ARLINGTON, Va. — 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.