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eastern Europe had been replaced by a non-communist government.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
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
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 (firstname.lastname@example.org)
served as an aid worker in Afghanistan and Pakistan from 1989 to 1997.
He is a member of ILWU Local 6.