“Where were you on 9/11?”
The question, asked for years in the wake of the terrorist attacks, is rarely posed any more. In fact, except for a few moments in the days leading up to the 20th anniversary this past weekend, I can’t recall the last time someone asked me that, or the last time I put it to someone else.
September 2001 now lies an astonishing twenty years in the past. We know what happened on the day; everybody agrees on that. But what happened in the intervening decades has become a matter of dispute.
Many now say it seems as if we’re right back where we started: twenty years wasted, trillions of dollars poorer, the Taliban again in control of Afghanistan, Islamist threats again buoyed by our national ambivalence, plus now, on top of it all, an aggressive China looking to exploit our self-made geopolitical mess. There’s some truth to this, though not because of the mistakes of the last twenty years but rather the mistakes of the last twenty months.
Critics of America’s war in Afghanistan tend to have forgotten, or perhaps have never known, why we were there in the first place. They undervalue what America achieved, and don’t adequately account for the threats that American forces did in fact neutralize. Most importantly, they suggest the formation of a conventional wisdom that will not be capable of transmitting to a rising generation the strategic and historical lessons of the past.
The U.S. is now out of Afghanistan. Will those who brought war to America twenty years ago pursue us again, so that ten years from now, a still bloodier postscript to these words will need to be written?
I. 2011: A History Lesson Unfolds
I spent September 11, 2011 like most days of my service in Afghanistan: coordinating intelligence and preparing mission briefs for the air crew of an electronic attack squadron whose traditional mission of suppressing enemy air-defense systems had evolved during the war on terror to countering improvised explosive devices and using its technology in other creative ways. But as much as anyone pretended the day was like any other, it wasn’t. Throughout my time in theater, I sent emails home to keep a record of how I felt and what I saw. As night fell over Bagram Airfield—once a base of the Soviet military, and then America’s largest military base in Afghanistan, abandoned this summer for the Taliban’s taking—I wrote home:
I’m not sure about you but I can’t believe it’s been ten years since we watched in disbelief as the Twin Towers fell and smoke rose from the Pentagon. For our generation, our childhoods were marked by images of a wall falling down—this a symbol of freedom and the start of the peacetime generation. Just over a decade later, the images of buildings falling down would change the direction of our lives at the precipice of our formative college years. It was then I knew that like our grandparents before us, this evil—not unlike the evil that sought the destruction of the Jewish people and world domination in World War II—would call our generation to serve and defend the very nation that liberated the camps and preserved freedom and democracy in the 20th century. Ten years later, here I sit in the country from which this evil was planned.
The significance of the moment didn’t really hit me until dinner tonight when, as we sat in the chow hall watching the live coverage of the 9/11 memorials, we heard the names of those who died read aloud one after the next—and we looked around at one another, saddened by the tragedy that befell our nation and yet bubbling with pride to be sitting next to fellow Americans and allies who volunteered to serve to ensure this tragedy would not befall us again.
As we observe yet another fallen-soldier ceremony here this evening, I hope you will all find time today to think about the courageous men and women who have made the ultimate sacrifice in America’s defense in the last ten years—and to say a prayer for all those who continue to serve in harm’s way.
Minutes after I hit send, we heard a whistling noise overhead getting louder and louder. One pilot shouted “hit the deck.” The impact sounded nearby. The next several hours were spent in the bomb shelter next to our hangar. We were not the only ones marking the tenth anniversary of 9/11 that day; the Taliban had their own way of celebrating. A fast-thinking pilot had grabbed his laptop on his way to the shelter. We watched the Muppet Show’s “Mahna Mahna” on a loop to pass the time.
