Within the first five minutes of the newly released film The Kite Runner, the leitmotif is laid out in a Karachi-to-California telephone call. Come home to Afghanistan, the protagonist, a young writer "Amir" is told by an ailing uncle. It won't be an easy journey, the uncle explains, but it's not too late: "There is a way to be good again."
At the level of metaphor, the film adaptation of Khaled Hosseini's best-selling novel is right on target. Abuse of power, remorse, shame, grief, guilt and the dream of redemption: They're exactly the right emotions to stir in a movie about the United States and Afghanistan. The Kite Runner is a tear-jerker for the politically conscious. Unfortunately, when it comes to real-life U.S.-Afghan relations, the metaphors hit more bases than what's actually on the screen.
Scripted by David Benioff (Troy) and directed by Marc Forster (Monster's Ball), the Kite Runner mostly follows the narrative of Hosseini's surprise hit, published in 2001. In 1970s Afghanistan, a wealthy widower's son, "Amir," romps through lush, cosmopolitan Kabul with his best (perhaps only) friend "Hassan," the family servant's son.
Clouds are gathering, of course, over the boys and their country. Afghanistan is slipping from a modern secular state into an internationally fuelled civil war. The elegant city of Amir's affluent father "Baba" is crumbling. (Playing the aristocrat turned gas station attendant, "Baba," Iranian Homayoun Ershadi turns in the standout performance of the film.) As ethnic tensions are stoked, loyal Hassan is brutally attacked by a gang of bullies while young Amir watches and does nothing. Soon afterwards, the Soviets invade Afghanistan, and the world does the same.
Hosseini has said that his story is about global indifference, "It foretells what happens to Afghanistan in the ensuing decade after the Soviet invasion. Afghanistan like Hassan, served a purpose. And once that purpose has been served, it is abandoned and brutalized and people just stand around and watch."
The symbolism is obvious. Hassan is loyal, adoring, obedient to a fault. He tells his master/friend Amir that he'd eat dirt if asked. Used, victimized and abandoned, Hassan is a transparent stand-in for Afghanistan, the buffer state brutalized in successive "Great Games" -- first between the Russian and British, and then the Soviet and U.S. empires.
There's just one glitch. Neither the Americans nor the British make an appearance. Religious zealots inexplicably emerge, cruel counterparts to cruel communists. Secular Kabul's caught in between. "The Mullahs want to control our souls. The communists say we have no souls," says Baba. There's no third player in this tale. There's no covert U.S. assistance to rebel Mujahadeen, for example, no paying of bullies to serve the Cold War.
We know from President Carter's advisor Zbigniew Brzezinkski that the official version of Afghan history is hokum. U.S. intervention didn't follow the Soviet Army's invasion, it preceded it. In a 1998 interview with Le Nouvel Observateur, Brzezinski recalled:
We didn't push the Russians to intervene, but we knowingly increased the probability that they would ... That secret operation was an excellent idea. It had the effect of drawing the Soviets into the Afghan trap ... The day that the Soviets officially crossed the border, I wrote to President Carter. We now have the opportunity of giving to the Soviet Union its Vietnam War.
The only "American" in The Kite Runner is Amir, the guilt-ridden refugee who does as his uncle tells him. He goes to Afghanistan, performs an act of rescue and returns home redeemed. He gains his "manhood" while he's about it, proving he's not quite the pushover his father feared him to be.
Redemption for the United States will come harder.
In November 2001, Laura Bush promised rescue. "Our hearts break for the women and children in Afghanistan," she told the world in the middle of her husband's post 9-11 bombing campaign. "The fight against terrorism is a fight for the rights and dignity of women," said the First Lady. The U.S. Air Force was dropping 15,000-pound "daisy cutter" bombs on medieval Afghanistan at the time. Hillary Rodham Clinton wrote in Time Magazine: "We, as the liberators, have an interest in what follows the Taliban."
Ironically, or perhaps not so ironically, the talented child actors in The Kite Runner are now living in exile in the United Arab Emirates after their guardians voiced anxieties that they could be ostracized or targeted by ethnic and religious extremists. In the real world, what's "followed" the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan are more heavily armed warlords, more theocracy and more Taliban.Some will say it's unfair to hold the movie of a novel to task for repeating the propaganda version of U.S. history, but the myth of the United States as macho rescuer is not only misleading, it's deadly -- for people in Afghanistan and around the world. Shed all the tears you like as you're watching, but don't leave the remorse in the cinema. Try as it might, Hollywood can't purge our guilt, or dissuade us of the need to act.