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The Punch Line to a Parable

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In my room the darkness is thick as tar. My fingers can’t find a lock on the door. I am groping when the door cracks forward with a grunt of Pashto. I can’t see the Afghan man but I push at him, throw my arms into the darkness and find flesh, drive him back. His cries are pure sound to me. I don’t care. After Zaman at my bedside and reporters dead on the road, this man cannot stay. Our American and Afghan words mean nothing when they hit the other ear. We are stripped of all understanding, battling in the blackness. I shove him into the hall and force the door closed against the last pieces of him, a kicking foot, a grasping arm. Later on, I realize he was probably the sweet-faced cleaning man who shuffled like a kicked stray through the corridors at night. Later I laugh, a little embarrassed. But on this night, I have vanquished. I lean limp against the door of my stinking little cave, conqueror of misunderstood forces.


It’s one of the world’s oldest logic problems, folding in on itself like an Escher sketch. If he’s telling the truth, he’s lying. If he’s lying, he’s telling the truth.

Back in Pakistan, before I crossed over into Afghanistan, somebody said to me: “Every man in this village is a liar.” It was the punch line to a parable, the tale of an ancient Greek traveler who plods into a foreign village and is greeted with those words. It is a twist on the Epimenides paradox, named after the Cretan philosopher who declared, “All Cretans are liars.” It’s one of the world’s oldest logic problems, folding in on itself like an Escher sketch. If he’s telling the truth, he’s lying. If he’s lying, he’s telling the truth.


That was Afghanistan after September 11.


You meet a man, and his story doesn’t sound right. You stare at him and your brain is chewing away, and out of the corner of your eye something bizarre and fantastic trails past— a pair of mujahideen with their fingers intertwined, plastic flowers glowing in black hair, winking and fluttering with the kohl-rimmed eyes of two besotted lovers. And you can’t help but look, but then all you can do is watch these strange peacocks, stunned by the magenta homoeroticism of this dry, pious land. By the time you peel your attention back and stop your thoughts from whirling, the man you were trying to weigh out is long gone. Afghanistan was meaning washed away in floods of color, in drugs, guns, sexual ambiguity, and Islam.


I met a young man who spoke Arabic and English, which was rare and fancy for provincial Afghanistan. He had worked for bin Laden, and I was certain his sympathies lay with the Taliban, with Al Qaeda. We sat together and had long interviews. Later I found out he worked for the CIA. They gave him a satellite phone, and he was calling in coordinates for bombing targets.


Maybe that’s why nobody believed the warlords when they kept saying that Osama bin Laden was hiding in Tora Bora. A pity, because it was true: Osama bin Laden packed his bags and fled into the mountain redoubt near Jalalabad after September 11. The caves were his last stop before he lost his substance and melted into the world’s most famous phantom. Catching bin Laden was the first important thing the United States set out to do after September 11. The job was bungled so thoroughly that the war never really found its compass again. Here in eastern Afghanistan, the Americans would begin to lose the plot.


Those days were deep with dimensions; conflicting things happened at the same time, on top of one another. Kabul had fallen to the Northern Alliance, but in the east, the war pounded on. The Afghans who’d opposed the Taliban were in a renaissance, and neck deep in the swirl of their ancient clan rivalries. The warlords plotted tribal revenge, scrapped for control of the heroin trade, lined their pockets and trolled for power. They tossed enemies into moldy jail cells, and sold them to the Americans who were rounding up jihadis. If you asked them why, they’d smile in chilling self-satisfaction and say, “He’s a terrorist.” Maybe it was true, and maybe it wasn’t, but the days were slipping away too quickly for anybody to quibble.


Jalalabad had been a headquarters for Al Qaeda, home to a training camp and vast housing complexes built by the influx of Saudis, Kuwaitis, Chechens—“Arabs,” resentful locals called the rich Al Qaeda members who had taken up residence in sequestered communities. Osama bin Laden, with his wives and children, called Jalalabad home years before September 11. Now he huddled a few hours’ drive away in Tora Bora, the masterfully defensible cave complex built with CIA money back when America was fighting the Communists instead of the terrorists. U.S. warplanes hammered the mountains, but their intelligence was coming from Afghans who manipulated the firepower to suit their own interests.


