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From Hope To Bitterness: Afghans Look Back At Start Of A 20-Year War


Anti-Taliban Afghan fighters watch several explosions from U.S. bombings in the Tora Bora Mountains of Afghanistan on December 16, 2001.

KABUL, Afghanistan -- When U.S. air strikes targeted terrorist training camps in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, it signaled the beginning of what would turn out to be nearly two decades of war.

On the 20th anniversary of the day the war on terror came to Afghanistan, civilians from across the country describe a rollercoaster of emotions as they look back at a conflict marked by high expectations and crushed hopes, the toppling of the Taliban and the extremist group's ultimate return to power, and the loss of more than 170,000 combatant and civilian lives.

Many who spoke to Radio Azadi expressed dismay and bitterness at the way the military campaign turned out. In telling their stories, RFE/RL has chosen to identify them by only their first names due to concerns for their safety.

“I remember the day the United States invaded Afghanistan and overthrew the Taliban government," said Musa, a resident of the eastern Kunar Province. "I still remember the American air strikes."

The opening aerial bombardments were launched in retaliation for the 9/11 terrorist attacks on the United States, and targeted Al-Qaeda and Taliban installations in the cities of Kabul, Kandahar, Jalalabad, Kunduz, and Mazar-e Sharif. By November, the first U.S. troops had entered the country.

Smoke billows from a bomb dropped by U.S. forces on Taliban positions in October 2001.
Smoke billows from a bomb dropped by U.S. forces on Taliban positions in October 2001.

"After that, a new government was formed in Afghanistan," Musa said of the post-Taliban transition, which he said brought many changes for the better. "Advances were made in the field of health. Streets and schools were built. We also participated in elections several times."

But following the withdrawal of international forces, he said, "people are facing a lot of problems.”

Alireza, a resident of the central Bamiyan Province who is in his 40s, recalled being a recent high-school graduate with no chance of continuing his education at a university. But that all changed with the U.S. invasion, said Alireza, who is today a professor.

"I was able to get a proper education. Our financial means improved," Alireza said. "We were introduced to democracy and personal freedoms. We made a lot of progress in the past 20 years."

Following the U.S. withdrawal, he said, a lot of those gains are in danger.

"We knew the Americans would leave one day," Alireza said. "But we didn’t think they would leave so chaotically and suddenly."

Operation Enduring Freedom, the name of the U.S.-led military campaign in the first 13 years of the war, was complemented by the involvement of other forces through NATO's International Security Assistance Force (ISAF).

The involvement of U.S. service members on the ground would follow a bell curve: from the initial deployment of 1,300 a month after the bombing campaign began, to more than 100,000 troops midway in 2010, to the evacuation of the last planeload of troops on August 30, 2021.

U.S. Marines begin to form up their convoy at a staging area near Kandahar as they await orders to take control of the airfield on December 13, 2001.
U.S. Marines begin to form up their convoy at a staging area near Kandahar as they await orders to take control of the airfield on December 13, 2001.

Bashir, a resident of the northern Takhar Province, echoed Ali's early optimism.

"The U.S. intervention in Afghanistan gave great hope to everyone in Afghanistan. There were gains in education, human rights, and women’s rights," Bashir said. "Our expectation was that we would become a beacon [of freedom] in the region. But unfortunately, by the end, hope was replaced by hopelessness. Every day, unemployment was increasing. Corruption was increasing."

Over the course of the conflict, trillions of dollars would pour into the country, nurturing Afghanistan's fledgling democracy but also making the country heavily dependent on foreign aid. According to the World Bank, development aid accounted for nearly half of Afghanistan's gross national income in 2009, and 22 percent a decade later.

"The situation we find ourselves in is even worse than it was 20 years ago," said Fereshta, a women’s rights activist in the western city of Herat. "People are living in extreme poverty. Many are jobless. Afghan women have lost their voices. They have lost the right to work and study."

