What has changed in Afghanistan 21 years after 9/11? Afghanistan is back in the hands of the Taliban, but high-ranking members of al-Qaeda like Ayman al-Zawahiri are still being hunted down in Kabul by the United States. Al Jazeera correspondent Osama Bin Javaid spoke to Afghans, including the Taliban, about where the country is today.
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This transcript was created using AI. It has been reviewed by humans, but it might contain errors. Please let us know if you have any corrections or questions; our email is TheTake@aljazeera.net.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: Now that September 11 has just rolled around again, Afghanistan doesn’t seem that different than it did just over two decades ago. The Taliban took back control over a year ago now.
Newsreel: One year ago, the streets of Kabul were full of fear as the Taliban rolled in … and US-backed government fled.
Halla Mohieddeen: And al-Qaeda – who the United States holds responsible for the September 11 attacks in 2001 and the reason the US went to war in the first place – seems to have been hiding out in Afghanistan still as well.
Newsreel: The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, has been killed in a US drone strike in Afghanistan.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, after 21 years, has anything changed?
Osama Bin Javaid: It’s a very heavy question, which requires a lot of soul-searching on the part of people who spent trillions of dollars in wars that cost thousands of lives.
Halla Mohieddeen: Al Jazeera’s Osama bin Javaid has been in Afghanistan, and he has some answers – from the Afghans still there and an exclusive interview with Taliban leader Anas Haqqani as well.
I’m Halla Mohieddeen and this is The Take.
[THEME MUSIC PLAYING]
Halla Mohieddeen: Well, here we are 21 years since the 9/11 attacks, again, and one year since the Taliban took back Afghanistan – and there’s a sense of deja vu.
Halla Mohieddeen: The US has accused the Taliban of harbouring an al-Qaeda leader and has killed him in a drone strike.
Newsreel: This video purportedly shows the aftermath of the strike in Kabul, which killed Zawahiri.
Halla Mohieddeen: Instead of Osama bin Laden, this time it’s Ayman al-Zawahiri. Just remind us who Zawahiri was and why is this happening right now?
Osama Bin Javaid: Ayman al-Zawahiri was not just a deputy to Osama bin Laden, but somebody who took al-Qaeda from an organisation which was involved in guerilla warfare to a pan-Muslim, pan-Arab, pan-nation organisation. It was him who took the reins after Osama bin Laden was killed.
Newsreel: Often called the brains behind Osama bin Laden, Ayman al-Zawahiri is now to assume the leadership of the diffuse organisation that is al-Qaeda.
Osama Bin Javaid: Ayman al-Zawahiri is the one who kind of brought al-Qaeda to its natural phase, which is now, rather than it being a centrally organised organisation, it’s got franchises in many, many places, including al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, al-Qaeda in Islamic Maghreb, and various other offshoots.
Halla Mohieddeen: The Taliban is saying that the United States has violated the Doha Accords with the strike and the US is saying that the Taliban is in violation. Who do you think is right?
Osama Bin Javaid: Well, it’s very difficult to gauge who’s right and who’s wrong with this because the deal was so vague. The deal said counter-terrorism strategy inside of Afghanistan fell on the shoulders of the Taliban, which they use for saying that United States is in clear violation and breach because it did not consult them. If you look at it from the US perspective, there is the leader of al-Qaeda, one of the most wanted people in the world, sitting very close to the people in power in Kabul. So, they had to take action and could not believe that the Taliban were trustworthy “counterterrorism” partners. And that is a criticism that has been brought forward by many people of the former regime, the then-Afghan army as well. And that is why the Doha Accords was seen by critics of the Taliban as something in the Taliban’s favour.
Halla Mohieddeen: Well, this assassination brings up several fundamental questions about what’s happening in Afghanistan. These drone strikes, that was how Zawahiri was killed – what more can you tell us about that?
Osama Bin Javaid: Drone strikes have a very chequered legacy, especially when it comes to Pakistan and Afghanistan. Of course, we all remember the last drone strike in Kabul, the disastrous strike, where we saw a whole family blown up to bits, including small children.
Newsreel: Charred remains of what some of the children were wearing when a US drone hit their house. Some of them were inside, others playing outside near a parked car.