A couple of weeks later, the High Holy Days began. The Hindu Kush mountains served as a dramatic backdrop for a handful of Jews from multiple forces and countries who had come together in the middle of a war to hear the blasts of the shofar. I served as the Jewish lay leader for Bagram. The only time we ever made a minyan—the traditional quorum of ten men over the age of thirteen—was for Kol Nidrei night. A few hours after breaking the fast, I managed to jot down reflections in between mission briefings:
October 9, 2011
Spending the high holidays in Afghanistan was more surreal than I expected it to be. Wandering in from all our various assignments—some just in from the field, some from the medical/nursing corps, some from special-forces task forces, some contractors—some carrying M16s, others carrying pistols—each filing into the main base chapel to be led in prayer by an Army colonel with a long gray beard and a Torah scroll he brought from America. . . .
Yom Kippur was a little different as you’d expect. The chaplain decided to visit a forward operating base and left me in charge of services. Knowing we would have a mixed crowd as far as Hebrew understanding and religious background, I made some quick notes in the machzor on Friday afternoon—marking off key portions to say aloud in English, which parts I might skip if we didn’t have a minyan again and general thoughts about big-picture items to explain. As it turned out, we had a minyan for Kol Nidrei—but came up short for Shacharis-Musaf-Mincha-Neilah. The chaplain had left me a kittel to wear along with a plentiful number of machzors and talitot. Mix in the shofar I got in the mail from the Aleph Institute and we were squared away. . . .
I can’t describe the adrenalin rush from eight Jewish soldiers in a war zone saying the final words of Neilah in unison seven times. I blew the shofar with one long crisp sound—and immediately someone shouted, “Next Year in Jerusalem.” We broke the fast on some no-refrigeration-needed packaged gefilte fish and some babka. It was a Yom Kippur to remember.
On the day we celebrated Simḥat Torah in Afghanistan, President Barack Obama ordered the U.S. military to complete a rapid withdrawal from Iraq by the end of 2011. Obama had campaigned on an anti-war platform and wanted to fulfill a popular political promise before his re-election campaign began. Senator John McCain, who in 2007 had led the fight to send large numbers of American military reinforcements to Iraq and thereby to turn around the war effort, now led the opposition to American withdrawal, warning that the U.S. could leave a vacuum filled by Islamic radicals and by Iran.
In this case, Obama understood the direction of American domestic politics better than his Republican opponents: the American public was tired of the war in Iraq. (Donald Trump, a very different man, would later employ similar rhetoric in advocating for American withdrawal from Afghanistan.) By 2011, Iraq had for years been thought of as the “bad war” while Afghanistan remained the “good war.” Obama would not pay a political price up front for following the polls and bringing Americans home. But events would soon prove McCain and other critics correct. Daesh, a radical jihadist group commonly referred to by Westerners as the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or simply Islamic State (IS), stepped in to fill the security vacuum created by America’s departure. Its fighters dealt a series of blows to Iraqi security forces, and captured key cities in western Iraq, as well as the northern city of Mosul. The newly established IS caliphate would claim responsibility for terrorist attacks in France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, and its brutal tactics immiserated the populations that it suddenly ruled.
American troops would be forced to return to help defeat IS. With terrorism on the rise, the pendulum of American support for military operations in Iraq to destroy terrorist networks swung back. We had learned an important lesson: the continued presence of a relatively small counterterrorism force can provide enough security and stability to defend critical interests without exposing American soldiers to unnecessary and unpopular risk. A corollary to this lesson: the domestic political benefits of withdrawal must be weighed against its second- and third-order effects, effects that may fully manifest only in the long run, and in a manner that doesn’t conveniently fit electoral timetables.
II. 1991: The Last Fall of Kabul and the Unipolar Moment
This was a lesson that America had already learned—and already forgotten—decades before the events of 2011, or of 2001.
Forty years ago, a new American president came into office with a clear objective: to win the cold war. Ronald Reagan understood the Soviet decision to invade Afghanistan in 1979 had left Moscow vulnerable. Working with Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, the Central Intelligence Agency would increase its financial support and training to Afghan mujahideen fighters—religious ideologues willing to form an insurgency slowly to drain the Soviets.
