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Our debt to the Afghans just got bigger

Refocusing on the central actors in the conflict

One memory I hold from the eventful year of 1989 comes from the Ibna Cina (Avicenna) Hospital for Afghan Refugees in Peshawar, Pakistan. There on a summer afternoon I heard a doctor speaking in Dari — the Afghan dialect of Persian — tell his colleagues that Americans always say “Tasha kor, tasha kor,” even for small kindnesses. There are over a dozen languages in Afghanistan but all Afghans say “Tasha kor” to say “Thank you.” I felt a pleasant honor for my country to hear this simple yet meaningful compliment.

But I wonder if it’s true and if that same doctor still feels that we are a grateful people. Earlier that year the Afghans evicted the Soviet Army from their homeland after sacrificing well over a million of their sons and daughters. And the day after the doctor’s compliment the headlines of the “Frontier Post” — Peshawar’s English-language daily — announced that Poland’s communist government had fallen. By the end of the year the Berlin Wall had crumbled and every pro-Soviet regime in eastern Europe had been replaced by a non-communist government. A little more than two years later the Soviet Union itself disintegrated, having been unable to bear its Afghan burden.

Thus ended the Cold War. The USA had been able to survive our insane imperialist adventure in Vietnam because democracies — warts and all — bend but rarely break. When the Soviets got mired in their own “Vietnam,” they never bent; they just broke.

Although the Afghans had fought for their own homeland, people all over the world benefited. Eastern Europeans threw off the shackles of Soviet-imposed Stalinism and were followed by the Central Asians and the Russians themselves. In South Africa the old excuse that an end to apartheid would mean an opening for Soviet influence became irrelevant and the US government’s support for the white supremacist regime finally crumbled. And for Americans the end of the Cold War meant that for the first time in over 40 years we did not have an enemy superpower aiming nuclear weapons at us.

So it seems only logical to believe that a grateful people should show gratitude toward those who had made epic sacrifices. After all, didn’t we help our British and French allies recover from World War II? In fact, we helped our former enemies Germany and Japan recover from that war. Surely we would do something for our allies the Afghans.

That was what the Afghans thought. Instead, without even a “Tasha kor” we abandoned them. Abandoned them to the intrigues of their stronger and selfish neighbors. Abandoned them to an endless civil war we had helped facilitate by arming extremists instead of the moderates (who actually did most of the fighting against the Soviet Army). Abandoned them to “friends” like Ben Laden who were only too happy to infiltrate their country and then their government. Never did George Bush Senior or Bill Clinton seek a significant aid package for the Afghans. Never did Congress take any initiative to do so.

Had we done so — had we officially and publicly thanked the Afghans for breaking the back of Soviet imperialism and had we funded the recovery of a nation that had been utterly destroyed — it is reasonable to say that Osama Ben Laden could only have built a retirement home in Afghanistan instead of a terrorist super-base. Consider that: if we had been grateful — if we had had the humility to realize that someone else had won the Cold War by actually fighting and dying instead of wasting tax dollars on “Star Wars” fantasies — it is quite possible that America would never have been attacked. It is probable that over 4,000 American men, women, and children murdered on September 11 would be alive today.

One might say that this is true but beside the point. The US never thanked or helped the Afghans and terrorists filled the power vacuum at our grievous expense. Accordingly, we must deal with what is, not what should be.

Well, we now have a second chance to say “Thank you.” Because once again the Afghans — by fighting for their homeland — have given us here and many others around the world a great service. And our obligation of gratitude is now even greater.

It was the Afghans who turned this war around. Up till mid-November over five weeks of US bombing had not cracked Taliban resolve. Two Red Cross warehouses and one UN office had been hit by our “smart bombs.” Even some food drops had wrecked houses. One of our key Afghan allies — the courageous Abdul Haq — had been captured and killed by the Taliban. Military experts such as retired Colonel David Hackworth (America’s most decorated soldier) strongly doubted our battle readiness for the foreboding deserts and mountains of Afghanistan — that graveyard of imperialism. US planes had hit too many civilians and we were losing the battle for the hearts and minds of Muslims in Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and other allied countries. Thousands of Pakistanis were crossing the border to fight for the Taliban.

Then on November 9 the Afghan resistance took Mazar-i-Sharif from the Taliban. At first it was seen only as an important but isolated victory for the Northern Alliance. But within 48 hours the Taliban had fled from other strategic northern cities. By dawn on November 13 they gave up the capital of Kabul as well as Herat City. The next day they lost the Pashto city of Jalalabad. In another 48 hours other Pashto areas overthrew the Taliban. That same week the eight aid workers (including two Americans) imprisoned by the Taliban since August were freed. They were not freed by US commandos as some media quickie stories implied. They were rescued by anti-Taliban Afghans who then contacted US helicopters to ferry them to Pakistan. Afghan citizens have been helping guide US commandos to Al-Qaeda hideouts. In little more than 100 hours the Afghan resistance had done what over a month of heavy bombing had not: overthrown the Taliban and fractured Al-Qaeda. While armchair strategists complain that there aren’t enough Muslims risking their lives to denounce Ben Laden, the Muslims of Afghanistan have been pushing Al-Qaeda out of their land. All this has been accomplished without sending in large numbers of US ground troops — contrary to what so many “experts” were saying until recently.

As we all know, the situation is far from resolved. As I write this (November 27) Ben Laden remains at large, as do Taliban and Al-Qaeda leaders. The city of Kandahar remains in the hands of the Taliban and their foreign allies. Pakistan is still volatile, though not as it was before. Here at home the puzzling anthrax situation remains unsolved. Nevertheless, Al-Qaeda has suffered what is probably permanent damage to much of its logistical capabilities as well as to its morale and its aura of invincibility. The Taliban has lost power and will probably never again be a political factor in Afghanistan. Afghan women are again working to rebuild their families and homeland as well as their own lives. And two American aid workers will be home for Christmas.

