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Kabul Dispatch: Prep School

1. "The Mujahedin laid 260 anti-tank mines for Russian tanks. Out of that 180 mines exploded. Now find out how many mines are remaining."   
2. "15 Mujahedin attacked 100 Communists from one side. 17 Mujahedin attacked from the other side. Out of 100 Communists, 14 were arrested and 72 were killed. Find out: a) how many Mujahedin were involved in the attack and b) how many infidels fled."   
3. "Karim is a Mujahed. He had 5 magazines of AK bullets. Each magazine has 30 bullets. He fired 3 at the infidels and killed 50 infidels. Find: a) the average number of bullets used to kill an infidel and b) the number of remaining bullets. 

If you pick up a standard schoolbook in Kabul, whether from the mujahedin government of Burhanuddin Rabbani, or from the subsequent Taliban regime, these are the standard math problems you'll find. Instead of using apples or oranges to teach counting, the books use drawings of 1 Kalashnikov, 2 box cutters, 3 swords, 4 tank mines, 5 hand grenades. A box of 2 booby-trap mines multiplied by another of 4 booby-trap mines equals a drawing of a crowded box of 8 booby-trap mines. Learning the alphabet is equally jihadic. The letter t stands for tofang, or gun, in a book of basic Dari language. "Jowad brought a gun for a Mujahed," is the sample sentence. It also stands for Talib, as in, "Abulatif is a good Talib." Or there's the letter sh, for shamsher, sword: "Shakir waged jihad with a sword." Or the letter for a, with a soft sign over it, as in Israelis: "Israelis are enemies of Muslims." And zh for zhola, hail: "The Mujahedin are launching rockets like hail on the infidels."

For a country at war for the last two decades, these may have been useful lessons, matters of everyday practice. But they're also an indication of how deep Afghanistan's psychological wounds run. "The international community knows Afghanistan by only three things: Al Qaeda, mujahedin, and the Taliban. And three people: Osama bin Laden, Mullah Omar, and Ahmed Shah Massoud," a young Afghan man named Faisal, who works in his uncle's bookshop in Kabul, told me one night. He had hired a tutor for his sister's home education, but when he discovered the books her tutor was using, he postponed her lessons. Of course, he added, Massoud was a great Afghan hero. But, "I wish people would know there are real people living here with minds to think," and that they'd know what poetry and scholarship Afghanistan had brought into the world. Like the Persian Sufi poet Jalaluddin Rum Balkhi, from Balkh in the North; or Avicenna, the philosopher and physician known as the "Prince of Physicians," whose Canon of Medicine was a classic in Europe until the seventeenth century--and whom James Joyce cited as a source for Ulysses, particularly because he was vilified by Islamicists for his scientific heresies; or Abu Rayhan al-Biruni, an astrologer and scholar who discussed the Earth's rotation on its axis and the speed of light relative to the speed of sound in the eleventh century.

Faisal is not alone in his musings. "How do you recover from 12,000 intellectuals executed by the Communists in 1979," asked Shah Mohammed, an Afghan publisher and the owner of two of Kabul's best-known bookshops, "and six million Afghans [who] live abroad?" His stores are stacked with old manuscripts and selections from his collection of more than 8,000 titles of books on Afghanistan--the largest in the world. And he publishes many of his books in three quality papers: a cheap one so Afghans can afford them; an expensive one on imported paper; and a mid-priced, lightweight one for journalists and travelers.

Shah has suffered under every regime. Under the Communists, he watched as one bookstore after another shut down. "We'd had a relaxed life here, and this was our first experience of torture, so Afghans left one by one." Already an obsessive about books, he decided, against his mother's wishes, to leave his family's construction business and open a bookstore. "I made a lot of money," he said. Soon, however, the pro-Moscow minister of culture discovered a book of Mao's selected works in Persian and books about jihad in his store. They accused him of harboring imperialist literature and connections, and imprisoned him for a year. "But for me it was an enjoyable year. I read all the old, classic Persian texts. I was surrounded by people of all ideologies and we read and joked together for a year," he says. During the Rabbani years, when a thousand rockets rained down on the city, he constantly had to shut the shop. And you can see the result of Taliban rule in the blacked-out or missing covers on many of his books. "They banned my books. They arrested me. They arrested and tortured my brother. They raised the price of rent and taxes. But I said no, you can kill me, still I will keep open the shops for the university. And sometimes I bribed them."

