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Tribal Counsel

Coming in peace: Afghan envoy to the U.S. Haron Amin.  

"You know what? You could say the mujaheddin sucked at governing," he says bluntly. But Amin says the mujaheddin might have survived had Pakistan, which desperately wanted a subservient Afghanistan, not backed the Taliban. "Pakistan chose a new pawn. They had it cooked up and we didn't know about it -- we thought the Pakis were on our side."

The fault lines began to show in New York too. "Ethnic divisions got steadily worse among the exile groups from 1989 on," says Rubin. The Sayed Jamal-ud-din mosque, in a shabby mint-colored clapboard house on Beech Avenue, became identified with the Taliban, who are mostly Pashtuns. The grander Masjid Hazrat-I-Abubakr Sadiq mosque on 33rd Avenue attracted more of the non-Pashtuns. The tribes still mingled, but less so. Almost no one went back to Afghanistan.

Seven years later, the Taliban swept through the country with their fundamentalist creed. "Everyone was exhausted by 1996," Rohani says. "Afghans were very poor and very tired; there had been so much raping and criminality. The Taliban came and everyone was happy -- or at least they were relieved to think about religion rather than war." The Taliban took away people's guns and restored a sense of calm to the streets.

In New York, too, Afghans were encouraged -- roughly half of them now say that they supported the Taliban in 1996. Dr. Bashir Zikria, chairman of the Afghan National Islamic Council and one of the king's closest advisers, remembers throwing a garden party for the Taliban's foreign minister in 1996 at his Norwood, New Jersey, home. "They were very open-minded and told us they were coming to establish calm and security," recalls Zikria, a professor at Columbia Medical School. "They answered every question to our satisfaction." Perhaps this time the peace would stick.

It didn't. Soon, women were banned from work, the amputated limbs of convicted thieves were hung from trees, and adulterers were stoned in a Kabul stadium. Like Amin, many Afghan-Americans say outsiders manipulated the Taliban, who, failing to muster the West's support, turned to Pakistan and Saudi Arabia, whose punishing Wahhabi interpretation of the Koran they adopted. Nor did it help that the Taliban were ignorant of the world and unable to cope with modernity.

"When they first arrived in Kabul," says Prince Mostapha Zaher, the king's grandson, who is known as Moose, "they thought it was the most sophisticated city in the world -- even though it was a complete ruin by then. They didn't know better." It might have been different had the U.S. backed the Taliban. "America abandoned us again, brother," Mayar says.

To help heal the post-1989 ethnic rift, Zikria convened the October 7 meeting at the Mustang Café under the auspices of ANIC. It just so happened the American assault began on that day, making the unprecedented event even more fraught. With representatives from all the major Afghan communities on the East Coast present, Zikria hoped to elect a representative counsel to advise the king. It was the biggest political meeting in memory.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given the wealth and education they've accumulated here, Afghan-Americans are being courted assiduously. Zikria is one of five on the king's 33-member decision-making council. Prince Mostapha, who lives in Rome, says he has spoken to dozens of young Afghan-Americans in New York and that they were all enthusiastic about returning, at least temporarily.

"We are preparing an agenda for the king, so that we can convene a loya jirga in Afghanistan by the end of the year," says Zikria, referring to Afghanistan's traditional deliberative body.

"This was the first time they actively sought out women to participate," says Masuda Sultan, founder of Young Afghan World Alliance. She and others say that Afghan men became more liberal after September 11, championing women's rights as a way to distance themselves from the Kabul regime. Younger Afghans were especially energized. "The older generation is always fighting," complains Rameen Javid Moshref, 32, founder of the magazine Afghan Communicator. "The younger generation wants its own voice."

When it has one, it will play a crucial role, because it is the younger generation that can best reconcile the West and Islam. "Being born there, growing up here, we have a lot of cultural values that our parents taught us that didn't translate easily into ordinary life here," says Moshref, who wrote his NYU thesis on the Taliban. "We've had to work hard to make the two worlds work."

"We should concentrate on being American and understanding the system we have here," says Ramin Rasuli, 22, a politics major at Columbia. "The Shariah law is very similar to America's democracy -- it might not be the Electoral College, but it's the same principle. And Islamic laws are the most just laws you can find."

None of the younger set are under any illusions about what is possible for now in Afghanistan. "You can't have feminism if you don't have food," Sultan says. "Women's rights have a place, but the most important thing is that people live. Religion gets thrown on the back burner. Culture gets thrown on the back burner." Sultan wants the first event of her new organization to be a fund-raiser to benefit both fallen firefighters and Afghan refugees. It is her way of linking two tragedies that she seems to feel equally.