She also made friends with Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan's president, who helped her circumvent a few hurdles to establishing the center.

She'd visited Kabul several times during the Taliban years, a rare foreigner allowed in because of her long-established links to the country. Many Taliban were ordinary, if supremely unqualified, officials trying to do their job, including illiterate librarians hired solely for their religious or political credentials.

"They're not all with horns and forked tails," she said, her white hair pulled back in a bun, wearing a black sweater, dark flower-patterned dress and tassel loafers.

After her husband died of cancer in 1989, Nancy remained in Pakistan to continue the work they'd started: collecting United Nations, charity and foreign government reports about Afghanistan that others considered rubbish. The growing trove of documents was stored in their two-story home.

At one point, she heard rumors that the Taliban planned to destroy the Bamian statues and routed a message to reclusive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar. He was sympathetic, but even militants have their organizational problems.

"Mullah Omar issued eight different proclamations about preservation, including for Bamian," she said. "But hard-liners at a cabinet meeting decided to blow it up."

That was evidence that he was losing clout to Al Qaeda extremists, she said.

"I felt sort of sorry for him," she said. In a move that shocked the world, the Taliban destroyed the two statues in 2001 with dynamite, rocket launchers, tanks and antiaircraft guns.

When the Taliban fled after the 2001 U.S.-led invasion, many emigres rushed back to Kabul. Nancy waited in Peshawar, concerned that a hard-liner with a match — or an American "daisy cutter" bomb — could destroy the valuable papers.

Finally in 2005, she loaded about 36,000 documents into 299 plastic fertilizer bags and smuggled them to Kabul in trucks and on buses without losing a page. Once in Afghanistan, the collection of books, magazines, U.N. crop tables and mujahedin reports tripled.

This created storage problems that ultimately led Nancy to campaign to create the $2-million Afghanistan Center, which opened in Kabul University this year. Her efforts were inspired by her late husband's belief that for Afghanistan to prosper, it needs an informed citizenry. Funded by the U.S., Afghan and Western European governments, it stands as a vote of confidence in a nation better known for blast walls and barbed wire. The collection is now being digitalized so it can be enjoyed globally — and survive the next war.

"It's fantastic that Nancy's been able to do this," said Nasrine Gross, a Kabul-based sociologist. "Collecting information from all sides in this divided country is great and will hopefully help teach the scientific method. But we also need to produce a generation of educated people, to reconnect, peel away the layers of lies that those in authority put on you."

Nancy's half-century love affair with Afghanistan has seen her guide countless relief efforts, help refugees, advise the U.N. and inform journalists. Among her pet projects these days are mini-libraries — books in a box — sent to provinces, including areas controlled by the Taliban.

She's an equal opportunity critic. She condemns the North Atlantic Treaty Organization's strategy, saying it is crafted by misguided foreigners hiding in heavily guarded compounds who rarely meet Afghans.

"You don't win hearts and minds by throwing around big chunks of money with no purpose," she said. "Development takes a long time, lots of cups of tea."

She's also critical of Afghans whose society has deteriorated into chaotic infighting.

"Afghans have been a tolerant people, with ethnic groups living in peace for centuries," she said. "These days every time things seem to be going in the right direction, someone always wants to stir the pot, fanning ethnic differences, screaming this or that person is not a good Muslim."

Approaching her 10th decade, she's handing off more responsibility to Afghans and talks about returning to the U.S., recounting her father's advice that anyone hanging on too long is a failure. But she's lived too many adventures to relish settling in a house in the American countryside and watching the birds.

"What do you do with yourself when you get old?" she said. "I don't recommend it."

mark.magnier@latimes.com

Special correspondent Hashmat Baktash contributed to this report.