(Trends Wide) — On that awful day, September 11, 2001, I never saw what happened in real time. He was on an assignment in West Africa, in the middle of Sierra Leone’s civil war. But I remember vividly as I interviewed the victims of the United Revolutionary Front guerrilla army – their lips, ears, crushed limbs, their stories too horrible to imagine – that something great was happening on the other side of the world.
We had no conveniences like social media alerts or even a proper mobile phone connection. But my London-based producer was desperately trying to reach us, with the first news that a plane – maybe a small propeller plane, maybe an accident – had hit the World Trade Center in New York. And that I should be ready to redeploy immediately.
Easier said than done in a place without a functioning airport, no scheduled flights, no live television to monitor events. Finally we rented a small plane and arrived first at the Ivory Coast airport. There, the sheer horror was now evident when watching what Trends Wide was broadcasting live on the giant screens.
Even the ghoulish mastermind Osama bin Laden hadn’t quite expected this amount of global disruption; He didn’t even expect the Twin Towers to fall. In the infamous video discovered by US forces after expelling him from Afghanistan, he had drawn on his engineering expertise, using hand gestures, to explain why he thought only the floors on impact from the planes would melt and collapse. .
So what is the straight line that I see drawn from there to here? As others have asked, was September 11 an age-defining day, moment, or entire change in America’s understanding and vision of itself at home and abroad? Did the response to 9/11 cause as much damage as the attack itself?
I have come to the conclusion that the answer is yes. My own question is whether 20 years of this can be recalibrated, or whether the Bin Laden attack was actually the beginning of the end of the American empire.
On August 15, when the Taliban entered Kabul, as Afghanistan fell and put them back in command, I couldn’t help but have this vivid flashback: For the second time in 32 years, a group of misogynistic and undemocratic Afghan insurgents had defeated a superpower. On August 15 it was the United States. In 1989, it was the Soviet Union and its 10-year occupation.
It brought me back to April 1996, when I started covering Afghanistan and the total takeover by the Taliban.
What I learned about the Taliban informs everything I predicted for their government now. The Taliban official I interviewed once seized the capital a few months later, in November 1996 – Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai – is today its Deputy Foreign Minister, as he was then. I asked him, of course, about women’s rights, and he gave me the same vague no-promises that he’s giving the world now.
Why is this relevant today? Well, for basic human rights reasons, but also to emphasize once and for all who will be involved in this in the long run.
As even former US military officers admit today, the Taliban have been playing long games since the United States defeated them after 9/11. Some Americans are willing to acknowledge that the Taliban have used the past 20 years to strategize, wait, and act. The United States, not so much. As Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction John Sopko told Trends Wide, the United States has not fought a 20-year war in Afghanistan, but 20 wars a year.
I realize that now, as I look back at the short-term decisions and costly, difficult, and hardly successful interventions by the United States around the world, which together, since 9/11, have contributed to the depletion and isolationism of the United States. at home today, and growing cynicism and anger about America’s role as a force for good abroad.
A third alternative?
President Joe Biden’s failed withdrawal from Afghanistan does not invalidate what he said about not trying to remake other countries in America’s image. But who asked the United States to do that anyway? It is a false mission predisposed to failure, it becomes the inevitable straw dog in the midst of defeat and leads to the false conclusion that, therefore, the United States should pack its bags and go home, with its troops and its troops. ideals under lock and key.
It is a binary all or nothing doctrine. Are you sure there is a third way? In my time alone, I have witnessed successful humanitarian interventions led by the United States. After stepping out of the ethnic cleansing that tore Bosnia and Europe apart during the 1990s, finally the emerging genocide was too much for the United States to ignore, and it stepped in to stop it, and then did the hard diplomatic peace work, with the Dayton Accords in 1995. It is imperfect and is now endangered by nationalists, but it has kept the peace without a permanent US or NATO occupation, or an attempt to recreate the United States in the Balkans.
