Nine years ago today, just weeks after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center, the United States led an aerial bombardment on Afghanistan, beginning the longest war in US history and unleashing events that would topple a regime and change the direction of the nation.
But this week, even as the Karzai government began secret talks with the Taliban and other antigovernment forces, after two presidential elections and billions of US investment in fighting and reconstruction, most Afghans see no end to the war. Amid ongoing violence, it remains difficult for most people here to reconcile what this anniversary means for their country.
“The Afghan civilians used to think of this anniversary as a day that they got their freedom from a cruel government. But day by day, as the Taliban has gotten more control in the country, the people have stopped believing that,” says Mohammad Saber Fahim, an Afghan journalist.
Initially happy about the bombardment
Like most Afghans, Abdul Wasy still remembers where he was when he heard that the Americans had started bombing his country nine years ago. He was nine years old, and rather than get the news over the radio, he found out about the strikes when two bombs landed close enough to his home that, he says, they shook the earth.
When he realized he would be safe, he says that he and his family were elated. “We thought that we were released from the dark regime of the Taliban,” he says.
But now, Mr. Wasy says, things aren’t so black and white. “In the Taliban regime, it was better. We were safe. Now, every day, you hear on the news about innocent people getting killed in attacks. … In nine years, more than 40 countries could not bring security. And now we are all feeling hopeless.”
Taliban gone in three months
President George W. Bush ordered airstrikes on Afghanistan a month after the Sept. 11 attacks. It was billed as America’s first retaliatory move after 9/11 and the stated aim was to find Osama bin Laden and stop Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups from using the country as a haven.
Within three months, the US had removed the Taliban regime and the International Security Assistance Force, composed of more than 40 nations, was established to restore peace and secure the nation.
While the US and international forces continued to pursue Al Qaeda, they also turned their efforts to combating antigovernment forces, training Afghan forces, and engaging in reconstruction projects. Violence remained relatively low until mid-2006, when the Taliban began to make a resurgence. Now Afghanistan is experiencing record levels of violence, and though the Taliban and other insurgent groups have reportedly started talks with the government, most analysts agree that a comprehensive peace agreement will take time.
Among the challenges facing those trying to make peace, many question if those appointed by President Hamid Karzai to be part of the High Peace Council, a group that held its inaugural meeting Thursday separately from secret peace talks, are capable of brokering a deal with antigovernment forces.
“There are only few [individuals on the council] that represent the voice of the Afghan people, but those cannot thaw the ice between the Taliban and the Afghan government,” says Khalil Nouri, cofounder of New World Strategies Coalition Inc., an Afghanistan think tank based in Fremont, Calif., that researches nonmilitary solutions.
Candace Rondeaux, the International Crisis Group’s senior analyst for Afghanistan, is also skeptical. “It is unclear which elements of the insurgency would be welcome at the table," she says, '' [and] it is not entirely clear that those from the ISAF side of the table who would be in a position to bargain fully understand the demands of the insurgency and are prepared to deal with those demands or that they have anything to offer in exchange.”
A phone call: 'it's safe to come home'
When he was 11 years old, living as a refugee in Peshawar, Pakistan, Mohammed Zaki’s aunt called his mother from Kabul to tell her that the Americans had started bombing the Taliban and soon it would be safe for him to return to Afghanistan. Three months later, his family was back in their homeland.
“I was very happy when I heard about the Americans bombing Afghanistan, because I thought they would destroy the Taliban and I could go back to my land,” says Mr. Zaki, a furniture-maker. “Now the situation has changed. We were safe in Pakistan, but now we don’t know if a suicide bomber will blow himself up at any moment, and Pakistan has gotten worse so we can’t go back there, either.”
Many Afghans who remember the initial excitement of the American and international forces' attacks on the Taliban, say they also remember just as vividly the shift in their support of the US.
“We were happy that they destroyed the Taliban, but we got angry when they started killing civilians,” says Hossin Ali Karimi, a social worker at an international nongovernmental organization in Kabul, echoing a common sentiment among Afghans who have grown disenchanted with the presence of foreign forces.
Despite his frustrations with foreign troops, however, he says that if they leave, he worries that the Taliban will return to power.
For Abdul Shakur, who has spent most of his adult life battling the Taliban, first with the Northern Alliance and now as an officer with the Afghan Army, his hope was that the American bombardment would bring an end to war in his country. Stationed in Parwan, north of Kabul, nine years ago, he watched bombs fall on Taliban trenches. Only five years earlier, he’d been shot in the neck during a battle with the Taliban.
“I was very excited that the Taliban were being killed by the bombing,” he says. Today, he says he worries that the Taliban is even stronger than it was before. “Now I am happier than I was during the Taliban time, but there are still problems.”