The eyes, they were the most telling. Deep within them you could see madness -- quiet, unadulterated madness. Not a chaotic, irrational lunacy but something deeper, harder, blacker than that. It was a madness born of fanaticism; a madness devoid of emotion.
I was in a hotel room in Kuwait City in the spring of 1997, surrounded by young Kuwaitis and a handful of older locals who opposed what they considered the decadence of Sheik Jabir al-Ahmad al-Jabir al-Sabah, the emir of Kuwait. They looked normal in their immaculate dishdashas (robes), but the madness emanated from their visitors. These were five young men, each with a scraggly beard and wearing either a solid black or solid white turban reminiscent of Iran's febrile Ayatollah Khomeini. They were leaders of the Taliban of Afghanistan, a sect of fanatical Muslims waging a guerrilla war for control of that country. These were fund-raisers, eager to fill their coffers from oil-rich Kuwaitis.
My elementary Arabic was supplemented by almost simultaneous translation from my Kuwaiti host as a Taliban leader said, "The Holy Koran demands the jihad -- holy war -- and it is the responsibility of Muslims everywhere to serve by fighting and by giving their money. Remember that one of the pillars of Islam is tithing. Our country has fought the infidels for hundreds of years and it costs much. We need your help."
The first thought that crossed my mind was, "How did I get here?" It had started out as just something to do in an otherwise boring place. Kuwait is long on restaurants and beaches and very short on entertainment. Western movies often are cut so deeply by Islamic censors that the entire plot is lost. I think the censored version of Basic Instinct lasted 15 minutes. But I was working there for an American nonprofit and a Kuwaiti friend, prominent in local politics and a political commentator, had invited me to this Taliban fund-raiser at one of Kuwait City's hundreds of nondescript hotels. More modern digs wouldn't have matched the Taliban's severe demeanor. In any case, the affair seemed to offer a better-than-average evening out in Kuwait.
Dripping with naivete, I didn't know much about the Taliban, but their crusade to take over Afghanistan was making something of a splash and I thought it might be interesting.
Certainly I knew that the Taliban were among the most fundamentalist of Muslims, and I was told that in Pashtu the word "taliban" means student. These Taliban were students of the most strict interpretation of the Koran.
A young man I recognized from Kuwait University met us at the door. He eyed me gravely, but since I was with a prominent member of Kuwait Hezbollah I was admitted, though not without causing every one of the 25 or so heads in the room to turn.
The reference to Kuwait Hezbollah deserves further explanation. As early as 1997, U.S. intelligence agencies in Kuwait were monitoring the activities of a group of men considered to be leaders of that group. Among them were Hassan Johar, an outspoken critic of the United States and a former member of the Kuwaiti Parliament, and Abdulmohsen Jamal, a current member of Parliament and a respected newspaper columnist given high marks by the U.S. Information Agency but considered by U.S. intelligence to be Kuwait Hezbollah's "political conscience" whatever that may mean.
I knew Jamal well, having been his English tutor for some time. One of his requests was that I better prepare him to debate Iraqi officials in English on the BBC, and so we had discussed politics, Islam, Afghanistan, Iraq and a myriad of other topics. We often ate dinner together at Iranian restaurants, as Johar and Jamal (and most of Kuwait Hezbollah as I later learned) were Kuwaitis of Iranian heritage.
I found Jamal a charming conversationalist with an inquisitive mind, but he had an obvious bias in favor of the Taliban and the Iranians. He seemed a peaceful enough man and took pains to make clear that he was committed to negotiation and regarded war as folly. …