By Philip C. Johnson, Ph.D.
“Sir, your breakfast is here.”
I opened the door of my room in the faculty building of the Swiss University in Kabul (UMEF). A man stood just outside my door with a tray of food. Behind him were two Afghan deer who barged into my room, without invitation I might add.
“What are these?” I asked.
“It’s your breakfast, sir,” replied the man at the door.
“These animals are my breakfast?” I was very jet-lagged and more than a little confused.
“No, sir, this tray has your breakfast. The animals belong to one of the university’s owners.”
“Why are they on my bed?”
“They are welcoming you, sir. Do you not want them?”
“Do I want them? I don’t know them. What are they doing here?”
“They just followed us in, sir. They mean no harm.”
Just as he uttered those words, the deer began urinating and defecating on my bed.
Now, I didn’t want to seem ungrateful for the breakfast or the unique Afghan welcome, but I believe that all relationships should include certain boundaries. And if I have just met you, man or beast, you should not assume that it’s okay to soil my sleeping space. I think that’s a fair expectation.
I protested. The staff member began to chase the deer out of my room. I continued to protest with questions about where I was supposed to sleep. I was told that no one with “sleeping location authority” was on campus because it was Saturday and that I would have to wait until the next day to speak to someone about changing the room. Could I get new bedding? Could I go to a store and look for some sheets? No, I couldn’t. I was told that it was too dangerous to leave the educational compound. I thought it might have been the Taliban who would fell me, but oddly enough, it would be the ill-behaved campus pets of a narcissistic university owner that would be my downfall.
This was not my first visit to Afghanistan; it was my second. My first visit had been several months earlier. More than a dozen years after the events of 9/11, Afghanistan was still a mess with the Taliban surging in the south and al-Qaeda coming across the border from Pakistan, creating havoc. I wanted to learn more about the endless persistence of these jihadist, and in order to do that, I purposed to meet with someone from the Taliban. The most logical approach, I believed, was getting into the country by offering a free leadership training program for an organization. I met a young professional by the name of Samim who worked for Integrity Watch Afghanistan, a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) dedicated to rooting out corruption in Afghanistan. I worked with Samim to arrange an event for his organization and enjoyed meeting the Integrity Watch team and working with Samim. He and I had some remarkable conversations about life and death, belief and purpose and many other things that mattered. Samim introduced me to his brother, another wonderful person, and to his parents. I remember specifically that his father kept trying to force-feed me fruit in a unique, charming, yet somewhat aggressive, Afghan way. I obediently ate the fruit.
Meanwhile, I had made a few other connections. Connections that could help me arrange meetings for stories that I was chasing. The first meeting that had been negotiated for me was with Brigadier General Heinz Feldmann at the ISAF headquarters in Kabul. Upon entering the building, I marveled at the level of security. Since my arrival in Kabul, I had been moving freely between places where I needed to be. The soldier who greeted me at the ISAF headquarters told me that he had not been allowed off the base for more than four months because of safety and security concerns. He asked me how the outside world was. I told him that it seemed okay, but I was sure that I was not the correct person to answer this question. I am constantly reminded by people that my understanding of safety and security does not fit in with the mainstream. I’ve noted the abnormality.
Brigadier General Feldmann is the German-born spokesperson for ISAF. I began our meeting by asking him about a press conference I had just attended as a member of the foreign press. At the press event it was announced that 65 prisoners had just been released from Bagram Detention Center. The Afghan government had declared the prisoners to be innocent and had sent them back to the streets without proper judicial process. The surprise release of the prisoners did not sit well with the United States, and it did not sit well with General Feldmann. He confided to me that there was enough DNA evidence on each of the released prisoners to convict them. All the prisoners, the General told me, had a particular weapon preference: improvised explosive devices, the primary cause of civilian casualties in Afghanistan. Now these criminals, all with blood on their hands, had been released back into society to create more mayhem. Feldmann said that this action by the Afghan government was a major step backwards for the rule of law in Afghanistan.
