Afghanistan, Eternal Heartbreak

Sadat urging Muslims to support the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan, almost a year before he was assassinated by the Islamists

Watching TV reports from Afghanistan feels like getting punched in the gut. Images of the Taliban taking over the entire country as women went into hiding and Afghan soldiers deserted en masse triggered something in me.

At first, it was just a big jumble of images and emotions. The World Trade Center towers falling on a clear September morning. Huge bombs exploding in the distant and imposing Afghan mountains. Soviet troops by the dozens riding their tanks through empty and burned Afghan villages.

Then emerged the image of Ragab, a kid I knew back in Egypt. He used to walk around spouting nonsense and dressed in short white pants, a budding beard, and the Gulfie-like white piece of cloth on his head. He fulminated about how our society was going straight to hell because we all became disbelieving “Kuffar”, how women were walking around “naked,” and how we all forgot about the “sacred duty” of Jihad. Ragab was the first person I ever heard mention Afghanistan. “No true Muslim would sit idle when the godless heathen atheist Soviets were killing innocent Muslims in Afghanistan!” he declared.

There were even cassettes (remember those great-grandfathers of iTunes?) circulating with firebrand preachers talking about “how the hour of holy war has come.” One of my neighbors, a veteran who had fought in the October war against Israel, sarcastically wondered: “So we’re supposed to go AGAIN into another war? We just came out of 20 years of wars against Israel. Now they want us to fight the Soviet Union?”

One day Ragab disappeared. I didn’t think much of it as I was only a kid, not really focused on politics, and Ragab wasn’t exactly my favorite person in the neighborhood. Only years later, after the US invaded Afghanistan, did I piece it all together. My cousin had sent me an old Egyptian TV clip of President Hosni Mubarak saying that anyone who wanted to go wage Jihad in Afghanistan could go. Whenever the TV showed US troops chasing Bin Laden in the Tora Bora caves, I would wonder if Ragab was there. He certainly never re-appeared.

So it seems that 40+ years after my old discussions with Ragab, Afghanistan is back to square one. Nothing changed… yet everything changed. That’s one reason it’s so painful to watch the news.

The truth is that we in the Muslim world owe Afghanistan big time. We all looked the other way as our rulers used Afghanistan to dump their problems far away. Only too late did we realize that this helped create a monster of Jihadism that came back much bigger and wilder to bite everyone in the ass. Egypt, Algeria, Iraq, Syria, Libya all have a painful story to tell and all of them have one place in common: Afghanistan.

Here in America also, there is a conversation to be had about how the Establishment bungled its way through Afghanistan for 20 years with little to show for it. In the end, despite all the lives and treasure spent on it, the bad guys came back, and everything came unglued in a few days.

So that’s what I’m feeling: pain spiked with guilt, doubled in my case as an Arab and as a Muslim American. And I look as my American-born daughters watch the TV footage of Afghan women and girls now left for the Taliban to oppress and dehumanize. What am I supposed to tell them?