Welcome to The Ask.
It is the 20th Anniversary of the September 11th attacks.
Episode 12 of the Ask is a roundtable discussion about Afghanistan after America.
This episode draws together several extraordinary people, Afghans and Americans with strong connections to the modern story of Afghanistan and the Afghan people, to discuss what has and what could lie in the future for both people.
For this episode, I was undeservedly blessed with the presence of:
Ambassador Ronald E Neumann
Ambassador Neumann began his career in service as a U.S. Army infantry officer in the Vietnam War. As a US foreign service officer, he eventually would go on to serve as American Ambassador to Algeria (1994 – 1997) Bahrain (2001–2004), and Afghanistan (2005–2007). Following his tenure as the United States Ambassador to Afghanistan, he has since served as the President of the American Academy of Diplomacy in Washington DC and remains deeply committed to Afghanistan and the Afghan people.
Former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Karzai, Homayra Ludin Etemadi
Homayra Ludin Etemadi served as the former Deputy Chief of Staff to President Karzai from 2007 to 2015. A brilliant trailblazer, Homayra was the first Afghan woman to attend the University of Cambridge and has spent much of her life in development and humanitarian aid working with the International Federation of Red Cross/Red Crescent Societies, International Catholic Migration Commission, and others.
New York Times Bureau Chief Carlotta Gall
Carlotta Gall reported from Afghanistan from 2001 to 2013 as a correspondent with The New York Times, following in the footsteps of her father, legendary journalist Sandy Gall.
Her 2014 book The Wrong Enemy: America in Afghanistan, 2001-2014 took an unflinching look at the role of the Inter-Services Intelligence in protecting Osama bin Laden, and sustaining the Taliban in their fight against the United States, NATO and Afghan forces.
Carlotta now serves as the Istanbul Bureau Chief for the New York Times, covering the Syrian civil war, the rise and fall of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, and the murder of Saudi dissident and Washington Post journalist Jamal Ahmad Khashoggi.
Author & Soldier Elliot Ackerman
Author and soldier Elliot Ackerman served with the U.S. Marine Corps, deploying to multiple tours of duty in the Middle East and Southwest Asia, including the Battle of Fallujah.
As a Marine Corps Special Operations Team Leader, he was the primary combat advisor to a 700-man Afghan commando battalion responsible for kill/capture operations against senior Taliban leadership.
His first novel GREEN ON BLUE is set in modern-day Afghanistan and told from the point of view of Aziz, a young boy who joins a U.S. funded militia – in order to save his injured brother.
He has gone to author several more award-winning novels and continues his work as a journalist and valued opinion writer for major publications like the New York Times and the Washington Post, to name just a few.
and Tolo Media Executive, Massood Sanjer
Tolo TV senior executive and beloved friend Massood Sanjer brings the singularly unique perspective of working for the Taliban run Radio Shariat during the late 90s before embarking on a career at Tolo TV as a radio host and Director of Content that has celebrated everything the Taliban had tried to suppress, including Afghan women and music.
As the host and moderator of discussions on my podcast, I try to keep my own opinions out of the discussion as much as possible. However, outside of this podcast episode, here on this page I will offer up some personal views of my own.
There are bright people out there claiming that the 20-year effort to build an allied government in Afghanistan was a waste. This is both true, and not true.
It was indeed a waste to see Afghanistan returned to the very same Taliban leadership that the allies drove out 20 years ago following the September 11th attacks. It was indeed a waste to abandon the generations of Afghans that grew up under the Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, to the Taliban offensive.
But the bright people would say: the government was corrupt. This is true, the Afghan government was corrupt, but that has never stopped the United States of America before. We continue to prop up some of the most corrupt regimes in the world.
But the bright people would say: Afghanistan would always be hopeless, no matter how long we stayed.
And to that, I would say these bright people could not be more wrong.
The last 20 years have been full of bloodshed and pain, this is true. But in the middle of that strife, something beautiful did blossom.
Music and song filled Afghan lives once again, people could live mostly how they wanted to, not how they had to under the Taliban.
Men could grow beards or go about their lives cleanshaven. Women could choose to wear the burqa, or the hijab. Girls could go to school, not just religious school, but actual school. Boys too. Young women could pursue university degrees, work in the private or public sector, and host shows on radio and TV.
And speaking of radio and TV, under the umbrella of Operation Enduring Freedom and Resolute Support, and with the support of the United States and NATO allies, an entire industry arose around reporting the news.
Afghan men and women crisscrossed their country, reporting on weddings, politics, the War on Terror, the Taliban, government corruption and scandal, elections, and problems with elections. For the first time ever, Afghanistan had a vibrant and fearless free press.
In the Afghan National Security Forces, problems around morale and reliability persisted. However, in recent years a core commando force began to emerge.
Better trained, better equipped and better paid than the regular army, Afghan commandos fought with bravery and courage throughout their country. And indeed, they ended up being some of the last forces to fight against the Taliban onslaught this past summer.
This 2021 they were just a 17,000 men strong force. We can only speculate what could have happened if the ANSF had been given more time to develop and build out this force of Afghan commandos.
And that is it, the bright people who wrote about the failure of the Afghan effort, could only write about the Afghanistan they understood from 2001.
A country smashed to pieces by civil war.
They could not or would not see the 9/11 generation of Afghanistan.
Young Afghan men and women born in 2001 or after. Young Afghan men and women that grew up in a completely different social and educational environment.
More than half the population of Afghanistan is under 25 years of age. The most important legacy of the Western effort had just begun to come into full bloom when President Biden lost patience in Afghanistan and allowed this delicate but beautiful flower to be cut by war.
This generation was on the cusp of transforming Afghanistan.
And their abandonment to the Taliban is the single most gut-wrenching tragedy to emerge out of our 20 years in Afghanistan. For I have no doubt that they would have changed Afghanistan, the region, and the world for the better.
And I will grieve for them and what they represented, and what they could have been for the rest of my life.
Finally, I dedicate this milestone episode of my podcast to my father, Ali Mohammed Azimi.
Born in Kabul, Afghanistan on the 16th October, in the year 1950, my father Ali would immigrate to the United States with our mother Khalida, raise my sister Sara and I, in the safety and opportunity of this country.
He would embark on an amazing career as an Environmental Scientist at the Asian Development Bank and work throughout Asia. And in 2002, when the US overthrew the Taliban and began the reconstruction of Afghanistan, my father Ali would join that effort and make important contributions. Including establishing peace parks in the province of Bamiyan and the Wakhan Corridor.
This year, he would join tens of thousands of Afghan and foreign nationals, in the evacuation of Kabul. And thanks to some brave American and Afghan soldiers, would safely reach Kabul International Airport, and have the opportunity to meet his first ever grandson in Geneva, my sister’s son River.
I owe my life and everything I have achieved to my father Ali. And this podcast series will be forever dedicated to him, and my mother Khalida.