The 9/11 decade: Afghanistan’s new beginning?

On the eve of 9/11, the Taliban were poised to conquer the remaining fronts of resistance, but things changed quickly.

The transition of power to Hamid Karzai’s interim government in 2001 brought some Afghans hope [GALLO/GETTY)

Qarabagh, Afghansitan– The grape season is in full flow in this small village 30km north of the capital Kabul.  Along the busy, rebuilt highway, families sell plastic bags full of fresh grapes.

A small, but telling picture of how much life has changed for some Afghans in the past decade.

On the eve of the 9/11 attacks in New York, the grape vines and mulberry trees here, the livelihood of generations, lay cut down- forgotten like the country itself. Most of the homes on both sides of the highway were nothing but debris. As the Taliban, after years of resistance, finally pushed the frontline further north, they mowed down the vines and trees along the highway as retribution for the stubborn fight.

The residents of this and several other villages, who had mostly moved to the city or abroad, were not allowed to return and transport the branches as firewood. These Shamali plains were a ghost-town all the way up to Parwan province, where the front line of the fragile Northern Alliance resistance, led by Ahmad Shah Massoud, seemed to be drawing its final breaths.

The Taliban were poised to conquer the final pockets of resistance and consolidate their rule all over the country that was weary of decades of factional war over the power vacuum left by the Soviet withdrawal. On the eve of 9/11, the Taliban leadership had been more confident than ever because Massoud, around whom the remnants of a factious resistance had unified, was assassinated by two Arab fighters posing as journalists in what was one of the first suicide attacks in Afghanistan, a phenomenon that would grow mundane in the following decade.

Anti-Taliban resistance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated two days before the 9/11 attacks [GALLO/GETTY]

Massoud’s close circle of confidants was in disarray as news of the attack on their leader broke out to the media. They scrambled to hide the fact that their leader had died before he even made it to the hospital, claiming he was only wounded and recovering in Tajikistan.

For them, the news of 9/11 attacks was a “relief, almost as if a knife at our throat had been lifted,” in the words of one of Massoud’s close advisors.

But for the Taliban government, the news brought unwanted international attention, and, in the words of their foreign minister at the time, “an unequal war” that subsequently toppled their regime.

Ten years on, the country has changed dramatically. Under Hamid Karzai’s leadership, a constitution has been drafted, and two terms of elections for the parliament and presidency, though marred by fraud and controversy, have been held. Millions of children, especially girls who had been banned under the Taliban, have returned to school. Private businesses are booming, and the country has a free press, one of the most vibrant in the region. All in all, noticeable progress.

But insecurity and violence continues. In the South of the country, particularly, people have suffered tremendously for an entire decade, caught between the Taliban from below and NATO airstrikes from above.  The immediate future of the country remains uncertain, despite ten years of war and revamped efforts for reconciliation that have led nowhere.

Al Jazeera spoke to several Afghans-  from a former Taliban leader, to current members of the parliament, government officials, civil society activists and ordinary citizens- about the decade that passed.  Below are their views, translated by Al Jazeera.

  Sahera Sharif,  MP from eastern Khost province



At the time of the 9/11 attacks, I was living as a refugee in Pakistan, where I held different jobs: as a teacher, as an activist, then as an editor for one of the local papers in Peshawar.

The night before 9/11, I dreamt that a big change was on the way. In my dream, I saw Afghanistan as a large building with UN and other flags around it. I can’t recall the exact details now. But when we heard about the attacks in New York and later that there would be war launched in Afghanistan, I told my dream to my family. No one would believe me.

We did not consider the US intervention as illegitimate. For years, war and oppression had worn people out. We saw it as a window of hope that would bring fresh political air into the country.

A year after the US intervention, my husband went to Khost province to get a job as a university professor and I went a long with him. I was offered the job as the provincial head of woman affairs. I started at the post three days after I had given birth to my child. Unlike other women, I did not wear the burqa. People thought I was either crazy, or a foreigner.

No such office [Directorate for Women’s Affairs] existed there before, so the first space that we were given was almost like a barn where animals had been kept. We started from scratch, by repainting the place and building a vibrant office out of nothing.

We have not made the best use of the opportunity provided to us.  People are discontent with the central government—people have been distanced.

Sahera Sharif

The struggle was that the women did not want to take the risk of working with me.  I had to find ways of encouraging them. One such way was to hire their husbands as drivers or cooks and such, and then convince them to bring their wives to work with them.

But things got better, and we expanded our activities outside the provincial capital.

At the end of the first Karzai term, I remember visiting a mosque in one of the villages. Over 250 women gathered there. In those days, we did not even carry bodyguards and weapons during those visits.