General Feldmann tried to muster a bit of optimism as he told me, “Perhaps there have been some positive changes in Afghan society. Each time I see a young person with an iPhone or iPad, I think that this is a good thing. This is a kick in the gut of the Taliban.” I appreciated his effort to put a positive spin on the situation, but I was not convinced – mostly because I am not blind.
Sadly, but not unexpectedly, violence increased after the release of the militant prisoners. Afghanistan was in its run up to a presidential election – an election that the Taliban vowed to disrupt. With 65 hardened criminals just sent back to the streets without any restrictions, it looked like the Taliban would have a bit of help in achieving their goals. On March 20, 2014, within a few days of my meeting with General Feldmann, there was a horrible shooting at the upscale Serena hotel, a resort within walking distance of where I was staying. Nine people were murdered, including Ahmad Sardar, a prominent Afghan journalist, his wife, and his two children who were all shot in the head. The assassins were four young militants. The Taliban had wasted no time in sowing more seeds of destruction, iPhones or not.
In June of 2014, the Taliban would have another victory as President Barack Obama traded Bowe Bergdahl for five high-ranking Taliban prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay. Bergdahl, an American soldier, had deserted his post in Afghanistan and had been captured by the Taliban. Many Americans, who believe Bergdahl had betrayed his country and had put fellow soldiers in danger, did not have a lot of sympathy for him. The freed Taliban members were sent to Qatar where they enjoy their freedom – and the space to plan, plot and conspire as they liked. Several months later, I actually went to Qatar to try to arrange a meeting with one of these freed extremists. Unfortunately, I failed to achieve my goal. Sometimes that happens. Not everything works out. I managed the disappointment by remembering that God’s protection over me overrides my thoughts and plans, and I try not to question that. Maybe once in a while it’s a good thing that I don’t catch the militants that I’m chasing. In time, President Obama’s choice to release these five terrorists from Guantanamo prison would prove to have lasting consequences. In August of 2021, when Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, it was revealed that the mastermind of the regime change was Khairullah Khairkhwa, one of the Taliban Five that Obama had released.
To round out my first visit to Afghanistan, I schemed with my new contacts to arrange a sit-down interview with an Afghan Taliban member. Originally, I had arranged a meeting with a youngish Taliban member who was responsible for recruiting students for the movement at Kabul University. As far as I knew everything had been arranged: the subject, the location and the time. My contact, Maiwand, was the person responsible for managing the interview agreement. Maiwand had some very interesting connections. His relationship with the Taliban was very personal and complicated. Not long ago he had been kidnapped and held prisoner by the Taliban. He told me that he expected every day to be his last. Eventually a deal was brokered to release him. It required the trade of a $36,000 generator from Maiwand’s family business. A bargain, I suppose.
My new friend, Samim from Integrity Watch, was not supportive of my plan to meet this young Taliban member. But when I refused to give up on the idea, he decided that he should come with me. The two of us met Maiwand and a few of his colleagues and began driving to the designated location. Suddenly Maiwand’s phone rang, and an agitated conversation ensued. Once he had finished the call, he told me that the plans had changed. Maiwand said that the person we had intended to interview had been forbidden by the Taliban from meeting with me. Instead, I would meet with another individual, the religious teacher of the original interviewee. The location of the meeting had also changed. We would now meet at a madrassa, an Islamic educational facility, outside of town. Generally speaking, it is much better to maintain control over your meetings. Last minute changes rarely work to your advantage. A new location. A new interviewee. I suddenly felt a bit out of sorts. Then I was told that I would need to assume a new identity and backstory – indeed, a new “legend.” There was a dizzying amount of new information coming at me all at once. While my handlers were peppering me with all this new data, my mind was trying to stay focused on where we were going and what I was going to ask this interview subject.
When we finally arrived at the location, Maiwand left our vehicle and jumped into another car and disappeared. Samim, still sitting in the car with Maiwand’s associates, was visibly nervous. I told him it would be alright, and I left him sitting in the car, rocking gently back and forth. Villagers surrounded the car and peered in the windows. Samim mouthed the words, “Hurry up!”
