The military intervention in Afghanistan that started on 7 October 2001 with bomb attacks on Kabul and other Taleban strongholds by a US-led coalition, put Afghanistan on a new path. The Taleban was removed by force and a new government was installed with broadly defined democratic institutions. Regime changes in Afghanistan since the 1970s have mainly come about violently and this one – the seventh in 43 years(1) – was no exception. Borhan Osman talked to Afghans from different walks of life on how they perceived the US-led military campaign at the time and how they see it now, 11 years later. He finds a rich, complex and still sharply divided view of the war and the post-Taleban project – and starts this blog with his own memories of the night of 7 October when the bombs started to drop.
The new government that was to replace the Taleban regime was due to be born violently – in the shadow of heavy bombing, smoke and bloodshed. At the time, I was a student in a madrassa. We had just had dinner around 9 pm, when sharp jerky sounds in the sky alarmed us. We all ran outside to see what was happening. Thanks to the experience of some fellow taleban(2) who had heard similar sounds in August 1998, when President Bill Clinton ordered missiles to be fired on camps in the east of Afghanistan (after the African Embassy bombings), we all quickly agreed cruise missiles were flying overhead in the direction of Kabul. Later, we tuned in to the Voice of America in Pashto and Dari and our suspicions were confirmed: cruise missiles had been launched into Afghanistan and high-flying airplanes had bombed Kabul. The following morning, the madrassa administrators held an emergency meeting and decided to close the school and send the boys home for their safety since, they said, it was likely that the Americans would bomb religious institutions, even if they were civilian educational centres.
While the United States and its allies continued to strike the Taleban’s communication facilities and military targets during the initial days, I dedicated my whole day at home to following international radio stations to keep track of the developments that were putting Afghanistan so rapidly on the brink of a major change. In those early days of the new war that came from outside to overshadow ‘our own war’ inside, many thought they were heading towards an uncertain future. Others saw the Coalition’s intervention as a war that would end the war in Afghanistan and would ultimately bring peace. Wearied of the fighting without end, the Afghans – at odds with the normal historic pattern – welcomed the foreign forces’ intervention, hoping it would end the stalemate that the Taleban and their opponents had reached. It was difficult to predict how the miserable situation of our country, from which ordinary people suffered so much, might be redeemed and it was only the extreme frustration of the population with the civil war that made many Afghans welcome the intervention of a foreign force, as a bittersweet solution. But has swallowing that bitter medicine brought the Afghan ‘patient’ back to health, as so many of us hoped?
Recalling the moments when the bombs and cruise missiles hit various targets in Kabul and other places of Afghanistan, and assessing the decade that followed, Afghans are divided when describing the legacy of a war that is yet to be over. Below are views expressed by a few of them:
“When the first bombs were dropped on Kabul, everybody was on the rooftops watching the bombing and explosions. We were on the rooftops until late at night with neighbors chatting with each other about what was happening. We found Afghanistan drawn into an unusual war with a superpower and we expected Afghanistan to experience years of street-to-street fighting [because of the intervention].
The bombing started on the eve of my brother’s wedding. I listened keenly to the comments of the wedding guests. I even heard Panjshiris and Hazaras, who used to be opponents of the Taleban, now being sympathetic to the Taleban because they thought the war was religious, pitting non-Muslims against Muslims.
But we expected we would have a sovereign government, free from Pakistan’s mastery, that we would have job opportunities – that is something people were really looking for – and that there would be equal education opportunities for girls and boys. We had very high expectations, and they were realistic. They could have been achieved, if the Afghans and foreigners had worked honestly, thinking farsightedly about the future. But every party acted like opportunists coming to the country for a few days, and then leaving it in a situation worse than before.
Politically, Afghanistan has become open for everybody to interfere – and this is unprecedented. Pakistan, Iran, Western countries and other interested parties are competing with each other even inside the parliament behind the so-called representatives of the people. We paid a huge cost, but gained nothing considerable in return.” – Akbar Mowahed, 32, government employee, Chahrdehi, Kabul
“I was in the Khairkhana area of Kabul that night. We were alarmed by the explosions in the capital, one of them close to us in a military place. We thought at first that the anti-Taleban forces of Shura-ye Nazar had attacked the Taleban. It was frightening. People were shocked by the first explosions, everybody was trying to find out what had happened. But I remember that amidst those sounds of explosions and bombs, we had a glimmer of hope. People had suffered a lot and were frustrated with the Taleban. I had been running an English language course, but was once forced to close it due to the Taleban’s repeated suspicions. We had had enough of them. We all wanted an end to the Taleban’s rule in whatever way possible.
