Book review: “Night letters, gulbuddin hekmatyar and the afghan islamists who changed the world”

May, 2020 The Bookslamist

“International politics in the mid-1960s was the domain of dreamers (…) Located at the crossroads between Central and South Asia, Afghanistan was not isolated from the winds of changes”.

It is difficult to tell Afghanistan’s character without falling into stereotypes or enforced myths. Night Letters, which takes the name from threatening letters still nailed across doors and mosques of local villages, carefully avoids any of those, guiding us instead into the vibrant political soul of a country, too often depicted simply as isolated and backward.  In this book, Afghanistan stops being the passive battleground of international games to became the main connecting point and home of the events that shaped the world as we know it today.

Islamic movements, usually depicted as a regressive force standing against modernization, emerged from the book as a social force, a pushing factor of modern history. The main protagonists of this politics are not tribal thugs, but members of a young, urban and educated class who aimed to change the world on their very own terms. It was – in fact – not the illiteracy of stubborn peasants to lead the world-known Afghanistan resistance, but a long established conscious that communism had no future in a country with little if nothing in common with the proletariat described in books such as Gorky’s Mother.

It is indeed a brave book, which takes us on a journey that starts from the first protests against a lavish monarchy and a docile cleric, throughout the years of the Soviet Invasion and Afghan brutal Civil war, till the still taboo years of the Taliban regime and beyond.

“The communists and the islamists had come to the same diagnosis about the problem afflicting Afghanistan, with very different ideas about the cure”

The story is told not from a Kabul-centric liberal perspective, but from the periphery. This time, other voices of the country are allowed to speak. Beside the leader of Hizbi-e-Islami Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, Sands and Qazizai reconstruct the role and story of minor yet key figures such as Jan Mohammed (murdered for being a spy of the Daud regime in a trial which involved also the notorious commander Ahmad Shah Massod), Kashmir Khan (the commander defeated in Kunar the first-ever Salafi Islamic State in the1990s), Mazari (the Shia leader who permitted the Taliban to enter Kabul in 1993), or Awal Gul (whose militants escorted Bin laden and Zawari to Tora Bora).

In a captive storytelling, the authors explain the contestations, letting the reader to feel vividly the exhaustion of the war. The struggle of the thousands of Soviet troops deployed in Afghanistan, told to fulfill their international duty of helping locals and becoming infamous for their brutality, recall the PTSD of many American soldiers deployed in Afghanistan and Iraq, ending up tormented by the atrocity committed and witnessed.

“The land was soaked in blood (…) many troops took refuge in drugs and alcohol to get through the hours of duty, selling weapons and ammunition to the very Afghan they we fighting in an effort to find their addiction”

Night Letters is an indispensable read not only for those interested in Afghanistan, but for all those seeking to understand the causes behind what is happening today around the world. All facts and protagonists are put under scrupulous scrutiny and assigned to history with the right dose of dignity and responsibility. West-loved mujahedeen commander Ahmad Shah Massoud is revealed under a new, little known light, Hekmatyar’s fanatism confirmed while dismantling the lies and misconceptions surrounding his life. More importantly though, the commitment and role of Hizb-e Islami to global Islamic militancy find in these pages an indelible testimony.

“It was the evening of 25 April 1992. The crimson carpets on the sweeping marble staircase bore no sign of the terror that has swept the city just hours earlier. Ming vases and mounted antelope heads lined the walls near gold brocade couches and antique French wardrobes. Presidential guard uniforms hung pressed and clean, their epaulettes immaculate. The Hizbis had never seen such luxury, yet they were uninterested in the splendour. Beards matted, feet caked in dirt, eyes heavy with fatigue, they wanted to search every corner of the vast complex to make sure it was secure for Hekmatyar imminent arrival”

It is an extraordinary work of investigation, which took the authors six years and over three hundred interviews across Afghanistan, the Middle East, and Europe.  Night Letters does not fell into aseptic descriptions of the mujahedeen factions as in Roy’s Islam and Resistance in Afghanistan. The powerful narrative in which the story unfolds, the details and description of places and characters will most likely let Sands and Qazizai’s work become a new touchstone in the field, as it has been the Looming Tower by Lawrence Wright before.  

“Ever since Massoud’s forces first established control over Kabul in 1992 they had torn around the city in old Russian jeeps, music blaring from boom boxes, gesturing obscenely at passers by. From the vantage point of their mountain outposts, Jamiat gunmen shot civilians from sports in the street below, betting cigarettes on who could score the most kills. Dostum’s troops were notorious from the Afghan practice of bacha bazi, a form of pederasty in which effeminate young boys are made to dress as women and sexually abused. The fighters of Wahdah hammered nails into the skulls of their prisoners and stole ancient artefacts from Kabul’s museum. None of the faction were winning. All they had succeeding in doing was tarnishing the legacy of the mujahideen’s historical victory over. The Soviets. In the south of the country, a group of rural Pashtuns had finally had enough. A new revolution was stirring.”

This is because in the very end, this is a poetic book, a veiled declaration of love for Afghanistan, its mountains, beliefs and attitude toward life. The descriptions of Kabul transcend the western view of spoiled hippies’ storytellers and journalists crossing the land in the search for fame. The harsh beauty of places such as Shaygal district in Kunar and the oppression felts inside the cell of the Kabul prison Pul-e Charki cover the reader with smells, views, and tears from the first till the last page.

Night Letters is the story of a country which has witnessed no mercy, but was capable of holding strongly to beliefs rather than pragmatic survival. The heroism and stubbornness of each of the principal characters is petrifying, frightening, but also fascinating. Yasser Arafat, the notorious Palestinian leader that will attempt to mediate a peace deal within Afghan warring factions two times (in Baghdad and Tripoli, Libya), is reported to have told Sulaiman Layq, co-founder of the Afghanistan community party: “All fights are born from misunderstanding”. The key indeed, is to disclose them. And Sands and Qazizai do that with magnificent intellectual honesty, overwhelming narrative, and journalism rigor.

“He [Hekmtyar] predicted that America would soon invade Afghanistan and the Taliban government would fall. ‘Then we will continue our Jihad against America,” he said matter-of-factly. These seemed like preposterous claims to make in the prevailing geopolitical climate, but Hekmatyar knew something that the rest of the world did not: an Al-Qaeda attack, one which would provoke just such a response from the US, was going to happen”

At times, it can be felt this is an opera prima. Names and connection to the story of international jihad key figures such as Al-Qaeda’s Osama Bin Laden, Al-Zawahiri, ISI founder Al-Zarqawi and Mohammed Khalil Hakaymah, author of the infamous manifesto The Management of Savagery leave the readers with many questions open and the need of further investigation. Yet the book is permeated with hidden truths that seem to have waited so long to be heard, that would not leave any disappointment just the hope there will be soon be more we can learn.