I is for Infidel

From Holy War to Holy Terror in Afghanistan


By Kathy Gannon

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In early 1986 Kathy Gannon sold pretty much everything she owned (which wasn’t much) to pursue her dream of becoming a foreign correspondent. She had the world to choose from: she chose Afghanistan. She went to witness the final humiliation of a superpower in terminal decline as the Soviet Union was defeated by the mujahedeen. What she didn’t know then was that Afghanistan would remain her focus for the next eighteen years. Gannon, uniquely among Western journalists, witnessed Afghanistan’s tragic opera: the final collapse of communism followed by bitterly feuding warlords being driven from power by an Islamicist organization called the Taliban; the subsequent arrival of Arabs and exiles, among them Osama bin Laden; and the transformation of the country into the staging post for a global jihad.

Gannon observed something else as well: the terrible, unforeseen consequences of Western intervention, the ongoing suffering of ordinary Afghans, and the ability of the most corrupt and depraved of the warlords to reinvent and reinsert themselves into successive governments. I is for Infidel is the story of a country told by a writer with a uniquely intimate knowledge of its people and recent history. It will transform readers’ understanding of Afghanistan, and inspire awe at the resilience of its people in the face of the monstrous warmongers we have to some extent created there.


To my mother and my sister for their love
To the memory of my friend Kathy Evans
To my husband, Pasha,
who is the most wondrous of dreamers,
and who reminds me every day of
the possibilities of tomorrow

Map courtesy of Bowring Cartographic

Mujahedeen (Warlord) Government 1992–6
(Supported by U.S.)
RASHID DOSTUM: allied first with communist, then with Massood, and then with Hekmatyar
MOHAMMED FAHIM: interior minister who ordered Karzai arrested
JALALUDDIN HAQQANI: key commander in mujahedeen government
GULBUDDIN HEKMATYAR: prime minister who attacked Kabul for four years
HAMID KARZAI: deputy foreign minister
MAULVI YOUNIS KHALIS: education minister who dismissed education for girls as unnecessary, welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan from Sudan
AHMED SHAH MASSOOD: defense minister and ethnic Tajik who ignored Karzai requests to bring ethnic Pashtuns into the government and to Kabul from the south and the east of the country, killed on Sept. 9, 2001 by Tunisian suicide bombers posing as television journalists
ABDUL RASUL SAYYAF: factional leader who controlled interior ministry, whose soldiers committed atrocities, operated training camps and welcomed Osama bin Laden to Afghanistan from Sudan
GUL AGA SHERZAI: governor of southern Kandahar province, warlord, and drug baron
HAJJI ABDUL QADIR: governor of eastern Nangarhar province who gave welcoming speech at lunch for Osama bin Laden after he arrived in Afghanistan from Sudan in 1996
Taliban Government 1996–2001
QATRADULLAH JAMAL: information minister
JALALUDDIN HAQQANI: key commander in Taliban government
MULLAH MOHAMMED KHAKSAR: moderate Taliban, former intelligence minister, still in Kabul
MULLAH WAKIL AHMED MUTTAWAKIL: former foreign minister, moderate
MULLAH OBEIDULLAH: defense minister
MULLAH MOHAMMED OMAR: fought in U.S.-backed war against invading Soviet Union, founded Taliban to end lawlessness of mujahedeen, imposed repressive and rigid interpretation of Islam
President Hamid Karzai's Government December 2001– (Supported by the U.S.)
MOHAMMED FAHIM: former defense minister
HAMID KARZAI: president
MAULVI YOUNIS KHALIS: allied to Qadir's provincial government
HAJJI ABDUL QADIR: governor of eastern Nangarhar province and Cabinet minister until his death in 2002
GUL AGA SHERZAI: Kandahar governor (briefly Cabinet minister)

