Kabul's Long 9/11 Decade


Zia was sitting with his village elder in a northern province of Afghanistan on 11 September 2001 when news of the attack on New York’s Twin Towers and the Pentagon was announced on the radio.

"He was so disappointed," Zia says. "He described it as a catastrophe. He said to me, ‘The trade of weapons has just started in Afghanistan’. He knew it meant more war."

But neither the elder or Zia had any idea how long that war would last.

"This is a big confusion for the Afghan people," says Zia. "When the Americans come and start bombing, the Taliban was finished in only a few weeks. Everyone was free to do something. Things were good. Now after 10 years, there is much danger."

Zia, 59, is no stranger to conflict or its impact: his country has been locked in bloody battles for more than half his life. He has moved his home base and uprooted his family repeatedly, including spending time in a refugee camp in Pakistan. Last year he moved his family to New Zealand.

But throughout it all, he has continued to engage in business in Afghanistan — mainly in trade and construction — seeing it as his contribution to a better future for his country.

He says economic assistance is the key to stability, beginning with the nation’s own security forces. "Who would fight for $400 or $500 a month?," he asks. "If we support [the Afghan police and soldiers]well financially well, they will fight to the end and there will be no space for recruitment for other groups."

Zia would like to see the foreign forces leave. It’s not that he is not grateful for what has been achieved so far but he points to the worsening security situation as a sign that a foreign presence is not helping. "Business is deteriorating. Every inch you move you pay lots of money for security now. The foreign community needs to trust the Afghan. There is no harmony, no co-operation. They need to invest not through physical presence but through jobs and development."

"Spending money on foreign troops is a big burden on the international community. A very big burden," he says. "If they would reduce some of that cost per solider — I hear they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per person — and pay the [Afghan] police or army more so he is not in a position to take a bribe…" He shrugs.

"Without investment, you cannot help us," he says. "Bringing a soldier to show us how to shoot guns — I laugh when I see this on television. A 10-year-old Afghan knows how to shoot a gun."

Ahmad, 23, works in a Kabul guesthouse for foreigners. He is similarly baffled by the interminable war and the rising insecurity in light of the success of the first few months of the 2001 offensive. His family returned to Kabul in 2003, after seven years in Iran. He has watched Afghanistan’s security backslide since his return.

He asks why the foreign forces are unable to take greater control of the country again. And he questions the source of the Taliban’s financial strength: "Who is paying the Talibs? Who?"

There’s one thing Ahmad is clear about: it is not time for the foreign troops to leave. Not yet, he says. "We are not ready."

Sameer, at 24, has had a similar life to Ahmad: he has only known his country in a state of upheaval. His family moved to Pakistan for about 18 years, visiting intermittently and returning permanently in 2005.

"I do remember September 11," Sameer says. "We were watching CNN at home with my grandparents in Pakistan. We [had been]receiving news from our village about the Taliban coming and doing [bad]stuff and blowing up the Buddhas — we were hearing all that news. But when we were watching that news about the Towers in the US, my grandpa, he was so shocked. He said, ‘What this is? This war is taking over the world?’ He was so upset about that."

"Then when we heard that the international troops were coming to move out the Taliban. That news brought us so joy in our family and friends," Sameer continues. "Suddenly, when my father heard this he left everything and came to find our friends and family who had stayed [in Afghanistan]during that time. He couldn’t go before in Taliban time because he was a general. He find some dead, some alive, then he came back and told me, Son, we are going to go back home."

Sameer refuses to think that the country could return to the rule of the Taliban despite the growing strength of the insurgency. "I don’t want to make that type of belief because I don’t want them to come back," he says. "Right now I am living like safe, happy. I can go to my college, I can wear jeans, I can listen to music, my sisters are going to school, my father has a job back, we have a government, we have soldiers, we have everything."

"[In terms of] security, I can say that during the Taliban time, the security was perfect. Because security came with the fear at the time. But there was no humanity. When a thief stole something they were cutting off his hands. And when a [rapist]did something, they were cutting off his head. If there was a woman doing bad, they were shooting her in front of the stadium of all the peoples. And this was making even the child’s mind so dirty. If someone did murder, they would hang him for, like, three or four days from a crane. What do you think? It will corrupt everybody’s mind. There was no humanity at that time."

While Sameer reasons that the foreign forces cannot stay and defend Afghanistan forever, he admits the thought of them leaving makes him afraid.

"The first time I heard that the armies were leaving, I heard that Canada was leaving, I was shocked," he says. "But I know that they have to go one day, they cannot be there forever, they cannot spend their lives in Afghanistan. If you make a person stand in front of your house or you ask your neighbour so a thief cannnot come, how much can he tolerate it? One night, two nights? On the third night he will tell you, boss, I also have my own house."

"What we need is to make it ourselves. The Afghan National Army, Afghan National Police, that’s how we can stand on our own legs and defend ourselves. We have confidence but it is not yet 100 per cent. I am proud that I have soldiers of my own country, but when it comes to the leaving of the international troops, I am a feeling a little bit scared because we are not completely prepared yet."

But for some it is not fear of the Taliban that makes them afraid of the foreign troops leaving but war between themselves. They fear the tribal, factional struggle for power that took place before the Taliban took control.

Such is the view of Mohsen, an Afghan contractor building multi-million dollar construction projects throughout the country. Softly-spoken though firm, Mohsen looks older than his 35 years. He explains that he has had a hard life, it’s an all-too familiar story of being uprooted, moving between countries, between conflicts.

Mohsen’s employees face frequent skirmishes with insurgents at the project worksites. He sees the work he does as necessary for the country to develop, but he laments the danger. For him, the departure of foreign troops would spell disaster. He is not hopeful the Afghans can re build the country alone.

"If the foreign troops leave soon, Afghanistan will return to how it was 14 or 15 years ago," he says.

Like a civil war?

"Yes, like civil war."

He shakes his head and looks at his hands. And then at the sky.

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