Washington's Secret War Against Afghanistan
Furnishing a War
Everything is quiet. There is no trouble here.
There will be no war. I wish to return.
Remington (from Havana, 1897)
Please remain. You furnish the pictures and I'll
furnish the war.
W. R. Hearst (Editor & owner of New York Journal, in an exchange of cablegrams)
In 1897 Frederick Remington, a newspaper cartoonist who had been sent to Cuba by William Randolph Hearst, Sr. to find a war, had cabled back to his boss in New York that he could find no war.
Unperturbed, Hearst nevertheless ordered him to stay in Cuba and assured him that he would be duly furnished with a war. The U.S. battleship Maine was forthwith blown up (Feb. 18, 1898) and, "By Jingo!" Remington had his war. Dewey took Manila and Theodore Roosevelt took Cuba. And meanwhile the pictures kept on coming.
"Where the hell is the war?" Jim Gallagher of the New York Daily News cried in January 1980 with mixed anger and frustration once he had landed in Kabul and had found the city alive with cars, buses and trollies, and people hustling back and forth, but no soldiers, no "red animal war." The 200 or so other foreign correspondents stationed in Kabul's best hotel, the Intercontinental, were also just as confused, and couldn't tell him either.
Meanwhile Carter in Washington was clamoring for the press to ''build a chorus" of condemnation of the Soviets for "invading" Afghanistan, and the presumption was that Kabul, the capital, was now under armed occupation and the war was raging everywhere. Surely nobody can hide a whole war in our day total electronic surveillance the way Palmerston could in his? The army of foreign correspondents had come expecting to see it right there in front of them: how could you miss seeing tanks rushing against a terrified but heroically resisting populace? They had been told to expect to see Soviet soldiers, bullies in uniform, armed to the teeth, crowding the side walks, butting the sullen people out of the way, shooting down children tyrants from the land of the working class!
And yet, "Where the hell is the war?"
Meanwhile the New York Daily News was champing at the bit: it wanted "pictures," and quickly. But where could you get them? Where was the war hiding? Kabul was as quiet as Sunday at home. How could you build a chorus when there were no notes to build it with?
I, too, came looking for a war. On my way to Kabul I read in my copy of the International Herald Tribune (owned jointly by The Washington Post and The New York Times, published in Paris or, when Paris is on strike, in London simulcasting itself in five other printing plants, as far off as Hong Kong) that since I landed in Kabul I would find no Afghan soldier with his own gun.
This is what I read on my plane: "Two travelers, arriving in New Delhi reported ... that the few Afghan soldiers that they had seen guarding the airport and public buildings in Kabul in the last two days... " This was dated Jan. 9 and I arrived next morning "were conspicuously unarmed. The travelers, both businessmen, said that this seemed to support reports that Afghan units had been disarmed." And this dispatch was datelined New Delhi.
The first thing I saw almost falling into his arms as I came down the steps of the plane that had just landed at Kabul airport (I checked to see that it was Kabul airport), drowsy-footed and grainy-eyed from a sleepless night's ride, was an Afghan soldier standing on the tarmac, his bayonet- gleaming rifle at ready. This bared bayonet made him seem conspicuously armed, I thought.
The second thing I saw when I entered the airport waiting room was another Afghan, but this one in civilian clothes though he was obviously no mere civilian. Whoever he was he carried a submachine gun slung over his shoulder as carelessly as a schoolboy slings his satchel of books. Nevertheless he looked conspicuously armed, and unmistakably Afghan.
The third thing I saw when I entered the air terminal, but which I was not supposed to see at all,[A] here or anywhere, was an old peasant unroll his prayer mat and, spreading it on the stone floor facing Mecca (which is how I deduced where Saudi Arabia was), fell on his knees, bending low until his forehead touched the mat. And so he prayed. You could hear the faint calls of the mullahs from the mosques somewhere not too far away. We would learn later that we were hearing azan the call to prayer which would be made every morning, and four more times during the day until night fell. "Allah-o-Akhbar God is great. There is no God but Allah. Mo hammed is the Messenger of God. Come to pray, come to prosper!"
So, with one foot hardly firmly planted on Kabul soil, I had experienced three surprises.
But the fourth thing, which I was supposed to see first, I did not see at all. I saw no Soviet soldier (that is, "the war"). Those watching Kabul from New York and Washington saw Soviet soldiers jamming the city streets. In Kabul itself I saw none. To reassure the reader that my eyesight is normal enough (and even to reassure myself) I cite this story from the same Herald Tribune:
Journalists entering the country found few signs of the large Soviet military presence, however. Afghan troops patrolled the streets in sub-zero weather with the Soviet troops and tanks presence at a minimum. (IHT, Jan. 7, 1980, from Kabul.)
So it was the very first day. So it would be for the eight days I spent in Kabul in January, and for the almost two weeks I would spend there again in July: searching for a war, searching for the Russians, searching for an oppressed and tyrannized populace.
