The Afghan Army base is on a well-trafficked Kabul thoroughfare. The long front wall, heavily fortified and topped with barbed wire, breaks for a large yellow metal space, punctuated on the right side with a metal door. The guard up above the wall offers acknowledgement and the door slides open. Once inside the base, I’m searched, before walking past concrete barriers and an additional gate.
The Colonel is a handsome man, approachable, unbothered, likely in his forties. He has a full head of black hair, and a thick black mustache. He greets me outside of his office structure with seven or eight uniformed men, all friendly, exchanging handshakes, salaams and English greetings. He is the commandant of this base and mingles easily with his men. There are plenty of weapons and soldiers about, but everyone is going about their work, without the tension of the more exposed soldiers and police on the street. There is a business-like sense of confidence and professionalism. There is no sense of a state of siege.
Once inside, we discuss the purpose of the book. The office is modest and utilitarian, with three black vinyl/leather couches surrounding a low, square table. My tea cup is filled by a polite young gentleman who returns throughout our conversation. I’m curious how the Colonel feels about the state of his country, a career officer who has survived twenty-four years of a communist government, the mujahedin, civil war, the Taliban (working for an NGO, called IAM, International Assistance Mission) and, now, thirteen years of US intervention. As this meeting has not been formally presented up his chain of command, we agree to keep the meeting anonymous for now.
The Americans and western countries were here to help us fight against world terrorism. When al-Qaeda and the Taliban were here. We wanted them to come, to fight with us, to struggle together. And it has been successful. We have our national army, national police national security. Compare our situation between now and when the Taliban came in power, and how we see ourselves, where we are right now. A great difference.
Why is their brand of Islam so attractive to some Afghans?
Before Taliban, after the Islamic revolution (against the Soviets), there was factional fighting. People were tired of that situation. They wanted something to save them from that. At the beginning, when Taliban invaded, they thought this might be better than mujahedin. Later on, they saw the results: no schools, war, atrocities. Hanging and beating people under the name of Islam.There is a difference between terror and Islam. Under the name of Islam, they try to terrorize people in order to gain access to their aims and objectives. Nothing related to Islam. It is quite easy to deceive people by the name of islam. Now, since they don’t have the power to stand against the government, they just do suicide bombing. I’m quite sure they do the same things in other countries.
Many westerners see the behavior of the Taliban and other Islamist groups, and conclude that Islam is a warlike religion.
Islam is a religion of peace. There is nothing mentioned in the Quran about suicide bombings, slaughtering people, no, it’s not in Islam.
Are there Quran passages that encourage violence against non-believers?
No, in Islam, there is a verse (he recites it in Arabic), it says, you have our own religion, non-believers have their own religion. Live in peace. Don’t harm other people. Let them look at your deeds or behavior, so that they can come to your religion.
I ask about life under the communist regime and whether there were any positives about that time.
If you compare that with mujahidin, and with Taliban, yes, that was positive, at least there was peace and a better condition for people to work, study and there was better opportunities for women to work and study. There was an article that I read back then, it was written, sooner or later peace will be established in our country, while condemned will be those who impede the return of peace and discontinuation of fratricidal war and insist on the military solution of the situation. The solution that could bring nothing except more suffering more pains and more tragedies for our people. That is the whole thing. They wanted a program of reconciliation between mujahedin and administration, but I don’t know why it failed.
There are critiques of the US for being distracted by Iraq, for killing civilians, for mistakes in military or development strategy.
That is old policy. When I look at the whole picture, I look at life under Taliban then and where we are now. As to civilians, that is war. If Taliban and al-Qaeda used civilian houses as shelters, then if they want to kill you, you have to kill them.
What do you foresee for 2015 as most western troups are gone?
