It’s been a quarter-century since Waheed Momand proposed three amendments during the loya jirga that created the first Republic of Afghanistan. Waheed, then a teacher and vice president at Kabul Technical College, was the youngest voting member of that 1977 assembly. As the Kabul Soccer League’s representative on that historic tribal council of Afghan elders and community leaders, he helped elect Prime Minister Mohammad Daoud as his country’s first president.
But that solemn accomplishment proved a short-lived cause for celebration. The following year, Daoud was killed in a communist coup that touched off more than two decades of civil war. And like many of his countrymen, Waheed ultimately felt compelled to escape the country of his birth, passing through dangerous mountains under the rifles of suspicious warlords to avoid the ever-watchful eyes of the communists.
Ever since, Waheed Momand has lived the life of an Afghan refugee — not one on the edge of starvation, but part of a lucky minority that could afford to slip across the border to refuge in countries such as Pakistan, Germany, Holland, Canada, and the United States. Twenty-three years of warfare stripped away most of this Afghan middle class. Those who fled built new lives, clinging to their ethnic compatriots in places such as Fremont, where they formed loose communities largely ignored by the world.
For the past eighteen years, the 52-year-old Waheed has lived a reasonably uneventful life in Fremont, home to an estimated fifty thousand Afghans. It was a welcome time of quiet for the émigré, who commuted to his Silicon Valley software job, worked hard, kept his Muslim faith, paid his mortgage, raised two children, and helped provide for his nearby parents and in-laws. Until recently, he was unknown to more outspoken local Afghan scholars and activists, many of whom closely monitor Central Asian politics.
The events of September 11 thrust Afghan exiles back into the spotlight. Many would have preferred to stay hidden in the shadows, but for Waheed, September 11 was a mobilizing moment, unearthing a buried history that finally cried out to be dealt with. In the months since, politics have become Waheed’s calling — and his struggle. The tall, bearded Pashtun was laid off from his job at Computer Associates on October 1, and hardworking as he is, he never looked for another job. Instead, he refinanced his home and dipped into his savings, dedicating himself full-time to the cause of his country. For Waheed, there was no turning back.
For the past ten months, Waheed has preached that it is time for Afghanistan to bury its past in order to rebuild — forget about ethnicity; forget about acrimony. It’s a message that once might have seemed reasonable and obvious, but Waheed believes it is lost on many of his own countrymen. In the months since September 11, he has struggled mightily to bring his neighbors together. From his post as the unpaid board chairman of the Fremont-based Afghan Coalition, which coordinates social services for a handful of nonprofits, he attempted to form an alliance of mosques and relief organizations to promote the idea of reconciliation among different ethnic groups. He traveled to Germany in December, where a temporary post-Taliban government was formed. He tried to spearhead elections to choose a delegation to meet in Washington, DC with Afghanistan’s interim prime minister, Hamid Karzai.
But here in the East Bay, thousands of miles away from Afghanistan, Waheed’s community has imported many of the same ethnic, historical, and political grievances that have existed among Afghans for decades, if not centuries. And Waheed’s moves have been met with suspicion by many of his neighbors, some of whom criticize the cliquishness of his circle of supporters. Similar community disagreements in Southern California have become physical; police reportedly broke up one meeting after delegates resorted to hair-pulling.
Which begs an obvious question: If it’s so hard to reach consensus among middle-class Afghans in America, what chance is there of reconciliation among the rubble of Afghanistan?
The Momands live in a quiet, hillside subdivision overlooking the East Bay. Their home is blue and lovely, decorated in a style that’s neither Afghan nor Western. Stacks of unpaid bills and paperwork lay in piles on the kitchen table. Japanese figurines, Chinese porcelain, and Renaissance wall hangings crowd the living room. The various furniture settings, while perfect in their neatness, resemble a series of department-store displays; nothing quite matches, and there’s a little too much of it. Even the price tags remain on the bottoms of the porcelain tea set. Perhaps for Waheed, the eternal newness of these items symbolizes an exile’s dream of one day going home.
