9/11, Afghanistan, and Reckoning with Limits (Part 1)
Some thoughts I have been slowly processing over the past 2 months
On 9/11/2001, I was just a few days into the start of fourth grade, so my memories of the day itself are both vivid in emotion and hazy in facts. I remember coming to school that morning, only to find the whole class watching the news of the world trade towers (which, as a 9-year old, I had never even seen before) burning. Then, midway through the morning, the principal came on the PA system to announce that the Pentagon had also suffered an attack less than 25 miles away. This news sent 2 or 3 kids in my class who had parents working in the building into utter panic.
From there, it’s a series of connected scenes: my parents going to a prayer meeting in the evening at church, my baseball games canceled, a staid memorial constructed at my school for the kids whose father had died at the Pentagon. I remember my confusion as to who would want to do something like this, and I especially remember the dark comedy of my mom trying to explain the difference to me between a “tourist” and a “terrorist.” I remember reading my parent’s copy of the biography of Todd Beamer, hero of Flight 93 and coiner of the infamous phrase “Let’s Roll.” Finally, I remember my well-loved copy of the 2002 World Almanac (9-year-old Thomas loved the World Almanac), which contained pages of photographs from the coverage of 9/11.
As you can imagine, at the time, I understood very little of the geopolitical machinations that were going on at the time. Whatever use the World Almanac had for providing facts and figures, it could not convey the nuances of geopolitics. However, I do remember that much of what adults talked about became shaped by the events of 9/11. To greatly simplify what is quite complex, there are two distinct stages in the wake of a tragedy. The first is resilience, where all you can do is endeavor to keep going about the business of ordinary life in the face of tragedy. The second stage is where you try to do something to make sense of what happened, creating a context where the tragedy makes moral sense and can compel one to move forward.
Of course, as a kid, I neither comprehended the event nor was directly affected by 9/11 enough to internalize the messages of resilience that began to permeate the culture. Saturday Night Live’s first episode back after 9/11 featured Rudy Guiliani introducing the first responders and Paul Simon’s ode to The Boxer. There were NYPD and NYFD hats that suddenly appeared in the iconography of that year’s baseball playoffs, where the New York Yankees went on an improbable run (at least, as unlikely as a Yankees playoff run can ever be). Baseball leaned hard into this story of New York’s turnaround, writing it into the very center of the broadcasts:
However, the popular imagination quickly moved to the second stage of making moral sense of the tragedy. This sense of meaning-making was multi-faceted, but the main form it seemed to take, again through my childhood eyes, was how the war against terrorism was presented in sharply moral terms. There was a clear sense of right and wrong in the world, and the response to 9/11 was to fight terrorism on a global scale and that the war in Afghanistan (and later, more controversially, Iraq) were the practical application of that effort.
Of course, the world is often presented to a child in moral terms, even more so when grief and tragedy are involved. But I don’t think 9/11 was a case where only children internalized this message; if anything, as an adult, the moral sense of the wars is even more apparent when I go back and re-examine the early 2000s. Look no further than that moment of the 2001 World Series, where we had Lee Greenwood singing God Bless the USA dressed in an American flag jacket:
Lee Greenwood was the opposite of a scrappy New Yorker, yet he was everywhere in 2001, with this song zooming to Number 16 on the pop chart in the days after 9/11. God Bless the USA was initially released in 1984 (and performed at Reagan’s RNC convention) and had previously risen to prominence during the Gulf War of 1991. Greenwood’s singing was flanked by military personnel and regalia: it’s a nationalistic tune, and in our post 9/11 world, many Americans wanted to believe that our efforts overseas, aimed at doing good in the world, could somehow help make moral sense out of this great tragedy we had suffered.