Afghans should take a lesson from the past. They should stop this civil war in their country. Americans saved us from the dark ages, it was like 400 years ago. Now we feel like we live in the 21st century. We still need the US to help to improve the economy, to train our army, and we will still need them to be side by side. This is world terrorism, not just terrorism. We need America as one of our allies. To tell you the truth, I feel sad when Americans leave Afghanistan. They should stay to guarantee peace in this country.
We discussed the difference between the Iraq and Afghanistan situations, about the resistance by many Iraqis to what they felt was an illegal invasion and a poorly executed occupation. I ask if Afghans want Americans out, as did a growing number of Iraqis. I ask, What do Afghans want today?
I cannot represent all Afghans. Everyone has his own personal idea. We cannot call this an invasion. We wanted to get out of that situation, so we invited US forces. They didn’t invade Afghanistan. Taliban governed for 5 years, if they were here for 13 more years, can you imagine the situation of Afghanistan compared to now?
Afghans want peace they are tired of war, so they should take a lessons from the past come together, give hands to each other and build their own country. When the US leaves, and we have a strong army to hold security and peace, we will not go back. Nobody wants to back the Taliban. We don’t see them as a serious force. All they do is suicide bombings and terrorize people. They are supported by Pakistan, especially, as you mentioned, in tribal areas. But people are tired of killing, of war in this country.
What do you expect to happen in 2015?
We have our own army. With US and coalition forces supporting, I am quite sure we will be able to invite Taliban to leave and join us. The policy of the government is to stop war, I think positively. I don’t think there will be a power that can struggle against our armed forces.
Can you see a scenario where the Taliban take over the country again?
No, I don’t think so.
Soldiers walk in and out asking questions, exchanging information. We end the formal part of the interview and the Colonel invites me to return anytime. I ask where is the best place to catch a cab outside the base, and he pauses, then says asks where I am staying. “I’ll take you,” he offers. “It’s safer that way. The soldiers are taking an exam. When they’re done, we’ll go.”
As we wait, we talk about family, his experience in the US, and Afghan history and culture.
On Ahmed Shah Massoud.
He was martyred before 9/11. He resisted against Taliban. His followers invited US western forces. He was the only one resisting against Taliban.
What has been your personal experience with Americans?
In 2001, I could speak English fluently. I made lots of American friends. They sent me to an English course and I got the highest score, and then they asked me if I wanted to become an instructor in 2003. I was sent to the Defense Language Institute, in San Antonio, Texas. I was very famous there, the first Afghan. They would introduce me to everyone through the amigo program. Everyone was an amigo to me. I had a great time. I went back in 2006. Met my old friends again.
How were you treated outside the Institute? There have been some hard feelings toward Muslims after 9/11, especially in certain parts of the country.
The Colonel smiles. “People thought I looked Mexican, so they would come to me and start speaking Spanish.” It’s true, now that I look at him through that filter: mustache, dark skin, thick black eyebrows. Even his impeccable English has a Latin touch to it. “I never felt discrimination. There was a mosque where you could go on Fridays, no problems. That is the culture,” he said, admiringly. “They never ask you about your religion, never ask about someone’s age or salary, or political views.”
What else did you like about America?
Everything is wonderful there. That is quite obvious. It is a great country. It was like going to a new world.
On the Islamic world’s relationship with the West.
You cannot say the Islamic world. There are Arabic countries, where there is peace. Suppose we have no Taliban here, we would live in peace. Of course there are different (Islamic) cultures. There might be fundamentalism. There are fundamentalists everywhere. It’s not the real Islam they represent. I have been to churches, to services. I just want to learn. You can see, generally, all religions direct people to the right way, to the difference between right and wrong, that is the same thing with Islam, the same with Buddhism, Christianity.
There should be a difference between the 7th century and the 21st century. Look at them (the Taliban). If you are uneducated, you will listen to anybody. You have no logic and you accept people’s ideas. But if you are educated, now you can make a difference between what people are expecting from you, what are your parents’ expectations, you have your own ability to differentiate. You can make your own decision. In this case, nobody can deceive you to destroy your country and kill your own people (‘we will do jihad’). For them, Islam is a tool, they want to use Islam to gain access to power. And they use uneducated people.
