There was a country truly changed by 9/11 — but it wasn't America

click to enlarge There was a country truly changed by 9/11 — but it wasn't America
Daniel Walters
World Relief Community Ambassador Kazim Abdullahi at an anti-Taliban rally at Riverfront Park.

Once again, I'm with World Relief Community Ambassador Kazim Abdullahi at Friendship Park, as the smoke-reddened sun dips behind the horizon. Two-and-a-half weeks ago, he was at this same picnic table, before the American military's withdrawal from Afghanistan. He'd been joined by more than 50 local Afghan families as they tallied the lists of the names of their Afghan relatives, of the friends and family members they desperately hoped could be rescued from the collapsing country.

As this week's Inlander cover story shows, most of them didn't get out. They'd never had a chance. He rests his smartphone on the green picnic table as a video call blips to life. He's calling his sister-in-law's husband, one of the many Afghans who didn't make it out.

"As-Salaam-Alaikum," Kazim says. The voice on the other end speaks Dari, the most common language in Afghanistan, and Kazim translates, just like he did for the American military a decade ago.

Muhammad Anwar Omar zai Wardak is willing to use his real name — the Taliban likely already knows it — but asks that we not use his picture or the sound of his voice. He had been a federal judge who'd ruled on cases involving opium. He'd sent members of the Taliban to prison. Now, he's at risk of retribution, not only from the Taliban, but from the many criminals he put away that the Taliban have since freed. 

He's calling from the Afghan capitol, of Kabul, which he says has become a ghost town.

To protect his family, he says they've had to repeatedly move locations. At the house they're hiding at now, he says, nobody knows that he was a judge. Yet he believes that if the United States doesn't find some way to help him evacuate soon, he and many other Afghans will run out of time.

"If you are not taking those people who worked with the U.S. government, trust me, they will find us and they will kill us," Muhammad says. "And the world will notice and will be the witness, and you will be responsible for all of the blood."

There was a country truly changed by 9/11 — but it wasn't America
Michael Foran/CC BY 2.0 photo

he original date was 9/11.

Back in April, President Joe Biden had proposed withdrawing all American troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, precisely two decades after the Twin Towers attack that ignited the American invasion. By July, however, under fierce criticism, he shifted the date to Aug. 31.

History rhymes on its own — you don’t have to force it. One collapse echoes another. First, it seems to happen in slow motion, and then it happens far faster than anyone expected. We are subjected to images of horror and desperation on a loop. Bodies plunging to their deaths, falling from a skyscraper, falling from a military cargo plane. Planes crash, causing unfathomable amounts of destruction. Planes take off, causing the same.

Twenty years ago, desperate family members covered the walls and streetlamps of New York with the photos and names of missing loved ones. They walked the streets with fliers, asking strangers if anyone had seen their brother, their sister, their mother, their son.

And in some way, Kazim has done something similar, compiling the names of thousands of Afghans, hoping there's still a chance to be re-united with their family members. A nonprofit called Allied Airlift 21 had compiled over 50,000 names on their "Afghan Ally Registry."

For some Afghans in America, there's still hope, amid the grief and outrage, that their loved ones will escape from the collapse.

Five days in a row, starting the day when the capital fell to the Taliban, Muhammad went to the airport in Kabul with his family. But the crowds were far too big and chaotic for a man with a wife and kids and an older mother beside him. He was watching those crowds as the mob crushed seven people to death.   

"Do not go," he recalls his mother telling him. "Do not kill yourself and your family members in danger."

There were those willing to get people into the airport, but only for a price. They offered their services on a sliding scale, Muhammad says. $20,000 per person would get you on a flight. $5,000 or $10,000 per person will get you into the airport, but no further. If you didn't have any documents, like a visa or a U.S. passport, you'd be charged even more.

Though he and his wife both worked as judges, they couldn't afford it.

"We don't have enough to pay," Muhammad says. "If your family is a big family you don't really have enough of a budget to pay like 80 grand to leave the country."

Heading for the border isn't an option either, Muhammad says.  

Two weeks ago, Kazim told the Inlander his older sister had made it through the border at Pakistan. He truly believe she had — hoped she had. But a few days ago, he learned she hadn't. The crossing was too crowded, she was still stuck in Afghanistan, still looking for some way out.

"It is not possible for anyone to cross the border, especially for us who worked as a judge in Afghanistan," Muhammad says.

The best hope, he says, is for America to work out a deal with Uzbekistan, allowing those with verified documentation — proof of a Special Immigrant Visa process or similar evidence — to cross.

If that happens — if he has the right documents and the guarantee that if he makes it to the border he'll be safe — then Muhammad will have enough faith to leave.

"Then I can put my life in danger and my family at risk to accept all the consequences and try to cross the border," he says.

For now, he waits — scared, saddened and angry.

click to enlarge There was a country truly changed by 9/11 — but it wasn't America (2)
Eleanor Baumgartner photo
A women's fair takes place in 2008 in Afghanistan.

In the aftermath of the World Trade Center attacks, an entire industry of thinkpieces sprung up about how 9/11 had changed America forever. About how it killed irony or punctured our sense of safety or gave us a new perspective of the world.

But the truth is that, for many — if you didn't live in New York, if you weren't a military member or a Muslim, if you didn't have a complexion like Kazim's or a name like Muhammad's — then 9/11 didn't change America that profoundly.

