My friend the Afghan warlord

September 28, 2006|By Jere Van Dyk

NEW YORK -- The e-mail came from a journalist in Karachi. "Ur old friend Yunus Khalis died today in the age of 95. His son Anwar ul-Haq has been appointed as his successor."

I read the message many times. Yunus Khalis was dead. The president of Afghanistan had issued a statement of condolence. As war raged in Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan this summer, I sadly thought of the guerrilla leader I had met so many years ago. I last saw him three years ago in his house near Jalalabad. I had hoped to meet him again. I wanted to talk to him about Osama bin Laden, about war and terrorism and religion - but mostly, I just wanted to talk.

I met Yunus Khalis in October 1981 in Peshawar, Pakistan. A young reporter, I wanted to live with the mujahedeen in Afghanistan and needed to find someone to take me in. I went to different guerrilla leaders: Burhanuddin Rabbani, Gulbaddin Hekmatyar and others. I interviewed them, listened to them, but did not feel comfortable with any of them.

Mr. Rabbani later became president of Afghanistan and today is a prominent member of parliament. Mr. Hekmatyar, with a bounty on his head, now wages jihad against the U.S.

Then I met Mr. Khalis and knew immediately that I wanted to go with his men. He stood straight, wore a bandoleer of bullets, had a deep voice and looked me in the eye. He reminded me of men I knew as a boy: men of God, deep Christians who worked hard in the fields, had calluses on their hands and read the Bible at night.

We talked, and he wrote a note on a piece of paper and gave it to an aide. I bought Afghan clothes in the bazaar and hiked with his men up to Shi-e-Khot, Paktia province, and lived with Jalaluddin Haqqani, who today is a commander with the Taliban. Mr. Haqqani gave me a plate of honey when I arrived to go with my tea.

My adventure with Mr. Khalis and the mujahedeen began out of curiosity. I wanted to see what these men were like, the ones who shouted "God is great" and went up with old British rifles against the mighty Red Army. I envied their courage, their strength, their belief in God.

I had been a believer too, raised in a tight-knit, evangelical Plymouth Brethren community. But I gradually left that life behind as I began wandering and exploring the world - first Europe, then North Africa, where I encountered Islam. Though I was hoping for a god to replace the God of my youth, I never became a Muslim. But I felt a kinship with Mr. Khalis and the mujahedeen. Perhaps I was looking for a brother - or for brotherhood. They were like a family, and he was like the grandfather I had barely known. He was a stalwart: incorruptible, noble and devout - and at the same time a fierce warrior.

Two decades later, in March 2002, I stood with other journalists on the plains near Gardez, west of Shi-e-Khot, remembering the past, as the United States launched a massive ground attack. We had had little to eat there back in 1981, huddled around fires to keep warm in the snow, and were scared when a Soviet helicopter hovered overhead.

News reports said that Mr. Khalis went into hiding after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. In April 2002, I drove with a guide from Kabul to Jalalabad and found a man who would take us to Mr. Khalis. It was hot, humid and dusty as we bumped along rocky dirt roads. We kept asking directions.

Everyone knew Mr. Khalis, a former governor of Nangarhar province. Mullah Mohammed Omar, leader of the Taliban, fought under him against the Soviet Union. Mr. Khalis, I believe, introduced Mr. Omar to bin Laden.

Bin Laden and his family lived near Mr. Khalis when he returned to Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996. Bin Laden stayed with him before he went up to Tora Bora. I have been told recently in Peshawar that Mr. Khalis' sons guided bin Laden down from Tora Bora.

We pulled up to his baked mud compound. Two men came over from another house. Yunus Khalis was old; he didn't see visitors - and certainly not, although they didn't say it, foreign infidels. We persisted. I knew Mr. Khalis from before.

I wasn't sure why, but I had to see him. I stood by the car, trying to look humble, unthreatening. Finally, a man came out and said Mr. Khalis would see me, but only for a few minutes.

I was excited in a way I hadn't been in years. We entered the compound, walked on a dirt path to his house. I saw colored plastic pails and children's sandals. We took off our shoes and entered a dark room. A frail, old man wearing a prayer cap lay on his side on a small bed. Though I had idealized him once, I saw now, in his weakened state, that he was an ordinary man. I stood there, feeling a mixture of emotions.

I sat on the bed next to him. We shook hands. His were soft, the calluses gone. I wanted to be alone with him, to talk as we had done before.

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