I started drafting this post April 25th. Now that Washington is playing host to both Hamid Karzai of Afghanistan and President Asif Ali Zardari of Pakistan today, I guess, it’s time to pull this out.

I’m swapping books with a friend – she sent me Three Cups of Tea by Greg Mortenson and David Oliver Relin, I finally sent her A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini (born in Afghanistan; immigrated to the US). Fiction is where I usually like to start to get some kind of insider, textured, human and non-statistical perspective. My friend and I both agree about Afghanistan [and I’d add Pakistan] – this will be part of our public and political conversations for awhile.

Even before September 11, 2001, warnings were circulating about the Taliban through grassroots efforts of human and women’s rights groups. In the late 1990s I would walk to and from the Metro station noticing a sign posted in the 2nd or 3rd floor window of a commercial building – a cry for help for Afghan women. A photo of a woman covered in a Burka would appear from time-to-time. Aside from the history lessons of Marco Polo and the boycott of the Olympics during the Carter administration, Afghanistan at that time seemed so far over there that it even transcended modern time.

I catch a video of a gigantic Buddha standing inside a sandstone cliff. Having stood for 1500 years, 12 stories high, the Buddha crumbles from the explosives planted by the Taliban. Religious cleansing. Cast out of the landscape. Cut off at the knee caps. There is no place for nirvana here. But there is talk that a sleeping Buddha remains and has yet to be found.

These were the signs…before 2001.

Burning schools for girls, public floggings, casting out widows, executing young lovers.

How a group treats its women, children, and people unlike themselves or have a different point of view illustrates how badly and even harshly they will govern.

I’m also reading Karen Armstrong’s Muhammad: A Prophet for Our Time. It amazes me how far people stray from the teachings of their prophets. I can see these prophets now sitting with their head in their hands – “That’s not what I said.”

Nicholas Kristof said as much on his blog where he published an interview with the mayor of Karachi, Syed Kamal:

Let me just say it very categorically there is no 2 version of Quran or in the interpretation of Quran, what we see happening in the name of Islam and Quran in the valleys of Pakistan, it’s not Islam and Quran’s version. It is more a tribal traditions and customs combined with the medieval illiterate and brain washed people’s philosophy. Quran rather emphasizes men and women both to get education and knowledge of the world as much as possible.

From my reading I’ve learned the refugee crisis during the Soviet occupation brought Afghanis to neighboring countries like Iran and Parkistan. Iran, I gather, was firm enough to keep their system from being weakened by outside influences; but Pakistan, obviously, was fractured and fragile. There must be a whole lot more drama on that border terrain and a whole less control of what happens or who’s moving back and forth across the mountains.

I’m learning as I go. One thing I’ve come to believe in the last 8 years or so — no one should underestimate the human need for order and security even at the cost of personal freedom. Perception shouldn’t be underestimated as well, i.e. size matters. Any large force or troop build up is perceived as an occupier. Any attack on civilians is seen as an enemy invasion and/or a crime.

Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry
Sharbat Gula by Steve McCurry

Remember when National Geographic photographer Steve McCurry found their 1984 Afghan girl – Sharbat Gula? Her first photo was a work of art – one of the world’s famous faces; her second was a sign of the times, a reunion in a refugee camp in 2001.

A member of the Pashtun ethnic group in Afghanistan, Sharbat said she fared relatively well under Taliban rule, which, she feels, provided a measure of stability after the chaos and terror of the Soviet war.

Now that the Taliban has had time to settle in, it’s now clear their mission has evolved politically; they are hungry for more power.

Talibans rise and are the products of corruption within governments in power. Yet Talibans are like predatory understudies; just another cast of ambitious individuals who prey on the poor, insecure, and uneducated. The same people often neglected, exploited or cast aside by their own “democratic” governments or occupiers. So in calculated swoops, the Taliban take control using fear, cultural intimacy, and the need for order. This has nothing to do with religious freedom.

I see Sarah Chayes (www.sarahchayes.net ) on “Bill Moyers,” a former NPR reporter who decided to take up residence in Afghanistan to create micro economies in former Taliban strongholds. Her goal is to discourage opium production among farmers. An insightful perspective on that is the original 1989 mini-series “Traffik” produced by Britain’s Channel 4 that looks at drug trafficking across three countries – Germany, UK, and Pakistan – and from the bottom up as well as top down. The 2000 American feature film only focused on the middle men, and the people at the top which I thought missed the point entirely. I actually watched my DVD copy of the mini-series in one day months ago.

My friend and I will share notes. It’s too late to read the signs. We can only stick to the road. We’ll consider recommendations.