The U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan clouds Afghans’ future and upends military and civilian achievements 20 years since 9/11
In 2001 Ariane Hiriart and her husband Jacques took the last UN flight out of Kabul. Following the 9/11 attacks, Westerners evacuated as a precaution, fearing U.S. bombardments or reprisals from the Taliban.
It was an orderly departure, unlike the one she found herself trying to oversee from her home in France as the 20th anniversary of the attacks neared.
“So far we have 172 files with names and passport information of Afghans who must leave the country,” she told me by phone. “It’s been nearly a week, day and night, because these people are going to die if they don’t get out of the country.”
Besides the tens of thousands of Afghans who swarmed the Kabul airport following the Taliban’s Aug. 15 capture of the city, thousands more hold papers issued by the United States or its NATO allies granting them departures—but no orderly way to exit.
For Westerners like Hiriart, who worked in the country long enough to live with Taliban rule, war, and now Taliban control again, the many lives of Afghans who have become like family are at stake. Later she will reckon with the security vacuum created by the final exit of U.S. forces, and the heartache.
The anniversary of 9/11 has become a somber remembrance for lives lost in the air and on the ground in the United States. But when President Joe Biden announced this spring he would withdraw all troops from Afghanistan by Sept. 11, he tied the day to the American mission there. By underestimating the crack speed of the Taliban’s offensive to retake the country, the Biden administration found itself racing for the exit doors, with Americans confronting a profound defeat in a war launched just a month after 9/11.
The losses already are reverberating through the 800,000 U.S. military personnel who served in the Afghan War. But they are equally profound for thousands of aid workers and missionaries who’ve helped Afghans rebuild society during two decades of relative freedom.
HIRIART AND HER HUSBAND made their life in missions overseas after losing their 10-year-old son to leukemia in France. They arrived in Afghanistan in February 2000, starting a school for the deaf in Kabul’s Dasht-e-Barchi neighborhood. Their organization, Le Pelican, later opened a French-style café on a main road, employing Afghans and some deaf students while serving an international clientele. The café had to close in 2010 due to threats from the Taliban.
The school has grown to four Pelican schools with more than 400 students and 54 staff members and faculty, all serving the Hazara ethnic minority that live in the neighborhood. It’s her employees and their families who need to get out of the country. Hazaras, who are Shiite Muslims, are persistently targeted by the Taliban and other Sunni jihadist groups. A triple bombing at a girls school in Dasht-e-Barchi in May left 100 people, mostly students, dead.
Despite the dangerous climate, the 74-year-old Hiriart, whose husband died in 2013, has lived most of the last two decades in a small apartment attached to the first school. When the Taliban entered Kabul, all the Pelican schools closed, and most of their families went into hiding.
“It’s a terrible chaotic time, and very scary,” she said by phone, and through tears. “The Taliban are in Dasht-e-Barchi, they are killing people and taking people from homes. My people are very, very afraid, and I am trying to help them out of this hell.”
Every day, she said, she has to stare down all over again her disbelief in what’s happened. “Twenty years ago we returned to Kabul after the U.S. invasion. The Taliban were gone. Children were crazy with joy, out in the streets with their families. Music came back. Women put away their burqas and wore veils instead. We were seeing their faces for the first time. It was also a chaotic time, but it was chaotic with joy.”
WHEN THE FOUR PLANES hijacked by al-Qaeda delivered the most deadly strike in history on the U.S. homeland, Americans watching the news struggled to comprehend how the world could so suddenly change, how the attacks could happen, what they would mean.
But those more familiar with the ground out of which al-Qaeda grew knew the confrontation had been years in the making. They understood then it would not end soon or bloodlessly. Still, most everyone alive then remembers where they were and how that Tuesday morning in 2001 changed their lives.
Paul D. Miller was in a training session at Ft. Huachuca in Arizona and joined others in the barracks in time to watch on television as the second tower of the World Trade Center fell. “It was one of the defining moments of my life,” he said.
