As a favor to a young Afghan journalist I met in Kabul, I allowed myself to be interviewed for a podcast he was putting together about 9/11. The questions were all conspiratorial in nature, technical inconsistencies in the official narrative of that day, semi-rhetorical prompts with transparent designs to lead me into accepting his already apparent thesis. I was the only American to be interviewed, so I would either put to rest his suspicions or prove them. In responding to questions like "Why were there no Arab names on the lists of passengers?" and "Why didn't the CIA tell anyone about 9/11 since they knew it was going to happen?" I fumbled awkwardly to find a respectful way to answer. It was a difficult line to toe, between invalidating the questions and thereby insulting my friend, and inadvertently confirming his suspicions by too delicately dismissing them.
- Photo by Jeffrey E. Stern
- Years of violence have taken an enormous toll on Kabul's people—and its buildings.
One becomes accustomed to conspiracy theories in Afghanistan; they seem to find traction easily here. Afghans have spent most of their history dealing with foreign powers that exert influence by force, political meddling or material support to particular parties. So Afghans find creative ways of explaining phenomena they don't understand, their minds primed for conspiracy by years of playing pawns on the geopolitical chessboard.
And America is the biggest mystery of all. Here in Afghanistan, they've born witness to our military might and precision. They tasted our technological prowess when they fired our Stinger missiles at Soviet gunships. They saw the precision of our tactical weapons when we came in to drive out the Taliban. One man I met who was working for the Red Cross in 2001 remembers a Taliban truck he saw completely destroyed by some kind of aerial ordinance, while the immediate surroundings were untouched. His awe extended to the images on TV of military targets in Iraq that had been surgically destroyed by laser-guided bombs, apparently inerrant and incapable of collateral damage.
But the adulation of America's military capability does not necessarily beget an endorsement of its present use. "The Americans say they can read a license plate from the sky, and I have seen that they can. But Osama bin Laden is bigger than a license plate, why can't they find him?" These questions are unanswerable, at least for me, just as the one that my interviewer followed with: With the unparalleled superiority of the United States military, how could it possibly be that we are losing this war with the Taliban?
For Afghans, the answer is this: We are losing because we want to lose. Or rather, we don't really want to win. If we succeed in driving the Taliban into inconsequence—so goes the logic—we will no longer have an excuse to stay in Afghanistan. With Iran inching closer to nuclear capability, Russia re-emerging as a global nuisance, Pakistan effecting more influence in Afghanistan, and China and India both newly minted world powers, America needs to be in Afghanistan or risk ceding precious control to other regional players. I've now heard this explanation in various derivations from different Afghans of all ethnic persuasions, and even educated people have taken it a step further to suggest America must somehow be supporting the Taliban. After all, it was America, one Afghan tour guide reminded me, that started the Taliban to clear out mujahedeen tribes and make way for the UNICOL oil pipeline. (This is not entirely true, but read Steve Coll's Ghost Wars and you'll see it's not all that far off either.)
But this is only the presumption of the educated elite in Afghanistan ("elite" needs liberal treatment here). For many Afghans, the idea of 9/11 is no more salient a thought than the Afghan civil war or the Taliban's massacre in Mazar-i-Sharif is for your average American. All many Afghans know is that they woke up one day and someone was driving the devil away. If it was an attack by Osama bin Laden that brought American forces to clear out the Taliban, then praise be to Osama bin Laden for waking them up.
This is where I misread the questions. I had assumed my journalist friend was trying to absolve Islam of the 9/11 attacks and free Afghanistan from any association, by persuading me to blame my own country. But it wasn't that, and his final question was earnest, although it was another I couldn't possibly answer. What were the lives of 3,000 Americans when it led to the liberation of 20 million Afghans?
"It's not important for us how many people were killed in the Twin Towers," he said later, when I asked him for his opinion. "It's more important that this made America come here to save our country. That's the most important thing, people say 'God bless America, God bless Osama bin Laden that he attacked the Twin Towers, and God bless America for coming.'"
You may have never thought you'd see "God Bless America" and "God bless Osama bin Laden" in the same sentence, but there is a poetic justice here. Back when the Afghans fought the Soviets, America propped up the mujahedeen with missiles and Toyotas, but it was the Afghans who were fighting, dying, being maimed and, ultimately, winning our Cold War for us. And afterward, they felt we abandoned them to mend their war-torn country alone. So here is the view from Afghanistan, at least for my friend: Afghans died to rid us of the Soviet threat, what of it if Americans died to rid them of the Taliban one?
Stern, a 2007 Duke University graduate and occasional Indy contributor, is in Afghanistan working as a freelance journalist. For more of his pictures, see www.flickr.com/photos/90803616@N00/sets/72157601939815350.