Today is International Women’s Day and I dedicate today to Darya, the heroine opium bride in Opium Nation. I found Darya after nine years of searching. She was 12 when I met her. She asked me to help save her from a forced marriage to a 46-year-old drug smuggler. She’s now 21. My book needs a new ending but until I write the magazine article, which will be the epilogue of Opium Nation when it goes into reprint, I say this to Darya:
You are Afghanistan
Broken, burdened and bartered
You are Afghanistan
Beautiful and bright
You are Afghanistan
Yearning for independence but ever so attached
You are Afghanistan
Resilient and remarkable
You are Afghanistan
They say you will cease to exist, you will be fragmented and lost
But I have found you and will never let them forget you.
Manda nabashi. This is Howard Williams. We met at Bird & Beckett Books in San Francisco on Sunday, August 11th and talked about Afghanistan. I read Opium Nation in four days and found it to be very informative and provocative. You asked me for my feedback and I’m happy to do so. Writing this has taken some time; I’m sorry for the delay. Sadly, the events you report are one reason why I have read few books about Afghanistan since 2001. News about Afghanistan is so sad, especially in contrast to the fact that so much hope abounded after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989, the fall of Najib in 1992 and the overthrow of the Taliban in 2001. Each time, those hopes have been dashed due in large part to neglect (in the 90s) and ignorance and prejudices (since 2001) by the US government and media. Please note: I am not a “blame America first” person but having worked in Afghanistan and Peshawar ( a few months each year from 1989-97), I know our foreign policy re Afghanistan and Islamic nations in general is dangerously misguided.
Page 58 – “Now I hear on TV and from people on the street explanations of who we Afghans are …” I laughed when I read this! It reminded me that after September 11, people who knew I had worked in Afghanistan would ask me what I thought of the situation. When my answer did not jibe with the “information” they had from the media, some – not all – would interrupt and “correct” me. These people – usually from political extremes of Left & Right – decided they knew more than I did. And maybe they did but they didn’t show it.
P. 67 – “The Taliban … successfully banished poppy.” I have heard slightly different; that they only banished opium and heroin being marketed by their competitors. This had the effect of driving up prices so their supporters could make greater profits. This is only a rumor and may be wrong or the truth may be closer to what Mr. Dastoor says on P. 75.
Speaking of P. 75 – Mr. Dastoor says it’s in the US interest to help rebuild Afghanistan. True and more of that later in this letter.
P. 85 – I share your father’s grief for Herat. Herat truly is a special place. Not only have her people produced an amazing cultural heritage they have defended it nobly and successfully. The combination of such culture and courage is rare in any place; Herat seems to have both in abundance. When I visited the Friday Mosque in 1994, I was moved by the spiritual presence I felt there. I told one of the caretakers there that even though this was a mosque and I am a Christian, this great spirituality moved me. He replied quietly and my translator repeated his words in English: “People have been praying here for five thousand years.” What a place to be! Many centuries before Muhammad, Christ, Buddha or Zarathustra had taught, people had gathered at this holy place to worship the unknown yet perceived One.
P. 114 – The misogyny described on this page and in other parts of the book is chilling. While I was in Afghanistan, I certainly knew that women had few rights but I had the impression (only an impression, I was in no position to really know) that outright brutality was rare and frowned upon by the extended family. For all I knew, America may have had more domestic violence in the 90s. In fact, when asked why Afghan families had so many children, one educated Afghan professional woman simply answered “We like each other.” I believed that the moderating influences of Afghan Islam did not always prevent domestic violence but did keep it from becoming widespread. I certainly don’t think that any family violence is acceptable or excusable but the impression I had is that although Afghan men always had the power to “control” their wives by any means, the vast majority had better things to do than to habitually abuse them. Have I romanticized the past? Or is what is described on this and other pages due to a new influence of extreme fundamentalism imported from Pakistan and the Gulf oil states by the Taliban, Hekmatyar and their ilk?
P. 137 – “If the opium business suddenly closed … Afghanistan would suffer [economically].” There are some economists who believe that the international drug business is so huge with so much money in the international banking system that America and other nations would also suffer heavy economic losses from an end of the drug business.
P. 275 – Re the Helmand project: “short-term results rather than to consider long-term consequences – a repetitive folly of American policy” How sad but true.
P. 308 – opium replaced by cannabis – I’m not so sure that this could work. In Nangarhar in 1996, I heard that after harvesting their opium, farmers would then plant cannabis on the same land.
On Page 232 you state “the [Taliban] were ousted by the United States in 2001.” I must strongly disagree. I believe this is incorrect and that this error – so widespread in the US media – fuels many of the errors in US policy. Every single Afghan city and military base was taken over by Afghan anti-Taliban forces before US ground forces arrived. It is true that US air support and advisors provided indispensable help; without that help the Afghans could not have defeated the Taliban. But it was the Afghans who won the war on the ground; “no one ever surrendered to an airplane” is a military truism. Without the Afghans, the US military would have faced a difficult if not impossible task in taking strategic places, not to mention Kabul.
I believe that Afghan American intellectuals must make a concerted effort to clear up this error. Perhaps this could best be done in coordination with Americans who have experience in Afghanistan. For what my efforts would be worth, I am willing to offer my services in such an effort. Related to this is the need to point out that Afghans and Americans are historically allies. I believe that if we see Afghanistan as an ally, it will mean more and better US aid. After World War II, we viewed Western European nations as allies and gave them the best US foreign aid program in our history. And as you quote Mr. Dastoor, it’s in the interest of both nations.
At the risk of sounding esoteric, I believe Afghanistan and America have had a metaphysically intertwined relationship (bet you didn’t see that one coming!). We both achieved statehood in the 1700s and had to defend ourselves against British imperialism. The geography of each nation has been a determining factor in who we are and what we can be. We are both multicultural societies trying to achieve a unique unity that respects the heritages of different groups. And in recent decades, our paths have met: we needed each other to defeat the Soviets, we needed each other to defeat the Taliban. Yet we pretend that our differences – yes they are real but they are not necessarily antagonistic – are greater than our shared mutual interests and our shared sacrifices. If we do not realize our shared destiny, I fear for both our nations.
As I said, it has been hard for me to read about Afghanistan in recent years. It was hard reading your book but definitely worthwhile. I hope to see another one from you soon.
Howard Williams 415-373-2186
Hello Howard. Thank you for taking the time to respond and useful feedback on Opium Nation. You’re right on many fronts and yes, domestic violence and violence in general has increased because of war and extremism. Your experiences during the civil war in Kabul are pertinent to Afghanistan’s history. If I ever do a talk from that period, I will contact you to speak with me. All the best. Fariba
Yesterday I mentioned:
“At the risk of sounding esoteric, I believe Afghanistan and America have had a metaphysically intertwined relationship.”
And a reminder of that relationship is that today is the 12th Anniversary of Al Qaeda’s murder of Ahmad Shah Masood just 2 days before the 9/11 terrorist attacks. AlQaeda’s murder of Masood was connected into their larger Al Qaeda/Taliban strategy to finally defeat the Northern Alliance so that America would have no places in Afghanistan from which to fight the Taliban.
– H. Williams