January 20, 2022

Man Fine

The Fine Art Of Education

Sher Jan Ahmadzai on life in Afghanistan after 9/11

With help from Rishika Dugyala and Teresa Wiltz

What up Recast family! It’s been another busy news week: President Joe Biden unveils sweeping action to boost vaccine rates, the DOJ is suing Texas, and Andrew Yang plots his next move. We kick things off by marking the 20th anniversary of the deadliest foreign attack on U.S. soil.

Nearly every American who was alive to witness the gruesome images of the 2001 terrorist attack can remember where they were and what they were doing when it happened.

The tragic day when nearly 3,000 Americans were killed is seared into our collective memory, changing life as we had previously known it.

This is true for Afghans, too.

The Afghan-born Sher Jan Ahmadzai was a refugee teaching English in Pakistan when he watched the Twin Towers fall on television. He knew it would be a matter of time before America would turn its military might toward his native country for harboring the al Qaeda militants who carried out the attacks.

Ever the optimist, Ahmadzai — who became a U.S. citizen in 2016 — sees the positives that have come in the 20 years since the attack. He served in the administration of Hamid Karzai, Afghanistan’s first democratically elected president after the U.S. helped topple the Taliban-led government.

He says he saw life improve for many Afghans, particularly in terms of education of women and rural communities while the U.S. maintained a military presence there.

We reached out to Ahmadzai for an Afghan’s perspective on post-9/11 life, President Biden’s ending of military operations in Afghanistan — and the sacrifices the Afghan people made in America’s longest war.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

THE RECAST: We’re talking on the eve of the United States commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks. Is this a day that stands out for you? Do you remember where you were and what you were doing on that day in 2001?

AHMADZAI: Well, absolutely. This day is not something just personal for me, but of course everybody around the world was affected by the consequences of what happened on 9/11.

I was living in Pakistan. It was evening when I visited a friend at his house. He had a TV on when we saw the Twin Towers falling down. We were surprised. Shocked to see what happened. And we did think that this will definitely have consequences for Afghanistan and people in that region. And that’s what happened.

I know it was one of the saddest days of the history of the United States and, historically, for the world community.

Every event has a reaction, or has a ripple effect, or has consequences that all of us are impacted or affected in one way or another way.

For the Afghans, they were already not having a good life. Millions of them were living in refugee camps in Pakistan, in Iran, and millions of them were living under Taliban in Afghanistan. What happened in the United States on that day, designed by al Qaeda, changed the lives of the Afghans for good.

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THE RECAST: Are you saying the U.S. war effort, the presence of American troops and the involvement of the American government helped bring about change for the Afghan people?

AHMADZAI: Absolutely it did.

Imagine if the American war did not happen. The new generation of Afghanistan wouldn’t have been as educated as they are right now, wouldn’t have had opportunities to express their rights or ask for their rights. They wouldn’t have had a vibrant civil society, wouldn’t have a vibrant media, wouldn’t have a vibrant politically active youth that is more connected with the world.

Of course, the war in Afghanistan had its negative consequences with [nearly] 2,500 American soldiers and more than 60,000 Afghan soldiers killed fighting against al Qaeda and the Taliban — the very Taliban that are back in power right now.

Yes, rural Afghanistan still has problems. It is still poor. Millions of others are still suffering. But even in their lives [there’s been] positive change. Quite a good number in rural Afghanistan have better access to many things, their education, public health services.

That’s why [many Afghans recently] sided with the Taliban, because the Afghan government initially offered [services] they could not continue offering for various reasons due to corruption or inefficiencies. But overall Afghanistan was better off.

THE RECAST: Are you concerned at all that these advancements you mentioned will start to recede with Taliban back in control?

AHMADZAI: When the government of Kabul fell to the Taliban, I saw the images on the TV coming out of my old office in the presidential palace.

I could not stop crying. I saw the Afghan flag coming down. I felt disappointed, dismayed and betrayed at the same time.

We as Americans promised the Afghans that we will stand by it and no matter what. President Biden promised a young girl in an Afghan school that he will support Afghanistan and Afghan girls and their access to education.

He didn’t deliver on that promise.

Many of us believe that we helped the Afghans get out of the darkness, to be on the right path of development and self-determination and suddenly, we pulled out our forces. We knew the results of our pullout would be disastrous, catastrophic.

It was a very bad choice — the worst choice anybody could make to end the war. When we left Bagram Air Base in the middle of the night, not even telling the Afghan commander goodbye … that says a lot about us. We deserved a better ending for this chapter.

THE RECAST: President Biden has hailed the Afghan pullout as a “success” adding he was not going to prolong this “forever war.” He’s also suggested there is no clean way to end a war and basically he needed to pull the plug on the operation after two decades.

