The bow of Afghanistan from 9/11 to today: Once hopeful, now sad


September 1, 2021 GMT

KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) – It was November 13, 2001. The sun had just begun to rise over the Hindu Kush Mountains when the Taliban disappeared from Kabul, Afghanistan’s violent capital.

The bodies of foreign Arabs who had been left were mutilated and bloody. They had been found and killed by advancing Afghans from another faction, who were brought to the city by a fierce American-led campaign that drove the Taliban from power.

America was still on track after the horrific terrorist attacks two months earlier when planes flown by al-Qaeda terrorists crashed into three iconic buildings and a Pennsylvania field, killing nearly 3,000 people.

The perpetrators and their leader, Osama bin Laden, were somewhere in Afghanistan, sheltered by the Taliban.

Mission: Find him. Bring him to court.

Just then, Afghanistan – two decades with disorder behind it, two decades more right in front – was suspended for a moment. The last pages of its book were already filled with so much heartache, but for the first time in a while, some blank pages full of potential sat right in front. Nothing was certain, but much seemed possible.

Against this background, the Afghans understood that the mission against bin Laden meant a chance to secure their future – a future as murky on the day as it is today. In those months and years after 2001, they believed in “the power of strangers.”

From hundreds of years ago all the way up to the messy chaos of recent days as the United States withdrew from its air base and then the capital, the word “foreigner” has meant many things in the Afghan context, ranging from invaders to potential colonizers.

But in November 2001, in a mostly ruined Afghan capital, where tracked roads were filled with bicycles and beaten yellow taxis, it meant hope.


Torek Farhadi joined dozens of educated and trained Afghan foreigners who returned to their homeland in 2002 after the Taliban left. He wanted to be part of the new Afghanistan that the US-led invasion promised.

“I found that people were fresh and full of energy to start over,” the economist said from his home in Geneva when he saw the Taliban’s return to power last month. He also remembered the “wise young women” he encountered who had lost large chunks of their education to the oppression of the Taliban between 1996 and 2001.

The arrival of the US-led coalition weeks after the 9/11 attacks ended an oppressive, religiously radical regime that had more in common with the sixth century than the 21st century.

Mullah Mohammad Omar, the withdrawn one-eyed leader of the Taliban, had brought the village to the city. The strict edicts he taught on his one-room mud mattress or religious school became law. The girls were denied education. Women were confined to their homes or, when in public, inside the all-encompassing burqa. Men were told to wear beards. Television was banned, as was all music except religious chanters.

When the Taliban fled and the new leader after 9/11, Hamid Karzai, entered the sprawling presidential palace, he discovered that the Taliban had left their mark. The grand piano had been cleaned; only the elegant shell was left. The inside had been removed – apparently for fear that a piano key might be accidentally pressed and music made.

Wall-to-wall hand-painted miniature murals had been destroyed; The Taliban, who believed that images of living things were a crime against Islam, went to every little bird and wiped its face with a black marker.

In the early years, George W. Bush’s Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, promised that there would be no nation-building. The rule of the country was handed over to Washington’s Afghan allies, many of whom had destroyed Kabul with their bitter strife when they last ruled. During their corruption, the country passed into a collection of dominions that enriched local warlords and led to the Taliban’s progress.

Ethnic Pashtuns, the majority group that had formed the backbone of the country, were suddenly deprived of their right to vote. In 2002, the deputy chief of police in Zabul, a southern province that was once a Taliban stronghold, sent 2,000 young Pashtun men to Kabul to join the Afghan National Army. They were teased and mocked; the deputy chief said all but four ended up joining the Taliban.

Huge posters of the slain anti-Taliban fighter Ahmad Shah Massoud – an ethnic Tajik warlord assassinated on September 9, 2001 – were pasted on official vehicles and inside the Ministry of Defense. The first defense minister, Mohammad Fahim, a Massoud lieutenant, deepened the split by institutionalizing ethnic discrimination.

The Afghan military, which would collapse in the wake of the Taliban’s progress in 2021, began to exist with its recruits, who were often more loyal to a warlord than the army itself. The training lasted almost eight weeks for new, generally uneducated men. Building the Afghan army was often compared to repairing a plane in the middle of the flight.

So all over Afghanistan, it began quickly and understandably: The defeated Taliban began to re-emerge. And it kept getting worse.

In 2012, just two years before the United States and NATO handed over the operational end of the war to the Afghan government, the Afghan army was barely competent and filled with fighters angry over what they considered to be ill-treatment of their foreign trainers. Soldiers wore boots with holes because a sloppy contractor, paid millions of corrupt officials, had supplied substandard equipment. At an army post in the deadly east, there were so few helmets that five soldiers took turns wearing one.

And American coaches? They no longer participated in training sessions where sharp ammunition was used.