It worked. The USSR withdrew from Afghanistan ten years after it arrived. Americans were euphoric. The Soviets had suffered a humiliating defeat. Ideologically and economically bankrupt, their empire would begin collapsing just months later. With the cold war nearly won, Washington took its eyes off Afghanistan and its multibillion-dollar investment. By 1991, when the Soviet Union dissolved, leadership vacuums opened in countries previously governed by Soviet-installed dictators, including in Afghanistan. But by now, America had fully turned its attention elsewhere, and a four-year civil war ensued. The vacuum was filled by regional powers looking to strengthen their own interests, and with clandestine support from the Pakistani intelligence service, a new group of religious radicals—the Taliban—took power.
By the mid-90s, Americans were luxuriating in a brief historical period of geopolitical tranquility, or so it seemed to us at the time. While many in America were cheering Michael Jordan’s return to basketball and a second Bulls three-peat, the Taliban was running a heroin-financed theocratic tyranny and giving full support to Islamist terrorist organizations—most notably, al-Qaeda and its chief, Osama bin Laden. In 1996, Bin Laden moved his base of operations there, establishing terrorist training camps and formally declaring war on the United States. With Taliban-guaranteed safe harbor, al-Qaeda thrived.
At the time, the Clinton administration saw counterterrorism as a defensive task for law enforcement—a set of individual operations and actors who, after they had violated a law, would be brought to justice. It would be Clinton’s successor, George W. Bush, who would institute a different American concept, advancing a global campaign to hunt down terrorists and interdict their financial networks before they could be used. But that would still be years away, and would only come after the attacks.
Thus, when al-Qaeda blew up the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, Clinton ordered precision strikes at terror camps in Afghanistan and Sudan—and then nothing more. It was a strategy that would prove highly ineffective. In 2000, al-Qaeda bombed the USS Cole as it docked in Yemen, killing seventeen American sailors and leaving dozens more injured. Clinton declared that America would “find out who was responsible and hold them accountable.” He never did. The 9/11 attacks took place eleven months later.
The 9/11 attacks motivated me to serve in the military, but the decision had deeper roots. My grandfather of blessed memory was a Jewish refugee who fled Nazi Germany in 1939 as part of the Kindertransport and later joined the British army to fight the evil that still consumed the parents and siblings he left behind. While his generation often didn’t speak to their children about their experiences, their grandchildren benefitted from a renewed push for Holocaust remembrance, education, and documentation. We watched as family and friends told their stories to the Spielberg Project. The horrors of Nazi brutality were embedded in us, alongside a deep appreciation for America’s role in defeating Hitler and liberating the camps. To me, 9/11 was the moment for American Jews to rise to the defense of a nation that fought to save our existence—to fight a similar evil to the one it had defeated a half-century prior. Four-and-a-half years later, I would raise my right hand and receive my commission as an intelligence officer in the Navy Reserve.
To others, it was the moment it became clear that the government had misjudged the terrorist threat and chosen the wrong strategy to fight it. The 585-page 9/11 Commission Report, released in 2004, covered a lot of ground—including the failures and inadequacies of U.S. counterterrorism policy in the decade prior to the attacks.
The Clinton administration had believed diplomacy with the Taliban—a mixture of pressure and persuasion—could end the group’s support for al-Qaeda. That strategy failed. Lacking a military or clandestine presence in or near the country, America suffered intelligence gaps that prevented its leaders from making decisions with confidence. The idea that the United States could disrupt terrorist networks with “over-the-horizon” military capabilities like satellites and cruise missiles proved a fiction. The threat of terrorism was simply not at the top of the American consciousness, which led to a lack of imagination and readiness for something like 9/11.
In addition to much-needed structural reforms in areas of law enforcement, intelligence, border security, and aviation security, the Commission recommended a global strategy to root out Islamist terror networks and their sanctuaries. Reading between the report’s lines, two wars would likely be needed: a war of bullets and bombs to deny terrorists the physical space to coordinate attacks, and a war of ideas to defeat their extremist ideology.
