The weak horse, again
To say that Americans are approaching the 20th anniversary of 9/11 under circumstances far grimmer than those they once anticipated is the understatement of the decade.
Within two months of invading Afghanistan in October 2001, the United States and its allies had driven the Taliban from power and established military bases across the country. In 2011, Osama bin Laden was tracked to his hideout in Pakistan and killed. Afghanistan may not have been transformed into a placid democracy like Holland, but the country from which Al Qaeda launched its terrorist bloodbath improved dramatically under US and NATO supervision. A constitutional government was elected, literacy soared, child mortality plummeted, and the monstrous suppression of women and girls for which the Taliban were especially notorious was rolled back.
Violent jihad wasn't eradicated from the world, but the United States led a war on terror that wiped out some of the planet's worst jihadists. Among them: Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terror chieftain responsible for hundreds of bombings, kidnappings, and beheadings during the insurgency in Iraq; Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, the "caliph" of ISIS during its reign of terror in Iraq and Syria; and Qassem Soleimani, the leader of Iran's murderous Quds Force, who had the blood of hundreds of Americans on his hands.
Since September 2001, US strategy in Afghanistan and in the broader struggle against Islamist terrorism has at times been confused or inconsistent. There have been painful setbacks, bizarre presidential priorities, a falloff in public support, and lengthy periods of media disinterest.
Nevertheless, who would have imagined that 20 years after that terrible day in 2001, the Taliban banner would once more be flying in Kabul? Or that jihadists the world over would be celebrating a stunning, self-inflicted American defeat?
"When people see a strong horse and a weak horse," bin Laden famously said at the time of the 9/11 slaughter, "by nature they will like the strong horse." SEAL Team Six eventually dispatched bin Laden to kingdom come, but if he were alive today to see how the war in Afghanistan ended — with a murderous gang of Islamist zealots allied to al-Qaeda back in power and 13 US servicemen blown up in a suicide bombing amid the chaos of an ignominious capitulation — he would conclude with reason that the identity of the weak horse hadn't changed after all.
Bin Laden was no fool, and his "weak horse" jibe was not mere trash-talk. He and his followers were persuaded that the American spirit had been corroded by exhaustion and loss of conviction. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, Americans had repeatedly been targeted in terrorist attacks, and had repeatedly done nothing to stop them.
In November 1988, then-Vice President George H. W. Bush signed a manifesto vowing that the United States would be ruthless toward any country "supplying money, weapons, training, identification, documents, travel, or safe haven for terrorists." America, he declared, would "identify, track, apprehend, prosecute, and punish terrorists."
The Taliban banner flies alongside the flag of Afghanistan.
As Ronald Reagan's vice president, Bush had seen terror's effects up close. He went to Beirut in October 1983, a few days after a truck bomb blew up the US military barracks there, murdering 220 Marines, 18 sailors, and 3 soldiers. The Reagan administration, Bush assured the world, was "not going to let a bunch of insidious terrorist cowards shape the foreign policy of the United States." But that was precisely what the administration did. Within a few months, Reagan ordered the withdrawal of all military personnel from Lebanon, and said he would never again send US troops to the Middle East. No attempt was ever made to "identify, track, apprehend, prosecute, and punish" the killers who butchered those young Americans. In fact, the then-chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. John Vessey, asserted: "It is beneath our dignity to retaliate against the terrorists who blew up the Marine barracks."
Nor did the United States retaliate against the terrorists who six months earlier had bombed the US embassy in Beirut, killing 63 people. Nor the ones who had hijacked TWA Flight 847 in 1985 and killed US Navy diver Robbie Stethem. Nor the ones who had kidnapped CIA Officer William Buckley that same year and tortured him to death. Nor the ones who had hanged Marine Lt. Col. William Higgins in 1989. Nor the ones who had seized one US citizen after another — Terry Anderson, Thomas Sutherland, Alann Steen, Frank Reed, and Joseph Cicippio, among others — and held them hostage under brutal conditions.
None of those outrages aroused the US government to righteous fury. Despite all the American blood on their hands, Islamist terror groups such as Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad were allowed to operate unmolested, while the vicious regimes in Damascus and Tehran that financed and sheltered them were never made to pay a price.
Even when the United States did retaliate for terrorist attacks, its response was mild and ineffective. To avenge the 243 passengers and 16 crew members who were killed in 1988 when Pan Am Flight 103 was destroyed by a bomb over Lockerbie, Scotland, the United States settled for prosecuting two Libyan operatives who had been involved in the attack. After the first bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993, a number of the perpetrators were convicted and sent to prison. When al-Qaeda terrorists blew up the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, President Bill Clinton ordered cruise missiles to be fired at training camps in Afghanistan and a chemical plant in Sudan.
What the United States didn't do was hunt down and eradicate the terrorist planners responsible for those atrocities. It didn't exact economic, diplomatic, and military vengeance from the dictatorships backing them. Instead of acting like a great power enraged by the murder of its citizens, it did next to nothing. And evil fanatics like bin Laden saw and drew the logical conclusion.
"That wasn't all they saw," I wrote a few days after 9/11.
They saw the United States label Saddam Hussein "worse than Hitler" [after his invasion and brutal annexation of Kuwait in 1991] and assemble a vast army to fight him — only to stop the war when his troops were on the run, leaving him as ruthless and dangerous as ever. . . .
They saw Americans cut and run from Somalia because US soldiers were killed there. They saw Washington dither for years about how or whether to stop the bloodshed in the Balkans. They saw how easy it was for the Chinese to acquire military secrets, and how surprised Americans were when India and Pakistan went nuclear. They saw that nothing bad happened to nations on the State Department's list of terror sponsors. They saw a government so unwilling to give offense that it scrapped the term "rogue states" in favor of "states of concern."