Osama Bin Javaid: Well, I walked the streets of Wazir Akbar Khan neighbourhood, where this drone strike took place. The particular lane, where this house was, has been sealed off by the Taliban. Reporters are not allowed there. But Wazir Akbar Khan is one of the posh areas of Kabul, where there are bigger houses, lots of CCTV cameras, members of not just the former government, but also businessmen and others would have their properties. The Taliban official stance has been that they did not know Ayman al-Zawahiri was there, which is again, quite interesting and very similar to what the Pakistanis said when Osama bin Laden was killed. We’ve heard reports that there were members of the Haqqani family who also resided nearby. When it comes to who was killed – well, according to the Haqqanis nobody was killed, and everybody seems to be looking for evidence. But it’s going to be a major, major blow to al-Qaeda, because unlike when they killed Osama bin Laden, right now, the organisation does not have a successor who everybody would agree upon and can keep the group united.
Halla Mohieddeen: US President Joe Biden said that Zawahiri was making videos recently and encouraging followers to attack US soil.
Joe Biden: He made videos, including in the recent weeks, calling for his followers to attack the United States and our allies. Now justice has been delivered and this terrorist leader is no more.
Halla Mohieddeen: But it’s been a while since we’ve heard of an al-Qaeda-led attack. What’s the status of al-Qaeda now?
Osama Bin Javaid: Well, I think you have to go back to what al-Qaeda started as.
Osama Bin Javaid: Al-Qaeda was started in the 1980s in the border regions between Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Newsreel: Filmed together by Al Jazeera in the mountains along the Afghan-Pakistan border, analysts describe Zawahiri as bin Laden’s closest mentor.
Osama Bin Javaid: Al-Qaeda in the 1980s, fought alongside the then-mujahidin, funded by the CIA, against the Soviet Union.
Newsreel: They were in the Pakistani city of Peshawar, supporting guerillas, fighting the Soviets in Afghanistan.
Osama Bin Javaid: What Osama bin Laden then called a nefarious strategy to subdue Muslim countries against various invasions and presence of foreign forces.
Newsreel: Two enormous blasts exploding, only minutes apart, highly-coordinated attacks aimed at convenient American targets within range of terrorist training camps in the Middle East and North Africa.
Osama Bin Javaid: And that’s why it was Kenya and Tanzania.
Newsreel: Days after those attacks, Zawahiri telephoned a Pakistani reporter and denied responsibility, but he urged Muslims to continue their jihad against the Americans and Jews.
Osama Bin Javaid: They attacked warships outside of Yemen as well.
Newsreel: The Cole investigation has been and will remain a top priority for the FBI.
Osama Bin Javaid: So, al-Qaeda started off with that very broad agenda and that’s why it was able to lure people, especially from these areas where there was a presence of foreign forces. Al-Qaeda has a very long history of its fighters’ presence in Afghanistan, but if you talk to the Taliban and local fighters, these are people who just lived there, who fought alongside them, who married into their tribes and have had second or third generations living there.
Osama Bin Javaid: Now, since the days of Osama bin Laden, it has not carried out any major strikes. But it has been a more ideological organisation, in praise of various attacks.
Halla Mohieddeen: So, should they be seen as a threat? What do you think US President Joe Biden’s strategy was, targeting Zawahiri?
Osama Bin Javaid: Well, it is a group which appeals to an extremist ideology. If you’re in a village in Afghanistan, that would not be seen as a terrorist organisation, but in Washington, DC you’d have alarm bells ringing around you. If you look back at the history of these drone strikes, like the decision to take out the strike against Osama bin Laden, it carries a big prize for the commander-in-chief.
Newsreel: President Obama’s getting a big political boost from the killing of Osama bin Laden. Obama’s approval rating has surged to 60%.
Osama Bin Javaid: So, I think it is a major win for the US president. He’s seen as somebody who’s taking out bad guys, which for a number of years have been painted as a big threat to the United States.
Halla Mohieddeen: The Pentagon has recently announced a reform-oriented overhaul of their drone strike policy. It remains to be seen if this will mean less civilian lives will be lost.
Halla Mohieddeen: While in Afghanistan, Osama went around the country reporting and spending time with Afghans, and members of the Taliban, to find out what has changed in the last year.
Osama Bin Javaid: It’s a very different Afghanistan. If you come out of Kabul airport, it’s the same bustle that you see, but it’s very different.
Halla Mohieddeen: During that time, you had an exclusive interview with Anas Haqqani, the leader of the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan. What did he say about the strike and more generally about how Afghanistan is being run under the Taliban?
