x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Daoud Sultanzoy's post-9/11 journey back to Afghanistan mirrors his homeland's own story

He should have been piloting a United Airlines passenger plane from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on the afternoon of September 11, 2001. But after the attacks Daoud Sultanzoy returned to the country where he was born, hoping 9/11 would become a catalyst for change in Afghanistan for the better. It hasn't worked out that way.

Daoud Sultanzoy at a press conference in Kabul called to highlight his protest over the vote count conducted by the Independent Election Commission during Afghanistan's 2010 parliament elections. Elissa Bogos for The National)
Daoud Sultanzoy at a press conference in Kabul called to highlight his protest over the vote count conducted by the Independent Election Commission during Afghanistan's 2010 parliament elections. Elissa Bogos for The National)

KABUL // Daoud Sultanzoy should have been piloting a United Airlines passenger plane from Los Angeles to Hong Kong on the afternoon of September 11, 2001.

But after a frantic phone call from his sister-in-law jarred him awake in his California home that morning, Mr Sultanzoy switched on the television. As he watched the attacks unfold, the desperate, doomed people hurtling off the World Trade Centre and the twin towers collapsing in clouds of ground-up glass and concrete, jet fuel and pulverised human remains, he knew he would not be flying that day. He also knew that his life had changed forever.

He had fled Afghanistan after the Soviet invasion two decades earlier. Now, he would give up his lucrative job and return home, an opportunity born of tragedy,

"I had no choice. I had to return. I left my job, a very lucrative and luxurious job as an international pilot, and I came to Afghanistan," he recalled recently. "I thought the misery of 9/11, in an ironic way, would become a catalyst for change in this country for the better.

Mr Sultanzoy was wrong.

In the decade since 9/11 and the subsequent US-led invasion that ousted the regime that harboured its perpetrators, he lost his seat representing Ghazni province in parliament in a tainted election in September 2010 and become a target of death threats for his campaigning against corruption.

In key ways, Mr Sultanzoy's journey, from bittersweet exile to hopeful returnee and jaded activist and politician, is emblematic of Afghanistan's wider fall from grace since the unprecedented outpouring of international aid and goodwill following the attacks. His verdict? "The system is too corrupt."

As the United States began preparations to invade Afghanistan in the days following the 9/11 attacks, the task seemed plain and the justification unassailable: Remove Al Qaeda's Taliban hosts from power and undertake a mammoth nation-building project that would lift Afghanistan from the misery of two decades of war and inoculate it from ever again becoming a launching pad for attacks on the West.

At first, there was promise. When the Taliban fled Kabul under pressure from US bombs and a rebel drive on the capital, the austerity of life under the Islamists gave way to a carnival-like atmosphere. Residents played music in the bazaars for the first time in years and barbers trimmed beards, both of which were banned under the Taliban's strict interpretation of sharia.

Billions of dollars in reconstruction aid began to pour in, raising hopes that the standard of living, particularly beyond the main cities of Kabul, Herat and Kandahar, would improve and that the austerity enshrined by the Taliban as a religious ideal would fade into history.

Longtime exiles such Mr Sultanzoy and Jawed Mohammed were stunned at what they saw when they stepped back on their native soil. Still, like many returning Afghans - 3.6 million from Pakistan alone, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees - they were giddy at their country's prospects.

"When I entered the country from Pakistan and into Kandahar, I had never seen so much destruction in my life. I started crying," said Mr Mohamed, 28, who would go on to work for eight years as an interpreter for US Special Forces in Afghanistan.

"But strangely I felt at home. And I thought to myself: 'This is my country. And it will be peaceful again'," he said.

But over the last decade, hopeful Afghans — many of whom gave up their citizenship in wealthy western countries to join in the rebuilding of their homeland — watched as the United States and the rest of the international community allowed the country to fall once again into the hands of a coterie of corrupt warlords and politicians who have been allowed to act with near impunity merely by professing to be against the Taliban.

Today, there is no question that there is more wealth in the Afghan capital, both ill-gotten and not. Some of it doubtless has trickled down on some of Afghanistan's nearly 30 million people. But economic development, such as it is, is highly skewed in favour of a few. The per capita gross domestic product is still roughly US$900 a year.

A chief reason is corruption. According to US government investigators, suitcases of cash meant to fund the paving of roads and construction of schools have instead lined the pockets of crooked government officials, warlords and even Taliban insurgents instead. The US government has wasted $19bn in development aid, a recent report by the US Congress said.

Shams Al Rahman Daoudzai, the 36-year-old owner of a Kabul-based construction company, said: "The warlords sitting in government chairs, they are taking all of the money for reconstruction," adding that paying bribes was essential to do business in Afghanistan.

"If the government spent even 50 per cent of the funds available on infrastructure, Afghanistan would have been transformed in these past 10 years," Mr Daoudzai sighed.

If Kabul in any way resembles western capitals after 9/11, it is in the towering labyrinth of concrete blast walls that dominate Kabul's tree-lined streets and the snarls of barbed wire that guard government buildings and international aid offices from attacks by the once-bowed-but-never-beaten Taliban.

Politically, Afghans are once again demonstrating that anti-foreigner sentiment is one sure-fire way to galvanise them. Disgruntled Afghans are more easily mobilised for anti-government and anti-Nato protests than they are against a fierce insurgency that feeds off the discontent.

Despite the presence of about 130,000 US and Nato troops here, security is still tenuous. Violence is at its highest level since the US-led invasion in 2001, noted the United Nations Assistance Mission in Afghanistan's annual report for 2010 released in March. More than 8,800 Afghan civilians have been killed in the conflict since 2007.

With their post-9/11 hopes for their homeland all but dashed, the returnees are once again contemplating life in the Afghan diaspora.

Ahmad Waheed, 27, who lives in Sarobi district, Kabul province, where Taliban influence is strong, said: "There is no life here. There are no jobs and no security." Life is so bleak, he added, that he has decided to buy forged Pakistani identity papers from a Pakistani police official so he can return to Pakistan as a refugee and seek work.

Mr Mohamed, the interpreter who threw his lot in with the Americans because he thought they would help the country, is disillusioned, too.

After none of the soldiers he worked with would sponsor him for a special immigrant visa available to Afghan military interpreters, he applied to the US embassy here for a visa to visit America but so far, it has not been approved.

Mr Sultanzoy, the former aeroplane pilot, said if the challenge to last year's elections does not lead to the reinstatement of his seat in parliament, there may be nothing left for him but to leave.

"I'm still not convinced that the expectations for Afghanistan were unreasonable," he says. "All I know is that I made a difference in this country. I didn't make money, but I earned respect in a country where nobody respects anybody."