For many of us, Sept. 11, 2001, is one of those touchstone dates — we remember exactly where we were when we heard that the planes hit the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. I was in Afghanistan.
I'd arrived in Kabul on Sept. 9 to cover the trial of eight foreign aid workers who had been arrested by the Taliban regime, which accused them of preaching Christianity to Afghans. Proselytizing was a death penalty crime, and two Americans were among the accused.
As Time magazine's correspondent in the region, I'd been reporting from Afghanistan on and off since 1997. By 2001, the country — which came under harsh Taliban rule in 1996 — was depleted, dependent on foreign aid and almost entirely cut off from the rest of the world. It was beset by drought and on the brink of famine. Only three countries — Pakistan, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates — recognized the Taliban regime. The most reliable way to get in and out of the country were via United Nations and aid flights from Pakistan, where I was based.
After more than two decades of conflict, the city of Kabul felt dead, crushed by poverty and trauma. Everyone who could afford to leave this formerly cosmopolitan city had emigrated elsewhere. Electricity was sporadic and there was no phone service or postal service. The roads were pocked and broken, with sparse traffic. Curtains in private homes were drawn: No one wanted to encourage prying eyes.
Under Taliban law, men had to grow beards and wear turbans. Girls couldn't attend school. Women had to wear burqas and their shoes couldn't make noise — no heels allowed. Most women were forbidden to work outside the home — and going outside meant they had to be accompanied by a male relative. The least fortunate were war widows who risked punishment by begging alone on the streets.
The Taliban's dreaded "religious police," employed by the Ministry for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, roared around Kabul in black Toyota Hilux pickup trucks, looking for scofflaws, goading people to pray, sometimes beating them for good measure. Thieves' hands were amputated and public executions took place in Kabul's main stadium.
In a restaurant where an Afghan colleague and I sometimes stopped for lunch — a dim and grimly silent place frequented by small groups of men — the owner once rushed over and politely insisted that we leave. The religious police were on their way. The presence of a foreign woman would cause problems. We fled.
In the months leading up to September 2001, the Taliban regime had been lashing out more and more against the U.N. and issuing odder and odder edicts — banning the Internet, banning nail polish, banning white socks for women. Even lobster, which was not available in the landlocked country, got its own ban. Television, photography, kite-flying and music had already been prohibited for years.
In 2000, I'd visited the Kabul home of an Afghan widow, who, along with her grown children, whispered a favorite song to me, fearing someone might overhear and report them if they actually sang it. Musicians buried their instruments or resettled across the border.
Nothing was normal. The sense of disconnection was profound.
When I arrived in Kabul on Sept. 9, I met my official Taliban translator (all foreign journalists were assigned one), a friendly, unobtrusive man in a beard and standard-issue turban, who spoke good English.
"Please understand that I work for them," he said quietly, "but I'm not one of them."
That night, word came of a suicide attack that killed Ahmad Shah Massoud, the leader of the anti-Taliban Northern Alliance, which controlled a sliver of territory north of Kabul. His attackers, posing as TV journalists, had detonated a bomb inside a camera.
When the planes hit the Twin Towers two days later, it was close to sundown in Kabul. TV was banned, so Afghans couldn't see the images that were horrifying the rest of the world. It was hard to absorb the enormity of the event. Being in a place so isolated from the world felt like being underwater.
Afghans had little idea of what the World Trade Center was — it could have been a big bazaar — and the Twin Towers at the southern end of Manhattan had to be described. The best comparison I could come up with was to Afghanistan's two colossal Bamiyan Buddha statues, which the Taliban had blown up six months earlier.
Two journalist friends and I hurried to the U.N. compound, which did have a satellite TV, and there we watched the news unfold, along with the distraught parents of the two arrested American aid workers.
"This is surreal!" cried John Mercer, whose 24-year-old daughter, Heather, was on trial.
The news of the Sept. 11 attacks reached most Afghans by radio. Outside on the streets, men held small transistor sets to their ears and listened to staticky accounts in Persian and Pashto from the Voice of America and the BBC. Afghans had suffered so much violence over the years; now the U.S. was the victim.
"Why must so many people die?" one man cried. "It doesn't matter who they are. They all have a mother and a father."
People worried almost immediately that the U.S. would retaliate against Afghanistan for harboring Osama bin Laden, the al-Qaida leader. Arabs living in Afghanistan weren't well-liked, and many Afghans believed that bin Laden, whom the Taliban hosted as an honored guest, should be kicked out. "Problem finished," a Kabul pharmacist said.
But the Taliban had made it clear for years they'd never turn bin Laden in.
"It's part of our tradition in Afghanistan that if a person comes to your home, you never tell him to leave," a Taliban commander told us early that evening.
