James R. Russell
James R. Russell


Let’s talk about Afghanistan.

My cousin Bobby married a beautiful Afghan Muslim girl, Sima. Our Sephardi-Ashkenazi family had no problem with her faith; but she told me once that she could never return to Afghanistan, since it was probably known she had married a Jew, and for that she would be killed on the spot. But my relatives loved Sima. Long ago, when the Afghans were fighting the Soviets, her father came to New York for a visit. He had two wives: one in America, one back in Kabul. We sat cross-legged around a tablecloth spread over the carpet, and Sima served us homemade mantu— lamb dumplings in broth. Her father told me that when the Russians came, he went outside and gave them bread and onions. Why? Because he felt bad that all those healthy, handsome young men had come so far only to die. How much, he asked me, did I think this trip cost him? I didn’t know. He explained: I took the bus to the Soviet border, for a few cents. In Soviet Central Asia, I exchanged dollars for rubles on the black market and bought a round-trip ticket to Moscow and another round-trip ticket from there to New York. Eighty dollars. Plus I’ve brought some rugs to sell, so subtract the 80 bucks and change the trip cost and I’ll make a profit. We drank our green tea and exchanged pleasantries in Persian.

Around that time I traveled to the mountains along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border where the pagan Kalashas live. The border was a 15,000-foot mountain, down which a fully armed Afghan mujahid sauntered in flip-flops. He was over six feet tall and had green eyes. He was living, he explained casually, on green tea and nan (flat bread). When our conversation ended, he embraced me and we wished each other God’s protection.

Decades later I was on a fellowship at Hebrew University and was laid up in hospital because of a traffic accident, which led to many delays, including the managing of my bank account. When I was well enough to get to Mount Scopus, a young lady who worked for the bank’s campus branch helped me sort everything out. Her family were from Kabul and had made aliyah in the early 1950s, when nearly all Afghanistan’s ancient Jewish community left the country. It is a matter of record that the first inscription in the modern Persian language is from Afghanistan and is in Hebrew letters: Jewish speakers of Persian lived across all of Iran and Afghanistan, as well as Central Asia (Samarkand, Bukhara, and other Silk Road cities) and Chinese Turkestan. The Chinese Jewish community was formed by Persian Jews. I think there was one Jew left in Kabul a few years ago, and I believe he either left or passed away.

Alexander temporarily conquered the place, which was then called Bactria (the name survives in Balkh, near Mazar-i Sharif) on his way to India. He married a local princess, Roxana: the girl’s name is an early equivalent of the Persian word roushan, meaning “shining.” So the first hit single by one of my favorite bands, The Police, has an Iranian name. (“Roxanne/ You don’t have to put on the red light/ Those days are over/ You don’t have to sell your body to the night” and so on.) The Afghans have never been for sale. And Russia and Britain, playing their “great game” of empire building in central and south Asia, tried to acquire them for free. It’s a long story, and you can read Peter Hopkirk’s excellent and lucid book “The Great Game: The Struggle for Empire in Central Asia” for the details. Or just enjoy Rudyard Kipling’s novel about it, “Kim.” (I once went to the museum in Lahore where Kipling’s Indian boy hero sat on the cannon on the lawn, and, dash it all, I sat on the cannon too. So there.)

When Alexander left, the Bactrians took to writing their Iranian language in Greek script. Many of them became Buddhists, and thus we have statues of Bodhisattvas with the sinuous musculature of young Hellene athletes: Greco-Bactrian, or Gandharan, sculpture is one of the glories of Asian art. Bas-relief friezes depict beautiful, scantily-clad maidens in exquisite jewelry (like the necklaces and earrings Sima and her relatives wore at her wedding— waterfalls and fountains of gold). Troupes of itinerant Parthian musicians gambol across the stone with their zithers, lutes, lyres, flutes, and drums. An important text of Mahayana Buddhism that I used to teach, the Milindapanha, that is, “The Questions of King Menander,” is a classic of world literature — a kind of Socratic dialogue between a Greco-Bactrian king and a Buddhist monk, Nagasena, about the nature of existence.

