to whom the principles of honor have traditionally been first assayed. [14] While his familiarity with the life of his people was in many ways deficient, one advantage that Wakil had beyond those of his Safi peers was a wider exposure to different cultures and a substantial education. As a result of his peripatetic upbringing, Wakil became conversant in several languages and fluent in Dari Persian, the Afghan lingua franca, and he also had the opportunity to continue his education through the secondary and then the university levels, opportunities relatively few Safi boys had.

The Failure of Democracy

All told, Sultan Muhammad spent over twenty years in prison and was among the last Safis to be allowed to return to Pech. But, even before receiving permission to return home, the family was able to move to Kabul, which enabled Wakil to continue his education and, in the process, receive his first exposure to the ideological struggles that were beginning to reshape the landscape of Afghan political culture. In 1964, the year of Wakil’s arrival in Kabul and his enrollment at the university, Zahir Shah gave permission for the drafting of the nation’s first truly democratic constitution, which was followed in 1965 by the passage of laws permitting the establishment of newspapers and political parties. The university was the site of the most radical and outspoken political activity in the capital, and while he was involved in the campus debates of the time and witnessed the first mass demonstrations, Wakil reports that he did not participate in or seek to join any of the political parties that were then beginning to actively recruit members among the student population. Wakil was living away from the campus in a small house that his family had rented rather than in a dormitory on campus, and this appears to have insulated him somewhat from the more extreme political movements, which were attracting many students. He also seems to have been put off by ideologues from both sides, and while he took an active interest in the political questions that were then dominating discussion, the influence he cites as critical to the development of his own political thinking was not Karl Marx or Mao Tse-tung, Sayyid Qutb or Maulana Maududi—the theorists who inspired the more radical students—but an unnamed American political scientist then teaching at the university, who “smoked a cigar and gave us the best lectures covering every nation in the world—East and West—and which ones had come closest to putting democracy into action.”

Politics and Prestige

I graduated from the university in 1967. My father was in Kabul for that year. Then he returned to the homeland. There were many people there who greeted him. Prior to my father’s return, some people who had been spies during the time of the Safi War were given our lands. They took these lands by force while we were in exile. The people who had taken our lands included some maleks [chiefs] and other influential people. Other Safis who had been exiled also had their land forcibly confiscated by the government. These people who had previously spied were opposed to our return and were saying, “If they come back to their homeland it is possible that some riot will occur again in Kunar. It isn’t wise to let them come back.” Their objective in this was the land that they had gotten hold of. They wanted to keep this land in their hands.

Before my father went back to Kunar, they were telling the government that if we were to come the people would be unhappy, but when my father returned to Kunar, the people gathered in Bar Kandi, the first village at the beginning of Pech Valley, and, based on tribal customs, they fired their rifles and took care of us. This tribal hospitality [melma palinai] continued for about a year. It wasn’t over for a year, and during that year people would come to our house to greet my father and pay their respects.

It was at that time that I graduated from the university, and I wanted to finish up my period of military training and obligation, and I was accepted into the army for training. After one year of training, the people of Pech Valley told me that the election campaign for the thirteenth session of the lower house of parliament [wolesi jirga] was beginning and that I had to be a candidate. I went to talk to my father. One of my stepmothers, the mother of Matiullah, who is now a commander in the jihad, was sitting there. No one else was present, and I told my father that it was my desire to run as a candidate for parliament and he must give his permission since I was responding to the wish of the people.

My father said to me, “My boy, we have seen many difficulties. We have been thrown in prison, and all of this was solely for the prestige [haysiat] of our family. For the sake of this, I have sacrificed my property, my life, my children. I have sacrificed everything for my reputation [naminek], and you should look at this position the same way that you view the earth.”

I said, “There’s nothing wrong with being a representative.”

He replied, “The governments of the present are not the type of government that represent the people. In this government, not even a hundred people could benefit from your service. It’s all right for your own affairs. For your own interests, a seat in the parliament is very good. In this position, you will lose the reputation that I have among the people of my own tribe. People expect something to be done, and you won’t have the power to do it if you want to continue eating the bread of your position. I refuse to give you my permission.”

This conversation with my father occurred when I was in [military] training. On January 1, 1967, my father died at the age of between eighty and eighty-five. After this, because of the expectations of the people, I prepared myself to become a candidate. For the dignity of our family, I participated in the forty-day ceremony that took place after the burial of my father, and I was exempted for these forty days from military training. During this period, I began my candidacy. [15]

Wakil’s willingness to run for office against his father’s wishes indicates that he had taken the class lessons on democracy to heart, but it reveals other things as well. First, it reminds us that in Afghanistan prestige was still largely an inherited asset. A man could certainly lose the status he gained by descent from a famous father, but—as the example of Nur Muhammad Taraki would later prove—it was not so easy to rise to a position of prominence without the proper background. Thus, Wakil, an army conscript barely out of university and away from his home area for most of his life, was nevertheless in a position to run for parliamentary deputy by virtue of his being Sultan Muhammad’s son. However, as Sultan Muhammad reminds his son, he was also in a position to squander that status and, in the process, squander the reputation of his family.

A second feature of this story involves Wakil’s act of disobedience to his father, an act that mirrors a pivotal moment in Sultan Muhammad’s life as recounted in Heroes of the Age. Sultan Muhammad had rushed to the side of his father, Talabuddin, when he had just been struck by the bullets of his killers. In his desire to assure himself a martyr’s reward, Talabuddin had ordered his son not to seek revenge for his murder. Sultan Muhammad, however, had denied his father’s dying request, telling him that it was his duty as a son and a Safi to avenge his murder. Sultan Muhammad’s last command to his son—that he not run for parliament—was likewise premised on his desire to preserve what was most valuable to him—in his case, his reputation as a man of honor. This story, like its predecessor, occurred against a backdrop of conflict in which rivals are willing to use underhanded means to steal the family’s land and usurp its political position. The tribe as a whole, however, supported the beleaguered family, although in both instances the son had to take a stand that violated his father’s determination of what was in his own and the family’s best interest. For Sultan Muhammad, that stand involved making an oath to avenge his father’s death. For Wakil, the stand involved running for elective office, which he believed would enhance the prestige of the family while also providing him an opportunity to participate in shaping Afghanistan’s future.

For both Sultan Muhammad and his son, the events that ensued after their decisions to disobey their fathers were defining moments in their lives. In Sultan Muhammad’s case, his vow to avenge his father led to his fashioning an elaborate and risky plan for destroying his enemies in a single, fell stroke. To accomplish his plan, he had to enlist the assistance of kinsmen and old family retainers who pledged their help to the boy not for himself but for the sake of the father and the family. A similar scenario played itself out in Wakil’s case as well, as those who supported Wakil’s candidacy conveyed to him the same message that his father had received as he prepared for his defining test:

People were coming at that time for the elections. They were coming. It was in the course of the election, and some of the elders were saying into my ear, “We don’t know you, if you are good or bad, if you will serve the people or not, since your life has been passed in Mazar-i Sharif and Kabul. You shouldn’t think that we are giving our votes to you.” This is what they said. “Don’t think that we’re giving our votes to you. We are giving them to the dead bones of your father.” [16]

In response to this message, Wakil invited the people of his area to a great feast in Ningalam, the administrative center of Pech Valley. The feast was held following prayers on the Friday before the election, and it attracted a great crowd:

We killed some cows, and gathered the whole tribe together. . . . I went onto a stage and told the people, “If you think that once I become your representative, then you’ll be in a flower garden, or that I can bring down the sky for you, this isn’t within my power.” I explained to them that . . . my father had not given me his permission. My father’s point was that these governments are not the kind that will allow you to serve the people—you can’t [help] even one hundred people. But I persuaded the people that I had become a candidate in opposition to the advice of my father and that my only goal in doing so was to take a stand in the election, not to win it. [I told them,] “All of you have the right to be a candidate. It’s only a question of struggle, and in reality it’s a matter of making sure that this democracy that the king of Afghanistan claims to have implemented in the constitutional law must be brought into existence by you the people of Afghanistan. This will bring democracy into existence—not the king or any person. Through these struggles, the election becomes very honorable, not by being pessimistic or that kind of thing. Everyone has the right to be a candidate and everyone has the right to vote for whomever they choose.” [17]

Wakil’s speech sought to transect the divide between the morality of honor and the principles of democracy, and it also made it appear that the distance between them was not all that great. Both honor and democracy, after all, were premised on notions of equality and individual agency, both demanded a degree of independent thought and action for those who constituted the community, and both conspired in their own way against the rise of tyrants. On a practical level, as well, it would seem that democracy was on a sure footing in this milieu given the existence of the tradition of jirga (assembly), in which male elders sit together and reach collective decisions on all manner of problems, from guilt and punishment to water use and taxation, war and peace. Wakil played on the points of similarity between honor and democracy, and it would appear from what he said that democracy as a system of government had found a naturally fertile ground in which to grow.

Such was not the case however. The democratic tradition never took root in Afghanistan, and while many practical reasons could be cited—having to do with how democratic institutions were established—there were also ideological reasons, which can be seen at the grassroots in accounts such as this one. In particular, one can see some of the fundamental, if not immediately self-evident, differences between honor and democracy in Wakil’s story of the opposition that his candidacy inspired. One source of opposition, which continued even after his father’s death, was from within his own family. Wakil was the youngest of eleven sons, and some of his brothers were much older than he—old enough, in fact, to be his father. Unlike Wakil, these older brothers were adults when the family was exiled, and they had been more directly immersed in Pakhtun culture than their younger sibling and were also less educated. Some of Wakil’s older siblings shared their father’s view that Wakil’s running for parliament would place the family’s honor at risk, not because they didn’t want him associating with the government but because they were fearful that he might lose. In the words of one of Wakil’s kinsmen (quoted by Wakil), “If a man becomes a candidate and is unsuccessful, this would be a great defeat for him and would place him under threat from his rival. And if the government doesn’t want him to be elected and succeeds in having him defeated, then this failure would actually be thought of by the people as a humiliating insult.”

This conflation of personal shame and electoral defeat illustrates one of the obstacles that democracy faced in adapting to Afghan soil. In the view of many of his kinsmen, Wakil’s loss would have been interpreted by the society at large as an insult directed at the father and the family, not just as the defeat of the individual himself or a rejection of his ideas. When the unnamed relative said that an electoral defeat would be an insult to the family, he implicitly foreshadowed what would have to happen if such a defeat were to occur. Insults must be avenged. A man who has suffered humiliation at the hands of another must redress that humiliation through action. But who exactly could be held responsible? The voters? The rival candidate? Government officials who might rig the election? In this context, an election was not just about candidates and their ideas. It was also about families and family honor, and those who entered the arena placed themselves in a situation in which they allowed others to determine their destiny—a position in tribal culture that is to be avoided at all costs.

In the election Wakil described, it was understood that if opposition arose, it would come from among those families that came to prominence after Sultan Muhammad and other Safi leaders had been exiled from the area. Any candidate who opposed Wakil would come from their ranks, and that meant that a defeat at the polls would have constituted solid evidence that the influence of Sultan Muhammad’s family had slipped. Everyone would have been able to see that their rivals had gained strength at their expense, and the likelihood of a direct confrontation between them would have thereby increased immeasurably. Indeed, since defeat would have been interpreted as an insult to the family, a violent confrontation was all but assured.

As his relatives feared, such an opposition did materialize from among the rival families who had stayed in Pech, but a confrontation was avoided, first, because Wakil won handily and, second, because the opposition, perhaps recognizing their disadvantage, intentionally chose a second-tier surrogate to run against Wakil and in this way blunted the humiliation they would have suffered by defeat. Further, Wakil’s rivals protected their position by invoking the general honor of the tribe, as well as Wakil’s own defense of democratic principles, as their reason for running a candidate in the first place. As Wakil tells it, this was their response:

If [Wakil] were to go to the parliament without any opposition, it would be as if we had sent a mulla. This isn’t right. When a mulla turns up, he goes to the front and leads the prayers. No one tells him not to lead the prayers. But, this isn’t the work of a mulla. This business involves the rights of the people of Afghanistan. Everyone has the right to be a candidate. This was Wakil’s own challenge. [18]

The declaration is interesting, not least because it shows the lowly position of mullas in tribal society. Mullas were fine for leading prayers or for giving a religious imprimatur to the results of tribal negotiations. However, their power was largely symbolic, and from the tribal perspective any group that sent such a representative to a national assembly would be either admitting its weakness or declaring its disdain. [19] In any event, Wakil’s rival was not able to muster sufficient votes to constitute a real challenge, and one reason for this failure was the relatively humble status of the challenger. Wakil had declared grandiloquently during his campaign that anyone had the right to run for office, “whether he is a shepherd, a peasant, whether he is poor or wealthy, the son of a khan or the son of a poor man.” [20] However, the reality was that a candidate had to have the resources to play his role properly. If the representative to parliament were a mulla, well, that was one thing, and the statement the tribe would be making in sending such a representative was that the whole business was beneath their concern. But if the representative were to come from a prominent family like Wakil’s, then a different set of expectations was invoked.

A man like Wakil could not just show up and give speeches; he had to play the expected part, which meant speaking eloquently, and—perhaps most important of all—feeding the people. That is to say, the parliamentary representative had to conduct himself in the same way that khans had always done. This was the only model available: if the tribe wasn’t going to send a mulla, then it had to send a khan (or the khan’s representative), and this meant among other things that the representative had to be able to offer largesse to those whose assistance he needed. Wakil was able to. Because of his ancestry, his relative wealth, and the many allies he could claim by virtue of his family ties, he was in a position to mobilize the resources needed to feed a great assembly of people, and his prestige within the tribe thereby increased accordingly.

King and Commoners

The secretary to the king telephoned and asked me to come and see the king. The secretary asked me what time would be convenient for me to come, and I told him that I am always ready to speak with the king of Afghanistan. The secretary then told me to come at nine, but I was about five minutes late. When I arrived at the palace, members of the cabinet, along with some generals, were sitting there in the antechamber. I was led past them directly to the kings salon. As I was shaking hands, I noticed that His Majesty had written my name at the top of a piece of paper.

I sat down, and right off he asked me a question. “Honorable representative [wakil sahib] of Pech Valley, what do you make of the government, which receives the vote of confidence and broadcasts its voice over Radio Afghanistan? What opinion do you have? A person might think that this government didn’t have the confidence of the parliament since all of the representatives rise to speak against it, but when the vote is taken, then the hands go up, and the vast majority, with the exception of one or two or three people, all give their votes to it. What’s the reason for this?

“That’s one question. My second question has to do with these demonstrations that occur in Kabul. Behind the scenes, there are people who have their hands in orchestrating them, but my question isn’t about them. It is about the children who run to participate in these demonstrations, the shopkeepers, and everyone else who innocently runs along and participates in the demonstrations. What’s the reason for this, that little elementary school kids join in and shout “Long Live” and “Death to” without knowing what they are saying or what the demonstration is about? What’s the reason for this?”

My response to the first question was this. “The parliament is composed of 216 representatives and 216 parties. Those who speak out against the government are under the pressure of public opinion from the whole country of Afghanistan since everyone believes that this government doesn’t represent the people. They have to speak against it so that they can get reelected in the future and not become the object of hatred in their own communities. But then when they vote for the government, it is for their personal reasons. They have their own affairs. They have their own businesses. They vote for the government, [and] then in front of the ministers they can say to them, ‘See, I gave you my vote.’ That way they can do their personal business without losing the support of the people.”

The King then asked, “What’s the solution to this?”

I said, “The solution is that this parliament must be a party parliament. The [Political] Parties Law should be passed, and then one representative from each party can speak instead of all 216 deputies. Then the government can represent the people outside the parliament. Until the government is connected to the real representatives of the people, it won’t feel its responsibility toward them. The kinds of government that nowadays are coming are only thinking about protecting their own positions. They think, ‘For the year or two years or three years that I am here, I have to fool these deputies and the people.’ They only pass their time. This situation will be corrected in this way.”

On the other matter that he asked me about, I gave an example that I had seen with my own eyes one time when I was traveling in Pech Valley:

“Several elders and other people were with me. It was in the dark of night. A woman was sitting by the bank of the river. Something black could be seen, and we could hear the sound of water. Something was being washed.

“I said, ‘Who’s that?’

“Someone replied, ‘It’s a woman.’

“I asked, ‘What’s she doing?’

“He replied, ‘She’s washing clothes.’

“I asked, ‘Why doesn’t she wash during the day?’ (This is what actually happened.)

