The winds were changing in my friend Nasir Dawar’s beautiful village of Issori in North Waziristan 20 years ago. As we walked through the lush green fields, he peered and pointed to the mountain looming in the distance, the majestic Shawal, which overlooks Afghanistan. Patches of snow wreathed its peak. “Winter is coming,” he said.
The tribesmen could not have known that the winter would last decades. It was the start of the longest war the US has ever waged. As gunship helicopters intensified their airstrikes, tribesmen huddled around radios to listen to the Pashto news transmission of the BBC. Local clerics proclaimed the Americans were there to begin their destruction of the Muslim world.
I saw war-battered foreign militants at a massive seminary in the nearby village of Eidak. Hordes of them crossed into North Waziristan from the Afghanistan border, through the rugged hilly terrain and thick jungles of Shawal from Paktia province and Kurram region.
There were convoys of Al-Qaeda-associated militants of different nationalities, languages and ethnicities — Egyptians, Algerians, Sudanese, Moroccans, Chechens, Uighur Chinese, and Muslim converts from America, Germany and France, known as “Gora Taliban.”
Over my next few visits to the area, locals decided they liked the Arabs the most and the Uzbeks the least. The Arabs kept to themselves and did not haggle over local purchases. The Uzbeks, they said, were interfering and ruthless.
Back when the war began, the tribal areas morphed into a land of stories and shadows. Myths abounded. The woodcutters of the Shawal believed Osama bin Laden might have hidden among them in disguise,
“We saw strangers cutting wood and another group of around 25 to 30 people encircling five or six hooded men,” a woodcutter told me. “They gave us 10,000 rupees each and said not to come back for a few days.”
Before CIA-operated predator drones became known for aerial attacks, tribesmen thought they were spy cameras, calling them “Bush’s eye.”
The tribal elders were enraged because of cultural values of privacy and the sanctity of the home. During those days, I met militant commander Naik Mohammed, who later became the first target of a drone attack. “This thing follows me around everywhere,” he said, pointing to a star-like object in the sky.
Back in Afghanistan, the US lost ground to the Taliban that they had gained in the beginning with airstrikes. The Taliban had retreated, hidden in the mountains, mingled with the rural population and gone back to their pre-militancy lives.
But they benefited from America’s inconsistent policies. Within two years of launching the war in Afghanistan, US President George W. Bush had announced another war to oust Saddam Hussein in Iraq on the pretext of his regime supposedly possessing so-called weapons of mass destruction.
Substantial resources were diverted to Iraq from Afghanistan, including experienced diplomats and military commanders, giving the Taliban much respite.
Regrouping, they turned to ambushes, suicide attacks and bombings, killing Afghan troops and construction workers as they took control of rural southern and eastern Afghanistan. Faced with a full-blown insurgency, Bush’s successor, Barack Obama, deployed more forces and took over the reins of the fight from the Afghan government.
It was the “Americanization of the fight in Afghanistan,” in the words of retired US Lt. Gen. Douglas Lute, coordinator for the Afghan War from 2007 to 2013.
“We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan. We didn’t know what we were doing,” he was quoted as saying in the 2,000 pages of notes and interviews that made up part of the US government’s “Lessons Learned Project.”
The US made tactical and strategic mistakes. It created an international war economy with US private contractors, inducing greed in the already-corrupt and dysfunctional Afghan governments.
More than 40 countries participated in the war and so-called rebuilding of Afghanistan. Other countries were also clueless about the context they were operating in.
Britain, for instance, took responsibility for Helmand province, a Taliban stronghold. But Helmandis are proud of the three wars they fought with the British in the past and turn to them as a high point in their history.
The 1880 defeat of British forces in the Battle of Maiwand, a victory valorized in folklore and songs, is attributed largely to militias from the province.
After the ouster of the Taliban regime, Kabul was flooded with diaspora Afghans who had returned from America and Europe to work with foreigners, international organizations and funded government programs. “The briefcase lot. They are seasonal, they will leave in difficult times with their briefcases filled with dollars,” a local laughingly commented.
I saw warlords roaming around with convoys of armed militiamen and bags full of dollars. They were paid “bribes” to spy for the US forces against the Taliban.
In return, they became powerful by strengthening their fiefdoms, and often labeled their enemies as Taliban to direct the wrath of the US forces against them. Corruption was so rampant that ghost soldiers — who existed only on paper — were reportedly recruited in the Afghan forces, including police.
I have traveled on the Kabul-Kandahar road, built by the Americans to connect the country’s big cities, which was termed as pivotal to the success of the war. Despite having $200 million spent on it, it is now beyond repair — a fitting metaphor for the unfinished agenda of rebuilding Afghanistan.
The $200 million Kabul-Kandahar road is now beyond repair — a fitting metaphor for the unfinished agenda of rebuilding the country
In America’s $2 trillion war, tens of thousands of Afghans and Pakistanis were killed. About $100 billion was pumped into creating an Afghan force that melted away in a few days last month as the Taliban advanced. Afghanistan’s history is filled with contradictions, betrayals and side-switching warlords.
“When I look at my Afghanistan, I see a picture painted in blood,” said Tahir Ibrahimi as he left the country. I met him in Kabul years ago while he worked on a child education project.
But he tells me his brother and cousins stayed. The post-9/11 generation is born into a digital world, breathes in cyberspace, and has exposure to the West. Meanwhile, the Taliban live in their ideological world. Is a convergence of these two worlds possible?
President Joe Biden has called the evacuation of more than 120,000 US troops from Afghanistan an “extraordinary success,” ignoring the chaos in the country, an economic nightmare, the return of Taliban rule, and the threat of Daesh, leaving Afghans on a cliff-edge of hope and fear.
For Biden, 20 years after 9/11, this is the end of America’s forever war. But for the people of Afghanistan, it sparks fears of another long winter ahead.