The Message That Warned of 9/11 And Still Matters

Because of the Pakistani man's explanation of the message, for me the terrible events of September 11, 2001 came to testify to the need for the American government to understand the sometimes hidden negative impact of its actions, for America's own wellbeing.

Dust smeared the brightly painted bus as it inched up the valley towards Chitral in Northwest Pakistan, wheels clinging to a bumpy road whose right edge fell away hundreds of feet, down to a distant river. Massive mountains soared overhead, creating a landscape so enormous that I pinched my forearm to try and make sense of my own smallness as I sat blinking at the back of the bus.

Lower down the valley, scouts had used whitewashed stones to spell the name of their group on the far side of the valley. And here, across the giant silent space where the valley widened, someone had written a far more sinister communication with white stones on the far side.

The message vowed death to America.

The year was 1994, and I was a 19-year-old taking a break from teaching English in a Pakistani school. The message shocked me. It wasn't just what the words that jarred my nerves. It was the sheer inaccessibility of the stones on the barren slope. Whoever wrote this really meant it. Why did they do this?

How did they do this?

The bus drove over the Lowari Pass, which is so high that the blue sky at the crest is as deep as the lapis stone mined in the remote region. Then the road twisted down through conifer trees and poplars to arrive at dusk in Chitral, near Pakistan's border with Afghanistan.

The tired passengers were ushered into a restaurant flanked by a stream. We sat in silence around a square and were offered bowls of mutton and rice. As tea was served, I talked to a Pakistani man next to me. He was civil and soft-spoken and knew about the message that troubled me. He explained it.

``Many of the people who live in this area were with the Mujahedeen, and they fought against the Russians in Afghanistan. They fought with America,'' he said. ``And now they are angry that America has abandoned them after the Russians left. They thought the Americans were their friends. Now they are angry that they have gone and left the Afghans alone and in poverty.''

A few years earlier, Mujahadeen resistance fighters including Osama Bin Laden, backed by America, pushed the Soviet army out of Afghanistan.

Upon my return to the U.K., I told people about the message and my concern that the anger triggered by the abandonment of Afghanistan wasn't understood.

Seven years later, on a clear September day in 2001, it was to the message on the mountain in Pakistan that my thoughts turned after airplanes hit the World Trade Center in New York. The vow of death had come true, but too late for me to find the words or the people to properly convey my concern.

Because of the Pakistani man's explanation of the message, for me the terrible events of September 11, 2001 came to testify to the need for the American government to understand the sometimes hidden negative impact of its actions, for America's own wellbeing.

Two years later, in 1996, I travelled to work as a teacher in Gaza. There too, I met people who harboured a profound sense of injustice towards America. I learned that many Palestinians consider Israel an unjust occupier. And America's support for Israel made the U.S.A an unjust peace broker for many Palestinians.

For me, the dilemma in Gaza wasn't to decide whether the Israelis or Palestinians were right in their views of the conflict. The challenge was to understand their experience and sense of persecution.

There was another dilemma; that of America, a country which I greatly admire as a power that strives to uphold freedom, justice and democracy. Why was there so much anger against America, after the Cold War was won and writer Francis Fukuyama had declared the end of history and the triumph of democracy?

I found some answers while studying International Relations at the London School of Economics in 1999.

International relations theory is traditionally divided into two camps of thought: the realists and the idealists. Idealists see world history as a gradual unification of peoples. Realists see a world of competing states in which governments can only hope to strike a balance of alliances -- even with the enemies of their enemies -- to survive.

Realists had strategized the alliance with Afghanistan's freedom fighters, and then abandoned them when the job of defeating the Soviet Union was done.

In 2000, I joined an American financial news company. I discovered an organization that was primarily focussed on places with significant capital markets. The news page for Afghanistan had about 20 stories for all of July 2001. After the violent attacks, that changed. In October 2001, there were 2,000 news stories. Now Afghanistan was news. Why not before?

I thought it was important to help increase coverage of countries on the margins of the world economy because places without markets can affect markets. This was a big lesson of September 11, when events in Afghanistan, one of the poorest nations, radically impacted New York, the centre of global finance.

I repeatedly tried to report in Afghanistan. In 2005, I succeeded, interviewing the nation's president, poppy farmers, politicians and entrepreneurs. I hoped to show that poverty was the real common enemy of Afghans and Americans. That same year, I also wrote of Palestinians questing for peace and prosperity.

I was often asked the same question before departing to report on people at the margins of the economy.

Why do we care?

We care because the lives of Afghans, Palestinians, Israelis, Syrians and all peoples are becoming ever-more interwoven with the lives of each and every American. Our actions have more and more consequences in the lives of those we never meet, and their actions greatly impact us. If we fail to understand the weaving together of our lives this century, then we fail to understand the world in which we live.


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