‘9/11? What’s that?’
DEC 5 — I arrive in Kabul, Afghanistan, all nervous and excited, and I’m even admitting to being scared. It isn’t the first time I’ve been to a war zone, but somehow this seems to be the most dangerous place I’ve been to. The news is always showing some location in Afghanistan being blown up or shot at. How can one not be scared?
Then there is the risk of being kidnapped. The Taliban, who had been ruling the country for years until the United States army chased them out in 2001, and Al-Qaeda seem to enjoy plucking foreigners off the streets and then holding them for ransom or just deciding to behead them on video and then posting it on the Internet.
As many would know, Afghanistan is that country that came to the world’s attention in 2001 after the September 11 Al-Qaeda attack on the World Trade Centre in New York City, where 5,000 innocent people were killed. As retaliation, the United States invaded Afghanistan in its search for the terrorist group’s head honcho, Osama Bin Laden.
The country’s ruling government at that time, the Taliban, was accused of harbouring him and giving him a safe haven to conduct his operations. So the United States ousted them too. And now, 10 years on, even though there is an Afghan president (what’s his name again?) and an Afghan government, the United States military and its coalition troops are still there in the form of Nato’s ISAF (International Security Assistance Force).
The Taliban isn’t the government anymore and Al-Qaeda doesn’t really have a safe haven in the country now. But they’re still there and fighting still happens on a regular basis. ISAF military deaths in the past decade are slowly approaching 10,000 and Afghanistan is now considered to be one of the most dangerous places in the world.
But there really is nothing I can do now that I’m standing in an old rundown airport with a sign on the roof that says "Kabul International Airport." All I can do now is to pursue the stories that I came to pursue and hope for the best that nothing happens to me.
I picked up the phone and called Ahmad Bilal Raghbat, the fixer whom I had hired to help me during my stay in Afghanistan. Bilal, as he goes by, was highly recommended by a New York Times journalist whom I had come into contact with while researching the country.
“I’m waiting outside. The security guards won’t let locals without a ticket into the airport,” he said.
So I search for the way out to meet Bilal. Then my mind started going places where it shouldn’t. What if Bilal is actually a Taliban member disguised as a journalist fixer? What if he hands me over to the Taliban? How could I trust someone who I have never met before with my life in a war zone? Time to find out!
I called him again as soon as I stepped out of the building since I had never seen him before. I see a young Afghan put a phone to his ear and his lips synced the words that I could hear in my phone. Ahh… so that is Bilal! He looked barely out of his twenties. He helped to load my luggage into his car and off we drove.
As we were driving, Bilal was describing the sights to me. There was the ISAF headquarters on the right, Massoud Square on the left, the Interior Ministry right ahead, and he went on and on. But all I could think about in my head was, “Is this guy going to kidnap me or is he just going to sell me off to the nearest bearded man?”
We arrived at the guesthouse where I had already made a booking. Bilal helped me check in and then we sat for a while in my room as I tried to settle in. He then briefed me on the security situation in Kabul. As I feared, kidnapping is the number one threat that all foreigners face.
“It isn’t the Taliban that you need to be afraid of. It’s the petty criminals who think they can make easy money,” explains Bilal.
Aside from that, the normal risks of suicide bombings and attacks on foreign targets still stand and any threats or warnings should be taken seriously. I knew it was dangerous, but after a decade of US presence in the country, I would have thought the situation would be much better.
My trip to Afghanistan coincided with the 10th anniversary of 9/11. One of the first things I wanted to do in Kabul was to go outside and meet with the locals and to talk to them and get to know them and their country better. What better issue than their decade of being governed by the US government and also their thoughts on Osama Bin Laden and the 10th anniversary of 9/11.
And that was exactly what I did during my first few days in Kabul. Bilal took me around the city meeting everyday folks and chatting with them. Kabul itself is quite a bustling city with small businesses and stalls operating on almost every street, corner and alleyway. People sold carpets, clothes, food and even ring tones. Basically, they sold or traded anything to make a living.
“I don’t know what this 9/11 is that you are talking about,” said Abidullah Abed, a young man in his mid-twenties, who was barbecuing a kebab by the side of the street.
“Come on. How can he not know 9/11?” I said as I pressed Bilal to ask him again what his thoughts of 9/11 are.
Abidullah insisted that he does not know anything at all about 9/11 and that I am just wasting my time by asking him about it. I looked at Bilal and he just shrugged at me. I thanked Abidullah for his time and we walked away, leaving him to his kebabs, while we looked for other people to talk to.
“I’m telling you Zan. Many young people in Kabul don’t know anything about 9/11. It’s just something that doesn’t concern them,” said Bilal as we were walking.
I nodded as if I understood, but in my head, I just thought it was impossible that a majority of the people in Afghanistan had no idea of what happened on 9/11. We continued to walk the streets of Kabul and when we got to Chicken Street, a street that was lined with trendy clothing shops and boutiques, I signalled to Bilal that I wanted to talk to people here, hoping they would be more savvy.
“I don’t know what is 9/11,” said Mohamed Jamel, a sales assistant working at a men’s clothing store.
“What is 9/11?” asked Tamim, a young man working at a shoe shop.
That was three people in a row whom I had asked about 9/11 and they had answered that they did not know anything at all about it. Bilal just looked at me and laughed, as if mocking me and saying "I told you so!" I was slowly starting to believe him. But Bilal, who is young himself, knew what 9/11 was and he seemed to be more in the know. So I decided to pick his brain.
“Many Afghans don’t feel that 9/11 is relevant to them, especially now that 10 years have gone by. So they choose to ignore it. Even if you ask them about Osama Bin Laden, they will tell you that he is not relevant because he is not Afghan,” explained Bilal.
“But they must know that the United States are in Afghanistan,” I said.
“Of course, the presence of the United States in Afghanistan is something of relevance because they did chase out the Taliban. Many Afghans were putting all their hope in the United States government to help bring change to the country. But they don’t feel like that anymore because there has been no change even after 10 years. We still don’t have basic infrastructure like reliable electricity, proper roads and, most important of all, security. Afghans are not happy,” he added.
So the issue here in Afghanistan really isn’t about 9/11 and Osama Bin Laden or Al-Qaeda. It has been 10 years already and, I have to say, the Afghans are right to want to move on. The real issue now, after talking to these Kabul-ites, is the fact that the US government, who had so eagerly entered the country in 2001, is now not fulfilling its obligations.
I still had a lot of time in Kabul and this time I decided that I would change my line of questioning. Now, I was going to see if I could try to understand how Afghans felt about the United States being in their country for the past 10 years. But now that it was getting dark, I had to head back to the security of the guesthouse. This new interview strategy would have to wait till the next day.
Next week: Part 2 of Zan Azlee’s "Guide to Afghanistan: The Adventures of a KL-ite." View videos of his adventures at http://fatbidin.com/afghanistan/
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