McCain's Afghanistan: Macabre Visions Through The Eyes of an Ex-President

07/04/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

On a gauzy dawn, while biking against dust and wind I was brought to a halt at a traffic island in Kabul, surrounded by a swelling crowd chanting "God is Great", "In hell lies Najib." Silently staring me down from the light post above was a pair of half-opened eyes -- the whites visible through the brown of clotted blood caked around them.
Hours later the BBC Dari service confirmed the fall of Kabul to Taliban militias who celebrated their victory with the public hanging of Najibullah, Afghanistan's last communist president, in Ariana Square.

Senator McCain, the Republican Presidential nominee, is old enough to remember when Dr. Najib was president of Afghanistan. What McCain might not remember or know is that before Dr. Najib became President, back in his days as the Director of KHAD (Afghan KGB -Communist Secret Police) - he and his Soviet patrons gave few of their war prisoners, if any, the chance to live, let alone run for president in Afghanistan's elections today.
In a sense, McCain is a lucky man that he was not captured by Soviet proxies in Afghanistan as he was in Vietnam. America withdrew from Vietnam - perhaps under unfavorable conditions - but the American flag is still waving at the UN Headquarters in New York. The Soviets also withdrew from their own Vietnam -- Afghanistan -- but so drained and devastated, that today no such flag flies for a country once called the Union of Socialist Soviet Republics (USSR).

One might expect the Republican Presidential Nominee to be more vocal on Afghanistan for personal, national as well as presidential reasons - but for McCain, Afghanistan seems to be a chapter closed with a happy ending. McCain's references to Afghanistan at best bring one to the footnotes or a quick epilogue of his main thesis: The War in Iraq - "an unnecessary war" according to President Bush's former press secretary Scott McClellan. But the Republican Senator insists on staying in the wrong war in the wrong place at the wrong time. Clearly, McCain's road to the White House goes through Baghdad.

A few days ago, bestselling author Ahmad Rashid of Taliban (a de facto Afghanistan manual for US soldiers), presenting his new book Descent into Chaos at the Asia Society in New York drove the point home: "McCain has absolutely said nothing about Afghanistan."
Rashid's point is well taken, but McCain will not bite the hand that feeds him. Therefore, he continues to subscribe to the Bush Administration's version of a fairytale Afghan-land where First Lady Laura Bush travels, Henry and Jena Bush might have honeymooned, and in short an Afghanistan that stands out as the beacon of President Bush's achievements in the "War on Terror."

Albeit the most recent headlines from real Afghanistan speak to the contrary: "Afghanistan foreign troop deaths in June exceed those in Iraq" (CNN), "Afghanistan Now Most Dangerous for U.S. Troops" (ABC News), "Desperate hunt for 1100 who fled Afghan jail in Taliban raid" (AFP), "US general: Taliban attacks up 40 percent" (AFP), "Afghanistan: Body of Cpl Sarah Bryant returns home" (Telegraph-UK), "Three U.S.-led soldiers and Afghan interpreter killed" (Reuters) etc etc. These headlines are hard to dismiss as déjà vu propaganda from the liberal media.

I would invite McCain to make an announced trip to Afghanistan and appear publicly in Kabul or any city 20 miles South, West or East of the capital (unlike the First Lady who visited Bamiyan province- home to peaceful Shiite Hazara minority).
I would have to do a very Un-Afghan thing, however, and bow out from sitting in the audience or helping with translation; a service I readily provided for several American journalists and dignitaries in 2002, including a blonde American journalist from the Washington Post traveling to the presently off-limit provinces of Helmand and Kandahar.

The reason for my being inhospitable would be that as opposed to 2002 when I could guarantee the safety of an easily recognizable American journalist, this year (2008) I cannot guarantee my own safety. Just a few months ago while in Kabul, a breaking news alert interrupted the vivace music playing on my car's FM radio: "Taliban fighters attack Kabul's Serena Hotel".
Karzai's Presidential Palace stood between my car and the scene of the attack. Taliban fighters could strike at the heart of Kabul, storming the only Five Star Hotel in a fatal but failed attempt to kidnap the visiting Norwegian Foreign Minister.

Unlike McCain, who keeps recycling President Bush's bravado of catching "Bin Laden dead or alive", Senator Obama, to his credit, has articulated a clear Afghanistan strategy which includes frequent substantive references to Afghanistan, a projected commitment of additional non-military resources, increased training and equipping of the Afghan Army and Police, and a tougher stance on Pakistan. All this to say that an Obama is more likely to catch an Osama, than a McCain.

In the interest of disclosure, I am not writing under the influence of homegrown 'Obamamania' gone global. By any metric, while McCain has tied his fate to the War in Iraq, Obama has been more vocal and sober recognizing Afghanistan as the "central front in the war against Al Qaeda". This is perhaps why the people of Afghanistan overwhelmingly want to see Obama (69%) as the next US president according to a survey by The Senlis Council.

Not that it needs reminding - but it all started from Afghanistan and all will possibly end in Afghanistan. The raison d'être of a "War on Terror", regardless of what it means, goes back to the well-defined, American-backed war of Afghans against the Soviet occupation and their protégés like Dr. Najib, the Director of KHAD.

To be fair, the zeitgeist of Dr. Najib's presidency captures the image of a man transformed: a mature and pragmatic politician praying and eating publicly with tribal elders and religious scholars, cracking jokes on TV & sharing his prophetic dreams in speeches, offering amnesty and appealing for peace and reconciliation with the anti-government rebels.

During his years as a president, he had effectively erased his persona as a diehard communist ideologue who tortured prisoners at will in favor of the seemingly reformed Najib. It was perhaps this shrewdness that ensured he could live for another four years in the sanctuary of his UN Kabul compound after the Mujahideen rebels (mainly Northern Alliance) deposed his government in 1992.

Hours before Kabul fell to the Taliban in that fateful windy morning of September 1996, Northern Alliance Commander Massoud, in a gallant gesture implicit to traditional Afghans (kaaka-ghi), offered safe passage to his former foe, Dr. Najib, with his retreating forces.

For all his experience, Dr. Najib made one last fatal mistake, when trusting the right person at the right time might have saved his life: He chose to stay. His was a judgment mistake.