They feared that the weapons could be turned against them.


The Taliban’s return last month with their long beards and flowing traditional turbans has created widespread fear among young people in Afghanistan’s cities – places where city girls wearing headscarves have felt free to mingle in coffee shops and on the streets. Young men wearing western gowns, who dream of even greater freedoms, have been part of the airport chaos that met the start of evacuation flights.

A country of 36 million, Afghanistan is full of conservative people, many of whom live in the country. But even they do not adhere to the strict interpretation of Islam imposed by the Taliban when they last ruled.

Taliban leaders, many of whom are linked to the former regime, including the movement’s co-founder Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, promises another Taliban this time. Once camera-shy and withdrawn, many have made regular appearances on the diplomatic scene. They say women can work, go to school and participate in public life.

Who believes in them is a completely different matter. The new generation is filled with nervous young people who have grown up with stories that were nightmares.

Some older Afghans, who worry that an already pressured economy will only get worse, note that the Taliban’s last regime was marked by strong security. Under these Taliban, justice was fast and hard. Convicted thieves had their hands cut off. Murderers were publicly executed. The punishments and trials were carried out in public in a stadium filled with thousands – barbaric scenes that still create fear.

Taliban rule was not marked by attacks on women, but by relentless repression that denied them a public space. And despite orders that they should be accompanied by men, women often traveled alone. But the traditional all-encompassing burqa, an ancient dress that left only a flat spot to see through, came to symbolize the oppression of the Taliban.

Although the world in shock saw the rapid deaths of the Afghan army and government in recent weeks, the signs of Afghanistan’s decline after 9/11 had long been clear.

Twenty years and billions of dollars in investment after 9/11, according to the Georgetown Institute for Women Peace and Security, Afghanistan was considered one of the worst places in the world to be women in 2020 and 2019. In 2018, a Gallup poll offered a scale of one to 10 to determine how respondents rated their chances for a better future five years later, Afghans averaged 2.3. Gallup called it a “new low for any country in any year.”

And two-thirds of those surveyed were 35 years or younger – the very young Afghans, who this month are excitedly wondering what might happen.


When Afghans still believed that the search for peace could make a difference, there was something called the High Peace Council. A few years ago, one of its members wondered how US and NATO forces – which at their highest number of 150,000 and fought alongside hundreds of thousands of Afghan troops – could not defeat tens of thousands of Taliban.

“Either they would not or they could not,” said Mohammed Ismail Qasimyar. “They have made a hell, not a paradise, for us.”

In the first years after 9/11, American money arrived in Kabul in suitcases. There were no working banks at the time – and no oversight of the billions flowing into the country. Most of it went through the hands of US-allied warlords whose corruption had led to the Taliban’s rise in the 1990s.

American generals were often used by their Afghan allies to take revenge. Mohabullah, an Afghan who had left the Taliban to return to the central province of Ghazni, once laughed when he told how easily the Americans were fooled by their Afghan partners. He recalled how a gas station owner was handed over to US forces such as the Taliban – to settle a feud.

American forces often found themselves inadvertently entangled in such local rivalries in the early months and years, when they were completely dependent on their allies for warlords. In 2002, a U.S. general had to rely solely on former warlords to obtain information about prominent al-Qaeda figures who were on the move.

For those who have seen Afghanistan for years, the scenes with crowds of mostly young men hanging from departing planes at Kabul airport last month seemed an accusation of the two decades of effort and the billions of dollars spent. For many of these men, the desperation to leave was less about fear for their lives – and more about finding a new one.

And, say some Afghans, no wonder.

“Kleptocrats and warlords found their way into the corridors of power. They were rich, they got dirty rich and took the whole government system hostage for their interests, ”says Farhadi, the economist. “People lost faith,” he says. “Even the soldiers did not fight for their corrupt leadership.”

Still, Farhadi, a former adviser to the International Monetary Fund and a former World Bank economist, said he would return to his home country under the Taliban – to help them find a way to operate in the 21st century.

So much has changed from the 9/11 era Afghanistan. Bin Laden is dead and gone, killed by US forces in Pakistan in 2011. Kabul is a city that many returning Taliban no longer recognize. The repercussions from the last few weeks will be with the US government for a while. And with the hope of November 2001 long ago surrendered to Afghanistan’s history and heartache, Farhadi can afford his country’s sometime and newest rulers.

“Keep a close eye on corruption. Create a level playing field for corruption-free business. Let women join the workforce; it will help households strengthen their finances. Encourage the diaspora to return, invest and help build the country. Avoid running the country. in isolation. It is the people who will pay the price for sanctions. “


Kathy Gannon, the AP’s news director for Pakistan and Afghanistan, has been covering the country for three decades, including the run-up to and immediately after 9/11. Follow her on Twitter at


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