Twenty years ago, I wrote my first commentary to appear in the local paper. It was an essay entitled “Understanding the Enemy” and it began 20 years of writing commentaries for my hometown newspaper, a privilege for which I am truly grateful. That essay was written in a Vancouver, British Columbia hotel room on the weekend after the Tuesday attack on the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center and the Pentagon by al Qaeda terrorists based in Afghanistan who hijacked four airliners, to crash into buildings with the purpose of killing as many Americans as possible. Nearly 3,000 perished in that first attack on the American homeland since the War of 1812.
My wife and I had just disembarked from an Alaskan cruise and had been at sea when the attack took place. We watched the awful TV images in horror. Our traveling companions were originally from New York and had friends and relatives near the site of the attack. We felt helpless, knowing that all flights were grounded and getting home quickly would be problematic. Fortunately, we had hotel reservations for the weekend in Vancouver and our Monday flight back to San Diego turned out to be one of the few not cancelled.
In that September, 2001 essay, I tried to define who the enemy was, whom he hated, why us in particular and how we should respond. The enemy, I said, was not the Muslim world. There were plenty of devout, peace-loving Muslims, including loyal, patriotic Americans, and Muslim nations which would follow our leadership in combatting Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. The terrorists, I wrote, hate us because we are the cultural, economic and military leader of the western world and symbolize capitalism with its emphasis on materialism and individual rights, including full equality for women and the liberalization of sexual behavior. Those values, they believed, constituted a culture that was corrupt, immoral and wicked, hence deserving not only their hatred, but their wrath. The U.S., as leader of the west, was therefore the “great Satan.” Our ally, Israel, whose very presence in the Middle East along with the former colonial powers who ruled there, had profaned the land and were lesser Satans. But it was America that represented to them all that is evil.
We will not defeat them, I wrote, by diplomacy or negotiation or trying to force cultural change on them. Their cultural values derived from deeply-held religious values for which they are quite willing to die so it is a mistake to characterize suicide attacks as cowardly as our politicians and the media so often do. It was essential that Americans fully understand that this enemy will not be pacified by good deeds or nation-building. His hatred of us is based upon a twisted religious value system that features hatred of most things modern and western.
In October, 2001 we invaded Afghanistan, defeated al Qaeda and eventually hunted down Osama bin Laden and killed him where he hid in neighboring Pakistan. Instead of declaring victory and leaving, we stayed in Afghanistan for two decades trying to convert that primitive land of tribes and warlords into a bastion of democracy and transform its culture into one embracing western values. It became the longest war in American history, if it can be called a war. But placing American troops in harm’s way in distant lands should require first that we have a realistic exit strategy that ordinary Americans can understand. I doubt that we ever had one for Afghanistan that would survive the changing policies of four U.S. administrations. We eventually drew down our military presence on the ground to 2,500, mostly advisors, technicians and logisticians. There hasn’t been a U.S. combat death there for the past year and a half. Since we have plenty of troops, bases, ships and aircraft located around the world, 2,500 troops in Afghanistan seemed like a reasonable commitment at least until we could figure out a way to get all Americans, allied troops and Afghans who helped us and perhaps some of the billions of dollars in equipment safely out of the country.
Instead, President Joe Biden ordered the withdrawal of troops in a manner acceptable to the Taliban resulting in a chaotic evacuation and the death of 13 of our servicemembers and at least 200 Afghans. It was a humiliating end for America to a 20-year, costly commitment with serious damage to our credibility which our enemies will be eager to test and our allies left to question. The military withdrawal now complete, it’s time for the reconning. Those whose advice led to this national embarrassment need to be held to account.
With the Taliban celebrating the American departure as a great victory, the culture may well revert to the fundamentalist practices they practiced before we came to change things, especially regarding women. The Taliban says it is not the same as it was 20 years ago and is now more modern. Time will tell. Many of the country’s young population were born since 2001 and grew up with those western values we introduced.
We left many Afghans who helped us behind in our haste to leave. We are honor bound to help those in danger. They, however. are not the only Afghans likely to try seek asylum in America and other western nations. There are undoubtedly some that hate us and wish us harm. All must be thoroughly vetted once they are safe which raises the question: What will we do with those who fail screening? Is the plan to send them to Guantanamo? If not, then where?
Biden continues to defend his decision to withdraw. Withdrawing was a reasonable decision that reasonable people can agree or disagree with. The way it was handled was not, and he and his advisors must be held accountable. Mr. Biden will hope that most Americans, many of whom couldn’t locate Afghanistan on a map of the world, will soon forget it and focus on domestic priorities. But history will likely record it as another milestone in the accelerating decline of another of the world’s once-dominant powers.