Shah is one of the not-so-silent majority of Kabulis who insist that foreign powers must impose both peace and a negotiated settlement here, and that the return of King Zahir Shah will facilitate that process. But there's also a strong faction here who have lived out the equations and sentences in those schoolbooks. They are not only opposed to the return of the king, but also to anyone imposed on them, particularly by the United States. One of them is Sayed Zia, a Northern Alliance commander and the nephew of Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. Sayyaf, a Pashtun Islamic scholar and leader of one of the more radical Islamist movements, was embroiled in the factional fighting in Kabul that leveled much of the city in the early 1990s. Today he belongs to the rigid, older, graybeard faction of the Northern Alliance that supports Rabbani. During the years of jihad against the Russians, Sayyaf was funded by Saudi Arabia to promote Wahhabism, and helped recruit and house hundreds of Arab fighters in the 1980s. As a result, his nephew, Sayed Zia, spent many of his formative fighting years with some of the most infamous terrorists, including Osama bin Laden.

On a cold morning a few days ago, he welcomed some of us into his old base, which he and 16 other mujahedin reoccupied in the early hours of November 13, when the Northern Alliance entered Kabul. The old, blue-domed white building sits in a grove of pine trees on a slope behind the Inter-continental Hotel. It's largely destroyed, and Sayed Zia, a thin green-eyed man with a small beard and a bit of a lisp when he speaks English, said they're having problems with supplies. "Yesterday we had only potatoes to eat here," he said, wrapping himself in a heavy wool shawl. The morning he entered Kabul he ran into some of his old jihad friends. "We were down the street from the hotel and they fired a rocket at us," Sayed Zia recalled. His men killed one of the Arabs and captured the rest. "Two of them knew me from jihad and they said, `We are fighting the USA and now you are capturing us?' But I didn't respond."

Sayed Zia's silence may have reflected his ambivalence toward the United States. In the days of jihad, life was simple. And so, he said, was Osama bin Laden. "He was so simple he didn't have the courage to stand in front of people and speak. He was modest and kind and polite.... [H]e was one of our best friends. I slept with him for months." They shared a military base in Jaji, in Paktiya province near the Pakistani border, in the years before bin Laden took over the leadership of the Arab contingent. Sayed Zia recounted several instances in which bin Laden was encircled and under heavy bombardment by Russian forces for days on end: "I never saw such fearsome fighters," he said of the Arabs. "They would jump into the fighting five meters from the Russians while the Afghans all stayed behind." Sayed Zia grew wistful. He recalled what a skillful horseman Osama was, how he could jump on a running horse with no saddle. He recalled Osama's favorite weapon, a Kalakov, like a Kalashnikov but with smaller bullets, which Osama had picked off a Russian soldier he killed. "He was our best friend and at last he was killing us," he said. "If I saw him today I'd kill him because he killed our leader Massoud. But I don't want to kill just any Arab; they're simple ordinary people who've been told that infidels are in Afghanistan and you should go fight them."

In fact, it's true. Several Arab prisoners I've spoken to feel they were lured here under false pretenses, believing not only that they'd fight American soldiers but that the Afghans wanted them here. Sayed Zia laughed unabashedly as he told us about the array of Arab terrorists he counted among his close friends in the past, including Khalid, who with his brother and two nephews has been accused of blowing up the U.S. embassies in Africa. "I met him three years ago in Pakistan. He was nervous and shaving off his beard. He'd come from Dubai and had a British passport, posing as an Afghan refugee. I was trying to convince him not to be with the Taliban because they're selling our country. But he said they were the only ones who could impose sharia on all of Afghanistan and that we couldn't. And he said they needed to establish a party, a government, and a base in Afghanistan to fight the Americans and British."

We'd come to Sayed Zia hoping he could draw a portrait of Osama bin Laden from those early years. But what emerged after several hours of conversation was his anger at the United States for creating bin Laden and for now, again, trying to impose its will on Afghanistan. For now the voices of the young moderates in the Northern Alliance--which include Foreign Minister Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, Interior Minister Yunus Qanooni, and Defense Minister General Muhammad Fahim--are winning in Bonn. But the discontent of men like Sayed Zia, and especially his uncle, the powerful radical party leader Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, will prove dangerous.

"The Americans created bin Laden and the Taliban to destroy us," he said, speaking about the early years of the Taliban. "But instead God intervened and Osama killed 6,000 Americans.... Now the USA wants to bring King Zahir Shah. But what's he doing here? He's an expired man like you read on your medicine. It's our right to make a government for ourselves. We fought for twenty-three years. We've had two million Afghan victims martyred and now the people bought by the Americans are coming here. The USA wants to kill us with expired medicine but we will go back to the mountains. We know how to fight the USA. The Taliban were foolish and didn't know how."

This article originally ran in the December 17, 2001, issue of the magazine.