'I Couldn't Turn My Back'

It was a risky decision. After fleeing the Soviet war in Afghanistan 17 years ago, Farhad Ahad, 32, left a comfortable life in the United States last week to come home. Like hundreds of other Afghan professionals, Ahad, a former Enron employee, is betting that his devastated country is now ready to be rebuilt. He is still choosing between two solid job offers--chief of the Economic Affairs office at the Foreign Ministry and deputy at the Ministry of Mines and Industry. Soon after he stepped off a propeller plane at Kabul airport he received grim news. Haji Abdul Qadir, the newly appointed minister of Public Works and a vice president, had died in a hail of bullets earlier in the day. "I realized I'm probably a target as well," says Ahad. "But if I'm destined to die in Afghanistan, let it be."

It's not the first time Ahad has courted danger. At 15, he was nearly drafted into the communist Afghan Army to fight against the insurgent mujahedin. Instead, his parents arranged for the family's escape. He accompanied his mother and father on the treacherous journey east to Peshawar. They traveled by donkey and camel, guided by a smuggler. Near Jalalabad, a Soviet helicopter swooped down on the group. Ahad recalls the smuggler yelling, "Do nothing. Sit." The helicopter came in close, circled overhead, and then left. The gamble paid off. After two hard years in Pakistan, Ahad moved to the United States with his family. He was lucky to be absent for the brutal years that followed.

Life in the United States wasn't always easy either. Ahad and his family moved into a cramped two-bedroom apartment in Flushing, New York. His sisters worked in supermarkets and pharmacies. He was unhappy. "This is supposed to be the American dream. I don't like it," he recalls telling his family. Breaking with Afghan tradition, Ahad decided to leave home to pursue his education. "I felt I could make the adjustment easier on my own," he says. Soon he was juggling engineering classes at the University of Massachusetts Amherst and a night job earning $5 an hour as a security guard. His friends, spotting his drive and ambition, nicknamed him "Fast Freddy."

Ahad left Umass in 1994 with a graduate degree in engineering and landed a job at an energy-consulting firm. But the work was dull. After three years, Ahad returned to school to earn his M.B.A. and a shot at the type of high-paying job he had always dreamed of finding. This gamble paid off, too. In 1999 he was hired by Enron to manage foreign oil and gas deals, earning $110,000 a year.

Since Enron's meltdown last November, Ahad's life has taken its newest turn. "It got me thinking about returning to Afghanistan," he says. Over the years he has maintained close ties to the Afghan community in the United States, setting up a Web site, afghansolidarity.com, and helping organize anti-Taliban rallies in San Francisco and Washington, D.C.

None of that prepared him for the scars he found back home in Kabul. When he visited his old high school, an institution that once boasted fully stocked science labs and classes taught in German, Ahad found only blast marks, cracked facades and bullet holes. The school was just another victim of the Afghan warlordism of the early 1990s. The lush grove of trees that once stood in the front courtyard had been cut down to reduce the number of hiding spots for fighters. Light fixtures, heaters, even the drinking fountains, had been torn from the walls and carted off to be sold as scrap metal.

Helping to put his country back together will be the challenge of a lifetime. The Foreign Ministry and Ministry of Mines and Industry are eyeing him for the same position--"the pipeline guy," as one colleague called him. The Afghan government desperately wants to cash in on one of its few natural resources by building a natural-gas pipeline, but foreign investors are balking at the prospect. At Enron, Ahad became an expert at underwriting such deals. Few would want the challenge or the $250 a month salary. But Ahad is as convinced as ever. "I'm going to have this chance to make a difference," he said. "I couldn't turn my back."