Osama Bin Javaid: We met quite a few of the leaders of the Taliban who are now in charge. We did have an exclusive interview with Anas Haqqani, a very vocal young leader of the Taliban, who spent time in Bagram and was tortured there as well. He was of the view that the United States is in violation of its agreement. Obviously, that is something that the United States is very unlikely to agree with.
Anas Haqqani: It was the US who entered our territories without permission, even without notifying us. This was a clear violation on part of the US.
Halla Mohieddeen: Now Anas Haqqani is leading Afghanistan now, but on September 19, 2012, the Haqqani network was declared a terrorist organisation by the US State Department, and they haven’t been taken off that list. What did he say about the relationship with the United States and Afghanistan now?
Osama Bin Javaid: According to the Haqqanis, their stance has evolved from when they were fighting the United States and carrying out suicide attacks against them.
Newsreel: The Haqqani network trains the fighters and suicide bombers it sends into Afghanistan, with often devastating effects.
Osama Bin Javaid: Their stance has softened now since they’re the rulers of Afghanistan and they have been talking to the United States. Anas Haqqani has had a number of meetings with various officials, including the United States, the European Union, and regional countries.
Anas Haqqani: Afghanistan today is totally different from 20 years ago. For example, the former government, they were really under pressure from the occupation. We started to move things in the right direction. We are now able to generate revenues for the functioning of our ministries and other institutions. We aspire to have good and friendly relations with the whole world.
Osama Bin Javaid: The view from the Haqqanis is that they are now in charge of Afghanistan. They are now the future Afghanistan and the world needs to come to terms with that.
Anas Haqqani: It is also our duty to provide a comfortable and dignified way of life for our people. We’re here to serve our people. I believe we’ve managed to achieve a lot, but we aspire for more, despite the challenges we are facing from the international community, including the issue of being recognised.
Osama Bin Javaid: The view from the Taliban is they inherited an economy which relied on foreign aid, which collapsed overnight.
Newsreel: The country is in the midst of a humanitarian crisis as billions of dollars in Afghan assets remain frozen by the US.
Osama Bin Javaid: And the humanitarian catastrophe that we are seeing in Afghanistan is not entirely their fault.
Anas Haqqani: Don’t expect us to achieve what others have failed to achieve over the past 20 years, especially with the challenges we face. It has been only one year since we assumed power and the world should not expect us to achieve all our goals overnight. It is next to impossible, especially when the international community has not fulfilled their promises, including recognition of our rule and foreign aid.
Halla Mohieddeen: What did you think and what did you see, about the way that the country is being run?
Osama Bin Javaid: We were able to go out close to midnight and have ice cream in Kabul, which was not possible a year ago. There is relative peace and security. You have to understand that the threat matrix had the biggest level of threat coming from the Taliban, who are now the people in charge. So that does not exist anymore. Promises the Taliban were making to the outside world when they were negotiating, including the rights of women, they do not exist. But there’s also a sliver of hope there because many of those Haqqanis would tell you, not on the record because they do not want to be seen as contrary to the policy of their leadership, that they are pro girls’ education. They are pro-science and technology. They are pro jobs. Afghanistan was always poor; Afghanistan was always weak and desperate. What’s happened in a year is that the country was reliant on billions and billions of dollars of foreign aid that has dried up. It is now being run by a fighting group, which is coming to grips with how to convert itself into a governing body. And that is where the reality of Afghanistan sinks in while you are there, that this is a country which for so long was the centre of attention for the rest of the world. Well, according to its people, now, it’s been abandoned.
Halla Mohieddeen: Are people still trying to leave? That was the defining image really at the time of the fall of Kabul and when the Taliban took over, the people desperately running for the airports.
Newsreel: Desperate Afghans feverishly attempting to escape, clinging to military planes, leaving the airport.
Halla Mohieddeen: Has that all calmed down or are people still trying to leave the country?
Osama Bin Javaid: People are trying to leave Afghanistan, and for a number of reasons, economic reasons, but I know of colleagues whose daughters have not been able to go to school for a year. I know foreign forces that did not want to go because things would calm down and I met them a year later and they want to leave Afghanistan. There is the uncertainty of what’s going to come next. The Taliban, again, all of those lofty views that exports have doubled. There is more money which is being generated inside the country but which has yet to translate to Nangarhar province or Kabul even, where people are in desperate conditions.
Halla Mohieddeen: You mentioned going for ice cream in Kabul, the capital, around midnight.
Halla Mohieddeen: But, in those rural provinces, ice cream’s not an option, is it? Ninety percent of the population lives below the poverty line. How desperate is it in terms of just the everyday man or woman trying to put food on the table?
