The Taliban waited out the American empire

KABUL – “You have the watches; we have the time.”

I first heard that expression from a local Taliban leader back in 2009, but it is an adage that seems to predate the start of the American presence in Afghanistan 20 years ago in the immediate aftermath of September 11, 2001.

The words were certainly just as true for the Soviet Union and for the British Empire before them, and it has always been a truth in a timeless place with impenetrable terrain that is known as a graveyard for empires.

As the longest war in American history comes to a chaotic and shameful end, it is glaringly apparent that all the money and all the sacrifice made by all sides seems to have done virtually nothing to stop the Taliban’s return to power. Time is up on the American presence in Afghanistan.

Now the fate of the country, particularly the fate of women’s rights and any of the hard fought gains that brought the country toward a more representative government and a nascent free press, are all left perilously hanging in the balance.

As the 20th anniversary of 9-11 approaches and as the U.S. winds down its final pullout from Afghanistan, the world is questioning what the American presence accomplished as the Taliban surges back into power. The chaotic scenes over the last few days of tens of thousands of Afghans desperately surging to the gates of the airport in Kabul raise the question: How was it possible that a better plan for the final pullout of US troops was not in place?

I returned on a reporting trip to Afghanistan at the end of July to assess the situation on the ground in this final phase of the war. This Sunday, The Boston Globe will publish my chronicle of the trip and the touchstones I went back to through my years of past reporting for the Globe there and a briefing at the Pentagon upon my return.

I first began covering the Taliban for the Globe back in 1995 when the Tailban was a nascent movement that one year later would emerge as a forceful militia and take control of the Afghan capital in Kabul. They would seize power and execute five brutal years in which they imposed a strict interpretation of Islamic law on the country and gave support and sanctuary to Osama bin Laden, an heir of a wealthy Saudi family, and his Al Qaeda terrorist network which used Afghanistan as a safe haven to plan and executed the attacks of 9-11.

On this most recent trip, I visited a school in Logar Province that I have covered since it was first dedicated in 2006 to the memory of Peter Goodrich, from Sudbury, MA who was killed on September 11th, 2001 aboard United Airlines Flight 175 when it crashed into the south tower of the World Trade Center. His parents, a school teacher and a lawyer, believed building a girls’ school would be the best way they could honor his memory. One of the most searing moments for my trip was visiting with the Afghan principal of this school.  When I was there, the girls’ school was still open and functioning and the students were just arriving back after the school had been closed for COVID. There was worry, but still hope in the air.

In recent days I have communicated with the principal via WhatsApp. Through our fractured conversations, I have watched her resilience and hope for the future descend into despair: “We are no longer safe here. We do not know what will happen to our girls and to their families,” she said.

I wanted to be in Afghanistan just before the final pullout of US troops, but had no idea that I would also be there just before the stunning collapse of the Afghan government and its security forces amid the swift return of the Taliban to power. On this reporting journey, with only seven days actually on the ground in Afghanistan, it seemed on the surface that Kabul had an unusual and unsettling quiet. I just didn’t see it coming, and clearly neither did the American military and intelligence community.

Circling back to people and places I knew, my hope was to get an on-the-ground assessment of where we were at the bitter end of this war and on the 20th anniversary of 9-11. I interviewed Afghan youth about how they saw their future, and spoke with a group of three entrepreneurs, one of whom described why he was supporting the Taliban because he believed they would bring more security. I spent time in local newsrooms with Afghan journalists who fear that the Taliban will strangle the nascent independent media in the country. I received briefings from government ministries and US and Afghan military officials about all that was unfolding. Not one of them predicted this stunning collapse. Indeed, all of them felt it was extremely unlikely.

I was based in Kabul out of a prominent Afghan non-governmental organization (NGO,) known as the Welfare Association for the Development of Afghanistan, or WADAN. It focuses its work on youth education and local democracy initiatives. The American funding for the school in Logar was distributed through WADAN. The school itself is under the administration of the Afghan Ministry of Education.

WADAN serves as a hive of local political activity tucked into a well-guarded neighborhood of Kabul. During my stay there, the place was buzzing under the leadership of its founder and Executive Director Mohammed Nasib.  Nasib, 57, has a vast network of Afghan government officials and local elected village leaders, known as “maliks,” who he works closely with. Nasib, who has dual Afghan and American citizenship, was ordered by the American funders of WADAN to leave the country. He flew out last Saturday just as the Taliban was advancing and it was becoming apparent that Kabul would likely fall. Now he is at his family’s home in Virginia.

Nasib left his homeland against his will, and I reached his family by phone today and they said his heart was broken as he watched what is unfolding. He has hardly slept in days as he is writing letters and making phone calls on behalf of fellow Afghans and a large, extended family who are desperately trying to flee the country as the Taliban tightens its grip on power.

The school principal ended our last conversation this week with words that are haunting, and that deeply reflect the depth of the crisis in a county coming undone: “You know us. You know us for a very long time. Please do not leave us alone here.”