Only downstairs in his darkened den are there authentic keepsakes, a few brief memories smuggled into a knapsack the day he left Kabul: a handful of black-and-white photos of relatives, and a group shot in color from a childhood field trip to the third-century Bamiyan Buddhas — the two largest Buddhist statues in the world, since destroyed by the Taliban.
Waheed himself is six feet tall and slouches a little. He has a large mole at the edge of his mustache, and his dark brushed-back hair and trimmed beard are already peppered gray. He often looks tired. When he speaks, his voice rolls into the air like a sigh. He is constantly on the phone in his native Dari or Pashto languages to relatives or “contacts” in California and Europe. The phone calls are interrupted by other phone calls, or by his 23-year-old daughter Salanik, looking for her car keys.
His daughter is emblematic of how firmly Waheed’s current life is rooted in Fremont. She sounds like a typical American twentysomething, though culturally she is someone in-between. She remembers brief flashes of her early childhood — a face in a park, a moment on a street — but none of her memories are from Afghanistan, where she was born. Salanik lives at home with her parents. She attends Cal State Hayward, works part-time at Starbucks, and spends too much of her salary on her cell phone. She has her mother Nazema’s sandy-brown hair and milky-white skin. Her fourteen-year-old brother, Joseph, is a black belt in karate and lives part of the week at his uncle’s house nearby so he can attend Washington High School in Fremont, where his friends go. Waheed himself is in constant communication with his own siblings and parents, all of whom live within an hour’s drive. But his mind is focused on another home halfway around the world.
Once Waheed’s political aspirations reawakened, it was probably inevitable that he would wind up in Bonn, Germany, two days before a December UN summit that was the first of several meetings to decide the fate of his homeland. Afghan citizens and expatriates were reuniting there in the wake of the Taliban’s fall to plan the future of their devastated country. It seemed to Waheed that someone from California’s Afghan community should be there too, even though it hadn’t received an invitation. After all, no one was representing Fremont, home to the largest Afghan contingent in the United States. When Waheed contacted a state department official in Washington, he was told dismissively that there were no more spaces available on the list of invitees, even if he did represent “the Northern California Council,” the name he’d given his makeshift alliance of local mosques and relief organizations. Meanwhile, his Fremont critics were attacking the group as a fictional democratic organization. They hadn’t voted to join him, they complained, and here Waheed was claiming to represent them.
But nothing, it seemed, would deter Waheed from delivering his message. It would be his first return to Afghan politics in eighteen years, even if he had other pressing things to do, like finding a job to supplement Nazema’s income from the Alameda County Health Office, or spending Ramadan, the Islamic holy month, with his family. His endless work dropping off fliers for prayer vigils, organizing press conferences on post-9/11 hate crimes, and making international phone calls to Europe had come to this.
Northern Alliance leaders and Pashtun factions, which had opposed each other in the last decade of bitter warfare, were finally sitting down together. Selected ethnic representatives would choose an interim government. Although the meeting would certainly not be democratic in the American sense, it at least represented a thawing of relations between Afghan ethnic groups separated for centuries by mountains and languages — and more recently by trenches and rifles.
Although he had no invitation, his contacts — men he had known over the years, some family members, some former colleagues — pleaded for him to join them there. They had formed their own European councils modeled after his — councils in name, that is, without formal membership. “They called him several times,” Nazema said before his departure. “They want him to come. He has to come; that’s why we are so last-minute.”
So on a December morning, Nazema helped him pack, making sure his passport and Koran were in hand. A Hindi video blasted from the small TV in the kitchen, and on the counter, a full pot of coffee sat untouched beside some shriveled cashew nuts scattered on an otherwise empty tray. The bathroom floor had flooded, and Salanik’s tuition check hadn’t been mailed. Where were his socks? Had he remembered his wallet? Nazema gave Waheed the phone call from relatives wishing him well as he searched frantically for forgotten items, all the while still in his sweatpants.
