Millions of Americans gathered to remember what many recount as perhaps the most tragic day of the 21st century this past Sunday — a day that changed America drastically and permanently, a day that made innocent words such as “9/11” and “Twin Towers” reminders of utmost pain and suffering. The image of two towers burning is forever etched in the memories of all who witnessed it. Sept. 11 is not just a day. It is the day that changed everything — the day no one will ever forget.
Or so you would think.
In some parts of the world, Sept. 11 brings back no memories, no pain and no images of burning buildings and dying people. In other parts of the world, it truly is nothing more than another day.
The part of the world I speak of is rural Afghanistan. In interviews done by journalists in the rural villages of Afghanistan, there was an overwhelming majority of Afghans who didn’t know what 9/11 was. In a country where 42 percent of the population is under the age of 14, and 72 percent of the population is illiterate, this may not be surprising. Of course, in villages where running water and electricity are sometimes scarce, expecting international news coverage is wishful thinking. But as inevitable as this endemic of ignorance in Afghanistan is, it has dire consequences for United States strategy and the outcome of the war.
It is easy to argue that since educated Afghans and those who live in cities know what happened on Sept. 11, what does it matter if the farmers and villagers know or not? The problem is that the war we are fighting isn’t being fought in the cities; it is being fought in rural Afghanistan. The people who are bearing the brunt of our fighting are rural Afghans. The people the Taliban are recruiting and persuading are rural Afghans — not the educated elite.
The bulk of American troops are in the southern Kandahar and Helmand provinces. When President Barack Obama announced a surge of 30,000 troops to Afghanistan in December 2009, he sent them to those very areas. And yet, in those provinces, 92 percent of people don’t even recognize what 9/11 is, according to a survey by the International Council on Security and Development. According to a CNN article, when one villager was shown a picture of the burning Twin Towers and asked what he recollected from the image, he claimed they were pictures of buildings in Kabul. Other Afghans reiterated the belief that 9/11 was a story concocted by the U.S. for an excuse to come in and take over their country.
Beliefs like this are ripe fruits for the Taliban, ready for picking. According to a Sept. 8 Wall Street Journal article, terrorist groups have successfully woven a narrative of imperial conquest by drawing on this sentiment, making Afghanistan seem like the victim of an aggressive U.S. looking to colonize.
The purpose of this article isn’t to debate the legitimacy of the war, and it isn’t to draw lofty conclusions about whether Americans should be in Afghanistan or not. The point is to reiterate the need to re-evaluate our PR strategy for this war. If you are fighting in a place where the people already see you as an outsider, where they don’t know or understand why you are there, where they see you disrupting their daily lives and can’t seem to decipher your motive for doing so, then that is a PR disaster. And when these people are then being brainwashed and trained to fight against you by your enemies, this becomes a PR disaster turned deadly.
We are in this war to win, but it is a war that many have acknowledged can’t be won without winning the trust and support of the Afghan people. And how can we win their support if they don’t understand why we are in their country? How can we win a war if the people we are fighting don’t even know what we are fighting for?
Harsha Nahata is an assistant editorial page editor. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.