Somewhere in Afghanistan, my friend is hiding

WEYBRIDGE WRITER DOUG Wilhelm, left, shares a meal with Afghan friends in Kapisa Province, northeast of Kabul, while working in Afghanistan in 2007. The Afghan friend on the right is now hiding from the Taliban while trying to secure a visa to the United States.

I’ve been emailing with a friend I once worked with, a musician who’s in hiding in Afghanistan. He helped me a lot, years ago when we worked together out of Kabul on a project, and now I don’t know how to help him at all. I’m not even sure it’s safe to share his name. At least I’d like to share the story.

In winter 2007 I was hired to spend a month in the country, which I had visited years before, to travel around, do interviews and write accounts of the impacts of a three-year project that was helping to build grassroots representation in the new Afghan government. The project, funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) and run by a Vermont-based contractor, had delivered staff salaries, training and other support to the elected representatives in the country’s 34 new Provincial Councils, which had been created after the fall of the Taliban in 2001.

After three years of helping the Provincial Councils around the country learn to do their work, the project was wrapping up and would not be extended. By 2007, the Bush Administration had largely narrowed its focus in Afghanistan to sustaining the heavy U.S. military presence there. In Kabul, I found, USAID worked entirely from behind heavily guarded walls — and those were low-key compared to the vast fortifications behind which the U.S. military was headquartered.

The musician I came to know was a professional sitar player; he was also a driver for the project I was writing about. Together we traveled all over, into eastern Afghanistan, up through the Hindu Kush mountains to the north, and to Herat in the far west; we only avoided the south, where the fighting with the Taliban was most intense. We spent a lot of time talking, and we became friends.

I was playing music locally here in Vermont, and my friend told me how it was in the Taliban time when music was forbidden. He had had to burn his instrument. If the Taliban caught you with a music cassette in your car, they would drag you out, beat you up and string up the unspooled tape on a pole as a warning to others.

At the time, I was struggling to write a novel based on experiences I’d had years before in Peshawar, the frontier city just over the Afghan border in Pakistan. Peshawar and Kabul share the Pashtun culture of Afghanistan’s largest ethnicity — the Taliban is a largely Pashtun movement — and talking with my friend about the musical side of the culture turned on a light for me. Music became a key piece of the story I was writing, a way for my American narrator to connect and make real friends. I wound up naming the musician character in my novel, “Street of Storytellers,” for my Afghan friend.

While he and I talked and traveled in a Toyota, sometimes the American military would go thundering by in its armored convoys. I know U.S. service members did reach out to Afghans in the countryside, and they did build roads, schools and hospitals, but I only saw the heavy convoys. My articles on building regional democracy, submitted to USAID, were never published anywhere — and that wasn’t a total surprise, as by then the U.S. seemed to have decided on a military solution that, as we now know, was never a solution at all.

I heard from my friend again the other day, as Kabul was falling. He was trying desperately to find the man who had directed our program. Like so many others, my friend needed an SIV, a Special Immigrant Visa that could get him and his family out of the country. I had no idea how to help, and he said nobody who had any clout answered his appeals. He was only a driver, and not linked to the military. He’s hiding, now.

For what it’s worth, I believe President Biden did the right thing in taking our military out of Afghanistan after 20 years. No foreign armed force since Alexander the Great has been able to subdue the Afghans, and we were never going to be any different. But it has been painful for so many here, who built friendships stronger than mine in Afghanistan, to watch the darkness of intolerance fall yet again over the fine and decent people we came to know and care about. Like so many others, I can only hope to stay in touch with my friend, and hope he finds a way to survive.

Editor’s note: Doug Wilhelm is a writer living in Weybridge.

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