Two great statues of the Buddha stood at Bamiyan, in Afghanistan, and in April 2001 the Taliban rulers of Afghanistan dynamited them. The Taliban (the word means “Islamic seminarians”) are a gang of murderous, sadistic Islamofascist thugs and terrorists. Their movement was one of the extremist groups that formed during the war against the Soviet invaders: their ideology (and funding) can be traced to the Salafi fanatics of Saudi Arabia. The Taliban sheltered Al Qaeda, a terrorist group run by Osama Bin Laden, a member of one of the richest families in Saudi Arabia. In the 1990s, Al Qaeda dynamited two American embassies and severely damaged an American warship, all with many victims. The Americans did nothing: their good-time-Charlie president was too busy with his sexual adventures in the Oval Office. After the barbaric destruction of the Bamiyan Buddhas, all National Public Radio did was to haul a Vietnamese monk before the microphone on its “All Things Considered” program: he said Buddhism is peaceful, everything is impermanent, do nothing, etc. Never have Buddhist teachings been so perverted into apologia for the appeasement of pure evil.

I wrote a letter that evening to the Harvard Crimson, arguing that the attacks on the twin embassies and twin Buddhas suggest a pattern, and therefore we must expect another attempt to destroy the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center in lower Manhattan, and security should be beefed up there. We don’t print prophecy, replied the editors. What they really meant was that anyone who has actual, in-depth knowledge and on-the-ground experience of Central Asia and applies keen thinking to events there can go to hell if he isn’t certified as politically correct. And sure enough, September 11th rolled around, and in the aftermath the memorial wall at St. Vincent’s hospital, a few blocks north of ground zero, sported this thought in bold letters: “Is Israel still worth it?” That became a leitmotif for talking heads: a number of my colleagues participated in the solemn foolery of a discussion group (broadcast by NPR’s Boston affiliate) to pin the blame on, you guessed it, Israel. In recent days, they have been busy condemning Israel for defending itself against Hamas aggression, but with a new twist. They feel offended, harassed, threatened by the very suggestion that they are antisemites. I can imagine Hitler down in hell fuming, “Now why didn’t I think of that?”

President Bush had wanted to focus on domestic issues, but was forced by 9/11 to confront Al Qaeda. The US invaded Afghanistan to end the Taliban because they were in league with Al Qaeda. That was the mission. But the mission got clouded by other issues: nation-building in Afghanistan, and mollifying the two enablers of the Taliban, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia. The Americans defeated the Taliban swiftly, and then spent nearly a trillion dollars — so much money that I can’t even imagine it — on these fuzzy, misbegotten projects. The corrupt Afghan government, and the various contractors hired to remake the country, were a black hole for my taxes. The money will never be found. Nobody will ever be held accountable. When Afghan girls are tortured and beheaded for going to school, for going shopping without a male chaperone, or for not wearing a black tent over their heads, the American “liberal” politicians and media and universities will be silent.

The recipe for a successful military campaign is this: Define your mission and stick to it. The Armed Forces of the United States (Obama wanted to rename them the “uniformed services” but that sounds like a bunch of janitors, and anyway, the hell with Obama) had this mission: to prevent Islamic terrorism from gaining a foothold in Afghanistan. This required holding Bagram and Kandahar air bases and exercising strategic control. It was done with a few thousand soldiers and for a year there have been no casualties. Is it really worth wondering why Biden withdrew the way he has done? Why waste time parsing the fragmentary thoughts of a senile roadside oaf?

People are already comparing the fall of Kabul today to the chaotic scenes on the roof of the US embassy in Saigon in 1975. But I think this black and evil day is much worse. The North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were not my favorite people, though my generation idolized them. They were brutal and tyrannical, but they did not seek to reduce women to the status of animals or to turn society back to the dark ages. No, I would compare these days of surrender, dishonesty, and retreat to a different sort of infamy.