I learned to count the fighter jets that passed overhead in my sleep. There were no other airplanes in the Afghan skies; there was only the war. When thin dawn light creaked into the room, I’d know that three warplanes had passed. I woke up knowing, and remembering nothing.
I have this memory, clear as glass: Sunset spilled all over the horizon. In the velvet grass below the hotel terrace, the drivers were bent on their prayer rugs, the guerrillas paced in the gravel, the palms and pines deepened in the dying light. Then a B-52 sliced a white gash into the sky. All of the reporters and translators and soldiers stood still, stared at the heavens, and waited to see where the bombs would fall. The planes thundered past every day, but for some reason on that day we stood there in collective awe. Maybe everybody had forgotten about the war for a minute, and then it was there again.


One day, Zaman’s men brought the bodies of eight dead guerrilla soldiers down from the mountains and laid them out on the hospital floor. Then he herded in a great swarm of reporters to gape and snap photographs. He stalked over the dead, face twisted with rage, railing about the bombings. The Americans were killing peasants loyal to him, and now his mujahideen. They must be using old maps, he thundered. Who is telling them where to bomb? Do these look like Al Qaeda to you?


The dead men were skinny, all of them, muddy and ragged. One man’s face had been blown off. Another lay with the back of his head gone, his brains leaking. Filtered sunlight spilled onto the floor; the smell of death was heavy. An American reporter fell on the ground and lay there crying. I looked at her, and at the corpses. Intellectually, I knew that her reaction was appropriate, but I felt disgusted by her weakness. Staring down at the bodies, I felt numb, light, as if my own body might vaporize, as if I didn’t need to breathe.


The dying were worse than the dead. They came down from the hills in rattling caravans, slow as torture over bone-cracking roads of mud and rock, bleeding all over the backseats of rattletrap cars. Three hours, four hours, bright red lives seeping away.


They wound up in the dim wards of Jalalabad’s filthy hospital. There weren’t enough antibiotics or antiseptics. Little girls who wouldn’t live through the night were stacked two to a cot, covered in blood. A baby with its head caked in scab and pus and one eye full of blood cried in the listless arms of a young, young girl. A little boy who had lost his arms, his eyesight, and his family lay motionless in the hot afternoon. The rooms smelled of sweat and infection; flies and woolen blankets. All of it coming down from those American planes.


We drifted out of the hospital. In the car I tasted metal. After a long time, Brian spoke.


“That was pretty bad.” He cleared his throat.


“Yeah.”


We looked out the window, and the driver turned up the music. The sunlight and the dust were gilding everything to silver. The spindly dome of trees cupped the road, bicycle spokes flickered and goats plodded in the blue fog of exhaust. Afghans were rushing home from the market, arms loaded with fresh meat and vegetables to break the Ramadan fast. The hotel room was dark and cold. I opened a pad of paper and tried to make some notes. This is what I wrote:


I didn’t mean to really see these things. I didn’t know how it would be. Late one night, bombs fell on the village of Kama Ado, a tiny, isolated hamlet of mud houses. I interviewed people who were hauled from the wreckage. I wrote a story about it. I fell asleep.


By morning, my story wasn’t the same. Instead of leading with the news of the crushed village, the top of the story had Pentagon officials denying reports of the bombing. The first voice in the article was no longer that of an Afghan victim. Instead, it was a Pentagon official who said: “This is a false story.”


Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the same: “If we cannot know for certain how many people were killed in lower Manhattan, where we have full access to the site, thousands of reporters, investigators, rescue workers combing the wreckage, and no enemy propaganda to confuse the situation, one ought to be sensitive to how difficult it is to know with certainty, in real time, what may have happened in any given situation in Afghanistan, where we lack access and we’re dealing with world class liars.”


I read it once. I read it twice. Were we to believe the village had spontaneously collapsed while U.S. warplanes circled overhead?


Jalalabad slipped out of the Taliban’s hold as easy as a boiled tomato loses its skin. No bloodshed, just a lot of abandoned buildings and cars, ripe for the grabbing by guerrillas who rushed down from the mountains. The mujahideen swarmed the streets, dirty children run amok in an empty house. They were old and weary, or young and wild; the middle-aged men were mostly dead. Mujahideen is Arabic for “strugglers,” but it’s understood to mean “holy warriors.” In Afghanistan, they are the men with guns, the ones who sleep where they lie and fight for their tribal patriarchs in a senseless string of conflicts.


Stoned on hash and hopped up on war, draped in ragged smocks and blankets, the young mujahideen lingered on every corner, fired into the night skies to hear the guns scream in the empty streets. They imposed curfews, lit bonfires in the middle of the roads, and lorded it over the city until sunrise. They beat people to feel powerful, to watch the peasants scamper away from their clubs in the bazaar.

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