Afghan women's rights defenders and civil activists protest to call on the Taliban to preserve their achievements in front of the presidential palace in Kabul on September 3, 2021.
Afghan women's rights defenders and civil activists protest to call on the Taliban to preserve their achievements in front of the presidential palace in Kabul on September 3, 2021.

Fereshta compared the current situation to the difficulties Afghanistan experienced following the Soviet-Afghan war from 1979 to 1989, after which the Taliban came to power from 1996 until the U.S. invasion in 2001.

"Unfortunately, history has repeated itself, and we have been abandoned as we were after the Soviet invasion," she said. "The 20-year international presence didn’t bring any benefit to Afghanistan."

U.S.-led forces are not the only ones to have pulled out of the country. Aid organizations, contractors, and foreign investment have also left in droves as it became apparent that the military campaign was ending.

But Abdul, a resident of Herat Province, did see benefits from the military involvement in Afghanistan.

"At least in 20 years, a government was established in which human rights, the rights of men and women, and all human values were respected in the highest possible way," Abdul said. But he said he could not understand how the United States could "hand over the affairs of the country to a group to trample all over everything again."

Taliban fighters walk in front of a military airplane on the day after the U.S. troops' withdrawal from Kabul airport on August 31, 2021.
Taliban fighters walk in front of a military airplane on the day after the U.S. troops' withdrawal from Kabul airport on August 31, 2021.

"I'm not only angry with the United States, NATO, and allied nations," he said, "but I'm deeply disgusted that they have twice left the fate of a nation in the hands of the Taliban."

Nematullah, from Helmand Province's central Nawa District, was only 4 years old when the Taliban regime infamous for its brutality and strict interpretation of Islamic Shari'a law was toppled.

"Many were harmed when Afghanistan was attacked. But there were also those who benefited and gained a lot," Nematullah said. "This is important for Afghans. But the current problems have made people forget these things, because of the abundance of poverty and problems in society.”

When the Taliban returned to power in Kabul on August 15 following a blistering offensive that overran the Afghan military as foreign troops withdrew, it inherited a fragile economy that the World Bank described as suffering from low-productivity agriculture, widespread corruption, and weak financial institutions.

An Afghan man brings his household items to sell at a Kabul market on September 10, 2021. Afghans who plan to flee the country or are in need of cash to buy groceries and food resort to sell their belongings.
An Afghan man brings his household items to sell at a Kabul market on September 10, 2021. Afghans who plan to flee the country or are in need of cash to buy groceries and food resort to sell their belongings.

Since then, the situation has become even more dire, with the UN warning of an impending humanitarian crisis brought on by a drought that has displaced 3.5 million people, spiraling poverty, and the collapse of public services. Nongovernmental organizations have warned that the Afghan economy is spiraling out of control and that the banking system could collapse any day.

“The way America left Afghanistan was unpredictable," lamented Alireza, the professor from Bamiyan. "Now I think the 20-year-old achievements are in danger of being destroyed."

Alireza said that Afghans feel they have been left on their own.

“We do not know whether the situation will remain the same or not," he said. "Groups like Al-Qaeda and IS [the Islamic State extremist group] are forming. This is one of the major concerns of all Afghans. Another issue is poverty and unemployment.”

Written by RFE/RL correspondent Michael Scollon in Prague with additional reporting by Mustafa Sarwar. Based on reporting by RFE/RL Radio Azadi correspondents in Afghanistan whose names are being withheld for their safety.

  • 16x9 Image

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi

    RFE/RL's Radio Azadi, one of the most popular and trusted media outlets in Afghanistan, is based in Kabul and supported by a nationwide network of local Dari- and Pashto-speaking journalists. Nearly half of the country's adult audience accesses Azadi's reporting on a weekly basis.

  • 16x9 Image

    Michael Scollon

    Michael Scollon is a senior correspondent in RFE/RL's Central Newsroom in Prague.

  • 16x9 Image

    Mustafa Sarwar

    Mustafa Sarwar is a journalist for RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan in Prague.

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