A week before the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan in February
1989, I traveled there to report on the final days of the decade-long
Red Army occupation.
Trekking north of Jalalabad near the mountainous frontier regions
with Pakistan, I encountered a group of Arab Wahhabi on the outskirts
of an abandoned state-owned orange grove. These Muslim
fundamentalists who had come to help the mujahideen - or holy
warriors as Afghan guerrillas were known - to fight the anti-Soviet
jihad (holy war). They were manning hillside trenches overlooking
the Kabul-to-Pakistan highway. Overall, an estimated several
thousand fundamentalists had arrived from Saudi Arabia, Egypt,
Algeria, Sudan, and other Middle East countries during the latter
years of the Soviet-Afghan war.
The leader of this group - a young, arrogant Saudi - stepped
forward demanding in fluent English to know who I was and what I was
doing in Afghanistan. Wearing a military fatigue jacket and
billowing trousers, he was flanked by 20 fellow Arabs from various
countries armed with AK-74 assault rifles and rocket-propelled
It's crucial to retain face in Afghanistan. So for the benefit of
my Afghan companions, I deliberately turned to my interpreter and
spoke in English. Amused, my interpreter repeated my words - in
English: "I am a guest in this country just as you are." It was
important to show that, as a foreigner, this Arab had no business
demanding to know who I was.
To this he retorted: "This is our jihad, not yours. Afghanistan
does not want you. If I see you again, I'll kill you."
Throughout my years of reporting in Afghanistan, I'd been welcomed
with extraordinary hospitality. Whether in comfort or under fire, I
had shared tea, food, and water with numerous Afghan hosts, and even
slept in mosques - strictly forbidden today under the Islamic
extremism of Taliban rule - as guests of villagers struggling to
survive in war-torn Afghanistan. For me, it was hard to imagine
Afghans being any other way. So I was taken aback - as were the
Afghan guerrillas accompanying me - with the behavior of this tall,
As I later learned, he was a wealthy Saudi, a certain Osama bin
Laden - the alleged terrorist behind the bombings of US embassies
this month in Nairobi and Dar es Salaam.
I had little idea at the time that this man was a leading figure
among the Arabs who had come to fight the jihad in Afghanistan. But
I was aware that he and his men were in the process of constructing
several mountain redoubts in Nangrahar, Kunar, and Khost provinces
along the Pakistan border. They were also intent on imposing their
own extremist form of Islam on the country. Both he and other Arabi,
as these fundamentalists are called there, were using their abundant
funds to buy the support of growing numbers of Afghan guerrilla
commanders. It's a tactic Taliban forces used to help gain control
over 80 percent of the country.
To some relief workers and journalists, Arabi-backed fighters were
often referred to as the Gucci mujahideen because of their elaborate
weapons, vehicles, and Banana-Republic-style photo vests.
In addition, the Arabi were involved in a number of incidents
directed against Western journalists and relief workers, such as
beatings, kidnappings, and attacks on passing vehicles.
Sneering disdain for non-believers
Ignoring Mr. Laden's sneering disdain for kafirs (non-believers)
as he called me to my face, I pointed out that most Afghans seemed to
welcome Western journalists and relief workers. This included French
women doctors, many of whom had risked their lives to help Afghan
victims of war. I couldn't help adding that we had also been working
in Afghanistan long before the Arab brigades arrived.
"We'll leave if our Afghan friends no longer consider us their
guests, just as I'm sure you'll leave if they no longer consider you
their guests," I said. …