But last year, when I returned to campaign for re-election, I had to go under cover. I switched houses every night, and I could not manage to hold even one public rally.

During the past decade, we have definitely made progress in certain areas—the fact that we have a constitution, a system of governance, freedom of the press, the number of children going to school etc. But security has deteriorated in many areas and remains a big concern.

We have not made the best use of the opportunity provided to us.  People are discontent with the central government— people have been distanced. And the foreigners, too, have made big mistakes. They barged into people’s homes in the middle of the night, and dragged them out without giving them an opportunity to put their shirt on. I remember visiting my constituents held by intelligence agencies who only had their under shirt on. One of them had only one sandal on and wasn’t even given the chance to find the second. Such things leave a mark on the Afghan people.

Undoubtedly, the foreigners have made sacrifices here— both in terms of lives, but also financially. But they have also made big mistakes and have been weak in their coordination.

  Dr Mahyuddin Mehdi, MP from Baghlan, former anti-Taliban resistance leader



I was in Dushanbe, Tajikistan, as the spokesman for the United Front [anti-Taliban resistance] when the attacks happened. It was 2am that the defence attaché at our embassy called me and asked me to turn on the TV, which was showing the pictures live.

We had kept the news of Ahmad Shah Massoud’s death away from the press for two days because we thought everything was over with his death. The resistance would be crushed right away.

We knew that Taliban, al-Qaeda, and the Pakistanis on the otherside of the Kokcha river would cross and end it all for us if they learned of Massoud’s death. So September 11 was a relief for us—such a relief that I did not sleep from happiness all night. It was as if a knife placed on my throat had been lifted.

I knew right away that the world would break its silence on Afghanistan and blame al-Qaeda on the attacks because of previous experience. When the attacks on Tanzinia and Kenya happened, I was in hospital in Germany. I watched pictures of Osama all over the TV screen from my hospital bed and there was tremendous international condemnation. 

I think the initial contact made with the United Front was 42 days after the attacks of 9/11, through the US embassy in Uzbekistan. They informed us that they wanted to see [Qasim] Fahim [who replaced Massoud as the resistance leader] urgently. This was the beginning of the contacts, before the US military operations began.

Subsequently, I think the wrong system was put in place here. I have always had issue with this centralised system because it gives the authority to one person, which then translates to the authority of one tribe. Karzai, for example, did not emerge based on his merits, but rather through the recommendation of one tribe.  Centralised power is problematic. Authority needs to be distributed, shared. There needs to be a prime minister that is accountable to the parliament.

There is no question progress has been made in the past ten years. Before then, if a king died, his son would take power. Now, we have a constitution that says the country’s leader needs to be elected by the people. This is the result of long years of struggle.

But if the international forces leave today, I think all this will falter within a week. Nothing has been institutionalised. People lack trust in these structures, because governments actions have made them question everything from elections to the parliament.  Our security forces are not strong enough to cope with the enemy at a time when the threat remains the same threat of ten years ago.  The situation is not much different from when the Soviets were about to withdraw. A similar vacuum would be left.

  Wakil Ahmed Muttawakil, former Taliban Foreign Minister  


The attacks that happened in New York were of deep concern to us. At the time, when I heard the news, I was at the ministry of foreign affairs in Kabul. Then I spoke to our leader, Mullah Saheb Omer.

Afghanistan was one of the first few governments that condemned the attacks. Both for the US and Afghanistan-and the Afghan people-the attacks were not a good thing. Because subsequent to those attacks, many more people have died here in Afghanistan.

That attack was a disaster on civilians, and on the pretext of that attack, disasters have been afflicted on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is no doubt that the stance of the Emirate [Taliban government] and the views of some of the Arab activists here differed. We condemned the attacks because the people targeted were defenceless civilians, women, children, Muslim and non-muslim. But al-Qaeda praised it. We had our own reasons and they theirs. Al Qaeda, at the time, did not claim direct responsibility, but rather praised the attack. Those are two different things.

Al Qaeda were people from the time of Jihad against the Soviets, and Ustad Rabbani [who came to power after Soviet withdrawal] brought them back into the country from Sudan. The Taliban simply inherited them.

After the attacks, the Emirate gathered over 1500 religious scholars from all over Afghanistan at the continental hotel to discuss the Bin Laden issue. They concluded that the Islamic Emirate should ask him that he voluntarily leave Afghanistan and go somewhere else. This proposal, too, could not bring about any change in the attitude of the Americans. They kept demanding him dead or alive.

