Afghan vet has no love for Taliban or invaders

By Tom Hundley Tribune foreign correspondent

October 4, 2001

PESHAWAR, Pakistan -- Zakirya, an Afghan chicken farmer, hopes his jihad days are behind him, but he said that if the U.S. or any other foreign power attacked Afghanistan, he and his four sons would be duty-bound to pick up their guns and defend the homeland.

Zakirya--like many Afghans, he uses only one name--has no use for the Taliban. He held a senior position in Afghanistan's previous government, serving as personal secretary to Ahmed Shah Ahmedzai, the last non-Taliban prime minister. Zakirya was forced to leave Afghanistan and settle in one of Pakistan's wretched refugee camps when the Taliban consolidated its power in 1996.

Nevertheless, he said he would feel obliged to return and fight alongside the Taliban if the United States came to invade his country.

Zakirya, 40, is a soft-spoken, serious man, not given to the boastful zealotry of the Taliban. His jihad, or holy war, was against the Soviet Union, and his story illuminates some of the risks and dangers that await the United States as the Bush administration tries to find a way to neutralize the Taliban without becoming entangled in Afghanistan.

Zakirya was 18 years old, in his last year of high school, when the Soviet army invaded Afghanistan. His family had been active in anti-communist politics, and when Russian tanks rolled into Kabul, he immediately joined the mujahedeen group headed by Burhanuddin Rabbani and the late Ahmed Shah Massood, the group that today forms the main component of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance.

Because he had had more schooling than most, Zakirya soon became leader of a band of about 20 mujahedeen.

"At first, we had substandard weapons, but after one or two years we received a huge amount of weapons from America and from different Arab states," he said. The weapons were part of an enormous covert operation orchestrated by the CIA to train and equip the mujahedeen to fight the Soviet army.

In many ways, the invading Soviets were their own worst enemies. They sent the wrong troops, mobilizing reserve units near the border that consisted mainly of Central Asians who shared a religious and cultural affinity with the Afghans and had little enthusiasm for the fight. They compounded this error by using extraordinarily heavy-handed tactics that turned the entire population against them.

"They were killing everyone--children, women, civilians. They were shelling without targets," said Zakirya.

The mujahedeen soon discovered that the Russians didn't like to fight at night and quickly took advantage of this weakness.

"Ninety percent of our attacks were at night. We would shoot at their checkpoints, and before daylight we would go back to our centers in the mountains," he said. "They became demoralized."

Another thing the mujahedeen discovered was that the demoralized Russians were extremely susceptible to drug abuse.

"Our intelligence told us that the Russians, especially the drivers who are bringing supplies, were buying hashish. We realized that this was good for us but that hashish wasn't strong enough. So, we started to sell them heroin.

"We had special groups of mujahedeen to sell drugs to the Russians. We opened secret shops in Kabul for the Russians. They didn't have money, so they gave us food and fuel. Later they gave us their weapons and bullets," he said.

Zakirya knows that unlike the Soviet army, the U.S. armed forces fight exceptionally well at night. He also knows that there would be no question of mixed loyalty for the American troops.

He doubts the United States would be foolish enough to send a large ground force to occupy Afghanistan.

"If they did, it would be a kid's game for us," he said.

In the absence of a permanent ground force, drugs would likely not be an issue for American troops. Also, having experienced a similar problem in Vietnam, the U.S. military is particularly vigilant on the subject of drug abuse.

During his years as a guerrilla warrior, Zakirya said he never heard mention of the name Osama bin Laden, the man the United States believes was behind the Sept. 11 terror attacks in New York and Washington.

"We had many Arab mujahedeen in Afghanistan. This Osama did not become well-known until after 1996," he said.

The Taliban leadership has asked bin Laden to leave the country, but it appears it will not force him to go. Zakirya said he thought bin Laden "should leave quietly."

"If it's going to make problems for Afghanistan, he should think of the consequences and leave Afghanistan," he said.

In the refugee camp where Zakirya raises chickens to support his wife, four sons and two daughters, few would mourn the demise of the Taliban regime, but there is little agreement on whom or what would be the best replacement.

As the Taliban's international isolation deepens, Afghanistan's 86-year-old exiled king, Mohammad Zahir Shah, has become the focus of mounting international interest as a possible unifying figurehead for a new government if the Taliban regime should topple.

Zakirya said the king might be able to provide a way out of a difficult crisis.

"I used to be against Zahir Shah because he provided opportunities for the communists," he said. "But now, at this moment, he can play a major role in resolving the difficulty in Afghanistan."

Zakirya lost an eye in combat against the Russians. More than 100 pieces of shrapnel remain embedded in his body. He showed a visitor some faded photographs from those days--young men in peasant garb, loaded with guns and swagger.

These days the swagger is gone, but not the fierce pride that drove it.

"If someone comes to invade Afghanistan, I will join the jihad, and I will require my sons to join the jihad," he said quietly.

Copyright (c) 2001, Chicago Tribune