In 1982, sickened by the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan with its concomitant cruelties, I‘d set out for the battlefield with a vague notion of somehow being of use. I was young. I was American, which means sheltered and ignorant. I had very little money, and I quickly became weak with amoebic dysentery. It was the Afghans who helped me rather than the reverse. They carried my backpack through the mountains, fed me, cared for me. Every time I remember how much I imposed on them, I feel ashamed. It was the month of Ramadan (or Ramazan, as they say there), when Muslims abstain from food and drink from sunrise to sunset. An exception is made for invalids and for warriors on a jihad, but my mujahideen companions, even the sick ones, kept the fast. I had hiking boots and they had sandals. Their feet bled. And they kept walking and walking. They said to me that they were fighting only for God. They said tranquilly, “We will fight to the last drop of blood, but we will never surrender.” And they didn’t.
I remember all the men in the refugee camps in Pakistan who kept speaking of how much they longed to fight; they took turns crossing the mountains, some of them staying to protect their women and children in the camps while the others went to the homeland with their respective political bands, many of whom were at war with each other within Pakistan. Sometimes they didn‘t come back, and then, on the inner wall of the tent or the mud wall of the house amidst other mud houses upon the plain of gravel, the family would put up a photograph: They’d tell me with a fierce pride that so-and-so had been martyred. I have never seen such widespread heroism as I saw then. They loved their country so much; they loved their religion, which the Soviets would eradicate if they could, and because blood revenge was one of their culture‘s main determinants of honor, the shrieks of the women raped by Soviet soldiers, the cries of old people deliberately burned alive in their houses, the screams of the children who’d touched butterfly mines disguised as toys, these sounds all got carried on the mountain winds and people heard; people set out to take revenge. I admire them for it beyond words.
Outsiders have always quarreled over Afghanistan, and sought to control it. I‘ll not go back too far, but the Russians and the British played out their Great Game around Afghanistan for a century or two: When I went there it was the Russians and the Americans, with the Americans, as represented by the CIA, being on the winning side. So the Soviets finally departed from the country they had devastated without being able to subdue. When I returned to Afghanistan last year, there were one-legged minefield-beggars all along the road and so many rock-piled graves bearing the green banners of victim-martyrs; and people were clearing mines from the arid ground so slowly and wearily. This was almost a decade after the last Soviet soldier had gone away. On my right I saw the low desert hills in which a CIA-financed war hero named Osama bin Laden had won a particularly dangerous battle. Then came Kabul, gnawed away almost completely to ruins, with the women in their burgas like ghosts amidst the snowy desolation.
We did a very good thing when we helped the Afghans, and I for one will always be proud of it. Naturally we didn’t do it for them; we only wanted to make trouble for our arch-adversary. The Soviet Union pulled out, and then the Soviet Union collapsed, and we forgot Afghanistan. Well, maybe all of us except the CIA already had. I remember coming back to the U.S. in 1982, more desperate than ever to do something. I recorded a couple of radio broadcasts at a small college in the Central Valley; I showed my “An Afghanistan Picture Show,” which was a slide show meant to raise money for the refugees and the insurgents (the Spartacists, whose slogan was “DEFEND BUREAUCRATICALLY DEFORMED WORKERS‘ STATES,” meaning the Soviet Union, posted notices saying that my show had been canceled); I tried to find a magazine or a newspaper that would let me write about Afghanistan; I tried, and for many years failed, to publish An Afghanistan Picture Show, but the executive decision maker invariably told me, “Nobody’s interested in Afghanistan.”
Oh, but now we are very, very interested! It seems that the atrocity committed in New York earlier this month might have been committed by Osama bin Laden, who might be in Afghanistan; or possibly other terrorists who might live in Afghanistan may have something to do with it. I don‘t know how many thousands of Afghans died under Soviet occupation. In the civil strife between the Soviet and the Taliban periods, around 20,000 perished, and another 40,000 have been killed in the fighting between the Talibs and their opponents. Not that we really care. But about the 6,000 who died in the World Trade Center affair we care very much; we’re up in arms, in fact. And we should be. I hate their murderers as much as I hate the Soviet murderers of Afghan civilians. I hope that we find these terrorists and kill them, preferably after a correct trial.
All I ask is that you not hate the Afghans, who always called me “brother” and took care of me, who would defend me or any other guest with their own lives, and that goes for Osama bin Laden, whom they believe to be innocent because the United States in its arrogant stupidity has until now refused to answer repeated calls for proof. (Last year, after the embassy bombings, my Afghan friends kept saying, “Just prove to us that he‘s guilty and we’ll cut his throat ourselves! Why does your government not explain?”) Try not to hate these people, many of whom are even now so grateful to you with a personal gratitude you would not believe unless you met them, because the CIA once helped them to get their country back without your expressing much interest in the matter. And they are similarly grateful to all their Muslim brothers who came from Saudi Arabia (as did Osama), and to the others who came from Chechnya and Bosnia and Pakistan and all over the world to fight and sometimes die in that absolutely justified jihad against the Soviets.
Now some of those freedom fighters have become terrorists and some of them remain in Afghanistan. Hate them if you like, don‘t hate the Afghans. Don’t hate the Taliban, that government of fanatics and semiliterate dogmatists; so many educated people have died or fled since the Soviets came in 1979! Taught in the madrassahs, the religious schools, these men do the best they can, operating by the only law they know, the Qur‘an. Under them, Afghanistan has become safer and more peaceful than it has been for many years. Their policy toward urban educated women is brutal. So is their treatment of Shias, Tajiks and other minorities. But in their favor it must be said that rural women, who make up most of the female population, were never really educated and now they are much, much safer from rape and theft. Believe it or not, many of them adore the Taliban.
No Afghan government within sight is any better than the Taliban. In the words of many people, “The leaders are all war criminals,” and that goes for their main opponent, the Northern Alliance, which controls about 10 percent of Afghan territory, and whose recently assassinated leader, Ahmad Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” was a brave fighter against the Soviets, and then in the civil war a butcher of Afghans. It is the Northern Alliance that we are now extolling as our friends and exemplars. Well, why not? Nobody’s interested in Afghanistan.
Who murdered those people in New York? I don‘t know. I hope that our government does. But I swear to you that it wasn’t “the Afghans,” who have suffered a thousand times more than we have and who still want in spite of everything to call us “brother.” That, no doubt, will change when the bombs begin to fall.
William T. Vollmann is the author of several novels and works of nonfiction, including An Afghanistan Picture Show (now out of print). His new novel, Argall, will be published by Viking next month.