The invasion of Afghanistan was the most immediate task at hand. The Bush administration’s mission was to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, destroy al-Qaeda’s infrastructure, and prevent Afghanistan from ever again becoming a terrorist haven. To accomplish these goals, the Taliban would need to be forcibly removed from power and prevented from retaking it in the future. And the United States would not act alone; America’s closest allies would join in the war effort to defeat al-Qaeda and prevent a terrorist sanctuary from reemerging in Afghanistan.
There is no doubt that America made mistakes in conducting the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in the war on terror in general, errors that still await thorough and judicious treatment that goes beyond popular wisdom and sloganeering. But we must also appreciate what in fact the United States achieved in Afghanistan. By responding forcefully to escalating al-Qaeda attacks, the U.S. finally put the jihadists on the defensive, showed that it wouldn’t be satisfied with symbolic cruise-missile strikes, and fundamentally disrupted the ability of Afghanistan-based terrorists to attack Americans. And American civil servants, public-health officials, and NGOs, led by the American military, made life better for the Afghan people in the process. Osama bin Laden thought the U.S. was a paper tiger that would run away from a real fight, and that jihadist strength would be more appealing to the Muslim world than Western feebleness. For a time, America proved him wrong.
Now, we’re unlearning what we had learned. Two decades after 9/11, President Biden declares with confidence that the United States can defend the nation with satellites and drones from a Taliban-led terrorist refuge. Terrorism, he says, is not a major priority anymore. Diplomacy with the Taliban will yield positive results.
IV. 2021: American Retreat and Its Consequences
In August 2021, with the fall of Kabul and the installation of a Taliban government in Afghanistan, the world witnessed one of the most predicted and avoidable foreign-policy disasters in American history. Many analysts and the entire U.S. defense establishment advised against any precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan that could leave the Afghan army vulnerable to a major offensive, that is, to rescind U.S. logistical, intelligence, airpower, and special-operations support. To stop that from happening, President Biden needed only do one thing: maintain a relatively small footprint in Afghanistan and continue support to the Afghan military.
The shameful negotiations with terrorists for an American withdrawal from Afghanistan began not with Biden but with his predecessor, Donald Trump, and these earlier negotiations have helped Biden to justify his own actions. The Trump-administration’s decision to legitimize and negotiate with the Taliban—pretending that a radical al-Qaeda-allied terrorist organization was a reformed political movement that could be trusted in any arena—was hotly debated inside the administration. Trump’s first two national security advisers adamantly opposed such talks, but the president persisted, finding in Secretary of State Michael Pompeo a senior counselor willing to entertain the fantasy.
In 2020, Pompeo flew to Doha, Qatar to sign an agreement with the Taliban and the Afghan government that committed the U.S. to withdraw its forces from the country so long as the Taliban disavowed al-Qaeda and other terror groups, halted all attacks on coalition forces, and brokered a lasting peace agreement with the elected Afghan government. On all three counts, the Taliban failed to live up to its commitments. That alone would have been justification for America to react strongly, reminding the Taliban of what the American military had recently done to IS. At the very least, the Taliban’s failure to meet the terms of American negotiations could have made it easy for Washington to change course. (Senior Trump administration defense officials claim that was their plan had the president won a second term.)
One reason perhaps that Biden became more Trumpian than Trump on Afghanistan has to do not with regional interests and threats, but instead with American politics. For while Trump advanced elements of a muscular foreign policy, increasing defense spending and imposing maximum pressure on the Islamic Republic of Iran, his political sensibilities and instincts were rooted in American populism, and drew on an increasingly isolationist cross-section of the American body politic—one that transcends party politics and attracts, among others, members of the libertarian right and socialist left. This segment of Trump’s base advocated for American withdrawal from all global military commitments—from Germany to Korea.