While Waheed passed back and forth for good luck beneath the Koran in Joseph’s outstretched hand, Salanik warmed up the car outside. She would drive her father across the San Mateo Bridge to San Francisco International Airport. He was returning to Germany, a country she had seen only as a toddler when her mother flew her there from the Soviet Union. He would be going alone. Was he making the right decision? “No one really knows no what’s going to happen,” Nazema noted.
Waheed left for the airport that morning without brushing his teeth.
When Waheed got his start in politics, Afghan-istan was experiencing its first taste of democracy. King Mohammad Zahir Shah had been peacefully deposed by his own cousin, Daoud, who was then elected the country’s first president by the 1977 loya jirga (grand council).
Waheed was an up-and-comer among his generation of urban Afghans. One of the top students from his high school class in Kabul, he had won a prestigious scholarship to attend university and graduate school in the Soviet Union. He had earned a graduate degree in electrical engineering from the prestigious Harkov Technical Institute in Ukraine. After he and Nazema met and fell in love in Kabul in 1977, the 27-year-olds soon married and returned to the Soviet Union, where Waheed was pursuing a PhD in cybernetics. To stay near her husband, Nazema enrolled at a nearby college and earned her master’s degree in library science. They were inseparable. Both were studying in the Soviet Union when Afghanistan began to fall apart.
The Soviets then considered Afghanistan a client state, providing it aid in exchange for political loyalty. But in the late 1970s, the Soviet empire grew preoccupied with the regional influence of the United States, and with the rise of religious fundamentalism, which was fervently anticommunist. Afghanistan threatened the Soviets on both fronts. Daoud, who had supported Soviet interests as prime minister, began turning to the United States to finance infrastructure projects. But he misjudged the degree of communist infiltration within his own government. A year into his presidency, plotters of a Soviet-backed coup seized the presidential palace, killed Daoud and eighteen members of his family, and jailed his ministers.
Waheed and Nazema experienced the anxiety of exiles for the first time. Living abroad, they could only watch as their families became entangled in the era’s darkening politics. Both families were targeted by the new regime. Waheed’s father, Ali Ahmad Momand, had been the director of construction for Bagram airport near Kabul, and later a provincial governor in southern Kandahar under Daoud. Nazema’s father, Dr. Abdul Rahim Nevin, a gynecologist, served as Daoud’s minister of information and culture. Along with his son, Dr. Nevin was imprisoned for more than two years after the coup. Other family members also were jailed. “It was a horrible time; no one was safe,” Waheed recalls. “My family was worried about my safety. The students who were part of the Communist Party were spying on us, and it was important not to call any attention to ourselves.”
In September 1979, a rival communist faction staged a second coup. The same year, the shah of neighboring Iran, a US supporter, was overthrown by Muslim fundamentalists. The Soviets, now dissatisfied with their disintegrating client regime in Afghanistan, invaded in December to “protect” the country from imperial foreign interests. Soviet forces quickly took Kabul, but as in so much of the country’s tumultuous history, foreign invaders found resistance not in the cities, but in the countryside, from regional mujahideen warlords whose xenophobia was equaled only by their religious fundamentalism. They recruited young men from villages, employing guerrilla tactics that dismayed and confused Soviet commanders. They were armed well by US and Pakistani intelligence agencies, who saw a chance to bloody the Soviets in an Afghan version of the Vietnam War. The cruelest and most religiously fanatic warlords — the most effective at fighting Soviets — received the lion’s share of arms and money. For educated and relatively cosmopolitan citizens caught in the middle, such as Waheed’s family, there was nowhere to go but out.
Waheed’s parents, in-laws, and infant daughter were safely gone by the time he quit Afghanistan for good. His parents slipped out a week after the Soviet invasion, quietly packing their bags one night and leaving their home and possessions behind. They crossed the Pakistani border crammed with four other families into a crawl space behind a false wall in a trailer, the children fed sleeping pills to keep quiet. Nazema’s parents soon followed. Slowly, other Afghans began to join the exodus, making their way to Pakistan and eventually to safe havens throughout Europe and the United States. Families usually arranged their escape through guides who charged the equivalent of a year’s salary — 20,000 afghani, or $350.
