The Spark

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.” — Karl Marx

Book review:
Come back to Afghanistan by Said Hyder Akbar (with Susan Burton)

Sep 18, 2006

This book reveals the daily reality of war in Afghanistan through the eyes of an American teenager who spends three summers there in 2002, 2003 and 2004.

Said Hyder Akbar, who grew up in affluent suburban California, had never been to Afghanistan. His Afghan parents emigrated to the U.S. in the mid-1980s, when Hyder was two years old. As a young boy, he heard stories about Afghanistan, provoking his curiosity.

After 9/11, his father sold his clothing store and returned to Afghanistan to participate in the new government. Hyder felt drawn to investigate Afghanistan for himself and check out his family’s roots.

Even with all the scholarly books and National Geographics he had read, Hyder was totally unprepared for the primitive conditions of war-torn Afghanistan, beginning with his arrival at Kabul International Airport, a “dump” with destroyed planes strewn over airfields.

Attending the Loya Jirga, the Grand Council where hundreds of representatives gathered in Kabul to vote for president, Hyder gets his first glimpse into the 20 ethnic groupings and tribal divisions and loyalties of the Afghan people. He observes respected Elders; corrupt warlords with ties to the opium trade and lumber smuggling, maneuvering for power over their domains; and delegates who speak against warlords, removed from the Jirga and jailed for hours at a time. He begins to see through Hamid Karzai, who, as a political colleague and friend of his father, he had always idolized. He is disappointed when Karzai, immediately upon being elected president, allows an established warlord to cozy up to him. Hyder feels contempt for “warlords, power brokers and politicians who trailed Karzai like groupies.”

Hyder becomes increasingly aware of the role of women only after the first summer when his mother is furious that with all his video-taping, he hardly covered women. Jolted by her anger, he recalls the 160 women delegates at the Loya Jirga, some outspoken, reminding other delegates that “the Taliban were not the only ones to commit atrocities against girls and women.”

In the summer of 2003, Hyder’s father is appointed governor of Kunar, a rural province in “a remote tribal area with scant electricity, ample rocket fire and with no paved roads.” Gone are the comforts of relatively modern Kabul. En route, Hyder views Khas Kunar, a beautiful landscape of mountain ranges, “a green blue vast open plain and silver river.”

We see the people of Kunar come to terms with their historical past with the 1979-89 Soviet invasion. These poor farmers, living in mud brick huts next to their cows and chickens, insist that the new governor visit the village of Kerala, pointing out mounds of earth-graves where 1,000 local men were massacred by the Russians and Afghan government tied to them. Some villagers were buried alive as punishment for fighting in the resistance as mujahadeen.

Hyder confronts the current justice system when he and his father visit the local jail, responding to a request from the prisoners. The 13 men complain about filthy conditions and ask why they’re in prison. It turns out these supposed Al Qaeda members are “impoverished Pashtun day laborers who crossed the border looking for work, and were jailed simply because they carry Pakistani ID cards.”

In Kunar, a volatile province with a history of tribal feuds (too many tribes for Hyder to name) and daily rocket attacks, Hyder starts to question: Who’s the enemy? Who are the terrorists? What’s really Al Qaeda?

The most disturbing part of the book is Hyder’s involvement with a young, terrified Afghan, Abdul Wali, whom the Americans accuse of being a terrorist. He claims innocence. The U.S. military decides to “capture” him, forcing him to go to the U.S. base in Kunar for questioning. Hyder’s naivete is revealed when his father assures the trembling man that American interrogators will be fair as long as he tells the truth. Hyder, sensitive to Wali’s fear, volunteers to go with him and help translate. But Hyder stops translating as he becomes un-nerved by the interrogator’s escalating aggressiveness. Hyder and his father are puzzled when later they find out Wali died. Not until a year later, with Abu Ghraib, do they come to grips with the reality that he was probably tortured to death by the U.S. interrogator.

In the summer of 2004 Hyder is asking questions faster than finding answers about the purpose of U.S. involvement. It angers him that the U.S. spends a billion dollars a month on the war on terror; yet makes excuses for not meeting Kunar villagers’ repeated requests for a simple bridge or for a few miles of paved road.

Hyder rankles each time Bush declares Afghanistan a “success.” He is revolted when Bush uses the 2004 Afghan election for his personal agenda during the U.S. presidential election, proclaiming the Afghan elections as a “symbol of American success. Hyder asks how can Afghanistan be a success with life expectancy 42 years; when only one out of three Afghans is able to read; that even today “in public, most women still shield themselves with burkas.” He sees that the people are “desperately poor, at the mercy of warlords, terrorists, opium, the country’s carnivorous neighbors.”

The book ends in early 2005 without firm conclusions; rather sticky questioning and distrust of U.S. policies; and a deep conviction that Afghan common people are fed up with war and have the capability to build a better country.