'I Will Be Killed Soon'

After 10 years of U.S. presence in Afghanistan, a family that has struggled to survive through decades of foreign invaders prepares for the worst blow yet.

This week, at home in Philadelphia, I received a call from an Afghan friend. I'll call him B.

"Anna jan," he said. "I will be killed soon."

The first time B.'s family threw in its lot with foreign invaders was right after B. was born, more than 30 years ago. His father, at the time a willowy young army lieutenant, became an intelligence officer with the Soviet-backed Communist regime. A decade of lavish receptions at the Soviet military headquarters at Bagram Airfield -- years later, the old man reminisced fondly about his late-night vodka bacchanals with air force commander Alexander Rutskoi, who would become Russia's only vice president and then would lead the failed uprising to unseat Boris Yeltsin -- ended abruptly when the Kremlin pulled out its troops in 1989. Fearing that the anti-Soviet mujaheddin would kill him for working with the Communists, B.'s father, his wife, and his children, including B., fled to a life of relative stagnation and anonymity in Mazar-e-Sharif, in Afghanistan's north.

After the United States invaded Afghanistan in 2001 (and took over Bagram Airfield, turning it into the largest American military base in the country), B.'s family once again aligned itself with the latest centurions. B.'s oldest sister served a term at the provincial jirga; one of his younger brothers got a job with an American NGO teaching Afghans how to conduct Western-style elections. Before he retired, B.'s father briefly worked at a U.S.-based relief agency that promotes women's rights. In 2003, B. went to work as a driver for the Mazar-e-Sharif office of the U.N. Assistant Mission in Afghanistan, or UNAMA, which supervises all U.N. relief and reconstruction activities in the country.

B. was not in the office on April 1, when a Friday mob, enraged by reports that Pastor Terry Jones set fire to the Koran in Florida, stormed the U.N. compound and killed 12 of his co-workers; he was out driving a Western staffer around Mazar-e-Sharif. But the next day, on an unpaved street near his house, B. spotted a stranger he thought suspicious and followed him. According to UNAMA investigators, that man was the mastermind of the U.N. massacre, a Talib who had come to Mazar-e-Sharif several weeks earlier specifically to carry out a terrorist attack. Video footage of demonstrators rushing the U.N. compound shows him carrying a Kalashnikov assault rifle, exhorting the crowd to attack foreigners. B. says the man was talking nervously on his cell phone, explaining that he was in danger, asking someone when and how he could be helped escape from the city. My friend called the police and helped them arrest the man.

The death threats began soon after. First the phone calls and cell phone text messages ("We will kill you," "We will find you anywhere in Afghanistan," "We will gouge out your eyes"). Later, someone tossed offal studded with sewing needles over the wall of B.'s family compound, presumably to kill or maim the German shepherd that guards the house. The brothers -- B. lives with seven of them; three, including B., have wives and children -- took to patrolling the house at night in shifts. B. oscillates between wanting to stay in Mazar-e-Sharif, where he lives in relative prosperity but in constant danger, and to flee with his pregnant wife and three children, and thousands of other Afghans, to the refugee limbo and relative safety of Tajikistan. UNAMA, which is supposedly in Afghanistan to help Afghans, and for which B. has risked his life, has refused to help him resettle abroad.

"What do you want me to do? I have 2,000 people like him," B.'s boss in Kabul told me over the phone. For some reason, she kept calling him Abdul, which is not my friend's name. To this woman, he was a "local national," an expendable, nameless stick figure. The writer Paul Theroux calls people like her "agents of virtue."

Serpentine loyalties are integral to survival in the eternal battle zone that is Afghanistan, a coveted buffer state at the crossroads of the great civilizations of the Old World and a crucible of imperial ambitions since the beginning of recorded history. Long before the Raj, generations of Afghans, particularly educated Afghans, would align themselves with successions of invaders, out of belief, for profit, or both. Many, like B. and his family, would benefit, albeit temporarily and marginally. (B.'s father died last year, of blood cancer, which was diagnosed late and went untreated because Mazar-e-Sharif has no chemotherapy, no bone marrow transplants, no oncologists, and no advanced diagnostics to detect the disease early.) But many were, and remain, seen as traitors and persecuted.

* * *

I first met B.'s family in April of 2010. Since then, I have spent three months in his house and hope to live there again this fall. I know the details of his family's life intimately -- the Friday visits to the mosque to maintain appearances, although most of the brothers are not particularly religious; the ceremonial holiday sacrifices of a goat, which then is divided between poorer neighbors; the marital arguments; the after-dinner dancing. At a certain point I stopped being a guest and became a member of the household, someone who is invited to help prepare savory bolani pancakes for the family of 30, who is allowed to do the dishes after dinner. B. and his brothers call me khuhar: sister. His mother calls me Anna diwana, dokhtar-e-man: crazy Anna, my daughter. When I last said good-bye to them, two weeks ago, they joked that they would leave the dishes in the sink until I return.