Of course, this moral ideal was not the only reason animating the American response in Iraq and Afghanistan. The desire to ensure that terrorists could not reach the American homeland again was a real animating principle, as was some element of retributive justice. But this moral case of “American Leadership” being a tool for achieving peace and freedom overseas is also there from the very beginning. President Bush himself articulated this moral case for what the US was doing in the Middle East in 2003:
These vital principles are being applies in the nations of Afghanistan and Iraq. With the steady leadership of President Karzai, the people of Afghanistan are building a modern and peaceful government. Next month, 500 delegates will convene a national assembly in Kabul to approve a new Afghan constitution. The proposed draft would establish a bicameral parliament, set national elections next year, and recognize Afghanistan's Muslim identity, while protecting the rights of all citizens. Afghanistan faces continuing economic and security challenges -- it will face those challenges as a free and stable democracy.
He went on to say:
This is a massive and difficult undertaking -- it is worth our effort, it is worth our sacrifice, because we know the stakes. The failure of Iraqi democracy would embolden terrorists around the world, increase dangers to the American people, and extinguish the hopes of millions in the region. Iraqi democracy will succeed -- and that success will send forth the news, from Damascus to Teheran -- that freedom can be the future of every nation. The establishment of a free Iraq at the heart of the Middle East will be a watershed event in the global democratic revolution.
Sixty years of Western nations excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East did nothing to make us safe -- because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty. As long as the Middle East remains a place where freedom does not flourish, it will remain a place of stagnation, resentment, and violence ready for export. And with the spread of weapons that can bring catastrophic harm to our country and to our friends, it would be reckless to accept the status quo.
Therefore, the United States has adopted a new policy, a forward strategy of freedom in the Middle East. This strategy requires the same persistence and energy and idealism we have shown before. And it will yield the same results. As in Europe, as in Asia, as in every region of the world, the advance of freedom leads to peace.
I want to pause for a second and acknowledge: this is a genuinely radical moral ideal! Of course, George Bush’s vision for the war on terror would become very controversial as early as 2003. But that does not take away from how common and consensus this moral sense was in the wake of 9/11. After all, only one sitting member of congress (out of 532) voted against the authorization to use military force against the attack’s perpetrators, which is remarkable in an era of intense political polarization.
Of course, what makes this all the more significant is that we have now witnessed the rapid and complete collapse of the US-backed regime in Afghanistan just in the last month. After 20 years and thousands of lost lives, we again have Afghanistan ruled by a Taliban regime. The collapse of the Afghan government gave us the visible sights and sounds of suffering 20 years after they were promised a kind of liberation. The end of the war in Afghanistan may have failed to register as strongly in America’s collective consciousness as 9/11, but the two will be forever linked.
I did not write about this at the time because I do not consider myself anything resembling an expert observer of American foreign policy nor of the history of Afghanistan. So I have largely refrained from taking a stance on what has happened over the past two months because, honestly, I did not know if I had much to add. But I realized that the subject kept coming up repeatedly in my mind, so I thought it was worth trying to articulate my attempts to make sense of this situation.
The arc of the war in Afghanistan shows that history has a way of rhyming: the graveyard of empires saw American occupation fail just like the Soviet Union’s occupation did in the 1980s, which fell just like the British Empire did in the 1800s. And of course, there is a strong resemblance to the failure of America in Vietnam, down to the collapse of Kabul, which played out almost exactly like the fall of Saigon 45 years ago.
It thus seems clear to me that the Biden Administration has failed to handle this withdrawal competently. From all accounts, they were caught unprepared for how fast Afghanistan would collapse into chaos and did not set up the systems they needed to handle a rapid collapse:
Biden administration officials consistently believed they had the luxury of time. Military commanders overestimated the will of the Afghan forces to fight for their own country and underestimated how much the American withdrawal would destroy their confidence. The administration put too much faith in President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan, who fled Kabul as it fell.
Outside of America, many were shocked at how we handled our responsibility in Afghanistan. American actions received bi-partisan condemnation in the UK parliament. This lack of competence and foresight is having real consequences for vulnerable people in Afghanistan. That said, what has stuck far more in my mind this past month is a broader question: what happened to this post 9/11 idea of my youth? The belief that America can and should use war as a tool to fight for freedom and Democracy around the world?
