KABUL—The Sept. 11 attacks that triggered the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan also uprooted 16-year-old Abdul Ghattar from his village in war-torn Helmand province, bringing him to a desolate refugee camp on the edge of Kabul.
Yet Mr. Ghattar stared blankly when asked whether he knew about al Qaeda’s strike on the U.S., launched a decade ago from Afghan soil.
“Never heard of it,” he shrugged as he lined up for water at the camp’s well, which serves thousands of fellow refugees. “I have no idea why the Americans are in my country.”
In a nearby tent that is the camp’s school, his teacher, 22-year-old Mullah Said Nabi Agha, didn’t fare much better. He said he has never seen the iconic image of the Twin Towers burning. He was vaguely aware that some kind of explosion had occurred in America.
“I was a child when it happened, and now I am an adult, and the Americans are still here,” Mr. Agha said. “I think the Americans did it themselves, so they could invade Afghanistan.”
The teacher’s view is by no means rare here. The events of Sept. 11, 2001, of course, are known to educated Afghans, and to many residents of big cities. But that isn’t always the case elsewhere in a predominantly rural country where 42% of the population is under the age of 14, and 72% of adults are illiterate. With few villages reached by television or electricity, news here is largely spread by word of mouth.
Such opinions highlight a contrast between American and Afghan perspectives on the longest foreign war in U.S. history, one that killed thousands of Afghans and, at the latest count, claimed the lives of 1,760 U.S. troops.
They also explain the Taliban’s ability to rally popular support—in part by seizing the narrative to portray the war not as one triggered by America’s need for self-defense, but as one of colonial aggression by infidels lusting for Afghanistan’s riches.
“The Islamic Emirate wages a lawful struggle for the defense of its religion, country and soil,” the Taliban’s leader, Mullah Mohammed Omar, told Afghans last month on the occasion of the Islamic Eid al-Fitr holiday.
According to a survey of 15- to 30-year-old men in the two southern provinces where President Barack Obama sent the bulk of American surge troops, 92% of respondents said they didn’t know about “this event which the foreigners call 9/11” after being read a three-paragraph description of the attacks.
“Nobody explained to them the 9/11 story—and it’s hard to win the hearts and minds of the fighting-age males in Helmand if they don’t even know why the foreigners are here,” says Norine MacDonald, president of the International Council on Security and Development, the think tank that carried out the survey of 1,000 Afghan men in eight districts of Kandahar and Helmand. “There is a vacuum—and it’s being filled by al Qaeda and Taliban propaganda claiming that we are here to destroy Islam.”
Some Afghans who do know about the events of 2001 often subscribe to conspiracy theories, imported from Pakistan and Iran, that have long lost currency even in the Middle East.
Maulvi Abdulaziz Mujahed, an imam at Kabul’s Takbir mosque who served as chairman of the Kabul provincial council in 2008 to 2009, said in a recent interview that the Sept. 11 attacks were a Jewish conspiracy, a view he says was reinforced by his 2009 visit to New York’s Ground Zero.
“I saw the photos of all those who have been killed in the attacks, and I saw people bring flowers for their loved ones. But I couldn’t find a single Jew among them,” Mr. Mujahed said. “The superpowers wanted a good pretext to invade Afghanistan, and these attacks provided it.”
Abdul Hakim Mujahid, the deputy chairman of the Afghan government’s High Peace Council, a body created to negotiate a peaceful solution to the war, was in New York when the two jets struck the Twin Towers—in his capacity as the Taliban regime’s semi-official envoy to the U.S. and the United Nations.
While Mr. Mujahid says he was saddened by the attacks, he says he still doesn’t believe al Qaeda was responsible for “the unfortunate incident.”
“After 9/11, the whole world rushed to Afghanistan, and the people of Afghanistan were under the illusion that everything would be changed: The roads would be paved black, the houses would be painted white, the infrastructure rebuilt and the industries established,” he says. “But gradually these expectations have come down, and now have reached the point of zero. The people are asking: When will the foreigners finally leave?”
Not every Afghan subscribes to the conspiracy theories or wants the Americans to leave. At the campus of Kabul University, where young women and men mix in a setting unimaginable under Taliban rule, students said in interviews they were fully aware of the Sept. 11 attacks and saw the U.S. invasion as bringing benefits to Afghanistan. Many of them were ethnic Tajiks and Uzbeks from the country’s north—ethnic minorities discriminated against under the rule of the Taliban.
“Under the Taliban, Afghanistan was a terrorist haven, nobody could leave their house, and I wouldn’t have been able to attend university,” says Nasser Hasrab, a 20-year-old literature student from the northern Faryab province. “After the Soviets left we had a civil war, and I am afraid that if the Americans leave, the same would happen again.”
Across town in the Herat restaurant—once the favorite hangout of Taliban leaders and al Qaeda militants—owner Abdulazim Niyazi, dressed in a Polo shirt and clutching a Samsung cellphone, pondered the momentous change of the past decade.
Because TV was banned under the Taliban, there was no particular celebration or commotion in the restaurant on Sept. 11, 2001, he said. Since then, Mr. Niyazi complained, boomtown Kabul has been swamped with corruption, prostitution and vice. More importantly, his business has soured.
“Under the Taliban, we were the only place,” he said. “Now, Kabul is filled with restaurants.”