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The two 9/11s

Farhad Peikar
For the past 12 years, the September 11 date has grimly powerful connotations in the annals of world history. But as Afghans witnessed with the country's Wednesday SAFF sporting triumph, new chapters keep getting…
12.09.2013  |  New York
Twin columns of light mark Ground Zero in New York. Around the globe, the 9/11 date was feted by millions of Afghans following their country's SAFF trophy win. (Photo and main photo: Peikar)
Twin columns of light mark Ground Zero in New York. Around the globe, the 9/11 date was feted by millions of Afghans following their country's SAFF trophy win. (Photo and main photo: Peikar)

Mourning friends and family members gathered at the Ground Zero memorial plaza in New York City on Wednesday to mark the 12th anniversary of al-Qaeda’s September 11 terror attacks that destroyed the twin towers of the World Trade Center and part of the Pentagon. Relatives of the victims recited the names of almost 3,000 people who died in the assaults and floral tributes transformed the site in their memory.

As mourners observed moments of silence in New York, gunshots rang out some 7,000 miles away in several cities of Afghanistan, the country the US immediately invaded following the 9/11 attacks for harbouring the organizers of the attack.

These shots were not fired by Taliban insurgents or in a military coup, but came rather from the rifles of police officers as they too greeted an historic event: Afghanistan defeated India 2-0 to win the South Asia Football Federation Championship, and brought home a Cup for the first time in the country's history.

Youths poured onto the streets in all major Afghan cities, dancing to hip-hop music, shouting and whooping as they carried the black, red and green national tricolour. And beyond this sporting achievement, this day should remind Americans and the world just how far Afghanistan has come in the past 12 years.

During the Taliban era, TVs, music and dancing were all strictly banned and violators were severely punished. Football was among a handful number of sports the regime allowed. However, games were often interrupted at stadiums in Kabul and other cities to carry out public executions on the pitch. And football fans could only follow international matches through illicitly heard foreign radio broadcasts.

But on Wednesday millions of Afghans, including President Hamid Karzai, watched the game in Kathmandu live on TV broadcasts by dozens of channels. 

Sports are not by far the only progress seen in the new Afghanistan. Today more than eight million children – 30 per cent of them girls – are enrolled in schools. This compares to around only a million schoolboys during the Taliban era. Up to 80 per cent of Afghans now have access to basic healthcare, resulting in a leap in life expectancy. Around 18 million people have mobile phones, up from almost none during Taliban rule, while the overall economy has grown from two billion US dollars in 2001 to more than 20 billion today. 

Afghanistan made so much progress in the past 12 years that a return to those darks days is impossible to perceive for its young generation. Unlike Iraq or other Muslim countries, where the West has interfered, Afghans are still predominantly supportive of the international community’s engagement in their country. 

Of course all of this progress came at the cost of the lives of many thousands of Afghan civilians and members of the security forces. And more than 2,200 US military personnel and over 1,000 other Western military have died in the Afghan war, which cost the United States an estimated two trillion dollars since it began, and 570 billion dollars in 2012 alone. 

It is a far cry from the first year following the US-led invasion, which cost 36 western military fatalities and around 20 billion dollars. However, the start of another US war in Iraq, and lack of resources allocated to Afghanistan allowed the Taliban to regroup and become a strong force.

Proud residents of Ghazni celebrate after Wednesday's soccer win over India in Kathmandu. (Photo: Rahmat Alizada)

The astronomic financial cost and mounting US military casualties in Afghanistan rendered the conflict the most unpopular in US history. In 2001, only three in 10 Americans opposed the military intervention, while opposition has now reached the 70 per cent mark. 

Overall, the human and fiscal cost of overseas conflicts since 2001 has not only turned war-weary Americans against their country's current military engagement, but will also shape support for any future US military operations. Which amid current deliberations about Syria also may explain why Wednesday’s 9/11 comemmorations were relatively muted.  

By contrast, the 9/11 date for many Afghans represents the start of the ousting of the oppressive Taliban regime in 2001, and the huge boost to national pride after this year's South Asia Football Federation trophy win. And while so many people prepare to disengage from Afghanistan in the coming months, for Afghans at home and abroad, history is definitely still in the making.