*All photos are courtesy of the Associated Press, unless otherwise indicated.
Page 1Top—Gulbuddin Hekmatyar with Commander Jalaluddin Haqqani in Jalalabad, Afghanistan. Photo courtesy of Bangash Khan. Middle—Hekmatyar reviews guard of honor in Islamabad, Pakistan. Photo courtesy of Bangash Khan. Bottom—Hekmatyar is sworn in as prime minister of Afghanistan in 1996 by Burhanuddin Rabbani (left). Looking on is Abdul Rasul Sayyaf (right).
Page 2Top—Author Kathy Gannon at Torkham border post in 2001 with Riaz Khan (center) and Mullah Hanifi (right). Bottom—U.S. leaflets dropped throughout the countryside to persuade Afghans to help against the Taliban.
Page 3Top—Former Afghan communist president Najibullah and his brother are hung in the Kabul town square. Bottom—Taliban members celebrate Afghan independence in Kabul, less than two months before the 9/11 attacks.
Page 4Taliban escort Christian missionaries back to their cells.
Page 5Setting up a satellite telephone on the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Page 6Mullah Mohammed Khaksar, former Taliban intelligence chief
Page 7Destroyed Bamiyan Buddha
Page 8Abdul Rasul Sayyaf addresses a news conference with Ahmed Shah Masood. Photo courtesy of Bangash Khan.

