By Tom Aldred, Executive Director. September 13, 2021
The 9/11 attacks were planned and orchestrated inside Afghanistan. We would do well not to forget that on their 20th anniversary.
9/11 was an inside job. It was conceptualized and planned from inside Afghanistan. It was the culmination of a series of attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists against U.S. and Western interests in the Middle East and Africa, including the 1998 African embassy bombings and the October 2000 suicide attack on the U.S.S. Cole. These attacks, as well as those of September 11, 2001, killed American nationals, including military personnel, as well as nationals of numerous other countries.
Just in time for the twentieth anniversary of the September 11 attacks, and on the heels of the single-longest period without a death among the U.S. servicemembers stationed in Afghanistan, the U.S. has completed a disastrously mismanaged withdrawal from Afghanistan. To be sure, it was a withdrawal that both major party candidates in the 2020 Presidential election campaigned on, though it is difficult to imagine another president executing a less competent withdrawal.
The withdrawal from Afghanistan represents a baffling and ill-advised reversal of what has been U.S. foreign policy since September 12, 2001. In his address to the nation from the White House on the evening of September 11, President Bush declared that we would “make no distinction between the terrorists…and those who harbor them.” Now that we have handed Afghanistan back to the Taliban, it’s a distinction that no longer exists in the very country that supported the terrorists who attacked the United States on September 11, 2021. The U.N. concluded as recently as this past June that a “large number of al Qaeda fighters and other foreign extremist elements aligned with the Taliban are located in various parts of Afghanistan,” as the Taliban released thousands of terrorist prisoners across the country. It is clear that Afghanistan will again become fertile ground and a safe harbor for those seeking to plan terrorist attacks against the United States and its allies.
President Biden has said that the U.S. will rely on the intelligence community to avert terrorist threats in the future. But the intelligence warnings about how long it would take Kabul to fall to the Taliban were ignored, just as were the warnings about the 9/11 attacks themselves. The unavoidable reality of the situation is that we cannot simply walk off the battlefield and expect to be safe from the threat posed by fanatics who would do us harm.
Talk of failed “nation-building” and that the U.S. cannot be the “world’s policeman” sadly obfuscate the threat that these terrorist organizations pose. Nation-building was always a secondary goal in Afghanistan (and even Iraq), but one need only see the desperate efforts by Afghans to flee before the Taliban seized control to understand what the freedom afforded by a Western military presence meant to them. The U.S. and the West stand for certain values for which all people yearn – life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness – and sometimes you don’t have to “build a nation” to bring those things. They can be incidental when you drive out a common enemy and bring stability to a country. To be clear, the U.S. has no obligation to build nations and protect individual rights around the world, but affording such freedoms through a long-term military presence and then abandoning those who thrived under them, including many thousands who risked their lives by aiding our military, is no way to act either.
While the U.S. cannot be the world’s policeman, the U.S. was never alone in Afghanistan or in the war on terror. The U.K. has always stood in lockstep, and Canada, Australia, Italy, New Zealand, Germany, Poland, Italy, and the Netherlands, among others, were all involved in the Iraq and Afghan wars. The U.S. spends more of its GDP on its military than any of its NATO allies, and, as a result, it has the best-equipped and trained military in the world. It is a military that is built to lead.
It is frankly shameful that countries like the U.K. claimed they were unable to continue their Afghanistan mission without U.S. support, and that should be a wake-up call that prompts them to drastically improve their military capabilities – every Western country faces a similar threat from Islamic terrorists and they should each act accordingly – but it does not change the fact that being prepared to remain militarily involved in the fight against Islamic terrorism is a national security imperative for the U.S., regardless of what other countries are or are not doing.
Minimizing or eliminating the safe haven territories in which terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and the Taliban are able to operate should be a fundamental component of U.S. foreign policy. Terrorism is always an inside job, planned and executed inside safe havens beyond the scope of intelligence agencies or military disruption. On the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, the West seems to have forgotten this basic lesson and it is hard to imagine a scenario in which the mistakes of the last month do not ultimately result in U.S. military and civilian lives being lost in future terrorist attacks initiated from Afghanistan.