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Life, death and the Taliban: War of ideas

A woman, a school and a tragically complex relationship.

Haji Malik was soon released but his son and his brother, Khadel Khan, have been held ever since March in detention at the military prison at Bagram Airbase. They have been detained without charges but are suspected collaborators with Taliban militants, according to the U.S. military.

Sally, who is a brilliant educator, and Don, who is a talented lawyer, were convinced that the U.S. military had been supplied with flawed intelligence. They refused to accept that Haji Malik or Khadel Khan could have been involved with the Taliban. Sally had developed a particularly close bond with Khadel Khan, who had lost his son as well. They had bonded through shared loss, she said. I had gotten to know both men as well on my trip there. There are snapshots of all of us smiling, arm in arm after a big lunch we shared in the village.

And now here was Khadel Khan standing accused of offering support to the Taliban. Sally and Don refused, at first, to accept such a betrayal as a possibility. How could these men side with the same group that had provided the support Osama bin Laden and Al Qaeda needed to carry out the attacks of Sept. 11 that killed Peter and some 3,000 others, not to mention the steady campaign of bombing and violence they carried out every day in Afghanistan?

In mid March, Don and Sally flew to Kabul and sat down with U.S. Army Brigadier General Michael Ryan. He handed them a dossier marked “restricted” from ISAF, the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan. It contained documentation of the allegations against the men. Documents state that both Haji Malik’s son and Khadel Khan are associates of “a major insurgent leader” of Taliban militants in the area who’ve carried out “suicide vehicle Improvised Explosive Devise attacks in both Kabul and Logar.” There were also photographs of the cache of weapons, including machine guns, landmines and the wiring, detonators and explosive material to make roadside bombs, all of which, the military report stated, were found in the residential compound where the extended families of Haji Malik and Khadel Khan live.

Don and Sally came away convinced the allegations had substance, and devastated by the facts. Sally said she was impressed with how respectful and thorough the U.S. military had been in its handling of the case.

Sally described the scene that day, saying, “I am getting up from the table, leaning forward and I said, 'These men gave me back my life.' And Ryan leaned toward me and he said, 'And they are taking the lives of my men.'"

Sally added, “So where am I? I am in a position where I can’t support the school at this moment because I am an American. That is why Peter was killed on that plane. And they are who they are. And I am who I am. We each have to make our own decisions and live with them. But there is great loss … for me and for them … . I just don’t see anyone coming out a winner on this point.”