Afghanistan: Power Struggle
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ROBERT MacNEIL: First tonight, we look at one of the closing scenes of the Cold War, the collapse of communist authority in Afghanistan. It comes 14 years after Marxists took power in a coup and three years after the Soviet Union abandoned its effort to rule Afghanistan by military force.
Now, the Mujahadeen forces who fought a guerrilla war against the Red Army with help from the U.S. and others have taken command of the country and its capital, Kabul. But factions of the Mujahadeen are fighting each other in and around Kabul, divided by ethnic background and their degree of Islamic fervor. Three days ago correspondent Mark Urban of the BBC linked up with one of the Mujahadeen groups commanded by guerrilla leader Ahmed Shah Masood. Correspondent Urban filed this report yesterday.
MARK URBAN: On Saturday morning, we took the road north in search of Ahmed Shah Masood, a legendary fighter against the Soviet occupation and the man who this weekend took the country’s fate into his hands. After 50 miles we came to Cherikah, a strategic point in the war which has gripped this country for nearly 14 years.
Scores of Masood’s fighters roamed and roared around the streets, rubbing shoulders with soldiers whose commanders had surrendered them to him en masse. Unable to find the commander, we went further north. His men were gathering at a military base at the mouth of the Salang Pass, the most important point on the route between Kabul and the Soviet border. On the roof of one building key characters in the final drama of the Afghan leftist regimes stood together directing their joint forces. They were anxious. Messages arriving from Kabul indicated that rivals might be seizing power.
Commander Penar, one of Masood’s most senior fighters, a veteran of the force which fought the Soviet occupiers most effectively. General Said Shabob, until two weeks ago Masood’s enemy, he led his entire division over to the guerrilla leader, and General Majid, deputy commander of a feared force of Uzbek mercenaries from Northern Afghanistan. This man’s boss, General Dostam, deserted the Kabul government, along with his men, and joined Masood in January, the beginning of the end for Najibullah. It soon became clear they were altering their forces to prepare for action.
Suddenly, Masood was there, summoned from his quarters. Companies of his fighters formed up. These men are the closest the Afghan guerrillas get to a proper army, their discipline and training far ahead of other groups. He passed among them, boosting their confidence in a consummate display of leadership. He ordered his forces into action against rival guerrillas which he believed were engaged in a coup in Kabul. There were last minute instructions for commanders.
AHMED SHAH MASOOD: [translated] You must make sure that you behave in a dignified way. And you must say your prayers.
MARK URBAN: With a degree of organization normally entirely absent in Afghanistan, helicopters appeared promptly. Their role was vital because Masood’s men had to be lifted over positions held by the same forces trying to seize power. He summoned the pilots and told them the importance of their mission. Fighters from the Panshir Valley and other parts of the northeast boarded the machines. Most had never flown before, but soon — courtesy of the hero of the Afghan revolution helicopter regiment — they were on their way to snuff out the last flicker of that revolution. With his veteran troops embarking on a dangerous mission, Masood was still saying little about his plans.
MARK URBAN: Can you tell me in whose plans you believe Kabul is now?
AHMED SHAH MASOOD: [translated] No agreement has been reached. Discussions are still going on.
MARK URBAN: As they went, Masood offered a prayer for their success. In Kabul, itself, events were moving quickly. Masood’s rivals, the Hizbe Islami or Islamic Party of Gulbuddin Heckmatyar were in the process of seizing key buildings. One group arrived at the presidential palace. Afghan interior ministry troops appeared and a confrontation seemed inevitable. But an officer ran out and stopped them attacking. Then, after talks, the interior ministry men agreed to side with Heckmatyar’s guerrillas and the palace is theirs.
The head of those troops, Raz Mohamed Paktin, appears to have conspired with Gulbuddin Heckmatyar. Paktin, a hard-liner of the cult faction of the party, invited Heckmatyar’s guerrillas to protect his ministry. The Islamic Party despised Masood and they couldn’t stomach his alliance with their enemies, the Uzbek militia. One of the Islamic Party’s senior commanders who coordinated the move on Kabul told “NewsNight” that it was Masood’s alliance with the Uzbek militia which had been the last straw.
