It takes a toll on the imagination to place Haron Amin in Afghanistan's Panshir Valley in 1988. Now 32, Amin seems too young, too sophisticated, too comfortable in his natty suits and Hermès ties -- too American, really -- to have fought alongside the mujaheddin and suffered the depredations of a brutal war. "They had to drag me through a couple of the passes," Amin recalls of his first weeks with the rebels. "I fell terribly ill, the food was meager, and the eighteen-hour marches were devastating." * What was a 19-year-old Afghan-American doing in the Panshir? At a time when more than 6 million Afghans were fleeing their country and taking refuge in squalid Iranian and Pakistani camps, Amin was swimming against the stream. He dropped out of college to become the only Afghan in America to go fight with the mujaheddin, spending two years alongside Ahmed Shah Massoud, the legendary Northern Alliance commander who was assassinated on September 9.
"It was my Islamic duty," says Amin of his decision to return to the country he had left with his parents in 1980, bringing with him vivid memories of the morning in Kabul in 1978 when his third-grade geography teacher came to class carrying a Kalashnikov. A few days later, the kindergartners in his cousin's class were ordered to report their fathers for engaging in political activity or hiding guns in their homes. His parents endorsed his call to arms. "If a family has more than one son, one son is supposed to be given for jihad -- so my parents had no argument. It also was an issue of patriotism."
Thirteen years later, Amin does battle on another, very different front for the Northern Alliance. Until recently, as the Alliance's envoy to the United Nations, Amin had trouble getting meetings with U.N. aides. "There wasn't a single ear to give us even five minutes," he says, "and if they did, it was followed by a yawn." But since being named the Alliance's Washington envoy in early October, Amin is in such hot demand in D.C. that he hasn't set eyes on his Queens home. The U.S. hopes the Northern Alliance's 30,000 ground troops will eventually topple the Taliban. "Without us on the ground," Amin says with a touch of bravado, "the U.S. would have almost no chance of capturing bin Laden."
For the city's roughly 20,000 Afghan-Americans, the world could not be more radically different from the way it was before September 11. They have gone from obscurity to suspicion if not outright harassment. Their quiet despair for relatives back home has bloomed into pungent fear. But they've also risen from a hopeless stupor over the fate of their country to feverish politicking -- even to dreaming of victory.