Twenty years ago next month, a few days after the 9/11 attacks, I crossed the Amu Darya river from Tajikistan to Afghanistan. The country was still under Taliban control, and the borders were sealed, so I needed to find a way inside – and that way was on a crowded flat raft crossing the darkened river late at night, past Taliban guards.
In the days after the Twin Towers collapsed, Afghanistan was already in a state of transition. On September 9, 2001, the great Afghan opposition leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, also known as the Lion of Panjshir, had been assassinated in Takhar Province, where I was headed, by Al Qaeda and Taliban operatives posing as journalists. The murder was strategic; a harbinger to the US-led attacks on the Taliban that would follow within days.
Khwaja Bahauddin, the district where I began my journey to Kabul with the US-backed Northern Alliance who were attempting to unseat the Taliban, was like going back to what the Stone Age must have been like. Roads were dusty, unpaved and impassable. Villages were mud huts. Most of the people I met were illiterate, except for one extraordinary young girl who had somehow, despite a lack of books or education, learnt a smattering of English from the rare foreign healthcare workers the Taliban had somehow allowed into the country.
Health care was in a very poor state. Polio had not been eradicated. Poverty was rampant. There was little electricity, scarce water and one toilet in the village where I sheltered and which an American television network selfishly bought from the owners so that they could use it for their quickly growing team. The local population were literally sealed off from any kind of modern life. They lived as they probably had lived, in the Middle Ages. The average age was 15, women married at about 14 or younger, and the unemployment rate then was over 50 per cent.
By the time we reached Kabul two months after entering the country, the Taliban had retreated, shaved off their beards, gone into hiding or dispersed into the vast country. There were no cell phones or land lines but within days, a foreign entrepreneur rigged up a network and you could hear the Nokia chimes on foreigners' phones everywhere. The country was invaded by journalists and carpetbaggers eager to make a fortune off the misery of Afghanistan. Many did.
For the people, the transition from Taliban era to the one that followed was stark. I wore a hijab but not a burqa, and in markets and in small shops that finally opened, selling antiquated tins of food or stale Turkish sweets, men literally stared at my face as if I were a television set. In remote villages, hundreds of them would gather around me, gaping with their mouths open. They had not seen a woman’s face, let alone a foreign one, outside of their family, in the years of Taliban rule that had begun in 1996.
For the next two decades I returned to Afghanistan to monitor progress: women’s rights, literacy, governance, birth rates, medical treatments and opium eradication. Often I had optimistic trips – I will never forget attending a women’s luncheon of brilliant entrepreneurs – and sometimes I was in despair when I felt the level of corruption was unstoppable.
I visited provinces such as Helmand, where despite the best efforts from Nato troops, I felt the Taliban hangover was never going away. In the town of Sangin with young British soldiers, we got pinned down by an insurgent sniper I later found out was 14 years old. The Taliban mentality was getting to them very early on, despite the billions of dollars being poured into the country to reverse their brutal logic and tenets.
That Afghanistan has fallen back into Taliban hands is in some horrible way predictable. It is tragic and deeply worrying – on a regional and global level – but it is something most of us knew all along. While we thought tremendous strides were being made, the Afghanistan Papers, a set of assessments prepared by the US government that was eventually published in The Washington Post, tell us that senior American officials also knew that nation-building was going to be impossible.
What is astounding is the speed with which the Taliban retook the country. In Khwaja Bahauddin, there were repeated attacks on government positions that began in 2015. Between 2015 and 2017, there were more than 20 incidents, forcing terrified families to flee.
Still, money was poured into Afghanistan to train its security forces, to empower its women, and to support NGOs. Training programmes funded by various governments, including those in the EU. But here's the real tragedy: they always knew nation-building was going to fail. “Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was insane,” one senior US military official told The Washington Post.
When we entered a Taliban-free Kabul in November 2001, the first thing I noticed was how quiet it was; but it was a terrified quiet, of people who still did not trust peace time. It was a stark contrast to the fall of Kabul this week, with frantic civilians rushing to the airport, pulling suitcases behind them, desperate to get on the last international flights out of the country.
Kabul was still shuttered in fear when I entered. People did not yet believe that the Taliban were really gone. Over the next few days and weeks, they emerged from their houses, particularly the girls – to go to the parks or to shop, something they had not done in the Taliban years without a male escort.
As much as I could, I tried to engage them, to talk about the dark years they had endured. I remember the first young women I encountered and how I teased them to remove their burqas. They told me they were afraid. “The Taliban aren’t really gone, are they?” they said. But they took me to their home where they cooked dinner for me (and ate in a separate room while I ate with their father and brothers).
The Taliban they had encountered is a different Taliban to the men who have returned to power. This is a generation of men who have embraced technology – they have had to – and who might have come of age in Pakistan or even Guantanamo Bay. They have a spokesman, someone to put a media spin to news (which is not surprising, given that ISIS, another extremist group, ran a brilliant social media campaign). And yet, for all their so-called modernisation, they won’t budge on human rights.
I think it’s too late to look back and see the countless mistakes the West made since 2001. The money spent is gone, and the progress will be wiped out over the next few weeks, as the people western forces trained and worked with will try to flee. The girls’ schools will likely be bulldozed.
Left behind will be fear and uncertainty; a return to the Khwaja Bahauddin that I encountered 20 years ago: people closed off from the world, from modernity, from any kind of freedom. We will soon be back to the terrified quiet I encountered when I walked into Kabul in 2001.