President Biden addressed the nation on August 16 and tapped into the very same political rhetoric of his predecessor. He claimed America had already fulfilled its mission in Afghanistan: routing al-Qaeda and ensuring the country could not be used as a staging ground for future attacks against the U.S. homeland. The last decade of American involvement had amounted, he thought, to fighting in an Afghan civil war and engaging in nation building at great cost to the American people. Despite the outcome of the withdrawal being the restoration of a Taliban-controlled government, Biden insisted that he made the right decision to force the Afghan army to stand and fight the Taliban on its own. The outcome would have been no different, he claimed, had we stayed any longer.
But that is a false choice. America’s options were not limited to leaving and ceding the country to the Taliban or staying and fighting someone else’s war forever. A relatively small American footprint of intelligence, special-operations, and air support based out of Bagram, alongside continued assistance to the Afghan military, would have prevented this calamity at relatively low cost and risk compared to earlier periods of U.S. involvement in Afghanistan.
Biden, however, said he was fulfilling a campaign promise to leave, that America had done what it could, and that the very disaster that followed America’s departure proved that his decision to withdrawal was correct. “American troops cannot and should not be fighting in a war and dying in a war that Afghan forces are not willing to fight for themselves,” he said.
But they were fighting. 66,000 Afghan army and police were killed fighting for their country over the last two decades. They fought last year. They fought this year too, until Biden pulled the plug on U.S. support. We trained the Afghan military, over the last many years, to operate on the basis of critical advisory functions that we would continue to supply: logistical, technological, and psychological. When Biden ordered America’s withdrawal from the country, he didn’t just remove troops, he removed the technical and morale-boosting support the Afghans needed to fight and win. As one commentator put it, Biden forced the Afghans to fight with iPhones whose iOS software had been removed.
When he came into office, Biden faced a range of options in Afghanistan. The best was likely to maintain the status quo—put simply, to do nothing or to increase modestly U.S. troop levels to guarantee a sufficient footprint of special-operations, intelligence, logistical, and air support to the Afghan military. Biden ignored the advice of his top military advisers and the intelligence community—and now American national security will pay the price. When asked about the Taliban, his answers make clear he suffers from the same delusion of his predecessor: that the Taliban is not the terrorist-loving organization it once was.
According to a report released earlier this year by the U.S. Treasury Department’s Office of Inspector General, “al-Qaeda is gaining strength in Afghanistan while continuing to operate with the Taliban under the Taliban’s protection. . . . Al-Qaeda capitalizes on its relationship with the Taliban through its network of mentors and advisers who are embedded with the Taliban, providing advice, guidance, and financial support.”
The United Nations said the same in June. “The Taliban and al-Qaeda remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.”
“Do you believe the Taliban have changed,” George Stephanopoulos asked Biden last month. “I think they’re going through sort of an existential crisis about [whether] they want to be recognized by the international community as being a legitimate government,” the president responded, all evidence to the contrary. Turning a blind eye to radical Islamist terrorists and their sponsors; abandoning American citizens who could not escape; and betraying our Afghan allies who endangered their lives to fight alongside American soldiers—it is actually we who face existential questions about ourselves.
V. 2031: New Threats
The last time the Taliban took full control of Afghanistan was in 1996. Less than five years later America suffered the 9/11 attacks. One question should dominate all others for American policymakers: what must be done to prevent another 9/11 in the next five to ten years?
Our current trajectory is likely catastrophic. Even with the most powerful military on earth, one strengthened by two decades of technological advances, we can no longer fulfill the primary objective for which we invaded Afghanistan; the country will once again serve as the breeding ground for terrorism plots against the United States and our allies. True, America is probably more secure today than at any time in our history—but overconfidence and lack of imagination were key ingredients in enabling the September 11 attacks.
As in sports, a strong defense can only carry you so far if the offense abandons the field. As President Bush reminded the nation many times, the terrorists need to get it right just once; we need to get it right 100 percent of the time. That “mighty task,” as he called it, just got even mightier.
