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Afghans' future meant more than his safety

Published September 17, 2006

There have been countless eulogies to Steve Irwin, the "Crocodile Hunter" killed Sept. 4 by a stingray. Sadly, the death of another Australian citizen has gone largely unnoticed despite his heroic contribution to the global war against Islamic extremism.

His name is Hakim Taniwal, and his story shows both the promise and enormous perils of efforts to transform Afghanistan from a terrorist incubator into a thriving democracy.

An Afghan by birth, Taniwal fled his native land in 1980 during the Soviet invasion. He first moved his family to Pakistan, then in 1997 to Melbourne, Australia, where they took up citizenship.

Although he had been a sociology professor, Taniwal was unemployed in Melbourne and felt he was wasting away. So he jumped at the chance when Afghan President Hamid Karzai asked him to return home in 2002 and join the new government that replaced the Taliban's repressive regime.

Taniwal left his wife and nine children in the safety of Australia, and took a post governing the volatile province of Khost near the Pakistani border. He later joined Karzai's Cabinet as minister of mines and industry, where he helped plan Afghanistan's economic development.

Early last year, Taniwal became governor of the eastern province of Paktia with a mandate to improve cooperation between tribes and extend the reach of the central government, still lacking any real authority outside Kabul, the capital. It was in Paktia that he met Army Lt. Col. Brendan O'Shea, a Clearwater resident then serving as commander of the U.S. military's Provincial Reconstruction Team.

The slight, white-bearded Taniwal "was unique compared to a lot of fellow governors," O'Shea says. "For one, he was very well-educated and just had a more peaceful demeanor to him. But he also cared deeply about Afghanistan and he had a lot more vision of how things could be improved over the long haul."

Convinced a well-educated populace was the best antidote to extremism, Taniwal made education and teacher training his top priorities. Paktia has at least 50 new schools, all open to girls who had been barred from the classroom during the Taliban years.

Taniwal often attended school events, seeing them as an opportunity to stress the virtues of education and democracy while denouncing corruption and such retrograde practices as honor killings and child brides.

"Almost a whole generation had missed out on education and he felt that getting people back in school was really the first step before you could think about any meaningful progress," O'Shea says.

Taniwal also pressed for more roads, realizing that a decent transportation network was key to growing and diversifying an Afghan economy overwhelmingly based on the heroin trade.

Earlier this month, Taniwal told the Washington Post he was concerned about the peace deal Pakistan's president, Pervez Musharraf, struck with Taliban militants based in areas near Afghanistan.

"If Musharraf can make an agreement with the bad guys, they'll have more time to infiltrate here and do what they want," Taniwal warned.

Four days later, he was dead. As Taniwal left his office last Sunday in the provincial capital of Gardez, a man detonated a bomb, instantly killing the 61-year-old governor, a nephew and a bodyguard. The Taliban claimed responsibility for the attack.

The carnage did not end there. During Taniwal's funeral, another suicide bomber killed five.

"I could certainly see him being a target, especially as far as the Taliban were concerned, because his ideas were so at odds with their beliefs," O'Shea says. "But as far as being killed in a suicide bombing, yeah, I was surprised because that's a relatively new phenomenon" in Afghanistan.

Of course, suicide bombings are routine in Iraq, where the Bush administration has focused most of its attention in the past three years even as the Taliban regroups and Osama bin Laden remains free somewhere in the rugged terrain along the Afghan-Pakistani border. Had even a small part of the $315-billion the United States has spent in Iraq gone to rebuilding and better securing Afghanistan, the country would not be in such precarious straits today, critics say.

But O'Shea, who spent a year in Afghanistan, isn't convinced by that argument.

"In the last couple of weeks, you've read a lot about how things are sliding backward in Afghanistan and we're losing ground," he says. "That I don't agree with. You have to take a very long view in Afghanistan because it's a problem that took a long time to get that bad and there's no quick fix. People have to get out of the mentality that they're going to be able to wrap things up in a year or two. We're talking more of a 10-, 20-year timeline in order to bring things where they need to be."

Instead of sending more troops into a country with a history of violent resistance to occupation - first by the British, then the Soviets - the effort should be on strengthening Afghanistan's own army and police forces to deal with "the small percentage of the population that are hard-core terrorists and Taliban-types," O'Shea says.

Still, he and many others agree on one thing: Afghanistan lost a true leader and patriot with the assassination of Hakim Taniwal.

Said William Maley, an Australian professor and friend of Taniwal's: "The tragedy of the current situation - one of numerous tragedies - is that from a safe and secure life in Australia he had the courage to go back and try to assist in the reconstruction of Afghanistan. And now he's been cut down."

Susan Martin can be contacted at

[Last modified September 17, 2006, 01:32:58]

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