Let’s not kid ourselves: the Afghans did this. The US air campaign certainly helped, but as all military authorities tell us, wars are won on the ground not in the sky. The Afghans did this.

They had their own motives. Some were against the Taliban from the start. Devout Afghan Muslims were disillusioned by the Taliban’s self-styled version of Islam. Others were disgusted by the way Al-Qaeda had hijacked and disgraced the Afghan Jihad. Many sought vengeance for the blood of their loved ones: Al-Qaeda has killed more Afghans than it has Americans. Traditional Afghans saw the Taliban as a dehumanizing force: The Taliban police state had encouraged Afghans to snitch on their co-workers, friends, and even aid workers — often for economic gain. And the Taliban’s brutality against women was infamous and legion. The Afghans had their own motives for overthrowing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda just as they had their own reasons for fighting the Soviets. But whatever their intentions, we must remember that their friendship has helped us now, as it did in 1989.

The Afghans helped defeat the Soviets. The Afghans are helping us beat Al-Qaeda. This time let’s show our gratitude. The Afghans have earned our assistance not by being victims but by being martyrs. The Afghans have earned our public gratitude. And the Afghans have earned our respect. It would not be wrong or weak to acknowledge our real debt to the Afghans. And to honor it.

This is not as easy as it seems. It is more than a case of sending in billions of dollars. It is even more than a matter of creating something that will save and truly improve the lives of a devastated but still dignified people.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has pledged that America will finally send the Afghan people the aid they need to rebuild. This seems to be a standard part of US policy for nations recovering from wars that America has been involved in. However, this only happens after a compliant (not just stable) government has been installed. And even then we sometimes hedge on the deal, as the Yugoslav situation has shown.

The very obvious moral reasons for giving aid now are complemented by subtle but very concrete practical reasons. Specifically, perhaps the greatest potential benefit is that we can have the Afghans as friends. Having a people who have never been conquered by Western imperialists for our friends is a great asset. After 1989 we didn’t think we would need them again. History has proven differently in just a few years. History’s lesson is that we may need them again.

Rather than waiting for a compliant or even stable regime to be installed in Kabul, we should rush help in now. The awesome need is certainly there, and experienced aid workers know that assistance can be delivered without waiting for Afghan politicians and foreign diplomats to resolve political problems. From 1989 to 1996 the US and other Western governments refused to send in significant amounts of help until a stable government was installed. Yet during those years charities and some European governments (notably the Scandinavian countries) did overcome difficult logistical adversities to get aid into Afghanistan’s remotest areas. However, US insistence on a stable government before sending in significant help led to disasters — first for the Afghans, who descended from poverty to famine, and then for us. With Afghanistan in ruins and the world forgetting, Ben Laden — sensing his opportunity — left the Sudan to return to Afghanistan and begin his plots. In fact, Al-Qaeda even gave the Afghans aid when the US did not. To give the devil his due, Ben Laden helped build roads and houses. Afghans now know that Al-Qaeda had imperialist and sinister ulterior motives, but at the time they were in no position to turn down what little help came their way.

If Ben Laden could provide aid without waiting for a stable government, we certainly can.

We Americans must have the dignity to thank the Afghans for evicting the Soviets and overthrowing the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. And what is so important for gaining mutual respect between Afghans and Americans, we must treat Afghanistan as an independent country. Contrary to some views, Afghanistan is not a buffer state or artificial nation to be exploited. It is a multi-cultural civilization that has repeatedly unified against many of history’s most awesome invading armed forces. In the last century the illustrious Pakistani poet and philosopher Mohammad Allama Iqbal often expressed his admiration for Afghanistan. He appreciated the Afghans for the vigilant defense of their independence which helped inspire people throughout Asia to gain their freedom from European rulers. That vigilant defense of independence is an integral part of the Afghan culture and still benefits people all over the world.

To truly express our gratitude we must respect that independence and avoid the temptation to exploit the impoverished and war-torn Afghans. Just as our neglect and ingratitude of the 1990s came back to hurt us, exploitation can have even more disastrous consequences. We can give them an assistance program that truly meets their needs instead of opening new markets or trying to get an oil pipeline cheap for some multinational petro-corporations. We must heed the warnings of Afghanistan’s veteran resistance warriors such as Herat’s Governor Ismail Khan when they tell us not to send in occupying troops. By now we should know that it’s good for us that the Afghans be an independent nation. So let’s help keep it that way.

Many doubt that the Afghans are up to the job of rebuilding their destroyed homeland. The task is too awesome, some say. Cynics and bigots say the Afghans only know how to fight, not how to work. I disagree. Alongside the Salang Tunnel Road in Afghanistan’s Hindu Kush Mountains is a shrine — a common sight in a nation of martyrs. A small, simple structure of rocks is assembled to support vertically erected sticks which are topped by strips of black cloth that wave in the mountain winds. The shrine marks the burial ground of a bus driver. Sometime in the 1970s a bus came out of the tomb-like Salang Tunnel heading south for Kabul. As it approached a hairpin turn, the driver tapped the brakes. Nothing happened. The brakes had failed. The driver left his seat and stepped down to the door, opened it, and put his body under the right front tire. The bus skidded to a stop just short of the hairpin turn. Only the driver was killed.

The Afghans have such people because the Afghans honor such actions. They can rebuild their country and they can do so according to their standards, not ours.

Howard Williams (howardx@pacbell.net) served as an aid worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1989 to 1997. He is a member of ILWU Local 6.