Some will be pushing for blue-ribbon commissions to analyze the American presence in Afghanistan over twenty years. Others will demand investigations into how the Biden administration bungled its withdrawal so badly, or why Biden made the decision to withdraw in spite of the predictable consequences. But Americans should stay focused on the crisis at hand—there will be time for accountability and scholarly analysis soon enough.
An entire generation of young Afghans, born after 9/11, familiar with Americans, is about to be flush with anger and resentment toward the United States. Indeed, Washington bears responsibility for the humanitarian catastrophe now unfolding. Congress and the administration must do all it can to continue to provide safe passage out of Afghanistan for all American citizens. We also owe a debt to the Afghan men and women who worked for the coalition over the last two decades; they cannot be left behind. The Afghan refugee crisis will soon become a matter for international donor conferences, which the United States should organize and lead to ensure those fleeing Taliban persecution can be relocated to safety. Even though the military isn’t in the country anymore, there’s still much we can do.
While the Taliban has long been subject to U.S. anti-terrorism sanctions, taking over a government—controlling its central bank and regulating all sectors of its economy—dramatically elevates the group’s terror- and drug-finance capabilities. When Afghanistan fell, it had $9 billion in reserves, $7 billion of which were kept in the United States. While the Treasury Department took initial steps to freeze those funds and prevent their repatriation to Kabul, there is no law requiring the Biden administration to do so. Should Biden fall into the same trap he has with Iran—offering money in exchange for empty promises of good behavior—the Taliban could come into a windfall on any given day.
Congress should impose a new sanctions regime on the Islamic Emirate of Afghanistan, as the Taliban has renamed the country. Those sanctions should block all assets belonging to the central bank and any other government-controlled institution so long as the Taliban is in control of the country. Banks that do business with Taliban-controlled banks should face penalties in the United States. Since the Taliban never ended its support for al-Qaeda, the government should be formally designated as a state sponsor of terrorism. Officials should also consider imposing sanctions on key sectors of Afghanistan’s economy, particularly its mining sector, to prevent China from financing the exploration and extraction of the country’s rare-earth minerals.
We’ve come a long way in financial warfare and anti-money-laundering capabilities since September 11. America can now force banks to take extraordinary precautions to know their customers and can threaten to cut off multinational corporations from the U.S. market if they provide services or support to anyone listed in the U.S. sanctions database. We’ve used these tools to dry up resources for individuals, front companies, networks, and even governments. Look no further than the maximum-pressure campaign against Iran that brought that regime’s accessible foreign-exchange reserves down from $122 billion in 2018 to just $4 billion at the end of 2020.
Still, terrorist networks are innovating too. That terrorists, drug lords, and sex traffickers increasingly use cryptocurrencies to evade law enforcement and money-laundering regulations is taken for granted, yet our sanctions and terror-finance laws have not evolved to meet this challenge. The Taliban, al-Qaeda, and other groups will look to cryptocurrency to hide their illicit activities. Congress should hold crypto exchanges and wallet providers accountable for whatever happens on their platforms, just as we hold banks accountable for illicit transactions on theirs. Don’t just seize a wallet and play defensive Whac-A-Mole for years—go on the offensive and threaten sanctions and criminal liability against exchanges and wallet providers. Make them police themselves.
On the defense side of the equation, Congress needs to ask tough questions: how exactly will the United States be able to stop al-Qaeda and other terrorist groups from using Afghanistan as a base to launch attacks against the homeland, U.S. interests, and our allies? Unlike other conflict zones where aircraft carriers and U.S. bases can support long-term engagements, America’s “over-the-horizon” capability appears limited at best when dealing with a landlocked country like Afghanistan. We have no troop or intelligence presence in any bordering country. The 24/7 intelligence picture the Defense Department produced for years does not exist today and will likely never be restored so long as the Taliban remains in control. Human intelligence will dry up quickly. Intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance will have gaps. Rapid-response forces will no longer be in position to respond at all.