A critique from the left has always been deeply suspicious of this moral language around war, seeing it as merely a cynical cover for expanding the American empire and self-interest. This critique has taken many forms through the years: some believed that oil extraction was the real motive for the war on terror. Others thought that the war was the product of the lobbying of military and defense contractors. Others blamed American affinity toward Israel, or even xenophobia about the majority-Muslim Middle East, as driving the war. All of these theories are (in my view) short-sided as single explanations. Still, they do all get at the same core truth worth taking seriously: that America disguised its desire for power and control in the Middle East in the language of morality to justify its actions.
One should not be too quick to dismiss this notion out of hand. After all, America had a long history of questionable decisions to intervene in the Middle East. The US decided in the 1940s and 50s to back dictators in Syria and Iran who were favorable to American interests, even as they were not popular at home. American funded the Mujahideen resistance to the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, even as it became clear their intentions were morphing into what would become the modern Taliban. To this day, the US has a marriage of convenience with the repressive and oligarchic Gulf states. And this is just the Middle East; when accounting for America’s track record in Latin America, one can be even more suspicious. Common sense dictates that it is healthy to suspect how morality can provide a cover for our self-interest.
But while I think this more cynical accounting for America’s actions has a vital role to play in understanding the last 20 years, I also think it has problems in its explanatory power. It is hard (though not impossible) to look at the cost to America, both financially and in lives lost, and believe that an empire motivated by naked self-interest would keep pushing after a goal even after 20 years. But more pressingly: it fails to account for how many people involved in the American efforts overseas, from foreign policy experts, military personnel, and ordinary Americans, invested their effort in this project, sincerely believing that it would do good.
After all, the world is not a zero-sum environment: American national building has accomplished ideological goals in the past, even when done in the name of self-interest. In World War Two, America helped successfully built democratic institutions in Germany, Italy, and Japan. After the Korean War, American influence in South Korea has played a role in helping it transform from one of the poorest countries in the world to one of the wealthiest and best-educated. Of course, none of these projects were purely humanitarian at their core: all of them were influenced by our desire to keep Soviet influence (and often literal soviet backed armies) at bay in the region. And all of them involved, as is the nature of war and conquest, America intentionally and unintentionally inflicting pain and suffering on innocent people. But even with those caveats, you cannot discount the good done in these places. America’s behavior concerning international institutions has been historically mixed, but America has subjected its global interests to internationalist institutions and alliances (including UN, WTO, IMF, NATO, and numerous other places).
But today is not the day to argue with left-wing critics of the American empire. Instead, I think it is more important to engage with the accounting of those on the Neoconservative Right, who were always the strongest articulators of the initial goals of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus the whole project of neo conservativism should be more critically examined in the wake of current events. For example, some Neoconservatives argue that while democracy promotion and nation-building may have been a feature of our project in the Middle East, it was not the core concern. The argument is instead that the substance of our work in the Middle East was always primarily about keeping Americans safe from terror attacks in a post 9/11 world:
This argument does not seem true to me. Putting aside the question of whether our efforts in the Middle East have been effective counter-terror operations, I would again return to the rhetoric from George Bush in 2003 that pretty explicitly linked the promotion of Democracy to national security. In the early 2000s, people believed in this ideal and to deny that is a form of goal-post shifting. After all, George H.W. Bush explicitly declined to topple Saddam Hussein in 1991, believing that American interest merely dictated the defeat of Saddam, and to do more was naive and idealistic. Should we think George W. would not have carefully considered his divergence in foreign policy vision from his own father’s presidency? Moreover, the Taliban offered to surrender shortly after our invasion in 2001, a deal that would have ended hostilities without installing a new government in Afghanistan. This would have strongly resembled the end of the Gulf War of 1991 but was declined by George Bush and his advisors. So I am skeptical of the attempts to minimize the genuine idealism of the post 9/11 moment.
At the same time, Others on the Neoconservative Right articulate that the American project would have succeeded had we merely been willing to invest a little more time and resources in the project itself. After all, they argue that while Afghanistan’s government was deeply flawed, it had generally kept the Tabilan at bay as long as America had maintained its military commitment to the country. After all, we had trained the afghan military to fight in interdependence with American air support. You remove that support, and you remove the ability of that military force to be effective in its on-the-ground tactics. Moreover, building stable institutions takes time. Thus, many Neoconservatives believe that the Afghani government would have developed the civil institutions to govern effectively if only the US had invested more time.
