September 20–27, 2001
Recalling when Afghanistan was our friend.
photo: Jim Barry
Since last week some of my friends have asked me if I ever met Osama bin Laden. They know that I was in Afghanistan in the winter of 1986, covering the mujahedeen’s war against the Russian invaders.
The answer is maybe. I just don’t know. It was a long time ago, and most of my notes and records are gone.
I know I interviewed several Saudi men in their late 20s who had come to fight. I remember being taken to a compound in the Pakistani town of Peshawar and meeting with a wealthy Saudi man in his late 20s who had paid the expenses for the Saudi muj and who was financially supporting the widows and orphans of Saudi warriors killed fighting in Afghanistan. His money came from a family fortune in Saudi Arabia, and he had spent time in Beirut before the civil war there.
He hated the Russian "infidel" and was not very fond of the Americans because of their support for Israel and their "anti-Arab" attitude, but he was glad that the U.S. was supporting the muj.
I also remember that he was not liked by some of the other Afghani muj leaders who thought he was a playboy using his fortune to dabble at playing "jihad" — holy war.
That same day, I after I interviewed the rich Saudi, I went to another compound surrounded by armed guards and filled with groups of men with AK-47s milling around.
It was the headquarters of one of the fundamentalist groups. There where posters of Ayatollah Khomeini everywhere. I was there to find out if I could accompany them into Afghanistan to cover the beginning of a winter offensive in Paktia province.
The leader of this group sat on a prayer mat and wore sunglasses and a turban. Behind him hung a gigantic poster of the Ayatollah and the Iranian flag. He was known by the nickname "Engineer" because that his what he had studied at university before he became a muj boss.
"Of course" he would allow a journalist from the West to accompany his men into battle so the world would know the strength the mujahedeen and the power of Allah.
He wanted to know where I was from. I believe he knew already, but was testing me to see if I’d fudge and say England or Canada — Iran and Iranian-backed groups were not exactly bosom buddies with the U.S. after the hostage crisis in Tehran.
"I’m American," I said proudly and defiantly. "From a place called Philadelphia. That’s the birthplace of my country’s revolution."
He was silent. He seemed angry and offended, but then again, so was I.
Then he spoke. "Good! You should come with us."
There were a lot of other things that happened to me in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and every single one was an adventure story and sometimes a life and death experience.
The first time I was smuggled into Afghanistan I was arrested and placed first in the custody of the local militia and later, in a prison run by the Pakistani intelligence agency.
I was in a bad auto accident in the mountains near the Afghani-Pakistani boarder.
I ran through a minefield with a group of muj away from a helicopter gunship.
I was in a bazaar in Peshawar, Pakistan, when a car bomb went off nearby.
I was at the battle of Black Neck Mountain, near Khost in Afghanistan and was almost killed by mortars, bullets and Soviet helicopters.
I only covered that war for a short time, but it took me a long time afterward to lose my nervousness about helicopters. A chopper hovering over the Schuylkill Expressway could make me break out in sweat. The Fourth of July fireworks in Narberth still send a few shudders through me — the sound of mortars and the sound of exploding fireworks is more similar than you can imagine.
In Pakistan I visited refugee camps teeming with widows and orphans. The primitive camp clinics overflowed with children maimed by land mines and mortars.
In Afghanistan I ate a sheep slaughtered by the tribal elders to welcome me to their village. I learned to eat only with my right hand and I drank tea morning, noon and night.
It is hard for the American public to fathom now, but in those days the Afghani rebels were the good guys. Then the U.S. backed the rebels with money, millions of dollars, and with weapons — bought from China and shipped via the Pakistani military and intelligence service to the Afghans.
The region of Afghanistan I journeyed through during the winter of 1986 was a barren place. But I liked it. I liked the people too. The men were fearless in battle even though they usually lost.
There were so many kinds of Afghans fighting that war — religious students, farmers, merchants, fundamentalists and their Arab brethren, and educated Afghani men who had lived in London and Paris and the U.S., but loved their country so much they had come back from the west to liberate their homeland. These men, educated Muslims, disliked the "dark Islam" they saw practiced by some of their Afghani brothers.
One muj general, who had served the king of Afghanistan when there was one, asked me, "Why does America support the fundamentalists? They are ignorant. After we defeat the Russians, they will want to wage war against everyone, even the U.S. Your country is building a monster. Some of these leaders are not good Islam. They are dark Islam."
There were boys of 10 and men of 60 shouldering weapons. Everyone fought. But they were not supermen. Some were shell-shocked, numb, afraid, tired. Some were religious and some were not. What they had in common was their country.
Ironically, when they drove the Soviets out, the rebels fell to fighting among themselves. The freedom fighters became warlords and drug kingpins — you’ve never seen so many poppy fields anywhere else in the world — and the corruption and murder became so rampant that the oppressed of Afghanistan turned to an army of religious students, raised in refugee camps, to overthrow the corrupt rulers. The new rebels were called the Taliban.
Of course Pakistan backed the Taliban. For a time the U.S. also backed them. And Osama bin Laden did too. Bin Laden, like the Taliban, is a fundamentalist Sunni Muslim.
Bin Laden bought the Taliban weapons and 2,000 Toyotas to transport their troops in lightning assaults on the enemy — a new and successful tactic of war in Afghanistan.
Bin Laden built their roads and hospitals, and he put 3,000 Afghanis on his payroll. He was soon on a first-name basis with the ruler of the Taliban — a one-eyed mullah who had lost his other eye in a battle against the Russians. And bin Laden kept good relations with some of the muj leaders still headquartered in Northwest Pakistan.
When bin Laden was forced to leave the Sudan in 1996, he settled in the Afghani city of Jalalabad with his four wives, five children and 200 Arab fighter/bodyguards. His compound is still there today, just east of the city. It may not be there much longer — not if the American bombs and missiles start to rain hell over that land.
Fifteen years ago I thought I had seen the last of Afghanistan. And 15 years ago, the Afghanis were the good guys.
After the destruction of the World Trade Center and the attack on the Pentagon and loss of nearly 6,000 American lives — the forces of "dark Islam" have aroused the wrath of America.
Osama and his allies represent the "dark Islam" that the Afghan rebel leaders tried to warm me, and our country about, 15 years ago.