Waheed bribed Soviet officials for an exit visa to fly Nazema and Salanik from Ukraine to Bonnheim, Germany, where her parents had safely arrived. Unable to secure his own visa, he stayed behind, waiting in agony to complete his dissertation. He knew he would be in danger once he returned to Kabul. Two of Daoud’s sons, murdered by the communists, had been his good friends and former classmates, and there was no reason to suspect he would be left alone. As the date approached, Nazema bravely rejoined him in Harkov, leaving Salanik with her parents. “She said that if anything was going to happen, it would happen to both of us,” Waheed explains.
Harkov was a city congested with students and huge polluting factories. Nazema, under considerable stress, fell ill soon after arriving. Waheed had to leave her in the care of a physics professor who lived upstairs. Having defended his dissertation, he was ordered back to Kabul. He flew home and moved in with Nazema’s grandparents.
Another six months followed before Nazema was authorized to return. When she joined him, he was working in a television repair shop in Kabul. “I had friends in the communist government,” Waheed says. “They tried to attract me. They offered me several high-level positions, but I always gave an excuse. I knew that I had to leave as soon as possible. I was winning the time, playing a game.”
On an autumn morning before sunrise, they set out. Accompanying him was his father-in-law’s servant of many years, as well as his aunt’s daughter and son. But his aunt would not leave, and Waheed worried about what would happen to her.
Waheed arranged their escape through secret meetings in cafes around Kabul. Their plan was to take a regular bus from Kabul to Ghazni, a historic trading post along the Silk Road. A few miles out of town, they would get off and hide in a ditch awaiting a pickup truck to take them into the mountains. They brought only a change of clothes and some food — the little they could carry in their backpacks. They had to be careful. Once clear of the Soviets, they entered the realm of the mujahideen.
They traveled with letters from different commanders vouching for them. But even before they reached Ghazni, the bus was pulled over, and a group of Afghan soldiers dragged off a young man from one of the other families traveling with them. The guide was sitting in the front of the bus. “In the mirror he kind of gave me a look like he was helpless,” Waheed explains. But as it turned out, the old man traveling with Waheed was not only a servant. He also was a former mujahideen who had defended this very patch of country, called the Wardak. “I asked him to do something,” Waheed says. “He was a brave man, so he got off and started talking to the mujahideen very loudly. He said, ‘I was patrolling this area, and this man is Pashto-Wardak, he is my man.'” Amazingly, the young soldiers released him.
That night the party arrived at their safe house, a small, mud-floored farmhouse where they would wait two days for a rain-swollen river to recede. Three days later they crossed the Afghan border into Pakistan, passing the final checkpoint with 24 people piled in the back of a small pickup truck. They looked back at their homeland for what might be the last time. “We crossed in the evening,” Waheed recalls. “I remember we stopped for prayers. My wife and I, we had tears in our eyes, because we knew we would never come back.”
Waheed and Nazema spent three weeks in Peshawar with her uncle until they obtained travel documents to Germany. But once there, Nazema’s father, who was dying, implored them to leave for a place with more opportunities. So the Momands set out again, on what would soon become a well-worn path for Afghans who escaped through Pakistan and moved on to safe havens willing to grant them visas. One such mecca was Fremont, where the upscale suburbs are bordered by sloping fence posts and brown hills dotted with grazing cattle. These quiet suburbs, plagued by little more than SUV traffic, are a world away from the heavily mined fields and biting winds of Afghanistan. Fremont came to represent a land of opportunity — an escape from strife and a place to rebuild.
But the fresh start came with old problems. Familiar prejudices and political dissension had followed.
