When Kabul fell on Sunday my father went on live tv to congratulate the Taliban on their glorious victory. As I watched him praise the jihadists, my phone buzzed with panicked messages from friends who were terrified that Taliban fighters would kill them in their homes.
I was brought up to hate the West and everything it stood for. My grandfather, Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, was one of Afghanistan’s most prominent mujahideen. I’m a lecturer in politics at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul, specialising in conflict resolution.
I have friends who are journalists, activists and academics. I care about those who are now in hiding or scrambling through gunfire to board planes. Over the course of my life I have learned to shuttle between the two Afghanistans. Now they are staring at each other face to face and no one knows what the outcome will be.
During the 1980s my grandfather commanded thousands of fighters who had taken up arms against the Soviet Union when it occupied Afghanistan. Initially the cia supported his troops, but he still regarded the Americans as godless imperialists who oppressed Muslims.
As children, my brother and I pretended to be jihadists
My siblings and I grew up in Pakistan. As children, one of our favourite games was pretending to be jihadists: my sister played the role of our mother, thanking Allah when I told her my brother had been martyred in battle. We sang traditional Arabic songs of jihad from Bosnia and Palestine (“We shall wipe the shame their occupation has brought” and “Sarajevo calls, will you answer?”). Our school was funded by the Saudis and the teaching was rooted in Salafism, a traditionalist form of Islam. At home, our bookshelves held works by Abdullah Azzam, the ideological godfather of al-Qaeda, and jihadist training manuals. I remember reading books that included tips on how to pick a lock and make a bomb.
I was 11 when the 9/11 attacks happened, and, like most people around me, I celebrated them. We regarded the victims as enemies of the Muslim world. In the years that followed, my childish tribalism turned into something deeper and more personal. My grandfather fought against the American occupation of Afghanistan. Then my father was arrested at gunpoint in front of me and taken to one of the cia’s torture sites. We didn’t even know where he was being held until he was transferred to Bagram air base, north of Kabul, two years later.
During the six years that my father was incarcerated, my anger brewed. I watched jihadi videos of Western forces maltreating enemy combatants, and imagined what my father was going through. He was released in 2008, just after I turned 18. Soon afterwards, I slid a letter under his bedroom door asking permission to join the insurgency in Afghanistan. I was at university in Islamabad by then, studying computer science, and being exposed to new influences. I was afraid that if I didn’t go and fight right away, the flame of jihad that burned within me would die out.
A senior colleague used to call me rabarzadah, a derogatory word for the children of warlords
My father wouldn’t let me go. If I went, he said, he’d be sent straight back to prison. I think he was also afraid of losing me. If he hadn’t stopped me, I might have been one of the Taliban fighters marching on Kabul a few days ago.
My journey away from zealotry was a gradual one. At university – most people in my generation of mujahideen families went on to higher education – I met people from a range of Islamic sects for the first time. I joined the debating society and enjoyed the intellectual exercise of probing new ideas and having my own beliefs challenged.
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