by Robert Herold

He's made a career of being on the ground near some of the hottest spots when tanks roll, nations clash and civilians flee the scene. No, he's not a special operations agent; Doug Beane is a relief worker, and since 1967 he has worked for Church World Service, a non-governmental agency representing 36 Protestant and Orthodox denominations worldwide. Back in 1967, he was sent to Vietnam, where the need was the greatest -- he stayed until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Then he served in Thailand until 1983, when he returned to the United States. For the past five years, although officially retired, he's been traveling from his home in Spokane to Pakistan -- including some trips into Afghanistan -- to work with Afghans seeking refuge near the city of Peshawar, Pakistan.

In Pakistan, Beane oversees a health program for Afghan refugees that has been running since 1980, when Afghans first fled the Soviet invasion. Now he will also monitor a new Emergency Response Program that is aimed at providing food, medicine and shelter to the new refugees.

Just last week, Beane made his 16th trip to Pakistan to help the flood of people leaving the once-again war-torn Afghan countryside. After a two-month tour, he is expected to be home on Dec. 15. Just before leaving, Beane spoke to us about his experiences in this tragic part of the world.

RH: As an American, what sentiment did you face in Afghanistan and Pakistan? Did you face a lot of anti-American sentiment while you were there?

DB: I experienced no anti-Americanism either among our own staff or in the society at large in Pakistan or Afghanistan, even with the Taliban.

What's it been like working over there?

Well, as you can imagine, they have a different mindset than people I have worked with in the past. My whole experience working in Asia, up until the time I went to Pakistan, was in countries that were primarily Buddhist. I had never worked in a country that had a significant Muslim population until I went to Pakistan, so that was a great change for me.

Religion obviously played an important part in Thailand and in Cambodia, where over 90 percent of the population are Buddhist. But in Pakistan and Afghanistan, religion is very much to the forefront in a lot of ways, and one always has to be very careful. For example, you have to be very careful about references to the prophet, very careful about how you refer to the Koran, very careful that you don't denigrate in any way the Islamic religion. And the reactions to that on the part of ordinary people can be very strong.

Now in Thailand you have to be very careful about what references you made to the king, but you could be critical of Buddhism. Thai Buddhists would enter into those conversations in a spirit of give-and-take, provided that you were not being nasty, but simply being objectively critical. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, it's not that you couldn't have those discussions with people, but you had to be very careful about how you approached it.

Now is this because of the Taliban?

In Pakistan, it's not a problem. In Pakistan, the place where we're working is a very conservative area, both theologically and culturally. But the health project itself -- we have not had any particular, major problems since I have been there. Male and female staff ride back and forth to work in the project vehicles with no problem.

In Afghanistan, the Taliban set certain parameters, and that is that in the basic health centers, the men and the women have to be separated, so that the women work in one part of the center, and the men, the male staff work in another part of the center, and the male patients relate to the male staff, the female patients to the female staff. And we have male doctors and female doctors at each one of these centers. As long as you follow that rule, you're all right. As long as you follow the rule that the traffic vehicles that take the staff to work, the males have to sit separately from the females, and as long as you do that, we've been okay.

The -- I'll use the phrase "religion police" for lack of a better term -- has occasionally stopped in at these basic health centers and has raised questions with our staff as to whether or not we are, in fact, following the guidelines of keeping the male patients and the female patients, the male staff and the female staff, separate. They have been satisfied with those explanations, and we have had relatively little problem.

We've seen -- the American public has seen -- in the last weeks, videotape shot by journalists that have been into Afghanistan, and have shown some really brutal things happening to women -- women who have done nothing more than be seen in public with a male are executed. What's your feeling about all that after being there as long as you have?

Well, my feeling is that a lot of what is happening in Afghanistan, one has to separate a little bit the culture from religion. The Taliban come primarily from one ethnic group of the country. And their cultural traditions are reflected in many of the ways in which the Taliban have related to society as a whole since they began the process of taking over power in 1994. I am not totally familiar with the Koran, or with the various interpretations of the Koran that have come out over the centuries, but I think that the cultural element in the Taliban's relationship toward women is perhaps much stronger than the Islamic influence on that [behavior]. These actions tend to be cultural in nature, by and large, rather than religious.

How do you find women reacting to this? Are you seeing any push for women's rights?

Not inside Afghanistan, but in Pakistan, the major leadership in that role is coming from educated Afghan women who have come out of Afghanistan and are now living in Pakistan.

How do you get to be an educated Afghan woman?

When the king took over in 1934, and throughout his 40-year reign, there were more opportunities for women to be educated, particularly in urban areas, and particularly in Kabul. The level of female education and the changing attitudes of women evolved because there was more access to education on the part of women. I think that did not change so much in the rural areas, and one of the major points that conservatism in the rural areas had against the communists when they took over was the fact that they tried to rush very quickly into this involvement of females in education in the rural areas. That didn't work, and there was a very violent reaction against that, both against the principle and against the way in which they went about it.