I was met by a member of the madrassa and led toward the small educational building. I walked through the door and almost immediately I saw two men come in behind me and block the door. They were holding AK-47 assault rifles. Were they there to keep others out? Or to keep me in?
The Taliban leader went by the name Mowlavi. I was sure that this was not his actual name. People in his line of work rarely used their real names in this part of the world. Mowlavi was an important commander for the Taliban in Logar Province. He had been arrested several times for terror-related activity and had recently been released from a U.S. detention facility. We sat on the floor of the Madrassa while he insisted on wasting my time talking in circles. I wasn’t there to arrest him or to play minds games; I was there to hear his point of view. That is what I am always after – understanding the perspective of others, no matter how horrendous and vile that perspective might be. Then I am able to tell others not just what is going on in the world, but why things are going on. First-person interviews are incredibly valuable for this reason.
After I was able to cut through the posturing, I found that Mowlavi’s perspective was that the Taliban could bring the nation back into Allah’s good graces. And they could do it effectively – violently if necessary. He said that they were intent on putting the nation under a strict version of Shariah law. They had done it before. Now all they needed to do was rid themselves of the bothersome U.S. forces “occupying” their land. After all, Afghanistan had rid itself of the Soviets; they could eliminate the Americans as well. As for the rest of the Afghan population, the Taliban, in Mowlavi’s mind, existed to uphold the lofty Islamic standards that would bring the blessings of Allah. The meeting made me think of a quote from James Fergusson’s book on the Taliban, “One year, a hundred years, a million years, ten million years – it is not important. We will never stop fighting. At Judgement Day, Allah will not ask, ‘What did you do for your country.’ He will ask, ‘Did you fight for your religion?’” This quote certainly seems to illustrate Mowlavi’s worldview. And I wouldn’t fault him for his dedication to God over country, if his god wasn’t encouraging the eradication of any who hold a different set of beliefs. God help us.
Sitting in the presence of someone like Mowlavi is fascinating and exceedingly dark. I didn’t know where to begin shining light. In this case, it occurred to me that the wisest course of action was not to argue with his perspective, but to gain insights that could help me explain this worldview to enlighten others more effectively. Another thought occurred to me as well: it might be prudent to conclude the conversation quickly, get out of the building, back in the car and out of this village.
I rose from the floor and thanked Mowlavi for his time. Thankfully, the guards standing by the door allowed me to pass. As I walked out the door, I saw that Maiwand and a few other people whom I didn’t know were standing next to our car with their own AK-47’s raised and pointed in the direction of the guards. I looked at both armed groups and moved slowly toward the car I had arrived in. As I opened the door and got in, Maiwand quickly slipped into the car, and we took off. Samim looked as if he might throw up. “Doctor, thank God you’re back. The villagers were staring at me, and they started bringing more people over. Then they began to rock the car, and suddenly Maiwand showed up with other people and guns, and he scared them off. This is crazy. Don’t try this again. Do you mind if I smoke a cigarette?
“No, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t smoke in the car,” I responded.
“But Doctor, I need to calm my nerves. I thought we were going to get shot. Let me smoke.”
“Nah, it’s not good for your heath. Let it go. You’ll thank me later.” Samim and I had had this little battle frequently over the last few days. Teasing him like this helped me calm my nerves.
“Not good for my health? We could have been killed just now! Let me smoke my cigarette.” Samim was exasperated with me.
“You’re being dramatic,” I said. “You didn’t almost get killed. We were fine. You don’t need a cigarette. Do you want me to stop and get you some juice?” I gave him my most innocent smile. He was a good man to stick with me through this meeting, and I felt just a bit guilty for teasing him. But only a bit.
Samim, resigned to my smoking prohibition, rested his head on the window and sulked.