“He replied, ‘She has nothing else to change into. These are her only clothes, and she washes them at night. She’s sitting there naked under that veil. She washes them, dries them, and puts them on in the morning. She doesn’t have a change of clothes.’”

I told this story to His Majesty. I told him, “This is something that I myself saw.”

Then I told him the story of another incident I had seen in the Badel Valley. I was the guest some place and was on my way there when I came upon a man with a load of barley. He was carrying a huge load of barley on his back. His clothes were torn, and his body was half-naked.

I asked him, “What’s this?”

He replied, “Barley.”

“Where did you buy it?” I asked.

He replied, “I bought it at such-and-such a place and I carried it over the mountains.”

I asked him, “Isn’t any barley grown [where you live]?”

He said, “No, I don’t have anything.” At that time, things weren’t so good, and barley wasn’t available that year.

Then he said, “A man gives me a note that [says], ‘I will give so-and-so the money for the barley.’ As the middle man, I carry the barley back to him. One day and night have passed since my children last ate. I carry this and have the barley made into flour at the mill. Then I leave it for them. Then I go after another job in some other place. Then I buy some more barley and come back.”

I told these two stories to His Majesty. I told him that this was the condition and the economic life of the people. “There are also other people who have nothing to do. They don’t work. They have nothing to worry about: everything is prepared for them, and they don’t have any miseries.”

The king of Afghanistan picked up his cigar and lit it. He placed his glasses on the table. He was sitting opposite me, looking very serious, and he said, Wakil Sahib of Pech Valley”—this is a quote of King Zahir Shah—he said, I am not a capitalist. These are the words of the king of Afghanistan. But I also dont want socialism. I dont want socialism that would bring about the kind of situation [that exists] in Czechoslovakia. I dont want us to become the servants of Russia or China or the servant of any other place. Here is the government. Here is the people. My effort is to work together with this government and the people. These have been my sincere efforts as king of Afghanistan, and I dont lie to you. These were the words of Zahir Shah. [21]

In this account of a meeting with Zahir Shah, Samiullah Safi provides a partial explanation for why democracy failed in Afghanistan. There are two features of this analysis, the first having to do with the government in Kabul and the second with the situation in the country as a whole. The approximate date of this meeting is not indicated, but we can assume that it was sometime after December 2, 1969, when the parliament of which Wakil was a new member had ended an extended period of debate over the status of the government of Prime Minister Nur Ahmad Etemadi. Etemadi had come to power in November 1967 during the session of the twelfth parliament, and he had been reappointed by the king after the election of the thirteenth parliament in September 1969. The newly elected parliament, however, had chosen to exercise its legislative might by subjecting the king’s choice to a prolonged and rancorous debate. From November 13 to December 2, the parliament considered whether to grant the prime minister and his cabinet a vote of confidence. In the course of the debate, the proceedings of which were carried live over Radio Afghanistan, 204 of the 216 parliamentary deputies rose to speak, and the great majority used their moment before the microphone to lash out at government corruption, ineptitude, and inaction. In the end, however, only 16 deputies chose to follow through on their criticism by casting votes of no confidence against the king’s choice of prime minister. [22]

Zahir Shah’s first question to Wakil concerned the apparent incongruity between the vociferous rebuke offered by the parliamentary deputies in their speeches and the tail-wagging compliance seen in the final tally itself. The king’s second question concerned another persistent feature of democratic politics during that era: the participation in antigovernment demonstrations of ordinary people who were not otherwise involved in political affairs. Wakil’s answer to the first question focused on one of the most apparent failings of the democratic system instituted by the king—its prohibition of political parties from involvement in the electoral system.

Political parties were not altogether absent. In 1965, the king had allowed the free publication of newspapers, and the vast majority of papers that came into existence following this decision were party-based organs espousing particular, and for the most part extreme, points of view. Parties therefore existed, including the Soviet-allied Khalq and Parcham parties, and at least briefly they were publicly airing their views in print. However, these parties were not allowed to operate openly within the electoral system because of the government’s fear that they would become too popular if they were legitimated and allowed into the chambers of power.

The decision to keep the parties out of the open political arena was fateful for several reasons. First, it forced the parties to operate outside established channels, and energies that might have been devoted to openly contesting elections were instead turned to the recruitment and organization of covert cells, especially within the government, military units, and schools. Second, as Wakil claims to have told Zahir Shah, the absence of parties in the parliament meant that the proceedings of that body were even more chaotic than they might otherwise have been. Without parties, the parliament consisted of “216 parties,” one for each deputy. Agreements on legislative issues were virtually impossible to arrive at in this atmosphere. On such matters as the no-confidence votes against the prime minister, there were no parties to organize sides pro and con, and so every deputy availed himself of the opportunity to speak his mind. However, when it came time to work on more mundane legislative issues, the throng of deputies usually disappeared. Time and again, parliamentary officers were unable to convene a quorum, and enduring coalitions were all but impossible to arrange and keep together without the organizational apparatus and discipline that parties could provide. [23]

The second question posed by the king, regarding the demonstrations, produced a reply from Wakil that seems in many respects irrelevant. Wakil’s stories of the poor woman doing her wash at night because she had only one set of clothes and of the man carrying barley across the mountains to earn enough to feed his family accurately depicted the conditions of a significant percentage of Afghanistan’s rural population. And the insinuation at the heart of these stories—that the government in Kabul was out of touch with the rural population—was also correct. However, the king’s question had more to do with why people in the city were attracted to radical movements. Why did those who were relatively well off and who benefited directly from the king’s peace thoughtlessly lend their voices to the slogans of radical political parties?

The people that Wakil refers to—the rural poor—had rarely been the beneficiaries of government largesse, but, as noted in the discussion of the Khalqi government’s misconceived program of reform, few would have indulged this expectation. Nor would most of them have been attracted to demonstrations or other radical political options. Never having benefited much from government programs, they had little reason to expect help from this source. Because of his exposure at university to the theories behind various governmental systems and his experience in Pech of some of the extremes of rural poverty, Wakil concluded that it was the government’s job to take care of the poor, but the poor themselves did not necessarily share this conviction. Involvement with the government was as likely to create problems as to solve them, a fact that most rural people well knew and that the Marxists who took power nine years later proved beyond any doubt.

Many of those who joined in the urban demonstrations—the shopkeepers and children referred to by the king—had less to be dissatisfied with than the rural poor, who viewed the government as an entity that periodically showed up to extract resources and people for its own purposes. The residents of Kabul, however, even the urban poor, benefited from the king’s rule if only because he provided them with conditions of peace, within which they could conduct their business, and with a modicum of justice when disputes arose between them. According to traditional principles of governance (as articulated in the proclamation promulgated by Amir Abdur Rahman and analyzed in Heroes of the Age), Zahir Shah had reason to expect gratitude from those whose security his government protected, and he was thus surprised and upset at the sight of Kabul citizens mindlessly shouting “Death to the monarchy” when it was the monarchy that ensured them their livelihoods.

Wakil’s stories did not begin to answer the king’s question, but then again the king wasn’t looking in the right direction either, for the threat he needed to worry about was not shopkeepers and schoolchildren. Rather, his attention would have been better directed at his own family, especially his paternal cousin, Daud, who was also responsible for the arrest of Wakil’s father. Daud had been forced to resign from his position as prime minister with the onset of democratic reforms, but he would stage a successful coup d’état against the king in July 1973. The other great source of danger, greater than the demonstrators in the street, were those who were inciting these demonstrations—namely the leaders of the leftist political parties that the king had banned and that were even then beginning to provide crucial assistance to Daud by organizing cadres within the army and air force that would rally to his assistance when the order to rise up was announced. What Daud didn’t realize was that these leftist allies, who would come to his aid in 1973, would eventually seek power on their own and bring about his violent demise in 1978.

After the Revolution

I think it was Monday. It was the next week [after the April 1978 coup]. It was Sunday or Monday. That evening the government announced itself—the ministers and others—it announced all of them. It announced its new organization. The phone rang for me. I picked up the receiver and said, “Hello?”

He said, “Is Safi there?”

I said, “Oh, Amin Sahib, how are you, how are you doing? . . .” It was Hafizullah Amin. The call was from him. He had telephoned me.

He said, “There you are, and you haven’t even congratulated me. Nothing! You haven’t even picked up the phone to offer your best wishes.” I didn’t say anything, and after a moment, he said, “Are you still there?”

I said, “Where else would I be?”

He said, “You should have gone to the grave of your father and congratulated him. Daud Khan has been killed.”

I said, “Amin Sahib . . .” My colleagues [in my office] were sitting there. I said, “If I go to my father’s grave and stand there, it would be with whose eyes, through whose zeal [ghairat], with whose bravery [shuja #x2018;at]? The spirit of my father would say, ‘You haven’t even bloodied your nose. How do you know who killed Daud Khan? How do you know who did what?’”

For this reason, I told him, Only if I had been included in your coup détat (I didnt call it a revolution) and I myself had been up against Daud Khan in the fighting, would I have the right to go [to my fathers grave]. But how can my conscience accept this when I dont even know for sure who killed Daud Khan? I was asleep. I had no direct knowledge. I was drinking tea in my office when Daud Khan was destroyed, and then I go and offer congratulations? I told him, My conscience wont allow it.

Then he hung up his receiver without saying a thing. [24]

Following Daud’s coup d’état in July 1973, Wakil settled into a period of relative inactivity. Initially, he worked in editorial and journalistic positions connected to government ministries, but he stayed with none of these jobs very long and eventually resigned from the last one—a six-month stint as the director of the government press agency in Kunduz—“because of the conditions I saw there—the extreme corruption.” For most of the remainder of Daud’s tenure in office, Wakil was unemployed, though he eventually accepted another government posting in Kabul as the deputy editor of the journal Erfan, an organ of the Ministry of Education. He was in this position when military units loyal to the People’s Democratic Party of Afghanistan (PDPA) stormed the presidential palace, killed Daud, and declared the advent of a new era in Afghan history.

As discussed in previous chapters, Amin, the man on the other end of this recounted telephone conversation, was the architect of the Khalqi coup d’état and had recently been appointed to the posts of deputy prime minister and minister of foreign affairs by President Taraki. Given the disparity in position between Wakil and Amin, one might wonder why Amin would take the trouble to make this call, but then one must remember the limited base of support enjoyed by the PDPA. Despite the insignificance of his position, Wakil would have proven a useful ally to Amin. He was after all a former parliamentary deputy, the son of famous father, and a prominent member of a notoriously fractious and disruptive tribe. There was also the history of enmity between Wakil’s father and former President Daud, whom Amin had helped destroy, and the long-standing connection between his family and Wakil’s, extending back to when Amin’s father, Habibullah Khan, had been a helpful and relatively humane official in the Kabul prison where Sultan Muhammad had been incarcerated. This connection had been strengthened by personal familiarity going back to Wakil’s days as a student, when Amin had been his teacher and principal at the Ibn Sina secondary school in Kabul and his principal again at the teacher-training college, and also by the time they had served together as parliamentary deputies.

Given the extent and generally amicable nature of their relationship, Wakil’s resolve to reject Amin’s overture might lead one to conclude that his claims to have decided on a course of resistance to the regime on first hearing Amin’s voice over the radio after the coup d’état were trumped up after the fact, except that eight months after the April coup Wakil did indeed leave Kabul to join the nascent resistance movement in Pech Valley. In making sense of Wakil’s opposition, we need first to take seriously his own statements. Amin’s identification as a Marxist was one of Wakil’s reasons for opposing him, but it is not the one that Wakil emphasized. In Wakil’s mind, Amin was not so much concerned with justice and reform as with power, and he relied on a small band of family members and unprincipled allies willing to do his bidding:

Hafizullah Amin counted on his personal relations and friends. He didn’t have much to do with the party and that sort of thing. He wouldn’t give it any importance. All of these people would gather around him. It was like some sort of band, like a band of thieves and highwaymen. It didn’t matter who they were as long as they were his friends. It didn’t matter whether they were Khalqis; he would find some position for them in the party. [25]

In many respects, Wakil’s politics were not that different from Amin’s. His experiences in exile—particularly, scenes he had witnessed of abject and starving prisoners—had inclined him to a more progressive orientation, and in 1978 he had even taken up with a well-known leftist organizer named Majid Kalakani. It is a mark perhaps of Wakil’s relatively cosmopolitan upbringing that unlike the Khalqis, who recruited primarily among their fellow Pakhtuns, and the Parchamis, who drew mainly from Kabulis and other non-Pakhtuns, Wakil was drawn to a Tajik from the Kohistan region north of Kabul. Kalakani had a reputation for cleverness and daring not unlike a fellow Kohistani from an earlier era, Bacha-i Saqao. Unlike Amin, whose support came principally from a small band of cronies and acolytes, Kalakani had widespread support in Kohistan, which was the result not of the favors he could dispense but of his inborn charisma. That Kalakani was also viewed as a threat by the Khalqis and at the time of Amin’s call to Wakil was being actively hunted down probably also was a reason for Wakil’s rejection of Amin’s entreaty. [26]

Another source of Wakil’s contempt for Amin was his treatment of opponents and his branding of all those who criticized the regime as Muslim extremists, “Ikhwanis”:

At that point, if a person said prayers, then they thought he was an Ikhwani. Prayers are part of the beliefs of the people of Afghanistan. We have to say our prayers since we are Muslims, but it doesn’t mean that I am an Ikhwani. Their idea was that if a person wasn’t a Khalqi, then he must be an Ikhwani. . . . A Khalqi would see someone I had known since childhood saying his prayers [namaz] or fasting [roza] and would say that he was an Ikhwani. They wouldn’t accept my opinion. They would accept some Khalqi’s opinion just because he had been involved in the coup d’état. [27]

Though he was not especially devout himself, Wakil recognized and respected the importance of Islam in his society and knew that Khalqi paranoia about Islamic resistance made them see simple instances of personal piety as acts of treason.

Probably the most important factor in Wakil’s opposition to Amin was his sense of responsibility to his father’s legacy. Amin knew that Sultan Muhammad’s specter weighed heavily on Wakil’s mind, and, in his call to Wakil, he tried to invoke the father for his own ends. However, Wakil’s story tells us that Amin’s telephone call had the opposite effect, reinforcing in Wakil’s mind his own passivity and the scorn that his father would undoubtedly have felt for Amin and his minions. Wakil knew not only that he had no right to take any satisfaction in Amin’s achievement but also that Amin’s call contained a not-so-hidden message. To have accepted the logic of what Amin was saying, Wakil would have had to admit to being in a dependent relationship to him. If Amin was responsible for avenging his father, then Wakil would have owed him a debt, a debt that would have required that he be willing to do something of equal importance for Amin. Amin was thus using the moral logic of honor to advance his own interests and those of an institution—the party—that was committed to destroying the social network of relationships on which honor depended; and while he was intent on enlisting Wakil to help him accomplish this end, Wakil showed that he was on to Amin’s game and not about to admit any gratitude whatsoever. [28]

Wakil also indicated to me that his attitude toward the Khalqi regime had been affected by stories reaching him from Pech the summer after the coup. Toward the end of June 1978, three months after the Marxist coup d’état, the town of Ningalam, the administrative center of Pech Valley, became the site of one of the first acts of antigovernment violence against the PDPA regime. Although some have referred to it as a popular uprising, the incident was something less than that; it was based not so much on general displeasure with the government as on a specific episode: the arrest of two elders who, after questioning in the local government office, were transported to the provincial headquarters at Chagha Serai.

According to some accounts, one of the arrested men, a mulla named Muhammad Sadiq, was an enemy of the local administrator (woleswal) and had been involved in a land dispute with him for some time. Many local people believed that this dispute was one of the reasons for the arrest, and it helped to convince them that the charges against the men were illegitimate. When the jeep carrying the prisoners passed through the Ningalam bazaar, an old woman who had heard of the arrests reportedly cried out, “Is there no man among you? Two of our men are being taken away!” Some men in the crowd responded by firing at the jeep, killing an officer and two soldiers. The next day, June 23, 1978, soldiers, accompanied by tanks and artillery, entered Ningalam. Local residents fled the town, taking refuge in neighboring valleys as soldiers began looting their houses. The military was then ordered to open tank and artillery fire on the village, with support from the air force.

According to one report, the bombing lasted from dawn to dusk, while “communist elements poured gasoline on houses and burned them. They fired on the mosques and burned all the religious books and the Holy Qur’an.” [29] One incident during the attack on Ningalam stood out and was much talked about in the following days. A widow who had refused to leave Ningalam when the other residents fled was burned alive in her house with her child. Government troops reportedly threw the bodies of the woman and her child out on the street, where they lay exposed for several days. Wakil was among those who had heard the story of the burning of Ningalam and the killing of the woman and her child, and he told me that the incident hardened his resolve to leave Kabul and return to Pech, which he did the following winter.


