June 05, 2020

The odd, sad case of Laili Zikria Helms

Go to Google, and type in “Laili Helms.” Or archive the Nov. 27 New York Times and read “She Spoke for the Taliban and Now Pays a Price.” Or see Laili’s own op-ed piece in the Times of Dec. 8. The more you learn, the odder it becomes. Afghan of noble descent turned American soccer mom? Wife of a CIA director’s nephew turned Taliban cheerleader? More than anyone else in the United States, this pleasant, Westernized young woman – maiden name Zikria – has championed the Taliban since their appearance in the 1990s. Why?

As one who used to know Laili – and liked her – I’d like to know why. This article is by way of exploration, a search for truth in the least likely, and perhaps least rational, of all Afghan crisis biographies over the past 23 years. It’s a challenging excavation in that one’s not sure quite where to dig. In ideology? Or psychology? Or genealogy? These are the three main contenders, the most probable areas of motive. First the bio-facts, as told by Alessandra Stanley in the November Times article:

“Ms. Helms was born in Kabul into a wealthy upper-class family, but her family left for Paris and then, when she was 3, for New Jersey. They returned to Afghanistan when she was 9, then back to New Jersey when she was a teen-ager. She attended Fairleigh Dickinson University in New Jersey.

“At 22, she became executive director of Friends of Afghanistan, an association of Afghan expatriates and Americans opposed to the Soviet occupation. In 1988, she and her husband moved to Peshawar as aid workers.”

Some elaboration may help. The Zikria family in Kabul was more than “upper-class”; they were part of the extended royal clan, collateral relatives of then-king Mohammed Zahir. This family tree, bewilderingly luxuriant because of multiple wives and double figure offspring, has putative roots in 15th-century Kandahar. Its earliest history has faded from all but folk memory, but for most of the past two hundred years various branches have traded power in well-chronicled and often horrific sequence. In Pashtun culture, “cousin” is frequently synonymous with “enemy.”

The early 19th century witnessed especially bloody transitions. One Afghan ruler, Shah Mahmood, blinded a rival and later cut him into pieces. The unfortunate victim was a Barakzai, and so is the Zikria family today. Shah Mahmood was descended from the Populzais, and so is Hamid Karzai, named in Bonn last week to lead the new Afghanistan. Laili’s op-ed take on Interim Council Chairman Karzai: “… only a titular leader … he is not seen as a major Pashtun leader or a national figure in Afghanistan.”

This description seems mirror-like. Laili’s own folks, the Zikria Barakzais, are excellent people of noble lineage, but (as dynastic luck would have it) they’ve been relegated to the margins of power for generations. Hence the roots of genealogical theory to explain the strange peregrinations of Laili Zikria Helms.

Let’s update the genealogy notion and add some speculative psychology. Laili’s father’s older brother (whom we, in kinship-simplistic America, would call merely “uncle”) is Bashir Zikria, a formidable man and much respected New York surgeon. Dr. Zikria has also been an active member of the “Rome Group” and thus a staunch supporter of Zahir Shah.

Older brothers and younger brothers are linked in Pashtun culture by contradictory ties of cooperation and competition, respect and resentment. Their children inherit this psychological baggage. Did Laili, the child of a younger and less well-known brother, feel the need to prove herself in a political direction diametrically opposite from that of her powerful uncle? As we’ve learned this past week from Kandahar squabbling (Noorzais vs. Achakzais), genealogy is ideology for Pashtuns. Was collateral envy sufficient cause for Laili to become the “Taliban Tokyo Rose,” as one government official has cruelly called her?

And/or has there been some even deeper ego hunger, a desire to be not only a Friend of Afghanistan but also a Player?

I wonder not out of busybody curiosity – and less still out of malice – but from the perspective of fond memory and somewhat avuncular concern. Laili and her then fiance Roger Helms invited me (how many years ago?) to be a sort of cultural intermediary at an early meeting between the two sets of in-laws. It was a charming evening, hosted by Roger’s cultured parents and graced by the equally genteel Zikrias. “Here,” I remember thinking to myself, “is a promising match, all the more so for being so inventive, so unlikely.”

“Uncle Dick,” as Laili refers to him, was not on the scene, but I’d met him 15 years before. Richard Helms was director of the Central Intelligence Agency from 1967 to 1973 when, knowing too much about Watergate, he was shipped by Nixon as far as possible from Washington and made U.S. ambassador to Iran. I served briefly near the bottom of his embassy staff.

(Think what you will of the CIA and its leadership over the decades, Helms struck me an American aristocrat with an extremely quick mind. Here is a story which may be apocryphal, but I wouldn’t put it past him. Setting: Tehran, early 1973, Helm’s first encounter with his USSR counterpart. Soviet ambassador: “A great pleasure to greet you, Mr. Helms, and to note that America has sent a spy as its ambassador.”

U.S. Ambassador Helms: “The pleasure is mine, Mr. Ambassador. I hope we’ll find much in common. The only difference between us is that America sent its top spy.”)

Back to Laili, now with husband Roger in Peshawar a decade ago. I recall a birthday celebration for a senior American official at Laili’s house. I recall Laili at the Peshawar American Club. Despite advanced pregnancy, she was the life of the party … in a wholeheartedly American way. Several years later the couple and their two small children came to my home in New Jersey. I recall the kids sledding down a hillside, just like what you see on American Christmas cards.

Our friendship had another dimension. As the Times article says, Laili was active in consciousness-raising for the Afghan holy war during the mid-1980s. Once she asked me to moderate a press conference in New York for Resistance leaders. I admired her initiative and was glad to serve. In the mid-1990s she called again with a similar request … only this time I was asked to help introduce the Taliban.

I declined. It seemed to me, even early on, that the Taliban were not a sustainable and harmonious answer – not even an interim answer – to Afghanistan’s agony. They appeared to me, from the very start, a raw bunch of hard-nosed Pashtun imperialists whose religious ideology may have been sincere (and distorted) but whose lasting effect would have been ethnically disastrous. I said as much to Laili. Sadly, I never heard from her again.

Now there is an interim answer for Afghanistan, put together with great hope recently in Bonn. There’s also Saturday’s Times op-ed piece by Laili Zikria Helms: “The Afghans Need America, and They Know It.” Like the recent Taliban themselves, she seems to expect instant rehabilitation – which is fine so long as, like the Taliban, she’s sidelined. She’s trying to be constructive when she writes of the need for safe roads in Afghanistan. That’s fine, too. Safe roads were one of the Taliban boasts … and Mussolini made the trains run on time. (The Italian fascist had more success than his Pashtun analogue Mullah Omar. I myself was robbed, beaten and abandoned – together with three humanitarian colleagues – on the Taliban road to Kabul last March.)

Laili’s Times piece deprecates not only Hamid Karzai but also the Northerners serving on the new Interim Council. Thank God, say most Afghans, for this new government, however embryonic and ethnically not-quite-balanced. It may be less than perfect, but it merits support. It does not need gratuitous criticism – least of all from a self-appointed spokesperson and “advisor” of the barbarous outfit that did its country incalculable harm and came to be abhorred by millions of Afghans themselves.

Yes, the Afghans do need America. You make the call: Do Afghans also need more of Laili’s advice?

Dr. Whitney Azoy, a cultural anthropologist and former U.S. diplomat in Kabul, has worked for 30 years with Afghanistan and the Muslim world.

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