Russia and China will put enormous pressure on Central Asian countries not to open their doors to a U.S. military presence. Looking at the region, however, the U.S. has no other good options. Congress and the Biden administration will need to work together, creatively, to provide incentives big enough to make it happen. Each country has a reason to say no. America needs to find a way to get just one—maybe Uzbekistan—to yes. Military planners will also need contingencies ready should a future president find it necessary to remove the Taliban government by force again.
We also need to take stock of perhaps the most important yet underappreciated line of effort in the war on terror: countering radical Islamist ideologies. American troops and diplomats can be called to do many things, but winning a war of religious ideology is not one. That war must be fought within Islam by allies who not only oppose radical teachings but have the resources and willingness to take on the fight.
Fearing the rise of IS, Saudi Arabia opened a counter-extremism center in 2017 to track radical messages distributed on social-media platforms, study clusters of accounts that appear to be radicalizing, and inject counter-radical messaging based in Islamic law and tradition. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman also appointed a new leader at the Muslim World League, an expert in Islamic jurisprudence who pledged to root out radical ideologies spread through Saudi-funded textbooks and madrassas. Now is the time to assess whether these initiatives are working and what else can be done to support them. It could and should become a core pillar of the U.S.-Saudi bilateral relationship going forward.
As for the blue-ribbon commission members of Congress will undoubtedly demand, the most constructive question to ask is not how America failed in Afghanistan but instead how the Taliban succeeded. Over more than 25 years, one country’s support to the Taliban looms largest over this international saga: Pakistan. The United States could never get its policy in Afghanistan quite right because it never got its Pakistan policy quite right.
The Inter-Services Intelligence Directorate (ISI)—Pakistan’s CIA—worked with the U.S. to train the mujahideen in the 1980s. When the Soviets left, the ISI and the Pakistani military provided support to the Taliban in its takeover of Kabul. When America invaded in 2001, Pakistan provided refuge for Taliban leaders and supported their drive to retake the country.
The U.S. for years believed it could only push so far to stop Pakistan’s malign activities, fearing that its government would collapse or that its military—more specifically its nuclear weapons—would fall into the hands of terrorist networks. We did accomplish a bit. With U.S. backing, the Pakistani military fought a war against Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, a terrorist organization pledged to overthrow the government in Islamabad. But the ISI, masters of playing all sides, continued its support of the Afghan Taliban, undermining the United States, our allies, and the elected Afghan government over two decades. The Taliban’s strength, organization, and ability to execute a march on Kabul is likely a testament to ISI funding and training.
A U.S.-Pakistan bilateral reset was needed in the wake of 9/11. It was needed ten years later when we found Osama bin Laden less than a mile from Pakistan’s elite military academy. History is doomed to repeat itself if we don’t achieve that reset now.
The legacy of 9/11 demands a broader look than at Afghanistan alone. America has ceded Afghanistan to terrorists. Will it cede the broader Middle East next? That is what Iran is hoping. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has likely convened his Supreme National Security Council to analyze Biden’s Afghanistan decision and evaluate the regime’s next steps in both its terror sponsorship and nuclear ambitions.
Iran aspires to build an entrenched terror crescent from Yemen to Lebanon, encircling the state of Israel and moderate Sunni Arab governments with missiles to target major population centers and threaten civil maritime and aviation traffic. The regime has achieved some of this already by arming the Houthis in Yemen and Hizballah in southern Lebanon. But the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Syria and Iraq would create the vacuum Iran needs to move forces and munitions throughout the region with impunity.
If Biden applies his Afghanistan decision-making to Syria and Iraq, it won’t just be the rise of Sunni jihadism that will worry American policymakers over the decade to come, but Shiite-sponsored terrorism as well. The two, of course, are not disconnected. Iran has long been a facilitator for al-Qaeda leadership and continues to harbor some of America’s most wanted terrorists. What follows the collapse of Afghanistan and an uncontested Iranian power grab in the Middle East will not be pretty.