There is nothing ordinary about Samiullah Safi’s early life. His story does not tell us why other, “average” Afghans decided to take up arms against the Marxist regime, but it does tell us something about the demands of honor that were felt more generally, if not in so distilled a form as Wakil experienced. The status of Wakil’s father placed demands on his sons—in death as well as in life—that were beyond what other sons had to acknowledge in degree perhaps, but not in their basic nature. The utility of Wakil’s story is that it brings into focus the perpetuation of the culture of honor in a time and context when it might have been thought that honor had ceased to matter as a relevant factor in matters of state politics. The legend of his father’s life and deeds made the burden of honor inescapable for Wakil in a way that it was not for others, but even for the humblest and poorest of Pakhtuns, honor weighed on their minds, if more inchoately and less self-consciously than in Wakil’s case.

The utility of his story, for my purposes, is that it reveals in a dramatic fashion how the past continued to haunt the present, how Afghan responses to the novelty of the Marxist revolution were conditioned by an understanding of what had gone on in the past. Taraki and his followers represented an entirely new circumstance, unlike any that Afghans had ever seen, but that meant that to an even greater degree people looked to past precedents to understand and respond to them. Wakil was unusual in several respects: he was well educated, and, although he had never traveled abroad to that point in his life, he had seen far more of his own nation than all but a few of his countrymen; and, of course, he had the father that he did. All these factors made Wakil an unusually astute and valuable guide for revealing the pressures that others also felt, though perhaps less profoundly or coherently.

Wakil’s story hinges on his relationship to his father, but it is also important to remember how different they were and how different also the context in which they conducted the seminal events of their lives. Sultan Muhammad faced his greatest challenge after his father’s murder, when he was in exile, leading a comfortable life in Dir. He had to decide whether to stay there or go back and face the likelihood of his own death in the effort to avenge his father. Wakil also had a secure position in Kabul, working, like his father, as a “scribe” on a government-sponsored journal of Pakhtun culture and literature. His function in this position was presumably to assist the government both in preserving “culture” and in consigning it to the confines of print. However, with the Khalqi coup d’état, the imperatives of culture leaped off the page for Wakil, and he too had to make a life-transforming decision that also involved a return to Pech.

Where the two men differed was in their character and the context in which their characters were shaped. From all accounts, Sultan Muhammad was a moral absolutist who lived by the dictates of honor. In Pakhtu terminology, he was a qahraman, a champion or hero “who molds passionate anger into exemplary violence.” [30] However, as I note in Heroes of the Age, this role is full of hidden perils, for the qualities embodied in the hero are deeply antagonistic to the common cause, threatening the security and happiness of the many, even as they provide them with an avenue of transcendence. [31] Wakil was neither so single-minded nor so severe as his father. It is not surprising that he became a journalist and editor, for in many ways his sensibilities were those of an observer more than of an actor. Though events compelled him to action, a part of him—the part that made him a good storyteller—recalled the little boy observing the imagined and real violence of others from behind closed doors.

The worlds that Wakil and his father inhabited were also starkly different. Coming of age in the last decade of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth century, Sultan Muhammad lived in a less complex environment defined by the egalitarian, kinship-based universe of the tribe in Pech and the hierarchical, alliance-based universe of the court in Dir. Tribe and court were factors in Wakil’s world, but there were also other choices as well: for example, whether to study overseas in order to learn a profession and whether to join a political party to pursue a particular political agenda—and, if so, which one. Ultimately, these choices too were variations on the theme of kinship versus alliance, but they were far more variegated and diversely presented than any faced by Sultan Muhammad, for whom the crucial life choice was essentially whether to abide by honor’s demands within the confines of the tribe or to live elsewhere as a different sort of mortal.

Wakil had to come to terms with honor’s demands too, but he encountered a more abstract situation than did Sultan Muhammad, whose father’s death required vengeance and who literally had to fear for his life every time he went back to Pech. Despite years of hardship culminating in nearly two decades of imprisonment, Wakil’s father ultimately died in his own bed in his village in Pech. Whatever grudges the family might have borne for the indignity of imprisonment, Wakil was sufficiently reconciled to the government to become a parliamentary representative and later a government employee. Many other tribal Pakhtuns made similar choices, rationalizing that the past was past and the world no longer operated according to the simple binary logic of tribe versus state. The moral order of the modern world was based on compromise, and most educated Afghans eschewed moral absolutism of one form or another to follow situational strategies for getting by and getting ahead.

Given the long history of animosity between his family and Daud, Wakil more than most of his peers surely could have found sufficient grounds for joining the Khalqi bandwagon and taking advantage of the opportunities offered by Amin and his allies. Doing so would certainly have been in keeping with the moral relativism that had helped erode the demands of honor to which Sultan Muhammad adhered throughout his life. But Wakil chose not to do so, and that decision makes his story compelling and his example instructive. To a greater or lesser degree and at about the same time, many Afghans from different strata, regions, and backgrounds were grappling with the choices that Wakil had before him. And though many—if not most—from his strata chose paths between the extremes, staying in Kabul, quietly going about their lives, and staying out of the line of fire, more than a few felt the pull of history and culture and shouldered arms against the state. Wakil was one such individual, and the story of his time in battle and the ultimate failure of his attempt to revive honor as an element of state politics is told in the following chapter.


1. Interview with Samiullah Safi, February 14, 1983. I conducted a total of twelve hours of interviews with Samiullah spread over six sessions between February 14 and March 23. The longest of the sessions by far was the first, which lasted for six hours and included most of the family and personal history included in this chapter. Subsequent sessions added a few new stories, clarified elements and chronology that were unclear from the first session, and included a great deal of editorializing on the situation in Peshawar. Following the conclusion of our taping sessions, I saw Samiullah occasionally but usually in groups with other people, and we had no further extended conversations, although we have corresponded since the publication of my first book. [BACK]

2. In Heroes of the Age, I referred to Samiullah Safi as “Safi,” which is the term many of his friends used when speaking of him. Commonly, however, they addressed him to his face with the honorific “Wakil,” and I use that term here to avoid confusing his name with the many references to the Safi tribe that occur in Part Two. [BACK]

3. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

4. Different people cite different reasons for the outbreak of hostilities. Safi himself blamed the abuses of government soldiers, who would harass local people, steal chickens, confiscate cooking oil and other valuables under the pretext of collecting a grazing tax, and force people to cut firewood and deliver it to government offices. [BACK]

5. According to Aman-ul Mulk, who was one of the leaders of the Safis during the uprising, Safi tribesmen served together prior to the uprising and were posted in Jalalabad, near their own homeland (interview, January 1983). For general information on military conscription, see Kakar 1979 and Gregorian 1969. [BACK]

6. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

7. Ibid. [BACK]

8. See Edwards 1996, 73–77, for a story in which this equation is explicitly made. [BACK]

9. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

10. Ibid. [BACK]

11. N. Tapper 1983. [BACK]

12. While exiled members of the tribe were initially unified in their determination not to accept land from the government, their consensus began to break down as more and more families decided to take the land while it was available. Sultan Muhammad and his brothers and sons continued to refuse however, and while this obstinacy can be interpreted in moral terms, it was also undoubtedly the case that—as major landowners in the Pech Valley—they had more to lose by giving up their claim to their original lands. Despite their refusal to accept the offer, the government turned over land to Sultan Muhammad and his brothers, with Sultan Muhammad receiving property in Shebargan and his brothers receiving their share in Balkh. Wakil claimed not to know how much land the government deeded to them. The land was parceled out by local officials and then turned over to tenant farmers who actually worked the land. Each year, the tenants brought the owner’s share of the produce to the government, and the government turned over the profits to the prisoners: “We never went to see the land, nor asked about it since my father’s will was not to take any land here. It was up to the government if they wanted to give us an allowance or bring a portion of the production of the land. It was up to the government.” This situation continued for more than a decade, until the family was allowed to move to Kabul after the introduction of democratic reforms in 1964. Interestingly, in the course of his archaeological and ethnographic work in the town of Aq Kupruk in Balkh Province, Louis Dupree encountered a Safi family who had been relocated after the uprising. According to Dupree 1970, the family had intermarried with Tajiks in the area and referred to themselves locally as Tajiks, though they called themselves Pakhtuns when they traveled to Mazar-i Sharif. While the Safi family was alone in Aq Kupruk, Dupree indicates that they enjoyed disproportionate influence, probably in part because government officials in the area were also Pakhtuns. Unfortunately, he does not say whether it was also because they were given a substantial amount of land, but that conclusion might be assumed from Dupree’s comment that the Safi leader in Aq Kupruk had formed an ethnically heterogeneous “gang” in the town, an enterprise that would have required substantial resources. [BACK]

13. As the following story illustrates, the prison in Herat had a lasting impact on Wakil, and his experiences there help to explain his later concern for social reform:

In the courtyard of the prison, in the late afternoon, some of the prisoners would be cooking in their pots over charcoal fires. They would cook meat, greens, vegetables, and whatever else they could lay their hands on. Those who had them would sit in front of their pots with sticks in their hands. They would sit like this: the pot would be in front of them, the stick would be in their hands, and they’d sit close to the pot, crouched over it, watching. I would see the other prisoners watching those who were cooking.

Their asses and other parts of their body would be naked, and you could see them. They would be wearing only a few pieces of clothing, and you got the impression that, like, a crazy man has arrived, and you’d think that it was some kind of monster you were watching. That’s what someone would think. From a distance, they would sit like this, staring at the pots, hungry. Watching. Like this.

Each of [the cooks] was in a struggle, a competition; . . . if [his] eye turned from the pot in one direction, someone would mount an attack on the pot from the other side. So, he would continually look around him while stirring the pot. He would make sure that nothing happened, all the while keeping the stick in his hand. This was an ongoing situation, but once I witnessed an altercation. It was like this.

Three or four people were sitting near a cooking fire when one of these hungry prisoners succeeded in carrying off one of these pots. It was a red pot. There was meat and other things in it, and the other hungry prisoners, all of them grabbed it and burned their mouths on it, and by the time they let the pot go, it was empty, and there was nothing left of the meat. I will never forget this.


14. In Pakhtun society, a boy’s patrilateral first cousin (his father’s brother’s son, or tarbur) is considered his natural and inevitable rival. In relation to the tarbur a boy first strives for laurels within the family, and through the tarbur he learns of the essentially antagonistic nature of social relations in the world at large. [BACK]

15. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

16. Ibid. [BACK]

17. Ibid. It is worth noting the similarity between Wakil’s speech and his father’s reported address to his kinsmen and tenant farmers in which he enlisted their support for his plan to ambush his father’s killers (see Edwards 1996, 39 and 66). In both cases, the speaker assured his listeners that his course of action was dictated by a concern for honor rather than self-interest and that, in offering their assistance, his listeners’ autonomy of action would in no way be compromised. [BACK]

18. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

19. There is, of course, an unanticipated irony in this statement given the fact that mullas would soon come to power in the country as a whole. However, in the context in which it was uttered, the meaning was that an unopposed candidacy would be demeaning to the tribe (from the traditional tribal point of view, only a debased group would send a mulla to Kabul), as well as to Wakil himself. [BACK]

20. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

21. Ibid. [BACK]

22. See Dupree 1980, 652–654, 753–754. [BACK]

23. This argument recapitulates that made by Louis Dupree, who was resident in Kabul during most of the democratic era: “Many Afghans . . . including some of the king’s closest advisers in the royal family, argued that if parties became legal the left would become stronger and threaten the monarchy. But de facto, if not de jure, political parties already existed on the left and right and, at the very least, promulgation of the Political Parties Law may have drawn moderate activists from both extremes, and forced the comfortable stagnates of the growing urban middle class to join responsible groups. Then party discipline and an acceptable spoils system (essential to democracy, if kept within culturally allowable bounds of deviance) could have helped political parties define their positions vis-a-vis any existing government. The government, for its part, could have become integrated with the party system and formed its own platform for action” (Dupree 1980, 753). [BACK]

24. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

25. Ibid. [BACK]

26. Wakil told me of a number of secret encounters he had with Kalakani during the time the Khalqis were chasing him down. He also commented on how impressed he was by the risks people took to protect Kalakani from the authorities and noted that even some of the police officers who had been dispatched to capture Kalakani ended up protecting him because of their deep regard for the man. Despite such efforts, however, Kalakani was eventually captured and executed by the Khalqi regime. [BACK]

27. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

28. Wakil’s conjecture as to what his father’s response to Amin might have been reminds me of how Sultan Muhammad responded to the news that his mother had taken revenge for his father’s murder (Edwards 1996, 37–38, 56–63). In that situation, as in Wakil’s, the son could take no pleasure in the act of vengeance, for he had not participated in bringing it about. In both cases, the act of vengeance was seen by the son as illegitimate, and it served to remind him of his own inaction and the tenuousness of his identity until he had proven his right to call himself his father’s son. [BACK]

29. Sahre, n.d. [BACK]

30. Edwards 1996, 216. [BACK]

31. Ibid. [BACK]

5. Anatomy of a Tribal Uprising

It was on the eleventh of January 1979 that I left Kabul, and I reached my home on the third night. I spent one night in Narang, the second night I spent in the district center [alaqadari], and the third night I reached home. Before I reached home, I went to the house of a man who was originally from my village of Gul Salak. All the people were gathered there. They were worried. “How did he get here? What happened? What’s it all about?” Some of them thought that I had become the governor since I knew all the ministers. They were thinking things like this. When they gathered, they wanted to find out my opinion. One asked, “How’s everything in Kabul? How did you get here? How did you get permission? How did you come?” That sort of thing. I saw that there were probably forty or fifty people inside the room and there were some more sitting outside.

The owner of the house was there. All the people from his village were there, along with whomever happened to be there from other places. Opponents of the government had also come. I took a 500 Afghani note out of my pocket. I gave it to the owner of the house.

He said, “What am I supposed to do with this?”

I told him, “Brother, you are a poor man. You can’t give all these people food.”

He said, “To whom?”

I said, “To them. You can’t feed all of them. Even if you can’t give them anything else, you can give them sugarless tea.”

He said, “To which people?”

I said, “To the mujahidin.”

He said, “Really?” His mouth dropped when he said this, and then he turned to his relatives and said, “Replace the red flag with the white one.”

I said, “Don’t put up a white flag. If you’ve got a red one up, then take it down.” Immediately, his sons and cousins went out and took down the flag—the red flag—while we were sitting there. The people there immediately realized what was going on. [1]

The mouth of the Pech Valley runs north and west from the provincial capital of Chagha Serai (also known as Asadabad), which sits at the confluence of the Pech and Kunar rivers (Map 2). The Pech River has two main branches that join at the village of Ningalam: the one entering Ningalam from the north flows from the Waigal Valley of Nuristan; the second descends through most of its length north to south from the Parun Valley of Nuristan before entering Ningalam from the west. The two branches of the Pech are of considerable strategic and commercial significance because they link the Kunar Valley and the Pakistan frontier with Badakhshan Province in the northeast, Panjshir to the west, and Laghman to the southwest. While vehicular traffic can traverse only the lower and middle reaches of the valley, Pech offers foot travelers access to the northern and central flanks of the Hindu Kush without having to go through any major cities, a fact that made the earlier opposition in Pech of considerable importance to the government.

Map 2. Pech Valley
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The pre-1978 population of Pech has been estimated at around sixty thousand, divided principally between Safis in the lower and middle reaches of the valley and Nuristanis in the more inaccessible northern valleys. While relations between Safis and Nuristanis have improved in the last half century, they have been antagonistic historically. Until 1897, when Amir Abdur Rahman sent troops in to force the submission of the population, Nuristan was known as Kafiristan, and it was the last remaining region of Afghanistan to resist conversion to Islam. Prior to that time, Safis and Nuristanis raided one another, with young Kafir men wearing turbans taken from the Safis they killed as emblems of prestige. [2] Nuristanis speak several distinct languages unconnected to Pakhtu, the language of the Safis and the other Pakhtun tribes along the frontier. Despite these impediments, relations between Safis and Nuristanis improved after the conquest, with marriage alliances and trading partnerships becoming frequent occurrences. Language differences aside, Nuristanis and Safis share a number of other things in common: both traditionally organize themselves as nested patrilineal lineages and tribes; both adhere to a code of honorable conduct that exalts male bravery, female modesty, hospitality to guests, and the centrality of the tribal council in resolving disputes and making collective decisions. Here as elsewhere on the frontier, the dark side of this code of conduct is the proclivity for tribesmen to become enmeshed in rivalries and feuds with close agnatic kin and the frequent resort to violence in response to major grievances and minor insults.

