Politics

Afghanistan’s arc from 9/11 to now: How hope turned to sadness as Taliban re-emerged


It was November 13 , 2001.

The sun had just begun to rise over the Hindu Kush Mountains when the Taliban disappeared from Kabul, the battered capital of Afghanistan.

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The bodies of foreign Arabs who had stayed behind were mutilated and bloodied.

They had been found and killed by advancing Afghans of another faction who were brought to the city by a blistering U.S.-led campaign that drove the Taliban from power.

America was still reeling from the horrific terrorist attacks of two months earlier, when planes flown by al-Qaida 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 .

The mission: Find him. Bring him to justice.

Right then, Afghanistan — two decades of disorder behind it, two decades more just ahead — was suspended in an in-between moment.

The recent pages of its book were already filled with so much heartbreak, but for the first time in a while, some blank pages full of potential sat just ahead.

Nothing was certain, but much seemed possible.

In this November 24, 2001 file photo, a column of Taliban fighters go through the front line in the village of Amirabad, northern Afghanistan
In this November 24, 2001 file photo, a column of Taliban fighters go through the front line in the village of Amirabad, northern Afghanistan Credit: AP

Against that backdrop, Afghans understood the mission against bin Laden to mean a chance to secure their future — a future as murky on that day as it is today.

In those post-2001 months and years, they believed in the power of “the foreigners.”

From hundreds of years ago right up to the jumbled chaos of recent days as the United States pulled out of its air base and then the capital, the word “foreigner” has meant many things in the Afghan context, from invaders to would-be colonisers.

But in November 2001, in a mostly ruined Afghan capital where rutted roads were filled with bicycles and beat-up yellow taxis, it meant hope.

The ‘new’ Afghanistan

Torek Farhadi joined scores of educated and trained Afghan expatriates who returned to their homeland in 2002 after the Taliban were gone.

He wanted to be part of the new Afghanistan that the U.S.-led invasion promised.

“I found the people relieved fresh and full on energy to start anew,” the economist said from his home in Geneva, as he watched the Taliban’s return to power last month.

He remembered, too, the “smart young women” he encountered who had lost huge chunks of their educations to Taliban repression between 1996 and 2001.

In this May 13, 2013 file photo, a boy flies his kite on a hill overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan. Kite flying was banned during the Taliban regime.
In this May 13, 2013 file photo, a boy flies his kite on a hill overlooking Kabul, Afghanistan. Kite flying was banned during the Taliban regime. Credit: AP
In this January 3, 2011 file photo, a balloon seller riding a bicycle looks towards a woman holding hands with two young girls at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan.
In this January 3, 2011 file photo, a balloon seller riding a bicycle looks towards a woman holding hands with two young girls at a market in Kabul, Afghanistan. Credit: AP

The arrival of the U.S.-led coalition weeks after the September 11 attacks ended a repressive, religiously radical regime that had more in common with the sixth century than the 21st.

Mullah Mohammad Omar, the reclusive one-eyed leader of the Taliban, had brought the village to the city.

The strict edicts he taught at his one-room mud madrassa, or religious school, became law.

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 but religious chants.

Leaving their mark

When the Taliban fled and the new, post 9/11 leader, Hamid Karzai, entered the sprawling presidential palace, he discovered the Taliban had left their mark.

The grand piano had been gutted; only the elegant shell remained.

The insides had been removed — seemingly out of fear that a piano key might be accidentally pressed and music made.

Wall-to-wall hand-painted miniature murals had been defaced; Taliban who believed images of living things were a crime against Islam went to every tiny bird and blotted out its face with a black marker.

In this August 15, 2021 file photo, Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country.
In this August 15, 2021 file photo, Taliban fighters take control of Afghan presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan, after President Ashraf Ghani fled the country. Credit: AP

In those first years, George W. Bush’s defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, vowed there would be no nation-building.

The running of the country was handed to Washington’s Afghan allies, many of whom had destroyed Kabul with their bitter feuding when they last ruled.

Under their corruption, the country devolved into a collection of fiefdoms that enriched local warlords and led to the Taliban’s rise.

Ethnic Pashtuns, the majority group that had made up the backbone of the country, were suddenly disenfranchised.

In 2002, the deputy police chief of Zabul, a southern province that was once a Taliban stronghold, sent 2,000 young Pashtun men to Kabul to join the Afghan national army.



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