Abdul Halim, a major Afghan insurgent commander, was killed as he led what was to have been the final assault on a key government military post in the center of Kabul, the capital of this Soviet-occupied country.
Halim's death is considered a major blow to the Islamic insurgents in their almost three-year-old war against the Soviet-backed government in Afghanistan. The 25-year-old guerrilla lieutenant was one of the six or seven most important insurgent field commanders.
In a night attack late last month that lasted well over two hours, the 50-man post, situated just below the Bala Hissar Fort that houses 3,000 Soviet troops and less than half a mile from the old city center, had been repeatedly hit by recoilless rifle shells to prepare for the assault.
Halim, realizing that only one heavy machine gun was continuing to resist his forces, scaled the battered walls to silence it, only to be hit in the head by a bullet from the machine gun. He died instantly, and his death brought the operation to an immediate and chaotic end.
Halim was a man of education and intellect, who unlike most of his fellow mujaheddin or "warriors of God," had grasped that in a guerrilla war the political mission of the insurgent is as important as his military one.
His most important achievement can be considered the fact that he systematically took the war far into the built-up urban metropolis that is the center of Soviet Communist control in Afghanistan. It formed a part of his political mission -- for such attacks go a long way toward convincing the city's inhabitants of the weakness of their present government. During such frequent forays into the deserted and ill-lit streets of Kabul, Halim would issue long, rousing appeals to his fellow countrymen through the megaphone he invariably had by his side and which was almost the "weapon" he cherished most.
In a raid on Kabul I witnessed on Sept. 30, 37 insurgents led by Halim destroyed a military transport depot about a mile from the old city center. The insurgents overran a small, street-corner bunker and destroyed 42 vehicles.
The attack last month on the Afghan Army post, no more than 400 yards below the hilltop Bala Hissar Fort, at which about 3,000 Russian troops are garrisoned, along with light artillery, mortars, tanks and armored personnel carriers, was typical of Halim. He knew the dangers inherent in such an attack and only hours before his death in the cutting cold of the early hours of Thursday, Oct. 28, he admitted as much to me. Bala Hissar, he said, had not been attacked before, because the Russian presence was seen as too vast to make success likely. But before the winter snows would force the mujaheddin to curtail their activities, he wanted, he said as we made our way down from his mountain stronghold to the outskirts of the city, "to make one more attack which everyone in Kabul will hear."
That wish was fulfilled. The attack was launched when a first shell from the recoilless rifle pierced the northern wall of the post in a cloud of dust and shattered cement, just before 11 p.m. on Wednesday Oct. 27, a deafening blast through the silence that had surrounded us until then. For the following two hours, the recoilless rifle, which would be better described as a small cannon, continued to fire regularly every six or seven minutes -- slowly disintegrating its target.
From that first shot onward, the level of light and heavy machine-gun fire, later punctuated by the distinctive "crump" of incoming mortar grenade fire, steadily intensified.
Almost immediately Zabit (Lt.) Halim turned to his megaphone and concentrated on dissuading the Afghan soldiers inside the dust- and smoke-covered post from resisting their "Moslem brothers." He said the insurgents would welcome with open arms any soldiers who followed the example of the majority of their predecessors in Afghan uniforms and defected.
But for once, Halim's vocal talents were rebuffed. Not only did the soldiers remain firmly entrenched behind their walls, they also put up staunch resistance.
But while the soldiers in the post refused to budge, so too for an hour and a half did the Soviet forces poised so threateningly above the scene of the battle. Their actions that night must again raise serious questions about their adaptability and capability within the Afghan environment. During that first 90 minutes, not even a shot was fired on the exposed positions of the 63 mujaheddin taking part in the attack.
The most credible explanation for this behavior is that the strict hierarchical command structure of the Soviet Army demanded that permission to intervene be given first by high-ranking officers, who apparently were not present.
When the Soviets did belatedly come to the aid of the beleaguered Afghan allies, their actions were also cause for surprise, for they can best be described as a mixture of hesitancy, caution and madness. Machine-gun and mortar fire rained down indiscriminately around the post, some actually hitting the post itself, while three armored personnel carriers, their searchlights blazing, made their way down toward the insurgents.
Those insurgents, however, had prepared themselves for this eventuality, and Halim had positioned men armed with the RPG7 antitank grenade launchers beside the winding road that leads from the fort down to the post and houses below. The first armored car suffered a direct hit and burst into flames, while the other two immediately dimmed lights and withdrew. Infantry platoons ordered to move down behind the vehicles were exposed. The Soviet soldiers made easy targets for the mujaheddin and apparently sustained considerable casualties.
At this point, with the rebels having driven back the first Soviet move against them, Halim made his dash for the battered walls of the post. As the 30 or so men close by saw his body leap up and back on the impact of the bullet, a wail of panic and anguish went up and Halim's "one more attack which everyone in Kabul will hear" ended there and then.
In almost complete confusion and demoralization, a harrowing, two-hour withdrawal followed. Three other guerrillas had been wounded, including 18-year-old Nur Mohammed, who had been hit by mortar shrapnel and who was to die slowly and painfully shortly before the long line of men arrived back at the village nearest their mountain base.
That was Halim's home village -- Shiwaki -- and almost all the inhabitants seemed to be up, none hiding their grief, and constantly repeating in what seemed to be complete bewilderment, "Halim Shahid Halim Shahid," or "Halim martyr, Halim martyr." The dark-bearded Halim was buried before the first light of dawn.
This 25-year-old former police officer and long-time undercover member of the extreme fundamentalist Moslem Brotherhood, was convinced of the Islamic road his country should follow once freed of the "godless" Communists. Almost every day he could be found using his considerable prowess in public speaking to explain to both the civilian population and insurgent forces what action should be taken.
During the 16 months he commanded the mujaheddin of the Yunis Khalis faction of Hezb-e-Islami (one of two major rebel parties operating from various bases around the capital) in the southern region around Kabul, he had greatly developed the effectiveness of antigovernment and anti-Soviet activity in and around the city.
The first snow of winter, which traditionally brings most guerrilla activity to a halt around Kabul, is now beginning to fall, and it is this respite that will give Halim's group the time and the opportunity to reorganize and recoup morale before they launch into the renewed campaigns of the coming year. Without his leadership, however, those campaigns are likely to be less extensive than before, for the resistance will find it hard to find another man with his particular talents.
His death also underlines one of the major weaknesses of the mujaheddin. Halim was above everything else the Afghan's idea of the perfect commander, a man with a certain tempestuousness, a man who leads from the front. It was those qualitites that killed him and will kill other major commanders in the future, as the war in Afghanistan drags on.