Then, a few days later, B. was on his way to work when a man on a motorcycle -- the Taliban's vehicle of choice -- careened past and tossed battery acid at my friend. The acid singed B.'s clothes, but did not touch his skin.

"I was lucky, Anna jan," B. told me over the phone. "But one day they will kill me. They will kill me very soon. I know it. I am calling to say sorry, I may not see you again."


Anniversaries are a time of reckoning. On the eve of the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, we reflect on the way the United States has evolved in the shadow of the attacks, examine the lives of a generation that came of age since 9/11. But half a world away, upon the scar tissue of Khorasan, little has changed. Life expectancy and literacy remain among the lowest in the world; child mortality remains among the highest; women's rights remain abysmal. I have been coming to Afghanistan for 10 years; this last decade of war has done little more than prolong the violence people there have endured for centuries, adjusting their alliances to survive as fighters in different uniforms claim dominion over their land. As one woman in a northern Afghan village surrounded by the resurgent Taliban told me last month, "For sure there will be another war. And killing."

How to tally this war's poisonous repercussions for a people so perpetually, immutably violated? Or for a single Afghan family, which, 10 years ago, decided to help the West in its stated effort: to make their country a better place to live?

On the phone, B. was crying. I tried to comfort him. "Jan," I said, returning his term of endearment. "It will be all right. I'll see you in a couple of months." My hollow, fake words -- how can I make such promises? -- bounced off satellites to reach across 6,600 miles of peace and war. "We'll make bolani together," I said.

Then B. hung up.



A Decade of Resolve

We've made some mistakes in the 10 years since 9/11, but today Americans are profoundly safer -- and Islamic terrorists are dramatically weakened -- as a result of the course we've charted.

As the 10th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks nears, it has become fashionable in some quarters to characterize the U.S. response to the threat of Islamist terrorism since 9/11 as an overreaction. According to this argument, Americans should look back regretfully on this period in our history as a lost decade in which we succumbed to our fears and exaggerated the dangers we faced -- betraying our own best values and exhausting ourselves in the process.

This view is profoundly mistaken and could lead to a false and dangerous roadmap for our future.

In fact, the core of the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks, and the broader challenge of Islamist extremism they revealed, has been necessary and justified. We were absolutely right to recognize that, after 9/11, we became a nation at war, in a conflict with an enemy that is real, brutal, and global. We have therefore been absolutely right to put this conflict at the very top of our national security agenda, which is where it must stay for the foreseeable future. Had we not done so, it is very likely we would not have the luxury today of debating whether we overreacted to the threat, because many more Americans would have been victims of this enemy.

The fact that we have gone a decade without another successful major terrorist strike on American soil has not been because our enemies have stopped trying to attack us. Our security at home has been hard won and fiercely fought. It has required the bipartisan determination of leaders across two presidencies and six Congresses; far-reaching reforms and reorganizations enacted and implemented within our government; and, most of all, the difficult, often dangerous work of thousands of heroic individuals -- the men and women of our military, law enforcement agencies, intelligence community, and diplomatic corps -- operating every day on almost every continent to keep us safe from Islamist terrorism.

We have also taken the offensive in this war abroad with a focus and ferocity that the Islamist extremists plainly did not expect. Like other enemy leaders over the last century, Osama bin Laden underestimated America, dismissing us as a "weak horse." This has proven to be a fatal mistake for him and growing numbers of his associates.

Americans have proven adaptive and dogged in our prosecution of this fight, pioneering new capabilities and tactics -- from stunningly precise unmanned drones to a brilliant new counterinsurgency doctrine -- that have enabled our forces to outflank our enemies in this very unconventional war. Simply put, in the 10 years since 9/11, the U.S. has built the most capable and lethal counterterrorism forces in human history.

As a result, al Qaeda's senior leadership in the tribal areas of Pakistan has been badly damaged. Its affiliate in Iraq, which came dangerously close to seizing control of that country, has been gutted. Indeed, contrary to bin Laden's predictions that America would retreat at the first sign of casualties, we summoned the strength and tenacity necessary to turn the tide in two key battlefields of this conflict -- first in Iraq in 2007 and 2008, and now in Afghanistan.

What these achievements underscore, even more profoundly, is  the American people's capacity -- demonstrated again and again in the course of the first post-9/11 decade -- for bravery, ingenuity, and resolve. There is no better illustration of this than the young people who have come of age during this period and chosen to serve our country in uniform -- a group that has been rightly described as a new "greatest generation." We also see it in the emergence of a handful of extraordinary national security leaders -- individuals like Gen. David Petraeus and former Defense Secretary Bob Gates -- who stood above the fray of our normal politics and earned bipartisan respect from a grateful nation. In all these ways, our response to 9/11 has brought out America's absolute best.

In addition to recognizing the seriousness of the Islamist threat to our security and rising to meet it, the United States also grasped the fundamental nature of this conflict early on. Rather than a clash of civilizations between Islam and the West that al Qaeda hoped to provoke, U.S. leaders instead saw the war as an ideological struggle within Islam, waged between an extremist minority that seeks to enslave the world and a moderate Muslim majority who want the same freedoms and opportunities that we all desire, and with whom it was our national and moral responsibility to stand.