In the summer of 1978, however, rivalries were held in check as more and more of the population of the area threw their support to those advocating armed insurrection against the government. The general reasons for this opposition, while similar to those expressed by Wakil, are also more extensive and, according to a report by Delawar Sahre, a Nuristani who was active in the uprising, revolve around several themes.

Disrespect for Islam: “They openly told people to give up the old Quran and study the new books of Marx and Lenin.” “Muhammad was said to be a somewhat intelligent man who wrote the Quran himself.” “There is no time for saying prayers, fasting during Ramazan, or paying zakat (religious tax). We should all just work and obey Tarakis decrees.” “They arrested and killed many of the scholars and banned the prayers and preaching in the mosques.” “Instead of ‘Allah-o Akbar,’ they shouted the slogans of ‘hurrah.’” [3]

Immorality of government officials: “They illegally entered peoples’ homes and robbed them. They also committed many cruel acts and killed people.” “When talking to people, they were impudent and insulted them and used abusive language.” “They encouraged people to do bad things, like drink alcohol, gamble, smoke hashish, use prostitutes, and avoid their religious duties.” “They worshiped the Kremlin as their qibla (the direction toward which Muslims offer their prayers).”

Interference in domestic affairs: “They threatened and summoned people to the sub-divisional headquarters and interrupted their work.” “They tried to aggravate tribal and personal differences.” “They indoctrinated school children in communism and taught them to spy on their parents.” “They said that women were free and equal to men and that dowry and bride-price, along with marriage itself, would gradually be eliminated.” “They decided disputes—even those involving marriage and divorce—by decisions taken by the party provincial council.” “The Khalqis wanted to enlist women in organizations and send most of them to Moscow.” [4]

Disrespect for traditional elites and private property: “They dishonored, insulted and killed the tribal leaders, and told us that landowners and khans are the people’s enemies and should be destroyed.” “They told us that land is not private property. It belongs to the farmers, and the farmers are the government’s hired workers.” “They stole the farmers’ labor under the pretext of co-operatives.” [5]

The grievances cited here are similar to those mentioned by residents of other areas that took up arms against the Khalqis in 1978 and 1979. The emphasis varies from region to region, so that sometimes abuses involving women predominate, sometimes attacks on traditional elites, sometimes land reform, sometimes the character and behavior of government officials. In the case of Pech, the causes of discontent seem fairly evenly divided among the above categories, although disrespect for religion and religious leaders is probably cited more often than any other issue. Despite this fact, however, the vast majority of the population in Pech, including many mullas initially, joined a tribal front in which religious figures played their traditional supporting role of helping to mediate between opposing sides and between combatants and noncombatants without assuming positions of outright leadership.

In their separate descriptions of the events of this period, both Samiullah Safi and Delawar Sahre divide the Pech Uprising into three primary stages, the first of which, when the insurrection remained limited in scope, lasted roughly from the burning of Ningalam in June to December 1978. The second stage, through the winter and spring of 1979, was the period when tribal leaders took control of the uprising, and the population as a whole joined together to oust government representatives. The third stage, beginning in the summer of 1979, was the period of Islamic party ascendance, which essentially signaled the end of the tribal rebellion and the beginning of the Islamic jihad controlled by resistance organizations in Peshawar, Pakistan.

In the period following the governments destruction of Ningalam, the insurrection was not generalized, even though most people were outraged by the regimes actions. A small force did succeed in capturing the government base in the village of Manogai after the Ningalam incident, but it was quickly recaptured, and the rebels fell back, demoralized and aware that the ground had not yet been established for a popular uprising. Most government installations were still untouched, and government programs—including the establishment of a cooperative fund—were going forward. Khalqi officials moved freely from village to village, and many homes still had red flags fluttering above them. To rebel leaders, it was clear that the uprising would be hamstrung as long as Khalqi sympathizers were present in the villages and the government was able to co-opt village leaders, some of whom supported the government simply because their rivals were on the side of the rebels.

Shortly after the recapture of Manogai, the government organized a large delegation (jirga) to meet with the rebels. The jirga was composed of Safi elders from neighboring valleys (Mazar and Badel), prominent Safis living in Kabul, and elders from other parts of Nuristan not yet committed to the uprising. The official in charge promised to rebuild Ningalam, but leaders of the rebellion, including the commander, Abdul Jabar, who was himself from Ningalam, refused these entreaties, and the jirga ended in failure for the government, which quickly resumed air attacks against rebel positions and armed tribal militias in the lower part of the valley. Many of those who supported the resistance at this early stage did so covertly, in some cases even working for the government during the day and joining the rebels at night for mostly ineffectual hit-and-run attacks.

Wakils departure from Kabul occurred in January 1979, after he announced to the editor of the journal Erfan that he intended to take his allotted twenty-day vacation and travel with his family back to Pech. Though the government tried to stop them en route, Wakil and his family were able to proceed to their village. From there, he sent out a message to the leaders of the nascent uprising, requesting that they attend a meeting in his home. Antigovernment activities were still scattered at this stage of the uprising. Although the rebels were being given food and shelter in neighboring valleys, few others had as yet shown any willingness to follow their example by taking up arms, and government officials were still going about their business. Wakils appearance back in Pech seems to have been a significant factor in galvanizing popular sentiment against the government and setting in motion preparations for an expansion of the resistance. As a former parliamentary deputy and son of one of the tribes most legendary khans, Wakil was an established leader who was considered more knowledgeable than other Safis of the ways of Kabul and the wider world. In addition, he was also known as an effective speaker, and his powers of persuasion were widely recognized (Fig. 8).

8. Samiullah Safi (“Wakil”), Pech Valley, May 1985 (courtesy of Samiullah Safi).
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Wakils oratory would prove most useful in the period to follow because the pressing need for the rebels was to enlist the support of the great number of people in the area who remained undecided in the conflict. This was to be Wakils primary role, and most of the stories he told me from this time, including the story quoted here of his first meeting with a group of Safis on the day of his return, involve speeches he made to massed groups of his fellow tribesmen (Fig. 9). The most important of these meetings took place three days after his homecoming, on January 18, when he invited Abdul Jabar of Ningalam, who had been in command of the uprising to this point, and other Safi and Nuristani leaders to his house in Morchel. The decision was made at this meeting to destroy the district headquarters at Chapa Dara two days hence.

9. Samiullah Safi (center, facing left, bare-headed), Dewagal Valley, August 1989 (courtesy of Samiullah Safi).
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Of primary concern to Wakil in the days after his arrival was that the government not be given any inadvertent assistance in stifling the still tentative antigovernment agitation. Thus, for example, because the district administrator was from the Wadir lineage of the Safi tribe, it was decided that the first attack should be led by members of that branch so that the government could not later propagandize among the Wadirs that a Gurbuz or Mahsud Safi captured your Wadir brother. Once the district administrator was captured, he would be kept not in Nuristan (even though it was more isolated and safer from government counterattack) but among his fellow Safis to prevent the government from driving a wedge between Safis and Nuristanis. Finally, the order was given that there should be no looting because this would also allow the government to announce that they had attacked the government center to plunder the rifles and weapons, that this Wakil tells us to rise up and these khans tell us to rise up only because they want to digest these weapons. It was for this reason that even the smallest theft was forbidden [haram].

Jirga and Lashkar

The tribal army [lashkar] stretched all the way from Nuristan to the district headquarters [alaqadari]—this whole district. It was such a lashkar that I thought to myself, “It seemed like every bush had one hundred flowers and they were all human beings.” Their enthusiasm was shared by the women and children who were also there, and they were all shouting slogans, very loud. Starting from Parun and Kantiwa [in Nuristan, at the top of the Pech Valley], all the way to Chapa Dara—all this was one district. All the people from this district were there. No one except the very elderly who couldn’t walk remained at home. They all came armed and committed to fight. There were maybe fifteen or twenty thousand people. They had destroyed the district headquarters, and now it was the turn of the woleswali [regional administration center]

The capture of the district headquarters was the first major event in the second stage of the uprising—a period in which jirgas were held and a tribally organized uprising was begun. At this stage, the lower half of the valley was still solidly in government hands. A Khalqi militia was also in place, and the mouth of the valley was open, so the government was able to bring in troops and supplies from the provincial capital. The government tended to have greater support on the south side of the formidably wide and swift Pech River. The south side is where the main road lay, which meant that the government had greater contact with villages on this side and greater ability to exert its force. It also meant that villages within sight of one another were often on opposite sides of the political divide, which by this point had thoroughly split the region. The leaders of the uprising recognized that they had to accomplish two goals: to gain the support of villages that were still under government control and to cut off the lower part of the valley to prevent the government from sending in reinforcements.

Wakil, along with other tribal and religious leaders from Nuristan and all three branches of the Safi tribe, formed jirgas representing the upper half of the Pech Valley to visit villages in the lower part of the valley, the various side valleys, and parts of Nuristan. Accompanied by a small detachment of armed men, the jirgas would approach each village and ask to meet with the village elders to encourage them to support the uprising. If they agreed, they would take an oath on behalf of their village (qaumi do‘a) and guarantee their oath by dispatching a contingent of young men—representing each branch and lineage of the tribe resident in that area—to join the lashkar, which was usually trailing a few villages behind. Then the jirga would set off for the next village, gradually moving closer and closer to the regional administration center. As the jirga moved down the valley, the lashkar followed in its wake. It was important at this stage for the first contact with a previously uncommitted village to be made by the jirga and not by the lashkar. The leaders were determined to preserve tribal unity, which necessitated that villages be given the opportunity to join the movement voluntarily. This was not always possible, however, as the jirga sometimes came under fire as it approached villages in which the government still had influence.

Wakil recalled for me one such confrontation near the village of Udaigram. After the jirga approached the village “in a rain of bullets,” the village elders sent out two old women carrying a copy of the Qur’an in their hands. This is a traditional way to initiate a cease-fire, and Wakil went forward to speak with the women:

A woman came in front of us with a Holy Qur’an in her hand. The people of the village had sent two women to meet us. I said, “Mother, what is this?”

“I swear by this Holy Qur’an that our houses are under their guns. They will kill our children and nothing will remain behind.”

I told these mothers, “You should be ashamed before this Qur’an. You are our mothers. In the village of Ningalam, they burned the homes of three or four thousand families. Did they have mothers there like you? Did they have children like your children? Did they have property or calves or goats, yes or no?”

She said, “They had them.”

I told her, “You should go and tell those who are sitting peacefully, ‘Shame on you! Rise up!’ You’ve taken up the Holy Qur’an. You should be ashamed of yourselves. You come to us from the Khalqis, from their ranks. They don’t believe in the Qur’an, but those who are rising up, they respect the Qur’an. You shame this book.”

She said, “What can I do? They made me do it.” The old woman said this. “And we are also under their bombardment, and our houses are under their guns.”

I said, “We’ll buy time for you. We’ll transport your children and your property to the mountains or wherever. We’ll do this. In one night, we’ll do it. You shouldn’t worry at all.” I kissed the Holy Qur’an and placed 20 rupees on it. I said, “This is a matter of honor [nang] for you. It’s shameful. You are Safi mothers. Your children, what sacrifices they are making, and you say this. It’s bad.”

Following this encounter, the jirga met with the elders of the village throughout that day, and that evening they took an oath to support the jihad and invited the jirga to stay with them as it was cold and they were “under the threat of the [government’s] guns.” There were twenty people in the jirga—ten to twelve representatives and mullas and a few members of the lashkar who were there to protect them—and they were sent off to different houses in the village so that “no one villager would have to go to too much trouble or supply too much food.” That night, a group of Khalqi sympathizers who had not accepted the elders’ oath to support the jihad conceived a plot to attack the members of the jirga:

All of a sudden there was a hue and cry. It was raining—it was such heavy rain. It was evening. I put on my boots and got up. I asked someone, “What’s happening?” One of our elders was shouting at the villagers. He said, “You are untrustworthy. Before you took an oath with us, and now your young men want to start some sort of a plot.” He suddenly fled—he didn’t flee exactly, he ran in the direction of the lashkar, which was two or three villages behind us in order to tell them to attack the village.

As soon as he had left, the other elders quickly gave me the responsibility of intercepting the lashkar. “Go. You can never tell. The lashkar might became impassioned and arrive suddenly and enter the village, and the soldiers would fire at them from above, and this might become like Ningalam, all because they have been overcome with passion. Go ahead and tell them to wait. Don’t send more than five hundred men, five hundred armed men and no more since any additional force would be dangerous.”

I agreed, and as I was going, up ahead of me, all of a sudden, I could hear [the lashkar] shouting, “Allah Akbar!” They almost killed me. Most of them were people from our own village. They were in the first group to arrive since the man who had gone before me—a haji [an honorific title for a man who has completed the pilgrimage to Mecca] whose name I have forgotten—he’s from Ningalam—he let out a cry that they had captured the elders and they had even taken Wakil—he meant me. “They took him! The government took him! The government took our elders with the help of the villagers, and if we don’t finish them off tonight, they will send all of the elders to Kabul tomorrow and execute them. [They will take them] in the helicopters!”

Suddenly, that very night, it was all lit up, in the direction of the government forces. See the difference in sentiments on this side of the river and that side of the river. I immediately sent men to the other side of the river to tell them that the elders hadn’t been taken and to be careful not to go or they’d capture all of us.

Later, I scolded that haji—I mean those other elders scolded him— “You haven’t done a good thing. The danger here was that the government has seen this, what the situation is.” He had panicked when there wasn’t even any firing going on. Who knows—if we had fired at [the villagers] and hurt them, they would have captured us. They wouldn’t have let us live.

After that, all of us stayed there in that village. Nearly five hundred from the different tribes—we divided the men into groups and stationed them in different places. There were 120 from two of the branches, and 100 each from the other two. We brought them to the village, and that night we were in their houses, and we told them to cook us some chicken. And that night they cooked chicken for all of the four or five hundred mujahidin, the young men who had come. In every house, they ate well off them until the morning. This was a tribal punishment [jaza] that we inflicted on them—that one time you take an oath, then, some among you attack us. We didn’t punish them anymore than having five or ten people going to every house and having them kill a chicken for them and show them good hospitality.

We told them, “Not even one of you can leave. If they bomb us, you will get killed along with us. We’re in the same village, in the same predicament.” They had to do it, and they vowed again—their elders vowed again—to support the jihad.

While the jirgas were moving down the valley, another group of mujahidin attacked a large government force at Tantil. The mujahidin managed to encircle the force, but the siege was broken when government militia fell on them from the rear. Both sides suffered heavy casualties, but the mujahidin captured a large quantity of weapons and ammunition and gained renewed confidence that, under the right conditions, they could take on and defeat the enemy. This battle—the bloodiest to date—was followed on March 10 by the conquest of Bar Kandi. Again, in an attempt to preserve tribal unity, the mujahidin followed their victory by not allowing anyone from the village to be punished and offering their opponents a full pardon if they agreed to join against the government. To prevent disputes over booty—which is one of the most pernicious sources of tribal rivalry—the jirga decided that individual mujahidin could keep only one light weapon each. All other captured weapons had to be turned over to the jirga, which would be responsible for their disposition.

The decisive battle of the uprising to that point in time occurred later in March, when the mujahidin attacked the Khalqi position at Utapur, near the base of the valley. The battle continued for several days before the mujahidin finally succeeded in taking the fort at Srah Morgah and then Utapur itself. After the capture of Srah Morgah, the battle turned into a rout, with Khalqi officials, soldiers, and sympathizers trying to flee in convoy to the provincial capital. Mujahidin hidden along the route of escape at Pirunai Dag succeeded in damaging several of the lead vehicles, effectively blocking the road and forcing the enemy to surrender. Within days of this victory, which isolated the remaining government forces within Pech, the remaining government outposts, including the base at Ningalam, were subdued, and the valley was liberated from Khalqi control.

First Setbacks

At that time, [a woman who] had come to my house told my wife that for thirty days her children had been eating boiled grass and no bread. In the house, I was told that this woman had come, and I was very moved by her situation. In the house we had some crops, and I asked one of my servants what we had. He told me that we had seventy ser of raw potatoes, which was equal to forty-five ser in Kabul—one Kabul ser is equal to seven kilos—and we had about a week before the wheat harvest. Although we had a big family and many guests and they said we wouldn’t have enough, I told him to give the woman five ser. This was more important than our experiencing hunger because the woman had little children.