Afghans always have been separated in one way or another. Rugged mountains divided them for centuries. Separate regional enclaves of people often share more language and culture with tribal kinsmen in bordering countries: Iran in the West, the former Soviet states of Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan to the north, and the Pashtun frontier of Pakistan to the south. Although the majority of Afghans are Pashtun, sizable Uzbek, Tajik, and Hazara minorities have their own contested territories and practice variants of Islam.
It took the common Soviet enemy to unite regional warlords with little else in common. Not surprisingly, when the Soviet army retreated from Afghanistan, this alliance collapsed. In the post-Soviet era, the United States and the international community also turned away from the devastated land, leaving a power vacuum that would pit Afghan countrymen against one another in one of the bloodiest chapters in the country’s five-thousand-year history. The ensuing scramble for power turned Kabul into rubble. More than six million Afghans were forced into exile during 23 years of warfare.
From this chaotic bloodletting, a group of young men emerged to combat the plundering warlords. They were Pashtuns, originally from Kandahar but educated in the Pakistani religious schools where many Afghans took refuge. As they advanced north, their ranks swelled with men from the countryside to avenge the destruction of their own villages. These “moral crusaders” called themselves Talibs, or students. Backed by the Pakistanis, the Taliban swept north, defeating the warlords until only the Northern Alliance was left when they took Kabul. Eventually the Taliban would control more than ninety percent of Afghanistan. But their heroic deeds would be overshadowed by the implementation of an archaic interpretation of Islamic law that stripped women of dignity, precipitated Afghanistan’s isolation from the world community, and transformed the country into an international terrorist sanctuary for radical Muslim militants like Osama bin Laden. For Afghans, a line would be drawn between two sides — the Northern Alliance of minority Tajiks, Uzbeks, and Hazaras, and the Pashtun Taliban. Local supporters of these two camps started a debate in the mid-1990s that continues to this day. This division isn’t always apparent to non-Afghans. Aside from their two main languages, which are native to their respective regions, Afghan Americans display few other signs of regional affiliation. There are no bumper stickers supporting the Northern Alliance or former Taliban officials. In Fremont, it’s hard to know which side people are on. Dari and Pashto are spoken by groups who live just blocks away from each other, yet intermingle cautiously. Those who are friendly visit each other at weddings, attend nearby mosques for Friday prayers, and shop in one of several Afghan grocery stores in downtown Fremont’s “Little Kabul.”
Northern Alliance supporters typically are more obvious. Shop owners in Little Kabul, for instance, tend to lean in favor of the Northern Alliance. A picture of assassinated Northern Alliance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud hangs inside the cramped Kabob House restaurant on Fremont Boulevard. Across the street at the Pamir grocery store, owner Homayoun Khamash expresses his joy that the Pashtun king was sidelined during the loya jirga so Prime Minister Karzai could lead the country — an outcome favored by the Northern Alliance, which wanted to keep Tajik ministers in power. And though mosques are supposedly nonpolitical, at a memorial service at the Hayward Mosque on Mission Street it was mainly Northern Alliance supporters who mourned the death of Massoud after he was killed in a suicide bomb attack in September.
Finding Afghans who don’t support the Northern Alliance is more difficult for outsiders, in part due to their greater geographic dispersion. “Everyone else is scattered around the Bay Area,” says Fareed Wardak, who is no supporter of the Northern Alliance. “They don’t have businesses together like those in Little Kabul.” Some local Afghans also are afraid to speak out against the Northern Alliance, Wardak says, worried that they might be targeted if they go back to Afghanistan.
It is divisions such as these that Waheed speaks of overcoming. He dreams of a unified Afghanistan, where his countrymen can let go of their ethnic labels. He believes that whatever ethnic rifts exist among émigré Afghans — many of whom fought against the Soviets and each other — must be reconciled before they can make a valuable contribution to their homeland.
Waheed says people focused on the ethnicity of who’s in power have long been a stumbling block to peace. “One big problem that Afghans have is that they have to forgive,” he says. “I know there have been so many atrocities between ethnic groups, but we have to remember the circumstances, otherwise we’ll never have a unified country.” Waheed says the future of Afghanistan lies not in a government based on tribal ethnicity, but in a democratic system based on laws and popular vote.