AHMADZAI: I wholeheartedly disagree with the Biden statement that there was no other option. It is not black and white. There were a wide range of colors in that spectrum that could have ended this conflict differently.

He inherited a flawed deal with the Taliban that was signed by President Trump. It was not a peace deal. It was a deal to withdraw forces and give up and surrender to the Taliban. That’s what we did, we surrendered.

We surrendered our equipment, we surrendered our values and our allies.

President Biden took a U-turn on all of the other major decisions President Trump made, why not this one?

It was merely a political decision, because Biden made a campaign promise to end the war. How? He didn’t know, the only way he knew was to pull the plug on Afghanistan, we get out in the middle of the night, without understanding or realizing the consequences.

THE RECAST: Let’s turn to something that many Americans will be experiencing as one of the consequences of the ending of the war: thousands of Afghans coming to the U.S. through the Special Immigrant Visa process. The federal government estimates around 50,000 evacuated Afghans. Any concerns about the reception they will receive once settled in this country?

AHMADZAI: I think we owe it to them because those are the people who helped us in our mission. We went there. The United States to Afghanistan and [those Afghans] stood by us in support of our mission.

Most of them are the cream of the crop. The best ones coming to the United States. The majority know the English language, which means they will not be a problem for us, for the people of the United States. They are here for the job market, for the jobs that Americans don’t do, but they can do. So in that sense, they’re bringing a lot of good stuff, the United States — they’re not taking anybody’s jobs — but adding to this beautiful mosaic of the United States.

So we should not be scared of that. Actually, we should be proud that we [the United States] are that good that others’ best people come to us.

THE RECAST: It sounds like you’re concerned about this conversation that happens with immigrants, particularly immigrants of color, that there is going to be this fear of “the other” — that immigrants will, you know, disrupt American life.

AHMADZAI: It is a concern. Definitely, there are people who think the other way, who don’t want to welcome immigrants into the United States for whatever insecurities they might have. But those insecurities can only be addressed when you explain to them that [their] forefathers came from somewhere else.

They shouldn’t be scared of the people who are coming to the United States. Actually, we should be opening it more, because we have the capacity to absorb the best from the rest of the world.

THE RECAST: We began our conversation talking about the 9/11 anniversary. With Afghanistan very much top of mind for many Americans right now, should Americans also be reflecting on the Afghan sacrifice over the past two decades?

AHMADZAI: We have to, of course, honor the fallen. Remember them always. Plus we should honor the folks who helped preserve what we are right now. We went there to fight against those forces that were after our values and our liberties.

Here’s the thing: We couldn’t have achieved much of what we have done without the sacrifice the Afghans offered. Any great nation needs good friends. And Afghans have proved to be good friends by offering 60,000 of their lives, in our cause, going after terrorists.

So in that sense, we should be proud of our friendship, and we should, we should invest in that friendship in the future, too. We should not leave the Afghans disappointed and feeling betrayed. Because God forbid, if something happens again, some other time, who else will trust us? If they see that we did not stand with our allies, who sacrificed their soldiers in the war that we started, why would they stand with us?


Hey y’all, we have a few quick updates we want to hip you to before we toss it to Rishika and Teresa for some Weekend To-Dos.

Andrew Yang, the one-time presidential and NYC mayoral hopeful, wants to launch a third party. As POLITICO’s Alex Thompson notes, it’s expected to come online next month … along with the release of his new book.

President Biden is out with his toughest push yet to get those who have not gotten the vaccine to get the jab. The latest order will affect some 50,000 health facilities and an estimated 17 million workers nationwide, POLITICO’s Adam Cancryn and David Lim report.

A federal judge delivered a crushing blow to the “anti-riot” law championed by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis. The law had been passed in the wake of the national protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd. POLITICO’s Matt Dixon breaks down the ruling.

Former President Donald Trump is marking the 9/11 anniversary by scoring what he calls an “obscene” payday. He’s set to provide commentary for a fight between Evander Holyfield, 58, and Vitor Belfort, 44, in Florida.

Tarana Burke, founder of the #MeToo movement, has a new memoir. And two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Colson Whitehead is at it again, this time with a crime caper, “Harlem Shuffle.”

In a new anthology, “We Wrote in Symbols: Love and Lust by Arab Women Writers,” Arab women writers unpack all things desire.

Check out Brown Sugar, a new playlist featuring the retro vibes of Anderson .Paak and Bruno Mars.

Teen Vogue profiles USC freshman and model Natalia Bryant, the eldest daughter of the late basketball icon Kobe.

TikTok Duo of the Day: When siblings actually love each other, Part 1.

Part 2.