It was a typical Kabul morning. Malik Ashgar Square was already bumper-to-bumper with Corolla taxis, green police jeeps, honking minivans and angry motorcyclists. There were boys selling phone cards and men waving wads of cash for exchange, all weaving their way around the vehicles amid exhaust fumes. At the gate of the Lycée Esteqial, one of the country’s most prestigious schools, students were kicking around a soccer ball. At the Ministry of Education, a weathered old Soviet-style building opposite the school, a line of employees spilled out onto the street. I was crossing the square, heading for the ministry, when I saw the suicide attacker.
He had Scandinavian features. Dressed in blue jeans and a white T-shirt, and carrying a large backpack, he began firing indiscriminately at the ministry. From my vantage point, about fifty meters away, I couldn’t quite see his expression, but he did not seem hurried or panicked. I took cover behind a parked taxi. It wasn’t long before the traffic police had fled and the square had emptied of vehicles.
Twenty-eight people, mostly civilians, died in attacks at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Justice and elsewhere across the city that day in 2009. Afterward, US authorities implicated the Haqqani Network, a shadowy outfit operating from Pakistan that had pioneered the use of multiple suicide bombers in headline-grabbing urban assaults. Unlike other Taliban groups, the Haqqanis’ approach to mayhem was worldly and sophisticated: they recruited Arabs, Pakistanis, even Europeans, and they were influenced by the latest in radical Islamist thought. Their leader, the septuagenarian warlord Jalaluddin Haqqani, was something like Osama bin Laden and Al Capone rolled into one, as fiercely ideological as he was ruthlessly pragmatic.
And so many years later, his followers are still fighting. Even with the United States withdrawing the bulk of its troops this year, up to 10,000 Special Operations forces, CIA paramilitaries and their proxies will likely stay behind to battle the Haqqanis, the Taliban and similar outfits in a war that seemingly has no end. With such entrenched enemies, the conflict today has an air of inevitability—but it could all have gone so differently.
Though it’s now difficult to imagine, by mid-2002 there was no insurgency in Afghanistan: Al Qaeda had fled the country and the Taliban had ceased to exist as a military movement. Jalaluddin Haqqani and other top Taliban figures were reaching out to the other side in an attempt to cut a deal and lay down their arms. Tens of thousands of US forces, however, had arrived on Afghan soil, post-9/11, with one objective: to wage a war on terror.