While the world recoiled, we we watched from an Australian frigate, writes Abbas Nazari.
Read an extract from After the Tampa here
Everyone remembers where they were when 9/11 happened. I was on an Australian Navy frigate, the HMAS Manoora. We had just been rescued by the Tampa, and then transferred to the Manoora. An official from the International Organisation for Migration, who was in touch with the outside, gave us two updates. That on September 9, two Taliban militants posing as journalists had killed Ahmad Shah Massoud, a charismatic guerilla leader who was the last holdout against the Taliban. And that two days later, al-Qaida operatives committed the 9/11 attacks. We didn’t see the horrifying images or get a full sense of the gravity of the attacks until many weeks later, when we were in the Māngere Refugee Resettlement Centre in South Auckland. It was heartbreaking, and we wondered if the west would equate us, a group of Afghan refugees, with the same people who had committed the attacks.
In August 2019, I started my studies at Georgetown University. On the September 11 anniversary, I hopped on the DC Metro and stopped at the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon. Former President George W Bush laid a wreath, and spoke of how the event had impacted his entire presidency and shaped the course of the first two decades of the 20th century. Some weeks later, on a trip to New York, I stopped by the 9/11 National Memorial at the site of the World Trade Centre towers. It was an immersive, sombre, and perfectly fitting tribute to the victims and heroes of the attacks.
Staring at the reflecting pools, I thought about how even though we were so far away from the actual attacks, my life was intertwined with that day nonetheless. We had fled from Afghanistan as refugees, leaving our village in the mountains of Afghanistan the week after the Taliban blew up the Buddhas of Bamiyan. When we were rescued by the Tampa, there were some in Australian civil society, even in parliament, who supported our asylum claim, but that support withered in the aftermath of the attacks. We were a boatload of military-aged males from the Middle East; a potential threat to national security, we couldn’t be trusted.
One of the questions that emerged in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks was “Why do they hate us?” Numerous pundits and commentators posited that the entire Middle East was awash with a people and ideology that was simply incompatible with the liberty and ideals of a western democracy, and that the region needed some good old nation building. This sort of thinking, along with voracious lobbying by defence industry contractors, eventually convinced the neoconservatives in the Bush administration to go all in in Afghanistan. The mission statement changed from capturing those responsible for the attacks, to toppling the Taliban, to establishing an entirely new governance apparatus in Afghanistan, to then setting sights on Iraq.
I fully agree that those who were responsible for the attacks needed be brought to justice. But it is abundantly clear that the mission evolved from capturing those responsible into a 20-year rudderless mission which collapsed spectacularly last month with the fall of Kabul. I often wonder what could have been achieved if the same amount of time, energy, and treasure was spent on using a non-military approach to nation building. Afghanistan desperately needs help, but the military presence, the drone strikes, the tsunami of foreign money (which enabled rampant corruption), and the shoddy advice and intelligence which underpinned efforts, ultimately built a house of cards which crumbled within three weeks in August.
At Georgetown University’s Security Studies Program, many of my classmates were current or former US servicemen and women. Some whose bodies were intact, others who had lost limbs, and many whose minds had been altered completely. These men and women bore the brunt of the war effort, even when it was clear that it was unwinnable. They followed orders, and did their best, in the most pressing circumstances. I take my hat off to them.
I do not know if the world is safer now than it was 20 years ago. Terrorism has changed. While Islamist-inspired terrorism is still active, ethno-nationalism is the new threat, as we saw on March 15 in Christchurch.
Twenty years on from September 11, as a new chapter opens in Afghanistan, there remain many questions unanswered.
Abbas Nazari has a Master’s in Security Studies from Georgetown University. His new memoir recently became a No 1 bestseller. After the Tampa: From Afghanistan to New Zealand, by Abbas Nazari (Allen & Unwin, paperback $36.99), is available from Unity Books Auckland and Wellington.