But getting even educated, middle-class Afghans onto the same page may never happen. Waheed first realized the challenges when he was in Germany — not at the UN summit, which he tried unsuccessfully to attend, but at a gathering of expatriates in Frankfurt. There, six hundred Pashtuns who were hostile to the UN’s efforts to create the current interim government had gathered at an Afghan-owned banquet hall. They accused the UN and the United States of playing favorites among anti-Taliban groups. Waheed was shocked when he heard speakers go so far as to call any future state not dominated by ethnic Pashtuns a “predatory government” imposed by a foreign power.
Without a seat at the Bonn summit, Waheed could only watch news reports and pass notes inside to his colleagues, who witnessed Karzai’s selection as prime minister. He returned from that first trip disappointed because he had not even been allowed inside the meeting hall.
His efforts to form the Northern California Council also had fallen flat. So he refocused on forming an elected delegation of California Afghans to meet interim Prime Minister Hamid Karzai in Washington, DC. But criticism from neighbors prompted him to support the efforts of another Fremont organization, the Worldwide Afghan Unity Foundation, to mediate such elections. When the elections were held in January at a Fremont banquet hall, Waheed declared himself a candidate and secured one of the body’s ten delegate spots.
Some local émigrés complain that the vote was predetermined because people with differing political views were excluded. Others say Waheed and the other candidates had a conflict of interest because they also helped organize the election, and invited mainly family and friends. These critics note that three of the ten members elected, including Waheed and delegate Rona Popal, were also members of the Afghan Coalition.
“I’m sure she and Waheed all do a great job with the Afghan Coalition, but as far as representing me, I didn’t vote for them,” says Kamren Faizi, a local Afghan and Northern Alliance supporter. “I don’t question their intentions, I just didn’t know when this whole thing took place, or who voted for them.”
As planning came together for the mid-June loya jirga that would select the nation’s government for the next two years, word filtered out that thirty seats had been set aside for expatriate Afghans who lived outside of Pakistan or Iran. Because roughly half of all such émigrés live in the United States, Waheed and his compatriots thought the United States should send a delegation of sixteen representatives to participate in the council — four delegates each from four regions of the country. Waheed hoped to represent the Northwest United States.
At the time, he thought the loya jirga commission would devise its own delegate-selection process. Yet just a few weeks before the gathering, the commission still had provided no guidance on how US participants should be chosen. So during a late-May meeting in Washington, DC with the Afghan ambassador to the United States, Waheed suggested that the commission accept the results of the Worldwide Afghan Unity Foundation’s January election. The ambassador agreed, and later at that meeting, Waheed was named secretary of the new Electoral College of Afghanistan in the United States of America.
But the ultimate delegate-selection process didn’t work out as the Americans had hoped. When the commission released its final list of delegates four days before the beginning of the loya jirga, only four Americans had been named to the list, with Rona Popal named to represent the Northwest. Yet once again, Waheed was encouraged to travel abroad anyway to see if he could gain access to a meeting he had not been invited to. Electoral college president Dr. Bashir Zikria urged Waheed to go to Kabul and help lobby for a larger American delegation. “The commission did not have a procedure for Afghans abroad,” Waheed said. “We were pushing not just for ourselves, but for more Afghans from the Afghan diaspora in the United States.”
Waheed couldn’t give up now. So he flew from the Bay Area to the country of Dubai, where he luckily managed to obtain a ticket aboard the one weekly commercial airplane flight into Kabul. And when he arrived there he managed to obtain status as a non-voting guest member of the loya jirga. And so for nine days Waheed attended the caucus, finding an early seat at 7 a.m. and staying all day. Twenty-five years later, he again sat among his fellow countrymen under the big tent in Kabul to decide the future of Afghanistan. For him, it was a major step toward on the Afghan road to reconciliation.
But back in Fremont, not everyone shared Waheed’s enthusiasm for this supposedly democratic turn of events.
