‘Car bombs and suicide bombers were unknown in Soviet-era Kabul’

‘Explosion? What explosion?” Afghanistan‘s foreign minister Shah Mohammed Dost inquired with an elegant raising of his eyebrows when I interrupted our interview to ask whether the sudden noise I had just heard was an explosion.

  1. Ghosts of Afghanistan: Hard Truths and Foreign Myths

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    Jonathan Steele

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It was November 1981, almost two years since Soviet troops had invaded, and the official spin from Moscow and its allies in Kabul was that everything was under control.

“Ah yes, the dynamiting,” Dost said as another boom sounded in the distance. He was eager to assure me I was mistaken if I thought I could hear the sound of war from his office in central Kabul. “They do it almost every day, sometimes twice a day, for producing stones for construction, you know.”

A tall, slim man with a neatly clipped moustache, Dost was the most prominent face of Afghanistan’s Moscow-installed regime.

In the first weeks after the December 1979 invasion, Soviet officials had been so confident of quick victory that they gave western reporters astonishing access, even allowing them to ride on tanks or drive rented cars and taxis alongside Soviet convoys. By the spring of 1980, the mood had changed as the Kremlin saw it was in for a long war of attrition. The war became a taboo in the Soviet media, while western journalists who applied for visas for Afghanistan were routinely refused. The only way to cover the conflict was to endure days and nights of walking along precarious mountain paths with guerrilla fighters from mujahedin safe havens in Pakistan. A few stories that appeared in western papers via this route were careful and low-key, but many were romantic, self-promoting accounts of heroic exploits by reporters who donned a shalwar kameez and a pakol, the pie-shaped Afghan woolen hat, to slip into Afghanistan alongside the men with the guns. Mujahideen groups encouraged this adventure journalism, uncritical, exaggerating and occasionally dishonest.

By 1981, the Soviets were realising the no-visa policy was a mistake. Their case was not being heard. So a handful of western journalists were let in for short trips in small groups or occasionally on their own.

I landed in Kabul on a bright autumn morning that year after changing planes and an overnight stay in Delhi. After the heat of India’s capital I was struck by the extraordinary clarity of Kabul’s air and the sky’s deep blue. The city sits on a high plateau surrounded by a ring of khaki mountains and beyond them, glittering in the distance, are the snow-capped peaks of the Hindu Kush. In the dozen trips I have made to Kabul, its magnificent setting never ceases to amaze me. The country’s poverty is overwhelming and the stories a reporter hears or sees are often tragic, but you can always lift your eyes to the hills and feel a restorative surge of nature’s beauty to revive your energy.

On that first trip, the city itself, and not just its majestic surroundings, exuded a sense of calm. It was totally unexpected. Where was the war? And where were the Russians? Whatever was going on in the Afghan countryside, there was little sign of war or preparation for it in Kabul. In the two weeks I spent in the city I saw hardly any Soviet troops. On the few occasions I spotted some, they were acting as tourists rather than enforcers. As though the war was far away, they wore floppy khaki hats and no helmets and would drive in open-sided jeeps to Chicken Street, known by its English name to Afghans and foreigners alike as the city’s best market for souvenirs.

Car bombs and suicide attacks, which have become a permanent threat in today’s Kabul, were unknown during the Soviet period, and Afghans went about their daily business without fear of sudden mass slaughter. Many Soviet diplomats came with their families, and the embassy had a flourishing kindergarten, as well as a primary and secondary school. At the city’s two university campuses, most young women were unveiled, as were most of the female staff in banks, shops, schools, factories and government offices. A few wore a loose head-scarf over their hair. Only in the bazaar where poorer people shopped was the burqa common, usually blue, pink or a light shade of brown.

When I registered with the Afghan foreign ministry, they assigned me – as I had expected – a minder who was to act as interpreter and accompany me on all my interviews. Unlike the British military minder I was required to have in Helmand in 2010, he was unarmed. Called Naqib, he and his superiors accepted most of my requests to meet Afghan ministers and other officials. Their key objective was to challenge the stories being written by reporters travelling with the mujahideen and convince me that opposition claims that Kabul was surrounded and close to collapse were wildly untrue.

Without a knowledge of the language and shadowed by my minder, I realised it was impossible to meet many Afghans independently, though I found a few shopkeepers who spoke some English. But from the evidence of my own eyes, the mujahideen claims of a city under siege certainly seemed false. The dozens of little kebab stalls in the street had as much lamb from the countryside as they needed. Pomegranates, watermelons and grapes spilled out of the bazaar.

I never discovered a definitive explanation for the explosions I had heard during my interview with Foreign Minister Dost, but his point that Kabul was unaffected by the destruction of war was valid.

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