The world has witnessed harrowing scenes in recent weeks from Kabul, Afghanistan, as the United States undertook final evacuation of its troops after 20 years in that country. The Afghan government fell to the Taliban and an ISIS-K suicide bombing outside the Kabul airport killed nearly 200 people, including 13 U.S. service members.
The events leave many wondering what was the point of two decades of war in Afghanistan, a conflict that has killed about 2,300 American troops and estimates of more than 168,000 civilians, Afghan police and military members, and opposition fighters.
Were the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 the result of religious fanaticism or a response to U.S. foreign policy? And did the military response from the United States and its allies ultimately serve a useful purpose or make things worse?
Those questions were the focus of a September 1 panel discussion hosted by Notre Dame’s Keough School of Global Affairs. The event, “The Twentieth Anniversary of September 11: Cause and Effect,” featured remarks by Andrew Bacevich, president of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft and author of After the Apocalypse: America’s Role in a World Transformed, followed by responses from three panelists: Jamila Afghani, an activist for women’s rights and education in her native Afghanistan, and founder and president of Women’s International League for Peace & Freedom Afghanistan; Perin Gürel, an associate professor of American studies at Notre Dame, whose research interests include culture and foreign policy, and gender and race in popular culture; and Ebrahim Moosa, the Mirza Family Professor of Islamic Thought and Muslim Societies in the Keough School.
Afghani fled her homeland with her family after the recent Taliban takeover and is now in Norway. She participated in the panel discussion virtually and described witnessing the collapse of Afghanistan’s government.
Following are selections from the participants:
First, post-Cold War ideological expectations of the universal triumph of neo-liberalism and/or globalization and/or democracy — those expectations have turned out to be illusory. Second, when put to the test, so too have assumptions about U.S. military supremacy. It was supposed to back up the ideological claims that came out of the end of the Cold War. Frankly, the outcome of the Afghanistan war is only the latest event in a series of events that demolishes those assumptions.
The existing paradigm, which emerged at the end of World War II, focuses on threats “out there” — in Europe, in East Asian, in the Middle East. And that prevailing paradigm emphasizes amassing and using military power as the essential response to those threats. The new paradigm should prioritize threats that endanger Americans where they live. . . . That is to say, not “out there,” but back here.
The United States is not the nation that it was when it faced off, first against right-wing and then against left-wing totalitarianism. For evidence, look no further than the outcome of the Afghanistan war, a multi-dimensional failure of epic proportions.
The United States spent 20 years attempting to, one, create a legitimate and viable Afghan nation state; two, defeat the Taliban; and three, bring into existence Afghan security forces with the capacity and determination to defend the nation. We failed on all counts, with the Biden administration’s mismanaged final draw down of U.S. troops merely punctuating that failure.
The real story here is not what happened over the past couple of weeks. The real story here is what happened over the past 20 years.
Unfortunately, we are at the same point today we were 20 years back. . . . It is the start of another misery, a chapter of the misery for our nation, for our people.
In two days, the Taliban will announce their government. And they openly said that there will be no women ministers in the cabinet. [Note: The Taliban announced its government on September 7.]
I’m right now in Norway. I was planning to never (again) leave my country, but this is the fourth time in the 45 years of my age that I'm leaving my country.
Afghani was at the Kabul airport awaiting a trip to Turkey when she heard the Taliban had toppled Afghanistan’s government and she left the airport to get her children to safety. She described what she saw:
When we came out of the airport, it was a very shocking moment for me. . . . You could see that everything was finished. The city was a dead city. There was no living being on the street and everybody was hiding themselves.
There’s no doubt that the George W. Bush and Dick Cheney administration attempted to utilize 9/11 exactly as a new Pearl Harbor, rushing an overly broad authorization for the use of military force through Congress, which depicted the entire world as the proper sphere of U.S. military might in theory and targeted non-white countries rich in resources in reality.
The phrase “the space left by the United States will be filled by (blank)” — sometimes Iran, China, Russia, etc. — makes it clear that even liberals, or maybe especially liberals, continue to believe that spaces far, far across the Atlantic somehow belong to the United States by right. And the United States, if not perfectly good, is somehow better. This delusion is maintained by a bizarre Cold War nostalgia that simply refuses to go away.
What happened on September 11, 2001, were crimes against innocent civilians in New York, Washington and those who perished in the fields of Pennsylvania. What happened in its wake in Afghanistan and Iraq were unjustified and unmitigated acts of aggression and occupation by the United States and its European allies against two entire countries, against world opinion.
It is American exceptionalism that brought us 9/11. We thought we could intervene in global events, side with occupation, perform acts of violence around the world, without any consequences.
Did America do its duty and hold its politicians accountable for spending the blood and treasure on wars of choice that did not change the world an iota?
Two decades later, a significant segment of the American public is sufficiently cynical and ready to violently damage the institutions of democracy, as well as harm representatives of the republic, as we witnessed on January 6, 2021.
If there’s one thing I have learned after living in America for 23 years and a citizen for 13 years, it is the unshakeable metaphysical belief on the part of some Americans in destiny. For that reason, many believe America is God’s gift to humanity as a force for good, and therefore America is great. I hope we unlearn this unhelpful dogma and begin to believe that there is good in others, too.
The panel discussion was the first in a series of campus events titled “The Twentieth Anniversary of September 11: Changing the Climate of Conflict.” Other events will be October 6 and November 3, and the public may attend in person or online. Click here for details and registration information.