- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 2, 2009

They called him “Abdul No. 1.” But the quiet cafeteria worker at Forward Operating Base Salerno was far more than a number to the U.S. troops enduring near-constant Taliban attacks along Afghanistan’s eastern border.

Over the past year in Khost province where the base is located, dozens of suicide bombings, rocket-propelled grenade attacks and mortar fire have taken the lives of scores of U.S. soldiers and Afghan civilians.

Abdul met the same fate last month at the hands of the Taliban, who accused him of being an American sympathizer.

If cleaning tables and smiling at soldiers for $3 a day made him a sympathizer, then the man who wore a paper hat with Abdul No. 1 inscribed in black marker was guilty as charged. The Taliban placed a roadside bomb near a tree on the route he drove home on an old motorbike. The bomb went off just as he passed the tree, scattering his body across the rocky desert ground.

His wife and children have not been heard from since the killing and are also believed to be dead, said Chief Warrant Officer Kevin Luby, a Blackhawk instructor pilotin the U.S. Army’s Bravo Company, Task Force Attack, who is currently deployed at the Salerno base.

The pain of Abdul’s death has resonated deep within the unit. The soldiers’ friendship with Abdul underlined for them that even in war, all people are the same, seeking food, shelter, safety and hoping for peace.

The paper hat inscribed with his first name was a small tribute from the troops, who appreciated the hard work of the man whose last name they never learned.

“Abdul was always very courteous and helpful to our unit, so our unit adopted him,” Chief Warrant Officer Luby said. “We would slip the occasional dollar or two into his pocket for clearing our trays. We also gave him a hat and some shoes. … He didn’t speak any English, but he was always sure to put his hand over his heart and say ‘A Salaam Alaykum.’ [‘Peace be upon you’]. We do not know much Pashto, so we would usually only say things like ‘Wa alaykum asalaam’ [‘And upon you be peace’] or ‘Manana’ [‘Thank you’].”

Neither the Pentagon nor U.S.-led forces in Afghanistan have a record of the number of Afghan civilians killed while working for them as day laborers or translators. Despite the dangers of working with coalition forces, thousands of Afghans just like Abdul make their way onto foreign bases in the country daily to earn a living or obtain U.S. visas.

For the soldiers of the Black Hawk unit, the death of Abdul has weighed heavily on their hearts. Some wonder whether their friendship and generosity toward him “spawned jealousy amongst his co-workers, who may have sold him out to the local Taliban,” Chief Warrant Officer Luby said.

“My unit also feels a sense of responsibility for this,” he said. “How were we to know they would be so barbaric amongst their own for something as simple as wanting to provide a better life for his family?”

News of Abdul’s death traveled from Afghanistan via e-mail from the unit to this reporter, who visited the base last summer. Abdul’s smile and kindness touched our hearts and transcended the barriers that divide our two worlds.

“I work for my family,” Abdul said through a translator last year in the base cafeteria.

On this reporter’s last day at the base, he brought a bowl of fruit from the back of the cafeteria. To some it would seem a small gesture but for a man who could barely feed his own family it was an enormous gift. He blessed the journey that still lay ahead, smiled and for the first time allowed Washington Times staff photographer Mary F. Calvert to take his picture.

“I work, like any other man,” he said. “I want my children to have food and grow up in a peaceful Afghanistan - God willing.”

“I couldn’t agree more,” I told him, before saying goodbye for the last time.

Abdul’s smile and kindness touched our hearts and transcended the barriers that divide our two worlds.

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