Friends or Foes
Karim is not his real name. I know my friend's real name, but he is too afraid to use it.
Fear, war, and repression are like threads woven into the fabric of Afghans: fear of the Russians, of the mujahedeen, of the Arabs, of al Qaeda, Pakistanis, Americans, B-52 bombers, and of each other.
My friend is a man with a history. His left arm is slightly disfigured, the elbow smashed by a Russian bullet, a battlefield scar gained fighting the invading Soviet soldiers in the 1980s. Back then, he was a brave mujahedeen, unmoved by the sight of the Russian enemy, unafraid to heave a rocket launcher onto his shoulder, take aim, and fire. But in 2004 near the border of Afghanistan, as he sits across from me, he is too afraid to be identified.
"Do you want me to be killed?" His smile is nervous. He doesn't say anything else. He just looks at me, silently. I wonder what to do.
We're sitting at a long wooden table that is hidden beneath a coffee-stained tablecloth at a hotel in Pakistan's frontier city of Peshawar, not too far from the border with Afghanistan. It's a rugged little city largely inhabited by fierce Pathan tribesmen, who live on both sides of the border, here and in Afghanistan.
Peshawar is about 400 kilometers from the Afghan capital of Kabul and relatively safe for my Afghan friend. I've always loved Peshawar. There is a romance about the city, which looks eastward to the Khyber Pass, a historically treacherous stretch of road that nineteenth-century British colonialists could neither tame nor travel without being massacred. Peshawar sits at the crossroads of the ancient silk route. In its heart, snuggled in the middle of aromatic spice bazaars, where everyone is deafened by a cacophony of screaming rickshaws and blaring car horns, is the storyteller bazaar. Its name harkens back some 2,000 years to a time when caravans of weary traders, their animals bundled high with exotic silks and spices, would stop for the night, bed their tired beasts, and trade stories of the road they had just traveled and the dangers they had faced.
The first time I visited Peshawar was in 1986. Then, nearly 5 million Afghans, who had fled a Soviet invasion of their homeland, lived as refugees in camps that crowded in on Peshawar.
A lot has happened in the intervening years. The Soviet Union withdrew its occupation troops and a brutal civil war among Islamic mujahedeen groups followed; their feuding ways gave rise to the repressive Taliban regime, which was cut down by the U.S.-led war in 2001, bringing in Hamid Karzai's government and returning many of the same feuding mujahedeen to positions of power. So much has changed, yet so little has changed.
I look down at the tablecloth, finger the teaspoon, wait for my friend to say something. I pour another cup of coffee. It's cold now, and the milk, which had been boiled, has coagulated. There's a television on in the corner of the room. The picture is fuzzy, but it's easy to see it is a cricket match, a popular sport in this part of the world.
Finally, my friend decides. He doesn't look directly at me and I don't try to make eye contact. I can feel his nervousness, and that he is ashamed of his fearfulness. When at last he speaks, his head is slightly bowed.
"Please, my friend, don't say who I am."
I agree, and that's when we decide to call him Karim.
Karim isn't much older than thirty-eight. An ethnic Pashtun from Afghanistan's eastern Nangarhar Province, of which Jalalabad is the capital, he's fluent in Arabic, weak in English, but improving every day. His face is handsome, with deep brown almond-shaped eyes and a neatly trimmed black beard. He studied Arabic in Peshawar at the Institute of Imam Abu Hanifa, which is funded, he tells me, by Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
I understand his fear. The topic of our conversation is a dangerous one. Karim was in Jalalabad in May 1996 when Osama bin Laden arrived from Sudan. He knows the details of his arrival, details that implicate powerful men in today's Afghanistan, men who sit with Afghan president Hamid Karzai, who are welcomed at the heavily fortified U.S. Embassy in Kabul to meet the U.S. ambassador in Afghanistan. These men were returned to positions of power by the United States and its coalition partners in 2001, men like Abdul Rasul Sayyaf.
One August day in 2004, when I was having breakfast with Hamid Karzai on the lush green lawns of the presidential palace in Kabul, he described Sayyaf as an ideologue in a way that sounded complimentary. But Sayyaf is a vicious man, whose followers have carried out unspeakable atrocities and horrific massacres of Afghanistan's ethnic Hazaras.
Abdul Rasul Sayyaf inspires violence in others: Abu Sayyaf, a Philippine terrorist organization, was named for him by its founder, Abdurajak Janjalani. Janjalani was a disciple and a student of Sayyaf's who received military training from him. The Indonesian Mohammed Nasir Bin Abbas, alias Solaiman, who was arrested in Indonesia in April 2003, was trained under Sayyaf between 1987 and 1991. Bin Abbas used the terrorist training he received from Sayyaf to set up Camp Hodeibia in the Philippines, according to Maria Ressa's account in Seeds of Terror (New York: 2003). This camp was later taken over by Umar Patek, an Indonesian who has been implicated in the 2002 bombing on the resort island of Bali in which more than 200 people were killed.
A report put together from information collected by more than one Western intelligence agency and revealed by the newspaper Al Watan Al Arabi tells of a particularly terrifying meeting held soon after bin Laden's arrival in Afghanistan, before the Taliban took power and while Sayyaf and his mujahedeen colleagues were ruling the country. My friend Karim had also heard the details of the meeting, although he hadn't been present at it.
It was convened in northwest Pakistan's remotest tribal regions, tucked away on an arid plateau surrounded by hills and guarded by hundreds of men hidden in the trees and crevices of the mountainside.
The high-level secret meeting brought together some of the most radical of groups and nations, who accused the West then in 1996, a full five years before the September 11 attacks, of waging a war against Islam. The participants urged a counteroffensive and spoke of attacking the United States and the West. They spoke of their hatred for the West and their revulsion for governments in the Middle East that sympathized with the West.
