Engineer Ghafar and a couple of his gunmen were standing beside me in a wheat field when a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter roared overhead. For the pilot, there must have been something suspicious about the cluster of Afghans below in the green square; he caught a glint off one of their AK-47s, perhaps. On the ground, a wave of fear passed through Ghafar and his soldiers. During the jihad against the Soviets, Ghafar and his men had been frequently chased by helicopter gunships, and the rumbling thunder in the sky was unmistakable. The Blackhawk dropped low, its dark shadow passing over the fields, before it raced off. Now that the chopper was gone, Ghafar afforded a joke. "At this range," he laughs, "it would have been so easytoo easy, reallyto shoot down that helicopter."
The engineer knows a thing or two about firing at helicopters. Ghafar says he was the first Afghan member of the mujahedin to obliterate a Soviet chopper with a Stinger missile. And by coincidence, Ghafar was standing in exactly the same field when the Blackhawk appeared over the hills, 19 years later. "Amazing," he exclaims. "They're following the same flight pattern as the Soviets." The engineer saw this as a kind of omen: that one superpower acted much the same as another, and that unless the U.S. became more careful, it would, by the grace of Allah and the ferocity of the Afghan warrior, meet the same fate as the Soviets. It was a warning I would hear constantly throughout my travels in Afghanistan.
In 1986 Ghafar had proved himself as a brave commander to the CIA, and he was taught how to operate the top-secret Stinger. On Sept. 26 that year, he says, he and his soldiers crept through the fields as close as they dared to the Soviet air base in Jalalabad. Then Ghafar led his men in prayers. "We prayed that Allah would send us lots of Russian helicopters, and we also asked Allah not to shame us in front of the other mujahedin."
His prayers were answered. At dusk, a formation of 12 Soviet copters appeared over the camelback hills, and Ghafar hoisted the missile launcher onto his shoulder, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The Stinger misfired like a dud firecracker and snaked crazily through the tall wheat. "I was worried that the Soviets had seen the missile flash and would be after us," Ghafar recounts. Calmly, he prepared another Stinger in the launch tube and shot again.
That moment was the turning point in the Afghan war. The Stinger, attracted by the heat of the helicopter's motors, struck home. "It was like somebody had thrown feathers in the sky, all these pieces from the destroyed helicopter came floating down," Ghafar recalls. He was under strict orders from his CIA mentors to launch only one missile, but elated by his triumph, he reloaded and shot. Again, a helicopter exploded in the sky. The remaining choppers scattered for safety. That afternoon, the Soviets lost their air supremacy over Afghanistan and the tide began turning against the Red Army.
THE FOREIGN INVASION
I came late to the Afghanistan story, arriving a few months after the last Soviet tanks, in full retreat, crossed the Friendship Bridge over the Amu Darya River. But since then, I've stayed around. I witnessed the fall of the Communist regime in 1991 when the victorious mujahedin filled the skies over Kabul with sprays of red tracer bullets during endless nights of celebration. I was present when the muj turned their guns on one another and killed more than 30,000 Kabul civilians in wanton bombardments. And I was in the country for the rise of those pious and brutish warriors known as the Taliban, and for their epic demise when Americans invaded Afghanistan after Sept. 11, 2001.
In spring of this year, I set off on a journey to revisit the places where the wheels of history took observable turnslike the field where Ghafar launched his fiery arrow. I was searching for an explanation of how Afghanistan became the crucible for the two defining events of the late 20th century and early 21st century: the implosion of the Soviet Empire and the upsurge worldwide of Islamic militancy.
Before crossing the Khyber Pass into Afghanistan, I stayed a couple of days in Peshawar's old city, at a hotel of winding staircases near lanes of storytellers and caged songbirds. During the 1980s, this ancient caravansary at the gateway between India and Central Asia seethed with spies of a dozen nationalities, Afghan fighters, war junkies, refugees, aid volunteers, journalists, Arab preachers, and fugitive Islamic radicals. Many were inspired by the 1979 Iranian revolution, which showed that faith could be harnessed to topple seemingly invincible tyrants. Everyone had his own competing agendas and ideologies, especially the "foreign fighters." Assassination was a common way of settling scores. Recalls Masood Khalili, now the Afghan ambassador to India who in 2001 was nearly blown up by two al-Qaeda suicide bombers: "They came as tourists looking for experience, and they left as terrorists." The Arabs and Southeast Asians probably numbered several thousand, according to one former Pakistani intelligence official. And like today's suicide bombers in Iraq, some fanatics sought battlefield martyrdom, even going so far as to camp in white tents easily spotted by the Soviet gunships, and wearing shrouds into combat.