Fundamentalists just want access to their own objectives and political aims, through Islam. In moderate Islam, there is no such thing as killing people, there is mutual understanding. Fundamentalists just want to encourage people, especially illiterate ones, to support them. They are quite easy to deceive. People who have gone to school and studied, they know, they can see the difference.
I ask about safety in Kabul.
If you wear Afghan clothing, no one would recognize you, you can go anywhere.
He asks me about funding for the book project, about my family. I brag about my daughters and he tells me he has three sons and a daughter. His son Wahid is a journalism major at Kabul University. He is happy for him, proud of his choice, and we discuss the future of journalism for young people. His daughter is nine years old.
We live in the 21st century. We have our own culture but I don’t want my wife to wear burka. I want my daughter to go to university and choose her own life. I am here for her, to help her and support her.
When Taliban were here, I couldn’t shave. Everybody had to grow a beard.
The Colonel takes a call as I look around his office. Another chai tea is served. His voice is gentle, earnest and his subordinates treat him with an easy respect as they march in and out. On the far wall is a map of the world. On the table is a floral centerpiece, green leaves, with unusual splashes of orange and yellow flowers. Next to me, in the corner is a middle-sized LG TV. Next to him in another corner are two large flags on poles, an Afghan flag and a blue flag, presumably AFLI. A small white board hanging from hooks next to the door. He’s off the phone. I ask him about the origins of the Taliban and their ideas. And whether this is about theology, tribal loyalties or, simply, political power.
Who allowed these Taliban? Who supported them logistically? That is Pakistan. We have some border issues, disputes. Karzai went 20-21 times to Pakistan, told them, if there is a healthy Afghanistan, there is a good market for them, if they let us live in peace, it is good for the whole region. That’s the politics, the answer to your question. Everybody is looking for their own interests.
In the US, fundamentalists disagree, but they don’t create problems (as we have here). Sometimes there is a dispute between two neighboring countries, this is common all over the world. If we have a strong, stable government with peace and security, a strong army, Pakistan can’t do anything. If there is no peace or security, they can encourage those people.
On the charge that the poppy business was shut down under the Taliban, and is now thriving.
Taliban did not stop it—it was quite common at that time—they grew poppies and supported terrorism with the money, and that is why the government is against it. They were free to grow poppies, but now the government doesn’t let them. There is an anti-narcotics department of the government. You think they can’t grow it (marijuana, etc.) in the United States (smirks)? If they hide it from the government, they can do it. It is against government policy. I don’t agree that the Taliban stopped it and now is the largest harvest.
Two soldiers come in. One is sporting a green beret, the other, athletic and balding in his forties, starts to compile his test score. He needs 80 to get to a training program in the US, and has scored 61. He has three months to improve. Four of us sit around the table as they go through test documents. They energetically discuss the test scores in Dari, laughing, comparing notes. Someone asks me about my wife and I mention I’ve been divorced twice.
The green beret fellow says, “We have no divorce but different problems, financial problems, other problems.”
We talk about polygamy in Islam (“if you can afford them”) and the idea of open marriage, and, then, it’s time to go. As we leave, a gauntlet of officers say goodbye and wish me well as we walk to the car. It’s a beige army vehicle with a gun turret on top. I push into the right side of the back seat behind the Colonel and his driver. Two other soldiers pile in via the left rear door, and we’re off.
We talk about movies (Tom Cruise…) and America and my impressions of Kabul. Through it all, the Colonel remains constant: courteous, calm, confident, professional with a strong sense of mission (no more war and bring on the 21st century) and a profound appreciation for what the American presence brought him, personally, and his country.
“I’ll get off here,” I suggest as we pass Shar-e-naw, my neighborhood park. As they let me out, I decide that an Afghan Army escort is an excellent way to get home.