He could not know then how his career would be shaped around confronting the al-Qaeda threat. He also didn’t know that on that day his future wife was working inside the U.S. Capitol: “I owe it to the passengers on Flight 93 for saving her life.”
Miller served with the U.S. Army in Afghanistan in 2002. After his active duty tour, he joined the National Security Council and was director for Afghanistan under Presidents Bush and Obama. Today he’s still in the U.S. Army Reserves and teaches international relations at Georgetown University.
“The war in Afghanistan has had the air of persistent failure for a long time,” despite the gains in Afghanistan, the weakening of al-Qaeda, and the fact that “we’ve not had another 9/11 type attack,” Miller said.
Miller would have argued against the Trump administration’s decision to negotiate withdrawal with the Taliban and President Biden’s decision to go along with the 2020 agreement. “You cannot argue that what we had in Afghanistan before is worse than what we are seeing now.”
Like others, Miller believes the biggest winner in the U.S. withdrawal will be China, which already is making overtures to the Taliban and has its eye on Afghanistan’s mineral wealth.
“It’s not the final most important event of the 21st century,” he said, “but it is one more stop on the road of the disintegration of the liberal order, the erosion of the free world, and the rise of authoritarianism with its unbridled and often zero-sum contest for power. That contest has no winners, and it leaves the world more violent and poor.”
DAVID GARRISON HAD JUST RETURNED to Thailand from travels to Bangladesh and India on 9/11. The regional director for the International Mission Board, the mission arm of Southern Baptists, was ironing his shirts at home in Chiang Mai when he saw news of the planes crashing. He too understood right away it was a terror attack on the United States, and one likely to change his part of the world.
Two days before, Garrison had begun evacuating workers from Pakistan and Afghanistan following the daylight assassination of Ahmad Shah Massoud. As head of the Northern Alliance and leader of the anti-Taliban resistance in Afghanistan, Massoud was at the time the closest Afghan ally of the United States. After his death, his fighters would be the first to join U.S. forces to defeat the Taliban and al-Qaeda. (Under Massoud’s son, the Northern Alliance in late August was still fighting the Taliban in the Panjshir Valley, one of few regions still outside Taliban control.)
By Sept. 11, Garrison needed an Excel spreadsheet to keep track of the workers needing to be evacuated. With threats against non-Muslims mounting, he had to protect their identities, and many to this day are not publicly identified as ever working in the region or serving with Christian missionary groups.
Over the next days, while rescue workers at Ground Zero in New York dug through rubble looking for clues and bodies, Garrison stationed himself at the airport in Chiang Mai, checking off names as they arrived.
“It was very challenging,” Garrison recalls. “Air travel everywhere was shut down, yet we managed to get them out. Some got off the plane wearing Punjabi suits or long beards. They had been living among people who had become their friends, and now it was unclear what to think, what the future held.”
By that time al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had claimed credit for the attacks on Arabic television. President George W. Bush had issued his own ultimatum to the Taliban: Hand over al-Qaeda militants and bin Laden “or share their fate.”
What Bush and many others failed to understand at the time were the extraordinary ties the Taliban and al-Qaeda had already forged.
By 1998 bin Laden had married his oldest daughter to Mullah Muhammad Omar, the leader of the Taliban. The al-Qaeda leader, a Saudi, became fully absorbed into the Pashtunwali—the “code of life” of the Pashtuns who dominate Afghanistan and the Taliban. A Pashtun bride from the Taliban elite became bin Laden’s fourth wife.
The Pashtuns “will now defend him and fight for him,” wrote Yossef Bodansky in his seminal 1999 biography, Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America. “The lure of international recognition or American foreign aid is irrelevant in the Pashtunwali framework.”
Yet even as bin Laden drew militants from around the world to fight his war on America, another movement was underway too. For many Muslims, 9/11 “shattered the delusion” many had about themselves and about Islam, said Garrison. “They were content to see Islam as the answer for the world, and after 9/11 they no longer could believe that.”
