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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 Voice interview. "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.
She stands at the public relations hub of a ragtag network of amateur Taliban advocates in the U.S. At the University of Southern California, economics professor Nake M. Kamrany arranged last year for the Taliban's Rahmatullah Hashami, ambassador at large, to bypass the visa block. He even rounded up enough money for Hashami to lecture at the University of California, both in Los Angeles and Berkeley. The trip ended at the State Department in D.C., with a reported offer to turn Osama bin Laden over to the U.S.
Kamrany hardly looks the part of a foreign emissary, showing up for an interview recently in Santa Monica dressed in a Hawaiian shirt and shorts, and insisting on a tuna fish sandwich before getting down to defending the burqa, the head-to-toe covering required for Afghani women. In addition to Kamrany, there's the erstwhile official Taliban representative, Abdul Hakim Mojahed, in Queens, whom Helms dismisses with a wave of her hand as a do-nothing, not worth talking to. Mojahed's voice line has been disconnected, and his fax number never picks up.
Dr. Davood Davoodyar, an economics professor at Cal State in San Francisco, joined the jihad to fight against the Soviets in the early 1980s. Today he keeps in touch with the elusive Mojahed, who seems to have gone underground since his office was shuttered. Davoodyar thinks the Taliban is helping to stabilize Afghanistan, but concedes, "If I asked my wife to wear the burqa, she'd kill me."
Also in San Francisco, Ghamar Farhad, a bank supervisor, has served as host to the Taliban's visiting deputy minister of information along with the ambassador at large. She generally likes the Taliban because she believes they have cut down on rape, but got very upset when they blew up the Buddha statues. When the Taliban explained to her that these satanic idols had to go, Farhad says, she changed her mind.
Led by Helms, these people have answers for all the accusations made against the Taliban, starting with its treatment of women. To a visitor it might seem as if women had just disappeared, as if by some sort of massive ethnic cleansing. Though they made up 40 percent of all the doctors and 70 percent of teachers in the capital, women were forced to abandon Western clothes and stay indoors behind windows painted black "for their own good." Ten million reportedly have been denied education, hospital care, and the right to work.
The Taliban insists that a woman wear a burqa, stifling garb with only tiny slits for her eyes and no peripheral vision. Even her voice is banned. In shops or in the market, she must have her brother, husband, or father speak to the shopkeeper so that she will not excite him with the sound of her speaking.
Helms argues that foreign observers have forgotten conditions in the country following the war against the Soviets. "Afghanistan was like a Mad Max scenario," she says. "Anyone who had a gun and a pickup truck could abduct your women, rape them. . . . When the Taliban came and established security, the majority of Afghan women who suffered from the chaotic conditions were happy, because they could live, their children could live."
But a current Physicians for Human Rights poll taken in Afghanistan reports that women surveyed in Taliban-controlled areas "almost unanimously expressed that the Taliban had made their life 'much worse.' " They reported high rates of depression and suicide.
Last year a group of Afghani women gathered in Tajikistan made a concerted demand for basic human rights, citing "torture and inhumane and degrading treatment." Their address noted that "poverty and the lack of freedom of movement push women into prostitution, involuntary exile, forced marriages, and the selling and trafficking of their daughters."
The Taliban drew more worldwide criticism for its abuse of other religious and ethnic minorities. It required that Hindus wear yellow clothingsaris for women and shirts for men, so they could be distinguished from Muslimsa move that immediately brought back images of Jews in Nazi Germany wearing the Star of David. There are 5000 Hindus living in Kabul and thousands more in other Afghan cities. An Indian external affairs spokesman condemned the new requirements as "reprehensible" and told The Times of India it was another example of the Taliban's "obscurantist and racist ideology, which is alien to Afghan traditions."
Helms argues outsiders don't understand the import of the yellow tags. "We asked them to identify themselves [to protect] their religious beliefs. Everyone has identity cards. The intention is to protect people." She shrugs. "Here you have labels for handicapped people. So you can have special parking."
Blowing up the ancient statues of Buddhas, hewn from cliffs in the third and fifth centuries B.C., was another matter. "That was a very big deal," she says. "That was them thumbing their nose at the international community."
Helms has little regard for Osama bin Laden, whom she sneeringly refers to as a "tractor driver." She says he was inherited by the Taliban and is widely viewed as a "hang nail."
In 1999, Helms says, she got a message from the Taliban leadership that they were willing to turn over all of bin Laden's communications equipment, which they had seized, to the U.S. When she called the State Department with this offer, officials were at first interested, but later said, "No. We want him."
In the same year, Prince Turki, head of Saudi intelligence, reputedly came up with a scheme to capture bin Laden on his own; after consulting with the Taliban he flew his private plane to Kabul and drove out to see Mullah Omar at his HQ. The two men sat down, as Helms recounts the story, and the Saudi said, "There's just one little thing. Will you kill bin Laden before you put him on the plane?" Mullah Omar called for a bucket of cold water. As the Saudi delegation fidgeted, he took off his turban, splashed water on his head, and then washed his hands before sitting back down. "You know why I asked for the cold water?" he asked Turki. "What you just said made my blood boil."
Bin Laden was a guest of the Afghanis and there was no way they were going to kill him, though they might turn him over for a trial. At that the deal collapsed, and Turki flew home empty-handed.
Early this year, the Taliban's ambassador at large, Hashami, a young man speaking perfect English, met with CIA operations people and State Department reps, Helms says. At this final meeting, she says, Hashami proposed that the Taliban hold bin Laden in one location long enough for the U.S. to locate and destroy him. The U.S. refused, says Helms, who claims she was the go-between in this deal between the supreme leader and the feds.
A U.S. government source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, made clear that the U.S. is not trying to kill bin Laden but instead wants him expelled from Afghanistan so he can be brought to justice. Acknowledging that Laili Helms does a lot of lobbying on behalf of the Taliban, this source said Helms does not speak to the Taliban for the U.S.
In the realpolitik of Bush foreign policy, the Taliban may have improved its chances for an opening of relations with the rest of the world. As it now stands, there seems little question that Afghanistan has indeed stopped the production of poppies in the areas under its control. Partly as a result, its farmers are destitute, their lives made more miserable by drought.
But that's not likely to faze the powers that be in Afghanistan, since most of the country's real money comes from taxing non-dope trade. Nor will it bother the drug traffickers, who swarm the region and are shifting production north and west into such places as Turkmenistan. As of last month, the U.S. had committed $124 million in aid to Afghanistan, according to the State Department. Meanwhile, Iran, which harbors some 2 million Afghan refugees and is fighting massive drug addiction, has sent agricultural engineers north to help repair Afghanistan's irrigation systems.
Last week Milt Bearden, the former CIA station chief in Pakistan and Sudan, argued in The Wall Street Journal that the Bush administration should take a "more restrained approach" to bin Laden. "There may be a realization that the two years of unrestrained rhetoric of the Clinton administration following the 1998 attacks in Africa may have done little more than inflate the myth that has inspired others to harm Americans," he wrote.
None of this has changed the impression most people here have of the Taliban. Helms and her cohorts have a lot of work to do. As she freely admits, the Taliban leaders "are considered fascists, tyrants, Pol Pots. They can't do anything right. We perceive them as monsters no matter what they do."
Additional reporting: Ariston-Lizabeth Anderson and Rouven Gueissaz
"Laili Helms, Other Taliban Reps Stop Talking by Camelia E. Fard