Fundamentalist organizations in Egypt, Yemen, Iran, and other Gulf states were represented, as were militant groups from Pakistan, Algeria and Sudan. They sat beside dissidents who lived in London, Tehran, and Beirut. They had come together to plot a war against American and Western interests.
Convinced that the West had already begun a war against Muslims, they wanted to retaliate, go on the offensive, and take the battle to the enemy on their own terms. This was not their first gathering. There had been at least one earlier meeting in Iran to lay the ground for this gathering, to settle religious and ideological differences that would allow these men to come together to wage a single war against a single enemy—the West.
And so a huge tent was pitched on the high plateau, under the watchful guard of the sentries in the ring of hills. A noisy generator provided light. Ghostly shadows were visible from outside, backlit against the walls of the tent as the participants moved inside. It was an eerie sight.
Men arrived in four-wheel-drive vehicles that had rumbled up the tortuous roads. The first to arrive was Osama bin Laden's lieutenant, Aymen al-Zawahri. The conversation focused on Benjamin Netanyahu's rise to power in Israel. One man, who seemed to have come from a European country, spoke of a vicious offensive being readied against Islam.
The men talked for another two hours until Osama bin Laden joined the gathering. At his side was Abdul Rasul Sayyaf. It was Sayyaf who spoke first. Bin Laden listened. Sayyaf shared bin Laden's revulsion for U.S. troops in Saudi Arabia. He praised the violent bombing one month earlier in al-Khubar in Saudi Arabia that had killed more than twenty U.S. servicemen, for which al Qaeda had been held responsible. Sayyaf's small brown eyes seemed to glow as he recounted the bombing. He reveled in the description of it, saying it should be a lesson to America to withdraw its troops from Saudi Arabia. He likened it to the 1981 and 1983 bombings in Beirut of the U.S. Embassy and its military compound that had killed hundreds of U.S. soldiers and led to the American withdrawal from Lebanon.
Sayyaf's speech inspired an Iranian to call for an all-out offensive against America. He was frenzied. He warned that the Muslim world was facing its gravest conspiracy. It wasn't clear whether he had been sent by the government or whether he represented a jihadi group. Another speaker joined in, this time from Bahrain. His words were angry, his voice rising as he spoke: "We are enduring coercion and humiliation in our own country." Then an Egyptian spoke. He castigated his own government for spurning an offer from Syria to mediate its differences with Iran.
The men talked into the night. As dawn broke, a man from London looked to Sayyaf for direction. What should they do? What strategy should be adopted?
Sayyaf's voice was low. "Let us wait until this evening, when we resume our discussions. I will then speak and give my opinion as one who believes in what you believe and who is ready to fight in the same trench as you."
When they reconvened, it was brief, the decision firm. They would confront the United States and the West. The organizations represented at the meeting would work together, they would devise strategies, plots, coordinate. In this way, in mid-1996, high in the lawless tribal lands of northern Pakistan, the terrorist networking began.
After the meeting, Sayyaf returned to Kabul to resume his role in the mujahedeen-led government of Afghanistan, a government that owed its existence to the support it had received from America.
As I sat across from Karim in the noisy hotel coffee shop in Peshawar, I began fully to understand his fear. Sayyaf's men had been among those who had welcomed bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996, along with others from that mujahedeen government who had also been returned to power by the United States in 2001. These same men had encouraged and allowed terrorist training camps when they were in power from 1992 until 1996. They had lied to the CIA in September 1996 when the agency had requested their help in finding bin Laden. The CIA's intelligence was so flawed that it wrongly said that the Taliban brought bin Laden to Afghanistan in 1996 and that the Taliban's leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, knew bin Laden before he came to Afghanistan in 1996. He didn't. It was Abdul Sayyaf, America's "ally," who had welcomed bin Laden.
My friend Karim didn't see the United States and the West as a source of comfort or protection. He fidgeted with his beard. His voice broke. His usual speaking voice is a baritone, but when he gets excited or worried it rises and cracks, becoming squeaky sounding.
I worried for him. He knew who had been present at a series of April 1996 clandestine meetings among the mujahedeen, meetings held in lantern-lit rooms to discuss giving bin Laden sanctuary in Afghanistan. Then Sudan, under relentless pressure from the United States, wanted bin Laden gone.
A friend of Karim's went to Khartoum to meet bin Laden. Karim's voice dropped to barely a whisper as he recalled the conversations. I strained to listen.
My friend met Osama. Osama had a question. He said to my friend: "I have more problems with America and the problems that Sudan has today with America; maybe tomorrow Afghanistan will have these problems and what will your reaction be?" My friend didn't have an answer for him. He had to return to Jalalabad and ask the mujahedeen.
The mujahedeen knew that America wanted Osama, but they didn't mind. They called a shura [council meeting of elders] and the shura gave its decision: "Afghanistan has had twenty years of war. It has been destroyed by all these wars and fighting. We have thousands of problems and if Osama is one more problem, what is that? He is a Muslim. We should help. What are problems for Afghans? God will solve all our problems. Tell him to come."
Among the key figures at the shura that April day in 1996 were lieutenants of Sayyaf and of other mujahedeen leaders, who today hold positions of power in Afghanistan.