They began an unequal war on the Islamic Emirate. Our government collapsed, and in the presence of some Afghans—not all—they decided on a new government in Bonn.

This war has continued in such a way that they have refused to accept the Taliban as a government or a movement. The only option left was to die or to be arrested. Nobody wants to be imprisoned by someone, or killed. So the Taliban defended, and as a result they have gotten stronger.

Yes, it would have been difficult for the Taliban to join the new government and become part of the new process. But the historical mistake made by the Americans and those who considered themselves representatives of the Afghans was that they refused to extend an invitation to the Taliban at Bonn or to leave them a reserved seat.

And in the subsequent years, during the interim and transitional governments, the same mistake was made. Even today, as they prepare for a second Bonn conference ten years on, they say Taliban should not be coming to it.

I dont agree with those who say life has gotten better in the past ten years. If there is no security in the country and the war continues, you can’t enjoy the benefits of life

Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil

When they speak of a peace process today they are giving wrong advice. In the past, they said finish the Taliban as a movement. Now the advice is that  you should weaken the Taliban first, and then speak to them from a position of strength. The reality is that as they push with more force, the Taliban reaction is also a show of more force.

I don’t agree with those who say life has gotten better in the past ten years. If there is no security in the country and the war continues, you cant enjoy the benefits of life. Security is the mother of all things.

Yes, progress is true in certain areas—but that is because embargos have been broken. In the past, there was no foreign aid, but there was always foreign criticism. Now there is a lot of international aid, but they have made a parallel government to the Afghan one through which they distribute this aid.

We have also seen a difference in the quantity of education as well as in the growth of one-sided media. They call it free media, but I can’t call it that because the other side neither has the right to picture nor voice. The freedom of the press is one-sided, but it is a relative achievement. Highways have been built, which are crucial for military purposes, but Afghan people benefit as well.

But in return for all this, we have many negatives. During the Emirate, there was security, and there was no corruption then because we had punishments for it.

  Janan Mosazai, Spokesman, Ministry of Foreign Affairs



In late August 2001, I had to flee Afghanistan because I happened to be working for an international organistation that was shut down by the Taliban. They also, somehow, decided to arrest its Afghan staff. So I decided to leave Afghanistan for a few days and go to Pakistan.

I was in Peshawar when 9/11 happened.

I was staying at a hotel and I used to take up the papers every morning. There were front page, large pictures of the twin-towers in flames.  And, of course, 9/11 happened two days after al-Qaeda operatives assassinated Ahmad Shah Massoud. So that was still the main news on people’s minds, certainly Afghans’ minds. 9/11 just heightened people’s anxieties and sense about impending change.

For Afghans at the time, after the assassination of Massoud, the feeling was that it was a matter of time before the Taliban ran over the remaining resistance. But once the US blamed Bin Laden for the 9/11 attacks, the picture changed. I certainly didn’t think, during the first week, that the United States would use 9/11 to launch a full-fledged military campaign in the region. But with time, that became obvious.

Then I started working for the BBC, and we did some reports on what the refugee community thought about the war. We, for example, went to the refugee camp in Abbotabad, where Bin Laden was finally found ten years later. There were mixed views about the military campaign. There was widespread concern about possible damage to civilian life and property and there had been reports of a few stray bombs hitting civilians. Al Jazeera was one of the only media channels allowed to broadcast out of Afghanistan at the time, I remember. But there was also a sense of jubilation among the people, that they could return home-after being forced to take refuge two or three times in the previous decades. Some were refugees three times over. That they could return to a more peaceful Afghanistan because the United States, the most powerful country in the world, had finally decided to intervene.

The fact that today, compared to ten years ago, when you talk about human rights and elections, they are not alien concepts to the people of the country but embedded in the consciousness of the people speaks to the transformation from ten years ago

Janan Mosazai

People drew the connection to the military campaign launched in Afghanistan- they did not know all the details of the 9/11 attacks, but they knew that a big attack had happened in the united States that had connection to folks in Afghanistan who were not afghans but Arabs.

I think in the opinion of the vast majority in this country, the removal of the Taliban and the intervention of the international community- under a UN mandate, let’s be clear about that- provided a lot of us a golden opportunity to the turn the page on more than 20 years of tragic conflict. The buzz words back then were: a new Afghanistan, a new beginning, a better future. That was because people saw the possibilities.

I think, on balance, we probably could do better. But because we are where we are today, Afghanistan is a better country than it was in 2001. It is a transformed country in so many different ways. In terms of infrastructure development, healthcare, education, emergence of a national economy, political and human rights. The fact that today, compared to ten years ago, when you talk about human rights and elections, they are not alien concepts to the people of the country but embedded in the consciousness of the people speaks to the transformation from ten years ago.

