US exit from Afghanistan leaves progress, anxiety in its wake: Reporter's Notebook

On a cold November morning in 2001, a new dawn was breaking over Afghanistan. History had been made overnight, even if many of the residents of the capital, Kabul, and the rebel fighters perched on a hillside overlooking it were unsure exactly what had just happened.

A little over two months earlier, al-Qaida terrorists had attacked America, bringing bloodshed and tragedy to a shocked nation. The orders for the Sept. 11 attack had come from a land-locked, central Asian country that few outside elite intelligence and political circles were aware of and even fewer could locate on a map. The old hands knew Afghanistan though, it’s where they’d helped mujahedeen fighters deal a crushing and humiliating blow to the dwindling might of the Soviet Red Army.

But that was the 1980s and despite the billions of dollars spent backing the various insurgent groups, America celebrated the victory and promptly turned its attention to the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The early 1990s were heady days in Europe. In Afghanistan, the country lapsed into all-out civil war. Hundreds of thousands are thought to have been killed, with many more wounded and driven from their homes.

PHOTO: ABC News Senior Foreign Correspondent Ian Pannell travels with Afghan police mobile unit in Kabul, Afghanistan, in May 2021.

By the time one of the multitude of groups emerged victorious and rolled into Kabul, it was greeted with open arms by many in a shell-shocked and war-weary nation. The group was called the Taliban, an armed movement of Islamic fundamentalists from the rural south of the country, near the border with Pakistan.

The celebrations were short lived as they enforced an austere and brutal interpretation of sharia law, where girls older than 10 were forbidden to attend school, women were enveloped in burqas, unable to leave home without a male member of the family by her side. Offenders were flogged in public or worse, executed. Cinemas, television and even music was banned.

But it was not the treatment of women or the grinding oppression of a nation that brought America’s attention back to Afghanistan. It was because the 9/11 attacks were hatched, planned and ordered here by a terrorist group that the Taliban played host to: al-Qaida and its leader, Osama bin Laden.

Our crew had spent weeks living in the Panjshir Valley, the thin sliver of territory controlled by the last group to hold out against the Taliban. Backed by CIA paramilitaries and the might of the U.S. Air Force, the Northern Alliance had gradually advanced on the capital. On the morning of Nov. 13, they halted on a hill overlooking the edge of the city.

PHOTO: ABC News' Ian Pannell interviews Taliban prisoners in Afghanistan's Pul-e-Charkhi prison, east of Kabul, in 2018.

There were reports that the Taliban had fled and so a handful of us slipped past the fighters and started to walk tentatively down the empty road into Kabul. After years of war, Taliban rule and weeks of American attacks, the curious sight of this small group of foreign journalists striding past triggered a gathering wave of residents emerging from their homes, realizing something significant had just happened, they formed what became a euphoric parade down into the city.

A heady air of liberation swept Kabul. The Taliban had retreated overnight to their heartland in the south. Some women threw off the heavy burqa, men queued to shave their beards, music was played, people danced as the city celebrated.

Over the following months, al-Qaida and the Taliban were relentlessly hunted and bombed. They were weakened to the verge of defeat, but it took 10 years to find and kill bin Laden and the decision to refocus on Iraq gave the Taliban and its sponsors across the border in Pakistan time to regroup.

I’ve returned to Afghanistan many times since. I’ve embedded with American and NATO forces dozens of times, met the brigadiers and generals, seen the battles up close and met the people who once again became victims of a war not of their own choosing and that many simply never understood. Talking to a group of elderly gentlemen on one military embed in Helmand Province, I was asked, quite innocently, if the foreign soldiers battling in their fields were Soviet troops. It was 2009, 20 years since the Russians had withdrawn.

PHOTO: ABC News' Ian Pannell interviews leading female politician and women's rights activist, Fawzia Kufi, in Kabul, Afghanistan, May 2021.

I heard the mantra of counterinsurgency strategy, the theory of “armed social work,” the strategy of ink-blot safe zones and met the civilian advisers building schools, clinics and playgrounds to win hearts and minds.

Almost 20 years since Sept. 11, almost two decades since we witnessed the euphoria and hope of the fall of Kabul, American and NATO troops are leaving. It is an unconditional withdrawal from a battle the U.S. chargé d’affaires here admits became unwinnable. The Taliban are stronger, more assertive and control or contest more territory than at any time since that November morning.

The mood is bleak and many are fearful the Taliban will march on Kabul once more. The militants are on the offensive and there are regularly more than a hundred daily attacks across the country and targeted assassinations have created a climate of fear.

Despite the many mistakes and missed opportunities, there have been some astonishing gains here, especially for women and girls, and amidst the anxiety there is still ambition and hope.

They have been uneven; corruption is widespread and despite the billions of dollars spent here, poverty is rife. Yet, the lives of many have been transformed, especially the young — perhaps to the point where there is no going back.

PHOTO: ABC News' Ian Pannell reports from the road to Taliban territory in Afghanistan, May 2021.

We spent time at a girls high school in Kabul where the students are full of grand plans for their futures and for their country. I met four teenagers who variously wanted to be an engineer, a doctor, a journalist or an international businesswoman. I asked them if their mothers had gone to school. Not one said “yes.” That is how much parts of the country have radically changed in just 20 years.

But America and other NATO forces have been the guarantors of this progress; they have underwritten the ambition and hope. And as they leave, the fear of the return of the Taliban, of the old warlords who are already regrouping and of more conflict, is everywhere.

The Taliban has succeeded through support from Pakistan and others but also through a unity of purpose, through absolute conviction, and a readiness to die for their cause.

To prevent history repeating, it will need a similar solidarity and drive from a government the people can believe in, its troops and the people who have known nothing but four decades of war.

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