America’s response to 9/11 was as damaging as the attack. It’s not too late to change course

On that ghastly day, September 11, 2001, I never saw what happened in real time. I was on assignment in West Africa, in the midst of Sierra Leone’s civil war. But I recall vividly as I was interviewing the hacked-up victims of the Revolutionary United Front guerrilla army — their lips, ears, limbs macheted off, their stories too awful to imagine — something big was happening on the other side of the world.

We had no mod-cons like social media alerts or even proper mobile phone connection. But my London-based producer was trying desperately to reach us, with the first news of a plane — maybe a small prop plane, maybe an accident — hitting the World Trade Center in New York. And that I should be prepared immediately to redeploy.

Easier said than done in a place with no functioning airport, no scheduled flights, no live TV to monitor events. We eventually chartered a puddle-hopper out and got first to the Cote d’Ivoire Ivory Coast airport up the coast. There the full horror was now evident to see on huge screens carrying CNN live.

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 driving him out of Afghanistan, he had drawn on his engineering background, complete with hand gestures, to explain why he thought only the floors above the planes’ impact would melt and topple.

So, what is the straight line that I see drawn from there to here? As others have asked, was 9/11 a day, a moment, or a whole era-defining shift in America’s understanding and vision of itself at home and abroad? Did the response to 9/11 do as much damage as the attack itself?

I have concluded the answer is yes. My own question is if 20 years on this can be recalibrated, or whether bin Laden’s attack was actually the beginning of the end of American empire.

On August 15, as the Taliban entered Kabul, as Afghanistan fell and brought them back full circle in charge again, I could not help but have this vivid flashback: for the second time in 32 years a bunch of misogynistic, 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 first started covering Afghanistan and the total takeover by the Taliban.

What I learned about the Taliban then informs everything I predict for their rule now. The Taliban official I interviewed once they had taken the capital a few months later, in November 1996 — Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai — is their deputy foreign minister today, as he was back then. I asked him, of course, about women’s rights, and he gave me the same vague non-promises as he is giving the world now.

Why is this relevant today? Well for basic human rights reasons, but also to emphasize once and for all who is in this for the long haul.

As even former US military officials admit today, the Taliban have been playing the long game since the US defeated them after 9/11. Some Americans are willing to acknowledge the Taliban have used the past 20 years to strategize, wait, and act. The United States, not so much. As the special inspector general for Afghanistan reconstruction, John Sopko, told CNN, the US has not fought a 20-year war in Afghanistan, but 20 one-year wars.

I realize that now, as I look back on the short-term decisions and the expensive, difficult, barely successful US interventions around the world, which as a whole since 9/11 have contributed to exhaustion and isolationism today at home, and mounting cynicism and anger about America’s role as a force for good abroad.

A third way?

President Joe Biden’s hugely bungled Afghan withdrawal does not invalidate what he said about no more trying to remake other countries in America’s image. But who asked America to do that anyway? It’s a false mission that sets up failure, becomes the inevitable straw-dog in the full glare of defeat, and leads to the false conclusion that America therefore should just pack up and go home, with its troops and its ideals under lock and key.

It’s a binary all-or-nothing doctrine. Surely there is a third way? Just in my time alone, I’ve witnessed successful US-led humanitarian interventions. After staying out of the ethnic cleansing that ripped Bosnia and Europe apart during the 1990s, finally the emerging genocide there was too much for the US to ignore, and it did intervene to stop it, and later did the hard diplomatic work of peace, with the Dayton Accords in 1995. It is imperfect and today put at risk by nationalists, but it has kept the peace without a permanent American or NATO occupation, or an attempt to recreate America-in-the-Balkans.

A few years later, America and a willing coalition intervened to preempt a similar genocide in Kosovo. Again, imperfect, but since 1999 Kosovo has been independent, and a reliable US ally.

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.”

By way of contrast, in December 1992 I witnessed President George H. W. Bush’s humanitarian intervention into Somalia, to stop a devastating famine in the midst of an ongoing civil war. It worked brilliantly to end the famine. However, you didn’t need to be there to know why it went off the rails. It’s clear as day to anyone who has read the book or watched the “Black Hawk Down” movie. Mission creep took over, and the US shifted from ending famine to trying to eradicate the radicals. It ended in disaster.

A serious case of foreign policy insecurity showed up next in Rwanda in 1994. Burned, humbled and just plain ignorant and inhumane, the Clinton administration actually spearheaded a UN effort not to intervene. The genocide killed 800,000 to a million people in just three months. To his credit, former President Bill Clinton has repeatedly apologized.

There have been no such acknowledgments or apologies from the presidents and prime ministers who devised the post-9/11 policies that have dominated the last 20 years.

Handily branded “the war on terror,” it has given carte blanche to endless mission creep, and sent American policy down the dark hole from which emerged the Guantanamo Bay prison, where 39 suspects are still held without trial because the preceding “interrogations” were in fact torture, which is still inadmissible in US courts. It led to “black sites” around the world where American values died amid the hail of beatings, sexual humiliation, animal attacks, and waterboarding.

It set up a lasting division between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, as well as endless electronic surveillance of ordinary people.

Maintaining world values

Former defense policy staffer Kori Schake was at the Pentagon on 9/11. This week she told me about the real fears of that day, and acknowledged they had led to serious mistakes, especially in shifting American avengers from where they were, legitimately, in Afghanistan, to where they illegitimately ended up… in Iraq.

She is now director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which incubated the intellectual “brain trust” for the 2003 war in Iraq that George W. Bush and his neo-cons so fervently wanted to pursue. Now, she claims, there is an opportunity even at AEI to help find that third way: neither reactive military intervention, nor knee-jerk withdrawal, but something in the middle, based on maintaining the set of world values that the United States built out of the ashes of World War II.

Now, out of the ashes of 9/11, we need a George Marshall — that unique scholar, soldier and statesman — to reacquaint us with the blueprint for America reengaging with the world and, especially, defending strong democracy.

It’s something an exhausted America could be proud of, and an updated version is not just needed, it is indispensable. For do we really want to come full circle everywhere, as we have now done in Afghanistan? There, a nation has been handed back 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 think not, but we risk just letting it happen.

I know many Americans may have had enough of being the self-described exceptional nation, but back in the late 90s I was honing my journalist experience in the era of America, the “indispensable nation.” I believed it then, and though my confidence is severely shaken post 9/11, I think it’s possible to restore that image with some serious work and thought. For even in Afghanistan much good was done. And despite Biden’s claims, tens of thousands of Afghans did fight and die to protect these gains.

And we journalists have a major role to play. We had a tough time covering the Taliban’s Afghanistan back in the late 90s. But we reported the facts and the truth there at the time, so we can see with our own eyes that history is repeating itself.

As a believer in the enduring global ideals and the values that America has always promoted and defended, I will continue to do so with my coverage. It starts with us all consciously and robustly defending the core principles of truth and facts. As the late Senator Daniel Moynihan said back in the 80s, “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.”

Mindful in my current contemplative mood that our greatest existential threat now is the climate catastrophe, I recommit myself to the mantra I came to while covering genocide in Bosnia: we have to be truthful not neutral. Not all sides are created equal and it’s not up to us to create false equivalency. There is special power in knowing and practicing that.

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