My second trip to Afghanistan: the Osama bin Laden threat

By Craig Davis

(This is the second of three columns by Jackson County native Craig Davis about the times he has traveled to Afghanistan. The third will publish Wednesday on The Tribune Opinion Page.)

The images that we see in the media of Afghans fleeing the Taliban for their lives in the wake of the American withdrawal are heart-wrenching.

They stir up complex memories of my experiences working with Afghans. In 1988 to 1989, I returned to Peshawar, Pakistan, where I taught English to Afghan refugees at the International Rescue Committee (IRC). But my second trip to Afghanistan didn’t take place until the spring of 2001 — nearly two decades after the first. During that interval, I had studied the history, culture and languages of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

In August 2000, my family and I arrived at Lahore, Pakistan, where I studied Urdu (official language of Pakistan) at the Berkley Urdu Language Program in Pakistan (BULPIP). At the end of the Urdu program in late spring 2001, we traveled to Peshawar where I undertook a two-month accelerated Pashtu language course at the University of Peshawar to help me read Pashtu children’s text books, one of the two primary languages I needed to complete my research on Afghan education as a David L. Boren Fellow. Persian (or Dari) was the other, which I had studied at Indiana University.

The research required a trip to Afghanistan to see schools, interview educators and students and collect out-of-print textbooks. IRC arranged my visa with the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan consulate, and I left my family at the University of Peshawar guesthouse on a Friday morning to travel through the Khyber Pass to the border of Afghanistan. Being the holy day for the Taliban administration, the border was all but vacant. My Ethiopian IRC colleague spoke fluent Pashtu and roused one sleeping, bearded Afghan man. They chattered back and forth in Pashtu while the friendly Afghan stamped our passports.

“Who was he?” I asked after we left

“A cleaner,” my colleague responded.

The road from the border to Jalalabad was in good shape. My colleague pointed out some operational Russian development projects from the 80s: Roads, irrigation and agriculture.

“So, the Russians weren’t all bad?” I asked.

“No, they did a lot for women’s rights and women’s education,” he explained.

The road from Jalalabad to Kabul was a different story; a horrible reminder of decades of civil war. Our driver travelled at a snail’s pace, navigating the artillery-devastated craters, some deep enough to bury our truck.

The following day, I walked from the IRC guest house on the outskirts of Kabul to a vacant intersection and waited for minutes at a time before the occasional vehicle passed. About 20 minutes later, a taxi happened by and took me downtown. I scoured the used book bazaars for Pashtu and Persian textbooks. The men I met were friendly enough, but suspicious.

A couple days later, on the way to Gardez, the capital of Paktia Province, my colleague pointed to the hills on our left and whispered so our driver couldn’t overhear, “There are hidden camps up there. Everyone knows that’s where Osama bin Laden is.” Bin Laden had formed Al-Qaeda in 1988 and orchestrated the attacks on United States embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in August 1998. Three weeks later, President Clinton ordered a cruise missile attack of suspected Al-Qaeda bases in Khost Province. As a result, many Afghans hated America. And me.

At Gardez, we visited elementary schools over the next few days. Some schools were nothing more than a cluster of desks outdoors; others were a single room in people’s homes. Only one was in a proper government building. In all the classes, young girls were studying alongside boys. Paktia governor had agreed that all IRC-supported schools would contain at least 50% girls.

“Who are these girls?” I asked one elderly and humble Talib (singular of Taliban) teacher.

“They are daughters of Taliban,” he replied.

For the first time, I realized that the Taliban were not a monolithic group consisting of a single set of perspectives or values, no more than Democrats, Republicans or any other party or movement shared a single political view.

When I returned to Kabul, I visited the Ministry of Education to conduct interviews. A overly enthusiastic Talib official became belligerent when he realized I was American. One of his more amiable Taliban colleagues calmed him down and helped me continue with my interviews.

Before departing the country, I had to secure an exit visa at a ministry. The Talib official responsible for processing exit permits sat cross-legged on a platform outside the office and examined my passport.

“Osama bin Laden is our friend,” he said through gritted teeth, barely able to restrain his hatred. “One day, you will stand before your God, and I will stand before mine. And He will judge us.”

A chill ran up my spine.

A few days later, I was back in Peshawar, Pakistan, browsing the bazaar with my family before returning to the United States. I came across a T-shirt that read: Osama bin Laden, Muslim Hero. I bought it.

Back in Indiana, I continued to hear inaccurate news that the Taliban refused to permit girls’ education. It was frustrating. In August 200 — a few weeks before the Sept. 11 attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — I attended a Boren Fellowship conference, represented by fellows like myself and various government representatives from the US Departments of Defense and State. I showed the T-shirt to various officials and tried to explain bin Laden’s threat, fermenting in Afghanistan and Pakistan. No one was interested.