Was Osama bin Laden's presence in Afghanistan the subject of much attention in Pakistan or Afghanistan where you were?

Not in terms of widespread attention. I think within the circles in which he moved, he was well known. He was on the Pakistan side in Peshawar, working in Peshawar, and probably, again, within the mujahadeen circles in which he moved, he was well known, but he was not well known beyond that.

I think it's probably possible to catch them, but I think it's going to be extremely difficult. One of the stories that I've heard is that they've taken over an old Russian complex in the northern part of the country. They have modernized it, if one can speak of caves as being modernized, with whatever they would need to withstand a long siege, but that may or may not be true.

Well, now the fear is that you have these camps out there turning up legions of young men who apparently think this is the way to go, what to do with their life, and how to end it. Having worked there for as many years as you have, would this be something that came out of the blue, or was it something that was lurking? Where did it come from, and where do you see it going?

That gets into a question that I think is way beyond Pakistan and Afghanistan, and probably beyond my own confidence to respond. So I will speak from my own opinion and my own observations through reading and through talking with people. I think this was lurking, and because I think it was lurking, I was not surprised at it, but I was surprised by the sheer magnitude and disregard for human life that was involved. I am not surprised that they attacked the Pentagon because that's a symbol, in their eyes, of the U.S. military, and to strike a blow at that symbol is to say that we can do this. And on the other side, the World Trade Center was equally a symbol of U.S. economic might and capitalism. And to strike at that was not surprising. They tried it once in 1993, and didn't quite pull it off.

But, as I said, the surprise was not that it was done, but for the disregard of human life that was involved, in terms of innocent civilians. That, I was surprised at, but I think there are many reasons and I think the genesis of this is in the Middle East; it is not really in Pakistan or Afghanistan. I don't think we would even be talking about Afghanistan if Osama bin Laden wasn't there. But the genesis of this finds itself in the disaffection that has risen in the Middle East over those governments' inability to solve various economic and social problems that exist. And the animosity towards Israel, the United States -- what they perceive as the United States' almost unconditional support of Israel against the Arabs, to put it in their terms.

What about the other criticism that has been levied or suggested about the United States pulling out of Pakistan and Afghanistan immediately after the Russians left, with the Pakistanis feeling left out to dry and the Afghans abandoned? What is your sense about that, and what have you heard while you were over there?

Both Afghans and Pakistanis felt that the real United States interest in Afghanistan, and in helping the freedom fighters, was not because of any concern for their cause. The U.S. interest was in revenging itself upon the Soviet Union for its support of the Vietnamese communists in Vietnam. That the goal was to kill as many Russians as possible. It didn't seem, and I am trying to present what I have understood to be their point of view, that the main issue was to free Afghanistan from the years of slow development that has taken place there, but to kill the Russians. Once the Russians made the decision to leave, the U.S. lost interest.

Do you hear that when you're over there?

Yeah, I've chosen not to get into really big arguments, which is easy to do over there, over this, because it's a very strong perspective of many people with whom I've spoken.

It's been said that 10 years ago that the Muslims in Indonesia did not even know where Palestine was, and now they are rallying to this cry. And I suppose the same thing could be said about Pakistan. I, at least, don't know if it was very high on anyone's agenda, in fact bin Laden did not even talk about it until, it seemed, he needed some peg to hang it on, about a week ago. None of these issues would seem to directly affect either Pakistan or Afghanistan, and yet you've got people in the streets in Pakistan because of this argument that somehow this is an attack on the nation of Islam. I would think that they would probably not want it to come down to a government like Pakistan's falling. Where do you see this going?

I found that they didn't bring the issue of Palestine up that often, and neither did the Afghans with whom I've spoken. There were always local things that we talked about rather than that. In the times in which it did come up, we happened to be listening to a BBC radio broadcast or something, and comments then would come up about it. Then, almost to a person, they would be supportive of the Palestinians, simply because they regarded them as fellow Muslims.

Is that supportive to the point of insisting that Israel has no right to exist?

No, not in any discussions that I had. I don't recall any discussion in which Israel's right to exist was questioned. Now, I would qualify that by saying that doesn't mean that they didn't think that. It means that they never said that to me.

Let me turn our attention here to two questions: First, the US response to the attack in New York and D.C. What's your sense of it, and as somebody who's been on the ground there, where do you see it going? What chance of success does it have? What will be the long-term consequences, if any? And also, the effects of what we're doing in Afghanistan on Pakistan, in particular.

If anyone had said that you would find General Mushareef of Pakistan supporting U.S. military action against the Taliban, no one would have imagined that. The terrorist action against the Pentagon and the Twin Towers and the loss of life changed a lot. One of the things that clearly changed was the Pakistani decision to support, within certain limits, the U.S. anti-terrorist agenda. These would be the Taliban and Osama bin Laden. So, to predict what will happen is difficult.

