Counterview Point: Newsletter : FP on ANALYSIS: How the U.S. Got 9/11 Wrong |


U.S. Army 3rd Division Bradley fighting vehicles take up their position.

As dawn broke on the morning of Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was considered virtually unchallengeable. Not only was it the lone superpower left on the world stage after the Soviet Union’s collapse a decade before, the United States had become, if anything, even more dominant relative to the rest of the world. Post-Soviet Russia had shrunk to an economy smaller than Portugal’s. Europe was inwardly focused and squabbling over monetary union. Japan’s once-surging economy had flatlined. And China was still just a rising tiger. Even the Roman Empire at its height did not measure up to the economic, military, and technological dominance over the world then possessed by United States, wrote Yale University historian Paul Kennedy. In a famous 1987 book, The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, Kennedy had argued the United States was in decline, but as the new century got underway, he changed his mind: “Nothing has ever existed like this disparity of power; nothing.” 

Despite the terrible trauma of what happened later that morning—the worst-ever attack on U.S. soil—Washington’s response over the next two months only reaffirmed U.S. dominance. After the Taliban refused to surrender the culprit behind 9/11, al Qaeda, the United States attacked Afghanistan—but in a new way that utterly baffled the militants. Armed with GPS navigators and laser-targeting equipment with which to “paint” Taliban troops on the ground, a handful of CIA officers and special operations forces guided in powerful smart bombs that decimated the Taliban. Survivors scurried into the mountains. Al Qaeda founder Osama bin Laden and his terrorists ran with them, escaping to their mountain redoubt at Tora Bora. With the noose closing, it seemed to some U.S. officials that the nascent “war on terror” was almost won. As Gary Berntsen, the CIA officer in charge of the operation, later told me in an interview—and recorded in his 2005 book, Jawbreaker: The Attack on bin Laden and al-Qaeda—bin Laden was overheard on the radio asking his followers for forgiveness. Berntsen swiftly sent a message back to Washington asking for more troops, saying, “Let’s kill this baby in the crib.” In just a matter of months, “we could have had the entire al Qaeda command structure,” Berntsen said. 

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That’s when things began to go terribly wrong for Washington. 

Hiding in the mountains, bin Laden reportedly asked his militants to pray—and for him, at least, a kind of miracle occurred. Distracted by their plans to invade Iraq and determined to keep a “small footprint” in Afghanistan, the White House and U.S. Defense Department refused to rush in troops to encircle the trapped al Qaeda terrorists, in what Afghanistan expert Peter Bergen later wrote was “one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.” Bin Laden fled to Pakistan, disappearing for almost 10 years. Then came U.S. President George W. Bush’s disastrous Iraqi diversion, which left Afghanistan wide open to a Taliban resurgence. The Iraq occupation, with U.S. troops now exposed on the ground, also proved to be a tutorial for jihadists in a new kind of asymmetric warfare against the overextended superpower, waged by smaller, stealthier militant groups using novel weapons like improvised explosive devices that revealed the United States’ worst vulnerabilities. Many of these tactics then spread from Iraq back to Afghanistan. Ultimately, the Taliban renewed themselves in the vacuum left by the otherwise-occupied Americans, deploying these asymmetric guerrilla methods toward a long-term strategic goal of outlasting Washington. 

“Every jihadist group on the planet is massively energized that this little group, the Taliban, outlasted the infidel United States,” said counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.

Finally, on Aug. 31, the resurrected Taliban chased the United States out of the country altogether. The militants’ stunning 10-day takeover left Washington humiliated and, as U.S. President Joe Biden declared in a speech that day, resigned to “ending an era of major military operations to remake other countries.” That new approach now encompasses the entire Middle East: In late July, Biden also announced the U.S. military would downshift to a training role in Iraq by the end of the year, apparently preparatory to leaving. 

As a result, no one is celebrating the 20th anniversary of 9/11 more than Islamist militants around the world. Four U.S. presidents—George W. Bush, Barack Obama, Donald Trump, and now Biden—were unable to defeat the Taliban, a force said to be just 75,000 people strong. Tired of the conflict, the last three U.S. presidents have been dead set on a policy of retreat from Central Asia and the Middle East. This had been al Qaeda’s main goal all along, beginning with bin Laden, who said he sought to expel the “crusaders” from the region. The Islamist celebration will go well beyond the rifles fired in the air by the Taliban on Aug. 31. 

“Every jihadist group on the planet is massively energized that this little group, the Taliban, outlasted the infidel United States,” said counterinsurgency expert David Kilcullen.

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