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After the Taliban

Believers are helping to rebuild Afghanistan

By Ken Horn

Ken Horn, managing editor, traveled to Afghanistan with John Bueno, executive director of Assemblies of God World Missions; Jerry Parsley, Eurasia regional director; and Mark Hausfeld, Central Eurasia area director.

As we rumble down the potholed streets of war-torn Kabul, Afghanistan, the imposing structure of the Afghan Supreme Court looms before us. Appropriately, my eyes take in the building and our driver, Georg Taubmann, at the same time.

We are on our way to the Shamali Plains, the focal point of a remarkable ministry that has sprung back to life out of apparent death and destruction during the time of the Taliban. Taubmann and the Supreme Court are a major part of the story.

Escape from the Taliban

In 2001, prior to the September 11 attacks on America, the Taliban arrested Taubmann along with seven other aid workers — four Germans, two Australians and two Americans in all. They were held for more than three months in harsh conditions and in fear for their lives.

Taubmann directs Shelter Now International, an aid organization. The Assemblies of God has partnered with SNI for several years. SNI builds houses, clinics and schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan. It constructs and repairs irrigation systems and distributes food daily to thousands of refugees. Since 1988, it has worked to help reconstruct Afghanistan.

Assemblies of God workers have served in Afghanistan since the late 1970s. Len Stitt, who is traveling with our party, has worked in Afghanistan and Pakistan since 1998. He currently coordinates his portion of the work from Peshawar, Pakistan, and travels regularly back and forth to Afghanistan. Stitt’s wife, Diane, is a registered nurse and has been involved in various health projects for women and children in both countries.

The eight workers’ trial in the Afghan Supreme Court captured the attention of  the media around the world. Already a dire situation, the peril heightened for the team after September 11. As America bombed the Taliban, the foreign workers became human shields and were moved from place to place for 103 days. These were days marked by unsanitary conditions, lack of proper food and sleep, and constant grilling by Taliban officials. As Taubmann later unfolded the riveting drama for us in his modest home in Kabul, I found myself astounded that anyone so treated would want to return to a country where his life had hung by a thread. Yet Taubmann and some of the other workers returned to Afghanistan to continue what the Lord had prompted them to do before.

Margrit Stebner, one of the hostages, told us, “I had a supernatural peace. I felt the prayer of other people; I felt their spiritual support. The soldiers never touched us [the six women] because of the presence of the Lord. We prayed and worshipped two or three hours every day. I think they respected our faith.”

Taubmann drove us by the sports stadium where executions and amputations replaced soccer as a spectator sport. Many Afghans suffered at the hands of the Taliban in front of stands packed with thousands of people. Once, the Taliban moved the SNI workers suddenly and roughly, without telling them where they were going. They drove them to the Ariana Chowka, a place where people were often executed. Then, when they felt they had exacted sufficient terror from the hostages, they drove out, taking the SNI workers to another location.

From the window of his makeshift jail cell, Taubmann could see a TV tower perched on a nearby hill. The tower broadcast Taliban propaganda. Taubmann watched as coalition bombers performed a surgical strike, taking off the whole top of the mountain along with the tower. The guards felt it was hopeless during the attacks, Taubmann says. One told him, “If we put out a tin can, they hit it.”

Later we meet a man of whom Taubmann said, “We wouldn’t be here without him.” This man, a translator for the Taliban whom Taubmann befriended, smuggled a satellite phone to Taubmann, enabling the U.S. Delta Force to pinpoint the hostages’ location and conduct a daring mission.

Now free, the workers discovered that while they were imprisoned their homes had been ransacked and anything of value was stolen or destroyed. All of the ministry’s equipment and vehicles were taken. Years of progress were gone, and the work had to be rebuilt.

Taubmann was warned not to return to the country. He did so anyway. After workers returned, extremists called for the aid workers’ case to be reopened. Not only had they come back to this place, but they also had returned to the threat of rearrest and trial. The chief justice ultimately backed away from his threat. However, in the minds of some fundamentalists, the case is still open.

The specter of this possibility hovers over everything the workers do in Afghanistan. “Every day I drive past a place where I was interrogated for three weeks,” Taubmann tells me. Yet that threat is not strong enough to deter those called to this country.

A land of contradictions

Afghanistan is a mountainous country in volatile Central Eurasia, landlocked between several nations, most notably Iran and Pakistan.

Recent decades have been stormy and violence-filled. While we are in the country we are reminded that all is not yet well. We receive word that U.S. Army Rangers were attacked in eastern Afghanistan. Former NFL player Pat Tillman was killed.