The Way It Was
It was a crisp cool morning on September 26, 1996, when I returned to Afghanistan on a Red Cross flight from Pakistan. The fractious mujahedeen government was under siege by the Taliban, who were closing in on Kabul. I wanted to see just how close they had gotten.
I stepped down the narrow stairs of the aircraft, clinging to the rope handles to balance myself. The tarmac was crowded with international aid workers waiting to board, to get out of Afghanistan before the Taliban entered the city. They said the city could be overrun within hours. I thought it would be days, maybe even weeks.
I had assumed that this would be one of many trips I would make to Afghanistan before the Taliban were in a position to overthrow the mujahedeen government, which was made up of the guerrilla factions that had forced the withdrawal of invading Soviet soldiers in 1989 and the collapse of Afghanistan's Communist government three years later in 1992.
The mujahedeen's four years of rule had been one long bloody war between rival factions within the government, which was dominated by the Northern Alliance. By 1996, Kabul was in ruins, buildings were crumpled heaps of stone, brick, and cement.
An Afghan Red Cross worker told me she said good-bye to her husband and young son each morning, never sure they would be alive when she returned. Each time she heard the thud of an incoming rocket, her heart sank and she whispered a prayer: "Please, God, please keep my family safe."
On that afternoon of September 26, events moved much quicker than I had anticipated. It turned out that the Red Cross aircraft that dropped me off would be the last plane in or out of Kabul for the next ten days, as the Taliban seized control.
Rockets could be heard from a distance, but still I thought the mujahedeen government was in control of the city. Their collapse didn't seem imminent and I went looking for someone to talk to, perhaps from the Afghan Foreign Ministry or from the Defense Ministry. I found Dr. Abdullah, sometimes referred to as Abdullah Abdullah. He has always seemed more diplomat than warrior, although he has spent all his time at the side of Ahmed Shah Massood, the first post-Communist defense minister. Abdullah has the uncanny ability of knowing and saying what foreigners want to hear, regardless of whether it's true. He would later become the first foreign minister in Hamid Karzai's government. But that afternoon he was a mujahedeen spokesman and in a defiant mood.
He insisted that the mujahedeen fighters would not be defeated. His exact words were: "We will fight until our last drop of blood." I should have known then that their defeat was imminent because in Afghanistan that promise was generally made just before a hasty retreat.
After so many years covering Afghanistan, I now understand what Afghan leaders really mean when they talk about shedding the last drop of blood. They certainly don't mean their own. It is usually the blood of innocent civilians caught in the cross fire. When leaders' lives are threatened, their first inclination is to beat a hasty retreat.
That day in Kabul, behind his angry bluster, Dr. Abdullah was getting ready to run. He railed against Pakistan for supporting the Taliban and against the United States, accusing America of propping up the Taliban. Westerners were not popular that day in Kabul.
I discovered just how unpopular we were when I headed toward the front lines. On the way to Pul-e-Charkhi, a small village on the eastern outskirts of Kabul where the country's biggest and most notorious prison was located, I heard not only the thud of incoming rockets but the nearby stammer of small-arms fire. It was getting louder and yet we were still far from Pul-e-Charkhi. At first I couldn't figure out what was going on. The incoming rockets were getting closer, too close if the mujahedeen government was going to be able to hold on to power.
Several Northern Alliance soldiers caught sight of our car and the foreigners within. They were angry, very angry. One young soldier grabbed his Kalashnikov rifle and began pounding its butt on the hood of our car. His face was contorted with fury, his eyes blazing with anger, his rage directed at us. I didn't understand why.
I asked Abdullah Zaheeruddin, the Associated Press correspondent in Kabul at the time, to stop the car so we could talk to the soldier. I am sure he thought I was crazy, but he did. The soldier screamed something at us in Persian. All I could make out from his ranting was "America," and it didn't sound flattering. Abdullah translated: "Go home to America. It is America who brought the Taliban."
