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Personal history: Koran is glue that's held Afghans together

Afghan demonstrators show copies of Koran books allegedly set alight by U.S. soldiers.
Afghan demonstrators show copies of Koran books allegedly set alight by U.S. soldiers during a protest against Koran desecration, at the gate of Bagram airbase Feb. 21, 2012. Getty Images/Shah Marai

(CBS) This post was written by CBS News terrorism analyst Jere Van Dyk

Two more American soldiers were shot and killed in Afghanistan yesterday. What has gone wrong? The U.S. military wants to stay the course, but the West must learn quickly, before it is too late, how important the Koran is in Afghanistan, and why.

It was November 1981. I was a young journalist living with Jalaladin Haqqani, a Mujahideen commander, at Shi-e-Khot, a mountain valley in eastern Afghanistan near the Pakistani border. Five times a day, Haqqani stood on the roof of our bombed-out compound, cupped his hands and called his men to prayer. They put their rifles down, lined up, and prayed, paying homage to God, who guided and protected them, and who led them in battle. One evening Haqqani stood on a rock and held the Koran out and his men walked under it on their way to attack an Afghan government fort. The Koran was the Word of God and would protect them and lead them to victory against the godless Communist government and the Soviet Red Army. As they dropped the shells down the mortar that night, the Mujahideen shouted "God is great."

The next day, all we had to eat was rice and bread and tea. It was like that most days. The land was mostly empty. The homes had been bombed and the people had fled to Pakistan. The men had precious little to eat, but they had God, and the Koran, and that was enough.

When we hiked back out through the mountains, the Mujahideen put three camels in front to serve as mine sweepers. Soviet helicopters had seeded the passes with small green plastic mines that looked like leaves. Each camel stepped on a mine and it blew its foot off. The men slaughtered them in accordance with Islamic law. We continued on through the minefield. When we reached a safe area, the men bowed in prayer, thanking God for guiding them. I prayed too.

I went south, and other Mujahideen took me into Kandahar. Their leader was a secular tribal chief, who lived in Pakistan, smoked cigarettes and knew New York and Paris. A week later, I sat with men from his tribe on a dirt floor in a house as Afghan Army and Soviet troops came closer. A young man next to me held his old British Lee-Enfield rifle, on the barrel of which there was a small locket with a verse from the Koran inside. He prayed, touching the locket as the gunfire came closer. The Koran was as important here as it was to Haqqani's men. It was the glue that brought Afghanistan, this disparate country of Hazaras, with their Mongol features, Nuristanis, said to descend from a lost legion of Alexander the Great, Pashtuns, Tajiks, Turcoman, Uzbeks, and smaller groups, all of whom were either Shia, or Sunni, and who spoke different languages, together. It was the war, and the Koran, that made them all Afghan.

The fighters all called themselves the Mujahideen, or holy warriors. Every man said that he would fight to the death. They would become a shaheed, a martyr, and go directly to Paradise and not have to wait for Judgment Day. Still, they pleaded with me, an American, for something with which to shoot down the helicopters. They didn't know where America was, nor could they imagine an ocean or a building higher than a few stories, but in every village there was a radio and men, who could neither read nor write, listened every day to the news on the BBC, sometimes the Voice of America, in Pashtu or Dari. They knew that Afghanistan was a battleground in the Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union. I wrote an op-ed article in The New York Times passing on their plea.

Schools were closed, yet I saw one morning a small madrasa in a village where a mullah was teaching young boys, sitting on the ground, holding paddles with a small blackboard on them (their notebooks) and the Koran. Near every village I passed through -- and over 80 percent of Afghans live in villages --- I would see men praying in twos or threes, by a stream, in a field or by a dirt path. One man must lead the prayers. There was a small baked-mud mosque in every village. When I left a village, people said "Go with God." Whenever they talked of the future they said, "Insha'Allah," Arabic, language of the Koran, for "God willing."

I grew up as a Plymouth Brethren, the quietest, separatist Christians. When I was a boy people said "God willing" all the time. The Bible was the Word of God and controlled our lives. So it is with the Koran in Afghanistan, only much more so. When a man builds a house, a mullah must come and read from the Koran, thus blessing the new home and the people in it. Islam pervades Afghanistan as the desire to succeed pervades America.

In March 2002, the U.S. Army launched Operation Anaconda at Shi-e-Khot, in what it called the largest ground operation since Vietnam. It was against al Qaeda, and probably Haqqani.

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In 1981, an Egyptian Army major came to stay with us. He hated me because I was American. The Afghans didn't like him, but he was close to Haqqani. I realized years later that he was the beginning of what would become al Qaeda. Congressman Charlie Wilson called Haqqani "goodness personified" then. Haqqani gave me a plate of honey to go with my tea when I met him. Today, he is America's enemy. He is a mullah, an arch-conservative, and legendary among the Taliban and those who support them in many Afghan villages. He fights for God and Islam.

