Remembering 9/11 and the first sounds of war drums
I remember being in tenth grade between second and third period (Mrs. Nunemacher’s Algebra 2 class and Miss Leach’s geometry class) when the towers were hit. As a son of Arab Americans, I knew it was extremist Muslims that hit the towers. My parents fled Egypt to escape persecution as Christians, and so they found solidarity and identity in a Christian-majority country. I didn’t have the same experience, because I grew up as an ethnic minority, in contrast to their religious minoritarian status in Egypt. For my parents, 9/11 felt like what they were escaping came to the U.S. to attack them. For me, it felt like who I was, and what I looked like, was under attack in the U.S. It wasn’t so long after 9/11 that someone said I looked like Osama bin Laden. The racism I experienced was hard to note because it was just the water I swam in.
I have to admit my perspective then on the War in Afghanistan, and the Global War on Terror in general, was colored by my experience as a brown teenager in Central Pennsylvania. It was also motivated by the politically-charged punk rock music I listened to, which, much to my actual surprise, was not that far off from Jesus’ peacemaking way in the Sermon on the Mount. Jesus blessed the peacemakers, told us to love our enemies, and I tried to take him seriously, even as the war drums continued to be beaten, and even as the Bush Administration created an enemy to start a two-decades long war.
I didn’t have a cohesive political theology in high school, though, and I oscillated as a result of public pressure to support the war. Even as late as 2003, as my heartstrings were tugged for the oppressed Kurdish people in Iraq, I wondered if invading Iraq was a good idea.
Jingoism was in the air
At the time, the jingoistic rhetoric was off-the-charts. The U.S. was brutally attacked, and it was quite a moment of national unity. Barbara Lee, a prophet in her own right, was the only member of Congress to oppose the War in Afghanistan. But it was hard to oppose at the time. George W. Bush uttered these infamous words that forced a binary:
We will starve terrorists of funding, turn them one against another, drive them from place to place until there is no refuge or no rest.
And we will pursue nations that provide aid or safe haven to terrorism. Every nation in every region now has a decision to make: Either you are with us or you are with the terrorists.
From this day forward, any nation that continues to harbor or support terrorism will be regarded by the United States as a hostile regime. Our nation has been put on notice, we’re not immune from attack. We will take defensive measures against terrorism to protect Americans.
Bush made it clear: you either support the U.S. or you support the terrorists. What started the twenty-year war 17 days after Bush made those remarks was the promise of American security. Of routing out Al Qaeda, of disrupting terrorist strongholds. We had no idea we were entering a twenty-year war. In fact, when Bush was asked about whether this would turn into another quagmire, he denied it.
“We learned some very important lessons in Vietnam… People often ask me, ‘How long will this last?’ This particular battlefront will last as long as it takes to bring al-Qaeda to justice. It may happen tomorrow, it may happen a month from now, it may take a year or two. But we will prevail.”
In November 2001, Donald Rumsfeld mocked the prospect: “All together now — quagmire!”
And before long, Bush and company made an argument for invading Iraq. There was no knowable link to 9/11 or Afghanistan in Iraq, and after that was clear the administration lied to the United States and the United Nations about Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction—which were never found in Iraq. Many suspected the administration wanted to invade the country because of a personal grievance, because it was oil-rich, because Dick Cheney was the former CEO of a military contractor called Halliburton. So as the war drums beat on, the xenophobia and fear-mongering continued in the U.S. Public support for the wars continued as long as there was a fear of imminent attack on the U.S. I remember former governor of Pennsylvania, Tom Ridge’s Homeland Security Advisory System, one he developed at the head of Bush’s new department. It kept reminding us that we were at high risk of terrorist attacks. But the point was that the war was popular as long as Americans thought they were in danger.
The rhetoric that started the war was about keeping America safe from terrorist attacks. Coupled with the war were all sorts of compromises to our civil liberties for the sake of national security. The Patriot Act allowed the government to spy on citizens without warrants, but rather through National Security Letters (NSLs). Between 2003 and 2006, 200,000 NSLs were given out and it led to a single terrorist conviction. To quote the ACLU, it turned regular people into suspects.
The government lied to us as it continued to fail in its long and expensive wars
But it’s hard to keep fear in people for that long. And as the war waned, it grew unpopular. Gone from the public’s mind was the idea that these wars were about keeping Americans safe. They moved to being about human rights and nation-building. All of a sudden Americans were being sold a war about changing someone else’s government. Our wars became about something that war is not meant to be about: regime change by a foreign force in a sovereign nation. Not only is that a fraught idea, it wasn’t what the premise was to begin with. And given that message about the war, it is disingenuous to cite the post-9/11 jingoistic fervor as a justification for the two-decades long war. The question of public support is moot if the state is lying to us. Thus, Tom Nichols’ point that this is the American public’s fault falls rather flat with me. The responsibility for the failure of the war in Afghanistan falls on our civilian and military leaders.
In 2014 the mission changed from U.S. troops on the ground to limit Al Qaeda and win the Taliban’s land, to training local leaders, notably the Afghan National Army, to maintain the gains made by U.S. It was clear after 2014 that progress wasn’t being made, but the government continued to lie to the public about it, as they did before 2014. We learned this when the Washington Post released the Afghanistan Papers.
