Welcome back to Sept. 10, 2001
In an almost incomprehensible turn of events, the Taliban flag will once again be flying over Kabul, Afghanistan, just in time for the 20th anniversary of Sept. 11, 2001, the day Taliban guests from al-Qaeda committed the deadliest terrorist attack in world history.
I was on Capitol Hill the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, working as a foreign policy adviser for New York’s senior Senator, Charles Schumer. We watched together in stunned silence the live TV images of men and women jumping from the top floors of the World Trade Center as the flames engulfed them, choosing one form of certain death over another.
The ongoing scenes of carnage and mayhem in Afghanistan, where a full U.S. military withdrawal was immediately followed by a complete Taliban takeover, will likewise be fixed in the world’s memory forever. Images of human beings falling from the landing gear of U.S. aircraft lifting off from Kabul airport, choosing one form of certain death over another, cannot be lost to the irony of history.
Joe Biden was not the first U.S. president to seek a full withdrawal from Afghanistan, which America and its NATO allies controlled since toppling the Taliban in December 2001. President Obama reduced U.S. troops there to 9,200 by the time he left office, and President Trump — who had signed an agreement with the Taliban that included an eventual full U.S. withdrawal — left just 2,500 for the Biden administration. But it was Joe Biden who ordered — and unimaginably bungled — this full withdrawal. The fallout is his alone.
The most urgent priority for the Biden administration right now is addressing the humanitarian and geopolitical calamity that has occurred on its watch — saving as many lives as possible and patching up the diplomatic wounds with America’s stunned NATO allies and other partners around the world.
Longer term, however, we must also consider where events of the past few weeks have left us in the so-called “war on terrorism” launched in the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11. It appears we are now left largely where we were before Sept. 11.
And that may be the most stunning thing of all.
I was personally on (or near) the Senate floor when the major post-Sept. 11 initiatives passed — the Authorization to Use Military Force; the Patriot Act; the Sept. 11 Commission authorization; the Iraq War resolution. Obviously not everything done in the days and months after Sept. 11 was prudent, let alone perfect. And much has happened over the 20 years since — plenty of which is already filling history books.
But let’s remember the post-Sept. 11 period began — for good reason — with the war in Afghanistan.
It was the policy that was the least controversial, had the most international buy-in, and for most of its history was referred to as “the good war.”
That’s because Afghanistan was the epicenter of militant jihadism, which was thriving.
Indeed, by the time al-Qaeda struck America on Sept. 11, it had already enjoyed a decade-long winning streak, beginning with its defeat of the Soviet Union in Afghanistan the late 1980s — a defeat, ironically, enabled by U.S. assistance to Afghan mujahideen fighters allied with Osama bin Laden’s core group.
Following the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, the United States turned its back on Afghanistan — for the first time — and the Taliban eventually emerged to govern most of the country, allowing al-Qaeda to set up shop there. During this period, bin Laden took credit for the fall of the Soviet empire, propagating his “strong horse” theory of militant jihadism, and welcomed tens of thousands of recruits into his training camps. The next target was the last remaining superpower: the United States.
By 1998, al-Qaeda was bold enough to declare war against America, with its East Africa embassy bombings the first shots fired. Those attacks were then followed in quick succession by the USS Cole bombing in 2000, and then Sept. 11. The Twin Towers falling just a decade after the collapse of the Soviet empire was the greatest propaganda victory in the history of global jihadism.
There was no debate after Sept. 11 — nor should there have been — about going into Afghanistan, knocking out the Taliban government, and breaking al-Qaeda’s winning streak.
Then the issue, as always, became how to get out, and what to leave behind.
In Germany, Japan, and Korea the United States fought critical wars, never got out, and left democracies behind.
We were never going to leave behind a Jeffersonian democracy in Afghanistan, but I believe there was a sensible way to maintain stability, prevent another Taliban takeover, and eliminate jihadi — be it al-Qaeda, ISIS, Haqqani — safe havens to plot and plan the next Sept. 11.
The notion that “20 years was long enough” in Afghanistan — which seems to be the main argument of the Biden administration — is no way to direct foreign policy in such a vital region, with so much on the line in terms of both national security and moral values and leadership.
It doesn’t even make sense in the context of history: America maintained a containment policy against the Soviet Union for 40 years, which nobody was thrilled about — but the patient outcome could not have been better.
Perhaps if the United States sustained such a commitment in Afghanistan — along with its NATO partners and willing NGOs — it would have offered an opportunity to build something better, and ultimately chip away at the Taliban’s ability to retake power. But now that ship has sailed.
The hard truth is that the United States just helped to facilitate the seizure of power by a group representing a hostile, murderous belief system the Sept. 11 Commission said could never be reasoned with, only “destroyed or utterly isolated.”
And while Washington is far more expert at tracking and killing terrorists today than before Sept. 11, what’s happening now looks eerily reminiscent of the 1990s, with leading jihadi figures (including some former Guantanamo prisoners) flocking to Afghanistan to celebrate their latest victory, this time over the world’s strongest superpower.
As lamented by Leon Panetta, CIA director and defense secretary under President Obama, “there is no question that [the Taliban] will provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda and for ISIS and for other terrorists” who may then “use Afghanistan as a base for attacking not just the United States, but other countries as well.”
In other words, we’re back to Sept. 10, 2001. Not this country’s finest hour.
Stuart Gottlieb teaches American foreign policy and counterterrorism at Columbia University. He formerly served as a foreign policy adviser and speechwriter in the United States Senate (1999-2003).
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