At about 9 p.m., Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil, the regime's foreign minister, broke the city's nighttime curfew and called a press conference, which he held for a few of us around a large table in the darkness of the dilapidated, rocket-damaged Intercontinental Hotel, on a hill overlooking the city. He reiterated the Taliban's loyalty to bin Laden. But he looked rattled.
I went to meet Muttawakil again at the Foreign Ministry the next morning.
I found him seated in a blue velvet chair, wearing a white turban, white shalwar kameez and brown leather sandals. "We are fully sure Osama bin Laden was not involved in this incident," he told me through a translator. He also said: "The Afghan people have no enmity with Americans. From our side, there are no differences."
I pressed him to explain why the Taliban allowed bin Laden to stay in Afghanistan when he was such a liability. The U.S. had already launched missile strikes against Afghan targets in 1998, after al-Qaida attacked the American embassies in Kenya and Tanzania.
"No. 1," Muttawakil said, "because he has spent a precious period of his lifetime inside Afghanistan and was ready to sacrifice his life when there was danger of complete domination by the Soviet Union. He was our friend in a time of need. It would be very much cowardly to leave him at this stage in his life. No. 2, he is only accused but not proved to be involved in these kinds of acts. It makes no sense to hand someone over based on accusations."
We spoke for half an hour or so, and at the end, I asked him if he knew where bin Laden was.
"He is hiding," Muttawakil replied.
"Where?" I asked.
"He is inside Afghanistan."
"Can you be more specific?"
He smiled. "I can tell you he is not here with us in the Foreign Ministry."
Then he indicated the interview was over, saying, "I hope you have a pleasant stay in Afghanistan."
I left a day later, when most aid workers were pulled out. The Taliban expelled the few remaining foreigners the day after, saying they couldn't guarantee their safety. At the decrepit Kabul airport, I saw the arrested aid workers' parents again. Heather Mercer's mother wept uncontrollably. On the tarmac, an elderly Afghan man stooped to pull a flatbed overflowing with baggage, and John Mercer ran over with David Donahue, the U.S. consul, who had come from Pakistan, to help push the heavy load from behind.
People have asked over the years if Kabul felt scary or dangerous when I was there on Sept. 11, and the answer is mostly no. The city was jittery and on edge, but I am sure I felt safer than most people did that same day in New York or Washington. The most unnerving, frightening part was the uncertainty about what might come next — how soon and how hard the U.S. would retaliate, what it would mean for Afghans to go through yet more war, how the effects would reverberate through the region, and how the world might change.
Back in Pakistan later that week, everyone was hearing that the big question on Americans' minds was "Why do they hate us?" People wondered where the U.S. soul-searching might lead.
"What if everything changes now?" someone asked.
"What if it doesn't?" someone else said.
Two months later, the Taliban fell. The arrested foreign aid workers were all found alive in northern Afghanistan by U.S. Marines and reunited with their relatives. The war in Afghanistan continues to this day, and the U.S. is involved in multiple conflicts around the world.
I returned to Kabul in 2002, and then twice again a decade later. In my 2012 and 2013 visits, on assignment for National Geographic, I was thrilled to see the city alive. Small, ordinary things felt big to me: music blaring, video screens flashing, men and women rushing around laughing and chatting on cellphones, bazaars thronged with people, shops filled with food. A generation of talented and brave Afghan journalists and other professionals had come up in the previous decade. Young families were out at restaurants where waiters bustled by with platters piled high and TVs blared in the background. One of them was the same lunch place I'd gone during the Taliban years. The owner remembered when he had to kick me out; now he welcomed me back and laughed over the memory.
Because so many Afghans returned from outside the country after 2001, I occasionally found myself in the odd position of telling them, if they asked, what the Taliban years were like. I had seen it — some of it, at least — and they hadn't. But the Taliban, of course, aren't gone. They're back with a vengeance, a powerful and deadly insurgent force inflicting near-daily agony at universities, restaurants, hotels, on buses and on the streets — all the places where Afghans are attempting to go about their daily lives.
And vestiges of al-Qaida's former presence remain. In December 2013, I stood at the mouth of a cave in a sparsely populated area of Logar Province, a Taliban stronghold south of Kabul. The cave had been part of an elite al-Qaida training camp in the 1990s, where four of the Sept. 11 hijackers were trained. There was a pen where they'd kept livestock and a stone slab where they'd slept. Locals had been strong-armed into bringing them food from time to time.
It was discomfiting to be present at a place so far in every sense from New York and Washington and to imagine these terrorists-in-training going about their daily lives, anticipating the day when they could put everything they'd learned into practice. They were halfway around the world from Afghanistan when that day arrived, and their actions have reverberated ever since.