In Pakistan, to start with that, the fundamentalist religious groupings, the Islamic groupings, in Pakistan, are probably not more than 10 percent or 15 percent of the total population, which is now somewhere between 130 and 140 million. But they are well organized, and they are able to command a great deal of attention when they choose to get out on the streets and organize, as they have recently. The political parties that have put up candidates with this point of view for elections in the past have rarely gotten more than one or two percent of the vote. So the Pakistani electorate as a whole is not interested in electing people from these extremist religious groupings.

The military took over the Pakistani government in October 1999, and the present leader of Pakistan, Mushareef, is a Muslim, obviously, but has taken a fairly low-key approach to these religious groupings up until these terrorists' activity in September. He was criticized very heavily in some sectors of Pakistani society for keeling over in the face of pressures that were put on by some of these groups. Whether these groups will be able to command sufficient pressure to remove him, or to remove his government, I think is an open question. If he is removed, I think it will be a very difficult day for Pakistan. If they are able to stay in power, then they can proceed with the agenda of trying to bring back democratic government, and hopefully Pakistan will be able to emerge from this stronger than the country was before. Pakistan has many, many problems, economic and social problems, that are unrelated to terrorism, and so there are a whole number of factors that are involved in what happens to Pakistan.

As for the Taliban, it was already showing signs of strain prior to these terrorist actions -- strains between the hard-line group against a more moderate group, which basically said, we've got to take a more moderate approach to all this, because we can't simply go at it by ourselves. We've got to stop antagonizing the non-governmental bodies out there to help us put this country back together. Just in my experiences, a lot of roadblocks were put up, increasingly so in 2000 and 2001, as to how they could carry out their work, a lot of bureaucratic red tape, which made it difficult for humanitarian missions, including the UN, to get the work done that they were there to do. The hard-line faction, the mindset there was, we're right and we'll do this on our own. What will happen now is whether the military and other pressures will bring these groups closer together or will it split them apart, and then will the more moderate elements try to strike a deal at the expense of the hard-liners.

Let's take you back to where you began, and that is with these refugee camps that you've seen. Do you have some stories to tell about these camps?

There are varying types of refugees in Pakistan, from Afghanistan. Some of them have been there for 20 years. There is a significant percentage of the Afghan refugee population that has never been in Afghanistan. They were all born in Pakistan, brought up there.

The ones who have been there for 20 years are living in -- let's just take the one that we're working with, the 60,000 in the Monsara district of Northwest Frontier Province -- they are living in what would be more or less traditional mud-walled houses within compounds.

There is no running water. Now, in some of these places, there is electricity, but there has not been up until recently, particularly in the camp that's the furthest from Monsara.

They are all different walks of life. There are educated people who have completed college, there are farmers from rural areas, there are shopkeepers, and most of them are from the eastern part of Afghanistan. So, the 60,000 in Monsara are settled, and their situation, one could say, is more normalized, if one could speak of normalization for people who have lost their country.

In September of last year, there were 2.5 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, and that was enough. And basically, Pakistan decided that it would close the borders. But, between September of last year and April or May of this year, another 80,000 more still came across, even with the borders closed. The Pakistani government contained them within a specific area in the Northwest Frontier Province. And the point was, they were not going to let the United Nations make a refugee camp out of this, because they did not want more people to come across the border, and they wanted these people to go back. And so their conditions have been very bad in this camp. Very bad.

Will you be working in that camp?

No. It is very likely that I won't be. There are other non-governmental organizations, international rescue committee (one that comes immediately to mind is the "Save the Children" fund), who have worked in that area. Church World Services has traditionally not worked in the immediate Meashour area, but have worked with a group of refugees that was located the furthest away from Meashour, in terms of Northwest Frontier Province. What we will probably be working with, and I don't know where they're going to put these people, are the recent arrivals who have just come into Pakistan, or are trying to come into Pakistan, or may come into Pakistan because of the bombing and the fighting, the total disruption of society.

When you go back, do you expect to see, or experience, an anti-American reaction to you that you have never seen before? What do you expect to find in terms of how you're accepted?

Pakistan is evolving a program of support to the new refugees in both the Peshawar area and the Quetta area. I think it would be very possible that there would be increased anti-Americanism.

Does that worry you?

It doesn't worry me. I have worked in situations of that kind before, but I do think it means that both I and the people who have responsibility for my security will have to be very much more aware of the fact that this could happen and to take all precautions, because you can never be 100 percent. If one wants to be 100 percent guaranteed, then you should not leave and go over there in the first place.

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About The Author

Robert Herold

Robert Herold is a retired professor of public administration and political science at both Eastern Washington University and Gonzaga University. Robert Herold's collection of Inlander columns dating back to 1995, Robert's Rules, is available at Auntie's.