It was then that I made my first acquaintance with those extraordinary sources of information about Afghanistan whose reliability was to be as unquestioned as their anonymity was absolute: "travelers," "diplomats," "area specialists," "businessmen," "experts," all of whom managed to pass back and forth between Peshawar in Pakistan and Kabul in Afghanistan through the fiercest of battles, tank encirclements and an entire Soviet army encamped in Kabul itself, with greater ease than one can get past the guard at the New York Fifth Avenue library!
Later we will learn more precisely why newsmen were so coy about revealing the identity of their sources why the "diplomat" they cited remained so tactfully unnamed and why, in fact, "Western diplomats" remained in Kabul at all, especially the Americans after the assassination of Ambassador Adolph Dubs in 1979.
Meanwhile we were in Kabul, and what is Kabul? It is a city of indeterinmate population estimated at 800,000 to a million and is tucked inside a valley of the Hindu Kush mountain range, some 1,800 kilometers above sea level. The city itself is between two "local" mountains, the Kohe Azama and the Kohe Sherdarwazah. A broad tree-lined avenue, the Maivand (paved, as were all of Kabul's main streets, by the [Soviets] in 1953), cuts the city in half: it was at Maivand that the Afghans had defeated the British in 1880.
The Kabul River runs through the valley almost up to the border with Pakistan where it turns off into the Peshawar Valley. The valley will take you to the Khyber Pass some 90 miles away where, if you're lucky or unlucky you will see a strange mime performed in a few weeks in February when a high official of the United States will pose there for the cameras of the world aiming a Chinese machine gun at where you are now standing!
You had read in the press that you would find Kabul choked with Russian tanks and you were prepared to find them, but found none: except when, pushing through the tangled, uncontrolled traffic, you broke into Revolutionary Square, and there it was: that "minimal" Russian tank.
It stood, unquestionably Russian but already congealed in arrested time, slightly greening as though with a first wash history had been in too much of a hurry to add age. It is the first tank that led the assault on the palace on April 27, 1978 which toppled Prince Daoud, and now stands perched on a pedestal waiting for History.
We shall explore Kabul more carefully later. At the moment we can give its tourist attractions no more than a passing glance.
Though clashes would break out later-especially in February as far as we could see in the first days of January Kabul was quiet, and no houses' danced. And yet, as we were aware, surface quiet was extraordinarily misleading. For though where we stood all was silence, around us the air was boiling with sound. We took to our transistors where we finally found the war we had been looking for.
It was a peculiar war. It was a war for a war. It was a war of words calling for a war of bullets. The U.N. was in session in New York that week, discussing what was happening in Kabul. It was part of the strange ness of the situation, even its eeriness, that so much talk should be going on in New York ostensibly about what we were looking at and not seeing. Carter was crying that what had happened here "was the most dangerous threat to peace since World War II"(1) this very "invasion of Afghanistan"' by Soviet troops which, though "massive," had shown itself to us only as a ''minimal presence!''
We were watching a film whose sound was out of sync, not only with the lips of the performers but with the visible actions as well.
Men and women of over 150 nations at the U.N. were debating "facts" which, one would realize with growing clarity as time slipped by, had no tangibility. Afghanistan, the real Afghanistan of fact, of his old man on his burro coming into town to sell a bundle of firewood, did not exist. Some thing else had been created: a grotesque monster of the new Cold War, so recently disinterred from what had been hoped was its permanent grave, now superimposed over the reality. It was not so much Palmerston's "secret war" which he had managed to conduct out of sight of the British Parliament and the British people. This was something different an ordered war, a war that was sent for and delivered. It was a war that started as fictional images on TV. A war that took place first in the imaginations of millions of Americans and so became a strange kind of fact after all. And only then did it become "real."
If there had been no intervention here by the West (i.e. the U.S.A.), there would have been no war at all.
The Afghans have a fierce game called Buzkhasi. Mounted on their marvelous horses (so admired by Alexander the Great), they chase a headless calf like a polo ball, which the horses kick from rider to rider, until finally one rider manages to snatch it up and deposit it, bloody, battered and use less, in the winner's circle: food only for dogs. Those correspondents who fell on Afghanistan that week in January and scourged the countryside in a desperate search to find the war that was already blazing in the newspaper headlines of the West were involved in a kind of fierce Buzkhasi of their own.
But instead of a headless calf it was the battered and bloody truth which they deposited in the winner's circle: food only for dogs.
"You furnish the pictures and I'll furnish the war," the ghost of William Randolph Hearst inspired them all.
[A] The U.S. government and press were continuously announcing that freedom of religion was being entirely suppressed by the Soviet Union.
(1)"For us, it is conventional wisdom that the President of the United States lies. That was unthinkable before the 60s." Rep. Gerry E. Stubbs (Dem. Mass), NYT,. Apr. 5, 1982.
Written: 1979 to mid-1984 (approx.)
First Published: 1985, International Publishers
Source: Washington's Secret War Against Afghanistan
Transcription/Markup: Brian Baggins
Online Version: Afghanistan History Archive (marxists.org) 2001