IT had been twenty years since the terror attacks on the United States of which terrorist-commandeered airplanes were deliberately crashed into the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City and at the Pentagon. The world has since called this day the “9-11” attacks because it happened on the morning of September 11, 2001.
It was nighttime in the Philippines, and this was breaking news in all the leading television networks, including CNN. Two airplanes crashing into a building was no accident for sure, the commentators were saying. Therefore this was a suicide attack. That night, I had a pub gig with my band. I arrived at the venue to see people I know looking glum and mumbling greetings I can only recall as “giyera na.” War seems inevitable in the first year of the 21st century.
George W. Bush, who was then the US President, declared war for sure. And for the first time, we heard the term “war on terror” – a blanket description to refer to the active pursuit and deterrence, not only of the perpetrators of the 9-11 attacks but also against future terror plots elsewhere in the globe by disabling and eliminating terrorist organizations and their networks through the use of overt and deadly force.
Seared in the minds of people in the US and the world were graphic images of people trapped in the upper reaches of the World Trade Center skyscrapers who then opted to throw themselves off the building/s rather than suffer a crushing and fiery death within the structure. These nameless people were beyond the reach of rescuers who also tragically perished when the towers eventually collapsed into a heap of rubble at what we know today as New York City’s “Ground Zero.”
The exact number of people who died in the 9-11 attacks will never be known. Estimates place this at above 3,000 which is more than the death toll at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. By this comparison, the atrocities committed in the 9-11 attacks were indeed beyond comprehension. That Osama bin-Laden was the mastermind of this mass murder meant that the marching orders for the US armed forces were to search for and destroy bin-Laden and his cohorts who, by reports, were hiding in Afghanistan.
The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan by the US armed forces and later its joint occupation with coalition forces was premised by the fact that the country, which was under the control of the Taliban since 1996, gave safe haven for bin-Laden and his Al-Qaeda terror organization that enabled him to recruit, train, and arm extremists; and at the same time plot terror attacks all over the world along with his henchmen who were also Al-Qaeda commanders, Ayman Al-Zawahiri and Mohammed Atef. Al-Qaeda is of course allied with the Taliban whose leader then was Mullah Mohammed Omar.
Today, it is the speed at which the Taliban was able to return to power following the announcement of the pullout of the US armed forces from Afghanistan twenty years after an occupation that grabs the attention of the world. Pundits say the US-trained, armed, and supplied Afghan security force simply did not have the will to fight, explaining the difference in terms of the Taliban who are fighting supposedly for deep-seated religious and patriotic fervor, while the Afghan security force fight only for money.
The problem with fighting for money, say the analysts, is that the money does not trickle down to the foot soldiers. It gets snagged among the top brass and further up the chain of command, all the way to the political leadership such that corruption goes to the extent of depriving the foot soldiers of basic equipment such as combat boots. Lacking reliable footwear, how can they even be expected to run after terrorists? Thus, the outcome is a security force that easily folds in the face of an enemy determined to seize power no matter what the cost.
This argument could make sense if it does not draw on a few questions. First, what missteps might the United States have committed that a security force they had supposedly trained and equipped for twenty years could easily fold without putting up even a modicum of resistance? Second, and perhaps one that presents the strangest irony of all, is that as quickly as the Afghan security force caved in the face of a Taliban comeback, twenty years ago, and confronted with a United States armed force determined to exact vengeance for a mass murder committed on its soil, the Taliban also caved and folded easily and, along with bin-Laden, hightailed it up the Tora Bora mountains near the Pakistani frontier.
Notwithstanding accusations of atrocities, human rights repression, and abuses they have committed against citizens of Afghanistan especially among the women, if the Taliban indeed had faith and patriotic fervor in their hearts, I would have expected them to have stood their ground in defense of their country against the American “invaders.” But history tells us that before the year 2001 ended, the Taliban had already bid a hasty retreat. And when they did, the Afghan women lifted their covers, showed their faces, even as the men went to their barbers to shave their beards.
With these images, it seems that Afghanistan was ready for a re-set to democratic governance courtesy of the Americans and their known penchant for social engineering. However, the Americans were so consumed with the hunt for bin Laden that it took ten years to track their quarry down to a hideout in Pakistan and kill him. With bin Laden out of the way, the Americans stayed for another ten years presumably to transition themselves to an eventual pullout which is happening today.
Nation-building in Afghanistan was neglected, of course. Experts have mentioned that central governance was difficult to implement in Afghanistan due to the people’s inherent tribalism, warlordism, and their penchant to protect small pockets of territory. Even the Taliban is composed of an alliance of tribes that fought against the Soviet Union during the latter’s invasion in the 1980s.
Yes, the Taliban were the mujahideen of old which was armed no less by the United States because at the time the US was engaged in a cold war with the Soviet Union. The mujahideen were hailed by the Afghans as heroes and patriots – even reformists – thus, they were initially accepted within Afghan society and were allowed to rule the country until they began to commit atrocities and then provided a safe haven for so-called extremists and militants.
That “safe haven” was a system that was exploited by countries such as Pakistan which has a long-drawn territorial dispute with India over the Kashmir frontier. Pakistan did not want to be branded as a country that coddles terrorists, thus training for militants takes place within the Afghanistan territory.
Conversely, India itself is invested in Afghanistan because of its security issues with Pakistan. Prior to 2001, it backed an anti-Taliban personality named Ahmadshah Massoud, leader of the Northern Alliance said to be moderate compared to the extremist Taliban. India was providing the Northern Alliance with arms and supplies, even funding. Massoud is also known to be pro-Moscow in the sense that after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Russia was also funding Massoud’s skirmishes against the Taliban because it did not want Afghanistan to be hosting the training of Chechnian extremists.
Massoud came to US attention after 1996 because there had been a series of terrorist attacks on American embassies, and the Taliban’s sponsorship of Al-Qaeda under the leadership of bin Laden, was identified as the source of these attacks. The “moderate” Massoud was again eyed as a stakeholder in the American proxy wars against the terrorists. But on September 9, 2001, two days before the 9-11 attacks, Massoud was assassinated in a suicide bombing attack.
Coincidence, perhaps, but the US never had any charismatic leader it could support in the mold of Massoud since 2001, not even Hamid Karzai who had been accused of flagrant corruption during his presidency. This had led to a lot of “misapprehensions” with no less than President Biden believing the Taliban would have a difficult time making a comeback. The Taliban reached the capital Kabul in about ten days.
There is more to Afghanistan’s complexities that need to be talked about for the sake of people like me who are not schooled in international politics or foreign policy. I think for now, the concern is for the US to evacuate its people out of Afghanistan post-haste and then re-configure its strategies in the days to come. It would be interesting to find out what their next moves would be.
(After this column was filed, a reported pair of suicide bombers detonated explosvies near the entrance of Kabul International Airport killing scores of people, including 13 US service members.)