SPRINGFIELD, Va. — Mohammed Shah Jahan Arif paces on the ornate red carpet in his living room as yet another caller from Kabul--today it's the minister of agriculture--pleads with him to return to Afghanistan and take his place in the corridors of power.
Arif already has turned down Afghanistan's president, Hamid Karzai, who wanted him as deputy defense minister. He has declined a slot as provincial governor. But the calls keep coming: He is a medical doctor, a military hero, a tribal leader.
"My people need me," he explains. "They want me to come back."
But Arif isn't going: After two decades of fighting for his country, he is fighting for his wife and nine children now. They live off friends, food stamps and an $8-an-hour overnight shift at a Mobil station near this blue-collar Washington suburb.
If few Americans know of Arif's remarkable past, few Afghans know of his desperate present. His is a riches-to-rags story.
"My people think I am in the White House with President Bush," says Arif. "They don't know I am pumping gas in Virginia."
Arif, 48, was born in Ghazni, an ancient Afghan trading town southwest of Kabul. The area is home to the Hazaras, an ethnic minority group and Shia Muslim sect that supposedly arrived with Genghis Khan in the 13th century--and has been persecuted ever since.
When Arif was 6, his teacher slapped him so hard he was knocked off his feet. His crime: The Hazara boy had offered to show the Sunni Muslim class how Shias pray. Later he would learn that Hazaras were barred from Afghanistan's Sunni-run mosques, army and universities.
"In school, I could not even say I am Hazara," he recalls.
But Arif, son of a wealthy Hazara chieftain, would not be deterred. After attending high school in Kabul, he argued and bluffed his way into college and medical school at the University of Nangarhar in Jalalabad. He became one of the first Hazara doctors.
War intervened when Soviet forces invaded in 1979 to impose a communist regime. Like most Afghans, Arif saw the invaders as infidels who were killing Muslims. Quitting his post at the Ghazni hospital, the young physician grabbed a World War I bolt-action rifle from his father's house and joined the holy war.
"I hate war," he says. "But the communists killed so many people. They bombed us, they invaded us, they burned our houses. We had to defend ourselves. We had to fight back."
Arif had no military training, but he was a natural leader, able to organize and inspire men. He soon commanded the largest moujahedeen force in the area, a Hazara army of 3,000 fighters and followers based in mountains east of Ghazni.
"We were guerrillas," he says. "At night, we would come into the city and attack. We would hit their supply lines. We would ambush their convoys."
Soviet military accounts from the time cite heavy losses around its Ghazni garrison. By Arif's account, he and his fighters stole or captured 13 T-62 and T-54 tanks, heavy artillery, armored vehicles, and thousands of mortars, machine guns and other Soviet weapons during the war. They even traded a captured Soviet soldier to another rebel group for 25 Kalashnikov assault rifles.
But the cost was also high. In all, Arif lost about 1,300 men. He was wounded twice, suffering a broken leg and shrapnel in his head.
"It was very, very hard," Arif says. "We were cold and hungry. Always hungry."
A New Force Emerges
Photos show Arif then as an oak-limbed man with regal bearing under a mufti turban, posing by an antiaircraft gun, hiking with his men in the snow, treating a bloodied child in the dirt. Then, as now, he had a wide grin, piercing eyes and a bushy beard.
In 1989, the Soviets withdrew. Arif rejoiced with his men. The new president in Kabul, Berhanuddin Rabbani, named him deputy defense minister. Soon he joined the government ruling council, representing the Hazaras' political party, and considered a new career.
"I thought I would be a politician," he says. "I worked for my people. I was their representative."
But a civil war erupted as rival warlords battled for power in the post-Soviet vacuum. Rabbani ordered Arif to hold the line in Ghazni, and in 1994, he gave Arif several satchels, each stuffed with $20,000 to $30,000 in cash, to deliver to a group of fundamentalist clerics and fighters who had entered the war. It was the Taliban.
"We liked them at first," Arif recalls. "We thought they would fight with us against the warlords. The Taliban said they didn't want power, or to take over the government. They wanted to end corruption and cleanse society. They wanted to help people. We believed them."
It didn't last. Taliban zealots soon seized control of Ghazni and began arresting and torturing opponents, especially Hazara Shias. Arif had met several times with Mullah Mohammed Omar, the Taliban leader who now is a fugitive, and he felt personally betrayed.