This is part of a series of reported essays describing how 9/11 and the “war on terror” that followed changed the lives of people outside the United States.
I was 9 years old, living in a small Austrian town on the day of the 9/11 attacks in New York. Even as my Afghan refugee parents were glued to the news, I was impatient to watch my favorite Japanese anime show, “Dragon Ball Z,” a classic tale about good conquering evil. It was only when that was canceled and replaced by footage of smoldering towers that I was introduced to a man named Osama bin Laden, who was said to be hiding in my family’s home country. His name didn’t sound Afghan, but I overheard my father lamenting that the presence of this man meant the United States was surely going to attack Afghanistan.
The next morning and for days on end, as the only Afghan child in my school, I was met with a barrage of questions that quickly turned aggressive. Starting with my teacher’s query, “Emran, you’re from Afghanistan, do you know why they did it?” to taunts from my classmates about how my “terrorist” and “Taliban” relatives were going to be nuked.
In the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the invasion of Afghanistan was so popular in the United States that it might have felt inevitable. A Gallup poll from October 2001 found that 88% of Americans supported it. But watching the airstrikes on television, it felt like World War III was coming to my country. Many of our close relatives still lived in Kabul and the northern countryside. It was the era before smartphones and widespread instant messaging, and we went days, sometimes weeks, without hearing from them.
As my parents and I watched an elderly Afghan man telling a television reporter in his native Pashto how he’d been arrested and sexually abused by U.S. soldiers, my mother wept in fear of what was to come.
I decided then that I wanted to bear witness to this war. I wanted to examine what others wanted to keep secret. It was another 13 years before I would begin traveling regularly to my home country as an independent journalist, absorbing and documenting everything I could. My early stories, published in the Austrian and German press, focused on the political intrigue and backroom deals around the Afghan presidential elections. But when I traveled to the countryside, where nearly three-quarters of the population lives, what I found was far, far darker.
This is where the “war on terror” was being waged, not in the capital, Kabul. In villages across large parts of the country, stories of torture and night raids by U.S. and U.S.-trained forces were legion and airstrikes were almost daily occurrences. Almost every family I met when I was traveling through rural provinces in the north, south and east between 2014 and 2021 had stories of how the war they called the “American war” had turned them against the Americans and, ultimately, toward the Taliban.
This is not what Americans were hearing on the nightly news. In the United States, the longest war dragged on for 20 years, largely forgotten by most of the public. They were not hearing about the ravages of the war in the countryside and how it was radicalizing Afghans in village after village, bloating the ranks of the Taliban. That might be why so many Americans were surprised by how quickly the Taliban were able to make advances and ultimately take control of Kabul and the seat of the Afghan government.
But the writing was on the wall for anyone who wanted to see it. For well over a decade now, if you drove a short distance from the provincial capitals of Jalalabad, Asadabad, Khost or Kunduz, you’d find yourself deep inside Taliban country. In my experience reporting there, almost every family has a story about how U.S. and Afghan special forces have killed civilians with impunity.
Noor ul-Hadi, from a village near Jalalabad, told me about repeated night raids by U.S. forces in 2012 and 2013. Even though his father worked for the local election complaints commission and was close to the government, his uncle and cousin were killed in one of the raids. When the family requested an investigation, insisting they were not Taliban members, they were ignored.
“One result of such massacres is that even Afghans who support the government turn away from it,” he told me.
And of course, it wasn’t just the night raids. Afghanistan has the unfortunate distinction of being the most drone-bombed country in the world. When I realized that no authorities, neither American nor Afghan, were keeping track of the deaths from these attacks, I started a virtual drone memorial to account for as many civilian victims as I could.
Khost, a province bordering Pakistan’s North Waziristan, was the heart of the U.S. drone war under President Barack Obama. Pasta Khan, a 55-year-old nomad from the Kuchi tribe, lost six members of his family, including his father and all of his brothers, in a 2015 drone strike. He told me that the men had been returning from a funeral for a relative just across the border in Pakistan when a drone hit their trucks, killing 14 civilians.
Yet after airstrikes or military operations killed civilians, the U.S.-backed government in Kabul offered little in the way of support or redress. “They never come, they never help,” Khan told me. “Is being killed by a suicide attack worse than being killed by a drone?” It was often members of the Taliban who showed up to offer support. (The U.S. maintained that the 14 were insurgents; an investigation was inconclusive.)
The more time I spent in Afghanistan, the more clear it was that the benefits of the American occupation were visible only in the big cities and Kabul in particular. There, Afghans could enjoy fancy coffee shops with $1 cappuccinos, but in the rest of the country, most Afghans lived on less than a dollar a day. Even as investigative journalists and U.S. oversight authorities uncovered how Afghanistan was awash in corruption and how billions of tax dollars spent by Washington contributed to the graft, the Afghan government continued to ally with brutal warlords and drug barons and senior Afghan officials and their families siphoned money into luxury homes in Dubai, crippling any promise of building a functioning society.
Inside Afghanistan, however, there was little appetite for exposing this kind of open corruption. While critics of the Taliban were killed with car bombs, critics of the Afghan government and the U.S. war on terror were also not safe. Last year, I received death threats on social media and a warning that I could meet the same fate as my uncle, a prominent public intellectual and government critic who was killed under mysterious circumstances in 2019.
On each of my visits to Afghanistan, I saw and wrote about how the American war had made it relatively easy for the Taliban to recruit rural Afghans, despite the grim memories of their previous rule. Instead of wiping out terrorism and ushering in a new era of democracy, the staggering corruption, the terror of airstrikes and the horrific abuses by U.S. and Afghan soldiers were radicalizing tens of thousands of Afghans.
With the dramatic return to power of the Taliban in August, I don’t have a lot of hope at this moment. Like so many other Afghans around the world, I’ve spent weeks trying to help my friends and family members who are stuck in Kabul and other parts of the country. Some of them are desperately trying to leave with their families; others, perhaps daunted by the obstacles to leaving, face an uncertain future under Taliban rule. They all feel abandoned by President Ashraf Ghani and his coterie of political elites who fled the country after looting it for years. While they have found safe havens in the United Arab Emirates, millions of ordinary Afghans who don’t want to live under the Taliban are stranded.
Since the last American warplane left Kabul, I’ve been thinking of all the rural Afghans I’ve met. If the withdrawal of U.S. troops brings an end to the daily terror the war has inflicted on them, I know they will be relieved. Of course, with groups like ISIS-K on the rise, it’s ironic to see the United States coordinating with the Taliban, the very enemy it spent over $1.5 trillion fighting for the last 20 years. But with the recent drone strikes after the deadly ISIS-K attack on the Kabul airport, it’s a reminder that the era of terror from the skies might not be over yet. And that’s a reminder to plan my next trip to Afghanistan.
This essay was edited by Anjali Kamat and Andrew Donohue and copy edited by Nikki Frick.