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What Does 9/11 Mean to People in Afghanistan?

September 2, 2011 at 12:00 AM EDT
What does 9/11 mean to the people who live in Afghanistan and the Americans troops fighting there? Special correspondent Adam Pletts reports on the feelings regarding the terror attacks on American soil, which he gathered from both groups while embedded with U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, a look at what 9/11 means to people in Afghanistan, both the people who live there and the Americans fighting the Taliban.

Special correspondent Adam Pletts was embedded with U.S. Marines in southern Afghanistan and put that question to both groups.

ADAM PLETTS: Helmand in southern Afghanistan is the province that has borne the brunt of the fighting between Taliban and coalition forces. What would Afghans in this war-torn province think about 9/11 and its consequences?

But, first, what would the Marines think of the seemingly obvious question I wanted to put to the Afghans?

OK. I just want to ask you guys, have you heard of 9/11?


SOLDIER: Indeed, yes.

ADAM PLETTS: And what does it mean to you?

After a lengthy silence, which perhaps said more than words could, the lieutenant in charge voiced some thoughts.

1ST LT. ANDREW YAGER, U.S. Marine Corps: The whole approach that we had coming into adulthood, it’s kind of hard to separate that, as I said, because we grew up with it and grew up with the shadow of it.

ADAM PLETTS: Sar Banader village is typical of many in Helmand. Poverty and negligible, if any, government services, together with three decades of war have prevented virtually any development.

With the high rates of illiteracy and the lack of infrastructure, the villagers essentially live in what’s close to a media vacuum. As Helmand goes, however, it’s at least relatively peaceful. But there are still very real threats. On the first day the Marines set up next to Sar Banader, they found some 12 IEDs in and around the village.

SOLDIER: Just a heads-up. Found another IED.

ADAM PLETTS: And where is it?

SOLDIER: It’s right over there. You can actually see them down off the side of the cliff.

ADAM PLETTS: While waiting for the de-mining team, one of the Marines wanted to comment on their silence when asked about 9/11.

CPL. DILLON WILSON, U.S. Marine Corps: It’s that, not so much eerie, but understood silence between each other. It reminds you of all why you’re here and exactly what you’re doing here. But some of us still, we all still have a personal vendetta with the beings that roam here being the Taliban, and still connect that to 9/11. I do myself. And here comes the 10-year anniversary, and I still find it very personal.

ADAM PLETTS: The lieutenant also had a few words on what the Afghans might think of 9/11.

SOLDIER: I think, at this point, in a sense, it is ancient history to them, and, rightfully so, because their — their problems are very much in the here and now, problems of security, problems of economics, et cetera, which are perhaps a result of Sept.11, but far removed at this point. Osama bin Laden isn’t ruining these peoples lives.

ADAM PLETTS: The following day, I get a first opportunity to ask a couple of young Afghan men what they know about 9/11.

MAN: No, they never heard about this.

ADAM PLETTS: Yes? Can you show them a few more, and can you ask them, do they know where it is even?

MAN: He says: “We’re farmers. Like, every time, we’re just working in our fields, so we do nothing. We don’t know anything else about the world. We don’t know, sir, because we are farmers. We never heard anything else about the world.”

SOLDIER: Adam, if you don’t mind, I have got a couple more questions for these guys.


SOLDIER: I just wanted to show them what these pictures — as you know, we’re here for your security, but your security is tied to our security. By keeping this area safe, keeping your families safe, we keep our families safe, and that’s the reason that were here.

SOLDIER: Take your time. Motorcycle coming through.

ADAM PLETTS: The two young men had clearly never heard of 9/11, but maybe the elders at a local shura would have more to say.

MAN: No, they have never seen it.

They’re saying you just can see the smoke from the buildings, and that’s it. That’s the only thing I can say.

When you guys show that picture, those guys saying, I think that was Kabul.

CAPT. ZACHARY SHORE, U.S. Marine Corps: If I had just gotten here, I would have been surprised. But having been here now for six months, I’m not. This is pretty much the stone ages where we are.

ADAM PLETTS: And what did you think about their reactions?

CAPT. ZACHARY SHORE: Oh, I thought it was fascinating. The guy who said it was Kabul was — clearly had never been to Kabul. It just shows you how isolated they are, even in their own country.

It was nice to go from Iraq to then here. It was a lot easier to understand why you’re here. And you had that picture. You can always go to the picture to remind yourself, OK, this is why we’re here. I don’t like looking at those pictures. I haven’t looked at those pictures. I have intentionally avoided those pictures for 10 years now.

So to see them pulled out here and to see the Afghans looking at them, in this context, while wearing the uniform and carrying the rifle, was — it was — it took me back.

MAN: He’s saying the Americans saying, we’re going to help you. They destroy one building, and they destroy us how many buildings? And they will, we’re going to help you. Where is the help?

CAPT. ZACHARY SHORE: I do sympathize or understand what some of them were saying. It’s, yes, your buildings were knocked down, but how many of our buildings have been knocked down?

And so when you can’t even feed yourself or house yourself, how are you going to care about somebody 6,000 miles away? So I can understand that.

ADAM PLETTS: Amazingly, in a country where, for 10 years, a war has been fought with 9/11 as its root cause and justification, it turns out not only were the villagers oblivious to 9/11, but so were the Afghan police, and even some of the translators working with the U.S. military.

But you don’t know the history of this event?

MAN: No, I have no idea about the history of this.

ADAM PLETTS: Have you ever seen these pictures before?

MAN: No, I didn’t.

ADAM PLETTS: In fact, after showing the images to dozens of Afghans, I only found one person who clearly recognized them and could connect them to the U.S.’ initial reason for coming to Afghanistan, and that was the police district chief in Marjah.

MAN: He says that the Taliban, the terrorists, they attacked the building of New York and they killed most of the people. They destroyed this building. So that was the reason American force today came in Afghanistan.

ADAM PLETTS: But that police chief is an exception. A survey taken in 2010 by the International Council on Security and Development found that 92 percent of Afghan men in Helmand and other Afghan provinces had no idea what 9/11 was.