We tried to move closer to the fighting, inching our way toward Pul-e-Charkhi. We hadn't yet reached the outskirts of the city, but we couldn't go any further. Within moments, still well within Kabul, we found the front lines. Rockets blasted in toward us from the Taliban side. Behind us, the Northern Alliance soldiers continued to brandish their Kalashnikovs at us, screaming for us to get out, go home, leave.
We did, and quickly, returning to the city center, barely three kilometers away, where some Northern Alliance officials could be found who were still not ready to concede defeat, promising, like Dr. Abdullah, to fight on until the last drop of their blood, or as it turned out, until later that night when they slipped out of Kabul under the cover of darkness. Kabul, and with it Afghanistan, had been abandoned to the Taliban.
I was at the only United Nations guest house that night, one of the rare places in Kabul where you could get a drink. The bar was stocked with alcohol retrieved from a hidden storage compartment in the U.S. Embassy, which had been closed for more than a decade.
As I sipped a whiskey, I wondered what was happening to Afghanistan's former Communist president Najibullah, who was living under house arrest just a few blocks away in a UN compound. He had been there since 1992, forced to seek UN protection when the mujahedeen government took power and refused to let him leave Kabul.
Najibullah, who had the stocky build of a wrestler, had been president when I first came to Afghanistan in 1986. He had been in the job one year by then. I had been drawn to Afghanistan by what I saw as the David-and-Goliath war being played out in this remote corner of the world. In 1986, the mujahedeen stood for the determined David and the Soviet army the militarily superior Goliath.
Afghanistan was being described as the Soviet Union's Vietnam. Ronald Reagan, keen to support a proxy war against America's Cold War enemy, had coined the phrase "freedom fighters" to describe the mujahedeen.
I was sure the battle was a pivotal one in the relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union, the world's two superpowers. And I wanted to see how it would play out.
No one expected that Afghanistan would be the last military confrontation of the Cold War or that the mujahedeen would so puncture the sense of Soviet invulnerability that soon one superpower would collapse utterly. Nor could anyone have imagined that Ronald Reagan's freedom fighters, whose Islamic fervor was being whipped up to a fever pitch to fight the godless Communists, would later become a deadly adversary of the United States and of the West. In 1986, most of the U.S. aid that came to Afghanistan went to the most radical of the mujahedeen factions because their fighters were the most daring, the most willing to face death in battle. They were also the mujahedeen groups that had within their ranks men like Osama bin Laden and his lieutenant, Aymen al-Zawahri.
I had arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan, in March 1986, having left behind fifteen years of working at newspapers in Canada. I sold everything I owned, which wasn't much, and set out to become the foreign correspondent I'd always wanted to be. The only way to get into Afghanistan then was to enlist the help of one of the seven main mujahedeen groups that were headquartered in Pakistan. One of them agreed to take me across the border. My first trip was in the company of one of the most radical of groups, Hezb-e-Islami, whose leader was the henna-bearded Maulvi Younis Khalis.


On Sale
Sep 5, 2006
Page Count
304 pages

Kathy Gannon

About the Author

Kathy Gannon is Associated Press Special Regional Correspondent for Pakistan and Afghanistan. In 2011 she received the Canadian National Newspapers’ Governors Award for Lifetime Achievement. In 2003-4 she was Edward R. Murrow Press Fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York and was been published in the New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, Wall Street Journal, and L.A. Times. Born in Timmins, Ontario, Gannon was city editor at the Kelowna Courier and worked in several Canadian newspapers before going overseas. She has lived in Israel, Japan, Pakistan and Afghanistan.

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