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Book excerpt: From ‘Farewell Kabul,’ a visit to Herat’s unusual Museum of Jihad

Ismael Khan had been Minister of Water and Power since being ousted as Governor, and had clearly prospered.

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Next I went for tea with the warlord who had first taken me to Herat many years before. Ismael Khan had been Minister of Water and Power since being ousted as Governor, and had clearly prospered. He was living in a three-storey marble house, white and pillared as a wedding cake, lit by hundreds of lightbulbs, unlike most of the country, and guarded by his fashion militia in sharply- cut camouflage. Inside Ismael looked serene in his white prayer cap, long white tunic of the crispest cotton, and long snowy-white beard. He was holding court with a group of elders, telling them how to vote in the coming elections. “They just wanted advice,” he smiled, his tiny currant eyes crinkling, when I suggested that did not seem very democratic.

He dispensed with the elders and led me into his garden, past supplicants who tried to kiss his hem and past his private zoo, a pen of peacocks and deer and a large, dusty ostrich. “I love animals,” he said unexpectedly. Having zoos seemed fashionable among warlords, though I expected Ismael to have something more fear- some than an ostrich. The President’s cousin Hashmat Karzai in Kandahar had a lion, though that wouldn’t save him when assassins came a few months later.

We sat in a glass conservatory full of plants and talked about the future. He was gloomy. “The international community shouldn’t have taken the guns from our mujaheddin,” he said. “In this area I was responsible for more than 100,000 mujaheddin across five provinces. We should bring them back. Without security there is nothing.”

From outside came the scream of a peacock. I remembered the Peacock Room in the Arg Palace where the Taliban had painstakingly painted out all the birds’ faces. “In these years foreigners have come and gone,” he shrugged. “Most come for short times. They want facts and dates, things which are not our way. We can converse all our lifetimes, but you will not understand.”

He stood up suddenly. “You must visit our Jihad Museum,” he said.

I had never heard of a jihad museum, so I took his advice, and on a chill morning drove to the northern edge of town. There, on a hill, stood a domed rotunda covered in engraved alabaster interspersed with turquoise and lapis tiles and surrounded by a sort of weapons park with a MiG fighter jet on a pedestal, two helicopters and an array of tanks and machine guns. I was met outside by a man in a suit who introduced himself as Abdul Wahab Qattali, better known as General Wahab, the warlord-turned-businessman who had paid for the museum.

He showed me that the inscriptions on the alabaster were the names of 2,100 of the 45,000 Afghans killed in Herat alone. He himself had joined the jihad at nineteen, and spent fourteen years fighting first against Russians then Najibullah. “We lost 550 people from our area,” he said.

Inside the museum were tall glass display cases of guns and ammunition, one just for AK47s, one of 82mm anti-tank bullets

made in China, one with old British Lee Enfields. A long corridor had been turned into a garish gallery of warlords in gilt-framed portraits like renaissance kings. All the old gang were there — Hekmatyar, Sayyaf, Rabbani, Abdul Haq, a pensive Ahmat Shah Massoud against the sunset, and Ismael Khan particularly resplendent. Only Dostum was missing, for he had been on the other side.

Lastly I was taken up the steps to the cupola. This had been given over to a grisly 360-degree diorama depicting the course of the Soviet occupation in clay models. It started with a scene of the Herat  uprising  against  the  Soviet  presence,  women  throwing stones and a boy with a catapult, then moved on to mujaheddin raiding a flag from a Soviet tank, various scenes of bloodshed, and ended with a line of Russian tanks leaving. General Wahab flicked a switch and started a sound-and-light show, complete with gunfire. “What are you thinking?” he asked anxiously. “Astonishing,” I replied. The whole thing was a triumphalist shrine to defeating a superpower. And it turned out that the weapons were not the only booty. “We have an actual Russian!” proclaimed General Wahab. Our guide Sheikh Abdullah, a shuffling man with a pale face and bushy henna-red beard, turned out to be an ex-KGB officer whose real  name  was  Khakimov  Bakhretdin. “We  captured  him  in Shindand around thirty years ago and then he joined us!” said General Wahab.

In a halting way, Abdullah explained that he had been born in Uzbekistan to a Ukrainian mother and a Russian father, joined the Soviet army and entered the KGB, then was sent to fight in Herat. He did not have a clue what he was going into, though his sister and brother-in-law were stationed there. “We were a company of a hundred volunteers,” he said. “Our problem was, we didn’t under- stand the area so we just destroyed everything — walls, villages …” He had, he said, killed fourteen mujaheddin and captured another twenty-six. Then one day they went into a village they thought mujaheddin were using as a base. The place turned out to be deserted, but early the next morning the mujaheddin attacked, and Bakhretdin was shot in the head. He tried to escape, running into the forest, but they shot him in the back and he fell unconscious, abandoned by his fleeing comrades. “When I came round a local doctor with a white beard was cleaning the blood and I saw I was in a local house. I was really afraid as we had all heard the stories of terrible things the mujaheddin did. We’d rather be killed than captured.”

Instead they looked after him. The doctor took out the bullet, and when he had recovered his hosts told him to convert to Islam. “I was scared, I didn’t know how. When they talked about Mohammed I thought he was a judge who would come and decide if I would be killed.” One night he dreamed of a very old man coming and sitting next to him and telling him to say “Hamdullah” — Praise be to God. When he woke up and lit the oil lamp no one was there. The next morning he told his captors to bring the imam, and he converted.

After that he ended up fighting alongside them against the Russians. “To start with they didn’t trust me, but then one night I went to an Afghan army post and told them I was a Russian and my car had broken down, so they let me in. Then I hit the guards and stole their guns. After that I fought with the mujaheddin until the Russians left.” He ended up marrying an Afghan woman and became a faith healer, changing his name to Sheikh Abdullah. When General Wahab completed the Jihad Museum, he immediately hired him.

Recently he had been tracked down by a Veterans’ Commission from Moscow looking for 263 missing Soviets who had never come back from the war. He told them he did not want to leave. Instead he recorded a video message to his mother, who promptly dropped dead of shock.

“When he dies he will be buried here in the museum,” said General Wahab. “Then we will have a dead Russian instead of a live one, which will also be good.”

Reprinted With Permission From: Farewell Kabul, © 2016 by Christina Lamb. Reproduced by permission of Harper Collins. All rights reserved.

Image credit: Amazon.com

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com.

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