Osama Bin Javaid: There is a place in Kabul where they sell stale bread. The stale bread, which is a day old, is five or six Afs (US $0.057 or $0.068). If it gets two days old, it’s about three or four afghanis (US $0.034 or $0.045). That gives you an idea of how desperate people are. Why this market exists is because people are not able to afford just bread. The conditions of people are extremely dire. I’ve met people who told me, begging in the street, that they haven’t had a meal in days. Right now, Afghanistan is in the worst place that it has been in the last two decades. The world has spent $300m a day every day for 20 years and it is also very difficult to understand where all the money went. The country, if you go outside of the capital, is as if you are walking through a time capsule 30 or 40 years ago on what the world would’ve looked like. And it is now the responsibility of the rest of the world to try and work to have some sort of a vision of Afghanistan where those people have prospects, they have education, they have access to healthcare, and they can build some sort of a future of Afghanistan, which is not completely full of despair and dark days ahead.
Halla Mohieddeen: Well, now that it’s September 11, 2022. Do you think we’re back where we started? Was the past 21 years a waste of time and lives, or did anything change?
Osama Bin Javaid: Things have changed. 9/11 is a very different 9/11, as it was last year as well. Where the flag of the Islamic Emirate is flying at every flagpole, including that of the presidential palace. Where they have inherited billions and billions of dollars worth of military hardware. Where they’re now in a position where they’re able to dictate their own terms. What have we achieved, I think, is a big question. There were major advancements when it came to women’s rights and human rights, but they were also limited to urban Afghanistan. In rural Afghanistan, there are parts of Afghanistan where there are no government schools. Where no girl has ever been to school. I sat down with UNICEF, and I looked at their numbers and 50% of schools in Afghanistan, now, trillions of dollars later, do not have bathrooms or running water. Their roads network is almost non-existent. So, it is a very desperate Afghanistan, which kind of feels like the same or worse from what it was 20 years ago. And the foreign fighting groups, clearly there’s no fight against them that is being carried out by the Taliban. And I don’t think they have the capacity to carry out counter-terrorism operations against those people who fought with them and essentially defeated the United States and forced the international community to leave Afghanistan.
Halla Mohieddeen: And do you think the United States will ever get into a full-scale war in Afghanistan, or even like the one in Afghanistan ever again?
Osama Bin Javaid: United States strategy has changed. I personally don’t foresee a major full-scale war in Afghanistan anytime soon. Those drone strikes can be carried out with or without ground intelligence, which can be effective against targets or civilians or not be effective. They are going to continue.
Newsreel: Among the 10 people killed in Kabul on August 29 were two-year-old Sumaya and Ayad, along with three-year-old Malika, seven-year-old Arwin was playing…
Osama Bin Javaid: There is a forever war that has been started since 9/11 in Afghanistan, where people of Afghanistan are going to continue to suffer and pay for it for the foreseeable future.
Newsreel: Neighbours rushed to put out the fire. They were too late.
Halla Mohieddeen: And what would you say this means for the world at large, that a war like this has changed?
Osama Bin Javaid: I think the world needs to have a little bit of introspect. When I sit down with diplomats, when I sit down with military leaders behind closed doors, they do admit that mistakes have been made. There is a change that has come because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the ashes of those wars, you’ve seen monsters like ISIL rise up. You’ve seen extremism being fanned by these wars and what have we achieved by spending billions and billions and trillions of dollars in wars, rather than providing the children with jobs and education and healthcare? The world needs to look at the root causes of terrorism and extremism, rather than fighting the symptoms. And unless you do, I think the world is going to continue to see many of these groups with different names rise up over and over again, and then you will have to send expensive missiles to counter them and then come back out, saying that the war is over, and yet it continues.
Halla Mohieddeen: And that’s The Take. This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Ruby Zaman, Chloe K. Li, Negin Owliaei, Alexandra Locke and me, Halla Mohieddeen. Alex Roldan is our sound designer. Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad are our engagement producers. Ney Alvarez is our Head of Audio. And a special thank you to Tabish Talib. We’ll be back.
This episode was produced by Amy Walters with Ruby Zaman, Chloe K Li, Negin Owliaei, Alexandra Locke and Halla Mohieddeen. Our sound designer is Alex Roldan. Our engagement producers are Aya Elmileik and Adam Abou-Gad. Ney Alvarez is Al Jazeera’s head of audio. Special thanks to Tabish Talib.