Said Hyder Akbar

2 Books

Said Hyder Akbar is currently a junior at Yale University in New Haven, CT. He is also co-director and founder of his own nongovernmental organization, Wadan Afghanistan, which has rebuilt schools and constructed pipe systems in rural Kunar province.


Exclusive Interview with Said Hyder Akbar

Said Hyder Akbar is a student at Yale and author of the 2005 memoir Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager's Story. Oh, and his dad is good buddies with Hamid Karzai. Akbar talks about the state of Afghanistan in this exclusive interview


April 6, 2006

Said Hyder Akbar lived on a culdesac in the California Bay Area, collected as many U2 CDs as he could find, and planned to go to community college for a couple of years before applying to Berkeley. Then September 11 happened. The United States invaded Afghanistan, where his family was from. The Taliban fell, and his father's old friend, Hamid Karzai, became president. Karzai named Hyder's father his spokesman, and instead of going on the senior trip to Cancn, Hyder went to Kabul. His book about his time there, Come Back to Afghanistan: A California Teenager's Story, will be published in paperback by Bloomsbury in November. Here, Hyder speaks to Randy Hartwell for

Why do you think you heard the "Come back to Afghanistan" call so loudly

I think that for a lot of people, when they left Afghanistan, it was for good. When they came to America, I think a lot of them thought, "Okay, we're going to settle down here. We're going to start a new life. We're going to adapt to the American way of life, have kids here, grow up here." And also I think the standard of living in America cannot be easily compared to the standard of living in Afghanistan, and a lot of people weren't willing to give that up. But I had a father who was connected to the place. Because when my parents left Afghanistan, they left as refugees, with the intention that we'd always be coming back to Afghanistan. We were constantly talking about it at home. I always felt this connection to Afghanistan.

**It's interesting, too, that once the reality there meets your fantasy, your attachment grows. **

Definitely. And also, I began to build relationships with people. I became very close to my uncle. I became very close to the people of Kunar [province, where Hyder's father was governor after serving as President Karzai's spokesman]. These connections made it real for me. It helped fuel my passion more, and I think that it also encouraged me to kind of feel better about being insecure over whether or not I would be able to take up Afghanistan, about whether or not I would be able to handle it.

**Do you ever think about how Karzai's presidency might differ from say, the Taliban resistance fighter Abdul Haq's, or Ahmed Shah Massoud's, if they had lived and were elected instead Would they be dealing with the same things Would they be as hamstrung as Karzai sometimes seems to be **

They'd be dealing with the same problems. But I think that Karzai, by nature, is just a nice guy. He's by temper a moderate person. And I think, at times, he likes to avoid conflict and is very diplomatic. I think somebody with a warrior background, like Massoud, or like Abdul Haq, would probably tend to be more aggressive than President Karzai in dealing with the warlords and in dealing with the problems that were existing in Afghanistan at that time and still exist right now. Especially with Afghanistan being as complicated as it is right now, with all the many factions that exist, and just the legacy of twentyfive years of war. I think Karzai would have been the perfect leader to come in ten years from now, after Afghanistan is done transitioning. I think, in this transitional period, it might have been better to have a stronger leader. But who knows If Abdul Haq or Massoud had lived and had been a major figure of power, maybe it would have led to more chaos under really strong leadership. Maybe it would have led to more conflict, or the fragile coalition around Karzai now breaking up. So I don't know. It's hard to say. But I think the one thing that people have against Karzai would be that he has become too much of a nice guy. They would probably appreciate him if he were a little more decisive.

**You used the word warlords a minute ago. You hear it all the time, but what does the word really mean **

It's interesting that you bring up this word, because it is a word that's kind of been controversial in Afghanistan itself. A lot of these jihadi leaders that were part of the resistance against the Soviets are kind of offended by those terms. You know, "You guys called us mujahideen when we were fighting the Soviets. We were popular all over the world, and we were supported, and now we've become ?warlords.' " Ismail Khan, a particularly strong warlord, had complained about this, saying that, you know, warlord is just a word that is used to undermine those people that fought against the Soviets. But I think what I usually mean by the word is the commanders that have their little miniature fiefdoms in Afghanistan, in different places, and have become, through the years of war, because they have the guns, they have the power, they have the weapons to force the control of a certain area.

**What separates the groups Location Vendettas **

I think warlords have been created because of a direct result of the jihad. So to give you a concrete example, in the book I talk about a guy who actually survived an assassination attempt in Kabul while I was there. People emerged as fighters against the Soviets. There was a commander who had troops with him, who got money from the party in Peshawar in Pakistan. They would go in and fight against the Soviets. And once the Soviets left, they kind of carved out their own land and controlled them, you know, controlled soandso valley or soandso villages or districts and used force to dominate those areas, and I think the term warlord was created because this was a time of civil war and civil strife and these people were the militias. Yes, in some places, personal vendettas got involved, but not always. The difference is a lot of the major warlords, the big warlords, were in the north and the west, among the minority ethnic groups. The Pashtuns, who are in the south and the east, are a sort of tribal group, and there's a lot of tribes, and it's hard for one person to dominate another area or another tribe.