I am not enough of an expert to definitively take a stance on projecting forward on how tactically successful indefinite US presence in Afghanistan would have proven. But I think a neutral observer cannot feel very good about how things were going in Afghanistan. I cannot help but call to mind one of the foundational principles of economic and community development: for an effort to be successful, development needs to be based on a partnership between outsiders and the community. Ideally, this partnership is led by the community, not by the outsider. James C Scott’s Seeing Like a State describes well the limits of what central planning by experts can achieve. A quick overview of the last 20 years of US policy in the Middle East causes one to question: is there simply too much knowledge about local realities that never was understandable to American military planners? I do not discount military expertise in high-level geostrategic thinking; I agree they are generally good at this! However, my point is that successful development in a nation requires far more than military expertise. If this intuition is correct, our efforts there have been doomed to fail from the beginning because America’s strategic plan would never have fully adapted to this local knowledge.
It would be dishonest to say that there is no moral difference between their regime and the American-supported government. The Taliban were and are a regime that has extensively sponsored and encouraged terrorism and violence against innocents. Their reign in the 1990s saw frequent mass executions in Kabul soccer stadiums, often of women. But that moral observation from outsiders did not give the US-backed government any more legitimacy locally with the Afghan people.
The failure of the US to ever fully erode the Taliban’s support in its homeland was imminently predictable. For years, many efforts in Afghanistan have been undermined by a lack of understanding or curiosity about the unique history of Afghanistan and its people. Amy Chua made this argument in her 2018 book Political Tribes, which argues that the US failed in Afghanistan (along with Vietnam and Iraq) to properly anticipate the inevitability of ethnic tribalism to undermine civic institutions. The divide between the elite, often of Tajik background, and the countries largest ethnic group, Pashtuns, who, along with help from Pakistan’s security services, continued to support the Taliban alive during the US’ time in Afghanistan.
The legitimacy of the government was further damaged by the widespread corruption of the Afghani government. This corruption was on display when Afghan president Ashraf Ghani is alleged to have fled the country with a massive pile of cash, presumably stolen from the government:
This was not entirely surprising: Ghani was always a politician whose talent was marketing himself to Americans more than governing Afghanistan. Ghani was known for giving Ted Talks and doing his utmost to make nice with American military elites, but who likely only won because of a questionable election:
From the moment he came to power in 2014, Ghani’s rule was tainted. Leaked tapes revealed election officials stuffing ballot boxes in Ghani’s favor. “[G]iven the apparent closeness of the election and the involvement of the chief electoral officer in fraud, it is almost impossible that we will ever know who won,” said a leaked State Department memo, obtained by The New Yorker. Ghani officially became president after the United States brokered a power-sharing agreement with his closest rival. Then–Secretary of State John Kerry called the undemocratic deal a “triumph of statesmanship.” But during Ghani’s 2019 re-election campaign, which was plagued by similar allegations of ballot-stuffing, Afghans, who did not trust the legitimacy of the election, voted in record-low numbers.
We were also not helped by how we conducted security attacks on the Taliban during our time there. There has been long-running documentation of how imprecise American drone strikes are and how finding unintended targets have helped bred opposition in the borderlands between Afghanistan and Pakistan, where Taliban support has traditionally been the strongest. Moreover, many experts believe that many of our strident anti-Taliban tactics may have strengthened the Taliban’s hand in the long run. Their message of being freedom fighters against evil outsider imperialists was bolstered when America killed innocents in our drone campaigns. Again, this was on full display in the final days of our time in Afghanistan when we launched a drone attack aiming at terrorists, but as we now know, that horrifically ended up killing a US ally and his young children:
Now, these are individual data points, and you can quibble with the details of many of them. But taken together, they paint a pretty clear picture to me: we have largely failed to achieve our idealistic ends in Afghanistan. Moreover, we failed to achieve these ends not merely because we left but because our project had deep flaws from the start. And that is the fact that I think needs to be thought through and wrestled with (as I will do in my post tomorrow) to think through what our country’s place in the world is going forward.