All this and more bin Laden and his men observed. They concluded that America was rich but timorous, mighty in arms but weak in spirit, unwilling to fight for its principles or to risk its forces in battle. "Let me remind you of the defeat of the American forces in Beirut in 1982," al-Qaeda's leader remarked in an audio message posted to an Islamist website. In Somalia, he said in an interview, the United States had "pull[ed] out, trailing disappointment, defeat, and failure behind it. It achieved nothing. It left quicker than people had imagined." That history of irresolution and enervation was why he concluded that America was too weak to prevail against the forces of militant Islam.
After the events of recent weeks — the dead-of-night abandonment of Bagram Air Base in early July, the swift overthrow of the Afghan government that President Biden had claimed would never happen, the scenes of Americans and Afghans desperate to leave the country, the unbelievable willingness of the Biden team to trust the Taliban with the most sensitive intelligence, the bloodbath at the Kabul airport on Thursday, and, above all, the absolute refusal of the president to delay the US evacuation — America's enemies can smell once more the odor of weakness that convinced bin Laden 20 years ago to launch an unprecedented attack on the American homeland.
Writing in The New Yorker, Robin Wright paints a grim picture of a 20-year war on terrorism that may be back to square one:
With the Taliban takeover, the trillion-dollar investment in a campaign to contain al-Qaeda may have changed little since 9/11.
Bruce Hoffman, a senior fellow for counterterrorism and homeland security at the Council on Foreign Relations and the author of Inside Terrorism, was blunter. "The situation is more dangerous in 2021 than it was in 1999 and 2000," he told me. "We're in a much weakened position now. We've learned so little." The Taliban takeover is the biggest boost to al-Qaeda since 9/11 and a global game changer for jihadism generally, Rita Katz, the executive director of the Site Intelligence Group, a leading tracker of extremist activity worldwide, told me. There is a "universal recognition" that al-Qaeda can now "reinvest" in Afghanistan as a safe haven, Katz said. Jihadism effectively has a new homeland, the first since the collapse of the ISIS caliphate in March, 2019. "It foreshadows a new future that sadly couldn't have been further from what we would hope for after 20 years of war," she said.
Leon Panetta, who served as CIA director and secretary of defense under President Obama and as chief of staff in the Clinton White House, is just as despondent. "I don't think there's any question that our national security is threatened by what has happened in Afghanistan," he told Andrea Mitchell in an interview. A key reason for going to war there, he said, was "to prevent Afghanistan from ever becoming a safe haven for terrorism again. Unfortunately, we have failed at that mission." With the Taliban once more ruling Afghanistan, "there is no question that they will provide a safe haven for al-Qaeda and for ISIS and for other terrorists to . . . use Afghanistan as a base for attacking not just the United States but other countries as well."
A threshold lesson of 9/11 was that when violent jihadist organizations have a safe haven — when a government provides them with the space and security to operate freely — the danger they pose increases by orders of magnitude. Secure in their Afghan lair, protected by the Taliban, bin Laden and al-Qaeda were able to plan, train for, and carry out the embassy bombings in Kenya and Tanzania, the murderous attack on the USS Cole in 2000, and the coordinated terror hijackings that destroyed the Twin Towers, ravaged the Pentagon, and sent nearly 3,000 Americans to their deaths 20 years ago next month.
Taliban dominion over Afghanistan in the 1990s proved to be a national-security calamity for the United States. The return of the Taliban to power in Kabul in the 2020s will prove at least as catastrophic. Last week's terrorist atrocity at the airport was likely just a foretaste of nightmares to come — all the more so, given Biden's determination to proceed with this hasty, inept, and dishonorable surrender. Just in time for the 9/11 anniversary, the weak horse is back.
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A jewel beyond price
Ironically, the more disastrously US policy in Afghanistan turns out, the more frantic and excruciating is the yearning of thousands of Afghans to escape to America. The heart-rending scenes at Kabul's airport in recent days — parents pleading with US Marines to take their babies, young men clinging hopelessly to the landing gear of a departing military plane — are only the latest reminders of how much people will endure for a chance to become American. For generations, men and women have been willing to pull their lives up by the roots and abandon everything they know in order to achieve what 300 million of us take for granted: life in the United States.
VIDEO: In a scene that went viral, a toddler was hoisted over the barbed wire and handed to a Marine at the airport in Kabul last week.
The history of American immigration overflows with stories of gratitude and adoration for this promised land. I recently came upon a very short one recounted by an unexpected source — not an immigrant but a former British prime minister.
In 2010, Tony Blair, the Labor Party leader who led his nation for 10 years beginning in May 1997, published an autobiography, A Journey: My Political Life. One perhaps unexpected theme of the book is Blair's deep admiration for the United States.
"I have come to love America and what it stands for," he writes in his introduction. "The essential values it embodies are so much more fundamental to our fortune than even Americans themselves may appreciate." He praises "a nobility in the American character that has been developed over the centuries," and says that for all its flaws, the United States passes with flying colors the most elemental "test of a nation's position: 'Are people trying to get into it; or to get out of it?'" Then he concludes with this:
A friend of mine whose parents were immigrants, Jews from Europe who came to America in search of safety, told me this story. His parents lived and worked in New York. They were not well off. His father died when he was young. His mother lived on, and in time my friend succeeded and became wealthy. He often used to offer his mother the chance to travel outside America. She never did. When eventually she died, they went back to recover the safety box where she kept her jewelry. They found there was another box. There was no key. So they had to drill it open. They wondered what precious jewel must be in it. They lifted the lid. There was wrapping and more wrapping and finally an envelope. Intrigued, they opened it. In the envelope were her US citizenship papers. Nothing more. That was the jewel, more precious to her than any other possession. That was what she treasured most. So should America today.
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(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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