Nilofar Ayoubi first heard about the 9/11 attacks on the radio, as there was no TV or internet growing up under the Taliban. Within weeks, U.S. warplanes began bombing Taliban and Al Qaeda targets in Afghanistan, and Northern Alliance rebels were blitzing across the plains with support from American special forces. As the fighting drew closer and neighbors fled, Ayoubi and her family hunkered down at home in Kunduz, the Taliban’s last stronghold. Her mother was nine months pregnant, and they decided to leave the city only after her midwife abandoned them. On a frantic drive to safety along a blown-out road, Ayoubi, then 5 years old, remembers tracking American B-52s high in the sky as they pounded Kunduz with bombing runs that ultimately forced the Taliban to surrender. “Everything was destroyed when we returned,” she says.
From the rubble, she and her newborn sister charted a path that would have been inconceivable under the ultraconservative Taliban regime. Ayoubi went to school and joined a foreign-funded theater troupe before moving to Kabul to pursue a university degree. She got involved in the media scene, married a businessman from another ethnic group, and launched several ambitious ventures of her own, including a clothing boutique for working women.
Twenty years after the September 11th attacks changed the trajectory of her life, American forces are gone and the Taliban again reigns supreme. The war’s end comes as a great relief for many rural Afghans who bore the brunt of the suffering in obscurity. But Ayoubi and other beneficiaries of the post-Taliban era now living as refugees or in hiding say they feel betrayed by a reckless U.S. exit that has upended their lives and crushed the values that gave them purpose.
“These past 20 years were like a dream for us, an illusion,” Ayoubi says by phone from a camp in Poland, where she, her husband, and three children arrived two weeks ago after a harrowing escape. “The U.S. said they came to hunt terrorists and now they are roaming freely in Kabul,” she says, referring to the Haqqani faction of the Taliban, designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group and now in charge of securing the Afghan capital. “I cannot make sense of it. Why did they come in the first place, and why did they leave now? What was it all about?”
On one level, it can be summed up easily: The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in late 2001 on a clear-cut mission to defeat the Al Qaeda terrorists behind the September 11th attacks and to oust their Taliban enablers. That objective, fast achieved, then drifted into an ill-defined nation-building project prolonged by career-minded officials at the White House and Pentagon who dissembled and doubled down on the effort despite glaring signs it was failing. Billions of dollars in reconstruction and military aid poured into a government hamstrung by graft, infighting, and ethnic strongmen who operated with impunity. Heavy-handed U.S. counterterrorism tactics frequently killed civilians, deepening resentments among the population. On the home front, the war’s growing unpopularity became a rallying cry for both Republicans and Democrats, borne out by President Biden’s decision to honor the Trump administration’s deal with the Taliban and pull out U.S. forces for good.
But that is the Cliffs-notes version of events, with little perspective into what it has all meant for Afghans. For those who have lived through the post-2001 era, it remade their world, and not always for the better. Over 15 years of reporting around the country, I saw how budding hopes for safer, more prosperous lives gradually hardened into cynicism and despair. While Americans held annual solemn ceremonies for 9/11 victims and built memorials, Afghans continued to bury more and more of their dead. Of the more than 170,000 lives lost during the war, nearly 50,000 were civilians. Urban dwellers enjoyed newfound social freedoms but faced the constant threat of suicide bombings, and people in rural areas prowled by the Taliban lived under the specter of airstrikes and deadly raids. A telecommunications boom improved connectivity and political awareness. But it also served to magnify a widening opportunity gap between cities flush with aid money and neglected, war-battered provinces.
By any number of counts the U.S. intervention in Afghanistan has been an exercise in futility, but American largesse did secure some meaningful improvements, especially in major cities. Girls’ education flourished and women played a prominent role in government and civil society. In a region bereft of press freedom, U.S. grants helped seed a robust media culture that confronted authorities and the Taliban alike for abuses.