This, of course, did not mean a new war was favorable to Afghans. The people were afraid of the return of civil war to the streets of Kabul and the return of looting, dishonoring and all the ugly things we had experienced before [during the mujahedin’s civil war from 1992 to 1996]. The future was of great concern to everybody and it looked completely vague. The only thing people hoped for was that we could get rid of the Taleban in a way that meant we would not fall prey to further damage. Nobody actually expected the Taleban to be ousted so easily and so quickly.
Now, looking back over the past 11 years, I find that tremendous achievements have been made, but also that some problems have emerged or unfolded during the past six years. The major positive outcomes are a new environment of politics where there are free elections, political pluralism, an active civil society, more freedoms and an improvement in job opportunities.
The negative things are the deterioration in security, the failure to rebuild the country’s economic infrastructure and agriculture, the increasing power of the warlords and the fact that this period was not used in a better way to develop our country. In a nutshell, I would say we cannot describe the outcomes of the past decade in black and white terms. It is more complex than that.” – Na’im Ayubzada, 31, civil society activist who has worked for NGOs for 10 years
“I had nightmares for more than a week before the attack on Kabul started. Every night, I would dream of heavy bombardment, mass destruction, American jets and soldiers engaged in bombing and killing. It was a tough time. On the night of October 7, I was in Jalalabad. I kept tuned to the BBC English service as the attack was the major international news. I slept for some hours, but woke up later to switch on my radio to know what was going on. I couldn’t sleep for the rest of the night.
My family was in Pakistan. They were also so worried. My father said that the 1979 scenario was being replayed. We had planned to move to an Arab country in the Gulf because Afghanistan, we believed, was about to be plunged into a war that would be longer and more intensive than ever before. Later, as the Americans seemed to be victorious, I only hoped they would bring a true democracy here.
As to the surprise of many, I found they had allied themselves with the warlords and crooks. This was unbelievable for me because the United States had always boasted of human rights and expressed its hatred of the war criminals and warlords. But, the warlords were allowed to march on Kabul and resort to punitive actions against anybody who they thought was pro-Taleban. The Americans thought that winning over the public was just an intelligence game they could play easily. They alienated an important majority who were sympathetic to the Taleban. They didn’t care what they believed. No effort was made to reconcile the Taleban and form a truly national government. They were eliminated and burnt to death with [white] phosphorus bombs, as we heard from many who survived the frontline bombing.” – Dr. Muhammad Taher, 34, medical doctor, Kabul
“When the Americans joined the resistance forces (the United Front, also known as the Northern Alliance), there was every sign that we would see the civil war of the Mujahedin era repeated. We were actually worried about a war that would take a long time to end and that would cause widespread damages, as the mujahedin’s civil war had done. We were all on alert for that emerging danger. Only later we got to know that this war would not damage everyone as previous ones had done. The Americans hit precisely only the military targets of the Taleban. The only civilian house that was bombed by mistake was in Sherpur and there were no casualties.
Believe me, people were so fed up with the Taleban and with the bad economic situation at that time that they were ready to see its end at whatever price. Still, we were not certain till very late until after Kabul fell what the future would look like. Eleven years on, we are happy that the Taleban have gone. In the first few years, we embraced a better economic situation and businesses flourished, but since insecurity has got worse, our business have suffered a lot. The prime concern for us now is the deteriorating security and declining business conditions. We are again left worried about our future, as 2014 is quickly approaching. Now, security is not only threatened by the Taleban, but also by criminals who can murder, kidnap and rob anyone in the city, even in broad daylight.” – Ghulam Ali, 39, plumber, Taimani, Kabul
“We watched the bombing of Kabul with extreme worry. I had realized by then – after one month of the psychological propaganda in the wake of 9/11 by the Americans – that a great game was at work. I’m afraid of nobody. I say clearly that this was a war for no other reason than to colonize our country. I didn’t doubt the fate of my country as the first batches of bombs hit Kabul. I found it similar to the nominally independent Arab countries [of the Arabian Gulf] or something worse than that. Of course, the game was not confined to occupying Afghanistan, but the broader region, using this country as a strategic base. I had already read in books about the Great Game and what the enemies of Afghanistan were plotting. I had already predicted that Afghanistan would experience ethnic divisions and attempts at disintegration. I had predicted we would lose the existing peace and calm and that there would be a strong resistance.
The Americans thought of us as the hungry Afghans of the 1960s. I remember that in the late 1960s everybody was happily talking about ‘American wheat’ that had come as aid to Afghanistan. Long queues of people would wait in front of Silo for the wheat to be distributed. Americans still thought of us like that. They thought they can buy Afghans for food. Thinking about the brighter side of the American invasion in 2001, every Afghan expected they would see peace, jobs and the country rebuilt. But now we know that they [the Americans] are good in words only. There has been nothing in action.” – Shah Agha, 52, Braille teacher, Chahrdehi, Kabul
“I was in Peshawar when the Americans started bombing the Taleban in Kabul. We were happy and optimistic. As we received the initial news of American planes in the skies over Kabul, we celebrated it as good news. A force which could displace the Taleban had finally intervened. I never thought that the intervention would lead to further bloodshed and war. I rather saw it as an end to war and felt that peace is coming.
