Soldiers of God: With Islamic Warriors in Afghanistan and Pakistan
By. Robert D Kaplan Vintage Departures Available at Asia Books, Bt595
Reviewed by Daniel Gawthrop
Published in The Nation (Bangkok) in 2002
Before his capture and execution by the doomed Taliban regime last October 26, veteran guerrilla fighter Abdul Haq was one of the brightest lights of the Afghan resistance.
The 43-year-old Pashtun commander, a hero of the anti-Soviet war, was widely respected for his combat skill and broad national vision. Like fellow mujahideen hero Ahmad Shah Massoud, the Tajik leader killed by a suicide bomber during the week of the September 11 attacks, Haq was seen as a charismatic figure of great integrity who would have played a key political role in any post-Taliban government.
The rise to prominence of Abdul Haq and, to a lesser extent Massoud, is one of the more intriguing elements of this reprint of a book which, in 1990, provided one of the first Western glimpses into the anti- Soviet war in Afghanistan. The revised edition includes a new introduction written days before Haq’s death and an additional chapter that explores the birth of the Taliban.
While this new concluding chapter, first published two years ago by Atlantic Monthly, provides some background to the complexities of Pakistani support for Afghan extremism—not to mention the ironic US support that fuelled it—the current value of Soldiers of God lies in its first-person narrative.
Kaplan serves up a gritty account of courage and deprivation among the mujahideen that goes far to explain what motivated the average rebel during the Soviet occupation. In the context of current events it has much value as cultural anthropology, particularly in distinguishing between the “ornery backwoodsman” aesthetic of the “muj” (whose religious and tribal creed “flowed from the austere living conditions of the high desert”) and the more ideological and abstract fundamentalism of the Taliban that followed.
Kaplan is the author of two books on the Balkans and various other travelogues on places most journalists would rather avoid. In these pages, written when the anti-Soviet resistance was getting scant attention in the international media, he expresses much disdain for reporters who spent little or no time inside the Afghan border but emailed their dispatches from luxury hotels in Peshawar.
Kaplan, on the other hand, treks up and down the Afghan hills for kilometres without drinking water, marveling at the endurance of men twice his age who are driven by ancient bonds of brotherhood. Landmines—more than a million were planted by the Soviets—are a constant threat, along with aerial bombardment by Soviet helicopters. By the time the author reaches Kandahar, trembling with fear much of the time, his objectivity lies in tatters. Kaplan doesn’t succumb to the Stockholm Syndrome while with the mujahideen, and found it impossible to understand a religion whose adherents “refresh” their faces with dust from the ground, go weeks on end without sex, and utter the name of God 100 times in five daily rituals.
But, like us, he can’t help but admire men like the ill-fated Haq, who kept on fighting even after his foot was blown off by a landmine. Well worth reading.