'The Russians Will Die Here,' Vows a Young Commander of the Resistance in Afghanistan
updated 01/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
•originally published 01/21/1980 AT 01:00 AM EST
At dawn I was awakened by the shriek of MiG-21s, sent by the Soviet-backed Kabul government to pound rebel positions nearby. "Listen to that sound," guerrilla leader Syed Ishaq Gailani said softly. My first thought was to flee the area. "Not yet," Gailani insisted. "First we must all have our morning tea."
Coolness under pressure is one of the great strengths of the Afghan rebels, and few are cooler than Gailani. At 27, he heads 10,000 troops of the National Front for the Islamic Revolution, the largest insurgent organization fighting Kabul. Founded a year ago by his uncle, Syed Ahmed Gailani, who lives in exile in Pakistan, the NFIR has rallied both ethnic minorities and Muslim traditionalists behind its nationalist banner. Swelled by defectors from the government army and supported by fiercely anti-Soviet villagers, the forces of the NFIR seem grimly committed to keeping their nation free. "If the Russians invade, they will die here," the young Gailani told me when there were still only Soviet "advisers" in the country. "We will not lay down our arms until Afghanistan belongs to her people again."
As he led his band of mujahidin (holy warriors) through dirt-poor mountain villages, Gailani was often greeted by old women who knelt at his feet and tried to kiss his hands. Some of this devotion, which appeared to embarrass Gailani, is inspired by the honorific "Syed"—a sign that his family claims direct descent from the prophet Muhammad. Originally from Baghdad, the Gailani family has played a prominent role in Afghanistan for more than a century; in the current war, five of Gailani's nine brothers are rebel leaders. Much of the villagers' admiration for him stems from his single-minded and effective opposition to the puppet regimes in Kabul, which have slaughtered a quarter million Afghans since the April 1978 coup that established Soviet dominance over the country. "More than 100 people, many of them women and children, were killed the last time the Russian jets came," one resident of the village of Sardgal told me. Another said: "If the government thought a village was helping the guerrillas, they would line up a few families and simply shoot them."
Among his troops, Gailani is well liked for his refusal to accept the perquisites of rank. Except for a tube of Nivea hand cream that he uses for wind-chapped skin, a small mirror and the hot water and soap that he likes for bathing, Gailani shares the hard life of a guerrilla soldier. He leads his men on long marches through difficult terrain and eats from the communal rice pot. A graduate (in political science) of the University of Tehran, the 6'2", English-speaking Gailani rarely sees his wife and two young daughters, who live in safety in Pakistan. Raised by his uncle, Syed Ahmed Gailani, after his father's death some years ago, Gailani grew up with a strong sense of Afghan nationalism. "The Russians and their puppets must go," he says. "We will never compromise or negotiate with those responsible for the death of so many people." His goal: "full democracy, with an elected parliament, all within an Islamic context." Yet he insists the Muslims of Afghanistan are not after a theocracy like Iran's under the Ayatollah. "Afghans will have rights as citizens, not just as Muslims," he says. "We favor a government of law, not the rule of the clergy."
The rebels' hope is that Afghanistan will prove to be the Soviet Vietnam. "Once the war is as costly for the Russians as Vietnam was for the Americans, Moscow will have to get out," one guerrilla told me. But Gailani pleaded with me to convey the need for U.S. support, arguing on grounds not only of morality but of U.S. self-interest as well. "You should help us because Afghanistan is a part of humanity, and we are fighting for our freedom," he said. "The nations of the world should see that our country is only one part of what the Soviets are after. The Russian design is to control Asia and then the world. So you see, we Afghans are also fighting for all of you."