The Mayor of Little Afghanistan


On Habib Mayar’s glass coffee table in his Long Island home stands a large, framed picture of Mayar with Ronald Reagan. Mayar was summoned to Washington in 1985 for Reagan’s annual Afghanistan Day. After a press conference, in which Mayar and the president praised the mujahideen for their fight against the Soviet Union, they met in the Oval Office. In the picture, Mayar is grinning and handing a button to the president. “It was a symbol of the Soviet Union, the hammer and sickle, with a big slash through it.”

“I love Reagan. He did a lot of things to help Afghanistan. God bless him.” Mayar, a tall man with thin white hair and a strong build, runs a landscaping business. In the 1980s he became a minor celebrity for his work in raising money and awareness for the Afghan cause. He brought mujahideen fighters and children missing limbs to New York for medical care. He tirelessly arranged for shipments of food and clothing to Afghanistan. Mayar, walking at the head of local parades, got to be back-slapping buddies with then senator Alfonse D’Amato and earned the nickname “the Mayor” of Flushing’s Little Afghanistan.

The phone rings with calls from Abu Dhabi, Germany, and Italy. Mayar is part of a worldwide effort to assemble a loya jirga, a council of Afghan leaders, led by the exiled King Mohammed Zahir Shah, to discuss what shape the government will take. The effort has taken on a new urgency as the Taliban’s rapid retreat and the Northern Alliance’s sweeping success leave diplomats scrambling to catch up.

Mayar has close ties to the royal family: The king named Mayar’s father the governor of Kabul and Herat, and appointed him to the Senate. Before that, Mayar’s grandfather was the speaker of the lower chamber of Parliament under Zahir Shah’s father, King Nadir Shah. Mayar, in fact, left Afghanistan shortly before a 1973 coup unseated the king. Despite this longstanding political involvement, Mayar never chose sides in the decade-long civil war between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance. And in the current campaign, although he abhorred the constant bombing and thought that negotiations would have proved a better course, he detested the Taliban for their “heartless” and “narrow-minded” take on Islam. “How can someone beat a woman with a cable for showing her face?” he said, cringing. “It’s inhuman.”

Mayar also despises the Northern Alliance, who occupy his hometown, Kabul. Their commanders are largely former mujahideen, the very “freedom fighters” he did so much to support. “I’m against the leadership of both sides,” he said, claiming that they owe too much to neighboring countries—that they are, in effect, proxies.”Taliban get aid from Pakistan. And the North gets aid from India and Russia,” he exclaims.

Mayar’s complaint is voiced by many Afghans, who say greater powers, such as Russia and Britain in the 19th century, have used their country as a chessboard for far too long. Another often heard complaint is that the United States happily handed out weapons for the anti-Communist cause and then, despite promises made by presidents Carter and Reagan, jilted Afghanistan as soon as the Soviet Union retreated.

The Bush administration seems to realize the dangers of abandoning the country again. Bush’s policy so far has tracked a plan outlined by an Afghan—the National Security Council’s Afghanistan specialist, Zalmay Khalilzad. The strategy calls for the U.S. to destabilize the Taliban by supporting moderate Pashtuns, the country’s dominant ethnic group, and to back the king’s efforts to form a loya jirga. And it warns against wholesale support of the Northern Alliance, the collection of factions gathered around ousted president Burhanuddin Rabbani, which has been accused of opium trafficking and a host of war crimes.

The Taliban’s marriage of religious fundamentalism and 20th-century totalitarianism seems uniquely vicious. They have, after all, banned music, hairstyles, and kite flying and used Kabul’s soccer stadium as a public execution arena. But the Northern Alliance is hardly more palatable. Its commanders include the same warlords who flattened Kabul and were so malicious to the population during the civil war that some cities welcomed the Taliban. As they consolidate their power now, the trick for U.S. and UN officials is to get them to share it.

The mujahideen installed Rabbani for a two-year term after overthrowing Muhammad Najibullah’s Russian-backed government in 1992. Rabbani chose his general Ahmed Shah Massoud, the “Lion of Panjshir,” to be vice president and minister of defense. Mayar knows the Massoud family because his father’s administration included the Panjshir Valley. Soon after taking power, according to Mayar, Massoud asked Russia for assistance, an act which, to Mayar, discredited the government. “The Russians killed millions of Afghans,” Mayar said. “They left millions of land mines all over the country. How could I ever forgive them?”

All but a few countries still officially recognize Rabbani’s government even though the Taliban have been the country’s de facto rulers since 1996, the year his term expired. Rabbani’s representatives hold Afghanistan’s seat in the United Nations and run its Washington embassy. Their Russian tanks and helicopters are no longer a secret. The alliance, also known as the United Front, now counts former Communist secret police from the Khad among its ranks, as well as members of every ethnic group. According to Vikram Parekh, the chief researcher on Afghanistan for Human Rights Watch, no generalizations can describe this mishmash of characters.

“The essential thing to remember about the United Front,” Parekh said, “is that it’s a very loose and rather tenuous alliance. Even the different parties aren’t necessarily integrated. They can sometimes operate independently of one another. And they’re not an effective military as a result.”

Parekh and others spent this summer interviewing refugees in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Their report, issued October 6, examined those commanders with the most sordid record of abuses, including looting, rape, and indiscriminate shelling of civilians. And it warned the United States not to negotiate with those commanders with the worst rap sheets: Abdul Rashid Dostum, Abdul Rasul Sayyaf, and senior officers allied with the late Massoud. Dostum was a leader in Najibullah’s army, battling the mujahideen. He left Najibullah to start the Junbish, a militia of ethnic Uzbeks, which later took on the Taliban. With the Taliban came order, however harsh. Without the Taliban, many fear that the groups in the Northern Alliance might pick up the civil war where it left off. “In the absence of a collective enemy,” Parekh said, “I think that’s a real risk.”

The current push is for an interim government that balances the Northern Alliance with tribal Pashtuns and moderate Taliban, and has the 87-year-old Pashtun king at its head. After Afghanistan’s marathon of destruction, the king’s 40-year rule looks like a golden age. Kabul was a relatively liberal place. Women attended Kabul University and became doctors. The king named a woman minister of health. Mayar remembers spotting him driving his car on Kabul’s streets.

Mayar believes that by supporting the king, George W. Bush can correct his father’s mistake. The United States, he said, ought to make sure that the postwar government is chosen not by Pakistan or Russia, or even the United States, but by Afghanistan. If the United States won the Cold War, then Afghanistan paid its heaviest price. Between 1.5 million and 2 million Afghans died resisting the Soviet Union.

“Two million Afghans died and the Berlin Wall fell,” Mayar said, using his fist to pound out each sentence on his kitchen table. “The countries in Eastern Europe are free. The Russians vote. The Communist flag has come down. All this with the blood of Afghans.”