All my subsequent visits to Afghanistan were in conjunction with the Swiss University, UMEF. Samim had suggested that I would be a good fit as a foreign professor for the MBA program offered by the university. Before I knew it, I had been offered a position teaching modules a couple of times a year to graduates students. I taught subjects of leadership, entrepreneurship and management.
I don’t think I was prepared for some of the challenges that would come with this opportunity. Notwithstanding the challenges of ill-behaved Afghan deer roaming the campus, I also had to contend with weather extremes. The winters were bitterly cold and there was no central heating. I was given a very small space heater and the freedom to warm either my feet or my head. But not both. In the sweltering summers I would beg for a fan to try to keep reasonably cool.
My teaching schedule was also strangely brutal. As the students were mostly professionals who had jobs, I had one class in the mornings from 5:00 AM until 9:00 AM. Then I would work on prepping for the evening class, usually falling into a small nap. I had my second class from 5:00 PM to 9:00 PM. After class I would return with an armed guard to the main campus and have dinner with the other professors. Usually by 10:30 PM I would begin prepping for the morning class, hoping that I would be able to get a little sleep before I had to be up at 4:00 AM to get ready for class again. I can tell you one thing, 4:00 AM in Afghanistan in January, with no heat in the bathroom, a toilet that routinely froze over during the night and a shower curtain that managed to encompass only 50 percent of the shower made me question my life choices each morning. But I kept making that choice five more times between 2014 and 2016. Would I trade those experiences? Never. Again, easy doesn’t make a good story.
Usually there were other foreign professors teaching modules at the university while I was there. We all lived together in the staff housing. My favorite person was Michael Akerib. Michael had the best stories I had ever heard. I didn’t even care if the tales were true or not. He was a man in his late 60’s from Switzerland and an avid fan and supporter of Russia. He told me that his ex-wife was an enormous Russian woman who had been born on the hood of a Soviet tank in Siberia. She was also a trained assassin for the Russian military. He told me that once he came upon her from behind to hug her. Her response left him unconscious with his eye knocked out of its socket. When he woke up in the hospital she greeted him with the words, “Don’t try to surprise me again. You won’t live to regret it the next time.” Michael was a brilliant teacher and an excellent communicator. He also routinely enjoyed very loud rants, threats, walkouts and violent arguments with anyone on his radar. He had a temper and was as abrasive as sandpaper at times, but I liked him immensely. When I think of Michael, my heart breaks for him. I shared my faith with him several times and I could see in his eyes that he wanted something more meaningful than what he had. But his mind wouldn’t let his heart believe. He carried hurt and disappointment that I knew only Jesus could heal. I still hope and pray for him.
I’ve often thought that part of Michael’s gruff demeanor was the result of working so long in Afghanistan. The atmosphere in Afghanistan was very different from my experiences in Egypt. In Egypt people were very expressive and demonstrative in their love for you. They could also turn on you in an instant and stab you in the back. Or the front. They were not picky. By contrast, the Afghan students, most of whom were either professionals or ministers in the government, were fiery, stubborn, argumentative and aggressive. But when they got to know you and trust you, the relationships were warm, respectful and genuine. Winning their admiration required a toughness that I was not used to in my relationships, personal or professional. You could not give an inch. You could not show weakness. You had to push back much harder than they were pushing you. They did not respond well to mercy and second chances. However, they did respond to a person who was willing to come to them and pour into their lives. They looked at corruption as a tool that had been successfully used in their country for the acquisition of power. In 2014, I took a certain amount of pleasure in congratulating my students on the fact that Afghanistan was no longer ranked the most corrupt nation in the world. They were now ranked as the third most corrupt. “We’re making progress, ladies and gentlemen, we’re making progress. Let’s get to work.” Trying to teach them that there were better ways to exhibit leadership was an uphill battle. But uphill we went, one warlord at a time.
