Watching the explosions from "Afghan Town"

Afghan-American intellectuals and journalists hope the U.S. is a rescuer, not a destroyer.


David Talbot
October 9, 2001 5:59AM (UTC)

Journalists and intellectuals in the vibrant Afghan-American community in Northern California reacted with cautious optimism to Sunday's military strikes against Taliban and terrorist targets in Afghanistan.

"People are worried about civilian casualties, but no one is surprised. Most Afghan-Americans I've spoken with believe the Taliban should have handed over Osama bin Laden years ago, and by not doing so they have put our people at great risk," said Farida Anwari, a broadcast journalist who fled Afghanistan in 1982 during the Soviet occupation and now hosts a radio show aimed at "Afghan Town" immigrants in the East Bay area, home to as many as 30,000 Afghan natives. "This is a very special moment, for Afghanistan and the world. People are hoping it finally brings changes for the good. The Taliban regime pushed us 100 years backwards. The educated people who were forced to leave the country hope they can someday return to a place where a human being has a value -- not just women, but all people."

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"I'm optimistic -- the military strikes against the Taliban are welcome," concurs Farhad Azad, the 25-year-old publisher of Afghanmagazine.com, an English-language literary Web site aimed at the overseas Afghan population. "They're oppressors and illiterate thugs, and bin Laden is a shady character. If there are widespread civilian casualties, I may have to reassess my opinion. But we all have to be realistic, war is war, and there are unavoidable costs. We just hope the U.S. takes precautions."

Said Kazem, a former economics professor at Kabul University who now lives in San Jose, hopes the U.S. military campaign is accompanied by a long-term commitment to rebuild the country: "The people of Afghanistan are caught in the middle. They're so weak and devastated by years of Soviet invasion, civil war and misrule that they no longer have the ability to rescue themselves. So we have hoped that powerful hands would be extended to rescue them.

"We insisted for years that Washington should do something about Afghanistan," said Kazem, who fled Kabul in 1981 after being imprisoned by the Soviet-backed Communist regime. "But administration officials always told us it was not a priority for them. So the poverty and misery left behind when the Soviet army retreated and the Americans lost interest became a nest for fundamentalism and terrorism. As a result, we had the events of Sept. 11. Now the whole world has awakened to the problem. The question is, will the United States abandon Afghanistan again after bin Laden is eliminated? If so, there may be even more serious consequences."

Most of those interviewed hoped that a coalition government led by the 86-year-old former king, Muhammad Zahir Shah, will take power after the Taliban is defeated. Distrust of the Northern Alliance, the ragtag rebel forces now backed by U.S. military might, runs high in the imigri community. "Are we going to be stuck with the lesser of two evils?" asks Afghan Magazine's Azad. "The Northern Alliance has never cared about human rights. Muhammad Fahim, the current leader, was a deputy under Najibullah, the Communist dictator who was castrated and hanged. There's no person with clean hands there."

"The king is not young and he's not a politician -- he's more interested in literature and hunting. But he is a symbol of national unity, and if the country's traditional National Assembly can be reestablished, backed by a United Nations peacekeeping force, then peace and democracy have a chance to take root. Particularly if the United States commits the resources for something like a Marshall Plan to reconstruct the country."

Azad -- who fled the country when he was 7 with his father and mother, both educators -- remembers the Soviet tanks rolling into Kabul on Christmas Day 1979. His voice rises as he warns against further foreign meddling in Afghanistan's affairs. "Pakistan is our biggest concern now. Who will monitor them after the Taliban falls? The Taliban would have fallen apart years ago without its support. All the neighboring countries -- Pakistan, Russia, Iran, India -- have to get their filthy hands off the country. Afghanistan needs its own voice."

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Some older émigrés express doubt that the younger generation of Afghan-Americans, steeped in the comforts of Western culture, would return to help rebuild their homeland once peace is secured. There are as many as 300,000 educated Afghans living in the U.S., Europe, Canada and Australia. But Azad insists many are ready to go back. "I speak Persian -- I'd go back to help out. I've even talked to teenagers who've said, 'At last, I'd have a place to call home.'"

Dr. David Sahar, a 28-year-old surgical resident in the medical school of the University of California at San Francisco, agrees. "I would definitely go to help out as a doctor, to help the sick. Chaos and suffering is the best place for evil to grow," said Sahar, who runs afghana.com, a search site on Afghanistan-related subjects. "I'm a doctor, I take a humanistic approach. In medicine, there's preventive steps you can take to avoid invasive procedures. Similarly, if the U.S. had helped establish a good government 10 years ago in Kabul, we wouldn't have to be dropping bombs now. We can't just attack the symptoms, we have to treat the causes of terrorism."

M. Hassan Kakar, a former history professor at Kabul University and the author of a book about the Soviet invasion, agrees that not just the Taliban must be eliminated but the "poisonous culture of guns, opium and terrorism that thrives in the country. I was warning about this in 1995," said Kakar, who settled in Concord after spending five years in jail during the Soviet occupation. "For years, an international group of people have been coming to Afghanistan to learn the techniques of terror and war. It's a great danger not only to the people of Afghanistan, but of the world."

Will most Afghan people support U.S. efforts to establish a new government? Prof. Kazem is optimistic: "The Afghan people are struggling for their lives -- they will support anyone who rescues them and gives them hope for the future. The majority of Afghans support a military operation aimed at rescuing them, one that as Secretary Rumsfeld pointed out, would include humanitarian aspects. I'm not without hope. I think the U.S. will realize it has to be involved in a long process."

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David Talbot

David Talbot, the founder of Salon, is the author of the New York Times bestseller “Brothers: The Hidden History of the Kennedy Years.” He is now working on a book about the legendary CIA director Allen W. Dulles and the rise of the national security state.

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