A few years later, the United States and a willing coalition intervened to prevent a similar genocide in Kosovo. Again, imperfect, but since 1999 Kosovo has been independent and a trusted ally of the United States.
A few years later, British Prime Minister Tony Blair ordered an intervention to end the brutal civil war in Sierra Leone, which is now at peace in that part of West Africa. There was no attempt to remake any of these nations “in our image.”
On the contrary, in December 1992 I witnessed President George HW Bush’s humanitarian intervention in Somalia to stop a devastating famine amid an ongoing civil war. It worked brilliantly to end the famine. However, you didn’t have to be there to find out why it was derailed. It is as clear as day to anyone who has read the book or seen the movie “Black Hawk Down”. The mission advance took over and the United States went from ending the famine to trying to eradicate the radicals. It ended in disaster.
A serious case of foreign policy insecurity followed in Rwanda in 1994. Burned, humiliated, and simply ignorant and inhuman, the Clinton administration actually spearheaded a UN effort not to intervene. The genocide killed 800,000 to one million people in just three months. Former President Bill Clinton has repeatedly apologized.
There have been no such acknowledgments or apologies from the presidents and prime ministers who shaped the post-9/11 policies that have dominated the last 20 years.
Conveniently named “the war against terrorism,” it is that the endless missions and the sending of US politics into the dark were given carte blanche to emerge in the Guantanamo Bay prison, where 39 suspects are still being held without trial because the Previous “interrogations” were in fact torture, something that is inadmissible in US courts. It led to “underground sites” around the world where American values died amid the barrage of beatings, sexual humiliations, animal attacks and drownings.
It established a lasting divide between the Muslim and non-Muslim world, as well as endless electronic surveillance of ordinary people.
Maintaining world values
Former defense policy staff member Kori Schake was at the Pentagon on September 11. This week he told me about the real fears of that day and acknowledged that they had led to serious mistakes, especially in moving American avengers from where they were, rightfully, in Afghanistan, to where they ended up illegitimately … in Iraq.
She is now director of defense and foreign policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which incubated the “intellectual confidence” for the 2003 war in Iraq that George W. Bush and his neocons so fervently wanted. Now, he says, there is an opportunity even in AEI to help find that third way: not a reactive military intervention, not an instinctive withdrawal, but something in between, based on maintaining the set of world values that the United States built from the ashes. of the Second World War.
Now, from the ashes of 9/11, we need a George Marshall – that one-of-a-kind scholar, soldier, and statesman – to re-familiarize us with the plan for America to reengage with the world and especially champion a strong democracy. .
It’s something an exhausted America could be proud of, and an updated version is not only necessary, it is indispensable. Because do we really want to close the circle everywhere, as we have done now in Afghanistan? There, a nation has been returned to the terrorist forces that the West went to defeat in the first place. Do we want to further empower global authoritarianism by ceding the competition of ideas to Beijing or Moscow? I don’t think so, but we risk letting it happen.
I know many Americans may have had enough of being the exceptional nation that describes itself, but in the late 1990s I was honing my journalism experience in the era of America, the “indispensable nation.” I believed it then, and although my confidence has been seriously affected after 9/11, I believe that it is possible to restore that image with a little work and serious thinking. Because even in Afghanistan a lot of good was done. And despite Biden’s claims, tens of thousands of Afghans fought and died to protect these achievements.
And journalists have an important role to play. We had a hard time covering Afghanistan from the Taliban in the late 1990s. But we report the facts and the truth there at that time, so that we can see with our own eyes that history repeats itself.
As a believer in enduring global ideals and values that America has always promoted and upheld, I will continue to do so with my coverage. It begins with all of us consciously and vigorously upholding the basic principles of truth and fact. As the late Senator Daniel Moynihan said in the 1980s, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.”
Aware in my current contemplative frame of mind that our greatest existential threat now is climate catastrophe, I recommit myself to the mantra I came upon while covering the genocide in Bosnia: We have to be honest, not neutral. Not all sides are equal and it is not for us to create a false equivalence. There is a special power in knowing and practicing it.