We didn’t have any mod-con like social media alerts or even a proper cell phone connection. But my London-based producer was desperately trying to reach us, with the first news of a plane – maybe a small propeller plane, maybe an accident – hitting the World Trade Center in New York City. And that I should be ready to redeploy immediately.
Easier said than done in a location with no functioning airport, no scheduled flights, no live TV to monitor events. We finally chartered a puddle-hopper and arrived first at Côte d’Ivoire Côte d’Ivoire airport up the coast. There, all of the horror was now evident on giant screens broadcasting CNN live.
Even the macabre mastermind Osama bin Laden hadn’t really expected this amount of global disruption; he didn’t even expect the Twin Towers to fall. In the infamous video uncovered by US forces after driving him out of Afghanistan, he drew on his engineering background, with hand gestures, to explain why he thought only floors above from the impact of the planes would melt and collapse.
So what’s the straight line that I see drawn from there to here? As others have asked, was September 11 a defining day, moment, or change of an era in America’s understanding and vision of itself in its country and in abroad? Did the September 11 response do as much damage as the attack itself?
I have concluded that the answer is yes. My own question is whether 20 years later can be recalibrated, or if bin Laden’s attack was in fact the beginning of the end of the American Empire.
On August 15, as the Taliban entered Kabul, as Afghanistan fell and brought them back to power again, I couldn’t help but have this vivid flashback: for the second time in 32 years ago, a gang of misogynist and anti-democratic Afghan insurgents had defeated a superpower. On August 15, it was the United States. In 1989, it was the Soviet Union and its 10 years of occupation.
It took me back to April 1996, when I started covering Afghanistan and the total Taliban takeover.
What I learned about the Taliban then informs everything I predict for their rule now. The Taliban official whom I interviewed after they took the capital a few months later, in November 1996, Mohammad Abbas Stanekzai, is now their deputy foreign minister, as he was at the era. I asked him questions, of course, about women’s rights, and he gave me the same vague non-promises he gives the world now.
Why is this relevant today? Well for fundamental human rights reasons, but also to underline once and for all who is there for the long term.
As even former US military officials admit today, the Taliban have played the game for a long time since the United States defeated them after 9/11. Some Americans are willing to admit that 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 the Reconstruction of Afghanistan, John Sopko, told CNN, the United States did not fight a 20-year war in Afghanistan, but 20 wars of a year.
I realize it now, as I think back to the short-term decisions and the costly, difficult and barely successful American interventions in the world, which taken together since 9/11 have contributed to exhaustion and turmoil. isolationism today at home, and growing cynicism and anger at America’s role as a force for good abroad.
A third way?
President Joe Biden’s hugely failed Afghan withdrawal does not negate what he said about no longer trying to remake other countries like America. But who asked America to do this anyway? It is a false mission that sets up failure, becomes the inevitable straw dog in the spotlight of defeat, and leads to the false conclusion that America should therefore simply pack its bags and go home, with its troops and his ideals under lock and key.
It is an all or nothing binary doctrine. Surely there is a third way? In my spare time alone, I have witnessed successful humanitarian responses by the United States. After stepping away from the ethnic cleansing that tore Bosnia and Europe apart in the 1990s, the burgeoning genocide was ultimately too big for the United States to ignore. the Dayton Accords in 1995. It is imperfect and today endangered by the nationalists, but it has maintained 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 voluntary coalition stepped in to prevent a similar genocide in Kosovo. Again, imperfect, but since 1999 Kosovo has been independent and a reliable 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 this part of West Africa. There has been no attempt to remake any of these nations “in our image”.
In contrast, in December 1992, I witnessed President George HW Bush’s humanitarian intervention in 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 have to be there to find out why it went off the rails. It’s clear as day to anyone who has read the book or watched the movie “Black Hawk Down”. Mission drift took over and the United States moved from ending the famine to trying to root out the radicals. It ended in disaster.
A serious case of foreign policy insecurity then manifested itself in Rwanda in 1994. Burned, humiliated and simply ignorant and inhuman, the Clinton administration was in fact the spearhead of an effort by the United Nations. UN not to intervene. The genocide killed between 800,000 and one million people in just three months. To his credit, former President Bill Clinton has apologized on several occasions.
There have been no such acknowledgments or apologies from the presidents and prime ministers who crafted the post 9/11 policies that have dominated the past 20 years.
Cleverly dubbed the “war on terror,” it has given carte blanche to endless missions and sent American politics into the black hole from which the Guantanamo Bay prison emerged, where 39 suspects are still being held without trial because that the previous “interrogations” were in fact torture, which is still inadmissible in US courts. This has led to “black sites” around the world where American values have died in the rain of beatings, sexual humiliation, animal attacks and waterboarding.
He established an enduring divide between the Muslim and non-Muslim worlds, as well as endless electronic surveillance of ordinary people.
Maintain global values
Former defense policy staff member Kori Schake was at the Pentagon on September 11. This week, she told me about the real fears of that day and admitted that they led to some serious mistakes, including moving the American Avengers from where they were, rightfully, in Afghanistan, to where they ended up. illegitimately … in Iraq.
She is now director of foreign and defense policy studies at the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI), which incubated the intellectual “brain confidence” for the 2003 Iraq war that George W. Bush and his neoconservatives wanted. so eagerly pursue. Now, she claims, there is even an opportunity at AEI to help find that third way: neither reactive military intervention, nor instinctive withdrawal, but something in the middle, based on upholding the set of global values. that the United States built. from the ashes of WWII.
Now, on the ashes of September 11, we need a George Marshall – that one-off scholar, soldier, and statesman – to familiarize us with the model for America to re-engage with the world and, in particular, to defend a strong democracy.
It’s something an exhausted America could be proud of, and an updated version isn’t just needed, it’s a must. Because do we really want to close the loop everywhere, as we have done now in Afghanistan? There, a nation was returned to the terrorist forces that the West defeated in the first place. Do we want to further strengthen 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 be tired of being the self-proclaimed Outstanding Nation, but in the late 90s I honed my background as a journalist in America’s Age, the “Indispensable Nation.” . I believed it at the time, and although my confidence was severely shaken after 9/11, I believe it is possible to restore that image with serious work and thought. Because even in Afghanistan, a lot of good has been done. And despite Biden’s claims, tens of thousands of Afghans fought and died to protect those gains.
And we journalists have a major role to play. We struggled to cover Afghanistan from the Taliban in the late 1990s. But we brought the facts and the truth back there, so we could see with our own eyes that history is repeating itself.
As a believer in enduring global ideals and the values America has always promoted and upheld, I will continue to do so with my cover. It starts with the fact that we all consciously and firmly stand up for the fundamentals of truth and fact. As the late Senator Daniel Moynihan said in the 1980s, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts.”
Realizing in my current contemplative mood that our greatest existential threat now is climate catastrophe, I re-commit to the mantra I came to while covering the genocide in Bosnia: we must be honest, not neutral. All camps are not created equal and it is not for us to create false equivalences. There is special power in knowing and practicing this.