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WASHINGTON, D.C., June 6On this muggy afternoon, a group of neatly attired men and a handful of women gather in a conference room at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. The guest list includes officials from the furthest corners of the worldTurkmenistan, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, and Turkeyand reps from the World Bank, the Uzbekistan chamber of commerce, the oil industry, and the Russian news agency Tass, along with various individuals identified only as "U.S. Government," which in times past was code for spook.
At hand is a low-profile briefing on international narcotics by a top State Department official, who has recently returned from a United Nations trip to inspect the poppy fields of Afghanistan, source of 80 percent of the world's opium and target of a recent eradication campaign by the fundamentalist Taliban. The lecture begins as every other in Washington: The speaker politely informs the crowd he has nothing to do with policymaking. And, by the way, it's all off the record.
Lecture over, the chairman asks for questions. One man after another rises to describe his own observations while in the foreign service. The moderator pauses, looks to the back of the room, and says in a scarcely audible voice: "Laili Helms." The room goes silent.
For the people gathered here, the name brings back memories of Richard Helms, director of the CIA during the tumultuous 1960s, the era of Cuba and Vietnam. After he was accused of destroying most of the agency's secret documents detailing its own crimes, Helms left the CIA and became President Ford's ambassador to Iran. There, he trained the repressive secret police, inadvertently sparking the revolution that soon toppled his friend the Shah.
Laili Helms, his niece by marriage, is an operative, toobut of a different kind. This pleasant young woman who makes her home in New Jersey is the Taliban rulers' unofficial ambassador in the U.S., and their most active and best-known advocate elsewhere in the West. As such she not only defends but promotes a severe regime that has given the White House fits for the past six yearsby throwing women out of jobs and schools, stoning adulterers, forcing Hindus to wear an identifying yellow patch, and smashing ancient Buddha statues.
In meetings on Capitol Hill and at the State Department, Helms represents a theocracy that harbors America's Public Enemy No. 1: Osama bin Laden, the man who allegedly masterminded the bombing of American embassies in Tanzania and Kenya and is suspected of blowing up the USS Cole. From his Afghan fortress, bin Laden operates a terrorist network reaching across the world.
All of which is highly ironic since bin Laden is the progeny of a U.S. policy that sought to unite Muslims in a jihad against the Soviet Union, but over a decade eroded the moderate political wing and launched a wave of young radical fundamentalists. The Taliban, says the author Ahmed Rashid, "is the hip-hop generation of Islamic militants. They know nothing about nothing. Their aim is the destruction of the status quo, but they offer nothing to replace it with."
Now the Bush administration is lowering its sights, viewing the Taliban within a broader context of an oil-rich central Asia. The chaotic region is strewn with crooked governments, terrorist brotherhoods, thieving warlords, and smugglers. Against this backdrop, the Taliban sometimes seems to be the least of our problems.
The mullahs would like to take advantage of the Bush administration's own fundamentalist leanings, complete with antidrug, pro-energy, and feminist-rollback policies. Their often comic efforts to establish representation in the U.S. took off when they found Helms. For them, she is a disarming presence, the unassuming woman at the back of the room.
After spending most her life in the States, Helms has impeccable suburban credentials. She lives in Jersey City and is the mother of a couple of grade-school kids. Her husband works at Chase Manhattan.
A granddaughter of a former Afghan minister in the last monarchy, she returned home during the war to work on U.S. aid missions. "Everyone thinks I'm a spy," she said in a recent Voiceinterview. "And Uncle Dick thinks I'm crazy."
Helms's home across the Hudson has become a sort of kitchen-table embassy. She says she patches together conference calls between the Taliban leadership and State Department officials. A recent one cost more than $1000, an expense she covered from her own checking account.
One moment she's packing up a used computer for the foreign ministry in Kabul, the next driving down to Washington for a briefing or meeting with members of Congress. Her cell phone rings nonstop. "These guys," she says, referring to the Taliban leaders, "are on no one else's agenda. They are so isolated you can't call the country. You can't send letters out. None of their officials can leave Afghanistan now."
Indeed, the Taliban government is virtually unrecognized by most others. It has no standing at the UN, where it has come under scathing indictment for human rights abuses. In February, the U.S. demanded that Taliban offices here be closed.
Helms may be just another suburban mom in the States, but last year in Afghanistan she got movie-star treatment, driving around downtown Kabul in a smart late-model Japanese car, escorted by armed guards waving Kalashnikov rifles, rattling away in English and Farsi as she shot video footage to prove that Afghan women are working, free, and happy.