KABUL, Afghanistan (AP) — The Afghan policeman opened fire on us with his AK-47, emptying 26 bullets into the back of the car. Seven slammed into me, and at least as many into my colleague, Associated Press photographer Anja Niedringhaus. She died at my side.
Anja weighed heavy against my shoulder. I tried to look at her but I couldn’t move. I looked down; all I could see was what looked like a stump where my left hand had been. I could barely whisper, “Please help us.”
Our driver raced us to a small local hospital in Khost, siren on. I tried to stay calm, thinking over and over: “Don’t be afraid. Don’t die afraid. Just breathe.”
At the hospital, Dr. Abdul Majid Mangal said he would have to operate and tried to reassure me. His words are forever etched in my heart: “Please know your life is as important to me as it is to you.”
Much later, as I recovered in New York during a process that would turn out to eventually require 18 operations, an Afghan friend called from Kabul. He wanted to apologize for the shooting on behalf of all Afghans.
I said the shooter didn’t represent a nation, a people. My mind returned to Dr. Mangal – for me, it was him who represented Afghanistan and Afghans.
I have reported on Afghanistan for the AP for the past 35 years, during an extraordinary series of events and regime changes that have rocked the world. Through it all, the kindness and resilience of ordinary Afghans has shone through – which is also what has made it so painful to watch the slow erosion of their hope.
I have always been amazed at how Afghans stubbornly hung on to hope against all odds, greeting each of several new regimes with optimism. But by 2018, a Gallup poll showed that the fraction of people in Afghanistan with hope in the future was the lowest ever recorded anywhere.
It didn’t have to be this way.
I arrived in Afghanistan in 1986, in the middle of the Cold War. It seems a lifetime ago. It is.
Then, the enemy attacking Afghanistan was the communist former Soviet Union, dubbed godless by United States President Ronald Reagan. The defenders were the U.S.-backed religious mujahedeen, defined as those who engage in holy war, championed by Reagan as freedom fighters.
Reagan even welcomed some mujahedeen leaders to the White House. Among his guests was Jalaluddin Haqqani, the father of the current leader of the Haqqani network, who in today’s world is a declared terrorist.
At that time, the God versus communism message was strong. The University of Nebraska even crafted an anti-communist curriculum to teach English to the millions of Afghan refugees living in camps in neighboring Pakistan. The university made the alphabet simple: J was for Jihad or holy war against the communists; K was for the Kalashnikov guns used in jihad, and I was for Infidel, which described the communists themselves.
There was even a math program. The questions went something like: If there were 10 communists and you killed five, how many would you have left?
When I covered the mujahedeen, I spent a lot of time and effort on being stronger, walking longer, climbing harder and faster. At one point, I ran out of a dirty mud hut with them and hid under a nearby cluster of trees. Just minutes later, Russian helicopter gunships flew low, strafed the trees and all but destroyed the hut.
The Russians withdrew in 1989 without a win. In 1992, the mujahedeen took power.
Ordinary Afghans hoped fervently that the victory of the mujahedeen would mean the end of war. They also to some degree welcomed a religious ideology that was more in line with their largely conservative country than communism.
But it wasn’t long before the mujahedeen turned their guns on each other.
The fighting was brutal, with the mujahedeen pounding the capital, Kabul, from the hills. Thrice the AP lost its equipment to thieving warlords, only to be returned after negotiations with the top warlord. One day I counted as many as 200 incoming and outgoing rockets inside of minutes.
The bloodletting of the mujahedeen-cum government ministers-cum warlords killed upward of 50,000 people. I saw a 5-year-old girl killed by a rocket as she stepped out of her house. Children by the scores lost limbs to booby traps placed by mujahedeen as they departed neighborhoods.
I stayed on the front line with a woman and her two small children in the Macroyan housing complex during the heaviest rocketing. Her husband, a former communist government employee, had fled, and she lived by making and selling bread each day with her children.
She opened her home to me even though she had so little. All night we stayed in the one room without windows. She asked me if I would take her son to Pakistan the next day, but in the end could not bear to see him go.
Only months after my visit, they were killed by warlords who wanted their apartment.
Despite the chaos of the time, Afghans still had hope.
In the waning days of the warring mujahedeen’s rule, I attended a wedding in Kabul where both the wedding party and guests were coiffed and downright glamorous. When asked how she managed to look so good with so little amid the relentless rocketing, one young woman replied brightly, “We’re not dead yet!”
The wedding was delayed twice because of rockets.
The Taliban had by then emerged. They were former mujahedeen and often Islamic clerics who had returned to their villages and their religious schools after 1992. They came together in response to the relentless killing and thieving of their former comrades-in-arms.
By mid-1996, the Taliban were on Kabul’s doorstep, with their promise of burqas for women and beards for men. Yet Afghans welcomed them. They hoped the Taliban would at least bring peace.
When asked about the repressive restrictions of the Taliban, one woman who had worked for an international charity said: “If I know there is peace and my child will be alive, I will wear the burqa.”
Peace did indeed come to Afghanistan, at least of sorts. Afghans could leave their doors unlocked without fear of being robbed. The country was disarmed, and travel anywhere in Afghanistan at any time of the day or night was safe.
But Afghans soon began to see their peace as a prison. The Taliban’s rule was repressive. Public punishments such as chopping off hands and rules that denied girls school and women work brought global sanctions and isolation. Afghans got poorer.
The Taliban leader at the time was the reclusive Mullah Mohammad Omar, rumored to have removed his own eye after being wounded in a battle against invading Soviet soldiers. As international sanctions crippled Afghanistan, Omar got closer to al-Qaida, until eventually the terrorist group became the Taliban’s only source of income.