The U.S. is fighting the very men that it helped to create. Neither the Bush nor Obama administrations has admitted this, yet every Afghan boy, who sits at night listening to men talk, knows that the U.S. was once their friend, but now won't talk about it, and burns the Koran.

In December 2006, I dressed again as an Afghan, for the first time in over 20 years, and went up into the mountains near the border. I realized that I had been in this area with Haqqani's men in the 1980s. There were the same small villages with no electricity, women washing clothes in mountain streams, children tending sheep, and families working small plots of land. I saw two men praying together. "Taliban," my guide whispered. I was the enemy now. I saw a woman praying in a field. "Haqqani is over there," my guide said, pointing toward Pakistan. "He is now the patriarch of the lethal Haqqani Network."

He began as a simple mullah standing by the road, near Khost, near the border, begging for money for his small adobe mosque. Today, his giant marble mosque, with twin turquoise minarets, dominates Khost like a cathedral overlooking a city in France or Spain. Haqqani sends a glossy fund-raising magazine to the Middle East. One of Haqqani's wives is an Arab.

In the 19th Century, when the British ruled India, and what is today Pakistan, British soldiers fought but never conquered the Pashtun tribes along the border. The tribesmen were led by what the British called "Hindustani fanatics," who today we call "Wahhabis," outsiders from Arabia, the ardent followers of Abdul Wahhab Najdi (1703-92), a militant desert preacher from Saudi Arabia. There were few Wahhabis then, but they came in greater numbers 100 years later, in the 1980s, seeking martyrdom against the Soviet Union. Osama bin Laden was a Wahhabi. Wahhabism is a harsh, Puritanical and fiercely fundamentalist Islamic sect, alien to traditional Afghan culture. But it has now seeped into this culture and helped to turn Afghans, isolated, coarser, and edgy, the result of 30 years of war and suffering, against what they feel are Americans who do not respect their culture, or their religion.

From late 2006 to early 2008, I lived, off and on, along the border. I watched the American convoys and listened to the U.S. helicopters roaring over us, welcomed by many, but still so separate from the culture around them. In 2008, I crossed the mountains into the tribal areas of Pakistan. I wanted to get to Haqqani. I was led to believe that I could do this. I understood the tribal laws, and knew that they had to protect me, a guest, as they had protected me in the 1980s. I wanted to find out what I felt that the U.S. government could not find out about al Qaeda. I was betrayed, and kidnapped by the Taliban. The men who took me were Wahhabis.

I saw that they too, like the Mujahideen, put their rifles in front of them and bowed down in prayer; that they, too, prayed five times a day; that they, too, wanted to kill the infidel invader. There was a Koran in our cell, wrapped in black and green cloth, and covered with dust. My guide would not let me touch it. I was not Muslim. I asked the Taliban in what way were they different from the Mujahedeen. "We are just like them," said a young commander. "They fought the Soviets and we fight the Americans. They are both infidel invaders."

That is the problem. The U.S., which came, in its eyes, as a liberator, is now becoming, for many, the enemy. Militant Islam has become part of Afghan culture. It will take decades to eradicate it.

In the 1980s, Afghan Army soldiers deserted all the time to join the Mujahideen, just as today, it appears, the Taliban are penetrating the Afghan Army. But it is more than that. Islam rules the lives of every Afghan as it did their fathers and grandfathers. A young man from a small village, steeped in Islam, will not put his faith aside, when he joins the Army. The Taliban know who his family is. Every villager knows who among them has joined the Army. The recruits come from different regions and different ethnic groups, but Islam, and its holy book, the Koran, are still their constant. Their families, their tribe, their clan, and their faith, are all that they have had during three decades of war. The Taliban wear black turbans, just like the Mujahideen, for it is said that Mohammad wore a black turban when he waged jihad 1,500 years ago.

My two bodyguards and my interpreter were chained to their beds at night, but during the day they could walk around our cell. Two of them could read Arabic. They would read or recite the Koran for hours. They did this for sustenance, to find peace, and to help them survive. I was under pressure to convert. I was afraid. We washed and then prayed five times a day. I had prayer beads to help memorize my prayer. I listened for hours to Taliban recruitment tapes. I felt like I was in a monastery. When the Taliban agreed to release me and we hiked out through the mountains, villagers called out to the Taliban, inviting them to dinner. Islam, and their tribal codes, this one of hospitality, ruled their lives.

The United States is trying to bring a form of democracy to Afghanistan. The Taliban consider democracy a Western religion. Islam means submission to God. We believe in the rule of man. We too must show the Afghans that many Americans also believe in God, and while most Americans believe differently, or do not believe in God in all, we respect their faith, as Americans, and their holy book.

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