**Afghanistan would be a useful staging area from which to invade Iran, if it came to that. Did the U.S. soldiers that you met feel at all that the American military's stated purpose for being in Afghanistan was ancillary to some "real" reason for being there **

They didn't express those kind of things, or at least not to me. But I think, in terms of the Afghans, they have become a little bit more suspicious of the U.S. presence in Afghanistan, especially in terms of developing the economy or helping with the reconstruction or creating security. They see them kind of going about it in a haphazard and lazy way. And these ideas of the Americans using Afghanistan as a base, or having other intentions, had begun to take hold there, when I was there.

**You call Al Qaeda the "bogeyman" of American journalists and politicians. What do you mean by that **

I think that Al Qaeda internationally, and the Taliban specifically in Afghanistan, are credited for a lot of the things that they're not even responsible for. We see everything through this "war on terror" vision, and that's all we see it as. And sometimes, you have to understand that things are more complicated and nuanced in these areas and that not everything can be explained as the antiTaliban or the Taliban. A lot of times, it does come down to personal politics or tribal politics or local politics.

**What do you think about this Abdul Rahman case Rahman was arrested for rejecting Islam. He said he'd converted to Christianity. **

It's interesting how the left works in terms of what it picks and chooses as being interesting from Afghanistan and all of a sudden being all over the blogs, and all over The New York Times, writing an oped on it, and all over the news. It sort of catches this momentum, and all of a sudden, you're like, Oh my God, what's going on in the government in Afghanistan—when there's so much more you can look at. You can look at the opium problem; you can look at the rising level of violence; you can look at the fact that more Americans were killed in 2005 than in 2004. The situation is becoming more chaotic. But it takes the converting of one Afghan man, and the controversy around it, to sort of make people think about what's going on in Afghanistan. That's the kind of thing that sometimes makes me disappointed and makes me wonder if America really has the sort of culture that really embraces nation building, because it seems like they're not interested in the bigger picture and what is going on in Afghanistan right now. Just that same week, we had a Cabinet that was brought in for Karzai, and we had clashes in the south, where fifteen, twenty people had been killed. For most Afghans, that was the more important thing going on. And also, for me personally, I was a little offended about how this was used to bash how backwards and barbaric Afghanistan was. Of course we have a different culture there.

A very interesting story occurred—and was actually occurring in Kunar province—when an American helicopter was shot down and sixteen people were killed. Two Navy SEALs on the ground were killed, but there was one Navy SEAL who managed to escape and make it alive, and he ran into a villager, a shepherd, who took him in; and because of the sort of tribal codes of hospitality and rules of looking after humanity, he had to now, as a guest, protect him. And he was American, and the shepherd brought him in and took him to the village elders, and they said, "Okay, now he's our guest, and we'll protect him." And the Taliban came and said, "We want this man" and "We want to have this infidel." And the villagers said, "Until there's not a man or woman alive in this village, you will not be able to take him from us. He's a guest now of this country, we caught him when he was vulnerable, and there's no reason for us to give him to you." And the Taliban decided not to sort of go at it with the villagers, and the villagers took him back to the Americans. And although this received some attention and there was a Time magazine article, that was about it.

**I thought the Rahman thing signified another kind of "Wait, you mean you can't just ship frozen democracy everywhere and warm it up and have it turn out exactly the same as it does here" realization for the United States. **

I think the problem that most of the people in the world have with the U.S. is that they tend to cloak it in these idealistic messages that they're doing this for people's good and they're doing this for the benefit of the world, when in reality they're doing it for themselves. I think that a lot of times, when Americans get caught up in something, everybody in the world kind of jumps up and says, "Gotcha!" I'm annoyed by that sort of preachy attitude of Americans.

**Is there a story you feel illuminates or emplifies what Afghanistan is like now, or your place in it **

I remember once, we had captured a guy who was caught opium smuggling, and he was arrested, and I checked up on him a couple of days later, and he was let go. And I said, "What's going on" And my uncle teased me: "This is a democratic Afghanistan. You can't tell anybody anything anymore." I was like, "No, that's not quite what they mean by democracy. It doesn't mean that anybody can just do anything that they want, you know" Also, I would ask the Afghans to describe an American soldier that they were referring to. Which soldier are you talking about And they would literally have no idea how to explain it to me, because they were like, "How can you ask that question They all look the same." It was interesting. To me, they all looked unique. Blondhaired guys, darkhaired guys, and big and tall and short. And the Americans would have the same problem with Afghans. They would be like, "They always have a beard. I can't figure out what they're doing." It really made me realize the unique advantage I have in navigating both cultures—just that I can tell people apart in large groups.

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