By Fariba Nawa
March 16, 2003
I had a friend I had known for 10 years, an Afghan-American with an MBA from the University of North Carolina who left the United States to work for the peace and stability of his homeland, ravaged by 23 years of war. Farhad Ahad was a role model for my generation of exiled Afghans holding on tight to our roots. Now he’s dead.
His was not treated as a hero’s death. Heroes are remembered and hailed. Their deeds become the material of legends. Ahad’s death was forgotten, as was his cause – rebuilding Afghanistan.
Last summer this businessman who had spent most of his adult life in the United States returned to Kabul to become the foreign ministry’s acting economics director in the U.S.-backed government, 17 years after his escape from conscription into the Soviet-backed army. On Feb. 24, he and three other Afghan-Americans, including the country’s minister of mines and industries, were killed in a mysterious plane crash off the coast of Karachi, Pakistan. The team was on a chartered Cessna en route to a mining operation where they were to observe the methods in order to emulate them in Afghanistan. They were also key advisers in the country’s $3.2-billion gas pipeline deal with Pakistan and Turkmenistan.
The Pakistani government says it is investigating the crash. But few in the United States have heard about it, even though four U.S. citizens were killed. Their forgotten deaths are a reminder to Afghan-Americans that once again, our homeland is being abandoned. The U.S. media and government used us when they needed us during the war against the Taliban, and now we’re passé – Iraq is the focus – and so is our cause. There’s a collective feeling of betrayal.
We had welcomed the United States to wipe out the Taliban, and had told the American public so through the media. We were the familiar link to what the West saw as a strange, unlucky people. But we did it under one understood condition: You can bomb us now, but you’ll help put the country back together once you’re done. America and the world have stood us up. The Bush administration even “forgot” to include $300 million for reconstruction aid in its 2004 budget proposal until congressional leaders made it an issue.
The war against the Taliban made Afghanistan a local story for the United States, but only for a short time. Isn’t a plane crash with four Americans killed also a local story? This is what my friends in the Afghan-American community are asking. We live and work in the United States, we are American citizens, but our hearts and history are in Afghanistan. We’re feeling now that we are more needed there than here.
The last time I saw Ahad was at a demonstration in the San Francisco Bay area, where the largest Afghan exile community resides. He was the founder of AfghanSolidarity.com, a Web site dedicated to peace and Afghan unity. Through the site, he had organized a protest against the Taliban. In front of the federal building in San Francisco, he and a handful of others shouted for help, not for imperialism. We wanted the Taliban out. They had hijacked our culture and religion. We wanted a democratic Afghanistan in peace. But our shouts were falling on deaf ears. This was a month before Sept. 11, 2001.
After the United States had decided to respond militarily to the terrorist attacks in New York and Washington, there was a sense of hope. Anyone in the community who spoke against U.S. intervention was shushed. Afghan exiles and locals both seemed to believe a new era was upon us, one in which peace and stability would finally prevail. It was wishful thinking.
Our homeland is better off than it was during the Taliban time, but it’s far from where it should be. Warlords backed by the United States still rule most of the country. President Hamid Karzai’s weak central government struggles to survive. A Taliban and al-Qaida insurgency is gaining strength, as terrorist bombs continue to kill civilians. Many Afghan-Americans have returned to Afghanistan to work for a year or permanently. I was there last summer and plan to go back as soon as I can. We find plenty to do, but not enough money to do it well.
Ahad had arrived in Kabul shortly after the assassination of Haji Qadir, the minister of public works, who was unpopular with some factions. Ahad reflected on Qadir’s death in a Newsweek article. He was quoted as saying, “I realize I’m a target as well. But if I’m destined to die in Afghanistan, then let it be.”
I shuddered when I read this. He was such a patriot. He had left Afghanistan as a teenager. I wondered if those of us who grew up in America have any place in today’s Afghanistan. We’re stuck in a time warp, attached to the country through the nostalgia of our parents’ memories. But there’s little time for introspection. If it’s not our duty to aid Afghans, then whose is it?
We often discuss what the rest of the world can do. How can Afghanistan remain independent and take money from imperial powers? What will be the underlying and more devastating cost of reconstruction funded by foreigners? Will we become pawns of the Great Game of the past century when Afghanistan’s neighbors used it as a buffer zone to contain each other?
We come up with no clear-cut answers to these complex questions of development. But one thing is clear. The United States and its allies, especially after bombing the country, have a responsibility to maintain peace, and reconstruction is part of the answer to peace.
Only when this happens will I believe that my friend did not die in vain.