But we still have major obstacles and challenges to overcome. And change takes time.

In the regional question for example, change in how a country views its interests and its approach to its neighbours takes much longer. That doesn’t mean for us to give up and accept the status quo. We have been trying for the past ten years to convince our neighbors and the region that a stable Afghanistan is essential for the stability and security in the region. I think we have made some progress on that front.  We are engaged in a substantially different conversation with Pakistan, where there is no denial of the facts on the ground. We talk frankly about all issues on the table-about where the Taliban are, for example. We are also discussing several economic projects. These developments I think are important to building trust and moving forward. 

    Wazhma Frogh, Activist  


At the time, I was working with an international humanitarian aid organisation in Peshawar, Pakistan, that was supporting Afghan refugees. The organisation also carried out emergency support projects for Afghans inside the country. Occasionally, I came to Kabul and visited some provinces, but of course I had to show it as a completely private visit and I had to be accompanied by male family members.

On September 11, 2001 which was a work day, I was at the Zakhail camp in Peshawar. I had a focus-group discussion with women and girls on some of hygiene issues and they were asking for literacy courses, though some of the Jihadi commanders at the camp prevented it.

Myself and another colleague decided to speak with one of those former commanders and try to convince him to allow classes. As we were debating the issue with him, his son came running in and said there was a messenger for him from Jalalabad.

Later on, from the others in the camp, we learned attacks had happened in New York and that he was called to the frontlines as the Afghan opposition fighters against the Taliban wanted to make use of the opportunity.

When we saw and heard about the attacks through international media in Peshawar, my first impression was that it was done by the same people that the US had supported during the Jihad against the Soviets. US dollars and ammunition of the Arab countries during the Soviet war turned our national resistance movement against the Soviets into a proxy war for the advantage of capitalism. Our war commanders won and the Afghan nation lost in a perpetual factional war.

…the biggest mistake of the aftermath of 9/11 was that Afghanistan was only seen as a war zone with no long term vision for it. The US and its allies did not even bother to correct their past mistake of supporting individual warlords and tribal leaders for their own purposes.

Wazhma Frogh

But I also realise that the September 11 attacks opened a new-page in the modern history. Afghanistan never received this much international attention before.

Today, at least the visible activism I do for Afghanistan nationally and internationally can be attributed to the new political regime that came after September 11 in Afghanistan.

Also on the positive side, I think some of the Afghans were able to use the opportunities and create a space for civil society development. The freedom of media (somehow), women’s organisations, activism, and of course private sector development can also be attributed to the aftermath of September 11, 2001 in Afghanistan. Though very fragile, some foundation has been laid out.

But we still need to find more legitimacy in Afghan society because since our projects are supported internationally, our activism is also seen as a ‘foreign project’  even though we’re putting our lives and risking our lives.

However, the bombing of Afghan villages within the Operation Enduring Freedom was for the purpose of Osama Bin Laden and his supporters. As a result of the US bombing, the Taliban regime fell and a new power structure enabled women’s political and social participation. But women’s progress can only be indirectly accredited to the aftermath of September 11.

I believe the biggest mistake of the aftermath of 9/11 was that Afghanistan was that they did not have a long term vision for the country. The US and its allies did not even bother to correct their past mistakes of supporting individual warlords and tribal leaders for their own purposes. Today Afghanistan is suffering in the hands of the same warlords that actively destroyed the country during 1990s factional war. The reason that people have lost faith in the government and going towards the Taliban are these warlords, now in suit and tie, holding very important positions.

  Mohamed Naim, Taxi Driver 



At the time of 9/11, I was living in a refugee camp in Pakistan. I lived there for 20 years. I first lived in Parachinar, but I lost a son in the sectarian tensions, so I moved out to a camp.

I remember watching the flames in the New York buildings on TV.  I also remember the threats that were given to the Taliban by the American government to pressure them to give up Osama.

The US invaded because of its own goals. This country has vast minerals, that’s what they want. If they did not have their eye on that, they would have figured out a deal with the Taliban to get Osama. You have to remember that Taliban were their people as well. 

When the Karzai government came to power, I brought my family back into the country and have been living in Kabul ever since.

Life has gotten much better in the past few years, we have definitely seen positive economic change. We were refugees for so many years, and we could come back to our homes and make a living here. Yes, there is a lot of corruption, but at least there is a government and a system. In some areas, security is really bad. But in general, life has gotten better. 

Follow Mujib Mashal on Twitter: @mujmash

Source: Al Jazeera


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