EXCERPT: On 9/11, reporting from Taliban-controlled Kabul
The following account from Kathy Gannon, now news director for Afghanistan and Pakistan for The Associated Press, is excerpted from the book “September 11: The 9/11 Story, Aftermath and Legacy,” an in-depth look at AP’s coverage of 9/11 and the events that followed. On that day, Gannon, reporting in the Afghan capital, received a call from her boss that changed her world forever.
In the late afternoon of Sept. 11, 2001, I received a phone call from New York, where it was morning. It was Sally Jacobsen, my boss and the AP’s international editor. A plane had hit one of the World Trade Center towers, she told me. It might be an accident, but …
Before she could finish her thought, a second plane flew into the second tower. She hung up.
I was in Kabul, the Afghan capital, where six Christian aid workers, including two young American women, were in jail, arrested by the Taliban for proselytizing. Two days earlier, two suicide bombers had killed Ahmad Shah Masood, who had been fighting the Taliban since they ousted his government in 1996.
In Taliban-run Afghanistan, there were no televisions. They had been outlawed along with music. Radios were the only source of news. Thirty minutes after that call from New York, my Afghan colleague Amir Shah came into our small office on the second floor of the AP house. Another plane had smashed into the Pentagon. What was going on? It had become clear that the first thoughts by AP editors in New York were correct: This was terrorism. And al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, who had been living in Afghanistan since May 1996, even before the Taliban took power, was the mastermind.
It seemed just minutes later when Amir Shah said a fourth plane had, unbelievably, crashed into a field. Without a television, with only a crackly broadcast spitting out the most horrific of news, we didn’t know what to think. Amir was worried. Was bin Laden behind the attacks? If he was, Amir was sure of one thing: “Afghanistan will be set on fire.”
It wasn’t until we stopped at the United Nations Guest House where the American parents of the two imprisoned Christian charity workers were staying that I saw the horrifying images of the planes slamming into the towers.
Within 24 hours, the parents would be forced to leave Afghanistan. Was an attack by the United States imminent, I wondered? We had no way to know it would be Oct. 7, nearly a month later, before the assault called Operation Enduring Freedom would begin.
It was nighttime in Kabul, then a city of about 1.5 million people, when the attacks in America happened. Electricity was scarce. The streets were mostly quiet. Small, single-bulb lights illuminated the few shops still open.
Inside, we talked to residents. They couldn’t tell you where New York was or what the World Trade Center Towers were. But they understood war, fear and loss. They were sad for America but, like Amir Shah, they feared they would pay the price. They were afraid.
On Sept. 12, Taliban Foreign Minister Wakil Ahmad Muttawakil held a press conference in Kabul’s Intercontinental Hotel overlooking the city. He didn’t know where bin Laden was, he told reporters. “I just know he is not here,” he said with a grin.
In Kabul’s well-off Wazir Akbar Khan neighborhood, where The AP office was located, there were several houses with Arabic-speaking men from Middle Eastern and north African countries. The breakaway republic of Chechnya had a consulate office in the region; members of Pakistani militant groups like Jaish-e-Mohammad, which would be linked in March 2002 to the death of American journalist Daniel Pearl, lived close by.
By Sept. 15, the Taliban ordered all foreigners out of Afghanistan, even the Red Cross. From our office in Kabul, I had been booking hotel rooms for the army of AP reporters I knew would be descending on Pakistan, which was also about to close its border with Afghanistan.
The bombing began on Oct. 7, 2001. The U.S.-led coalition, along with its so-called Northern Alliance allies, a collection of warlords-turned-anti-Taliban fighters who would later be handed power in Kabul, launched an offensive to oust the Taliban.
In the mountains around Kabul, the Taliban had placed anti-aircraft weapons, their only defense against the world’s most powerful air force and army. The lights were turned off at night because the Taliban believed that the Americans couldn’t hit what they couldn’t see, a notion they came to understand was dead wrong.
Amir Shah would call each night and whisper the latest news to me in Islamabad. He would cover the satellite phones — the only communication source — so the neighbors, most of whom were Taliban leaders, would not see the light from the devices. We couldn’t call him for fear the ringing would be heard. We feared the Taliban would interpret the communication from an American news agency as U.S. spies directing the aircraft fire.
It was Oct. 23 when Amir got permission for me and AP photographer Demitri Messinis to enter Kabul. We were the only Western journalists allowed into Taliban-controlled areas. Hundreds of journalists were camped out in neighboring Pakistan or in Tajikistan waiting to move with the Northern Alliance, but no western journalist was in Taliban-controlled areas until we arrived.
Kabul became a city of fear. During the day, there was less bombing and people would venture out. But as darkness settled and the bombing intensified, the streets were deserted but for the occasional Taliban patrol and the howling of what seemed like an army of stray dogs.
Then the B-52 bombers began to circle in low. We moved to the basement. The bombing had gotten closer and closer to the city. One night, the B-52s pounded the hills behind the AP house that were impervious to the anti-aircraft weapons but were home to some of Kabul’s poorest citizens. The next morning, we discovered some of the bombs had hit civilian homes that jut out across the hills.
We went to one home where five children had died as they slept. They were still in their beds when we got there. Amir Shah held back the tears. Like him, the children were ethnic Hazaras, perhaps the least prosperous of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups.
“They could have been my children,” he said.
On Nov. 13, 2001, two months and two days after the 9/11 attacks, the Taliban finally fled Kabul. The night before, a 2,000- pound bomb had slammed into a home that sat kitty corner to The AP house. It blew me across the room, destroying the window and door frames.
We fled the house soon after and headed to the Intercontinental Hotel. It was a scary ride through darkened streets. The Taliban knew the city was all but lost. They were jittery, shouting commands. Arabs on motorcycles roared past. We worried because we knew U.S. drones were taking aim; one slammed into a pickup truck not far from us. Later, we learned four Arabs were killed.
Perched on the hilltop, the Intercontinental seemed the perfect vantage point to watch the city. It wasn’t yet 5 a.m. when we ventured out on Nov. 13. The sun had just begun to rise over the Hindu Kush Mountains.
The Taliban were gone.