What Afghans think of the war: 'Why are you Americans here?'

Ten years ago, the US invaded Afghanistan to eliminate a terrorist haven and set up a stable government. But today, many Afghans don’t know why the US invaded, have never heard of 9/11, and are increasingly suspicious.

Tom A. Peter
Kabul shopkeeper Haji Mohammad Qul holds up a rug showing planes flying into the World Trade Center, a motif popular with American and European tourists. When asked, he professes to know little or nothing of the event it portrays.

Stacks of folded carpets line every wall of Haji Mohammad Qul's rug shop on Chicken Street, Kabul's shopping destination for foreigners in search of Afghan souvenirs.

Though Mr. Qul sells predominately traditional Persian carpets, like most Chicken Street venders he offers a small selection of Sept. 11-themed rugs. These commemorative carpets are about the size of a doormat and feature crude, hand-woven images of planes striking the World Trade Center.

Despite selling several of these rugs each month, Qul says he doesn't really know where the image on them comes from or what Sept. 11 is.

"It's just an item in our shop that we sell to Americans and Europeans," he says with a shrug.

When pressed on what, if anything, he knows about the events of Sept. 11, 2001, he changes the subject to a drought in northwest Afghanistan. Asked again, his teenage son, who everyone says is the most educated person in the family, reminds him about Osama bin Laden.

Qul continues: "Yes, I think it's from bin Laden. We were refugees in Pakistan at that time, and I had to take care of my family.... I was too busy to pay attention to the political events in the news."

A decade after Sept. 11, Qul is just one of many Afghans who say they have heard almost nothing about the attacks that led to the fall of the Taliban government and an ongoing, 10-year foreign military presence in his country.

As US policymakers debate keeping troops in Afghanistan as far out as 2024, the void of information among large swaths of the Afghan population this deep into the war may cast doubt on the ability of the United States to effectively accomplish its goals here in the coming years.

"The foreigners absolutely did not communicate.... They only spoke with bombs and guns," says Najib Mamalai, an independent political analyst in Kabul. "They alienated every single human body in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran, and Iraq to their causes. Nobody believes in their cause now."

Following the Sept. 11 attacks, the US invaded Afghanistan in order to eliminate it as a terrorist haven and to install a government capable of creating the stability required to support this goal. The US has spent an estimated $450 billion on the war in Afghanistan, including more than $70 billion on development projects. Additionally, more than 1,750 US soldiers and almost 950 soldiers from allied nations have lost their lives here. More than 13,000 US soldiers have been wounded.

Have the Soviets left?

Although there has been significant development in Afghanistan during the past 10 years, much of the country remains cut off from the recent wave of progress.

"They know why they are here. I don't know the reason why they are here. You should ask them why they are here, to make peace or to destroy Afghanistan. I don't know why," says Momin, who sells tailoring supplies in Jalalabad and, like many Afghans, only has one name. He also has no idea what occurred on Sept. 11. "Something happened in Pakistan on this day, but I don't remember exactly what. I don't have details about it – maybe they had a fight with India," he speculates, adding that he is certain nothing happened in America on that day.

About 72 percent of the country is illiterate, and in some remote areas of the country there are small pockets of people who are unaware that the Soviet war ended – some 22 years ago. In rural areas that now have cellphone service, there remain Afghans who've never used a telephone and say they have no need for one.

During the Taliban regime, television was banned. Only a very small group of people had access to sets they'd managed to hide. Mohammad Kabir Raufi, another carpet vendor in Kabul, had managed to keep one hidden in his house despite the prohibition. He remembers watching the events unfold on Sept. 11.

"It's just the educated people who work and have knowledge who will recognize [images of 9/11]," says Mr. Raufi. "The ordinary people will not. They don't know where the twin towers were or what happened to them and what was the result of the attack."

More common are Afghans who heard of the attacks and sensed the inevitability of yet another war in their country. As US and NATO forces began pouring into the nation, though, the attacks in New York and Washington and the crash in Pennsylvania became an afterthought for Afghans who were understandably more focused on the troops in their own country.

Even among educated Afghans who know what happened on Sept. 11, there are still many who strongly doubt what they saw or heard and earnestly believe readily disprovable conspiracy theories.

Habibullah Rafi is a respected historian who specializes in Kabul history at the Afghanistan Academy of Sciences, an academic research institute. On the morning of the attacks, he was with his family in Calgary, Alberta. Today he says that he believes America planned the attacks so it could invade Afghanistan and Iraq.

"After Russia was destroyed in Afghan­is­tan, America needed a way to sneak in here," he says, echoing a popular theory.

Among his reasons that the US remains here, he lists America's plan to "steal Afghanistan's resources." Although the country could be sitting on considerable mineral deposits, the scope of these deposits is still debated, and many experts speculate that the cost of extracting them could severely diminish returns on the minerals. So far, China is the only nation conducting major mining operations here.

Though concerns about Israel are predominately confined to the Arab world and not a major topic of conversation in Afghanistan, Mr. Rafi also accuses the US of wanting to pave the way for an Israeli occupation here.

The most popular conspiracy theory for Israeli regional domination, based on a fraudulent document, says that Israeli territorial ambitions extend to the Euphrates River in Iraq, about 1,000 miles from Afghanistan's western border. There is presently only one known Jewish man living in all of Afghanistan: Zablon Simintov. His family frequently urges him to move to Israel.

US reassurances that troops are in Afghanistan to eliminate terrorist havens seem increasingly suspect to Afghans after Mr. bin Laden was killed in Pakistan in May, and even more so now that Al Qaeda's No. 2 was killed there in late August.

Even for those who've heard America's message about why the US must stay in Afghanistan, strong indications that Al Qaeda has relocated to Pakistan – combined with a civilian death toll that has risen with each new year – help fuel suspicion and misinformation.

"After Osama and a lot of other Al Qaeda leaders were killed [in Pakistan], still America is here in Afghanistan," says Saleh Mohammed Saleh, a member of the Afghan parliament from Kunar. "This makes the Afghans not trust anyone and be suspicious of the activities of America."

Living in a nation transformed

Today, the actual causes of the war are largely irrelevant to many Afghans who now live in a nation that has been completely transformed by the US presence.

"At the beginning, it had a very positive effect for our business and it was a shining moment for us," says Majeed Uzbek, who sells handicrafts in Kabul. "They came because the Taliban did this attack and they've done a lot of rebuilding. This was 100 percent good for Afghanistan."

Indeed, foreign aid in Afghanistan has had such a massive impact that the World Bank now estimates that international military and donor spending accounts for 97 percent of the country's gross domestic product. This estimate has triggered concerns among US policymakers that the Afghan economy might collapse as foreign spending decreases in Afghanistan.

But many Afghans complain that only a select few actually see any monetary benefit from the war.

"Only the people in the cities are happy with the American presence, because their lives have changed a little – along with the warlords who got rich during this period," says Shah Mahmoud Hamdard, a pharmacist in Uruzgan Province in the south of Afghanistan. " But if you go to rural areas, especially Uruzgan, the life of the people has not changed or maybe got worse during these past 10 years."

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