The American public was being told by civilian and military leaders that the missions were more Afghan-led than they actually were. The U.S. continued to aid Afghan forces in areas that, quite simply, the U.S. didn’t help develop in its twenty-year occupation (maybe that was inevitable, maybe it was incompetence, or probably a combination) The state lied about progress that wasn’t being made, from the then-Army Lt. Gen. Mark A. Milley, “This army and this police force have been very, very effective in combat against the insurgents every single day. And I think that’s an important story to be told across the board.” One of the issues with this reasoning is not that it’s an outright lie, but rather it showcased to the public what civilian leadership wanted to hear. That the ANA was getting better, that the end of the war was in sight, that the U.S. would have to stop paying for the war in money and blood. So while the ANA was improving, it got no where near where it needed to be even after twenty years of occupation. That failure isn’t on the Afghan people; it’s on the United States. Condoleezza Rice, one of the wars architects, suggested that a longer occupation would have helped:
Twenty years was not enough to complete a journey from the 7th-century rule of the Taliban and a 30-year civil war to a stable government. Twenty years may also not have been enough to consolidate our gains against terrorism and assure our own safety. We — and they — needed more time.
But at some point you need to acknowledge that military occupation isn’t the tool for spreading democracy, no matter what her administration was selling us. The military is not meant to build nations, to turn countries into Western democracies by force. Military action is largely about killing people, destroying things, and sometimes building things. Wars are not meant for peace; they are meant for slaughter, hegemony, and profit.
A futile mission and a racist premise
Nation-building and the extension of democracy is ultimately the work of the people. So it is not surprising that given both the improper training given the Afghan leaders and forces, in addition to the impossibility of outsiders making an internal change, that Kabul fell last week so quickly. Experts warned that this was inevitable, based on the pull-out, but it was inevitable based on the premise of the war (and of wars in general). The Taliban was either going to take the country over again, or the U.S. would need to continue its occupation for another decade or longer. If the mission was to train Afghan forces to fight off the Taliban and to install a Western-style democracy in a country that was accustomed to something much different, we were looking at much longer than just a twenty-year occupation. Furthermore, it seems like the U.S. would have to overcome its prejudice and bigotry, which I think is a notable problem and one that is endemic to a Western force reforming a non-Western country. There is something fundamentally racist about that sort of occupation. From the Washington Post, here are some remarks from U.S. members of the armed forces:
One unidentified U.S. soldier said Special Forces teams “hated” the Afghan police whom they trained and worked with, calling them “awful—the bottom of the barrel in the country that is already at the bottom of the barrel.”
A U.S. military officer estimated that one-third of police recruits were “drug addicts or Taliban.” Yet another called them “stealing fools” who looted so much fuel from U.S. bases that they perpetually smelled of gasoline.
“Thinking we could build the military that fast and that well was insane,” an unnamed senior USAID official told government interviewers.
But not only is that ideal untenable (or insane), it’s not moral. The U.S.’s war set up Afghanistan for an impossible task, and the twenty-year war ended as poorly as it could have this last week.
And experts knew it would. In fact, Obama suggested as much to West Point in 2009: “The days of providing a blank check are over…It must be clear that Afghans will have to take responsibility for their security and that America has no interest in fighting an endless war in Afghanistan.”
And we heard an eerily similar message from Biden after he pulled out and the Taliban took over Kabul: “American troops cannot—and should not—be fighting and dying in a war that Afghan forces are by and large not willing to fight and die in themselves.”
Blaming Afghans for their own deaths instead of demonstrating the humility to admit the U.S.’s failure is a terrible way to lead. I wouldn’t have supported further occupation, but he is heartless and demonstrates no humility in the country’s failure (even if it wasn’t entirely his—though he served as Vice President for much of the occupation). The war failed to bring liberty and freedom to Afghanistan because wars do not do that. They are futile if that is how they are purposed. And from my viewpoint, they are thus immoral. Though Afghans did enjoy new freedoms under U.S. occupation, it wasn’t true liberation, as evidenced by the fact that how easily the Taliban took the country after. Occupation doesn’t create lasting change. So yes, the war ended terribly, and there is no such thing as a good ending to a twenty-year war.
A time for the next generation to be peacemakers
By the time I came of age, I opposed the War on Terror. The failure in Afghanistan is nevertheless heartbreaking because of the lives lost in vain, the money wasted, and the incredible pain incurred. Ultimately, I wish I was wrong in my opposition. But the resisters of the war were right. And right now, the U.S. should take responsibility for its failed war and accept every refugee from Afghanistan. And the people feeling the failure the most today are the vulnerable in Afghanistan, the women and children. As far as the humanitarian crises around the world, accepting refugees into the U.S. seems to be the only humane thing to do. And thankfully the current administration is doing that (even when far-right commentators suggest that they pulled out of Afghanistan to flood the U.S. with brown people) and providing money for it.
Now that an entire generation has been born into the War on Terror and seen its abject failure: Iraq in shambles (which likely means even if the Taliban entirely fell, that democracy wouldn’t have reigned in that nation) and Afghanistan overtaken by the Taliban, we can then point to not only the principle of peace and pacifism, one given to Christians by their Lord, the prince of peace, we can also look to the practicalities of peace, knowing that to spread liberty and freedom we need more than guns and bombs, more than violence. In fact, using those things, led to the opposite of peace.