Thursday, June 21, 2007


Brian Schwartz headshot by Brian Schwartz

A few days after the destruction of the World Trade Center, Tamim Ansary, a San Francisco writer of Afghan descent, wrote an impassioned letter to a few close friends. Within two days, that letter had been forwarded by e-mail to millions of people around the world. A few days ago, it was reprinted on the Fire list. In his essay, Mr. Ansary argued that "the Taliban ...are not Afghanistan. They're not even the government of Afghanistan. The Taliban are a cult of ignorant psychotics who took over Afghanistan." I'd like to take issue with that.

In the late 80s, after a brave ten-year struggle, Afghan partisans achieved what many (but not me) thought was impossible: they defeated a mighty superpower. They then proceeded to fight among themselves. By the early 90s, the country was carved up, split between bands of corrupt, greedy warlords. The Taliban started as a small group of idealistic religious students centered in Kandahar. Within 3 years they had been swept to power on a wave of popular support, in much the same way as Khomeni had ousted the Shah ten years before in Iran. (There are similar events throughout the history of the Muslim world, one example being the Fulani jihad, which swept aside the secular rulers of many West African kingdoms in the first decade of the nineteenth century.)

Of course, once in power in Iran, Khomeni and his followers proceeded (despite some idealistic socialist reforms) to muck up the economy, increase unemployment, and alienate much of the population, especially the youth in a country half of whose population was born after the revolution. The Taliban were even more religiously fanatic than the Iranians. But I believe the reforms they instituted were generally supported in the smaller towns and villages where most of Afghanistan lives. When they first emerged in '94, I thought of them as the purest expression I had seen of the Afghan soul.

I have never seen a land as strongly religious as Afghanistan and the part of Pakistan abutting the Afghan border. I could almost feel it; it was as if the air I walked through was electrically charged. Always, the first question I was asked was "are you Moslem?" That was what really mattered. And there was a strange peace in that. These were not an angry people.

The Afghans --especially the Pathans-- are some of the fiercest fighters on earth, and their land has never been successfully conquered. Their villages are, as I said in my book * discussing the Pakistani border areas, "ruled by councils of Pathan chiefs and elders who follow a code of chivalry and honor called pukhtunwali. Its tenets are simple, and as easy to apply as the biblical eye-for-an-eye: welcome all strangers, grant refuge to all fugitives, and avenge all insults." (p. 100)

But in the end, the Taliban did betray supporting Al-Qaeda. The Afghans have traditionally been isolationist. Don't mess with us, and we won't mess with you; that was their credo. Osama changed all that. He persuaded them to sow the wind.

But I was there before all that. Here's what I wrote about my feelings when my visa expired and I had to leave: "I had come to love the Afghans and I was reluctant to leave them. They were a strong people, spirited and proud, and though they would shout at me in incomprehensible languages, and laugh long and loudly at my slightest clumsiness, and never allow me a moment's peace or respite, there was affection behind their banter, and I always felt welcome in their land." (p. 125)

lonely desert moon over clouds

* A World of Villages by Brian Schwartz (See the Reason and Rhyme "Books" section.)

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