Another foreign professor with whom I worked was a woman named Maria. Maria had grown up in a Catholic orphanage in Italy and had developed a deep hatred for the nuns who she said abused her. She also hated Jesus – viscerally. But for some reason, she enjoyed talking with me. All the foreign professors and the students knew that I was a Christian, and they did not hold back their skepticism for my faith. However, that bothered me very little; I just enjoy talking about what Christ has done in my life. I often think of the blind man mentioned in John chapter 9. He had been blind from birth and then Jesus came to town and healed him. The religious rulers heard of this miracle and interrogated the man about what had happened. He told them that it was simple. Once he was blind, but now he can see. Because of Jesus. They confronted him again and demanded that he explain himself and explain who this Jesus was. He was not an educated man, so he told them that he could not explain it and he just repeated: “Before Jesus I was blind. After Jesus I could see.” That was my basic strategy, just to talk about the hope that I have in Christ and leave it up to God to soften their hearts.
One common characteristic of Afghanistan was violence, often in the form of suicide bombers. One evening during class, there was a suicide bomb explosion nearby. We could hear the explosion from our campus. Many students couldn’t even make it to class. The media warned of increasing violence and the likelihood of more suicide attacks. That night Maria was noticeably agitated. She’d been to Afghanistan many times teaching for the university. She spoke about pressing her luck and that maybe this should be her last visit. “Perhaps I am testing God’s patience,” she said. “And we’re not exactly on good terms anyway.” So, that’s what we talked about that evening. I told her that while God was long suffering, He would not be eternally patient with those who resist Him. She looked at me and said, “You seem at peace. I wish I could have that kind of gentle peace, but I am scared to death.” She was an older woman in her sixties, and she carried the hurt and scars of someone whose past experiences with religion were negative. What she needed was not more religion, but a relationship with Jesus. This was the softest I had ever seen her. I shared with her again where the source of my peace came from. She listened intently as I spoke. She looked wistful, almost yearning. I had seen this look of longing before in the eyes of so many people in so many places around the world. It’s the look of someone who is thinking about life and death while searching for meaning and purpose, and yet they find themselves unable to grasp the illusive peace they are longing for. After that educational module was completed, I never saw Maria again. I wonder if she ever made peace with God.
During one of my last visits to Afghanistan to teach for UMEF, I had a most memorable experience. As usual, things were always on edge. Violence could break out anywhere and often did. No one was ever completely safe from a human perspective. On this particular evening, the media reported that Taliban militants had attacked the French school not far away. Several people had been killed. Would the Swiss university where I was teaching be next? It was always in the back of my mind.
As the evening wore on, exhaustion turned into sleep. In the middle of that sleep, I was awakened by the sound of gunfire. At first, I thought it was part of a dream. But the shots became louder and closer. Suddenly it sounded like the entire campus was surrounded with nonstop gunfire. I looked at the clock. It was just past one o’clock in the morning. I moved toward my bedroom door and out into the common area. I saw the only other foreign professor who was working at that time come out of his room and look at me. I said, “What’s going on? Is someone shooting at us?”
He said nothing but kept looking around, as if trying to determine the location of the safest hiding place should that become necessary. Then the Afghan liaison to the professors, a man called Wolf, came running out of his room. He told us to stay put and that he would run downstairs and see what was going on.
When Wolf returned, his face was as pale as death. He told us that we were being attacked and that the campus had been locked down. Then he looked at us and said, “The jihadists can only be held outside the campus for so long. It doesn’t look good.” He began trying to move furniture in front of the door, hoping to make it more difficult for the militants to reach us once they breached security. Meanwhile, the sound of gunfire had become deafening.
I walked back into my room, careful to keep low and away from the windows. I thought about what was happening and what the outcome might be. I felt strangely calm and resigned to the circumstances. Then I thought of my family and that maybe I should call them. So, I crawled on the floor, still avoiding the windows and dialed my wife’s number on my cell phone. I wanted to tell the people that I loved what was happening and I wanted to hear their voices. The line rang and I waited for my wife to pick up. The gunshots were becoming louder and louder. People were shouting throughout the campus. My phone call to my wife went to her voicemail. So, I called my older son. He couldn’t be bothered to pick up either. Then I called my younger son. He also didn’t have time to hear his dad’s last words. I hung up the phone and waited. I didn’t leave any messages, I just sat on the floor and waited for whatever was coming.
