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In Afghanistan, tie between 9/11 and the war often gets lost

Nearly half of Afghans are too young to have firsthand recollection of that day, or the invasion that followed. Among older people there is a sense the conflict has moved beyond its original impetus.

September 10, 2011|By Laura King, Los Angeles Times
  • A portrait of slain Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud looks over a street in Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. Friday was the 10th anniversary of the anti-Taliban militia chieftain's assassination by Al Qaeda agents.
A portrait of slain Afghan leader Ahmed Shah Massoud looks over a street… (John Moore, Getty Images )

Reporting from Kabul, Afghanistan — In the country where the Sept. 11 plot was hatched and its Al Qaeda masterminds found shelter, public knowledge of the link between the devastating events of a decade ago and today's war has grown hazy.

Nearly half of all Afghans are under the age of 15, too young to have a firsthand recollection of that day, or the U.S.-led invasion that began less than a month later. Among older people, even those grateful that the invasion ended Taliban rule, there is a sense that the conflict has moved far beyond its original impetus.

The war is widely regarded now as being driven by many other factors, including foreign self-interest and internal power struggles.

There is also a lingering sense here that Afghans as a whole were unfairly blamed in the attack because their Taliban rulers aided and abetted Osama bin Laden and his lieutenants. And most were horrified by the plunge back into violence that accompanied the Taliban's resurgence a few years later.

"At the beginning of the U.S. invasion, we hoped for security and stability," said Abdul Raziq, a 53-year-old real estate agent living in Kabul, the capital. "But 9/11 brought calamity and misfortune to Afghanistan."

Most people also believe that without the Sept. 11 attacks, America and the rest of the international community would have left Afghans to weather harsh Taliban rule on their own.

"If 9/11 hadn't occurred, Afghanistan wouldn't have come to the attention of the world," said Haseebullah, 25, a university student whose family fled to Pakistan after the Taliban took power in the mid-1990s. "The world wouldn't have helped us."

Urban and better-educated people tend to know more about the circumstances of the attacks in the United States and the consequences for Afghanistan. But in poor, rural areas, the link has largely been lost.

A survey last year by a think tank, the International Council on Security and Development, found that fewer than one in 10 respondents in the key southern provinces of Helmand and Kandahar were aware that the West's war with the Taliban was triggered by the events of Sept. 11.

Many Afghans were focused last week on another 10-year anniversary: the assassination in an Al Qaeda plot of a charismatic anti-Taliban militia chieftain, Ahmed Shah Massoud, which took place just two days before the attacks in the United States. Massoud's Northern Alliance went on to play a key role in dislodging the Taliban, but was never again able to rally around a leader of his stature.

In contrast, commemorations of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11 will take place Sunday almost every place in Afghanistan with concentrations of Americans, from remote combat outposts to urban diplomatic installations ringed by blast walls.

The connection to the attacks felt by American troops here is often a profoundly personal one. Anyone who has spent time with combat units has encountered soldiers, sailors and Marines who describe how Sept. 11 spurred them to join the military, even if they were very young at the time.

The 10-year anniversary comes on the heels of the war's deadliest month for U.S. troops, 70 of whom died in August, according to the monitoring website icasualties.org. Overall, by its count, the war in Afghanistan has claimed the lives of 1,762 American service members.

An American troop drawdown is underway, with 10,000 military personnel scheduled to depart by year's end. With other North Atlantic Treaty Organization nations winding down their combat roles as well, Afghan security forces are to take the lead in safeguarding the country by the end of 2014. There is widespread fear here that the Afghan police and army are not up to the task, and there is anxious uncertainty about whether the Taliban will be willing to negotiate.

On Saturday, the Taliban issued a bellicose statement, vowing to consign the U.S. military in Afghanistan to "the dustbin of history."

For many Afghans, the anniversary also underscores long-standing disillusionment with the government of President Hamid Karzai, who was, as is almost universally recalled here, handpicked by the Americans and their allies to take the reins when the Taliban fell.

"Afghans thought the foreigners came to Afghanistan in order to rescue the people from Al Qaeda and terrorists," said Mohammad Karim Chakari, who runs a shoe shop in Kabul. "But the Americans support Karzai when they know he is surrounded by criminals, and they don't tell us why they are doing this."

The Afghan leader, under Western pressure to rein in corruption and mismanagement, has in recent months offered strident public criticism of the war effort, particularly its toll on Afghan civilian lives.

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