Some weeks back, my fellow Chabad congregant Stuart Weil suggested I find a documentary film about Peter Bergson, “Against the Tide,” produced by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. I ordered a copy from the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles and there were many delays, but it was worth the wait. Peter Bergson, the son of HaRav Kook, devoted all his efforts to rescuing the European Jews as soon as he found out about the Nazis’ program of extermination. The American Jewish leadership, headed by Stephen Wise, did everything it could to discredit him and to block his efforts. The State Department and the Roosevelt administration did their level best to ensure European Jews could not escape. At Casablanca in 1943, when the details of the Final Solution were public knowledge, FDR counseled the Moroccans to bar Jews from social advancement, lest the achievements of the latter lead to the same sort of justified animus that the Germans felt. The next year, the US vetoed bombing the railroad tracks to Auschwitz, even overruling Churchill, who had supported the plan wholeheartedly, even vehemently.

We were abandoned to extermination. It is not just that the Allies didn’t care about the Jews. Many of them hated us. The Afghans have been abandoned, and there will be mass murder there: after 20 years of engagement, there few in America know anything about them, nobody in a position of authority cares about them, and the world will be silent.

And what of those who do care? I have a good friend who did several tours in Iraq and Afghanistan, only to be maneuvered out of his job by the university when his years of service were over and he returned home. His son, a friendly, decent, handsome young man, became a Marine and was severely wounded in battle. After many months in the hospital, during which he suffered unbelievable pain, this young veteran tried to make a life, but post-traumatic stress and addiction overcame him. He died last Wednesday, not on the battlefield among his comrades, but in the wasteland of an indifferent and ungrateful nation, a nation that is today ruled by the enemies of human liberty and decency, by apologists for the monstrous tyrannies he opposed with his body and his gun. He did not live to see the fall of Kabul. His war was already lost, but he didn’t give up and kept going to the end.

Ahmed Shah Mas‘ud, the Lion of the Panjshir, commander of the Northern Alliance in Afghanistan that fought the Taliban, was murdered by two Arab terrorists posing as journalists just days before 9/11. He once said, life passes whether you are having fun or not, so you might as well do something worthwhile with it.

Liberty is not given. It has to be fought for and taken, and defended. Damn the politicians. In memory of the heroes of the Armed Forces of the United States of America who gave their lives in all our foreign wars, and to our living veterans. In memory of Peter Bergson and the Va‘ad Hatzalah of the Orthodox Jews of America. In memory of our fighters in the ghettoes of Warsaw and Vilna and the forests of Belarus. In respect for the soul of Ahmed Shah Mas‘ud and the Northern Alliance. And for the boys and girls of the Israel Defense Force, who hold the line against Hamas, Hezbollah, Al Qaeda, and the Taliban. For our freedom, and theirs. Do you think for a moment that the Afghan people will not resist this monstrosity? A man who can walk up a 15,000-foot mountainside in sandals, live on bread and tea, and defeat a superpower, is not going to let some thugs keep his daughter from going to school because of their sick, criminal religious fanaticism. Can one carry on living and not try to measure up to such valiant men, to the captains courageous of our lives? In this black hour, there is nothing for it but to swear to keep on fighting the good fight. The immortal souls of the heroes demand no less.

For Andrew, zikhrono le-vrakha, of blessed memory, with love and respect, and to George and Lucine.

About the Author
James R. Russell is Emeritus Professor of Armenian Studies at Harvard University, and has served as Distinguished Visiting Professor of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Associate Professor of Ancient Iranian at Columbia, and part-time Lecturer in Jewish Studies and Biblical Hebrew at California State University, Fresno. He is at present Adjunct Professor of Iranian Religions at the Daneshgah-e Adyan va Mazaheb, Qom. He is on the Editorial Board of the journal Judaica Petropolitana, St. Petersburg State University, and a founding member of the International Association for Jewish Studies, chartered in the Russian Federation. His PhD is in Zoroastrian Studies, from the School of Oriental Studies of the University of London. His recent books include "Poets, Heroes, and Their Dragons", 2 vols., UC Irvine Iranian Series, 2020, and "The Complete Poems of Misak Medzarents", CSU Fresno Armenian Series, 2021.
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