Haider had two small sons who spoke perfect English, beautiful little boys who told me they dreamed of some imaginary day in the future when the family could emigrate to America, which they fantasized as a glittering paradise of peace, love, laughter and material splendor. You wanted with all your heart to believe that innocence and idealism could turn aside the weapons of those who hate everything except their own twisted obsessions, but it hasn’t happened yet in all of mankind’s history.
When the US and anti-Taliban Afghans captured Kabul in the aftermath of 9/1, Haider exulted; here at long last was what seemed like genuine hope, the possibility that Afghanistan would finally emerge from two decades of nightmare and come into its own. Haider and three Western journalists he was friendly with rented a van in the Afghan border town of Torkham, at the foot of the Khyber Pass, and headed toward Kabul to cover the first days of freedom in Afghanistan’s capital. Somewhere between Jalalabad and the town of Soroobii they were either forced off the road by armed men or betrayed by their driver and driven into the midst of a band of waiting killers. Their van came to a stop out of sight of the highway, and the four journalists were dragged from the vehicle, beaten with rifle butts and clubs, and then shot. The ringleader of the killers later turned out to be a notorious former commander under Gulbuddin and then Taliban, guilty of dozens of unspeakable cruelties against rival Afghans; in one incident, he captured 40 of Ahmadshah Massood’s top sub-commanders under a flag of truce and tortured and castrated them before killing them all.
These are the kind of people our allies in the Pakistani Army dote on, and use to do their dirty work. I am absolutely sure that ISI was involved in the deaths of Haider and his companions; who else could have followed them to the border and then arranged for their van to be plucked from the hundreds of other vehicles crowding the highway, or for them to ride in a van driven by a Taliban accomplice? This was ISI’s cruel idea of revenge: their schemes and machinations in Afghanistan had foundered, at least temporarily, and murdering four of the people who disagreed with them gave at least a small degree of satisfaction. And I’ll be honest: the fact that our policymakers continue to cozy up to these assassins of all that is beautiful and true infuriates me, kindles a murderous rage in my heart. What can the wives, husbands and parents of soldiers stationed in Afghanistan think, when their loved ones are murdered, and their killers continue to receive billions of dollars in aid from our government and our diplomats praise men like Gulbuddin Heckmatyar as authentic Afghan leaders who they hope will play a leading role in Afghanistan’s future?
My third friend to die at the hands of these beasts was an American, Sgt. Robert Paul, an Army Civil Affairs Reservist; he and I got to know each other back in 2004 in Baghdad, when we spent seven months on the same small CA team, CAT 13 from Alpha Company of the 425th. Paul was many things: a street- smart Chicagoan, a classic hard core Army Sergeant, a brilliant intellect, a born leader, and one of the wittiest jokesters and storytellers I have ever met. He had served in the Peace Corps in Africa for several years, learning three or four native languages in the process, had gone on to an administrative job at Peace Corps headquarters in Washington, and at the time he was called up to go to Iraq he was serving as the chief planner for a large town in Oregon. He was an expert surf kayaker, a lover of wilderness, and, rare in today’s military, an outspoken anti-conservative, anti-Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, anti-Limbaugh rebel. He loved to argue politics with Major Mark Clark, our beloved staunchly Republican ex-Special Forces CO, entangling the Major in contradiction after contradiction until the poor man was forced to fall back on that old standby, claiming that nothing that appeared in the press or anywhere else could be trusted, and therefore nothing anyone said about anything could be judged true or false.
Sgt. Paul and I bonded early on because of our common love of wilderness I invited him to come visit in Telluride in the springtime if he ever got the chance; we would hike the Lizard Head Wilderness, the Wasatch and Blix Road, and float the Dolores and the Upper and Lower San Juan. Sgt. Paul already knew about Telluride and the San Juan Mountains, and the canyons and rivers of the Four Corners country, and had always wanted to explore the area. It would have happened some day, I’m sure, if the Fates hadn’t intervened.
I stayed in touch with Sgt. Paul back in the States, and though he never managed to make it to Telluride we were still talking about doing those treks and river trips someday when he was called up again, this time to Afghanistan, where he ended up with a Civil Affairs team stationed in Laghman Province, between Jalalabad and Kabul in the foothills of the Hindu Kush. From his e-mails, it sounded like a tough AO (Area of Operations); every time the team went out they were hit, by IEDs (Improvised Explosive Devices), attempted ambushes and sniper fire. A majority of the locals were friendly, but Gulbuddin had established a network of cells there, and Laghman was close enough to the insurgent strongholds in Kunar and Nuristan that the bad guys in Laghman were constantly getting reinforcements and new supplies of arms, ammunition and explosives.
Despite all of this, or maybe because of it – Sgt. Paul loved challenges – his e-mails were upbeat and enthusiastic.
Two or three months after Sgt. Paul’s arrival in Laghman I found myself on my way back to Afghanistan, my thirtieth visit since 1984. I spent a couple of weeks with the Civil Affairs team in Jalalabad, and then I traveled back to Kabul, where I put in another six weeks investigating the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden and the other top al-Qaeda leaders for a book I was working on.
Sgt Paul and I stayed in touch the whole time I was in Afghanistan, but we never quite figured out how to get together. The security situation in eastern Afghanistan was bad back then, and traveling alone from Kabul to Laghman was all but impossible for a Westerner, and no one on Sgt. Paul’s team was about to go anywhere outside their AO, not in the midst of 360 degrees of danger, 24/7.
Sgt. Paul and I agreed we would try again when I returned to Afghanistan in a few months.
A few weeks after I got home I received a phone call from a fellow journalist: a suicide car bomber had rammed a Humvee on its way to the U.S. Embassy in Kabul; two American soldiers were dead, blown to pieces, and one of them was Sgt. Paul. I saw a news photograph of the scene the next day: amid the twisted steel and charred junk in the road was a severed leg.
Every unsuccessful suicide bomber captured in Afghanistan has told the same story: about how he was recruited by a mullah at a Saudi-funded mosque or madrassa in Pakistan — all of the suicide bomber have been either Pakistanis or Afghan refugees brought up there – indoctrinated and trained by ISI officers, and then assigned a target inside Afghanistan, everything from crowded bazaars to girls’ schools to American Civil Affairs troops who came to Afghanistan to build clinics, hand out school supplies, repair roads and irrigation systems and help villagers improve their crops and livestock breeds…
(TO BE CONCLUDED)