It was a rare moment in international diplomacy. Farid Ahmad Mazdak, the third most powerful official in a nation that has been at virtual war with the United States for more than a decade, had invited two American journalists to an informal Friday lunch in the sitting room of his Kabul apartment.
His flat, a fourth floor walk-up, was vintage Stalinism, one of dozens of cubic-drab apartment blocks erected by the Soviets in the 1970s to house the thousands of advisers and Red Army commanders who ran this remote, South Asian nation as an occupied satellite for more than a decade.
And, at 34, Mazdak’s political education was vintage Kremlin--Marx, Lenin and the world according to Moscow.
But at that extraordinary lunch--an Islamic holy day feast of kebabs, stuffed peppers and Pepsi-Cola--the subject was Hollywood and American movies.
“ ‘Rambo’ is the most popular here, no doubt about it,” Mazdak commented through an interpreter, to a chorus of agreement from the Afghan Foreign Ministry “guides” who must accompany Western journalists to such functions.
“Especially ‘Rambo III'--the one that takes place here in Afghanistan,” one guide chimed in. “It’s the one where Sylvester Stallone kills all the Russians and blows up their tanks. It’s a wonderful scene. Everyone here loves that one.”
As the encounter in Mazdak’s apartment suggests, perceptions of America are changing in Afghanistan despite 12 years of civil war in which billions of dollars in U.S. weaponry have been used trying to destroy the pro-Moscow government. Even in regime-held strongholds like Kabul, officials as well as ordinary people are increasingly looking not to Moscow but to America as their potential savior.
In dozens of interviews, Afghans ranging from teachers to pro-Soviet President Najibullah demonstrated a reservoir of goodwill and respect for the same Americans whose tax dollars continue to finance the moujahedeen rebel rockets that rain on the capital, killing scores of civilians each month.
“We are in favor of maintaining, ensuring, good relations with the United States as a great, civilized country of the world,” Najibullah told The Times, when asked the future of U.S.-Afghan relations. “The U.S. financial, cultural and technical assistance can help our people in the rehabilitation of our war-stricken land.
“Now, it depends only on how the United States of America reacts toward us.”
Throughout the interview, there was none of the fiery, anti-American rhetoric that once characterized Najibullah and his Homeland Party (formerly the People’s Democratic Party). If anything, there was only the highest respect for what the president called “America’s exalted values of democracy, freedom and human rights” and a major pitch for a new era of friendship based on the reforms he asserts are being made in his once-brutal regime.
In fact, much of the recent goodwill toward the United States in this fiercely independent mountain nation actually stems from its support for the regime’s enemy, the moujahedeen, whose guerrilla war forced the Soviet army to withdraw a 110,000-man occupation force after nearly a decade of intervention.
Most Afghans, even at the highest official levels, now despise the Soviets for abuses that included the carpet bombing of their villages in an effort to “save” them. And this new-found respect is embodied in the very image of Rambo, charging into Soviet military camps in the rugged Afghan countryside, taking on Soviet MI-24 attack helicopters with his bare hands and liberating the Afghans from the clutches of the superpower to the north.
For most Afghans, the new view of America is far less official than Najibullah’s and far more emotional. For some, it is an image predating the Soviet-backed Communist revolution that overthrew Afghanistan’s long-ruling monarchy--a friendship dating back to the “good days of the ‘60s,” when U.S. development aid flooded into Kabul, along with tens of thousands of freedom-seeking youth from Bakersfield to Boston who made Kabul a key destination on the Asian hippie trail.
For others, America is only an abstract--a distant land of peace where anything is possible under a concept called freedom that few Afghans actually can comprehend.
Four Star Gen. Mohammed Nabi Azimi, the regime’s deputy defense minister and commander of the Kabul garrison, for example, beamed when a visiting American journalist recently asked him whether he was tired of fighting after 12 years of battle.
“Are you inviting me to America for a rest?” asked the general, laughing and explaining through a translator that he speaks fluent Russian, after two years at a Soviet war college, but only a few words of English.
“Well, I’m happy to go. I have never seen the United States of America. But I love the people of America. I’d like to learn English to understand more. It’s a progressive country, and they have very kind people.”
Even those who criticize America for continuing to back a fundamentalist, Islamic rebellion against a secular regime that claims to have learned the errors of its Marxist ways sound more perplexed than angry.
Khairullah Dewalty is a case in point. The Kabul University agriculture professor was educated in the United States--he has a masters degree from the University of Wyoming and a doctorate from the University of Tennessee. Also, the building where he teaches in the heart of Kabul was designed by U.S. architects, built with U.S. aid money and initially staffed by American professors from the University of Nebraska.
Then, one morning late last month, a U.S.-financed cluster rocket slammed into the building during a morning break, killing four students and a professor.
“When I came here in 1965, this building was brand-new,” Dewalty recalled, as he and nearly a dozen of his U.S.-educated colleagues sat with two American journalists during a ceremony of mourning after the attack.
“When I came, I could not believe that one day there would be a funeral here. I believed there would be a huge conference of United Nations delegations sometime. Maybe there would be a meeting about horticulture here, maybe about economics, but I couldn’t believe this building would become a place for the ceremony of the death of young students from the arms of their mothers.”
As Dewalty’s eyes began to water, Prof. Mohammed Akbar Popal, a graduate of the University of Nebraska, picked up the conversation.
“We don’t blame the Americans for this rocket,” Popal said. “This happens when you fight war by proxy. We blame them for forgetting about Afghanistan and the Afghan people.
“I have a question for you. Did you hear on the Voice of America that four young students were killed here with their professor? No. But one American was killed in Germany, and the American airplanes came and bombed (Libya’s) Moammar Kadafi. You bring the king of Kuwait back to Kuwait, but nobody cares about these poor people in Afghanistan.
“The world has forgotten us. You Americans have forgotten us. You’ve all just forgotten your humanism. You’re not thinking about it. You’re just thinking about your own power.
“We don’t have food to eat. Our roads are destroyed. Our university, built by you, the Americans, is ruined. Please, don’t give them the rockets. Don’t give them the Scuds . . . don’t give them anything.”
As the tirade, fueled by the loss of their students and their friend, began to subside, the other professors began to apologize in unison.
“Look. Look. We like--no, we love--the American people. We love the American nation, and we are only so upset because we respect you so much,” said Baz Shirzad, an aging professor who earned his degree at UC Davis in the late 1960s. “Please, just tell all my old friends in America, in California, how hard the life is for us now. And please tell them to stop sending these rockets. It is time for the Afghans to solve things for themselves.”
But is such a solution possible in a nation so deeply riven that the rebels and the regime alike are divided hopelessly from within?
There was a pause, then Dewalty spoke.
“We, as Muslims, we trust God, and I hope He will help us,” the wiry, balding professor said, echoing the fatalistic response of most Afghans when asked if they have any hope for their future.
“But look at your own country. America had a Civil War, and who knew what would happen? Brother killed brother. So many died. Just look at America today. You are living proof that anything is possible, a living example for us.”
Fineman, The Times’ New Delhi bureau chief, was recently on assignment in Afghanistan.