I returned home as soon as the situation calmed down, in 2002, to get back my place in the society. Now, we see women are active in all spheres of life, from politics, to business to education. We were back in action after an appalling period of seclusion and being bound by the home. We were so excited about our future.
As we assess our hopes of that time today, it seems that many things did not go right. Take nation-building or job opportunities: we are not in the place where we should have been. But the only thing that turned very bad is insecurity. For the first time, during these past few years, we have experienced suicide attacks. This is a new concept in our culture of violence. Nobody could have imagined that it would ever make its way into Afghan warfare.” – Kubra Dastagirzada, 45, north of Kabul, running a female-only gym and driving course
“It is true that Afghanistan in the last years of Taleban rule was in a deadlock. When the Americans started their invasion of Afghanistan, there were two types of public opinion: an optimistic view that the Americans would end the stalemate, put an end to the war by force and then only monitor how the Afghans came together to build their country, and that they would bring enormous economic opportunities for Afghans.
Such optimists found that the situation has been totally the opposite. We have been robbed of peace and security, and of our wealth and honour, and our national unity and harmony has been jeopardized more than ever, as the Americans started dividing the population into enemies and friends and joined one party to take revenge on the other.
For the pessimists, the situation they feared during the first days of the American attack has largely come true. They feared losing a government that had brought peace after two decades of turmoil and, in the meantime, preserved people’s honour and religious and cultural values. Unfortunately, this very pessimistic view came true. Now, we neither have a strong national government, which should have brought Afghans together, nor have we preserved our culture and religion. Our values have come under regular attack. All waited for a long time, silently watching how things would unfold. Then, a resistance emerged and people stand against the government because they think the country is going towards total destruction in every direction.” – Abdul Karim Fazli, mullah-imam, Niazbeg, Kabul
“I remember how Pashtuns started fleeing Kabul as Americans started bombing the capital. I had a guest in my home that night when heavy bombs landed across Kabul in the dark. That guest left his turban in my house and went quickly home, early in the morning, fearing that the former militias would return by daylight. Many residents of Kabul from the south who were easily recognized as Pashtuns left Kabul before it fell. As we went to the street to find out what had happened that night, a Panjshiri neighbour approached me and said: be aware, the palangis (people wearing fatigues, implying the anti-Taleban forces of the United Front) are coming. It was like an ethnic downturn for the Pashtuns who found themselves in the coming years increasingly isolated, punished and insulted under the new order. The Pashtun areas lost their security, educational facilities, honour and government. Don’t take this as a biased view. It is the truth.” – Haji Sayed Rahman Wardak, 71, property dealer, Khushhal Khan Mena, Kabul
“I was in the 9th class of school when the war started against the Taleban. The first missiles and bombs hit an area close to our home in Tapa-e Sharara and other targets in Makroyan, Karta-e Naw, Rishkhor and Charahi Qambar. We were terrified by the big explosions and the retaliatory shooting from the ground by the Taleban all the night.
Three days later, my family left Kabul for Nijrab [in Kapisa] because we were afraid of never-ending fighting in the streets of Kabul. Nobody thought the Taleban would be deposed or that the war would be so short. We also didn’t know the Americans and their allies would become so deeply engaged in Afghanistan in the aftermath of the war. When we realized all that, we had lots of hopes. Some of these hopes came true. Others didn’t. We had the best security under the Taleban and the lowest prices for goods. Now, we have a capitalist system. Those who have money earn more and those who lack it are getting poorer. We can hardly afford to live now. I’m a policeman serving my nation under this government, but I want to be honest and not biased against the facts.” – Dad-e Khuda, 29, policeman, Shahr-e Naw, Kabul
(1) The regime changes of the last few decades:
1973: Sardar Muhammad Daud’s coup topples King Muhammad Zaher Shah; 1978: violent PDPA coup topples Daud; 1978 Hafizullah Amin has Nur Muhammad Taraki murdered and takes over as President; 1979: the Soviets invade, kill Amin and replace him by Babrak Karmal; 1992 President Najibullah is removed by some PDPA leaders and generals who have contacted the Northern Alliance in a ‘cold’ coup; they hand over power to a mujahedin interim government; 1996 the Taleban take over Kabul violently; 2001: a US-led intervention topples the Taleban.
Only the change from Karmal to Najibullah at the top of the PDPA in 1986 took place without direct violence, although it was triggered from abroad and enforced in Moscow in the presence of both.
(2) This refers to madrassa students (taleban), not to members of the Taleban movement.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020