Tim McGirk on how journalists - and the U.S. - sometimes got hoodwinked in Afghanistan
Wednesday, Jan. 16, 2002
This is a tale of two Afghans: Abdul, who nearly got us killed through his deceit, and Haji-sahib, who saved us.
Let's start with Abdul, our driver. He was a droopy-faced Afghan who spoke American gang slang, even though he's from Kandahar. Abdul had slipped into the U.S. a few years back and ended up working 20-hour shifts at a place called "American Fried Chicken". His boss, of course, was another Afghan, and he'd send Abdul out to deal with the crackheads and the gangbangers. The few times when he was translating from Pashto to English for us, Abdul relied heavily on the word "motherf----r", even when he was passing on the higher wisdom of Muslim clerics. Maybe it was the time he spent in the States, but Abdul seemed comfortingly familiar. He was like one of us, only he hated fried chicken.
It was time to leave Kandahar - quickly - and nobody could find Abdul. He'd slunk away. Earlier that morning, he'd come running in from the neighborhood mosque and had picked up some worrisome gossip: a gang of Taliban sympathizers had found out we were sheltering in Abdul's house and they might try something. "Like what?" I asked Abdul. ""I dunno, man," says Abdul, "Maybe throw over a grenade - maybe just break in and steal every mother-------kin' thing you've got."
"Aren't they scared of our armed guards?" I asked.
I was scared of our armed guards. We had three of them. They looked like cut-throats, and they had been recruited into battle against the Taliban in Kandahar by a mercenary warlord - bankrolled by the US, of course.
"Meant to tell you, man. You gotta gimme some money for the guards. It's the Eid, the Muslim Christmas. They're leavin'. We got no mo' protection."
No guards, and a possible ambush by the Taliban Hey, why hang around? For five days, 15 of us had been camped in a three-room house in a sea of stone rubble and ruins. It had no crapper, only a mud yard and a shovel. It was getting too much for me. Besides, Mullah Omar and Osama bin Laden had vanished, and so had the Taliban legions. Everyone was disappearing. Even Abdul.
The last I saw Abdul, he was collecting money from us journalists to pay the guards. Then he slipped off, with my sleeping bag under his arm. The sleeping bag was U.S. Army issue, and how Abdul had procured, stolen or bought it, only two days after the Special Forces arrived in Kandahar, I don't know. Abdul was good like that.
But guess what? Abdul never gave the money to our guards. He pocketed about $100 in cash. This was extremely scary news. The night before, around the campfire, the guards got stoned on hashish and one of them said: "Wouldn't it be funny, if I fired off my AK-47 right next to one of these infidels just to see how he jumps?"
Our translator Alim Shah persuaded them it probably wasn't a good idea.
"You're right, the other guard said. "Let's just rob them."
Alim-Shah again had to do some fast-talking.
"Just because they're infidels, it doesn't mean it's permitted by Islam to rob them," our interpreter argued.
"Not even a little? We wouldn't take their money. Just a few things. They have so many. Powerful little radios. Warm boots," he said wistfully.
Alim Shah held tough.
Finally, the third gunmen weighed in.
"He's right. If the infidels are under our care, the Koran doesn't allow us to steal from them. But it's different if we go to the infidel's country. Then we're allowed to take everything we want."
The three Afghan guards then fell into a stoned reverie over all the goodies they could steal in the land of the infidels.
Abdul had no such qualms. Turned out that he also stole money which was meant for the cook, who had a pack of children and no apparent source of income since pre-Taliban days. And, by Afghan standards, Abdul was a very rich man. He had a car, an American passport and his family owned a public bath with goldfish in the fountain and houses all around Kandahar. Abdul was also landlord of the ruined house where we were staying, and he also demanded eight years back rent from the poor cook. He was like an Afghan Grinch, snatching the cook's Eid money.
The cook was in shock, and the guards had unslung their AK-47s menacingly. Somehow, they thought this was all our fault.
Then Haji-sahib stepped forward. A lot of times, Haji-sahib played the philosophical clown. He'd fought against the Soviets and had seen plenty. No matter what our predicament was, Haji made us laugh because he'd slopped through worse. But late at night, gone on hashish, the laughter stopped rising so easily, and Haji often acted like he was in the company of ghosts. A few days before, when a Pakistani journalist working for French TV had his leg and half of his face blown off by a landmine at an al Qaeda training camp, everybody was paralyzed with fright - maybe there was a second landmine, a booby trap - except for Haj-sahib. He leapt forward, picked up the destroyed human being and got him to a hospital, down a long, pitted road to Kandahar. Some photographers were there and later offered to show Haji pictures of him cradling the bleeding man. "Why? I already have these pictures in my head, and I can't get rid of them," he replied softly.
Haji also knew everybody. When he first saw our guards, a few days back, Haji had warned us: "These people are bandits and drug-traffickers. But don't worry. They're also my friends."
He called that friendship into play. A natural storyteller, Haji-sahib described the hellish punishment that Allah reserves for misers like Abdul, in this life and beyond. Molten gold poured into eye sockets, that sort of thing. And the trio of guards let us go.
The road out of Kandahar was littered with gnarled black vehicles struck by American warplanes like a bolt from the sky. Their precision was eerie. Then I remembered how one tribal elder told the Americans that Mullah Omar was hiding at a farmhouse near Khost, and the U.S. planes dutifully blasted the farmhouse into oblivion. Of course Omar was nowhere around; it was just a clever way for the tribal elder to get rid of an enemy who lived in the farmhouse. I imagined this tribal chieftain laughing until the tears ran over the Americans' naiveté. And I imagined Abdul laughing just as hard over how he'd suckered us.
Submitted By: Anonymous
Jan 29, 2002 12:40