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.