This was to be given to them, but before getting his portion the young husband of this women had taken his bag and gone about fifteen kilometers away to see whether he could find some corn to bring back. He also had a gun with him, the kind we call baghalpur, which has a very short effective range. It has very big bullets. It’s very old, actually an antique, and is sold in antique stores. He had this kind of gun, and while he was off trying to find corn, he heard that there had been an attack—the Russians attacked again—and he left his things there and went to fight. He was missing for three days before he returned to the area, and we thought that he had been killed someplace.

I asked him, “You went to get corn. Your children are hungry. Why did you go to fight?”

He replied, “I heard that there was a battle. I had a gun with me. What else could I do? Food wasn’t as important as fighting.” He was young.

I asked him, “Were you able to fire?” He replied, “No. I didn’t see anyone. It was a bombardment. There was nothing else.” From there, he had gone to Bar Kandi, then to Waigal Valley. From Waigal Valley, he had come to his house in Tsarigal. This was the spirit of jihad among the people.

The capture of Utapur and Ningalam represented the high point of the uprising in Pech—militarily, organizationally, and culturally. During this second stage of the uprising, not only had individual tribes succeeded in working together, but also Safis had joined in common cause with non-Pakhtun Nuristanis and Kohistanis from neighboring valleys. A council of jihad had been established and had elected a Nuristani, Haji Abdul Ghafur Khan, as its chief (amir) and a Safi from Ningalam, Abdul Jabar, as commander-in-chief of the fighting forces. The lashkar itself was divided into four tribal fronts (one Nuristani and three from each of the branches of the Safi tribe—one of which was led by Matiullah Khan, Wakil’s younger brother). To this point, disputes had generally been kept in check, in large part because of the care taken by jihad leaders to respect the conventions of tribal culture. For example, during the battle of Utapur, Said Ahmad Khan and Matiullah had been responsible for killing a Safi who had joined the Khalqis. Although it was still winter and snow was on the ground, Said Ahmad Khan, who was from the same village as the dead man, insisted that they carry the body back to the man’s family. They set out that night, reaching the man’s home the next morning, and “because of this, he convinced many of the members of this man’s family to become mujahidin.” This story is one of a number Wakil told me in which personal and tribal enmities were avoided because actions that might have been taken as insults or attacks against individuals by rivals were shown to be collectively sanctioned by the jihad council and the tribe as a whole.

Throughout this period, the Khalqis fought back both militarily and through propaganda, which they hoped would win over the hearts and minds of the citizenry. In particular, the regime tried to convince the people that its programs were in the best interests of Islam, but few were inclined to trust government statements, no matter how hard the regime tried to make them convincing:

One time, the Khalqis had failed to write “bismillah” on the top of leaflets dropped from a plane, and with one voice the people said that this was proof of their blasphemy. Another time, presumably to make up for their earlier mistake, they wrote not only “bismillah” but also “Allah Akbar” and the kalama [“There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet”]. This time, the people with one voice said, “They have thrown the blessed kalama on the ground, and in this way they pollute it under the feet of humans and animals.”

One of the regime’s aims in spreading propaganda was to try to aggravate long-standing differences and prejudices in the region. For example, it tried to incite Safis against Nuristanis by dropping leaflets on Safi villages that reminded the people how the Nuristanis had taken arms from the government and assisted them in defeating the Safis during the 1945–1946 conflict. Similarly, the regime also tried to take advantage of age-old disputes over grazing rights between Gujars, who traditionally brought their flocks to Nuristan in the summer months, and Nuristanis, who controlled the pastures, by promising the Gujars arms and title to disputed lands if they joined the government side. They also reportedly told the nontribal peasants (dehqan) in lower Pech and the area around the provincial capital that their time had finally come. “The peasants had supported the government during the first Safi War, and the Safis had looted their homes and businesses in retaliation. The Khalqis tried to fan this resentment but were unsuccessful, and again the houses of those people who supported the government were burned by the Safis and Nuristanis.” Finally, the government tried to undermine tribal unity by bringing in militias from more distant tribes, principally Shinwaris from Ningrahar Province, to fight against the Safi rebels. According to Wakil, the fathers of these Shinwaris had previously helped defeat the Safis during the Safi War, but the Safis were careful not to aggravate the bad blood between the tribes any more than necessary.

In the spring of 1979, everything seemed to be going right for the resistance. The Khalqis had been removed from Pech, and other tribes and groups in Kunar were also beginning to organize themselves to join the uprising that the Safis and Nuristanis had started. Within Pech, the jihad council began to look beyond its own valley to the capture of the provincial capital of Chagha Serai, located at the confluence of the Pech and Kunar rivers. With their capture of the government bases at Chapa Dara, Utapur, and Ningalam, the mujahidin of Pech had the weapons and ammunition to mount such a campaign, and so in April they made their first attempt to capture Chagha Serai.

The assault was carried out at night, but from the first the mujahidin encountered more resistance than they had anticipated and were unable to penetrate the town itself. One group of mujahidin tried to enter Chagha Serai through the neighboring village of Kerala, but the army was able to circle the village with tanks and armored personnel carriers before the mujahidin could escape. The mujahidin held out until noon the next day but ultimately ran out of ammunition. Only three of the original fifty-two mujahidin survived the battle. The following day, Friday, April 20, 1979, the army, accompanied by Soviet advisors dressed in Afghan uniforms, returned to Kerala and gathered all the adult men and teenage boys into a field, where they were to participate in a “jirga.” Women and children were forced into a neighboring mosque, where they watched as officers first accused the villagers of collaborating with the mujahidin and then unloaded their guns into the mass of men. In all, an estimated seventeen hundred men and boys were massacred, and the women and children were forced to flee to Pakistan, where they became some of the first of the 3.5 million Afghans who would take refuge in that country in the next two years. [6]

If one had to point to the key moments when the tribal uprising began its steady decline, the massacre at Kerala would be one, for this event forever changed the terms of engagement. The government, under the supervision of its Soviet advisors, decided that the only way to deal with an uprising of the sort they faced in Kunar was to terrorize civilian populations into withholding their support for the insurgency. For their part, the rebels were shocked by what happened in Kerala, especially the fact that the government had targeted noncombatants. According to tribal custom, fighting should be carried out between armed men who willingly court the risks of combat, while civilians are kept out of the line of fire. To target unarmed men was antithetical to the code of conduct expected of men who value honor. Clearly, however, honor was irrelevant to the government, and the realization of this fact demonstrated to the rebel forces that traditional rules no longer applied and that they would have to reconceive how they organized against and confronted such an enemy.

Honor is a total system of belief and action and requires commitment on both sides to work. [7] When one party to a conflict demonstrates its willingness to abrogate the rules of honor to gain an advantage, the relevance and viability of honor are put in question. Thus, one of the long-term effects of Kerala and of the government’s general willingness to target civilians and to use impersonal means of destruction against its own population was to undermine the ways in which tribes interacted with the state. Honor was no longer a sufficient frame either to explain the conflict or to rationalize the death and destruction rained down on the tribes by government aircraft and artillery. Honor presupposes that those killed will be male combatants who willingly faced the risks that lead to their deaths. It cannot explain or justify the deaths of innocent civilians or of large numbers of combatants who die not in hand-to-hand combat but from machine-launched missiles, bombs, and artillery shells. In providing a framework for comprehending evil and valorizing the death of innocents, Islam proved much more effective than traditional tribal codes, and the eventual takeover of the uprising by Islamic parties is partly to be understood by this fact.

A second setback to the tribal jihad was suffered shortly after the Kerala massacre. In the wake of the defeat at Chagha Serai, the jihad council, realizing that its forces already surrounded the provincial capital on the west from Pech and on the north from the Nuristani valley of Kamdesh, decided that its chances would be improved if it could attack from a third side as well. [8] To achieve this end, Wakil and other Safi and Nuristani elders traveled to Bajaur to ask the Mahmund and Salarzai tribes on the other side of the border to join the mujahidin of Pech in clearing the Kunar Valley of government forces. While largely independent of Pakistani authority in most civil and judicial matters, Bajaur was still under the political jurisdiction of Pakistan, and the Pech jirga knew that the Pakistan government might oppose having its tribes directly participating in an Afghan conflict—even if it was against a government for which Pakistan felt no affection. Still, Wakil reasoned that Safis had repeatedly crossed the border to assist their Pakhtun brothers in jihads against the British, and so it was assumed that honor would oblige the Bajauri tribes to reciprocate the assistance they had received in the past.

The Pech jirga stayed for two months in Bajaur, trying to convince the Nawab of Khar, the paramount political figure in the area, and other tribal leaders to join the jihad. Wakil even tried to shame his counterparts in Bajaur into offering assistance (“Either you should come yourselves and fight, or we will fight and you should provide food for us”). The most he could extract, however, was a promise from the Nawab that the jirga could take four artillery pieces—an offer Wakil reports to have answered with disdain. (“I told him, ‘If you need artillery pieces, I’ll give you the ones we have taken from the Russians. The only assistance we require is that food and water and other necessities be dispatched to the mujahidin. Or you yourself take up the Mauser [rifle] and fight from this side so that we can completely surround [Chagha Serai] and free the province.’”)

In retrospect, Wakil appears to have been naive in expecting to receive assistance from beyond the border. To the best of my knowledge, the last contingent of Safis to join in a cross-border jihad did so in 1959, when Prime Minister Muhammad Daud convinced tribesmen from the border area to cross over into Bajaur to attack government positions in that area. [9] This skirmish was supposed to aid Daud’s advocacy of an independent Pakhtunistan, but although several tribesmen were killed, the Pakhtunistan movement made little headway. Nevertheless, the governments of both Afghanistan and Pakistan had continued to draw “their” tribes into their own national orbits through the enticements of education, employment, and commerce. Wakil also failed to recognize that the Khalqis would have their own partisans along the frontier, where such well-known Pakhtun leftists as Ajmal Khan Khattak, Abdul Ghafar Khan (the founder of the “red shirts movement”), and his son, Wali Khan, had all been active. At any rate, the failure of the Bajauri tribes to join the Safis and Nuristanis for an attack on Chagha Serai was a significant reversal and an indication that the ideal of a transborder tribal lashkar rising up to reclaim the Kunar Valley would remain a chimera. Significant as it was, however, the failure in Bajaur was a relatively minor setback compared with others that would befall the tribes during the spring and summer of 1979 and that would forever change the character and direction of the Afghan jihad.

The Ascendance of Islam

Two months later, I think it was in April or May 1979, we went back to Kunar, and the mujahidin who were with us were saying, “[The Bajauris] won’t be able to do anything. We should fight ourselves. They won’t do anything.” Then we returned, and I was in Nuristan. Hizb[-i Islami] and Jamiat[-i Islami] [political parties] had differences between themselves. They would both take the weapons from each other, but there wasn’t any bloodshed. There were also other parties whose names I hadn’t heard. Before that, we only knew of Hizb-i Islami and Jamiat-i Islami. We hadn’t heard the names of the other parties that were established later. We didn’t know about [Maulavi Yunis] Khales or any of the others, except that [Commander] Jabar would sometimes mention the name of [Hazrat Sibghatullah] Mujaddidi every once in a while. In the beginning, there was only Jamiat-i Islami. Not even the name of Hizb-i Islami existed. The only known organization was Jamiat.

To this point, I have not mentioned the role of Islamic leaders or parties in the Pech uprising because they had not been of major significance. The first assault on a government base—before the burning of Ningalam—was carried out in Shigal on May 23, 1978, by Islamic militants affiliated with the Hizb-i Islami party, but this was an isolated and unsuccessful incident in which one Khalqi schoolteacher was killed. For their part, most of the Safis and Nuristanis who had taken up arms did so in part because they viewed the Khalqi regime as a threat to Islam, but this conviction had little practical significance since the command structure and fighting were organized on a tribal basis. Beginning in the summer of 1979, however, Islam began to increase in importance relative to the tribe. To make sense of this change, it is necessary to consider the traditional place of religion in Pech.

Both the Safis and Nuristanis of Pech express devotion to Islam, but this devotion, in itself, does not differentiate them from the vast majority of other tribes on the Afghan frontier or in Afghanistan generally; the Islam practiced in this area is distinguished, however, by its more “fundamentalist” interpretation of proper Islamic devotion and practice. Thus, in contrast to many Pakhtun areas, this region—Nuristan in particular—has a paucity of shrines, and the veneration of Sufi saints—alive or dead—is much less common here than elsewhere and is even frowned on by many. Likewise, the use of amulets, the donation of alms to mullas (a‘ena or chanda), and other acts not expressly permitted in the Quran or hadith (traditions attributed to the Prophet Muhammad) have long been viewed by some clerics in the area as unlawful innovations (bidat) that must be expunged from popular practice.

Many have speculated about why people in this region should have proven more receptive than most other Afghans to a fundamentalist interpretation of Islamic practice. One theory more relevant to Nuristan than to the Safi tribe is that because Nuristanis have more recently taken up Islam, they—like converts elsewhere—have embraced the faith more zealously and more rigorously than most other believers, who have generations of accumulated tradition behind them and who often take faith and practice for granted. If this theory is too pat, it can still be argued that those responsible for bringing Islam to Nuristan were principally madrasa-trained mullas in service to the government rather than the more entrepreneurial Sufi saints responsible for conversion in many other places. Popular traditions such as saint veneration and the use of amulets, which have developed in other regions over many centuries and which are rooted deeply in domestic practice, have also not had time to take hold in this area. If it is true, as many believe, that the Safis themselves were originally “kafir” in origin (via exile or emigration from Kafiristan) and thus relatively recent converts to Islam, then the same might also be the case for them.

Proximity to Pakistan also must be factored in, for a large percentage of Nuristanis and Safis who were interested in studying Islamic doctrine beyond what was available to them locally chose to study at madrasas on the other side of the border. The Pakistani madrasa most often mentioned as the destination of would-be Nuristani and Safi religious scholars is the Panj Pir madrasa, which is famous for its reliance on the Quran and hadith as sources and its vehement rejection of popular and scholastic beliefs that lack sanction in the original sources. Prior to 1978, most mullas who returned from studying at the Panj Pir madrasa focused their efforts on expunging from local practice the innovations in popular religious devotion that had been taken up in the area. A few younger Panj Piri mullas did stray onto more dangerous ground, criticizing King Zahir Shah and later President Daud for the religious shortcomings of their regimes, but these mullas did not find many supporters—even among those who supported their attempts to reform popular practice. After the revolution and first uprising, however, these same mullas became the conduits through which the Islamic resistance parties headquartered in Pakistan established themselves in the region, and later they became local liaisons for would-be mujahidin from Saudi Arabia and other Arab countries trying to gain a foothold for themselves in the Afghan jihad.

At the beginning of the uprising, though, Islam had not yet risen to the fore as the dominant idiom of government resistance, and mullas—while generally respected for their religious devotion and knowledge (minimal as it usually was)—were viewed as dependents (hamsaya) of the khans and maleks and not quite the equal of others in the tribe. Because independence is so highly esteemed in tribal society, the clientage of mullas ensured that respect for religious learning was interlaced with a measure of contempt, as seen in Safis comment that “the innate characteristic of mullas is to expect to be given something from others. If you give them money, they will do anything.” This is a common stereotype, and while people recognize that there are good and bad mullas, the general perception during the first months of the uprising was that the proper place for mullas was as functionaries in the jirgas, where they could help mediate disputes and provide religious validation for the decisions arrived at by the tribal elders. Mullas were not expected to participate in the fighting or to make command decisions; so when the Islamic parties first appeared, their determination to take a more active leadership role in the conflict was unexpected, unprecedented, and unsettling to many. According to Sahre, roughly 80 percent of the people of the region supported tribal unity against the government; 15 to 20 percent backed the government; and less than 5 percent supported one of the Islamic parties. Echoing comments made by Samiullah Safi, Sahre noted that few people in the first months of the uprising had ever heard of the parties, although Hizb-i Islami and Jamiat-i Islami had begun to make minimal inroads in the region. [10]

All of this began to change about the time that Wakil returned from Bajaur. At this point he became aware that Hizb and Jamiat were offering money and weapons to those willing to join and to accept identification cards. Everyones major concern at that time was getting weapons, and this more than anything else became the prize over which tribe and party would fight for supremacy. The first instance of this sort of internal conflict occurred after the capture of Utapur and Ningalam, when the rebels came into possession of a vast quantity of weapons, including rifles, shoulder-held rocket-propelled grenade launchers (RPGs), Dshika anti-aircraft batteries, and 76-millimeter automatic guns. While individuals were allowed to keep one light weapon each, everything else was initially held by the jihad council. In the first flush of euphoria over their victories and in full expectation of an incipient national uprising and further acquisitions of arms, the council distributed many of the weapons to mujahidin in the neighboring valleys of Kunar, as well as in Badakhshan, Panjshir, and Laghman. The council also gave out heavy weapons to local people who had been in the military and knew how to use them, and these people became one of the first targets of Islamic-party recruitment:

Hizb-i Islami and Jamiat-i Islami—both of them were working among these mujahidin. They were working very hard, and they were working covertly. For example, you are from the Mahsud tribe. You have a rocket launcher. Someone over there . . . has come and has talked to you and given you a pistol. He has become your friend and given you money and other things. Secretly, he has brought you individually into the party. Here, theres the general organization of the tribe, but in actuality Hizb and Jamiat were working covertly among them. The Ikhwan was working in Kunar from way back. They had been here for a long time; whether within Hizb-i Islami or Jamiat-i Islami, they were working vigorously among the people. Those whom they had turned into Hizbis or Jamiatis were those who had been given their heavy weapons.

