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Insights: Politics

As the World Turns Americans, including our leaders, need to wake up to peoples and countries outside our borders
Richard Reeves
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Spacey, Jan/Feb 02

"The first thing we have to do is learn how to pronounce these names," said Charlie Rose, who is about the best thing we have on television these days. The names of places like Kabul and Peshawar and men like Burhanuddin Rabbani and Pervez Musharraf did not seem to roll easily off the tongues of the panel of pundits Rose had assembled one night to explain what television likes to call America's new war in South and Central Asia.

I wondered if he was kidding. But listening to my fellow talking heads, I realized Charlie was serious. PESH-a-war as in "mesh" and "car" seemed to be the preferred pronunciation for the North-West Frontier Province city that Pakistanis call Pe-SHOWER. Then, four weeks into the war, there was our secretary of state's references to Ka-BOOL, the capital of Afghanistan. It's actually plain old "Cobble."

I knew how to pronounce the words, and so was in small vogue on television, because I once lived in Pakistan and even wrote a book called Passage to Peshawar. That was in the early 1980s. I was there (and back many times over the years) because my wife, Catherine O'Neill, the founder of the Women's Commission for Women and Children Refugees, was working in the refugee camps outside Peshawar.

In that book, I told a story that took place in Chitral, a village on the Pakistan side of the Hindu Kush, the mountain range between Pakistan and Afghanistan. The place is not far from the lands of the Kalash Kafir, the "black infidels," where Rudyard Kipling had set his tale The Man Who Would Be King, though he had never been able to reach the place himself. The land is too rugged and is closed off from the world by snows from December to June.

One day in 1983, I was standing at the head of the Shani Bazaar, the main street of the village, watching men armed with Kalishnikov submachine guns and old Lee Enfield rifles coming through a mountain pass from the Afghanistan side, where war was raging against the Soviet Union. Many of them wore turbans, but just as many wore blue-gray synthetic fur hats taken from the bodies of Red Army soldiers they had killed. I was with a man who called himself Major Mulk, whose family had ruled this part of the mountains for centuries, since polo was invented here, or so they say. Their version, they told me, was played with the heads of defeated invaders.

I asked Mulk if the Afghan mujahideen, the fighters of the holy war, men armed and trained by his country and mine to kill Russians, were a problem for Pakistanis. "No, not yet," he said. Then he continued: "The government of Pakistan spent a long time persuading the people of Chitral to give up their guns, and finally they did. Now the Afghans come with guns. But no, it is not a problem. Not yet, because they are looking that way."

He pointed toward Afghanistan. Then he dropped his arm and said: "It's all very far away from you in America, isn't it?" I didn't answer and he continued: "But it is not as far as you think."

He was right, of course. Eighteen years later they were in my village, Manhattan.

In those years, with nearly 3 million Afghan refugees in Pakistan, men with money and a militant religious agenda had set up 15,000 madrassas, small religious schools where boy refugees were trained for jihad. One million fighters, their room, board and brainwashing paid for by zealous Saudi Arabians and, also, by American money channeled through the mosques and intelligence services of Pakistan.

Then there came a day when some of them decided to come and kill us.


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