Americans saw news clips of Muslims cheering the attacks in Tehran and Gaza, but Garrison and other Christians who had spent years working among Muslims saw something else. For Muslims who had tolerated the extremist ideology flowing from the Sunni madrassas of Pakistan or the Shiite councils in Iran, after 9/11 they could no longer deny its deadly intent.
“We did not see this at first, how it jolted Muslims. Looking back now, we see how it was a wake-up call for many to reconsider their faith,” said Garrison.
Already at the turn of the century, Garrison and others were seeing new numbers of Muslims coming to Christian faith. King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Quranic scholars had approved translations of the Quran into languages other than Arabic so that it could be understood in places far from Mecca and Medina.
“They thought it would spur deeper interest in Islam, but it did the opposite, it backfired. People who could read the Quran in their own language were finding that their religion was bankrupt,” said Garrison. “I was hearing Muslims say, ‘After reading the Quran, I realized I was lost.’ It was like a medieval Christian suddenly able to read the Bible in his own language after hearing it recited only in Latin.”
While Americans focused on the challenges of the U.S.-led fight against terror in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Muslim world couldn’t look away from jihadist groups’ unparalleled violence. Where authoritarian regimes once controlled access to information, Muslims even in remote Afghan villages have internet and Facebook accounts, exposing them to Western freedoms and to alternatives to Islam.
In 2010 a colleague encouraged Garrison to study Muslim movements to Christ, defined as at least 100 new church starts or 1,000 baptisms among Muslims over a 10- to 20-year period. Garrison could count 25 such movements in the beginning, but by the time his study finished four years later, it had identified 82 movements spread through all parts of the Muslim world. Of those, 69 had begun after 9/11—with an estimated 2 million to 7 million converts in the past 20 years. Many are in areas most hostile to religions other than Islam, including Afghanistan.
Garrison believes the chaotic withdrawal and defeat of the U.S. military mission in Afghanistan will “pour fuel” on Islamic aspirations. “I think it will inspire a lot of groups that otherwise are marginalized: al-Shabab in Somalia, al-Nusra in Syria, al-Qaeda in West Africa.”
But his findings also remind him that other trends may be at work, too.
CHRISTY WILSON IS CONSIDERED the father of modern Christian missions to Afghanistan, a closed country when he received permission to work there, arriving in 1951. With missionaries prohibited, he leveraged his profession, working as a teacher in a country that was then 97 percent illiterate.
Wilson served there 22 years, becoming principal of a government high school, starting with his wife a school for the blind, and teaching English to top officials. Dangers were perennial, as they are today, but the gospel he carried proved contagious for many Afghans, and he would build a church in Kabul (now destroyed) and pastor an international congregation.
With the launch of the Afghan War, Western Christians like the Hiriarts seized a similar opportunity to leverage their professions following the 2001 overthrow of the Taliban. They reopened hospitals and started schools, launched medical clinics and rural services, and fostered business and leadership training programs at universities.
One of the most dramatic ways theirs and others’ work contributes to improving the lives of Afghans is the country’s infant mortality rate. From 2009 to 2019 infant deaths per 1,000 live births dropped from 66.5 to 46.5. They also helped to foster a revival of Muslim converts to Christ in Afghanistan. The Afghan-only church—which meets in clusters of house fellowships—is ranked among the fastest growing in the world.
The 9/11 anniversary finds many Afghan Christians hoping to join Westerners who’ve already made it out of the country. About 200 Christians fled by land to Pakistan and Iran three days after the government’s collapse, but the fate of an estimated 10,000-12,000 others will be in jeopardy. One Afghan pastor said, “Our people are going through fire.”
Their departures underscore how the 9/11 anniversary may mark the end of something Americans want to put behind them, but for others the beginning of a new ordeal.
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