Daud Yaar, a Cal State-Hayward economics professor who hosts a political radio program for émigré Afghans, denounces the elections that sent Waheed and Popal to Afghanistan. “Was I given the chance to express my hope for this?” Yaar asks. “No. The Fremont delegation was also instigated, planned, and implemented by the supporters of the Northern Alliance. No one else knew about it; ninety percent of the Afghans were surprised. How could this happen, elections for the loya jirga and no one knows about it?”
This Concord resident is equally unhappy with the outcome of the loya jirga’s deliberations. “Karzai is not made for the job; he’s a joke,” he says. “The warlords have hijacked the loya jirga, and now they’re getting together to carve the country out of different fiefdoms.”
Yaar also is one of the few Bay Area residents who publicly admits to once being pro-Taliban. As recently as last summer, he hosted the Taliban’s ambassador-at-large on a tour through Northern California — although he says he was trying to convince him to open the Taliban’s inner circle to educated experts. Like many initial supporters, Yaar says he eventually concluded that the Taliban did not have a vision to lead Afghanistan.
But Yaar makes no apologies for his earlier loyalties. He notes that the Taliban restored order to a country torn apart by civil war and lawlessness. And he notes that warlords once again control Afghanistan beyond the reach of Karzai’s administration in Kabul, levying taxes, implementing their own law, and initiating violence. It’s a situation that he believes loya jirga supporters would like to forget.
Yaar’s support for what became one of the most archaic social movements of modern times had deep roots. Like the Taliban, Yaar belongs to Afghanistan’s majority ethnic group, and thousands of miles from his homeland, he has chosen this identification as his guide. “Pashtuns are used to ruling,” he says. “There were 250 years of Pashtun domination. In terms of history and social standing, Pashtuns were accepted as being the leaders of the country.”
Ethnic hatred didn’t exist in those days, Yaar insists. Unarmed ethnic groups pursued peaceful ways of coexistence. But that changed, he says, when the Soviets began a policy of arming them. “The traditional historical claim of the ruling Pashtun tribe was challenged,” he says. “Psychologically, it’s hard for Pashtuns to understand. Even for me, as a professor, it hurts me.”
In spite of his blunt words, Yaar is soft-spoken and articulate, with pensive eyes behind thin metal glasses. He sees himself as a Pashtun who associates with other Pashtuns only because Tajiks reject him.
But even Pashtuns who were not Taliban supporters are troubled by the power of warlords in the present government. What bothers them is that Northern Alliance soldiers — including those known for human-rights abuses — are still armed and serving in the government. They were, after all, the victors who retook Kabul, albeit under the cover of American bombs. Because of their guns and their position in the capital, this collection of minorities now holds the most powerful cabinet-level positions in a country once again splintering towards old rivalries. Though Karzai is Pashtun, Yaar and many others see him as no more than a front man in a government heavily loaded with Tajiks and Uzbeks.
“Karzai thinks he can rely on them,” Yaar says. “They are showing the world there’s a Pashtun leader, but they’re strengthening their own roots. Once they feel sure they can stand alone on their own feet, they will get rid of the Foreign Security Assistance Force.” They will allow Russia, India, and Iran to carve up Afghanistan, he says. “I’m hopeful that America understands this game; this is a very dirty game.”
Nor is Yaar alone in voicing disappointment with the results of the loya jirga and the composition of the new Afghan government. But he notes that many Afghans have become afraid to publicly criticize the government’s weaknesses. His own wife pleads with him to stop talking politics. Humah Dargzie, the 26-year-old president of the Society of Afghan Professionals, a nonpolitical social organization, agrees that local Afghan politics have become more muted since the loya jirga ended in June. Dargzie says many Pashtuns wanted to see King Zahir Shah play a role in the new government. They also wanted to see more Afghans living abroad being appointed. “We were hoping that Karzai being Pashtun would reassert power,” she says. “He promoted Pashtuns, but warlord-Pashtuns, who supported the Northern Alliance — they have Pashtuns represented in the Northern Alliance, just the wrong kind. Now there’s not too much Tajiks in power, but warlords.”