Hours later, the liaison, Wolf, came to us and said, “Sorry guys, false alarm. Afghanistan just won a soccer tournament and people were celebrating.”
“What? Celebrating by shooting off thousands of rounds of ammunition in the middle of the night all around the campus?” Let’s just say I was vexed. Vexed, but grateful that I was still enjoying God’s protection and patience.
“Yes, well, this is Afghanistan,” Wolf said. “Sometimes we’re celebrating, sometimes we’re killing. It’s not always easy to tell which one we’re doing. Anyway, goodnight, sleep well.” His comment was a very apt description of life in Afghanistan.
Two days later, my older son returned my phone call. “Hey, Dad, did you call me a couple days ago? What’s up? When are you coming home?”
“Yes, I called,” I told him. “But it was nothing important. I’ll be home soon. I was just missing you and wanted to hear your voice. Tell me about your day.” And he did. He told me about the most boring, mundane and trivial things of life at home. It was the most beautiful conversation I have ever had.
By 2021, things would be very different in Afghanistan. The U.S. began final troop withdrawals from Afghanistan on May 1, 2021. On July 6, the U.S. inexplicably evacuated Bagram Airfield – our primary military installation in Afghanistan – before we had evacuated all American citizens and Afghan translators who had helped our cause. The U.S. military leadership didn’t even bother to inform the new Afghan military commander that we had left. On August 6th, Afghanistan’s provincial capitals started falling to the Taliban and by August 15th, the Taliban took control of Kabul, the capital city. The victors renamed the nation The Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan.
The U.S. administration and military leaders claimed that they had no inkling that things would turn this dark this quickly. It is hard for me to believe that they didn’t have some idea. Prior to the Taliban takeover, U.S. President Biden responded to reporters’ questions stating that there was no way the Taliban would defeat the Afghan army. After all, the Afghan army, we were told, was 300 thousand strong and had been trained by the U.S. military for that last twenty years. And yet, the Taliban took over the entire country in about a week.
The ensuing chaos that many Americans watched on TV when Kabul fell, was hard to watch. Desperate people swarmed the airport trying to escape. Several tried to hang on to the outside of a departing C-17 transport jet. Some fell to their deaths.
As frantic people tried to flee the country, the U.S. seemed powerless to rescue them. On August 26th, a franchise group of ISIS called ISIS-K leveraged their opportunity, detonating two suicide bombs killing nearly 200 people, including thirteen U.S. military service members. And as if this wasn’t enough, it came to the attention of American citizens that we (through our tax dollars) gifted the Taliban with tens of billions of dollars’ worth of high-quality military equipment, making the Taliban an incredibly well-equipped militant group.
Eventually there will be many books written about this event, discussing what happened, what should have happened, who’s at fault and how this will impact America’s security and image. Personally, my concerns quickly turned to the many messages that were starting to pile up in my email inbox and in my Facebook messenger from former students, friends and strangers requesting help. They all wanted the same thing; they wanted to get themselves and their wives and children out of Afghanistan before they were identified by the Taliban as collaborators with the United States.
For those whom I could legitimately help, I quickly began filling out forms, writing referral letters and HR letters verifying their work with me and my company, Global Next. The documents were submitted to the appropriate government agencies, but the Taliban quickly closed the borders of the country. As of this writing, none of those I was attempting to help have made it to safety. My prayer is that they will eventually get out and not only find freedom, but the ultimate freedom that can only be found in Christ.
 The International Security Assistance Force was a NATO-led military mission in Afghanistan. It was established by the UN Security Council. Its purpose was to train the Afghan National Security Forces and assist in rebuilding key government institutions. ISAF was disbanded in December of 2014.
 Fergusson, J. (2012). Taliban: the unknown enemy. Da Capo.