The Path to Victory and Chaos: 1979-92

Afghanistan Table of Contents

Afghanistan's resistance movement, the Mujahidin (holy warriors), was born in chaos, spread and triumphed chaotically, and has not found a way to govern differently. Virtually all of its war was waged locally. As warfare became more sophisticated, outside support and regional coordination grew. Even so, the basic units of mujahidin organization and action continued to reflect the highly segmented nature of Afghan society.

In the course of the guerilla war, leadership came to be distinctively associated with the title, "commander." It applied to independent leaders, eschewing identification with elaborate military bureaucracy associated with such ranks as general. As the war produced leaders of reputation, "commander" was conferred on leaders of fighting units of all sizes, signifying pride in independence, self-sufficiency, and distinct ties to local community. The title epitomized Afghan pride in their struggle against an overwhelmingly powerful foe. Segmentation of power and religious leadership were the two values evoked by nomenclature generated in the war. Neither had been favored in ideology of the former Afghan state.

Olivier Roy estimates that after four years of war there were at least 4,000 bases from which mujahidin units operated. Most of these were affiliated with the seven expatriate parties headquartered in Pakistan which served as sources of supply and varying degrees of supervision. Significant commanders typically led 300 or more men, controlled several bases and dominated a district or a sub-division of a province. Hierarchies of organization above the bases were attempted. Their operations varied greatly in scope, the most ambitious being achieved by Ahmad Shah Massoud of the Panjshir valley north of Kabul. He led at least 10,000 trained troops at the end of the Soviet war and had expanded his political control of Tajik dominated areas to Afghanistan's northeastern provinces under the Supervisory Council of the North.

Roy also describes regional, ethnic and sectarian variations in mujahidin organization. In the Pushtun areas of the east, south and southwest, tribal structure, with its many rival sub-divisions, provided the basis for military organization and leadership. Mobilization could be readily linked to traditional fighting allegiances of the tribal lashkar (fighting force). In favorable circumstances such formations could quickly reach more than 10,000, as happened when large Soviet assaults were launched in the eastern provinces, or when the mujahidin besieged towns, such as Khost in Paktia Province. But in campaigns of the latter type the traditional explosions of manpower--customarily common immediately after the completion of harvest--proved obsolete when confronted by well dug-in defenders with modern weapons. Lashkar durability was notoriously short; few sieges succeeded.

Mujihidin mobilization in non-Pushtun regions faced very different obstacles. Prior to the invasion few non-Pushtuns possessed firearms. Early in the war they were most readily available from army troops or gendarmerie who defected or were ambushed. The international arms market and foreign military support tended to reach the minority areas last.

In the northern regions little military tradition had survived upon which to build an armed resistance. Mobilization mostly came from political leadership closely tied to Islam.

Roy convincingly contrasts the social leadership of religious figures in the Persian and Turkish speaking regions of Afghanistan with that of the Pushtuns. Lacking a strong political representation in a state dominated by Pushtuns, minority communities commonly looked to pious learned or charismatically revered pirs (saints) for leadership. Extensive Sufi and maraboutic networks were spread through the minority communities, readily available as foundations for leadership, organization, communication and indoctrination. These networks also provided for political mobilization, which led to some of the most effective of the resistance operations during the war.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress