Weekend Open Thread: 9/11 & Afghanistan

Today is, as everyone knows, the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 hijackings and kamikaze attacks, two of which were intended to hit the financial center of New York City and two the political and defense centers in Washington D.C. (One was the Pentagon, of which the plane fell just short; the other is suspected to be the Capitol rather than the more difficult target of the White House.) We are also closing in on the 20th anniversary of the enactment of the Authorization of Use of Military Force Against Terror, or AUMFAT, which was used as the basis for our just-ended almost 20 year war in Afghanistan.

Everyone old enough to remember has their stories of that; this is mine.

Unidentified man covered in ash after 9/11 attack on NYC My guess is that the cotton swab in his mouth would have been used to clear the area around his eyes, as his hands were likely also ashy.

(1) My September 2001 Story

I lived in New York City at the time, on the border of Astoria and Long Island City in Northwestern Queens, which I think is about six miles northeast of Ground Zero, where the World Trade Center buildings collapsed. On the day of 9/11 — Election Day for New York City offices, in fact — my experience of the unfolding story was about the same as anyone’s anywhere in the world. I couldn’t see the World Trade Center, while it was still standing, from my apartment; when I went outside that day I could just see smoke trailing off to the southwest over Brooklyn, and I could only smell a faint ozone smell of electrical fires. It was in the days following that I gained a special perspective on it.

Six miles about the distance on Harbor Boulevard between the 22 and the 91. Or, if you prefer, between Angels Stadium and Tustin Ranch Road going south on I-5, or Brookhurst if taking I-5 north. In any case, a long distance to drive, much of the day, but close enough for pungent odors to travel.

My cousin woke me up with a call about 15 minutes after the first plane hit, telling me that I had to turn on my TV because a plane had hit the World Trade Center. I was groggy, thinking that it was something like a Cessna rather than a turbojet, which I knew had happened before. I told her that I was not getting out of bed for something like that. She badgered me for a while to go turn on the TV — and then she gasped, telling me that a second plane had just hit. So it wasn’t a fluke or a freak accident. Now I was fully awake. I went to watch the TV in the living room as ordered; I spent most of the rest of the day going between there and my bedroom to use the landline. I didn’t have a cell phone, let alone a smartphone, back then.

I knew that my family wasn’t going to be able to differentiate between Queens and the southern tip of Manhattan, so I kept trying to call them and let them know that I was nowhere near harm’s way. I had no luck; circuits were busy. (I eventually reached a cousin in the Inland Empire and asked her to tell everyone I was safe, which in her agitation she forgot to do, so my family spent the day expecting that I was dead.) I was able to reach the woman I was dating then, in Philadelphia, and she asked me if I had gotten in touch with my family. I said no, and she inferred that I had called her before my family, which ingratiated me to her far more than I had intended.

Email service was working before phone service, as I recall. I received an email informing me that the Wednesday seminar (“Legal Education”) I was taking in my final year at Columbia Law School would go forward as scheduled. This was a huge problem for those of us who didn’t live in Manhattan, as the bridges and tunnels and subways were closed. (I forget how it was ironed out; I think that limited service returned on the northern subway lines the following morning.) That defines one boundary of how people dealt with the attacks in the days that followed: that they had happened, but were now in the past, and life must go on as usual.

I was President of the Law School’s ACLU Chapter at Columbia and had emailed people that we should probably issue a statement opposing any crackdown on civil liberties in the wake of the violence. (At this point, no one really knew who it was, but the betting was on Muslim extremists, who had also been blamed for the Oklahoma City Federal Building bombings six years previous. (That time, the jump to conclusions was wrong; it was white supremacists instead.) It didn’t take a fortune teller to see what was coming. Literally no one among the ACLU’s Board was interested in that, arguing that it was too soon. This was the other boundary of reactions: that everything had changed, and normal life had to stop.

It was, of course, not too soon: The USA PATRIOT Act (“Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism”) — a compilation of items on the wish lists of domestic and international intelligence and policing agencies — was introduced on October 23, 42 days after the attacks, passed the House on October 24, passed the Senate on October 25, and was signed by President Bush on October 26. Civil libertarians were caught flat-footed and free-for-all wiretaps and indefinite detentions became all the rage. Part of the urgency in Congress may be traced back to the anthrax attacks that began eight days after 9/11. Envelopes containing anthrax spores were mailed to CBS News, NBC News, ABC News, the New York Post, and the National Enquirer. Later, more powerful concoctions were mailed to two Democratic Senators. So everyone was already on edge.

The story of the weeks after 9/11 was mostly one of massive transportation snarls, somewhat like what we’ve seen with Hurricane Ida, but without the flooding. Getting around, and finding what one needed, was a logistical nightmare. (Luckily, supply chains were not as tight then as they are now.) Eventually, institutions remembered their manners — but by that time the craziness had set in. Some people were deep in a funk, which reminders of the disaster everywhere around them — including the big gap where the World Trade Center had been — and were simply gone for days or weeks at a time. Others had the opposite reaction, seeking (often uncharacteristically) sex and excitement to either distract from or numb them to the psychic pain. I don’t know how much this was true in the rest of the country, because that’s not where I was, but I can tell you that people in their 20s and 30s in New York seemed to be going bonkers through at least Thanksgiving.

For my part, I remember thinking on that Tuesday morning that while the attack was horrible, maybe it would have one positive effect on the United States. We had now joined the rest of the world, for the first time since 1945, as a target of significant political violence from abroad on our own homeland. We now “know what it feels like” to be (in effect) bombed from abroad. Maybe, I thought to myself, this will instill some sense of empathy for the rest of the world, including those who had suffered so greatly as the targets of aerial bombings, and foster a newfound appreciation for living in peace.

I have rarely been more wrong than that. Imperial powers — and don’t discount the impact that our propping up the corrupt and repressive Saudi monarchy for so many years, in exchange for cheaper oil, played in motivating the attack — don’t relinquish power because, like Ebenezer Scrooge, they finally see the moral light. They generally relinquish power in disgust at being bogged down in what seems like a never-ending war of attrition against what they call terrorists — notably true in our own American Revolution, where we essentially bled the British to the point of exasperation through that era’s equivalent of roadside bombings: ununiformed soldiers, refusing to fight in formation, sniping at the Redcoats from behind rocks and bushes.

As the story seemed to shape up that Al Qaeda, led by Osama bin Laden, was responsible, I saw a rise in anti-Muslim bigotry that I hadn’t seen since the October 1979 to January 1981 Iranian Hostage Crisis. Many of my friends at the Law School were Muslim; they reported continual unbridled and unashamed racist attacks — beyond simply “microaggressions,” a term not then in use — on a daily basis. Public opinion had made its choice with its reptile brain — and we would lash out and get revenge. (At least Saudi prince Osama bin Laden, who had expected a grassroots movement in the U.S. to pull its military bases and support from Saudi Arabia and vicinity, was even wronger than I was.)

And so, of course, we invaded Afghanistan.

(2) Afghanistan

A month ago, Americans got a small taste of the argument that was made for war on Afghanistan — one that, I’m sorry to say, I found to some extent appealing. It hinged on two atrocities, the first of which will likely be unfamiliar to younger readers: The destruction of the Buddhas of Bamiyan.

The Buddhas. The Buddhas of Bamiyan were two giant statues of the Buddha — along the Silk Road that ran through the Bamiyan Valley in central Afghanistan. Each hewn (think “Mt. Rushmore”) from a limestone cliff, they were the largest “Standing Buddha” statues in the world. (China has a larger one in Sichuan showing the Buddha sitting.) The smaller one, known as “Shahmama,” dated to the mid-6th century amd was 38 meters high. The larger one, “Solsol,” stood 55 meters high and more likely dated to the early 7th century. — in central Afghanistan.

Celebrated longtime winners of Afghanistan Idol, deposed in early 2001.

In March 2001, to the horror of liberal and conservative cultural preservationists alike, they were blown up by de facto Taliban leader Mullah Omar. This was not (or at least not simply) because they were idols, but as a finger in the eye of those who put things above people. Here was his contemporaneous explanation of his actions:

I did not want to destroy the Bamiyan Buddha. In fact, some foreigners came to me and said they would like to conduct the repair work of the Bamiyan Buddha that had been slightly damaged due to rains. This shocked me. I thought, these callous people have no regard for thousands of living human beings—the Afghans who are dying of hunger, but they are so concerned about non-living objects like the Buddha. This was extremely deplorable. That is why I ordered its destruction. Had they come for humanitarian work, I would have never ordered the Buddha’s destruction.

Not entirely absurd, even if reprehensible to liberal sensibilities — which was part of the point. (Remember, we had helped the Talibian overthrow the Soviet occupation, and they were feeling somewhat jilted.) Of course, the New York Times reported that he also contemporaneously said “Muslims should be proud of smashing idols. It has given praise to Allah that we have destroyed them,” which is less defensible. (I don’t attribute that view to American Muslims, just like I hope no one attributes the excesses of the ultraorthodox Jews to me.)

Women’s Rights. The larger reason for American contempt towards the Taliban, of course, was their maltreatment of women. This was, to put it kindly, ironic coming from conservative politicians who oppose abortion even in cases of incest and rape (a position more radical than that found in traditional Islam) and oppose women working outside of the home or (traditionally) participating in politics or higher education, at least with men. (The U.S. House of Representatives didn’t seat more than 20 women until 1982, nor 30 until 1993; the U.S. Senate didn’t seat more than 2 women until 1992, nor more than 9 until 2001.) But our society generally didn’t require women to cover their faces and hair, or arms and legs, in public the way that the Taliban did — and that was an affront to women that affected people more broadly.

(Note that we actually got a replay of this justification for remaining in Aghanistan last month from various Republican politicians, who fretted openly about the treatment that Afghan women could expect under the Taliban, and this is entirely true. Unfortunately, the choice comes down to whether we could “ride the tiger” forever — violently (of necessity) imposing our presence on Afghanistan when they could not muster an honest and effective government themselves, nor a military capable of holding their own country — at a cost of $2 billion per year, plus U.S. lives, plus aggravation of Islamic grievances against the West. And this objection seems really hollow when coming from those who oppose Afghan immigration, asylum, and the like into the U.S. Anyway, those politicians, perhaps in response to polls showing that Americans were happy to be done with our longest war, have generally shut up for now — but they’ll do it again when they think it serves them.)

So (to return to the narrative), while inveterate pacifists and anti-imperialists found opposition to the Afghan War an easy call to make — I was torn in a way that I was not when it came to the USA PATRIOT Act. These seemed like bad guys, who (in retrospect) knew exactly how to tweak liberals like me, as they understood that we, and not just conservatives, were their enemies too. I actively opposed both the Gulf War and the Iraq War, because those seemed clearly imperialistic: we wanted not only to be able to buy oil from Iraq as to be be able to be the ones to sell it. But Afghanistan struck me as more complex. Even now, it does.

Biden and Trump were both leery of remaining in Afghanistan, but Trump was prone to loud and baseless pronouncements about it, while he ended up doing nothing except being snookered into a bad settlement agreement with people whom he considered to be rubes. Biden saw its cost, its futility, and the harm it did to American prestige and to many bereaved American families. And so he brought it to an end — for which Republicans will try to punish him politically by hiding their complicity and making him seem weak, as is their wont. Unless the Afghan people had gotten their act together enough to resist a force whose greatest power lay in knowing the phone numbers of tribal leaders through whom they could transmit threats to fighters by name — saying that they and their families would be killed if they did not surrender — it was always going to end this way.

So did this mean that the lives of American troops were wasted? I’m going to take a controversial position on the left and say that they were not.

The Afghanistan War looks bad in retrospect, and didn’t look that good in prospect either — so does that mean that the lives of our troops there were wasted? This is a favorite argument of neoconservatives who disregard the sunk cost fallacy and believe that only ultimate victory can justify the losses of their lives. This is almost literally insane, taken to the extreme of a “forever war,” and it is astounding that it is espoused by people who claim to care most about the lives of troops while arguing that more of them should be killed in a clearly fruitless cause.

(Oh, I forgot: there is the argument that we could win by using tactical nukes or other banned chemical or biological weapons that we demand the rest of the world to follow but think that we, as the Children of God, may be exempt. Look, if you want to unite the rest of the world against us, and invite never-ending terrorism onto our our land, that’s certainly the way to do it — but let’s not be idiots.)

I think that the lives of those who died (and those who were either or both physically or psychologically maimed, and those affected by their maladies) were not clearly wasted. The war may have been a bad and doomed idea, but that was not the fault of the troops. Here’s my case for it not being a waste of effort:

First, Aghanistan stands almost alone in being a largely unselfish U.S. war. Yes, there may have a desire to impel it to curb opium productionalthough, come on! — after production in the Golden Triangle (the area around the junction of Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar) dried up after the end of the Vietnam War. Opium production is forbidden in Islamic law, but the income to the poor and the political benefits of wreaking havoc in Western countries in particular may outweigh that in practice. But by and large, it really seems to have been largely motivated by Afghanistan’s gruesome government under the Taliban — as well as, of course, by the military-industrial complex that profited so immensely off of it. (But I’m skipping the economic/business rationale and looking to the general psychological and political ones.) Afghanistan didn’t have oil, unlike Kuwait and Iraq, and we did not go to war to slake our thirst for it. That’s a plus, at least via subtraction of a negative.

[Note: You’ll probably want to skip this paragraph; you’ll know within about 20 seconds.] The original justification for the opposition of the Soviet invasion in Afghanistan no longer applies. That motive was geopolitical: to deny the Soviets access to a “warm water port” — one that could be used year-round — which would facilitate their naval operations throughout the world. This desire has been a contributing cause behind Russian intervention in Syria, where they have access to a Mediterranean port in Tartus — hence the propping up of the Assad dynasty — and in the Crimea, the Ukrainian territory claimed by Russia, where Sevastapol is a deep warm water port in a very roundabout way: cross the Black Sea, cross the Dardanelles (Strait of Gallipoli) into the Sea of Marmara, make a soft right, proceed through any obstacles until you can take the Bosporus (Strait of Istanbul) exit through into the Aegean Sea and turn left, wend your way through the islands and turn right into the greater Mediterranean, and then head straight. So yeah, it’s a warm-water port, but not a really good one like Iranrud would be with some improvements, or Gwadar in Pakistan, or even lesser ones like Basra and Umm Qars in Iraq, which are still one hell of a lot more convenient than freaking Sebastopol! Of course Vladivostok is functionally ice-free due to ice-breakers, exhaust water from thermal power plans, and increasingly global warming, and St. Petersburg is arguably ice-free — but one can understand why the Russians were peeved at fate. The U.S. and China, with their long non-Artic ocean coastlines, have it so easy!)

Second, we really did do what we could to give them a chance to succeed. We tried all sorts of things: trying to bring in the old warlords (didn’t work, nasty and corrupt), trying to foster a viable central government (didn’t work well, very corrupt), trying to fight on their behalf (didn’t work, see “never fight a land war in Asia”), trying to build up their own military forces (didn’t work without a government worth fighting for), etc. This may have been a doomed effort from the start — easy to say in retrospect, of course — but it gave them a chance, and that is not a meaningless benefit to give someone.

Third, we gave them a full generation without Taliban rule. Having an extra 20 years of relative freedom, especially for women, is not pretty important. These years were not what they should have been because of government corruption and incompetence, but children born in 2002 did grow to adulthood in a bearable existence.

Fourth, we did get a significant number of them out, and placed as asylees. Credit here goes exclusively to the Biden Administration; the Trump Administration had no real plans to do anything except preventing asylees from coming to the U.S. Yes, we could have gotten more — but we got more than we would have given Trump’s ridiculous agreed-upon May 1 deadline. (Can you imagine that?) This was more of a mitigation of harm than a benefit, but it does under the supposed uselessness of the war.

