Richard Reeves

To Die in Afghanistan

NEW YORK -- When President Bush said that except for Pearl Harbor, Americans had not taken casualties of war on our soil for 136 years, I found myself thinking of a conversation I had about that almost 20 years before, at the foot of a mountain pass in a place called Chitral on the Pakistan side of the Hindu Kush.

Along the Shani Bazaar, the main street of the village on the edge of the modern world -- it was closed off from the world by snows from December to June -- armed men carrying Kalishnikov submachine guns and old Lee Enfield rifles were coming through the pass from war on the Afghanistan side. Many of them were wearing turbans, but as many were wearing blue-gray synthetic fur hats taken from the bodies of Soviet soldiers they had killed.

It was 1983. The man with me was called Major Mulk, and his family had ruled this part of the mountains for centuries past, a wild part close to the place where Rudyard Kipling had set his story "The Man Who Would Be King." But Kipling had never seen it; the roads and trails were just too difficult for the newspaperman who wrote "Plain Tales of the Hills."

I asked Mulk if the Afghan mujihadeen, the fighters of the holy war, the men we walked among, men armed and trained by his country and mine to kill Russians, were a problem for Pakistanis. "No," he began, "not yet." 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."

Now my president and I know what he meant. We, the Americans, when we used the Afghan fighters and Muslims we recruited around the world and gave them enough help to defeat the Soviets, never conceived of the unintended consequences of that chapter, an important one, of the Cold War. Now it is the Cold War that seems very far away. The men who took down the World Trade Center, very close indeed to my house here in New York, were trained in the Afghan war or by men who fought there, Osama bin Laden among them.

The Taliban were another unintended consequence. After the Russians left in defeat, their empire crumbling, the mujihadeen began to use their weapons and training to kill each other in tribal and civil war, as they had for centuries. But now they had better weapons.

Pakistan, again with our help, thought it could realize an old dream of controlling Afghanistan, or at least neutralize its constant threat to create a new country of Pathans carved out on both sides of the Kush. They set up religious-military schools -- the word "taliban" means "religious scholars" -- and trained a new army to try to win over the whole place. And they did. The Taliban, a government recognized by almost no one but Pakistan, controls 90 percent of the country.

So now, as Mulk predicted and President Bush confirmed in the best speech he has ever made, the war is here, in Manhattan. And Pakistan is between rocks and hard places. "The Land of the Pure" -- the definition of "Pakistan" -- must try to satisfy the Americans it needs to survive as a country between Afghanistan and India, and satisfy, too, tens of millions of its own poor fundamentalists who support the ideas and deadly American-hating zeal of the Taliban.

In a way, Bush's speech was a cautious one. Presumably he knows it would be insanity to send ground troops into Afghanistan. He saw what happened to the Russians. And the British before them, as Kipling wrote:

"When you're wounded and left on Afghanistan's plains,

"And the women come out to cut up what remains,

"Just roll to your rifle and blow out your brains

"An' go to your Gawd like a soldier."

4520 Main St., Kansas City, Mo. 64111; (816) 932-6600

More like Richard Reeves