By 2001, al-Qaida’s influence was complete. Despite a pledge from Omar to safeguard them, Afghanistan’s ancient statues of Buddha were destroyed, in an order reportedly from Osama bin Laden himself.
Then came the seismic shock of 9/11.
Many Afghans mourned the American deaths so far away. Few even knew who bin Laden was. But the country was now squarely a target in the eyes of the United States. Amir Shah, AP’s longtime correspondent, summed up what most Afghans were thinking at the time: “America will set Afghanistan on fire.”
After 9/11, the Taliban threw all foreigners out of Afghanistan, including me. The U.S.-led coalition assault began on Oct. 7, 2001.
By Oct. 23, I was back in Kabul, the only Western journalist to see the last weeks of Taliban rule. The powerful B-52 bombers of the U.S. pounded the hills and even landed in the city.
On Nov. 12 that year, a 2,000-pound bomb landed on a house near the AP office. It threw me across the room and blew out window and door frames. Glass shattered and sprayed everywhere.
By sunrise the next day, the Taliban were gone from Kabul.
Afghanistan’s next set of rulers marched into the city, brought by the powerful military might of the U.S.-led coalition.
The mujahedeen were back.
The U.S. and U.N. returned them to power even though some among them had brought bin Laden from Sudan to Afghanistan in 1996, promising him a safe haven. The hope of Afghans went through the roof, because they believed the powerful U.S. would help them keep the mujahedeen in check.
With more than 40 countries involved in their homeland, they believed peace and prosperity this time was most certainly theirs. Foreigners were welcome everywhere.
Some Afghans worried about the returning mujahedeen, remembering the corruption and fighting when they last were in power. But America’s representative at the time, Zalmay Khalilzad, told me that the mujahedeen had been warned against returning to their old ways.
Yet worrying signs began to emerge. The revenge killings began, and the U.S.-led coalition sometimes participated without knowing the details. The mujahedeen would falsely identify enemies – even those who had worked with the U.S. before – as belonging to al-Qaida or to the Taliban.
One such mistake happened early in December 2001 when a convoy was on its way to meet the new President Hamid Karzai. The U.S.-led coalition bombed it because they were told the convoy bore fighters from the Taliban and al-Qaida. They turned out to be tribal elders.
Secret prisons emerged. Hundreds of Afghan men disappeared. Families became desperate.
Resentment soared especially among the ethnic Pashtuns, who had been the backbone of the Taliban. One former Taliban member proudly displayed his new Afghan identity card and wanted to start a water project in his village. But corrupt government officials extorted him for his money, and he returned to the Taliban.
A deputy police chief in southern Zabul province told me of 2,000 young Pashtun men, some former Taliban, who wanted to join the new government’s Afghan National Army. But they were mocked for their ethnicity, and eventually all but four went to the mountains and joined the Taliban.
In the meantime, corruption seemed to reach epic proportions, with suitcases of money, often from the CIA, handed off to Washington’s Afghan allies. Yet schools were built, roads were reconstructed and a new generation of Afghans, at least in the cities, grew up with freedoms their parents had not known and in many cases looked on with suspicion.
Then came the shooting in 2014 that would change my life.
It began as most days do in Afghanistan: Up before 6 a.m. This day we were waiting for a convoy of Afghan police and military to leave the eastern city of Khost for a remote region to distribute the last of the ballot boxes for Afghanistan’s 2014 presidential elections.
After 30 minutes navigating past blown-out bridges and craters that pockmarked the road, we arrived at a large police compound. For more than an hour, Anja and I talked with and photographed about a dozen police officials.
We finished our work just as a light drizzle began. We got into the car and waited to leave for a nearby village. That’s when the shooting happened.
It was two years before I was able to return to work and to Afghanistan.
By that point, the disappointment and disenchantment with America’s longest war had already set in. Despite the U.S. spending over $148 billion on development alone over 20 years, the percentage of Afghans barely surviving at the poverty level was increasing yearly.
In 2019, Pakistan began accepting visa applications at its consulate in eastern Afghanistan. People were so desperate to leave that nine died in a stampede.
In 2020, the U.S. and the Taliban signed a deal for troops to withdraw within 18 months. The U.S. and NATO began to evacuate their staff, closing down embassies and offering those who worked for them asylum.
The mass closure of embassies was baffling to me because the Taliban had made no threats, and it sparked panic in Kabul. It was the sudden and secret departure of President Ashraf Ghani that finally brought the Taliban back into the city on Aug. 15, 2021.
Their swift entry came as a surprise, along with the thorough collapse of the neglected Afghan army, beset by deep corruption. The Taliban’s rapid march toward Kabul fed a rush toward the airport.
For many in the Afghan capital, the only hope left lay in getting out.
Fida Mohammad, a 24-year-old dentist, was desperate to leave for the U.S. so he could earn enough money to repay his father’s debt of $13,000 for his elaborate marriage. He clung to the wheels of the departing US C-17 aircraft on Aug. 16 and died.
Zaki Anwari, a 17-year-old footballer, ran to get on the plane. He dreamed only of football, and believed his dream could not come true in Afghanistan. He was run over by the C-17.
Now the future in Afghanistan is even more uncertain. Scores of people line up outside the banks to try to get their money out. Hospitals are short of medicine. The Taliban hardliners seem to have the upper hand, at least in the short term.
Afghans are left to face the fact that the entire world came to their country in 2001 and spent billions, and still couldn’t bring them prosperity or even the beginnings of prosperity. That alone has deeply eroded hope for the future.
I leave Afghanistan with mixed feelings, sad to see how its hope has been destroyed but still deeply moved by its 38 million people. The Afghans I met sincerely loved their country, even if it is now led by elderly men driven by tribal traditions offensive to a world that I am not sure ever really understood Afghanistan.
Most certainly, though, I will be back.