November 18, 2018

Afghanistan’s turning point

It was a decade ago that a number of terrorists conducted the most horrifying attack on the United States. They hit two big planes into the World Trade Center, targeted the Pentagon with a third, and, in a failed attempt, crashed a fourth in Pennsylvania, all together killing thousands of innocent people.

Although the tragedy shocked Americans in the United States in the extreme, it also proved to be a historical turning point thousands of miles away for another nation — the people of Afghanistan — in the heart of Asia.

Afghans who had long ago been taken hostage, choked like a rabbit fed to a snake, crippled, frozen and unable to react, needed a miracle.

And the miracle had happened.

The news of attacks on America spread all over our country through a few international radio stations, such as the BBC, and Voice of America, the morning after Sept. 11, 2001.

I remember how reactions to the terrifying attacks in New York were mixed among Afghans, ranging from congratulations and happiness to pity for the U.S. people and fear of retaliation.

The fear of reprisal heightened when the news came out that America would bomb Afghanistan into the stone age. People were horrified.

And when the bombing started, the people, already worn to shreds by wars and miseries, were shocked.

“Not again, not another invasion, not another war that will bring more deaths and destruction,” almost every man said to another on the streets of Kabul.

The ruling Taliban regime repeatedly called on people through their only radio station, telling them to be ready for a holy war. People were ordered to turn off all their lights at night. 

It seemed that the U.S. military knew very little about the kind of enemy they were facing on the ground, when they started with B-52 bombers and would drop bombs on some Taliban targets on the outskirt of Kabul from an altitude of thousands of miles.

Even most Afghans knew very little about the inner circle of the Taliban leadership, which rose out of religious schools in Afghanistan and Pakistan in 1994,  seized the capital of Kabul two years later, and then ruled the country until they were ousted by a U.S. invasion in 2001.

No one had seen the Taliban supreme leader Mullah Omar, or his guest Osama bin Laden. 

As the bombing continued for days, many people watched anxiously from their rooftops as the U.S. planes attacked Taliban targets on the outskirts of Kabul. They knew the Taliban were tough, too.

Anti-aircraft gunshots would light the dark skies of Kabul at night and looked like fireworks. People had no idea what would happen next; were those who were bombing their towns and villages doing so to free Afghans from Taliban? Or were they invaders who needed to be fought off again?

One nice, sunny morning, I woke up early as usual and went outside, wanting to see the columns of smoke around Kabul airport as a result of overnight U.S. bombing. On this day, though, the city looked strange; it looked unusually quiet to me.

I was ready to head off to work when I saw a friend riding on a bicycle. He was in a hurry. I stopped him and asked where he was going. He said the Taliban were gone, and he was going to Shahre-Naw Park,  in the center of Kabul, to see the last few Arabs and Pakistanis who were still resisting.

“Really? Are you sure?”  I was shocked. I told him it could be dangerous for us if the news was not true and they were still there. After he insisted, I hopped onto his bike, and we together rode to the center of Kabul.

I was amazed:  My friend was right — the Taliban were gone. Along our way, the Taliban checkpoints were abandoned; the Taliban had disappeared overnight. Only a couple of them remained, surrounded by people in the central park. After a while, one was killed by a guard, and the other blew himself up before anybody could reach him. That was the first time I’d seen a suicide bomber; later, I got to see hundreds.

On the streets of Kabul people were both happy and cautious.  For almost a week, people could not believe the news that the Taliban were gone and that they were free. Many didn’t really remember what the word “freedom” means.

It was a new beginning. Life after the Taliban was moving fast; millions of refugees returned home. People would call the international community’s involvement a “golden opportunity” for Afghanistan.

The U.N. peacekeeping mission, elections for president and parliament, a new currency, a sudden boom in the economy, cell phones and Internet. Everything seemed to be moving on the right track.

Girls started going to school; it looked like flowers slowly blooming in spring.

Every good thing must come to an end.

It was unfortunate that Afghanistan was introduced to the world through 9/11, but now, after almost 10 years, during which the country has dominated the news headlines,  whenever media mentions this country, it is either about Taliban and terrorism or burqas and beards. To the world, Afghanistan looks like an “untamable” nation.

On the other hand, Afghans don’t know a lot about America and the world beyond the news headlines and the foreign military they see on the streets every day, either. 

It’s been a decade now, and yet the two nations never tried to truly understand each other better. And this ignorance gave the Taliban a chance to come back.

Despite the presence of more than 100,000 foreign troops, Afghanistan is still besieged by terrorism in the form of suicide attacks, roadside bombs, drive-by shootings, home invasions, kidnappings and outright attacks on public establishments. This is causing a lot of jittery nerves and sleepless nights for our people.

While successful measures have been put in place against terrorists within the United States and other countries, thus preventing another 9/11, the fire is still kept burning in Afghanistan.

And why still in Afghanistan? It is a question that every Afghan asks. Al-Qaeda lost its base in Afghanistan when the Taliban regime that gave them sanctuary was ousted from power. Al-Qaeda’s leader was found and killed in Pakistan. Many other smaller terrorist attacks in the world have been linked to terrorist groups that emerge from the ruins of older ones in other countries.

What we need in Afghanistan is not constant military campaigns that result in tremendous mayhem and loss of life. We need campaigns to win the hearts and the minds of the people. The campaign that talks to the would-be suicide bomber and tries to dissuade him.

Instead of bombing the towns and villages, the real war must aim at capturing the hearts and the minds of people and the combatants’ supply and support network. When properly delivered, words can be more lethal than bullets.

No one has successfully addressed the would-be suicide bomber or the terrorist. No one has told him that though he might have good intentions, this isn’t the way to salvation. No one has even mentioned to him suicide isn’t sacrifice, it is haram (forbidden) and that the killing of innocent people takes the murderer to places he doesn’t want to be in. We haven’t pointed out to him that those who love God show their love by serving his creation, mankind, not by killing.

Mass media and advertisement can be the most powerful tools of persuasion invented by man, to reach out the people.  Money is the other one.

Unfortunately, much of the billions of dollars that gets poured into Afghanistan simply ends up in the wrong hands. It doesn’t reach the people. And that is why people who make up the Taliban army are those who never get an education, they have no job, no house,  nothing to lose.

A decade after 9/11, as many countries continue to find ways to make themselves less vulnerable to terrorism, it only makes them more vulnerable if the grievances are not addressed properly.

The Afghan writer of this essay is using a pseudonym for security reasons.