Schooled by the Taliban

Updated:

BOSTON — Ever since that crystal clear fall morning of Sept. 11, 2001, Sally Goodrich has been on a journey.

It led her to Afghanistan, where she has spent the last several years reaching out to the very country where the hijackers who took the life of her son, Peter, were trained, funded and inspired. Hers was a long journey toward healing and then hope.

But last week it took a dramatic turn that reveals much about Afghanistan and how dramatically the situation there is deteriorating these days. It shows how aggressively and successfully the Taliban is reasserting control of life in every corner of the country.

It’s a turn that would leave a less hardy traveler on the road of life completely disillusioned, perhaps even bitter. But that’s not Sally.

Let’s start at the beginning of her journey.

On Sept. 11, Sally’s tall, handsome, fun-loving son, Peter, 33, was on board the second plane that went into the twin towers. He was traveling for his work as a software engineer.

After many months in the valley of despair that comes with losing a child, Sally caught a glimpse of sunlight that led her out of the darkness. She was pointed there by her late son’s best friend, a Marine, who was serving in Afghanistan.

From the war zone the Marine wrote to Sally, a reading teacher in the western Massachusetts town of North Adams, that Afghanistan needed her help as an educator. The students in the war-ravaged country, he informed her, desperately needed school supplies.

Sally answered the call. She began collecting school supplies everywhere she could and delivered them to Afghanistan. Her story touched many hearts. Eventually, she raised $250,000 and decided in 2006 to use the funds to build a girls' school in Afghanistan's Logar Province.

In the spring of 2007, I traveled with Sally on the day she got to see the school up and running for the first time. I was there to hear the girls giggling and shouting her name, surrounding her and thanking her. I was there to see the joy and hope in their faces that an American woman who lost her son in the Sept. 11 attacks would have such a big heart.

I saw her son’s English language version of the Koran carefully placed in a glass case in the principal’s office. The family was nominally Catholic, but the closest thing it had to real religion was the Red Sox. Peter was born on the day the Sox clinched the pennant in 1967. But Peter had a passion for understanding all religions and he carefully marked certain passages of the Koran that Sally had donated to the school.

The village elders in Logar Province who watched over the school hosted a lunch for us. Sally had gotten to know them through repeated trips to Afghanistan during the fundraising for and then construction of the school. There was Haji Malik, a tall, gentle-mannered man with a thick beard and traditional Afghan dress. And there was his younger brother, Katal Khan, who actually looked much older, with a thicker and more gray beard and deep lines in his face.

Between them, these two patriarchs of the tribe in this small village in Logar had 14 daughters who were studying in the school that Sally built.

After we spent the day visiting with students, the elders hosted an elaborate meal for us in their family compound next to the school. We ate in the top floor of a gas station that the family owned on the main road out of Logar, about an hour outside of Kabul. The gas station was a crossroads in a dangerous, rural corner of Afghanistan and the village we were in definitely was perilous.

Nearby the Taliban had taken to torching girls’ schools, which violated their puritanical and misogynistic interpretation of the Koran. But we felt we were with two elders of the village who were more enlightened. We were the protected guests of these two men and accepted their hospitality and convinced ourselves we were safe.

She told me that Katal Khan also had lost a son, during Afghanistan's violent history, and that they had bonded over this and shared their grief. She felt close to him.

“These people gave me back my life,” Sally told me, repeating the phrase frequently throughout our journey in Afghanistan.

The title of the story on the cover of The Boston Globe’s Sunday Magazine was “Educating Sally.” It was a feel-good story that ran on Mother’s Day in 2007. But we didn’t know then just how hard the lesson would be for Sally.

Last week, Sally found out that U.S. and NATO forces came in the middle of the night and raided the home of Haji Malik and Katal Khan and the gas station owned by these men. The military had intelligence reports that the two men were actively involved with the Taliban insurgency and possibly with Al Qaeda. They were alleged to have planted roadside bombs and to have killed U.S. troops. They were taken to the military detention facility at Bagram air base.

When the news came to Sally and her husband, Don, at their home in southern Vermont, they both refused to believe it.

There were too many inconsistencies. How was it possible that the two men could put their daughters in the school by day and support the Taliban at night? How could they have been so warm to an American woman who sought to help them and at the same time view the American military forces in their country as an enemy target?

Sally and Don flew to Kabul last week to see for themselves and to help win the release of Haji Malik and Katal Khan. They met with high-level officials in the U.S. Embassy and in the military. They were presented with a devastating body of evidence including photographs of roadside bombs, detonators, machine guns and landmines, all of which were seized from Katal Khan’s home. Haji Malik has been released and Sally and Don met with him. They say he seemed to offer little plausible explanation for why the weapons were in his brother’s home.

Sally and Don met with Brigadier General Michael Ryan in his office, a trailer in the ISAF headquarters in Kabul. Sally said to him exactly what she said to me last year: “These men have given me back my life.”

Without flinching and without pause, Ryan replied, “… and they have taken the lives of my soldiers.”

With those words and with the body of evidence, Sally and Don left Afghanistan with lingering questions but a gut feeling that the military was right, that the men they had come to know had turned to the insurgent factions of the Taliban and possibly even elements of Al Qaeda.

Some of the more convincing aspects of the intelligence dossier were revealed to Don and Sally and made available to GlobalPost. Because the information was classified and could jeopardize the safety of troops and sources in the investigation, GlobalPost agreed not to publish the details.

“I came in convinced the military was wrong and I left hoping they were wrong, but believing they were right. If they are right about these men, we are in a very bad place in Afghanistan right now. These are people who have interacted with Americans in a very positive way. And if now they are trying to kill Americans, then we truly don’t understand where the place is,” said Sally in an interview this week just after she had returned.

Sally also has been struggling with cancer and sounded exhausted. There was sadness in her voice about where this journey had taken her.

Don, a talented lawyer who has worked closely with the Sept. 11 families, said, “I see this as disturbing evidence of the reemergence of the Taliban … . Everyone is always talking about a tipping point in Afghanistan, but if Haji Malik and Katal Khan have taken up with the Taliban then we have gone beyond the tipping point. They are decent men and I believe they see that the country is heading in the direction of the Taliban, and they made a decision to go along. We should all be very worried about that.”

Sally cleared her voice and said, “Was I naive? Yes. And I guess I still am because I am still hopeful. Look at what we accomplished. We built a school for girls. We established relationships with people there. No matter what happens, we cannot afford to sit back and not try to build these relationships. I am more enlightened than when I began this journey. If the journey was to learn about the culture, then I am still learning … . I see the place more completely. I see the contrasts, the extraordinary violence and corruption and the wonderful hospitality and the humor. I have gotten to know Afghans who I admire and now I know some Afghanis who I know succumbed to the reemergence of the Taliban. I guess you just gotta keep learning.”

More GlobalPost dispatches on Afghanistan:

A setback for Afghan women

The almost candidate

Exclusive: Former Taliban see opening for talks