Still, we find Afghanistan surprisingly hospitable. The Afghan people welcome us with open arms. Most are quite friendly to Americans. They welcome coalition forces, such as the French military troops deployed along one road we travel.

The climate too is friendly. The unseasonably cool, rainy weather is a welcome surprise.

There are other surprises: a man flying a homemade kite made of black plastic — a sin under the Taliban — and the movie The Passion of the Christ on sale in the marketplace on pirated DVDs.

Ladies in full blue burkas are a common sight. Area Director Mark Hausfeld’s wife, Lynda, has a great burden for the women of this region. Many of them are required to be so subordinate that they often suffer depression and low self-esteem. Assemblies of God workers want women here to know they are valued in God’s sight.

As we travel, Taubmann is like a war correspondent. “That was a Taliban place hit by Americans,” he says as we pass a bombed-out building. Another building needs no explanation. The sign says “Emergency Surgical Center for War Victims.” Children play on military vehicles riddled with bullet holes.

As we leave the city, we embark on a bone-jarring ride over disintegrating streets pocked with mortar holes. “These roads,” Taubmann says, “are some of the best.” Occasionally we see minefields marked by piles of red and white stones. Red warns of those still active; white marks cleared areas. The road, decrepit as it is, is the only safe place in these environs.

“These are brave men,” Taubmann says, pointing out to us those who are clearing the explosives. But the next thing he tells us is gut-wrenching. Most of the areas were unintentionally cleared of mines by children and civilians. We see proof of this all around us. We don’t see dead bodies, but we notice many “walking dead” — the terribly maimed and disfigured, those missing arms and legs, those barely able to get around. SNI has employed many of them.

Farther from the city, we pass the camps of the Kuchis, a nomadic people who herd their sheep and camels into the mountains of Afghanistan in the summer, then cross into Pakistan when winter comes.

The Shamali Plains

Many Taliban atrocities were committed in the Shamali Plains. Bullet-riddled walls can still be seen in abundance. Entire villages are in disrepair.

Our first stop is at a school for refugee children, built by SNI with significant help from the Assemblies of God.

Near the school an SNI project restored water in the area post-Taliban. We meet workers and share green tea with the supervisors. The paid workers at the project are almost all refugees.

Next we enter a sizable village flanked by the stately Hindu Kush Mountains. The villagers, unaccustomed to outsiders, swarm around our vehicle and then around us. When they know we have come to help them rebuild, the welcome is even warmer. Showing characteristic Afghan hospitality, many invite us to stay in their homes.

In a rubble-strewn part of the village, we meet a man who has just returned from Pakistan to his bombed-out home. There is not enough of the structure left to offer shelter from the elements. John Bueno pledges that the man’s house will be among those rebuilt. The building project, funded by the Assemblies of God, was begun the next day, using wood-and-concrete beams produced at the SNI facility. These beams are the key ingredient in rebuilding the mud houses.

A strategic partnership

AGWM is making a determined effort to partner with organizations and individuals where practicable. The goal is to build the kingdom of God, not the Assemblies of God. “Strategic partnerships are important to us,” says John Bueno.

“We have a very special relationship with the Assemblies of God,” Taubmann tells us, noting the quality of Assemblies of God personnel who have worked with SNI as well as the financial support that helped SNI start over from scratch. The vehicle we’re riding in is one of four donated by Speed the Light. Taubmann says these are the best vehicles the ministry has ever had.

Several other Assemblies of God agencies have helped fund the work in Afghanistan, including AG Relief, World Assemblies of God Relief Agency, Light for the Lost, and BGMC (boys and girls offerings).

Often religious NGOs (nongovernmental organizations) provide only humanitarian aid, but sharing our faith is important to both SNI and the Assemblies of God. “You could spend a hundred years here doing good works,” Jerry Parsley says, “and not get anywhere.” Good works are not enough; the gospel must be presented.

I ask Taubmann what the needs are in Afghanistan. He says, “We must have NGO workers with long-term commitment, people who will learn the language, teams (too many people burn out if they go it alone), prayer, praise and the presence of God.”

He then adds one more point. “A key is worship,” he says. “This is necessary because the oppression is so heavy.”

Faith in Afghanistan

While in Afghanistan, we met a fascinating array of believers who shared their moving testimonies with us. Despite their diverse backgrounds, one man made their relationship clear: “We are all from one family, one body.”

Today the future of Afghanistan is brighter than many are led to believe. There is a great openness to the gospel. Yet it is also dangerous for believers. As you hear the continuing news reports about this country, don’t forget the most important thing for believers to do: Pray for Afghanistan.

Ken Horn is managing editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

Originally published November 7, 2004.

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