Nebraska kebab-maker has advised seven U.S. commanders in Afghanistan

The man who once owned the only Afghan restaurant in Omaha is known for a different distinction here: He’s one of the longest-serving Americans at NATO’s military headquarters and the only person to have advised the last seven U.S. commanders.

Gen. John R. Allen called Abdullah Amini “my mentor.” To Gen. David H. Petraeus, he was “my wise counsel.” Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal wrote to him, “Your friendship means more to me than I’ll ever be able to explain.”

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In 2002, Abdullah Amini closed his restaurant in Omaha and packed up his things to return to his native Afghanistan. Fox’s KPTM television station in Omaha was there on the night Amini closed his restaurant’s doors.

In 2002, Abdullah Amini closed his restaurant in Omaha and packed up his things to return to his native Afghanistan. Fox’s KPTM television station in Omaha was there on the night Amini closed his restaurant’s doors.

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Over nearly a decade in Afghanistan, Amini has become a key player in the American mission, helping top generals navigate a culture in which misunderstandings and perceived insensitivity can have deadly consequences. But his ascent to the halls of power was much different from theirs. And now, as the U.S. military prepares to withdraw, he faces his greatest test as a cultural conduit: watching as the troops of his adopted United States leave the nation of his birth to an uncertain fate.

The men he advised went to prestigious military academies and earned recognition by leading thousands of soldiers and Marines. Amini fought his first battles with a Kalashnikov and no uniform, as a 21-year-old in the mountains of his native southwestern Afghanistan during the Soviet occupation.

At times, Amini’s dual identity has put him in a difficult spot — for example, when relatives complained about the behavior of U.S. troops, or when he had to face a roomful of Afghans who were livid that American soldiers had burned Korans.

Amini is outspoken about the successes of the United States’ longest war, such as the millions of children in school and the growth of Afghan security forces. But he frets about the dozens of siblings and other relatives he will leave behind when he, too, departs in 2014.

“We must be hopeful. We must win. We don’t have any other option,” he said. “But when I think as a nonmember of the coalition, as a regular Afghan, really, I’m worried.”

An emissary and a critic

When Amini returned to Afghanistan in early 2002, he saw the U.S. intervention as the best chance for the country to move beyond decades of war. But he had never met an American soldier or Marine.

He has served for nearly the duration of the war, alongside some of the conflict’s most prominent American figures. He has been an interpreter in significant meetings, an emissary when things go wrong and a critic when he thinks U.S. generals make poor decisions.

“The first thing I did when I arrived in Kabul is go to Abdullah’s office,” said Marc Chretien, the political adviser to Allen, whose Afghan tour ended in February.

That office is many miles and decades removed from Amini’s roots in remote Farah province. War cut short his studies, but as a young mujaheddin fighter he always remembered one image from a geography textbook: the soaring skyline of New York City.

In 1988, he arrived in the United States as a refugee with $7 in his pocket. In the months that followed, he was rejected from every job he applied for in Omaha, where he had relatives.

But by 2001, he had accomplished most of his goals. He was a U.S. citizen. His three American-born children spoke perfect English. He owned a restaurant where business soared — even Nebraska’s governor was a customer.

But the news from Afghanistan in the 1990s had haunted him. Twenty of his relatives were killed during the civil war. The Taliban rose to power, demolishing the values of the nation he remembered. He was thriving in the United States while his native country was being destroyed. He feared he would never return.

On Sept. 11, 2001, the distance between Afghanistan and Nebraska was suddenly shortened. Amini’s native country was back in the headlines, but for an unimaginable reason. He worried, with a restaurant named Afghani Kebab, that he would be a target.

“I thought someone might show up with a gun and shoot me,” he said.

Instead, he got a flurry of phone calls expressing support. He was shocked when business quintupled on Sept. 12.

Then there were phone calls from American officials and contractors. The United States was going to war in Afghanistan, they said. Would Amini be interested in working with U.S. troops on the ground?