Have we made mistakes since 9/11? Of course we have -- just as every nation, including ours, always has in war. Some of these mistakes are obvious and undeniable: the terrible abuses committed at Abu Ghraib and the broader mismanagement of the Iraq war prior to the surge, to name two. But as we look back over our actions over the past 10 years, a lot more went right than wrong.

What, then, are the lessons of the 9/11 decade for the decade to come?

The first is that we still live in a dangerous world -- a reality that remains as urgent and important today for Americans to understand as on that clear Tuesday morning 10 years ago.

Although Osama bin Laden is dead and al Qaeda's core has been severely weakened, its regional affiliates are on the rise. Somalia and Yemen today provide terrorist sanctuaries for these groups, and we cannot credibly claim to be on course to shut down either. Until we do, we can expect that attacks will continue to be plotted and launched against us and our allies from both of these countries.

The situation in Pakistan -- a nuclear-armed state whose military maintains ties to violent Islamist extremist groups such as the Haqqani network and Lashkar-e-Taiba, which in turn are in league with al Qaeda -- is likewise deeply troubling. As long as tacit support for these groups remains a core component of Pakistan's regional strategy, the United States and others, including the Pakistani people themselves, will face an entrenched terrorist threat.

Then there is the government of Iran, the leading state sponsor of Islamist terrorism in the world and the patron of Hamas, Hezbollah, and various Iraqi extremist groups, all of whom have American blood on their hands. This is a regime whose nuclear program is speeding forward  and whose leaders, it was recently disclosed, have for years had their own secret relationship with al Qaeda, facilitating the flow of terrorists and funds across Iranian territory.

In addition to these continuing threats from abroad, we also face a new and ominous threat from homegrown and self-radicalized terrorists here in the United States -- often "lone wolves" like Maj. Nidal Hasan, who murdered 13 people in 2009 at Fort Hood, Texas.

In sum, current geopolitical realities do not justify a claim of victory or a sense of closure or complacency about the worldwide war that Islamist extremists continue waging against us. This is not a moment when the United States can unilaterally declare a holiday from history. To stay safe at home, it is more important than ever for Americans to remain engaged abroad and -- despite mounting budgetary pressures -- to make the necessary investments to keep our military the best in the world and ensure the other instruments of our national power are well-resourced and strong.

As a matter of math, we will not work our way out of our national indebtedness or create the new jobs we need if we decimate our national security budget. Doing so will jeopardize our security here at home and destabilize the broader international order on which our domestic economy and prosperity depend.

The second lesson from the last decade is that, contrary to the pessimism that currently pervades our national mood, America remains a remarkably strong and resilient country.

Our people are still capable of pulling together and achieving things that no other nation in the world can. The daring operation that located and then rid the world of Osama bin Laden, deep within Pakistan, is the latest reminder that almost everyone who has bet against the United States has, in the end, lost big. What is needed going forward is more, not less, of the confidence, urgency, and bipartisan solidarity we felt immediately after 9/11, to address the current threats to our national security, and, I would add, the current fiscal and economic challenges that in a different way threaten our future as a country.

The events of the past decade should also give us renewed faith in the power of our ideals, foremost our belief in the universality of human rights and the longterm wisdom of standing up for democracy and the rule of law around the world. Now, throughout the Middle East, we see the narrative of violent Islamist extremism being rejected by tens of millions of Muslims who are rising up and peacefully demanding lives of democracy, dignity, economic opportunity, and involvement in the modern world. Indeed, the Arab Spring and its successes thus far are the ultimate repudiations of al Qaeda and everything Islamist extremism stands for.

A third, and final, lesson of this decade concerns the place of surprise in history. From 9/11 itself to the post-invasion Sunni insurgency in Iraq to the Arab Spring, America's national security over the past decade has been profoundly shaped by events that, while understandable and even obvious in hindsight, were largely unforeseen by our best and brightest beforehand.

As we look ahead to the next 10 years, then, there is consequently one prediction about the future that we can make with absolute certainty: Our nation will face surprises again.

The true test of our national leaders, therefore, is not their ability to perfectly predict what will come next for America but our capacity to remain prepared as best we can, militarily and otherwise, for a range of possibilities, and to adapt, as a nation, when the unexpected invariably occurs. It is especially important to remember that the wars we are required to fight are rarely the ones we predict or plan for. Yet it is profoundly encouraging to look back and see how well we have adapted to fight the current war with the Islamist terrorists who attacked us unexpectedly on 9/11.

As we approach the 10th remembrance of 9/11, then, Americans have reason to be proud about all that has been done to protect our homeland and deny our enemies the victories they have sought, vigilant about the continuing threats to our security; and confident about our future and about ourselves as a nation. Above all, a review of the 9/11 decade affirms why, though we do not know exactly how long this conflict will last or what further turns it may take, we can be certain of how it will end -- in the defeat of our enemies and the triumph of our values with the ideology of Islamist extremism joining fascism and communism on the ash heap of history.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images