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The Tyranny of Dreams: A Memorial

Four years ago today, my friend the great Afghan patriot and guerrilla leader Abdul Haq was tortured and executed at a secret Al Queda military installation just south of the capital, Kabul.

Like his comrade in arms, the legendary resistance leader Ahmed Shah Massoud (who was murdered by Al Queda only two days before the September 11 attacks in New York and Washington), Abdul Haq represented the best of a proud people who had been broken by a quarter century of war that turned one of every three Afghans into a refugee or a corpse.

In my 27 years as a journalist, I have had the privilege of meeting a few national leaders. I've had tea with Deng Xiaoping, coffee with the former Iranian president and democratic leader Abolhassan Bani-Sadr, wine with the Kurdish rebel leader (and current president of Iraq) Jalal Talabani, and coconut milk with Ieng Sary, the foreign minister of the maniacal Khmer Rouge government of Pol Pot.

But in the years since Abdul Haq was murdered, I have often wondered at the unique moral and emotional hold that he has continued to have over me. Why is it that some men and women seem to be able to rise above the petty self-interested fears that afflict all of us, and go on to become popular leaders capable of bringing out the best in their people and their nation?

The World War 2 journalist and secret agent for the OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) Louis Huot put it well, I think, when after parachuting into Nazi-occupied Yugoslavia, he described his first meeting with the communist resistance leader Tito:

"Here was no simple warrior, no primitive leader of fighting men. Thinker, statesman, artist ... he appeared to be all these, and soldier as well. There was a light in his face that glowed -- a light that comes only from long service in the tyranny of dreams."

Abdul Haq, too, served many years in the tyranny of his dream of a free and democratic Afghanistan. As a teenager, he joined the student movement against the growing Soviet presence in his country. Then, after the USSR invaded Afghanistan in full force in December of 1979, he picked up his gun -- a 1903 British Enfield rifle left over from the last failed British invasion of his country -- and rallied his fellow Pashtuns to fight for their freedom. His exploits were legendary, especially against the heavily-fortified Soviet garrisons in and around Kabul. Indeed, he gained worldwide attention when he blew up a massive Soviet ammunition depot in the city.

His acclaim, of course, soon brought Abdul Haq to the attention of the CIA. But although like other guerrilla leaders of the Cold War era, he was happy to accept aid from wherever it could be obtained, he was no puppet of American intelligence. Indeed, the CIA described Abdul Haq as "unruly and immature" -- spook-speak for putting the interests of his own people ahead of Washington's geo-political game-playing.

Indeed, Abdul Haq was publicly critical of the U.S. bombing campaign that followed the 9/11 attacks, even though his own beloved wife and 11-year-old son had been assassinated by a Taliban/Al Queda hit squad just two years before. Instead, he urged Washington to rely on the patriotic Afghan resistance to topple the Taliban, as in fact it eventually did.

Perhaps that's why, when Abdul Haq led a small 20-man unarmed force into Afghanistan to rally the tribes against the rump Taliban/Al Queda regime, the CIA left him twisting slowly in the wind when he was betrayed by Jihadist elements within the Pakistani secret service. Surrounded by an elite Al Queda strike force, he was captured, tortured and executed the next day.

I will always remember Abdul Haq as a big teddy-bear of a man, gentle at heart and with a song always on his lips in the great tradition of the 17th century Afghan warrior poet Khoshal Khan Kattak.

My fondest memory of him was the night he made dinner for me and a woman I was seeing in his walled compound in Peshawar, Pakistan, which then served as the rear-area base camp for the anti-Soviet resistance. After the meal was finished and shots of whiskey passed around, we watched a few home movies his men had shot of their attacks on Soviet installations near Kabul. There was Abdul Haq, of course, clearly visible in all the mayhem and smoke hopping around on one leg -- he had lost the lower part of his other leg to a Soviet land mine -- literally laughing in the face of death as he fired his Kalashnikov.

Finally, when the movies were over, he pulled from his satchel a small jar of Nivea hand cream and rubbed some onto his hands and face. Noticing our amusement, he offered: "It is a small pleasure, not important." Then, with a mischievous smile, he added: "You know, we Afghans have a saying ..."

To which I rolled my eyes, for I knew what was coming. Abdul Haq, as I knew, was a great practitioner of the art of the landay, those often-bawdy Afghan couplets that have a first line of nine syllables and a second line of thirteen.

With a twinkle in his eye for my woman friend, Abdul waxed poetic:

"Give me only two things, then let the Russians come.

A gun that won’t jam, and a girl who will love."

My friend laughed in delight. For my part, I tried to rescue her romantic interest in me by reciting one of the very few landay that I knew:

"Your face is a rose, your eyes candles.

Faith, I am lost! Should I become a butterfly or a moth?"

She laughed and applauded my effort, as did Abdul Haq. "Not bad ... not bad at all," he offered. My woman friend, meanwhile, was clearly waiting for Abdul's riposte. He did not disappoint her. Giving her a flirtatious wink, he sighed:

"Call it romance, call it love.

Whatever. Pull up the blanket now and let's go to sleep."

She blushed, and we all laughed.

I always considered it a great honor to be bested by the gentle Afghan warrior poet Abdul Haq.


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Thanks, David. That was wonderful to read.

Thank you, David, for bringing him to life for us. Vivid, and heartbreaking.

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