While the tribal council was giving away weapons, Hizb and Jamiat were hoarding theirs, realizing perhaps more clearly than others that the conflict would not be over any time soon. They also recognized that weapons were not only an important resource for battle but also a way to leverage support away from tribal unity. Thus, as inspiring as a story like the one about the young husband who went running off to battle with his antique rifle might be, the reality was that people needed reliable and effective weapons not only to fight the enemy but also to best their tribal rival (sial). A vital dynamic of tribal society—arguably the fuel that keeps honor alive as a moral code—is the understanding that a man will not willingly allow his paternal cousins and other peers to outdo him in any competitive endeavor, particularly combat. One gains renown by being the first into the fray, the most daring in the pursuit of glory, and the most successful in battle. Rivalry (siali) therefore required results, and when weapons were not available from tribal sources, individuals turned to the parties who were only too happy to give them some as long as they agreed to become members and to submit to party discipline.

In the early summer of 1979, after the failure of the jirga in Bajaur, relations between the tribes and the parties, which were already strained, deteriorated even further as the jihad council came to realize that Haji Ghafur, to that point the overall amir of the Safi and Nuristani lashkar, had been secretly working with Hizb-i Islami. In response to this news, the council took away its support from Haji Ghafur and elected Wakil to take over as amir. It also tried to improve communications and logistics within the region by appointing regional and district administrators in each of the old government centers and maleks in every village and voted to give the organization a formal name—the Front of Free Mujahidin (Junbesh-i Mujahidin Azad). The idea behind the name was to contrast the tribal lashkar with those guerrillas who were tied to the exile political parties. However, in adopting some of the attributes of a formal organization, the tribe also acknowledged the increasing influence of the parties and the fact that to fight them the tribe had increasingly to become like them.

Despite efforts at better coordination, the organization Wakil took over was beset with problems, the most important of which was probably its susceptibility to subversion. The government still had many informers and spies in the valley and even within the council. According to both Sahre and Wakil, these government agents sowed disunity within the council and reported council plans back to the regime. The vulnerability of the council to infiltration reflected one of a number of inherent structural problems faced by the Front, in this case the necessity in a tribal coalition to include elders and commanders from every branch and village in all deliberations. Every group expected to be involved in decision making, and tribesmen do not readily accept the authority of others in the best circumstances and certainly not in situations in which they do not even have the opportunity to express their opinions. Consequently, council meetings tended to attract hundreds of people and to continue for days on end; meetings were so large and lengthy, in fact, that they were sometimes strafed and bombed after being noticed by government aircraft.

Another structural problem had to do with the nature of the lashkar, which is organized along tribal lines, with each lineage fighting as a group and accepting the authority of its own leaders (Fig. 10). Members of a lashkar do not readily accept the authority of outsiders, and so decisions are difficult to reach without exhaustive consultation. Further, as I noted in Heroes of the Age in a discussion of a tribal jihad against the British at the end of the nineteenth century, the ethos underlying the lashkar tends to impede the mounting of effective military campaigns, in part because tribesmen resist the idea of assigning specific roles to different individuals or groups, especially if such assignments mean that some men will be relegated to providing food for other tribesmen or otherwise being kept out of battle. According to the Pakhtun ethos, battle was “an opportunity for besting . . . personal rivals every bit as much as for gaining larger victories, and this ethos meant that few were willing to accept subordinate or specialized roles.” [11] Problems such as these are compounded when a campaign stalls, as the Pech Uprising did after the capture of Ningalam and Utapur. Lashkars operate most effectively when they are moving and able to replenish their food, supplies, and morale through new conquests. But because the Pech lashkar had to rely on nearby villagers for food and shelter, it soon depleted the supplies close to hand, while overwhelming local reserves of hospitality as well.

10. Safi Iashkar, n.d. (courtesy of Samiullah Safi).
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Wakils problems were further complicated in July with the sudden appearance of a local religious leader named Maulavi Hussain, an event witnessed and recorded by Sahre:

One day, the sound of guns and bombs was heard. Everybody ran towards the caves in the mountains, thinking the enemy was attacking Utapur. Eventually, some people were sent to see what was going on, and it was discovered that Maulavi Hussain had arrived in Utapur from the Hezb office in Peshawar and the firing was done by Hezbis to welcome him. The Maulavi opened the Hezb office in Utapur, and, to keep up with them, Jamiat opened an office as well. [12]

Maulavi Hussain, also known as Jamil-ur-Rahman, was a Safi from Ningalam who had studied in the Panj Pir madrasa in Pakistan. During the democratic period, he had gained some local notoriety when he ran for parliament, but, in keeping with popular sentiments about the proper role of religious scholars, he gained few votes and finished last among a dozen candidates. In the early 1970s, when the Muslim Youth Organization (Sazman-i Jawanan-i Musulman) first became active, Hussain began working with them and was briefly arrested in 1973. Most of the Muslim Youth leaders either were imprisoned or fled to Pakistan during President Dauds time in office. Hussain maintained his contacts with Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Qazi Muhammad Amin, and other former student leaders in Peshawar, who at that time were in the process of transforming the Muslim Youth Organization into the Hizb-i Islami Afghanistan political party. Immediately following the Khalqi coup in 1978, Hussain returned to Kunar to organize against the new regime and was involved in the incident in which the Khalqi schoolteacher was killed. In the following months, he continued traveling between Pakistan and Shigal, where he established his primary base and from which he worked to extend his influence into the Pech Valley.

On arriving in Pech in the summer of 1979, Hussain wasted little time asserting his presence, as Wakil discovered when he traveled to Nuristan shortly after Hussains triumphal arrival in Utapur. The reason for Wakils trip to Wama was that he had heard that the Khalqis might be trying to create dissension in the area. He found, however, that the greater threat was coming from Hizb-i Islami:

The Hizbis there were distributing identity cards, and they were telling [the people], “You can’t do this or that, and the amir must also be a religious scholar. And he must have a beard, and he should be clean [sutra] and pure [safa], and wear white clothes, and his appearance should be the typical example of a mulla. Only such a person can be the amir—no one else.” And at this time they put forward Maulavi Hussain as the amir. They had only been using Haji Ghafur. Since he wasn’t a scholar and was illiterate, he couldn’t be the amir. Instead Maulavi Hussain should be it. This was a plot against the people in the interests of Maulavi Hussain and Hizb-i Islami.

Instead of operating in unison with Wakils Front, which still maintained the loyalty of the majority of Safis and Nuristanis, both Hizb and Jamiat worked separately, using their supply line to Pakistan to provide their supporters with food, clothing, weapons, and ammunition. Hussain also sought to undermine the legitimacy of the Front by disseminating a decree declaring that the collection of religious taxes (in the form of food) for the Front was against Islamic law because the free mujahidin did not have an amir who was a religious scholar. Further, and even more destructively, he announced that the campaign that had been conducted so far against the government could not be considered a lawful jihad because it had not been authorized and commanded by a legitimate Muslim leader operating according to religious principles. Consequently, all those who had died to this point could not be called martyrs (shahidan), and the religious reward promised to martyrs in Islam was not guaranteed to them. These decrees created confusion and demoralization within the Front, for neither Wakil nor any other tribesman could say definitively that Hussain was wrong. He, after all, was the most credible religious authority in Pech, and the mullas associated with the Front were generally village educated and unable to stand against Hussain in an argument involving religious sources.

The Mutiny at Asmar

In the midst of the conflict with Hizb-i Islami, news arrived in Pech that the army base at Asmar had mutinied and was preparing to attack Chagha Serai. This was a milestone event, for it not only indicated the growing dissension within the regime, but also presented a signal opportunity to expand what was to that point a series of local uprisings into a major campaign to capture the Kunar Valley and even the city of Jalalabad, which is at the base of the Kunar Valley and the most important city in eastern Afghanistan. The mutiny at Asmar was a major coup for the resistance, not least because the mutineers brought with them forty-five artillery pieces, forty zigoyak anti-aircraft guns, and nearly four thousand AK-47s. [13] Equally important, the soldiers from Asmar had the training to use these weapons and were prepared to turn them against the regime. In preparation for an attack on Chagha Serai, Commander Abdur Rauf transported his men and weapons from Asmar to the villages of Shin Koruk and Shigal, which were close to Chagha Serai. Shigal, it will be recalled, was also the principal center of operations for Hussain, and his involvement in the ensuing events was most controversial and ambiguous.

What is known for certain is this. A plan of attack was drawn up by the Front, the Islamic parties, and Commander Rauf. According to this plan, the artillery brought out of Asmar by Commander Rauf would begin firing on Chagha Serai at dawn, and the combined forces of the various mujahidin groups would approach Chagha Serai under cover of the artillery fire. The attack began as planned with the commencement of the artillery barrage, but the assault never took place because of rumors spreading among the mujahidin that the operation had been called off. In the confusion that followed, the arms belonging to the Asmar garrison were stolen, and it is reported that the bulk of the readily moveable weapons—AK-47s, RPGs, and recoilless rifles—were eventually transported to Pakistan and sold in the Bajaur arms bazaar.

The failure of the assault on Chagha Serai and the looting of the Asmar garrison were crucial events in the war. Not only was the possibility of a regional tribal uprising foreclosed by the failure of this operation, but relations between groups, already strained, were also permanently poisoned. From this point on, the antigovernment resistance was permeated with suspicion. Never again would the Front give away weapons to groups from other regions. Weapons hereafter became the principal currency for economic and political survival, and they had to be jealously bargained for and controlled. After Asmar, distrust and dispute became the hallmarks of the Afghan jihad—not only in Kunar but in every province. Asmar also was a significant military setback. In the summer of 1979 the regime in Kabul was coming unglued. Amin had become first minister in March and had instituted an increasingly brutal campaign to cement his own power and destroy his rivals. Amins reign of terror would culminate in his assassination of President Nur Muhammad Taraki, which in turn precipitated the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. Amins unpopular leadership had made the regime particularly vulnerable. Military desertions were increasing, as more and more soldiers wanted out of a situation in which they were arresting and killing their own countrymen. Asmar could have served as a signal to other military units unhappy with the Khalqi regime that the regime could be overthrown, but it was not to be. Instead, after Asmar, military units came to realize that the resistance was deeply divided and that offering their support to either side could be their undoing. [14]

Not surprisingly, there are many different interpretations of what happened, most of them critical of Hussain and Hizb-i Islami. Wakil, for example, claimed that at the time of the Asmar incident a letter from a Hizb-i Islami mulla living in Nuristan came into his hands that declared that the operation against Chagha Serai had been called off. The distribution of such letters was enough, in his view, to sabotage the assault, for “someone would attack and get a foothold inside, and then someone else doesn’t attack and leaves their flank exposed. . . . All of this was a conspiracy.” Wakil also tells of a time shortly after Asmar when Hizb mujahidin tried to transport fifty-four zigoyaks, Dshikas, and Kalashnikovs looted from the Asmar garrison. The weapons were on their way to Kohistan via Pech and were stopped by the Front. For two months, a jirga met to consider the disposition of the weapons, and despite vigorous objections from Hizb leaders, including Hekmatyar himself, the jirga elected to keep the weapons on the grounds that they had been stolen from Asmar and the mujahidin and were not owned by any one party. In the jirga’s view, even if these weapons were bound for another mujahidin group, it would be dishonorable to allow this theft to go unnoticed and unavenged. As Wakil explained, “If someone were to take away someone’s gun, it would be an insult and a great shame. Even if a man doesn’t have the power to defend himself [right away], he keeps the insult in his heart, and whenever he has the power, he will kill the person who takes his gun.” [15]

In an interview in Peshawar in the spring of 1983, Abdur Rauf, the commander of the Asmar garrison and himself a member of the Safi tribe from Kapisa Province, told me of his growing disenchantment with the regime prior to the mutiny, the laborious secret planning that had gone on, and the final execution of the plan, which involved killing Khalqi political officers and sympathizers within the garrison. After successfully eliminating the opposition and before news of the mutiny had leaked out, he met with Hussain and, “because he was from the same tribe,” told him his plan to attack Chagha Serai. Commander Rauf believed that there was still time to launch an assault before a counterattack could be organized, but Hussain insisted that such an attack should be undertaken only by order of Hizb-i Islami, and he began to fulminate against the other Peshawar-based parties, which he described as representatives of former King Zahir Shah and full of communist sympathizers.

Commander Rauf said that Hussain informed him that these rival parties should be eliminated first and only then should the jihad against the communists begin. Hussain also insisted that the weapons from the Asmar garrison be turned over to him and later met with Raufs troops, urging them to lay down their weapons and return to their home provinces. Despite his growing distrust of Hussain, Rauf claims to have accepted his demand to turn over his weapons because he did not have any personal familiarity with the organization of the resistance and Hussain appeared to be in charge of the area. He also told me that he was confused by all the talk of Zahir Shah and the treachery of the parties and, recognizing his own vulnerability, wanted to be accepted by his new allies—despite his own past service to the regime—as a true believer and faithful servant of Islam. [16]

Not surprisingly, Hussains commentary on the Asmar incident differed markedly from the views of the others. [17] He claimed in an interview with me that Rauf was an opportunist who joined in the planning of the mutiny only after officers who were secretly aligned with Hizb-i Islami had laid the groundwork. Like Rauf, these officers were not all they appeared to be, and, in Hussains account, they agreed to accept a bribe from rival political parties in Peshawar to sabotage Hizb-i Islami and the Chagha Serai operation. In his version of events, these officers, in conjunction with local tribesmen, seized on the confusion surrounding the Chagha Serai assault to loot the Asmar garrison. Although the bulk of the testimony is stacked against Hussain, it is still not improbable to suppose that Safi tribesmen might have jumped at the opportunity to obtain the Asmar weapons. A generation before, during the Safi War of 1945–1946, tribesmen had shown their passion for booty when they looted the government treasury at Chagha Serai, and by the summer of 1979 many were in desperate economic straits because they had not been able to work their land or to carry on the business and trade that sustained many residents of Pech. However, even if Safis did participate in the looting, Hizb still appears to have been at least indirectly responsible for establishing the climate of distrust and noncooperation within which the rumors that destroyed the assault on Chagha Serai could have taken hold and might have seemed believable. Three months earlier, when Ningalam and Utapur were taken, such rumors probably would not have been believed, and if they had been believed by some, the communication between leaders and troops was such that they could have been squelched. However, by the summer of 1979, with the biggest and most important military operation on the line, no one knew whom to believe, and the result was the effective collapse not only of the assault but also of the tribal uprising itself.

Second Exile

On Saturday night, May 10–11, 1980, the Russians landed twelve helicopters behind our front lines in Bar Kandi, which is a Mahsud [Safi] area. About six MiG jets provided air support. A number of mujahidin immediately went in that direction—the mujahidin who had fronts in Utapur. The Russians initiated a fierce attack on the mujahidin headquarters at Utapur. Near this place, at the entrance of the mountain valley near Utapur, the Russians landed a second force, on this side of Qatar Qala. In this attack, the forces were in all likelihood Cubans. They had black uniforms. Through this tactic, the Russians managed to disperse the mujahidin forces and cut our communications. It became difficult for one mujahidin front to help another, and they were scattered in different valleys. But the next night, the powerful force of the heroic warriors of Pech Valley routed and inflicted heavy casualties on the Russian force that had landed behind the mujahidin lines at Bar Kandi. That night, the entire Russian force was destroyed and most of the enemy were killed and the rest fled.