But the sudden collapse of the Afghan government and the chaotic U.S. exit has ripped even the best remnants of the post-9/11 legacy away. “It’s like building a building then tearing it down all at once — we’re back to zero,” says Raihana Azad, 38, a former parliamentarian who fled to Turkey last month. A member of the persecuted ethnic Hazara minority, Azad rose from a teenage marriage and motherhood to elected office, where she championed women’s education and entrepreneurship. Though poor and remote, her province, Daykundi, boasted one of the highest female graduation rates in the country. “There were so many real achievements, and still the Americans abandoned us” to the Taliban, she tells me. “They have not changed — they are no better or worse than they were 20 years ago.”
The new Taliban government excludes women and the Hazara minority. And Azad says that all girls’ schools in Daykundi have been closed and women banned from leaving home without a male escort. Contacts told her that 12 surrendering Hazara soldiers and a pair of civilians were executed in late August by the Taliban, a month after nine Hazaras were tortured and killed in another province.
“If you compare the situation now to 20 years ago, the main difference is that we are feeling hopeless,” says Jawad, a reporter and political analyst based in Kabul. “The freedoms we had are being taken away; we are less safe.” Two of his colleagues were beaten up last week for pressing a Taliban official on human rights issues; others have been arrested and brutally flogged for filming demonstrations. Meanwhile, Taliban leaders continue to issue vague directives that media must not violate Islamic law or harm the national interest.
By Jawad’s assessment, the situation today is worse than the aftermath of the 2001 U.S.-led invasion. “The Taliban are much more powerful” thanks to massive U.S. weapons and munitions stockpiles they’ve absorbed from Afghan forces, while the prevalence of more radical groups like the Islamic State-Khorasan could sow greater instability, he says, affirming his belief that Afghanistan could once again become a staging ground for terror attacks beyond its borders. Although Al Qaeda has pledged deference to the Taliban, and the Taliban is the sworn enemy of ISIS-K, having fought them relentlessly in the east of the country, he worries that extremist rivals will try to exploit the vacuum as the Taliban struggles to transition from guerrilla warfare to governance. Indeed, ISIS-K claimed responsibility for the August 26th suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed more than 170 Afghans.
Among the survivors of the attack was “Fereshta,” a 17-year-old musician from a remote village in the eastern province of Nuristan. Her father was abducted and ransomed three times for supporting her studies, and she found refuge at a music conservatory for disadvantaged children in Kabul. But the new Taliban regime is once more enforcing a ban on live music, as it did during its 1996-2001 rule, and ordered her school shut down. Despondent, Fereshta threw herself into the airport rush and barely escaped the ISIS-K attack. Her goal remains to reach the U.S. to continue her music, if she can find a way out of Afghanistan. As of press time, she was had not yet been able to get out.
For her part, Ayoubi, 26, says she planned to stay in Kabul but fled after learning from a government official that she was on a Taliban hit list. The relief she felt in getting out of the country is tempered by the guilt of leaving her mother and younger sister behind, along with memories of an escape in which Taliban guards broke her nose and her 11-month-old daughter fell unconscious. She has a recurring nightmare that she’s back at the airport gate, fighting to push through, “and then I wake up to this,” she says. “We had good lives, we worked so hard and now we are in quarantine, left with nothing. We have to survive with whatever is given to us.”
In the U.S., the fallout from the withdrawal is measured mainly in terms of its political implications. Pundits debate its potential impact on mid-term elections, how it will tarnish Biden’s presidency, and America’s global standing. For Afghans, it’s a matter of survival. The Taliban takeover has spurred a refugee crisis that could run up to half a million people by next year. More than a million have been displaced internally, and the UN warns that half the population is in dire need of humanitarian aid as basic services break down.
Two decades after 9/11, America’s longest modern war is finally over. But for all those who came of age in that era only to be uprooted or left behind, their plight is far from over.
“When I think of U.S. policy towards Afghanistan, I can only come to the conclusion that no matter what we achieved, no matter how hard we worked, it didn’t matter to them: In the end this was going to happen,” Ayoubi sighs. “And that is the thing that bothers me the most, the part I can’t understand. All that sacrifice, their soldiers and ours, for nothing. This callous betrayal gives a bad image to the U.S. all over the world. It’s going to be written with black ink in American history.”