Book Excerpt: 'Charlie Wilson's War'

It was a message from the Afghans — an old, stylized warning, one that a famous Afghan chieftain had given to the commander of British troops in 1842. The warrior had been brought before the British general, who began to dictate terms to the tribal leader. Before he could finish, however, the Afghan started to laugh at him.

"Why are you laughing?" the general demanded.

"Because I can see how easy it was for you to get your troops in here. What I don't understand is how you plan to get them out."

One hundred and thirty-eight years later, across the length and breadth of Afghanistan in those first months of 1980, came the mullah's new call to jihad — to take up the holy war. It was not a campaign like the CIA's ongoing Contra war, in which the rich Nicaraguans fled to Miami and the peasants on the border were paid to take up arms. In Afghanistan, the whole nation of Islam responded to the call. In the capital, just a month after the invasion, the mullahs and rebel leaders decided to show the Russians that there was only one true superpower.

As dusk fell the first cry sounded from an elder in a turban: "Allahu Akbar" — God is Great. From the rooftops came the response, until the air was thundering with the sound of hundreds of thousands of Muslim faithful chanting the cry of the jihad: "Allahu Akbar, Allahu Akbar."

Across town in the Kabul Hotel, a Soviet reporter, Gennady Bocharov, was experiencing a terror like none he had ever known. In the streets and on rooftops around the hotel turbaned men and veiled women added to the basic chant: "Marg, marg, marg bar Shurawi!" Death to the Soviets — death, death, death! Bocharov had retreated into his room with a group of Soviet diplomats and the commandant of Kabul. He later wrote about his terror as they discovered that the phone lines had been cut and all they could hear was the swelling chant: "Each of us knew that the fanatics take their time about killing you. We knew that the first thing they do is pierce your forearms with knives. Then they hack off your ears, your fingers, your genitals, put out your eyes."

Bocharov's terror grew when they discovered they had only one grenade, which would not be enough to kill them all before the Afghans arrived with their knives. "I found myself shivering convulsively, uncontrollably," he reported. "We heard the nearby yells, breathed the smoke of nearby fires, and prayed to Fate to grant us instant death." Before the journalist and his friends had to face this specter, a company of Soviet paratroopers arrived to rescue them. By morning, a much-sobered Red Army was back in control, but the night of "Allahu Akbar" had been a rite of passage for the Afghans; they were now all in this together, to the death.

In the following months, the Afghan people would suffer the kind of brutality that would later horrify the world when the Serbs began their ethnic cleansing. Soviet tanks and jets would lay waste to villages thought to be supporting guerrillas. Before long, millions of Afghans — men, women, and children — would begin pouring out of the country, seeking refuge in Pakistan and Iran.

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