By Arab News
By Mohamed Chebaro
I was waiting to board a flight at Heathrow Airport in London on Sept. 11, 2001, when I received a call from my editor asking me to change my plans and take the first flight heading to the US, Canada or even Mexico. I succeeded in boarding a flight heading to Canada, but it taxied for hours and then we were deplaned, like many millions of others who had their flights canceled after US airspace was closed due to the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.
A few days later, I was standing in a queue at a Starbucks in Washington. It was early morning and it was time to scan the newspapers. Two guys standing in the queue behind me asked, “Are you with us or against us?” I hesitated for a fleeting moment, thinking of the sporadic attacks on people who looked Muslim, including black Africans, Indians and Sikhs, that were underway in the US, fueled by an emotional yet ignorant minority’s attempt to avenge the 3,000-plus killed in Al-Qaeda’s Afghanistan-planned attacks. My reply was swift: “With you, of course, and against all forms of terror.” I took my coffee and settled for work trying to cover the aftermath of the attacks and their impact on the stability and prosperity of the world, not realizing that I was living through dramatic events that would change the world we knew forever.
Days later, I found myself in Munich, joining queues of journalists, adventurers and military veterans boarding a flight to Turkey, then Tajikistan, and from there by land to northern Afghanistan. I was there when carpet bombing and cruise missiles started to strike so-called “terror bases,” Al-Qaeda terror training camps, and Taliban “infrastructure, communication and control assets” to soften the ground ahead of the ground operation, or invasion, to “weed out Al-Qaeda.”
My first stop en route to Kabul was a dust-beaten little town under the control of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance forces. It was squeezed into the most northeastern part of the country, sandwiched between Tajikistan, Pakistan and China. For days, we traveled from one front line to another, watching the preparations of so-called warlords, readying rag-tag fighters for a ground assault to dislodge the Taliban and Al-Qaeda. I recall hours and days spent in vehicles crisscrossing the land between outposts, preparing for the push forward and meeting hesitant commanders observing maneuvers of tanks that had no batteries powerful enough to start their aging Soviet engines.
Then a miracle struck in the shape of the appearance of a more professional Afghan fighting force, made up of former refugees in Iran and mainly sporting headbands and banners resembling propaganda diffused by the Iranian revolution. This coincided with news of unmarked helicopters carrying US dollars landing in various provinces, preparing the human assets needed to remove the Taliban. I recall once seeing such flights landing close to where I was filming anti-Taliban armored units not far from Khoja Bahauddin in Takhar province.
As the front lines started to shift in the battle between “good and evil,” we started our trip south toward Kabul, passing through Taloqan and then Kunduz, Baghlan and Charikar. After negotiating treacherous mountain passes, roads, rivers and even old minefields, we emerged five days later in the famous Panjshir Valley and then entered a Kabul free of Taliban forces, which had retreated toward Kandahar and Jalalabad, later Tora Bora, where we were told the “evildoers” had taken refuge.
The lexicon of the era was rife, with talk of a “clash of civilizations” and debates on whether Islam and democracy were compatible.
What was supposed to be a short, sharp campaign to root out terror expanded into a full-blown occupation and nation-building endeavor that was cautiously welcomed in the country. Skeptics were sidelined, while those with multi-layered answers to any problem were shut out and easy answers to complex, age-old questions were sought. Attention to history and its precedents were neglected.
Fast forward 20 years and the world has learned a lot, but not enough, it seems, to fathom the reason why regime change and nation-building efforts are often frustrated; not only in Afghanistan, but also in Iraq, Libya and maybe Syria and Yemen, to mention just a few countries.
While the talk of an “axis of evil” has waned to try and co-opt Iran into dropping its nuclear ambitions — but not its continued meddling through proxy extremist groups in many countries in the Middle East — the West finds itself trying to contain the fallouts from franchised terrorist violence in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Libya, with Afghanistan’s Daesh-Khorasan an emerging example, leading to waves of migrants everywhere. All this, of course, while trying to weather the changing economic landscape and its shift east toward China, which is getting more assertive politically, and a more aggressively disruptive Russia, which has rendered old methods of international diplomacy and cooperation obsolete.
- Mohamed Chebaro is a British-Lebanese journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering war, terrorism, defense, current affairs and diplomacy. He is also a media consultant and trainer.