Images of the World Trade Center buildings billowing smoke, as their final minutes counted down a decade ago this month, gave a very different symbolism to the already iconoclastic twin towers — one representing the change of an era and a new geo-political order. Later that afternoon of September 11, 2001, according to the confidential notes of his aides, Donald Rumsfeld, then United States Secretary of Defense, was to instruct: “Go massive. Sweep it all up. Things related and not”. And thus followed the two prolonged and bloody wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
On top of its tangible tragedy, 9/11 was also devastatingly aesthetic, a mixture which helped to sear the event into our collective memory, so much so that it has become one of those rare occasions for which most can remember where they were when they first saw the smouldering towers.
But what do Afghans who live in some of the places most affected by the fallout of 9/11 recall about that day?
Helmand Province in Southern Afghanistan has borne the brunt of the fighting between Taliban and US-led coalition forces. It is also home to Das Mohammad, a farmer who scrapes a living from subsistence crops and opium cultivation. With an expression of some confusion, Mohammad recently took a quick glance at a photograph I handed him of the two metal towers spewing clouds of smoke against the blue sky of that day. When asked whether he knew what it was he shook his head. A small group of locals gathered around him, all of whom examined the picture with curiosity but no sign of recognition. When asked whether they thought the events depicted in the image had any bearing on their own lives the group was unanimous in dismissing them as irrelevant.
From his reactions to the picture it was clear that Mohammad had no idea what 9/11 was, or for that matter why America and its allies originally sent their military forces to Afghanistan. He is not alone; a survey carried out in October 2010 by the International Council on Security and Development found that 92 percent of a sample of 1,000 men in Helmand and Kandahar provinces were “unaware of the events of 9/11 or that they triggered the current international presence”.
Given the extremely poor infrastructure, lack of media and high levels of illiteracy, not to mention 30 years of war and the fact that the Taliban banned television and radio, it should perhaps not be surprising that most Afghans in Helmand and Kandahar have little idea about 9/11.
It should, however, beg the question as to how effective the coalition campaign to win hearts and minds can really be when those very minds, through no fault of their own, cannot place the international military presence within any context. It is one thing to tell Afghans that the Taliban are the “bad guys” — many would willingly agree — but quite another for them to understand why this is the business of foreign military forces.
After the assassination of Osama Bin Laden there is a case to be made that 9/11 itself is no longer a factor in the war in Afghanistan, which has moved on to attempting to create a safe environment where reconstruction and development can take place. These efforts, though, have been painfully slow, and it is likely that, just as the international military forces will leave without a great many Afghans ever having known why they were there in the first place, they will also do so without having adequately paved the way to real stability.
At the end of the day, the lack of knowledge about 9/11 is symptomatic of a far broader failure in communication between the allied forces and Afghanis, be they civilian, political or military. There are of course exceptions, but at every level, from the humble military translator misinterpreting his officer’s questions to an Afghan president who frequently decries the actions of his own international allies, war and reconstruction in Afghanistan is too often a story lost in translation.
ADAM PLETTS is a freelance journalist based in Beirut who recently completed the documentary film “Have You Heard of 9/11?”