The Path to Victory and Chaos: 1979-92

The Path to Victory and Chaos: 1979-92

Afghanistan's resistance movement, the Mujahidin (holy warriors), was born inchaos, spread and triumphed chaotically, and has not found a way to governdifferently. Virtually all of its war was waged locally. As warfare became moresophisticated, outside support and regional coordination grew. Even so, thebasic units of mujahidin organization and action continued to reflect the highlysegmented nature of Afghan society.

In the course of the guerilla war, leadership came to be distinctivelyassociated with the title, "commander." It applied to independentleaders, eschewing identification with elaborate military bureaucracy associatedwith 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 localcommunity. The title epitomized Afghan pride in their struggle against anoverwhelmingly powerful foe. Segmentation of power and religious leadership werethe two values evoked by nomenclature generated in the war. Neither had beenfavored in ideology of the former Afghan state.

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

Roy also describes regional, ethnic and sectarian variations in mujahidinorganization. In the Pushtun areas of the east, south and southwest, tribalstructure, with its many rival sub-divisions, provided the basis for militaryorganization and leadership. Mobilization could be readily linked to traditionalfighting allegiances of the tribal lashkar (fighting force). Infavorable circumstances such formations could quickly reach more than 10,000, ashappened when large Soviet assaults were launched in the eastern provinces, orwhen the mujahidin besieged towns, such as Khost in Paktia Province. But incampaigns of the latter type the traditional explosions of manpower--customarilycommon immediately after the completion of harvest--proved obsolete whenconfronted by well dug-in defenders with modern weapons. Lashkar durability wasnotoriously 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 theywere most readily available from army troops or gendarmerie who defected or wereambushed. The international arms market and foreign military support tended toreach the minority areas last.

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

Roy convincingly contrasts the social leadership of religious figures in thePersian 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 reveredpirs (saints) for leadership. Extensive Sufi and maraboutic networkswere spread through the minority communities, readily available as foundationsfor leadership, organization, communication and indoctrination. These networksalso provided for political mobilization, which led to some of the mosteffective of the resistance operations during the war.

Country Studies main page | Afghanistan Country Studies main page