After 10 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, a family that has struggled to survive through decades of foreign invaders prepares for the worst blow yet.
This week, at home in Philadelphia, I received a call from an Afghan friend. I'll call him B.
"Anna jan," he said. "I will be killed soon."
The first time B.'s family threw in its lot with foreign invaders was right after B. was born, more than 30 years ago. His father, at the time a willowy young army lieutenant, became an intelligence officer with the Soviet-backed Communist regime. A decade of lavish receptions at the Soviet military headquarters at Bagram Airfield -- years later, the old man reminisced fondly about his late-night vodka bacchanals with air force commander Alexander Rutskoi, who would become Russia's only vice president and then would lead the failed uprising to unseat Boris Yeltsin -- ended abruptly when the Kremlin pulled out its troops in 1989. Fearing that the anti-Soviet mujaheddin would kill him for working with the Communists, B.'s father, his wife, and his children, including B., fled to a life of relative stagnation and anonymity in Mazar-e-Sharif, in Afghanistan's north.
After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 (and took over Bagram Airfield, turning it into the largest American military base in the country), B.'s family once again aligned itself with the latest centurions. B.'s oldest sister served a term at the provincial jirga; one of his younger brothers got a job with an American NGO teaching Afghans how to conduct Western-style elections. Before he retired, B.'s father briefly worked at a U.S.-based relief agency that promotes women's rights. In 2003, B. went to work as a driver for the Mazar-e-Sharif office of the U.N. Assistant Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, which supervises all U.N. relief and reconstruction activities in the country.
B. was not in the office on April 1, when a Friday mob, enraged by reports that Pastor Terry Jones set fire to the Koran in Florida, stormed the U.N. compound and killed 12 of his co-workers; he was out driving a Western staffer around Mazar-e-Sharif. But the next day, on an unpaved street near his house, B. spotted a stranger he thought suspicious and followed him. According to UNAMA investigators, that man was the mastermind of the U.N. massacre, a Talib who had come to Mazar-e-Sharif several weeks earlier specifically to carry out a terrorist attack. Video footage of demonstrators rushing the U.N. compound shows him carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, exhorting the crowd to attack foreigners. B. says the man was talking nervously on his cell phone, explaining that he was in danger, asking someone when and how he could be helped escape from the city. My friend called the police and helped them arrest the man.
The death threats began soon after. First the phone calls and cell phone text messages ("We will kill you," "We will find you anywhere in Afghanistan," "We will gouge out your eyes"). Later, someone tossed offal studded with sewing needles over the wall of B.'s family compound, presumably to kill or maim the German shepherd that guards the house. The brothers -- B. lives with seven of them; three, including B., have wives and children -- took to patrolling the house at night in shifts. B. oscillates between wanting to stay in Mazar-e-Sharif, where he lives in relative prosperity but in constant danger, and to flee with his pregnant wife and three children, and thousands of other Afghans, to the refugee limbo and relative safety of Tajikistan. UNAMA, which is supposedly in Afghanistan to help Afghans, and for which B. has risked his life, has refused to help him resettle abroad.
"What do you want me to do? I have 2,000 people like him," B.'s boss in Kabul told me over the phone. For some reason, she kept calling him Abdul, which is not my friend's name. To this woman, he was a "local national," an expendable, nameless stick figure. The writer Paul Theroux calls people like her "agents of virtue."
Serpentine loyalties are integral to survival in the eternal battle zone that is Afghanistan, a coveted buffer state at the crossroads of the great civilizations of the Old World and a crucible of imperial ambitions since the beginning of recorded history. Long before the Raj, generations of Afghans, particularly educated Afghans, would align themselves with successions of invaders, out of belief, for profit, or both. Many, like B. and his family, would benefit, albeit temporarily and marginally. (B.'s father died last year, of blood cancer, which was diagnosed late and went untreated because Mazar-e-Sharif has no chemotherapy, no bone marrow transplants, no oncologists, and no advanced diagnostics to detect the disease early.) But many were, and remain, seen as traitors and persecuted.
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I first met B.'s family in April of 2010. Since then, I have spent three months in his house and hope to live there again this fall. I know the details of his family's life intimately -- the Friday visits to the mosque to maintain appearances, although most of the brothers are not particularly religious; the ceremonial holiday sacrifices of a goat, which then is divided between poorer neighbors; the marital arguments; the after-dinner dancing. At a certain point I stopped being a guest and became a member of the household, someone who is invited to help prepare savory bolani pancakes for the family of 30, who is allowed to do the dishes after dinner. B. and his brothers call me khuhar: sister. His mother calls me Anna diwana, dokhtar-e-man: crazy Anna, my daughter. When I last said good-bye to them, two weeks ago, they joked that they would leave the dishes in the sink until I return.
Then, a few days later, B. was on his way to work when a man on a motorcycle -- the Taliban's vehicle of choice -- careened past and tossed battery acid at my friend. The acid singed B.'s clothes, but did not touch his skin.
"I was lucky, Anna jan," B. told me over the phone. "But one day they will kill me. They will kill me very soon. I know it. I am calling to say sorry, I may not see you again."
Anniversaries are a time of reckoning. On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we reflect on the way the United States has evolved in the shadow of the attacks, examine the lives of a generation that came of age since 9/11. But half a world away, upon the scar tissue of Khorasan, little has changed. Life expectancy and literacy remain among the lowest in the world; child mortality remains among the highest; women's rights remain abysmal. I have been coming to Afghanistan for 10 years; this last decade of war has done little more than prolong the violence people there have endured for centuries, adjusting their alliances to survive as fighters in different uniforms claim dominion over their land. As one woman in a northern Afghan village surrounded by the resurgent Taliban told me last month, "For sure there will be another war. And killing."
How to tally this war's poisonous repercussions for a people so perpetually, immutably violated? Or for a single Afghan family, which, 10 years ago, decided to help the West in its stated effort: to make their country a better place to live?
On the phone, B. was crying. I tried to comfort him. "Jan," I said, returning his term of endearment. "It will be all right. I'll see you in a couple of months." My hollow, fake words -- how can I make such promises? -- bounced off satellites to reach across 6,600 miles of peace and war. "We'll make bolani together," I said.
Then B. hung up.
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