Reflections on What 9/11 Meant in Afghanistan

Men look outside through a broken window at the site of a suicide attack in Kabul, Afghanistan on October 5, 2016. (Mohammad Ismail / Reuters)
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

Mohammad Sayed Madadi is currently getting a master’s degree at Stanford. But he spent part of his childhood under the Taliban, and he remembers the American intervention after the 9/11 attacks—which started 15 years ago today and ultimately toppled that government—as seeming to herald a new era for him. It did, but not exactly in the way he hoped. Sayed got an education that would never have been possible under the Taliban, and saw his sisters do the same. He has also witnessed continuing bloodshed in his country, and was himself injured in an ISIS bombing in Kabul this summer that killed some 80 people. “Afghanistan is a much better country than it was in 2001,” he writes. “Is that enough?”

When the Taliban were overthrown, it was as if the city I lived in was newer, brighter, more crowded; as if those American bombs that fell after September 11 really brought voice and light to a place that had been quiet and dark.

I don’t remember much from the Taliban years, having been a kid then—I remember there was a picture in the calendar in which a Talib was shooting a woman in a stadium, and I remember when my father buried his library’s books in the village to hide them from the Taliban. But the post-2001 period was when I started opening my eyes to the world. Afghanistan was a ravaged land, but our hopes and determination to rebuild it then seemed unmatched by any obstacle. Afghan and Indian music was everywhere (the Taliban had banned music), and postcards of Bollywood movie stars decorated the windows of music shops and the back covers of school notebooks. Families ran into markets to buy second-hand Western clothing, and that was, to me, a testimony of how much people had disliked the Taliban; how easily they gave up on their supposedly “Afghan” uniforms.

Fifteen years later, the legacy of the bombs that were supposed to bring voice and light is mixed for me. International money and blood has helped millions of students like me get an education, allowed millions of women like my sister pursue their dreams and raise their voices. It brought a free media and a vibrant civil society to keep the government accountable. Afghanistan has one of the most liberal constitutions in the region and a political structure that has the potential to be democratic and transparent.

But the other side of this “shining city” is a hell. Hundreds of thousands of people have died, and the bloodshed doesn’t look set to end anytime soon. The Taliban, who were supposed to be part of a dark history, are now the solid reality of our present and the imminent threat to our future. Survival is still the primary concern for Afghans. This summer, after I survived a critical injury in an ISIS attack in Kabul, my father told me he was happy I was returning to the U.S., where I’m getting my master’s degree. His foremost concern was not that I get a quality education at an elite institution, but that I stat alive and safe so that his life invested in me wouldn’t vanish in despair.