Amini had grown embittered toward U.S. foreign policy when the United States turned its back on Afghanistan after the Soviet withdrawal in 1989. But a return to his homeland would mean a chance to rebuild the battered cities he had once fought to defend.

The night Amini closed his kebab restaurant in 2002, a local television news crew interviewed him. Wearing his usual black bow tie and white button-down shirt, he was surrounded by dozens of his customers.

“Everyone else from around the world wants to help this poor country,” he said, tearing up. “Why not me?”

‘Everything was in ruins’

In 2002, Amini arrived in Kandahar, a longtime Taliban stronghold, to work as a cultural adviser and interpreter. He couldn’t believe what had become of Afghanistan.

“Everything was in ruins,” he said.

Amini watched as U.S. officials made gains and errors — building schools and encouraging civil society while also awarding positions in the new government to corrupt Afghans. It sometimes seemed to him as if cultural awareness was being sacrificed for political expediency.

“If this is not right for this mission, I will fight you all the way to the White House,” he recalled telling his bosses.

His willingness to speak up earned him respect. By 2005, he had nearly unlimited access to top officials. When Hillary Rodham Clinton visited as secretary of state, Amini was her intermediary with a group of Afghan women. He took Vice President Biden to meet soldiers in eastern Afghanistan. He accompanied then-Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates to volatile Wardak province.

Meanwhile, Amini’s brothers and sisters were ordinary Afghans living in a remote province in one of the world’s poorest countries. Sometimes they called him to complain about the actions of U.S. troops.

“My children almost died today,” his sister told him one day in 2009. A NATO convoy had held up traffic for more than seven hours. Cars with no air conditioning and no access to water were stuck on the road in scorching heat. Her children had grown pallid.

Amini shared the story with McChrystal, then the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan. “We are losing the support of the public,” Amini recalled saying. “We are losing hearts and minds.”

Within days, McChrystal issued a directive that would prevent those protracted bottlenecks. He would later write in his memoir, “My Share of the Task,” that he relied on Amini’s “ability to parse interactions I had with Afghans for revealing cues I overlooked.”

Amini reviewed the speeches of U.S. commanders, crossing out lines that might be perceived as culturally insensitive. In some cases, Amini was blunt: “Sir, I will not translate that,” he would say.

Amini grew to admire his bosses, men who he says understood the importance of personal relationships in Afghanistan. When each new general arrived — as Gen. Joseph F. Dunford Jr. did in February — Amini would dole out the same advice: “Through friendship, an Afghan will sacrifice his life for you. Through bad relations, he will turn into your enemy.”

Amini was always there when the relationship between his two countries had to be patched. When violent protests broke out after U.S. troops burned hundreds of Korans at a base last year, Allen dispatched Amini to speak with Afghans on the general’s behalf. When photos of soldiers urinating on dead insurgents surfaced and civilian casualties threatened U.S. relations with President Hamid Karzai, Amini conveyed apologetic messages to Afghan leaders.

Still, he and other cultural advisers wonder how those incidents could happen after 11 years of U.S. troops working with Afghans. And they have wondered what the dwindling appetite for an American presence in Afghanistan will bring.

Amini has decided to remain in Kabul until at least 2014, when the majority of U.S. troops are scheduled to withdraw. He has always encouraged American generals to exercise patience with their Afghan counterparts. Now he is trying to accept his own advice, staying as anxiety here grows.

The men he works alongside have encouraged him to be optimistic as his long tour nears its conclusion, knowing well that Amini’s ties to Afghanistan are unlike theirs, that the lives of his relatives hinge on the war’s outcome.

“I look forward to when you can simply drive across this country to visit your family,” Dunford wrote to him recently. “We’ll get there.”

Amini read the e-mail aloud at his desk. Then the phone rang. It was Karzai’s palace on the line. There were problems to resolve between Amini's two countries. And as it often does, reconciliation began with a call to his office.

 
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