It's one of the most dangerous and stupid things I ever did. In December of 2001 I went on vacation to Afghanistan.
The war had just started. The United States was desperately looking for Osama Bin Laden, the man responsible for the 9/11 terror attacks that killed nearly 3,000 people. And, as a journalist, Afghanistan was the only place in the world where I wanted to be.
The television network where I work didn't want to send me there. It is too dangerous, they told me. So I asked for some days off, bought a ticket to Pakistan and from there crossed into Afghanistan with Naim, my translator and “fixer.” For $100 we hired three guerrillas and a Toyota pickup that took us near the Tora Bora mountains, where Bin Laden and his Al Qaeda fighters were hiding. Four journalists had just been murdered on the same road that went to Jalalabad and from there to the capital city of Kabul.
I sat on the back seat, with a guerrilla on each side. Kafir, about 20, played cruelly with his AK-47, sometimes pointing it at my chin when the truck hit a bump on the road. Suddenly, in halting English, he told me, “I am a follower of Osama.” I was paralyzed. It was not odd for Bin Laden to have so many supporters in Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Taliban. But I had to protect my life. Sweating, I told Kafir if you take care of me, I take care of you.
I don't know if he understood. But when we got to the Jalalabad hotel where other foreign correspondents were staying, Kafir signaled with his rifle to follow him, away from the vehicle. I pulled out 15 $1 dollar bills from a plastic bag I carried, gave them to him – perhaps it was the first time he ever saw a U.S. dollar – and he pointed to the hotel. I walked on, without looking back. That's what my life was worth in that moment in Afghanistan – $15.
I never could report on that war for my television network, but wrote about that terrible experience in one of my books.
The hotel was an hour's drive, on rough dirt roads, to the mountains of Tora Bora, where Bin Laden was supposedly hiding in one of its myriad caves. At night, I could hear the terrifying flights of the U.S. warplanes. But they never found him there.
It was not until May 2 of 2011 that the United States, in a risky military operation, killed Bin Laden in a home in Pakistan. But that was not the end of the war.
The military operation in Afghanistan had a clear objective: destroy the organization responsible for the Sept. 11 2001 terror attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania, and topple the Taliban regime that supported Al Qaeda. It's what experts call “a necessary war.”
But the war continued, even after bin Laden was killed and the Taliban lost power. Little by little, the objectives expanded. It became an effort to turn Afghanistan into a functioning democracy and creating a military capable of fighting the Taliban and any other rebel groups. But that was a mission impossible. About 157,000 people have died in that war, including more than 2,400 U.S. soldiers.
The Taliban never went away, and in early 2020 signed a peace agreement with the United States. Today, although they are no longer in government, they continue to be a powerfully destabilizing force in Afghanistan. That's why many argue that it is important for U.S. and NATO troops to maintain a presence in the country.
But President Joe Biden said it: enough.
“It is time to end the forever war,” Biden said this week. “War in Afghanistan was never meant to be a multi-generational undertaking … We were attacked. We went to war with clear goals. We achieved those objectives.”
Not all of them. Afghanistan is not a democracy, and women still face enormous dangers because of Taliban social and cultural restrictions. “I am so worried about my future,” Kabul student Wahida Sadeqi, 17, told The New York Times. “If the Taliban take over, I lose my identity. It is about my existence. It is not about their (U.S. troops) withdrawal. I was born in 2004 and I have no idea what the Taliban did to women, but I know women were banned from everything.”
There are wars that don't end even after the soldiers leave. And Afghanistan is one of them. The United States will declare victory this coming September 11 and bring home all its troops. And politicians will point out, as a justification, that we have not seen another terrorist attack like the one that fateful morning. But Wahida and her girl friends will have to struggle all their lives to study, drive, listen to music or marry whoever they want to. For them, it is still a forever war.
Afghanistan is one of the most battered countries I have ever known. There's a disproportionate amount of pain there. I have never seen houses more poor than those on the rim of the mountains of Tora Bora. And once you go to Afghanistan, the country never leaves you. It will mark you and follow you forever.
Twenty years later, I still have nightmares about the long nights in that Jalalabad hotel, with the roar of warplanes flying overhead, and the interminable drive when Kafir playfully pointed his rifle at my face.
I learned there that life, sometimes, is worthless. Well, maybe $15, with a little luck.