Afghanistan Crossroads

In rural Afghanistan, many don’t know 9/11

Most Americans probably remember the moment they first saw images of airplanes flying into the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001.

In rural Afghanistan, where the United States struck the Taliban and al Qaeda the following month, you may be hard pressed to find someone who knows what the attacks were.

Last year, when 1,000 men in the southern Helmand and Kandahar provinces were read a three-paragraph description of the attacks, only 8 percent said they knew about them, according to a survey by the International Council on Security and Development think tank.  The finding suggested a vast majority of men in those provinces a major area of conflict between coalition forces and the Taliban didn’t know about the event that precipitated the invasion of their country.

Journalist Adam Pletts went to see for himself. While on patrol with U.S. Marines in Helmand province recently, he showed pictures of the burning World Trade Center towers to Afghan men. In encounter after encounter, villagers and Afghan policemen said they didn’t know about 9/11.

“We don’t know, sir, because we’re farmers. We never heard anything else about the world,” one said, according to a translator with Pletts.

When Pletts showed pictures to several elders in one village, an elder said he thought the city in the picture was Kabul, Afghanistan’s capital.

“(He) clearly had never been to Kabul. Just shows you how isolated they are, even in their own country,” Marine Capt. Zachary Shore said.

The attacks, or at least parts of them, aren’t a mystery to everyone in Helmand and Kandahar. In the 2010 ICSD survey, 68 percent in those provinces said they did recognize pictures of the burning twin towers, even if most of them didn't recognize the three-paragraph description. The Wall Street Journal noted that the events of 9/11 “are known to educated Afghans, and to many residents of big cities,” and described interviews at Kabul University where “students said... they were fully aware of the September 11 attacks.”

But Shore isn’t surprised by the number of rural Afghans who apparently aren’t aware of the event that prompted the United States to attack the Taliban, which was harboring the al Qaeda terror movement. “If I’d just got here, I would have been surprised, but having been here now for six months, I’m not,” the Marine said. “This is pretty much the stone ages, where we are.”