Yes, meant a brief surge in national unity — the kind of unity that got us into one war, then another. It meant Freedom Fries and flag pins. It meant Toby Keith got more radio play and the Dixie Chicks got less. It meant we got an amazing issue of The Onion and an awful episode of the West Wing.

But that brief flash of national unity evaporated in moments, and we were back to our partisan sniping and our conspiracy theories and our political bombast, just as we had been in the Clinton era.

Yes, our airports got more miserable. We were forced to slip off our shoes and downsize our shampoos. But that's nothing compared to the truly seismic impact that 9/11 had on another country: Afghanistan. We started bombing in less than a month. Ground forces landed a week later.

And from one vantage point, the invasion brought Afghans the freedom we thought it did.

"After the United States invaded Afghanistan, we noticed an absolutely positive change. We noticed human rights being respected by people, "Muhammad says. "We noticed all the businesses that were opened. We were hoping for a bright future in Afghanistan."

"Unfortunately, after President Trump made the decision that the United States has to evacuate Afghanistan, everything will change," he says.

Now, he says, the country's being set 20 years backward.

"Once you make a deal and you try to evacuate Afghanistan, then you have to leave
everything behind," Muhammad says.

Even before the messy withdrawal, the American occupation had done plenty of damage. And even all the money America dumped into Afghanistan had, in many ways, simply contributed to inflation and corruption.

"If you want to save a building, you have to start from scratch," Kazim says. "You cannot just fix the roof every year."

Without cutting off the support for terrorists and the Taliban coming from Iran and Pakistan, he says, the American's efforts were doomed.

"I don't even know the theory of why even America got involved in Afghanistan. Because of 9/11? Okay, makes sense," Kazim says. "You went there, got Osama Bin Laden, you killed him."

But that was a decade ago, he says. If the mission was just a military one, he argues, you could have been in and out on five.

"Why did you spend 20 years over there?" Kazim says. "For 20 years in Afghanistan, who is responsible for all those lives?"

Over 170,000 Afghans have died in combat since the American invasion began. Picture a death toll about as high as the number of Americans who died in the Vietnam War and World War I combined, but experienced by a country only the eighth our size. 

"And you were saying that 'We've done a great job in Afghanistan, that 'my military has done a great job in Afghanistan?'" Kazim says. "What have you done in Afghanistan?"

Of all the cliches to come out of the World Trade Center attacks, "Never Forget," always felt like the most absurd. As if the attack that blotted out the tallest pieces from the skyline of America's biggest city would just slip our mind. As if 9/11 wouldn't become etched into the calendar, one more date that still lives in infamy. Of course, Americans won't forget 9/11, any more than we'll forget we landed on the moon or that JFK got shot in Dallas or that Lincoln ended slavery.

The question isn't about we'll ever forget 9/11 but will
we truly remember what happened in Afghanistan.

Many Americans will, of course. The veterans who served there, the widows of those who died there, the Afghan refugees who escaped from there, who still have family trapped in there — they will remember.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, Kazim joins nearly a hundred local Afghans and their supporters gathered at Riverfront Park. They waved large Afghan flags and banners. They carried signs with slogans like "Afghan Lives Matter" and "Afghanistan is Bleeding" and "UN! Don't recognize Taliban," A little girl holds up a Reuters photo of the Taliban at a press conference with a red X through it. They carry signs condemning Pakistan and cheering on the fighters still battling the Taliban in Panjshir Valley.

And, in a twist on the slogan that Americans have seen from countless videos of the Middle East since 9/11, the crowds begin to chant: "Death to Taliban! Death to terrorists!"

“It's not the end,” Kazim told the Inlander before the withdrawal. “It's the beginning of the war.”

The fighting and the deaths in Afghanistan will still rage with the United States gone, whether between the Taliban and the Northern Alliance or the Islamic State’s splinter group ISIS-K or the Al-Qaeda affiliated Haqqani Network.

Yet America only truly pays attention to a war when we get to play a main character. This week, you could see the Afghanistan discussion already start to dwindle away. The chattering class finds other things to chatter about — whether it's the Texas abortion law, Biden's vaccine mandate, or Olivia Munn's Mulaney baby.

Even last year, when Donald Trump — normally the singular obsession of media outlets — struck a deal with the Taliban, the three major networks spent only an average of five minutes on the topic before moving on to other news.

America's military might means we don't just have the power to invade countries and bomb terrorists and drone strike wedding parties and topple regimes, we have the power to brush our hands off afterward and walk away whistling. A bit of vinegar and cold water, and bloodstains wash right out.

Kazim suspects that America may forget Afghanistan, but only for a time. What has happened before in Afghanistan, Kazim predicts, is “going to happen again and again and again.”

"I hate to say it but America will be involved with Afghanistan again," Kazim says. "If not, you're going to witness another 9/11 in the United States."

I ask the same question of Muhammad: Was he worried that the United States would forget Afghanistan?

Kazim translates, but Muhammad doesn't answer. The cell phone has run out of its battery, cutting off our connection to Kabul.
For a brief moment, we sit there at the picnic table, in the darkness and the silence.

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About The Author

Daniel Walters

A lifelong Spokane native, Daniel Walters is the Inlander's senior investigative reporter. But he also reports on a wide swath of other topics, including business, education, real estate development, land use, and other stories throughout North Idaho and Spokane County.He's reported on deep flaws in the Washington...