The hope that the Northern Alliance would cede much of its power to balance regional and ethnic representation in the government has faded. And local Pashtuns who expected the king to play a figurehead role in the government are bitter. “There’s no open dialogue any more,” Dargzie says. “Now the whole community intervened, and didn’t fix the problem. The loya jirga was not a success.”
Waheed concedes that the loya jirga wasn’t model democracy in action. But he thinks it was the best process possible after only six months of relative peace in Afghanistan. “People are judging why Karzai gave positions to warlords,” he says. “So he decides to go against them and make war longer? He is really under pressure.”
In fact, Karzai has been called everything from a CIA operative to a “Tajikicized” traitor, and for the last six months has tenuously held together a cabinet whose members are antagonistic toward one another. He has avoided assassination attempts by former mujahideen rivals, and tiptoed around the continuing military campaign against al Qaeda forces near the Pakistan frontier. Meanwhile, Karzai still has to plead with the United Nations and the developed world for supplies and aid to help his government begin the mammoth task of rebuilding a ruined country.
To Waheed, Karzai needs all the support he can get, especially from educated Afghans who now live in the relative luxury of developed countries. “It’s a critical moment in the history of Afghanistan. Do we have to go back to traditional tribal living? I say no, we have a golden chance.”
Waheed sees Karzai’s critics in Fremont and Frankfurt as selfish power- mongers rather than constructive planners. He feels that critics concerned about who, ethnically speaking, is holding power have been a major stumbling block to peace. “One big problem that Afghans have is that they have to forgive,” he says. “I know there have been so many atrocities between ethnic groups, but we have to remember the circumstances, otherwise we’ll never have a unified country.” And he saw few selfless leaders among the intellectual critics outside of Afghanistan.
“Durrani, the founder of modern Afghanistan, was a Pashtun from Kandahar. He had a chance to name the country Pashtunistan, but he had a vision that people with ethnic differences had to live together,” Waheed says. Now, he claims, former Taliban supporters are trying to reassert themselves as leaders simply because of the Pashtun line. “They don’t have any support inside Afghanistan. Ordinary people just want to have a place to live. We here have all this luxury — homes, cars for my daughter and son, a wedding with six hundred people. In Afghanistan, people have to dig a hole in the ground and cover themselves with a plastic sheet to stay warm.”
Waheed knows that much firsthand. On a break from his participation in the loya jirga he explored Kabul, recording block by block with a video recorder to show to his friends and family back in Fremont. Although the excitement of finding certain neighborhoods still intact was fun, the work of rebuilding Afghanistan is only beginning. While the capital is again bustling — the shops have opened, and music plays in cafes — there is still no running water and the east side of the city is darkened at night, wasted in rubble from the battles of the early ’90s. “Life is still difficult,” he says.
Even as he sits amid stacked bills and paperwork at his breakfast table, he insists he wants to keep one foot in Afghanistan while living in America. But at times Waheed seems overwhelmed by the enormity of his chosen task — or perhaps by its futility. Sharing chocolate and tea with a visitor recently, he sat slouched in his kitchen chair trying to piece together a vision for the future of his homeland. Nonchalantly, his daughter Salanik walked by, wearing a black Banana Republic turtleneck and tan pants, jarring him back to the only home his children have ever known. But it will never quite be his — not after September 11, or the infighting of Fremont’s Afghan émigrés. It may never again be too comfortable for Waheed, not when his thoughts linger on Afghanistan. “It’s very difficult to be honest,” he says. “My home is here and there. I’ve tuned myself to have two homes.”
Now that Waheed has returned to Kabul, he has updated his own childhood memories with the reality of life there today, and how much or little he can actually help his countrymen. “I’m trying not to be too sentimental about it,” he says. “You have to be realistic about your life and your situation. And do your best to help the country of your origin.”
Even if you live on the other side of the world. Even if you are just exorcising your ghosts.