MAN: [translated] There are alliances happening even with a government which he has oppressed the people. It is the former government which has caused the present chaos.
MARK URBAN: Back to the North of Cherikah, Masood was readying further waves of his men to action. More helicopters took off, already secure in the knowledge that the first group had landed safely at Kabul Airport. But lightly armed troops can’t be left unsupported for long. As the helicopters went, several hundred additional troops were summoned by radio. They converged on the base in trucks and tanks to be formed into a ground column. Boosted by dozens of armed vehicles from General Shabob’s division, they went to Kabul a few hours later, sweeping through Heckmatyar’s men. With the operation proceeding to plan, Masood felt ready to explain his actions.
AHMED SHAH MASOOD: [translated] We must strengthen the positions we have captured, protect endangered positions, and provide security for the whole of Kabul. Then we must defeat the attempted coup by the previous ruling party. Najibullah’s men and Heckmatyar.
MARK URBAN: Can I ask you one question. Are you seizing power on behalf of the interim government announced in Peshaw yesterday? Is it your clear intention to hand power to them as soon as the situation is stabilized?
AHMED SHAH MASOOD: [translated] Yes. I totally support this idea.
INTERPRETER: Yeah. Completely, he’s for that.
MARK URBAN: Half an hour’s flying time away, the air landed units were fanning out from Kabul Airport. Many were carried by lorry to secure key points in the capital. At the presidential palace, Heckmatyar’s fighters found themselves in a stand-off with Masood’s men who took up positions only feet away. Even with tension running high, Masood’s men wanted to avoid a fight.
MARK URBAN: Do you think there’s a danger that fighting could break out here?
MAN WITH GUN: [translated] Our main intention is to make the city safe. I hope there won’t be any fighting.
MARK URBAN: Shortly after dusk, the sky erupted in a frenzy of tracer bullets as fighters from all factions celebrated the fall of Kabul after nearly 14 years of war. At about 7 o’clock on Sunday morning, the standoff ended. Masood’s men and General Dostam’s Uzbek mercenary militia moved in on the palace. After a few hours, it was over and General Dostam’s man on the spot was scathing about the opposition.
MARK URBAN: Can you tell me what happened to the Hez Islami fighters?
MAN: [translated] They’ve run away.
MARK URBAN: At the presidential palace, Gulbuddin Heckmatyar’s fighters were beaten by superior organization and leadership. Now, fighting continues around the city, but Gulbuddin Heckmatyar’s men are confined to a few small, isolated pockets of resistance.
At the city’s hospitals, casualties were treated. In the confused melees around Kabul, inevitably many of those hit were civilians. Dozens of those caught in the fighting were brought in from the south of the city. At the Bala Hisah Fort which dominates the southern approach to Kabul, General Dostam’s militia men went into action against an armored force loyal to Gulbuddin Heckmatyar. These Uzbeks are known for their love of battle and showed little restraint in their use of force. Their enemy, a combination of Heckmatyar guerrillas and interior ministry troops, responded with heavy weapons, dropping mortar rounds into the suburbs.
This morning we joined Masood’s artillery spotters overlooking the east of the city, where pockets of Heckmatyar’s guerrillas fight on. Artillery, armor and air strikes were brought to bear on Hez Islami positions. Masood’s men had taken a nearby hill, turning heavy weapons on their enemies. With superior firepower, more troops and better organization, Masood has the edge. Heckmatyar’s groups now appear ready to contemplate cease-fire. Masood’s gamble seems to have been rewarded.
ROBERT MacNEIL: But the latest reports tonight from Afghanistan said that Heckmatyar so far has refused to give up. His men continue to hold a key position in Central Kabul and are waging a fierce fight to hold onto it.