VI. The 9/11 Generation Steps Back
During my final week in Afghanistan, we flew to Kabul for a meeting with the chief of intelligence for the International Security Assistance Force. The war effort wasn’t perfect—a humorous understatement for those who participated or tracked operations closely. The implementation of a strategy in Afghanistan suffered from an almost inexplicable disconnect between command assumptions and on-the-ground experiences. Indeed, somewhere deep inside the Pentagon’s email archives quietly sit tomes-worth of suggestion memos sent by junior officers over two decades hoping to fix a wide-range of systemic challenges. Our squadron was no different; we wanted to provide our own lessons-learned and recommendations for improvement—at least from our small perch of intelligence support to electronic warfare.
The general could only see us in the early evening, forcing us to bed down at the now-famous Kabul International Airport for the night before returning to Bagram. I couldn’t sleep, so I pulled out my iPhone and started writing:
As I lie here on an uncomfortably raw and broken spring mattress—no sheets, no pillow except the rolled-up towel I brought with me—the air as stuffy as can be—the temperature fluctuating from freezing cold to overheating by the hour—nothing to wear but the flight suit I came in with—a bright ceiling light shining in my face—someone’s alarm clock beeping every five minutes even though it’s only 1am—and the constant shaking of the man above me shifting back and forth—I can’t seem to fall asleep even though I only slept three hours last night. In truth, I can’t sleep because there’s too much on my mind. . . .
In a matter of days, we will be back at our civilian desks in DC—picking up our lives where we left off—sharing Thanksgiving dinner with family and friends—going to parties, following what’s left of the college football season and, . . . well . . . living life. I look around this tent at 22 soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines that I don’t know and probably never will. Where are they going? How long will they be gone for? Is one man going home to his wife and child—is another just leaving the same, bound for a year of service at the edge of battle? Will all of these men make it back home at the end of their journeys? Only the Almighty knows these things—and yet, here I lie, . . . still thinking about it all.
What makes me most proud to be an American is to live among citizens who are voluntarily willing to put it all on the line to defend something bigger than any one of us—an ideal—a symbol to the world—freedom. Yes, I will soon be home and thousands of my brothers and sisters in arms will remain behind—but our hearts and minds are one, sewn together by the threads of the red, white, and blue banner we hail. American servicemembers are never alone—they are soothed by the patriotism and courage that flows in every tent, in every desert, in every hellhole where the Stars and Stripes proudly wave. And with that bit of comfort—with that knowledge that these heroes who surround me now will have something to warm their souls as winter sets in across this desolate land—I think I’m ready to fall asleep.
Ten years later, watching the videos coming out of Afghanistan, I can’t sleep again.
More than 40 percent of the soldiers in the Army and more than 60 percent of enlisted Marines are younger than twenty-four years old. None of them could possibly remember 9/11. Indeed, across all branches of the U.S. military, the enlisted ranks are flush with men and women who were not alive in 2001. Soon, the first cohort of officers of the same generation will graduate from our service academies. And American society writ large will follow that trend. These men and women did not witness the beginning of the war on terror they inherited. What course will they chart?
On September 11, 2001, America was awakened from its happy post-cold war slumber, and names previously known only to specialists and wonks filled our newspapers, screens, and everyday conversation. It suddenly became clear that terrorism wasn’t a problem that could be solved without an immense national commitment and the sustained focus of military, diplomatic, legislative, and executive personnel.
But now we have chosen to unlearn everything we had learned, and have abandoned our responsibility to pass it on to the next generation. We’re back where we were on September 10, 2001, squandering our achievements, and too focused on ourselves to think about rising dangers.
At some point over the last decade, the American public moved on. Maybe it was war fatigue, maybe it was the result of poll-tested messaging by the leaders of both political parties, maybe it was a genuine wariness that those leaders had failed to set clear and realistic objectives for our military forces, and maybe it was just the passage of time.
But like every member of the 9/11 generation, I remember where I was when the towers fell. The consequences of hiding from history turned the New York skyline to dust and the Western side of the Pentagon to ashes. America must not hide from history again.
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