Following that, on Tuesday, they landed more forces by helicopter, and that same day they landed other troops in Ningalam. They also dispatched soldiers to Tangi Rechalam, Chapa Dara, and toward Morchel. Really I myself had never seen such a huge force and such modern military equipment and such tactics for scattering the mujahidin. I couldnt have imagined it. I had taken a position high up on a mountain and saw through my binoculars that the majority of the enemy forces were Russians and Cubans and two-thirds of their force were armed with rocket launchers. When the infantry hit one of the huge trees [with a rocket], the whole trunk would collapse. They were all carrying rockets. I was trying to count the number of modern military helicopters, and I lost count after thirty or thirty-five. At this time, the wheat was ripe. The harvest would have started a week later, but we immediately began our great exile [muhajirat]. It was a great flight toward the inaccessible mountains inside the Nuristan part of Pech Valley.

Following the looting of the Asmar garrison and the failure of the assault on Chagha Serai, the formerly unified tribal alliance became factionalized. The Front of Free Mujahidin under Wakils leadership continued to advocate fighting on the basis of tribal organization, but the parties were able to offer weapons to those who joined, and this proved a powerful incentive to many Safis. In an effort to reclaim the unity that had been lost at Asmar and Chagha Serai, Nuristani leaders met in October 1979 and then sent a delegation to Utapur to meet with the Safi leaders headquartered there, but continued disagreements with Hizb-i Islami prevented any progress from being made. Efforts to reunify the fighting forces remained stalled throughout the critical period between Tarakis assassination and the Soviet invasion in December. In March, a Soviet force attacked Asmar, Pech, and Dewagal, with helicopters and MiGs bombing and strafing mujahidin bases and a Soviet force entering Ningalam. Despite these setbacks, the mujahidin made a spirited defense of their homeland, and Wakil even noted that two women, around fifty years of age, appeared at the front with swords in their belts and participated in the fighting. The government base at Utapur was dislodged, and the mujahidin managed to inflict significant casualties as the invaders were forced to retreat down the main road to Chagha Serai.

The following month, the mujahidin staged a nighttime raid on the provincial capital, during which the government armory was looted and destroyed, but the euphoria from this victory was short-lived, as the Soviets responded by mounting a far larger and more effective assault on Pech. This time, the absence of a unified command along with the overwhelming superiority of Soviet arms took their toll, and the “great exile” Wakil refers to began in earnest. Hizb-i Islami leaders had been urging people to emigrate for some time, but the combination of disunity and the direct intervention of Soviet troops with their sophisticated weaponry finally convinced people that the situation had become hopeless. Initially, Safis headed for the relative safety of the high mountains of Nuristan. It was spring, however, and the Nuristanis, who lived on a minimal subsistence diet of milk, cheese, and barley in the best of times, could not support the additional population; the Safi refugees decided that they would have to continue on to Pakistan:

After the people had offered prayers and decided to become refugees, my older brother, Sho’eb Khan, took me aside privately. He said to me, “My wife and children, we have never experienced anything like this, going to an unknown place. We cannot accept charity [khairat]. Our conscience won’t allow us. I can’t do construction work, and we don’t belong to those parties. Therefore, this is what we should do—these wives of ours”—he was very serious, he’s still alive—“our wives and the children whom we can’t take care of—we should kill them all. We should kill them so they won’t fall into the hands of the Russians. We will gather them at the grave of our father, and then we ourselves will become martyrs. There’s nothing else to do. Our death would be more honorable than if we were to expect some hand from above to come down and give us our daily bread. Our wives have never even walked along a road, and these are high mountains—very high! They are in purda [satr] and never even leave the house and can’t walk two steps outside. Where could they go? The only way is to die, and the only honorable way is that we kill them with our own hands so that they don’t fall into the hands of the Russians or anyone else. We kill them, and then we fight until we die.”

Then I told him, “This is both against Islam and also cowardly [najawani] and dishonorable [be ghairati]. Our women are going to tell us, ‘You can’t fight against the Russians, so instead you kill us. What have we done wrong?’” After this, I managed to convinced him, but he is that kind of person and he would have done it. But I convinced him that doing this wouldn’t be [according to] Islam or honor or magnanimity [hemat]. Whatever is ahead for this tribe and people is destined for us too. We had no other choice since it was a tribal decision.

Sho’eb Khan’s inclination to kill all the women of the family rather than have them migrate to Pakistan is reminiscent of two earlier episodes referred to by Wakil in his life story. The first is the statement attributed to Sultan Muhammad Khan that he could not join in the Safi War in 1945 because his women were “like invalids” and would be unable to endure the rigors of war. The second is the meeting of Wakil’s older kinsmen after Sultan Muhammad’s arrest and their deliberation over killing their women and children rather than submitting to the humiliation of exile. Here, thirty-five years later, the same vehemence and zeal are manifest in the proposal of Wakil’s older brother. Sho’eb Khan’s motivation was his fear that his family would suffer humiliation and dishonor, but wealth was also an underlying factor in this situation. The family’s material prosperity, which allowed the males of the family to confine the women to the house while tenant farmers tended the fields, had the unintended consequence of making the family more vulnerable. Having female dependents is a manifestation of a man’s honor, but the obverse of that relationship is that one’s dependents can also compromise honor. Seclusion is a partial response to that problem, but it is always incomplete and subject to disruption. In this instance, Wakil was able to convince his brother that killing the women of the family would be a false solution to the problem, but the problem nevertheless remained and continued to fester for Safi and other Pakhtun tribesmen as they experienced the reality of exile and their own incorporation as dependents within a bureaucratically organized refugee system.

Wakil and his family, accompanied by sheep and goats, journeyed for twenty-four days, camping at night and traveling furtively through the mountains, always fearful of being detected by helicopters. Adults carried one or two children on their backs, and each evening an animal would be slaughtered to provide food. In late June, they reached the pass overlooking Chitral. When they reached the border, Wakil recalled looking at his sister and seeing tears on her cheeks. He asked her why she was crying, and she replied, “When we were exiled from Kunar to Herat, we were crying and saying to ourselves that they were making us flee. But Afghanistan was our homeland. That was Herat. What difference did it make where it was? That was our feeling then. Now we are becoming refugees from our homeland; we are going into exile. Now we are leaving our homeland. See this side is the soil of Pakistan and that side is the soil of Afghanistan.” Pakistani militia units were stationed at the border. Wakil asked one militiaman how long the exodus from Pech Valley had been going on. He replied that people had been arriving at the border for the last twenty days, with between five and seven hundred families passing through the check post every forty-eight hours.

Initially, the Safi families all congregated in Dir, the place that Sultan Muhammad had gone to when he was exiled after his father’s murder. For a month, they fended for themselves in makeshift tents while waiting for the authorities to give them a site and resources for an official refugee tented village; but this permission was not forthcoming, and the elders sent Wakil to Peshawar to speak to higher-ups in the refugee administration about establishing a camp for the families of the Front of Free Mujahidin. The authorities in both Peshawar and Islamabad denied the request, however, on the grounds that they supported only those refugees who belonged to one of the authorized Afghan political parties. This was the final and in some ways greatest indignity—that in becoming refugees they had also to accept the leadership of the very groups that had helped to undermine the tribal uprising and forced them to become refugees. If the Safis wanted to receive rations and tents and be allowed to live legally in Pakistan, they had first to stand in line at the office of one of the parties to receive from them a party membership card.


There is a Mahsud Safi from Gul Salak named Haji Jalal Khan. He is a very simple old man but also the best example of a white-bearded mujahid that you could find. The young would not go to any battle if he didn’t accompany them. The young fighters would say to him, “If you don’t come with us, we won’t go to battle.” He would go to a battle and would sit in a cave, or someplace, and watch over all the belongings of the mujahidin and fix their food and do all of the work. He was continuously involved in the battles.

I will tell you one story about this Haji Jalal Khan, who was a very simple man and illiterate. Someone had sent a cow to feed the free mujahidin in our Front. We didn’t kill the cow but instead sent it to the fighting front for the mujahidin to eat. They took the cow up in the mountains to Shahbazai, where the front was located, above Chagha Serai. An artillery shell falls and explodes, and before it can be properly butchered, the cow is wounded and falls down.

When the mujahidin see that it is wounded, they immediately butcher it. Then the mujahidin divide up the meat among the mujahidin. Haji Jalal Khan won’t eat any of it, and they ask him, “Why aren’t you eating?”

He doesn’t say anything to the mujahidin about why he isn’t eating. He says to them, “I have a stomach problem. If I eat anything, I will get sick. I can’t eat either its soup or its meat.” But, after this, I asked Haji Jalal Khan, “Why didn’t you eat this?”

He said, “Well, this cow was a martyr.”

I said, “If you wouldn’t eat this cow because it was a martyr, why did you let the other mujahidin eat it?”

“Because if they hadn’t eaten, the poor guys, they were hungry. Not even bread was available. They were hungry. They had to eat, and if I had said anything, they wouldn’t have eaten, and that would have been a great cruelty against the rights of the mujahidin. But my conscience wouldn’t allow me to eat the meat of a cow that had been wounded by the cannon of the enemy, the cannon of the Russians. In my opinion, she was a martyr.”

Samiullah Safi told me the story of Haji Jalal Khan as an example of the spirit of the tribal uprising in its early days. Many people had that feeling and commitment. Participation in the fighting against the government became an extension of the Pakhtun ethos of individual zeal (ghairat) and bravery (shuja‘at). As Wakil noted to me, when a boy reaches adolescence, his first thought is to get his father to buy him a gun since only through fighting can a boy demonstrate his worth as a man. Safis, like other Pakhtuns, idealize heroes, and one of the important sentiments that helped ignite the uprising against the Khalqis was the desire of individual men to prove their ability as fighters. “Because they hear the legends about how so-and-so fought like this in this war or that, people know that so-and-so is a true war hero, has never been defeated in war, and has never caught a bullet in his back. If he has been wounded, it was always in the front. . . . This sentiment was one of the elements that inspired the rebellion.”

As part of this ethos, every individual tried to show his bravery and skill in battle, and every tribal unit tried to outdo rival groups. Those who were slow to enter battle or who failed to demonstrate the proper attitude would be subject to the ridicule (paighur) of women in their group, which, as the following story illustrates, was a sanction that Pakhtun men took seriously:

In Gul Salak, there was a family with four brothers. [The jirga] had decided that it should only be required for one member from every family to be continuously present at the front, but all four of these brothers went to the war front. Once I went back to the village from the front and saw that all four were gone, and I asked why. Then I learned that one of the brothers had been at home, and he had slapped one of his sisters-in-law because of some problem. When he slapped her, she said, “You’re ready to hit me. Your brothers are at the front while you are sitting at home, and you only hit me.” After this incident, he wouldn’t sit at home but instead would go to the front. This was the mentality then.

The enthusiasm of this first period lasted little more than a year, and for a variety of reasons it then declined. Some of these reasons have to do with problems inherent in the tribal way of making war. Others have to do with government efforts at subverting the tribal uprising. But probably the most important involve the emergence of the Islamic resistance parties. With respect to the internal problems, some, having to do with the lashkar as a vehicle of military mobilization, have already been mentioned. The lashkar is a formation that does best when it is moving through enemy territory and is able to live off conquered booty in the villages it passes through. With minimal logistical support and division of responsibility, it does less well when stalled for a protracted period of time, as was the case in Pech in 1978–1979. The jirga as a decision-making body also has its problems in this context, privileging as it does maximal involvement over coherence, consensus over quickness. Furthermore, with so many participants, jirga deliberations were difficult to keep under wraps, and consequently government agents could easily infiltrate and disrupt the proceedings.

Among the government’s agents were some of the better-off and more influential men in the tribe. As was the case in the Safi War of 1945–1946, the most enthusiastic fighters were generally younger men with less to lose and more to gain from taking on the government. Men of wealth, however, had a great deal to lose, and so the Marxist government, despite all its talk of enfranchising the masses, as often tried to buy off local elites as to destroy them. Some of these elites responded positively to government entreaties and bribes in a generally futile effort to preserve their influence, which was being taken over by rising leaders, who were, in some cases, younger tribesmen making reputations for themselves in the fighting and, in others, mullas brought to power by the Peshawar parties.

The martial ethos of the Pakhtuns and the desire of every male to be involved in the fighting also had a downside. In the beginning, people joined with whatever weapons were at hand, but over time they clamored for better weapons. The capture of government bases supplied this need initially, but this input of better weapons seemed only to stoke the greed of some tribesmen, who began to focus more on booty than on the battle itself: “There were even one or two people . . . who had ropes wrapped around their waists. This was so that they could carry all the booty and captured weapons on their backs with this rope and take it away.” The larger problem with weapons was that the parties had more of them than anyone else, and, as a result, those who wanted them had to come knocking at party doors to get them. The parties took advantage of the demand for weapons to play rivals against one another. Since it was the prevailing ethos for each individual to want to outdo his peers in fighting prowess, it was in the individual’s interest to have the best possible weapons, as much to outperform his rival as to defeat the government. Similarly, tribal leaders also wanted to demonstrate their continued power by supplying their followers with weapons and resources. The government was one source that these leaders could go to, but as it became clear that the tribe was overwhelmingly against the government, continued involvement with the government became overly risky. That left the parties as the only viable source of the resources tribal leaders needed to continue supplying their followers and thereby preventing a mass defection to other leaders.

More than anything else, weapons were the lever with which the parties dislodged tribal leadership, but there were other factors as well, including the use of Islamic ideology. As noted, Maulavi Hussain and other party leaders flummoxed tribal leaders with their announcements that Islamic doctrine required an Islamic scholar be in charge of the uprising, that taxes and donations collected for the benefit of the fighters were meritorious only if they were collected by and for the Islamic parties, and that only members of an Islamic party were guaranteed entrance to paradise if they should die in battle. With more and more people emigrating, the party control over the refugee camps also helped cement their power back home, as tribesmen came increasingly to realize that they could neither fight effectively nor leave their families in the safety of the camps without the support of one of the parties.

One of the overall effects of the parties was to deaden the enthusiasm of the first stage of fighting:

In the beginning, when the movement was spontaneous, [people] would fight with sticks and clubs and axes, and now they have all the weapons they could want, but they don’t fight like before. Before they would go to the mountains on empty stomachs and without proper clothing, but today what happens has no resemblance to that. Before, people had no fear of death because of the idea of ghazi [being a veteran of jihad] and martyrdom, but now before thinking of their own martyrdom they think about the martyrdom of their leaders and those close to them. They wait to see their leaders do it first before doing it themselves. This is the spirit that has entered the people. They think that what they have gotten in the name of Islam they won’t give up to free their country.

Another effect of the parties was that people began to fear these new leaders, not only because of what they might do to them in the present but, more important, because they feared God and the divine sanctions that would come their way if the Muslim leaders condemned them:

Parties deluded people into thinking that they had to become true Muslims. For example, there was a man from Pech named Qayyum who was about sixty years of age. . . . This man was studying a book, a book written by Maududi. [A friend of mine] asked him what book it was, and he said, “It’s a very good book. It shows you what Islam is.” After he had become knowledgeable about this book, he would sit out by the public path and study it. People had told him that he was under suspicion by Hizb-i Islami—that since he had a son who had a clerk’s position in Kabul he couldn’t be a good Muslim. Therefore, he was obliged without even thinking about it to go to Hizb-i Islami and work for them to prove his religiosity. He had to do the work of the Hizbis to show that he was a good Muslim. [18]

Over time, party domination became complete as the Front was forced to cease operations in Pech and was prevented by the Pakistani government from opening an office in Peshawar. In other border areas, the same pattern was followed with local variations, as independent fronts were squeezed out by the wealthier, better connected, and ideologically more resilient religious parties. As discussed in greater depth in Chapter Seven, those who did survive usually managed to do so by accepting the nominal authority of one of the more moderate parties run by Sufi leaders and traditional clerics. These parties were generally more poorly funded than the radical parties, but they were also not as ideologically extreme and were more tolerant of local leaders and the continuation of traditional patterns of association and action. Consequently, tribal fronts sometimes did continue to operate, although the context and content of their activities were different from those of the first year of fighting, when the spirit of unity was at a peak that was never again approximated in the subsequent two decades of fighting.

As for Wakil himself, he initially became one of the leaders of a Kunar provincial unity organization (Ettehad-i Wilayat-i Kunar) that was founded in 1980. Despite the involvement of many prominent Kunaris and leaders from the first stage of uprisings, the organization floundered for lack of funds and was shut down in 1981 by the Pakistan government when it decided to allow only the seven religious parties to operate and receive official support. Thereafter, Wakil worked intermittently with a group of other educated Afghans to run the Afghan Information Center, which provided objective, nonparty-based information on the war. However, he was never convinced of the utility of this work and frequently found himself in arguments with other members of the center. Eventually, he left the group and remained unattached and more or less unoccupied until January 1990, when he was attacked in Peshawar by an armed group of men. Because of this attack and other threats made against him, he was given travel documents by the United Nations and received a visa from the Norwegian government to resettle in that country. Though most of his brothers have returned to Pech, Wakil has gone back only for brief visits and has decided to remain with his immediate family in Norway, where he lives today.


