- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 31, 2007

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan — Dozens of Afghan-American entrepreneurs, who returned home after the ouster of the Taliban to take part in rebuilding their country, say they are determined to stay despite the growing peril of living in a war zone.

They fend off harassment, intimidation and extortion attempts by a resurgent Taliban while coping with a government that they say remains ambivalent about their presence.

With a pistol tucked under his seat for the drive to work in this southern Afghan city, Mohammed Naseem described the dilemma faced by a fellow businessman who keeps getting calls in the middle of the night.

“The phone speaker says he is Taliban and that he wants two Toyota pickups for the jihad to fight NATO,” said Mr. Naseem, one of a few dozen Afghan-Americans who have put down roots in what is arguably one of the world’s most dangerous cities.

Mr. Naseem said he has told some friends who have received such demands to be strong and not give in.

“If you give them an inch, and they will take a mile,” he said.

Mr. Naseem, 32, slipped out of Afghanistan as a child and linked up with an adoptive family but has rejoined his real Afghan family, including an aging father.

“In 2002 and 2003, a lot of Afghans had great hopes and that actually gave some of us living abroad a sense that they could come back and try to apply the things we learned in the West in our hometowns,” Mr. Naseem said.

Mr. Naseem now owns the largest advertising company in southern Afghanistan. He has introduced billboards across the ethnic Pashtun belt in a country that once learned of products and ideas mostly through word of mouth.

Along with a booming Internet cafe that serves Kandahar’s young, curious and ambitious, Mr. Naseem’s greatest passion is his newspaper, the Red Mountain Weekly.

The color newspaper has filled a void and spread its wings across southern Afghanistan. Started two years ago with 500 copies and six pages, it has grown to 12 pages now with a weekly circulation of 7,000. Mr. Naseem plans to increase the circulation to 9,000.

The paper’s offices overlook the biggest traffic circle in Kandahar, the scene of suicide bombings and police beatings, depending on the hour of the day.

“Would you like to see a cop taking a bribe?” he asked a visiting reporter recently, grabbing a camera. Below, an Afghan policeman had stopped a motorist and the inevitable was about to transpire.

Mr. Naseem has the courage and tenacity to keep printing his newspaper in a potentially deadly city that does not reward enterprise or responsible journalism.

Kandahar’s mayor recently grabbed one of a Red Mountain photographer’s cameras and hurled it on the pavement after a series of stories exposing government corruption and police brutality.

“We go after pretty much anyone making tyranny or trouble,” Mr. Naseem said.

In Kandahar, the birthplace and stronghold of the Taliban, that can come in the form of a government official or a suicide bomber. And then there are the stories to be done on the Taliban’s rampant school burnings.

“I think that, ethically, as a business person, you are obliged to give something back to the community,” said Mr. Naseem, who hopes the newspaper will break even this year.

Mr. Naseem picked up a sixth sense for business while running a fried chicken and cheese steak restaurant in Philadelphia. His friend and next-door neighbor, Iqbal Durani, 37, also learned the ropes in the American restaurant business.

Mr. Durani fought from age 14 until 17 as a mujahideen soldier against Soviet occupation. In 1988, he went to New York, where he “worked in a kosher Jewish pizzeria, drove a Trans Am, dated American women and listened to rock ‘n’ roll, mostly Jimi Hendrix.”

In 2002, Mr. Durani returned to Afghanistan and found a wife. As a construction contractor, Mr. Durani is building his own pizzeria. He plans to make “the best pizza in Kandahar” and run a cable-television installation business on the side.

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