Fifth, we gave the Taliban time to moderate. How much the Taliban will have been seen to moderate is, of course, an open question, but there is at least some hope. (Arguably, less hope existed under Mullah Omar, although the killing of Usama bin Laden — and the fact that it happened in Pakistan rather than Afghanistan — may have given him second thoughts.) What is likely true of the Taliban at this point is that it is quite internal heterogeneous, with lots of different people and factions competing for control, and that it largely lacks central control and command. So when you hear that “someone was killed by the Taliban,” you don’t know whether it represents a majority Taliban policy or someone going rogue — but of course such rogue actions would have the effect of increasing conflict with moderating internal and cooperative external forces. (It’s easier to destroy than to build, as the saying goes.) The Taliban is also dealing with the “ISIS-K” <strike>variant</strike> spinoff, which is painting the Taliban as dupes and pawns of the Americans, and possibly with local remnants of Al Qaeda. But on the other hand, western countries are its best hope of food and medical aid (and more) — and deals for additional evacuations as a condition of such aid seem likely. Looking at these combined rankings of various freedoms, a Muslim government that ruled as benignly as, say, Indonesia, Malaysia, Morocco, or Senegal — none of which are without problems, but neither are we — may be within reach for the new Afghanistan. This seems likely to be better than we could have expected under 20 years of Taliban rule a-la-Mullah Omar, which seems likelier to have produced something like Iranian or Saudi rule.

Sixth, and perhaps more importantly, we simply know more now.

In 2001, we had the Vietnam “boots on the ground holding territory” experience of the 1970s behind us, but we hadn’t tried anything resembling that degree of in-person intervention for a long time. The Balkan conflicts of the 1990s didn’t involve ground troops. The long, expensive, and bloody occupation of Iraq wouldn’t start until 2003; it would last until 2011. So in 2001, there was an appetite on the part of people like Vice President Dick Cheney for a show of force in the world to show off our power — and the more merciless that power, the better. This was a bad idea to go to war. But other invasions and incursions since them, such as the “regime change” incursion into Libya to topple Qaddafi as part of “Arab Spring,” at least had good intentions (like preventing a wholesale massacre) and a seeming prayer of success. This suggests that maybe we just can’t do that. We won the Pacific theater in World War II, but since then haven’t really won much of anything in the battlefield, unless you count fomenting coups and invading Grenada. Pretty much all we’ve done is made weapons manufacturers rich. Is that really enough?

We’ve now had plenty of time to test out international interventionism. Our economic tools have often been useful, except when mishandled by a certain boorish maniac. Our diplomatic tools are often sharp.

Now, we may have a real war to fight sometime soon — keep an eye on the South China Sea, where eventually things may come to a head over Taiwan — but that would not be a war when we are trying to hold territory as an occupying army. (That’s China’s role, this time.) Outside of that sort of situation, the history of the past 50 years has shown us than our military tools are not that sharp. It’s to our credit, I think, that we don’t really have the stomach for occupying overseas territory against the popular will.

To an extent, I wish that forceful intervention — for women’s rights, for minority rights, for principles of fairness and equality, even against corruption — really did work, although that would probably keep us too busy. But it seems not to work. And President Biden, without abandoning the interests of people who need help, does not seem willing to go to the atrocious extent of a Dick Cheney in order to try to achieve it.

We didn’t know that we were no longer in that game in 2001, so we made what we thought was a reasonable bet, for a rationally and morally defensible self-interest of neutralizing Al Qaeda before it might attack us again. So we entered a thicket and it kept not getting easier to extricate ourselves. Each year’s deployment of troops was to justify the work of the previous year’s. But eventually, we realized that the situation was not going to get better — and so we stopped and now will use our diplomatic and economic tools to accomplish things instead.

This does not dishonor our troops. We simply did not know then what we do now. Considering them “dishonored” by having given their lives, in good faith, to allow us to learn this lesson is itself dishonoring and dishonorable. We learned, due to 9/11 and what followed, that we live in a more complicated world, with less unilateral power, than we thought we did. I would not have wished it upon our country, but that lesson does have its benefits.

This is your 20th Anniversary of 9/11 Weekend Open Thread. Exercise your freedoms here as you will, with at least a little regard for others.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose attorney, semi-retired due to disability, residing in northwest Brea. Occasionally runs for office against bad people who would otherwise go unopposed. Got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012; Josh Newman then won the seat in 2016. In 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002; Todd Spitzer then won that seat in 2018. Every time he's run against some rotten incumbent, the *next* person to challenge them wins! He's OK with that. Corrupt party hacks hate him. He's OK with that too. He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)