1. Samiullah Safi interview, February 14, 1983. Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in this chapter are from this interview. [BACK]

2. See Robertson 1974 [1896] and Jones 1974 for historical background on Kafir/Safi relations. [BACK]

3. I have heard from many Afghans that they were confused when they first heard the Khalqis use the exclamation “hurrah,” which had no roots in Afghan cultural practice and which presumably the Khalqis borrowed from the Soviets. Various theories arose in rural areas as to what “hurrah” might mean. Among these theories was the notion that it was the name of Lenin’s wife and that they were being encouraged to shout her praises as well as those of Lenin himself. [BACK]

4. During the Safi War in 1945–1946, similar rumors circulated through the Pech Valley that women would be shipped off to Kabul to become prostitutes. [BACK]

5. Sahre, n.d. The quotations are taken from Sahre’s manuscript; the categories are my own. [BACK]

6. See Girardet 1985, 107–110. [BACK]

7. See Pitt-Rivers 1966 and Bourdieu 1966. [BACK]

8. At the time of the insurgency in Pech, a separate uprising was going on in the Kamdesh Valley of Nuristan, which is the northern extension of the Kunar Valley. These two uprisings, one coming from the west and one from the north, both threatened the provincial capital of Chagha Serai. For information on the Kamdesh uprising, see Strand 1984. [BACK]

9. Shahmahmood Miakhel, personal communication, August 10, 2001. [BACK]

10. Sahre, n.d., and in an interview conducted in Peshawar, May 21, 1984.11. Edwards 1996, 196. [BACK]

11. Sahre, n.d.. [BACK]

12. Sahre, n.d.. [BACK]

13. Interview with Commander Abdur Rauf, Peshawar, September 29, 1983. [BACK]

14. Delawar Sahre’s account of the Asmar incident confirms that of Samiullah Safi. He also indicates in his report that at a meeting in Nuristan in mid-July tribal leaders decided to make a final attempt to reunify the jihad and agreed to send a delegation to Utapur to meet Maulavi Hussain. The Hizb leader would not agree to participate in a non-party-based alliance, however, particularly after the rival, and more moderate, Jamiat party agreed to join. [BACK]

15. On the symbolic significance of taking away a man’s weapon, see Edwards 1996, 73–77. [BACK]

16. Another commander I spoke with from the neighboring valley of Deh Wuz, who was also involved in the negotiations with Rauf and the planned attack on Chagha Serai, supports Rauf’s version of events. In an interview conducted in 1984, this commander told me that the Hizb-i Islami mujahidin purposely deceived Rauf and plundered his troops. [BACK]

17. Interview with Maulavi Hussain, Peshawar, May 2, 1984. [BACK]

18. The Maududi referred to is Maulana Maududi, the founder of the Jamiat-i Islami political party, which took much the same line as the Ikhwan ul-Muslimin and played much the same political role in Pakistan as the Ikhwan played in Egypt. [BACK]

The Death of a Safi Daughter

One story that Wakil told me captures better than any other the tensions at the heart of the tribal uprising. This story had particular poignancy for Wakil, as I will explain. But first let me provide some background. The events described culminated during the month of Ramazan in 1980, when Wakil, along with other members of the tribal council, decided to go home for the feast marking the end of fasting. Wakil’s home was fifty kilometers from the front, and while he was away, Haji Ghafur, the head of the tribal council, had a young Safi woman stoned to death. Here is the story of the woman’s execution as Wakil told it to me.

Regarding this girl—maybe it’s important, maybe it’s not. But in my view it’s very important. I have forgotten her name, but I used to know it. She was from the village of Udaigram in Pech Valley, which is about three villages away from Ningalam, the center of the woleswali of Pech Valley. The area was completely free at that time, and the leaders of the fronts were all at Utapur, eight or nine kilometers from Chagha Serai. At that time, this girl had a husband but no children. She was pregnant though, and her husband had gone off to do his military service.

When he returned to Pech Valley on leave from the military for a while, this girl whom I’ve been talking about said to him, “All of the people are doing jihad, and all of the young men from here have joined the jihad fronts against this Khalq and Parcham government. And now you are going to the military. I had thought that you had escaped from the military when you came here. Now you tell me that you’re going back. If you go back, the women of the village are going to insult me—‘Your husband is a Khalqi. He’s gone to the military.’ Don’t do this.”

But, the husband didn’t agree. “Only two months remain, and I will have finished my service and come back. I’ll take my chance.”

The girl told him, “If you go, you’re not my husband. If I can’t convince you, I will flee from here with whomever wants to go. I’m telling you this beforehand so you will know.”

Her husband didn’t pay any attention to his wife’s words, and he returned to the army. While the husband was away, . . . the girl spoke with her paternal cousin, [who was] not from a distant place, [but] from her own village, and one of her own relatives, a young boy who was still immature, around twenty years old. [She said to him,] “Won’t you escape with me? I have made a vow that I will no longer accept him as my husband since he has returned to the Khalqi government to serve in the military, and the women in the village insult me and taunt me. Since you are a mujahid and go to fight and also you are my relative, I am ready to run away with you, wherever you want to go. If you don’t take me, then I’ll go with someone else. So you can’t say you didn’t know.”

This boy became obliged [to go with her]. She told all of this in her confession. He traveled together with this girl. They headed for Pakistan by way of Shigal, but they were captured by Hizb-i Islami. When they captured them, they sent them back to Pech . . . and announced what had happened; [they] sent them back to the amir of jihad, who was Haji Ghafur. They considered this matter there in the tribal council.

I supported this girl in the meeting: “It’s her right. She’s a mujahid. This girl is a man. She has done the right thing. Why should she be stuck with the name of Khalqi? It is her right. She has done something manly; she has acted bravely. She has done jihad.”

They said, “What you say is right.”

I said, “Fine, then release her.”

They replied, “We will release her, but be patient. Who knows? If she goes back to her home, her father or her brothers might kill her for escaping. We have never had an incident like this in our tribe before. Although she’s in the right, she did flee, [and] her brothers, her father, her family might kill her. . . .”

They convinced me that if we released this girl, if she had enemies, there was a danger she would be killed. They said that they would resolve the problem. I agreed. She remained in prison. Two, three, four months passed after this. After this, [it became clear that] she was also pregnant. This pregnancy was from when her husband had come back. It was then that she became pregnant.

As I was saying, all of us left, including some of the elders and the members of the tribal council, all of us went back to our homes for the Ramazan feast. This Haji Ghafur, along with some of the Hezbis, remained behind, and I heard that they brought this boy—the girl’s cousin—and lashed him. They lashed him on the basis of religious law. They gave him one hundred lashes and then released him, and he went away. But the girl, since the girl had a husband—because the boy wasn’t married, they lashed him—but since the girl had a husband, they stoned her.

One of the mullas who made this decision, he was from Nuristan, but this bastard had lived all his life in Saudi Arabia and came back only at this point. Even his own people didn’t know him. Some people say that he had been away for twenty-five or thirty years. He comes back, renders his judgment, and then escapes. Where is the judge [qazi] who made the decision? The amir [Haji Ghafur] is illiterate. He doesn’t know how to sign his own name. Any judge who makes a decision—first of all, his residence should be recognized, his property should be recognized, so that people know that when he passes judgment he will be responsible to answer questions in the future. Instead, a judge comes down the road, comes and makes a decision, kills people, then goes away, maybe to Saudi or some other place. We wanted to question him, but when we looked for him, we couldn’t find him. Even to this day, we don’t know where he is.

Those who told me this story, those who were present there and who told me the story, they were full of hatred and very upset. They said, “The girl stood up. She was standing straight. She was very tall and very beautiful and strong. She was smiling, she . . . pointed toward the mullas and smiled. And they struck her. She smiled. After some time, she was buried under the stones. Then she moved, and they saw that she was still alive. So they pulled her out, and she stood up again. She had not lost any of her passion.”

They say that up to her last breath, she was smiling and staring at the people. She was smiling. As the amir of Hizb-i Islami, Haji Ghafur threw the first [stone]. She told him, “It’s all right.” She understood that they were going to stone her. She only said this to them: “Bravo for your jihad! Bravo for your bravery!”

After that, she stared at the people and smiled. In fact, she was humiliating them, [asking them] “What kind of justice is this? What kind of fairness? What did I do to deserve this? This man was a Khalqi and my husband. He left to join the Russian trench. He took refuge there and serves in their army. He’s fighting on their side against you. I did this for Islam, for the honor and respect of these people. It was for this that I became an enemy of my husband. Not because I liked this boy or to betray my husband. And you stone me for that.” . . .

The whole village was sad about this girl. We consider her a hero. She was a sacrifice [qurbani] to the prejudice and foolishness of a group of corrupt leaders who just wanted to do politics. This had nothing to do with knowledge, understanding, ethics, nothing. And the mulla who made the decision, there is no trace of him.

But the people themselves haven’t forgotten what happened. It’s in their minds, and sometime someone will pay for this. We just don’t know when. And the boy, the husband, who I understand has gone back to the army, he is still walking around. [1]

As Wakil went on to explain to me, determining the right and wrong of this execution from the tribal point of view was a complicated matter. If the woman had been unmarried and had fled with some man against the wishes of her parents, she could have taken refuge with an elder; a jirga would have met, and in all likelihood the man would have been assessed a fine (tawan) to pay to the woman’s family to clear up her “bad name” (bad nama). Then they would have been allowed to marry. Wakil told me that on a number of occasions unmarried runaways had taken refuge with his father, and he had always helped work out arrangements by which the couples were allowed to marry. However, if the runaway couple were to leave the area and then were subsequently captured in some other place and returned, it would become much more difficult to take care of them: “If they don’t kill the girl, they will definitely kill the boy. And if they kill the boy and the girl isn’t killed, the family of the boy will ask the killers, ‘If this is a “bad name,” why didn’t you kill your daughter or your sister with him? Why did you kill only my son?’ Therefore, they are obliged to kill her with him.” [2]

In affairs in which one or both individuals are married, the penalty is straightforward: they are both put to death. Wakil told me a story involving a runaway couple from another area who sought asylum with his father, who subsequently discovered that the woman was married. In that instance, he turned them over to the woman’s husband, who intended to kill both his wife and her lover, but the man managed to escape. The mitigating factor in the previous case was that the woman left her husband not for romantic reasons but because of her husband’s actions and the disrespect that his actions brought to her. Given the fact that the entire tribe had sworn an oath to fight the government and the husband had joined forces with the government, Wakil argued that the woman acted properly—in his terms, “like a man.” Unlike her husband, who reasoned that he had only a short time of service remaining, the woman put honor above expediency and for that reason should not have been punished.

Another source of Wakil’s anger over this affair was the decision of Haji Ghafur to sentence her to public stoning. From the perspective of their customary tribal law (safi qanun), if a woman is found guilty of adultery, the husband (or his male family members if he is not present) has the right to kill her since she is his namus. Likewise, from the point of view of tribal law, the husband is obliged to kill the man with whom she ran off:

From the point of view of Pushtunwali and Safi qanun, since the girl is dead and the boy is still walking around, the husband is obliged to find the boy and kill him. . . . His wife has been ruined, she has lost her reputation and has been killed, and the boy is still alive. [The husband] is not relieved from dishonor yet. He is obliged to kill that boy. . . . In Safi law, this is an enmity. Whenever he has the power, he has to do it, but [until then] this kind of person can’t sit in any group. He would be ashamed to sit in a gathering. [3]

What galled Wakil the most, it appears, was that the tribe had allowed a group of mullas—including one man who was illiterate and another who was a virtual stranger to the area—to use religious law to contravene tribal law and to carry out an execution of one of their own people against the expressed orders of the tribal council. Mullas have traditionally held a subordinate position in tribal society. In judicial cases, they would always be consulted for precedents from religious law, but the final decision belonged to the jirga. Here, the jirga was ignored and then found itself powerless to redress the disrespect shown to it, first, because the man responsible for executing the woman was their own amir of jihad and, second, because the parties directly implicated in the affair (the families of the husband and the wife) failed to play their expected roles.

For Wakil, who brought up the affair a number of times in the course of our interview, the stoning of this Safi woman exemplified the degradation of honor and the deterioration of tribal unity that was happening in Pech at that time. Tribes that had long stood up against government interference now found themselves paralyzed in the face of interference by the Islamic parties that used the circumstances of jihad to subvert tribal structures and principles. Even though Haji Ghafur was displaced as amir of the tribal council and Wakil himself was chosen to replace him, the demoralization caused by this woman’s death lived on after the event. Wakil could take little satisfaction in his own elevation to a position of authority and respect in his tribe, for the circumstances of his being chosen as amir demonstrated that the demise of the tribe as an effective fighting force was at hand.

In addition to what it tells us about the changing balance of power in the tribe, the story of the woman’s death by stoning also crystallizes another set of themes running throughout Wakil’s narrative, themes having to do with the ambivalent relations between men and women and what they signify. Consider in this regard the first story recounted in Chapter Four involving Wakil’s response to the Khalqi takeover. When Wakil heard Hafizullah Amin’s voice over the radio, he told his wife that henceforth she would be both father and mother to their children. By this statement Wakil indicated that, as long as the sanctity of the homeland was in question, men of honor could not go about their ordinary business nor assume their normal domestic responsibilities. More profoundly, Wakil indicated that his status as a father (and consequently as a man) was in jeopardy as long as the Marxists had control of his homeland—homeland here being a metaphorical extension of the homestead, with the Marxist rulers being equated to housebreakers who had violated the sanctity of the family quarters. The homeland, like the domestic quarters, is sacred space, and a man who cannot defend what is sacred to him is no man at all and is viewed as something like a cuckold (dawus). [4] Wakil does not say this about himself, but he does acknowledge his responsibility for setting things right through transmuted gender roles, the wife being father and mother to the children.

The themes of violation, emasculation, and gender reversal percolate throughout Wakil’s narrative, but the first such example in the book comes not in his stories but in the biography of Taraki, where we found the account of government soldiers “violating” the Taraki home and Mrs. Taraki facing down the soldiers while her husband cowers beneath a woman’s veil (burqa). Similar vignettes, where women take on male roles in the absence of male action, appear at various points in Wakil’s narrative:

  • In the story of the arrests in the Ningalam bazaar, prior to the beginning of the Safi insurrection, the nameless old woman, taking on a role somewhere between scold and sentinel, declares, “Is there no man among you?”
  • In the story of the man in Gul Salak who slaps his sister-in-law, she berates him for hitting her while his brothers are all fighting at the front.
  • In the story of the old women carrying Qur’ans who come out as emissaries from their village to meet Wakil’s jirga after the commencement of the insurrection, the implication is that the men of the village have shamed themselves by hiding behind these women and the holy books they were carrying. [5]

In addition to these stories, there are the two instances in which the inability to defend honor causes Wakil’s male relatives to contemplate the need to sacrifice their women and children on honor’s altar. In related stories men have their guns taken away from them and are thereby emasculated. The first is the story of Sultan Muhammad Khan’s confrontation with General Daud, and the second is about the looting of the Asmar garrison. These two stories relate to the theme of tyranny being a form of emasculation, with those in power (or, in the case of the Islamic parties, seeking to gain power) violating the sanctity of honor in their pursuit of their ambition.

These various stories, in sum, reveal that, at its most profound level, Afghan politics revolves around gendered ideals of personal integrity. When those in power overstep the bounds of their legitimate authority, it is often narrativized in terms of violation and emasculation. That is one reason why female education and veiling have perennially been such powerful and explosive issues in Afghanistan and why rejection of the Khalqi revolution was so often explained through stories of Khalqi violations of domestic space and male prerogatives of personal regulation over their own households. It is also, I believe, at the root of Wakil’s story of the stoning of the Safi woman, where once again, but from a different and unexpected direction, tribal autonomy was contested by outsiders whose bid for power was expressed through control of women’s lives.


1. Interview, February 14, 1983. [BACK]

2. Ibid. [BACK]

3. Ibid. [BACK]

4. This theme is developed further in Edwards 1996. [BACK]

5. The practice of having women and mullas acting as emissaries between warring parties is an established tradition among Pakhtuns and other tribal people in the Middle East, but Wakil in essence rejects the application of this custom to this situation, telling the women that they are all one tribe and under the same threat and that they all must be willing to sacrifice to preserve their honor. [BACK]

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