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Blinded in a forgotten war

April 17, 2006

When my Marine officer son, Sky, deployed to Afghanistan last June &

and I followed shortly thereafter, to see the country myself and report on his experiences there &

I had several preconceived notions about what to expect.

From U.S. media reports, I imagined a war winding down, reconstruction underway, antagonistic Afghans wishing the U.S. military would leave and a just few desperate Taliban hanging on in the south and border areas.

I discovered these preconceptions to be off the mark.

My driver and I missed a suicide bomb attack by 15 minutes on the Kabul highway. Reconstruction is abysmal after 30 years of fighting the Soviets, a Civil War, destruction under the Taliban and the 2001 U.S. bombardment, with funds and troops now diverted to Iraq. Most Afghans want us to stay. And, the Taliban pop up just about anywhere.

In a Kabul hospital, I interviewed Afghan National Army soldiers recently wounded in a rocket attack in Kunar province, where Sky patrolled and a known hotbed of Taliban activity along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where ethnic Pashtuns live. One soldier in the corner was badly wounded &

shrapnel in his eyes. The docs had taken his eyes out; only hollows remained. I &

adopted&

him and returned with fruit from the market.

The hospital couldn&

t locate his family and, pathetically, he asked me to bring him glasses, so he could &

see.&

&

We have to release him soon,&

said Dr. Yaftali matter-of-factly. &

He&

ll probably end up as a beggar.&

There was something odd about the soldier&

s appearance. A Pashtun from Kunar, he had dark skin and a long beard. His fellow soldiers seemed to avoid him. On the third day one of them pulled me aside: &

We think he might have Taliban connections.&

If true, I certainly wasn&

t interested in helping a Talib. He was the enemy, hunting my son. How could I continue bringing him fruit or useless glasses? Even Dr. Yaftali seemed confused but wished someone would bring him shoes so he wouldn&

t leave the hospital barefoot.

A possible Talib in the A.N.A., which the U.S. forces train, spoke to the &

porous&

border Sky had mentioned in e-mails.

— — —

Tawakal Khan, bodyguard of assassinated Afghan Northern — Alliance leader, Ahmed Shah Massoud. Tawakal was present when Massoud — was killed, two days before 9/11, by Arab al-Qaida operatives disquised — as journalists.

He considers himself a bodyguard &

for life&

— and stands guard day and night over Massoud&

s tomb in the Panjshir — Valley. Massoud is believed by Afghans to be the only leader (though now — dead) to have the capability to unify Afghanistan in the current struggles.

General Meer Jan, ex-commando of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud, and now in the Department of Foreign Relations in Kabul, claimed the A.N.A. &

selected by President Karzai &

was almost all Pashtun. Few Tajiks, though moderate Muslims, were conscripted even after leading U.S. troops in chasing out the Taliban in 2001.

&

There are no restrictions in the A.N.A. on beard length,&

General Jan told me in his office. &

A soldier can be in the Afghan Army one day and working for the Taliban the next.&

Meer spoke of dirt-poor Pashtuns in the remote border provinces; 30 years of war had been devastating. They joined the army for a small salary. Likewise, they could in turn become &

Talib,&

crossing the border to Pakistan with valuable U.S. training and a beard, to boot. There had been over 3,000 defections in two years, claimed General Jan.

Its about economics, said Jan. One hired out to the highest bidder. Illiterate and provincial, Pashtuns in Taliban areas like Kunar believed the madrasas&

Koranic vision, that participating in jihad guaranteed entrance to paradise. The Taliban also promised to care for families after a jihadist&

s death &

a big motivator for those who had nothing. When visiting Sky at his Jalalabad base, the general consensus seemed to be that the mostly Pashtun A.N.A. lacked dedication in combating the Taliban and al-Qaida and, mainly interested in a paycheck, were indifferent to the coalition force&

s struggle against terrorism.

And what about the Tajiks like Meer? Under Massoud, they fought the Soviets for 10 years with weapons funneled by the C.I.A. through Pakistani intelligence. But radical Pashtun Islamists like Gilbuddin Hekymatyr received the biggest share of the funding pie. Massoud warned of the growing extremism but by then the Taliban and al-Qaida had gained a foothold in Pashtun territory, leading to the eventual Taliban takeover and 9-11.

I interviewed the bodyguards who watched over Massoud&

s tomb, a half-completed mosque on a mountaintop in the Panjshir Valley. These Tajiks were now &

jobless.&

Yet Massoud was a national hero &

his image everywhere, like Che Guevara&

s in Cuba. Afghans talked about his ability to unify Afghanistan&

s disparate ethnic groups. He never embraced radical Islam; instead he created an alliance other mujhideen couldn&

t, and warned about the coming jihadist threat.

But it&

s too late. The Taliban are not going anywhere soon, most Afghans want coalition forces to stay on the offensive, and slow-moving and over-budget Chinese firms receive reconstruction contracts. I wondered if someone ever brought that wounded soldier any shoes. Perhaps he had a grief-stricken mother somewhere. I am lucky: Sky has recently returned from Afghanistan &

in one piece. My son is now out of the Marines; I in the meantime wonder about this &

forgotten war&

and why so few here in the States know or care about what is happening in Afghanistan.

is an Ashland writer and filmmaker who travelled to Afghanistan from September to November, 2005. She is currently writing a book about her experiences entitled &

Of Marines, and Pomegranate Dreams.&

Her past work includes several films including one about Emiliano Zapata, Mexican revolutionary leader (&

The Last Zapatista,&

distributed University of California, Berkeley) and a book about her travels in Sicily (&

No Pictures in My Grave,&

Mercury House, San Francisco)