Posted by Curt on 11 September, 2021 at 10:04 am. 1 comment.


by W. James Antle III

Somber ceremonies marking the 9/11 attacks are a hallowed annual tradition, but as the 20th anniversary arrives with the Taliban suddenly back in control of Afghanistan, America’s enduring sense of loss is compounded by the realization that, in many ways, we’re back where we started.
Any “mission accomplished” moment President Joe Biden hoped to deliver by ending America’s longest war ahead of the historic date was irrevocably marred by the rapid collapse of the U.S.-backed government and its replacement by a regime of militant Guantanamo Bay alumni .
Four of the “Taliban Five” have been appointed to key roles in the Taliban’s caretaker government in Kabul. The fifth was reportedly appointed to be the governor of a province in eastern Afghanistan last month. All five men had served in the Taliban government that was deposed in retaliation for 9/11 and were imprisoned in Guantanamo Bay until their release in a prisoner exchange for U.S. Army deserter Bowe Bergdahl. Sirajuddin Haqqani , who is wanted by the FBI for terrorism charges, was named acting interior minister.
“Meet the new boss,” said a former Republican national security official. “Same as the old boss.”
The scenes in Afghanistan have prompted veterans, policymakers, and ordinary voters to question whether justice was served for 9/11 and whether the ensuing two decades of warfare were worth it .
On a sunny Tuesday morning in 2001, 19 al Qaeda terrorists hijacked and crashed planes into the World Trade Center buildings in New York City, the Pentagon, and a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, killing nearly 3,000 people. It was a horrific scene of mass murder without precedent in U.S. history and the most direct attack on the homeland since the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor almost 70 years before.

Yet, the immediate reaction by the public was a degree of unity unseen since in a country riven by political polarization. George W. Bush had won the contested 2000 presidential election by the narrowest of margins in Florida, a state where his younger brother was governor, only after the Supreme Court ruled in his favor in a 5-4 decision, one that exactly reflected the split between conservative and liberal blocs. His Democratic opponent, then-Vice President Al Gore, finished nearly 540,000 votes ahead nationwide, making Bush the first popular vote loser to reach the White House since Benjamin Harrison unseated Grover Cleveland in 1888.
Bush soared to job approval ratings in excess of 90% in the wake of 9/11 as the country rallied around its president. Three days after the attack, he traveled to New York City, where he had lost all five boroughs and received just 18% of the vote. Wearing a blue windbreaker, he surveyed the rubble and addressed workers clearing the wreckage, still seeking to rescue people.
“The nation sends its love and compassion to everybody who’s here. Thank you for your hard work. Thank you for making the nation proud, and may God bless America,” Bush said, raising his arm. The crowd responded by chanting, “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!”
In one of the iconic images of the aftermath of 9/11, Bush grabbed a bullhorn as he spoke to the construction and rescue workers. Some had said they couldn’t hear the president.
“I can hear you,” he replied. “The rest of the world hears you. And the people who knocked down these buildings will hear all of us soon!”
New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, a Republican nearing the end of his second term, filled the leadership vacuum that emerged while Bush was still on Air Force One for security reasons and Vice President Dick Cheney was hunkered down in Washington for continuity of government. Giuliani was the first important political figure to rally and reassure the country.
“Today is obviously one of the most difficult days in the history of the city,” Giuliani said calmly during a press conference. “The tragedy that we are undergoing right now is something that we’ve had nightmares about. My heart goes out to all the innocent victims of this horrible and vicious act of terrorism. And our focus now has to be to save as many lives as possible.”
“The number of casualties,” he added, “will be more than any of us can bear ultimately.” Giuliani was celebrated as “America’s mayor.”
The same day Bush visited New York City, Congress passed an authorization for the use of military force against al Qaeda and all others complicit in the attack. Only Rep. Barbara Lee, a California Democrat, voted no. This resolution became the legal authority by which Bush ordered the invasion of Afghanistan. Lawmakers in both the House and Senate applauded him during his speech to a joint session — Robert Byrd, the longtime West Virginia Democratic senator, sat behind him, next to the speaker of the House, as Cheney was kept away in an undisclosed location — and had joined hands to sing “God Bless America” outside the Capitol.
But the unity did not endure long. There were complaints that Muslims were being profiled and subject to discrimination, both by the government and private citizens who were fearful after the attack. Bush took great pains to cast the war on terrorism as a fight against evil rather than a quarrel with Islam, though Muslim leaders in the United States argued his policies on surveillance and terror suspect detention had a disparate effect on their communities.

Conspiracy theories about the attacks being an “inside job” or airplanes being unable to bring down the Twin Towers spread across the internet. A cottage industry of 9/11 “trutherism” was formed.
While these were largely fringe phenomena, the effort to expand the war beyond Afghanistan provoked fierce division. In 2002, the Bush administration sought congressional authorization to wage a second war in Iraq to overthrow dictator Saddam Hussein and disarm his government of weapons of mass destruction. A majority of House Democrats, half the Democrats in the Senate, and seven Republicans voted no.
Biden, then the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, worked with influential Republican Sens. Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel to forge a middle-ground resolution that would increase pressure on Saddam but make Bush come back to Congress again if he wanted to invade. But when House Democratic Leader Richard Gephardt threw his support behind Bush’s preferred AUMF language, Biden joined fellow Democratic Sens. Hillary Clinton, John Kerry, and John Edwards in voting yes. He later called his vote a mistake.
The mission in Afghanistan expanded too. Beginning as retribution for 9/11, it succeeded in toppling the Taliban and degrading al Qaeda, even if bin Laden, top deputy Ayman Zawahiri, and Taliban leader Mullah Omar all initially evaded capture. The focus soon became nation-building, a practice Bush had pledged to avoid during the 2000 campaign: helping Afghan girls attend school, building health clinics, increasing cellphone usage and internet access.
In October 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry boasted of the progress in Afghanistan by noting improved life expectancies and technological advances. “In 2001, there was only one television station, and it was owned by the government. Now, there are 75 stations, and all but two are privately owned,” he said. “Back then, there were virtually no cellphones, zero. Today, there are 18 million cellphones covering about 90% of residential areas connecting Afghans to the world.”
Bush beat Kerry in another close election in 2004, winning 51% of the popular vote. This time, Ohio was the state that determined the Electoral College outcome, with Bush again winning narrowly. Republicans made congressional gains that year and in the midterm elections two years prior. But a serious antiwar movement had now formed, and as the situation in Iraq deteriorated during Bush’s second term — and the weapons of mass destruction proved elusive — it went mainstream.
By the time Barack Obama was elected in 2008, the Great Recession had voters wanting to divert resources from the Middle East to problems at home. He had supported the initial invasion of Afghanistan but opposed the Iraq war, which had proved critical to securing the Democratic nomination. But his first move was to increase the number of troops in Afghanistan by 30,000.
“We did not ask for this fight,” Obama said of Afghanistan in a 2009 speech at West Point announcing a surge. “On Sept. 11, 2001, 19 men hijacked four airplanes and used them to murder nearly 3,000 people.” He added, “These are the three core elements of our strategy: a military effort to create the conditions for a transition, a civilian surge that reinforces positive action, and an effective partnership with Pakistan.”
Despite his support for retrenchment, Obama warned against precipitous withdrawal. “There are those who suggest that Afghanistan is another Vietnam. They argue that it cannot be stabilized, and we are better off cutting our losses and rapidly withdrawing,” he said. “I believe this argument depends upon a false reading of history.” Biden, then serving as vice president, advised Obama against the surge.

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