9/11′s legacy in Afghanistan

Despite shiny new buildings in Kabul, the nation will face familiar problems as U.S. troops pull out

Topics: GlobalPost, 9/11, Afghanistan, Middle East, U.S. Military,

9/11's legacy in AfghanistanU.S. soldiers await a flight home in Manas, Kyrgyzstan, after a year's deployment in Afghanistan

KABUL, Afghanistan — When Al Qaeda’s planes hit the twin towers on Sept. 11, 2001, the world altered for everyone.

But no two countries have been more affected by the shift than the United States and Afghanistan, who are tied together in a war whose outcome, a decade after the initial invasion, is still very much in doubt.

The United States has changed as a result of 9/11; the sense of superpower invulnerability is gone, perhaps forever.

Afghanistan, too, has undergone a change, but a more physical one. The dusty, hardscrabble capital I first saw in 2004 has been spruced up considerably: high-rise buildings of green and blue glass dominate the center of the city. Apartments and houses are sprouting like mushrooms on the outskirts. Shiny new cars clog the streets, and thousands of well-heeled foreigners are pumping millions of dollars into what was once a cash-starved economy.

But that’s not all. There are the thousands of dead in districts around the country, killed by Taliban explosives, caught in crossfire between the insurgents and foreign troops, shot by U.S. Special Forces in night raids or bombed in misdirected airstrikes.

The Taliban control large swaths of territory, and formerly safe provinces like Parwan and Baghlan are now largely no-go areas. The gains that NATO has made in clearing aside the Taliban are too frequently pushed back as soon as the troops move on.

Most Afghans consider security to be their number-one problem. If travel, school, and work are impossible, not much else matters.

In those first heady days after the fall of the Taliban, anything seemed possible.

Many people initially welcomed the foreign troops. The brutal, joyless Taliban regime was gone. Children could fly kites, teenagers could play music. Chess was once again a beloved pastime, and women began to venture out of their homes on their own.

The sewers were blocked with hair as men lined up at barbershops to shave the long beards required by the Taliban.

“Everyone had two-toned faces,” said Nasim, a young doctor who was just 19 when the Taliban fell. He laughed. “They were all tanned from their noses up, but their chins were pale from being covered with hair for so long.”

I arrived at the height of the optimism, in late 2004, right after the first direct presidential elections the country had ever held. Despite their threats, the Taliban had failed to disrupt the process. Voting was more or less transparent, despite scattered reports of quick-wash “indelible” ink and disappearing ballot boxes.

Hamid Karzai won by a landslide, and the country was proud of its achievement.

Looking back, those days seem idyllic, filled with hope and expectation.

It is a different world now.

Much has changed for the better. Hundreds of young people have been educated abroad. Millions of children, including girls, are now in school. Almost everyone has a cell phone, and internet-access is spreading.

It would be difficult to think of Afghanistan ever again being quite as isolated as it was during the 1990s, when a mere trickle of information made its way to the outside world.

But the past five years have seen an erosion of hope that has left many Afghans cynical and bitter.

The fledgling banking system, once a source of pride, has been marred by scandal: the $900-million Kabul Bank grabathon eroded what little faith and respect people still had in their government.

The 2009 presidential poll saw blatant vote-rigging and a failure of the international community to adequately monitor the process. The Parliamentary ballot a year later was no better, and set in motion a Constitutional crisis that is still causing waves.

The country is mired in a seemingly endless war, run by a hopelessly corrupt government and deeply conflicted about the presence of international troops.

The Taliban cannot chase the foreigners out, but the combined weight of 48 countries hasn’t been able to crush the insurgency.

Most agree that a political solution is necessary, but many still oppose negotiations with the Taliban.

Night raids and aggressive military operations continue, with the justification that the insurgents must be forced to the negotiating table by the sure prospect of defeat. Anyone who thinks this is possible has never spent much time with Afghans.

A new conference planned for December in Bonn, Germany, seems destined to repeat the mistakes of the first one. Those who were there at the time, such as the U.N.’s Lakhdar Brahimi, have said that not inviting the Taliban sowed the seeds of future problems. But Washington’s newly installed ambassador to Kabul, Ryan Crocker, has already said there is no place for the Taliban in Bonn.

Once the international forces pull out, it’s hard to see how the changes in Afghanistan will last. When the first U.S. troops got on the airplane home, property prices in Kabul began to plummet.

The sleek restaurants, supermarkets, taxi services, and other businesses that have sprung up to cater to foreigners and the newly prosperous will likely be forced to close, leaving thousands of Afghans unemployed.

The hundreds of young people who have been educated in the West will doubtless do what the previous generation did: they will use their education to land lucrative jobs in Geneva or New York.

Many of Afghanistan’s top officials have foreign passports and family tucked away in various Western countries. It will not be a difficult transition for them.

Ethnic tensions and regional disputes that have never been resolved are once again coming to the fore. It is all too likely that the militias now being equipped and trained by U.S. Special Forces will turn their weapons on each other, as they did in the 1990s.

According to many observers, both Afghan and international, Afghanistan is headed for another civil war — a proxy battle with the United States and its allies funneling weapons and cash to one side, and regional powers like Pakistan, Iran and Saudi Arabia each backing their favorite horses.

Ten years after 9/11, with hundreds of billions of dollars spent, thousands of lives lost and immense goodwill squandered, Afghanistan seems to be going backwards.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>