Afghan Rebels' Envoy Puts a Face on the Fight

Times Staff Writer

The first American bombs are hours from falling on Kabul, and Haron Amin, the lead spokesman for the rebel forces fighting the Taliban, is holed up in the war room of the Northern Alliance. There is no place to sit. The only chair is occupied. So he lands on a four-poster bed with a blue comforter, shifting awkwardly and trying not to mess up the pillows.

This is the Washington base for the Afghan opposition--the borrowed sixth-floor condominium of a lobbyist in suburban Virginia, with pale yellow walls, a puffy white couch and pansies growing in clay pots. And the face of the insurgency is Amin, a 32-year-old Muslim born in Kabul, the Afghan capital, and raised in the San Fernando Valley, a hybrid of two cultures who is so Afghan that he quit college to fight with the guerrillas, yet so Western that phrases such as "wake up and smell the coffee" roll off his tongue.

For years, Amin has been trying to tell the American government that the army of Afghan rebels, which prefers to be called the United Front, needs military assistance to overthrow the Taliban. Until Sept. 11, few listened.

Now his cell phone starts ringing at dawn and doesn't stop until 3 a.m. This is his window of opportunity, his chance to defend the Northern Alliance's blotted record on human rights, to drive home the message that Afghans are not terrorists but victims of terrorism, to warn that Americans can win this war only if they arm the rebels on the ground.

"We knocked on various doors here in Washington saying we need to have a comprehensive policy toward Afghanistan. The response was cold to lukewarm. And what happened? We saw what happened on Sept. 11," he said, sitting on the patio of the sixth-floor condo in Arlington, picking at a bowl of sliced apples before heading off to yet another network television interview.

His comrades call the mission "Operation Ragtag," and they are only half joking. The sprawling Afghan embassy here has been shuttered since 1997, relegating Amin and his supporters to the home of Otilie English, a 51-year-old lobbyist for the Northern Alliance (and the sister of Republican Rep. Phil English of Pennsylvania).

Human Rights Record Is in Question

Exiled to the suburbs, Amin spends much of his time traversing Memorial Bridge into Washington, a hired car varying the route for security reasons. He sleeps as little as three hours a night, usually wherever his friends put him up. He will not discuss his family. His staff is mostly volunteer, mobilized after the terrorists attacked.

On that morning, Amin was sitting in his battered blue Geo Prism on the Queensboro Bridge, driving from his home in Queens to his post as the Northern Alliance representative to the United Nations. He was watching fire pour from the World Trade Center's north tower when the second jet struck.

The phone calls that flooded his office that day were menacing--"You are going down"--threats he says underscored a basic misunderstanding of his people. "They don't know that we are not the Taliban. They don't know that we had over the years knocked on so many doors in Washington saying, 'For God's sake, do something.' "

One of his greatest public relations obstacles is the Northern Alliance's questionable record on human rights. In a report released last weekend, Human Rights Watch cited the Northern Alliance for widespread executions of Taliban prisoners and civilians, rape and pillaging. Some in Washington are skeptical that the insurgents would make much better rulers than the brutal Taliban.

While acknowledging the possibility of abuses by the Northern Alliance, Amin asserts that its problems pale in comparison to those of the ruling regime. "The Third World is not a perfect place," he said. "But the Taliban has openly engaged in ethnic cleansing, feminization of poverty, crimes of war, crimes against humanity."

He sees himself as a representative of a nation grossly misunderstood, a ruggedly beautiful but beset land he loved at age 10 but fled with his family after the Soviet invasion. Born to wealthy parents--his father, a manufacturer of car batteries, was briefly jailed by the communists--they settled in the San Fernando Valley. Amin graduated from Herbert S. Hoover High School in Glendale, then spent only a few months at Pasadena City College before heading to Washington to work for the alliance--his "D-day," as he calls it.

Within six months he was making his way in a rebel convoy into Afghanistan to fight with his mentor, Ahmed Shah Masoud, the charismatic leader of the Northern Alliance who became the victim of a Taliban assassination plot, fatally injured in a suicide bombing just days before the terrorist attacks.

Amin said he had been in Afghanistan for two years when Masoud sent him back to the United States to plead the opposition's case here. But family members say his mother was worried about his safety and lobbied Masoud to send him home to finish school. "My mother forced Masoud to send Haron back to the United States for an education. She wrote a lot of letters," recalled Amin's brother, George.

Amin studied political science at UC Riverside, became an accredited diplomat at the United Nations and was finishing up his master's degree at St. John's University in New York when the terrorists struck; he was dispatched to Washington as a special envoy.

Bridging Afghan, American Cultures

Although he has lived more years in the United States than abroad and speaks nostalgically of long canyon drives to Malibu, his first love is Afghanistan. He never became an American citizen.

But his Westernized manner is coming in handy. He plays chess, likes '80s American pop music, speaks flawless English with just a trace of an accent and is at home in the U.S. in a way many Afghan diplomats with less time here are not.

He was not unaware of those resources when he put three suits and a dozen ties in a bag and headed for Washington to make his case, knowing the U.S. government was finally listening, but no telling for how long. Abandoned by the West after the Soviets retreated, Afghans are accustomed to a short American attention span, Amin says.

"The clock is ticking," he said. "That is why we are putting so much time into this. A friend called last night and said, 'Why don't you come over and have dinner?' And I said now is not the time for food. Now is the time for work. A cold sandwich will do. A cup of tea and a piece of bread will do. The fact of the matter is, now that Afghanistan is on the radar, we need to utilize every opportunity to make sure the American people are educated."

What the Northern Alliance is asking for--$50 million a month in aid from the Bush administration, as well as tanks, helicopters and artillery to arm the rebel troops on the ground--is a tall order.

"They are up against enormous odds. Opposition groups have a problem with credibility," said Edward S. Walker Jr., president of the Middle East Institute in Washington. "You can't impact on Congress unless you have a good war chest, good databases. To try to develop it out of nothing in somebody's apartment is a daunting objective. I take my hat off to them for trying."

Whether Amin's message is resonating cannot be measured. But since the American strikes began, he has had no shortage of opportunities to plead his case. Within 30 minutes of the start of the bombing Sunday, Amin had received phone calls from every major TV network.

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Times staff writer Richard Winton contributed to this report.

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