9/11, Afghanistan, and the “War on Terror”: The Long View (& the Tragic One)

Osama bin Laden’s plan was clearly to get to the U.S. to overreact and play into his hands; long after his death, his plan succeeded beyond his imagination not because of him, but because of America’s choices and behavior.  Yet this has been apparent for some time.  Is there anything new we can take from the twentieth anniversary?

By Brian E. Frydenborg (LinkedInFacebookTwitter @bfry1981), from the spring of 2020, excerpted and slightly condensed from America’s History of Failure in Unconventional and Asymmetric Warfare Is Instructive for Our War with the Coronavirus (itself an excerpt from a much larger piece) with a lengthy addendum written September 11, 2021; see related podcasts #7: Col. Steve Miska, U.S. Army (Ret.) on the U.S. Withdrawal & Our Duty to Our Afghan Allies and #8: Col. T. X. Hammes, USMC (Ret.), on Strategic Failure in Afghanistan.

Pompeo and Baradar
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar, a co-founder of the Taliban and a former deputy to Mullah Omar. Baradar, who spent years in a Pakistani prison, is the Taliban’s political chief and was the head negotiator in talks with the United States. Credit: Mike Pompeo

SILVER SPRING—In the eighties and nineties in Lebanon and Somalia, American leaders rapidly drew down their involvement after a series of high-profile Hezbollah bombings in Beirut in 1983 and the notorious “Black Hawk Down” incident in Mogadishu in 1993 despite both missions having substantial international support.  Key humanitarian aims of the mission in Somalia were actually fairly well-accomplished and saved hundreds of thousands of lives before the withdrawal, and even in Lebanon with our problematic mission there, significant humanitarian achievements still occurred.

In between the unconventional, asymmetric challenges in Lebanon and Somalia, our overwhelming triumph in the conventional 1991 Gulf War actually helped lead us to be overconfident and over-reliant when it came to our conventional military abilities (and, to a lesser extent, the same could be said of the two air campaigns in the Balkans), setting us up for even greater failures in ensuing decades.  “Black Hawk Down” would be first buzzkill of our post-Gulf War high, just the first of many setbacks in the wars to come.  And in the cases of both Lebanon and Somalia, terrorists—Hezbollah and al-Qaeda—took inspiration for future terrorist attacks from our withdrawals, with both Lebanon and Somalia devolving into prolonged periods of war that killed many people and terribly destabilized their respective regions.

As for al-Qaeda, its Osama bin Laden had several basic goals behind their asymmetric, unconventional 9/11 attacks that would come years later.  They looked at the world relevant to them as being divided into two major camps: the “near enemy”—all the regimes ruling Muslim populations that were not run by Islamic principles as defined by al-Qaeda: the monarchs, dictators, and democracies from Saudi Arabia to Egypt to Indonesia—and the “far enemy”—foreign governments propping up the near enemy, especially the United States.

With 9/11, bin Laden wanted to recreate for America the Soviet defeat in Afghanistan.  As he saw it, the Soviet invasion galvanized Muslims from around the world to fight off the atheist communist infidel invader, who got bogged down over years in a conflict that sapped its treasure and strength and led to the Soviet Union’s final collapse; with the invaders ousted from Afghanistan, an Islamic regime in al-Qaeda’s mold—the Taliban—came to power. 

Osama bin Laden’s dream with 9/11, then, was to bait the U.S. into one or more wars of attrition, rally Muslims from around the world to his banner to fight the occupying invader, force an American withdrawal after it expended so much blood and treasure, see the U.S. sour on supporting allied governments in the Middle East in the aftermath, and pull its bases out as a result or as a result of additional conflict with and attacks from al-Qaeda, flushed with recruits after already beating the Americans in one war.  In short, the endgame was to remove the presence and influence of the “far enemy”—namely America—in the Middle East and then topple the “near enemy” regimes there and elsewhere ruling over the Muslim world.   

As we know, 9/11 helped bin Laden goad the U.S. into two such wars, not just in Afghanistan but also in Iraq, and while we withdrew from Iraq after seven-and-a-half years on terms far better than the U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam, extremists’ policies against their own people on the parts of both the Syrian government and our allied Iraqi government empowered the unconventional and asymmetric ISIS—Zarqawi’s al Qaeda in Iraq’s rebirth and successor—to create a “caliphate” that ate up large parts of territory in both countries, forcing the U.S. reentry into Iraq and intensifying involvement in Syria.  While bin Laden expected us to invade Afghanistan, Iraq was something of a gift to him. 

The Iraq War resulted in the removal of Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq, meaning Iran became our biggest enemy in the region.  But while in the beginning this was due mainly to a process of elimination, shortly after, it would also be because Iran grew considerably in power as a result of our actions, eventually playing dominant roles in Iraq and Syria and having major influence in Yemen, too, in, addition to having its longstanding leverage in Lebanon.  In short, Iran was the main victor of our Iraq War.  But especially considering how dynamics played out as war raged in Syria and up through today, Iran is hardly the only major U.S. foe to benefit from recent U.S. missteps and missed opportunities: the chief global U.S. antagonist, Russia, is also far stronger in the Middle East today at the expense of the U.S. (not to mention elsewhere around the globe). 

Ironically, as I have noted, counterinsurgency (COIN) worked well in the Iraq War after the negligent leadership of Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, and its gains held well until late 2013 in spite of a U.S. withdrawal that had been completed before the end of 2011.  Much of this effort was overseen by Rumsfeld’s replacement, Sec. Robert Gates, and the man in uniform he tapped to execute the mission, Gen. David Petraeus. But the earlier blunders of the U.S. had pushed to the center stage of a frightened, increasingly sectarian Iraq one Nuri Kamal al-Maliki as Iraq’s prime minister, who fed off division and increased it at the same time, playing somewhat nice while U.S. troops were still in-country but becoming increasingly unshackled as time went on and especially after the U.S. pullout.  Rather than the Obama Administration’s withdrawal, then, it was Maliki’s oppressive governing style that wiped out U.S. security gains and soon had ISIS governing a “caliphate” that included large portions of Iraqi territory right up to the gates of Baghdad by mid-2014, a situation demanding U.S. entry into the conflict to prevent a terrible situation from becoming far worse and far more genocidal, in spite of the Obama Administration’s reluctance to reinsert U.S. forces into Iraq after withdrawing them just a few years earlier.

And while the Obama Administration took a relatively large degree of care to avoid alienating local populations and inflicting civilian casualties while staying true to allies in its fight against ISIS, the Trump Administration has pretty much taken an anything-but approach—killing far more civilians—even as it relaxed its assault against ISIS when the group was close to losing all its territory in Syria and Iraq, allowing for ISIS to make something of a comeback.  Even worse, in October 2019, the Trump Administration abandoned our true allies there—the Kurds and others fighting alongside and inside the Syrian Democratic Forces (S.D.F.)–who had worked together for years against both ISIS and Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad’s regime.  This betrayal was carried out so suddenly, and in such a way, that it dramatically undermined our ability to fight unconventional asymmetric warfare in the region, an ability that is so heavily dependent on trust and partnering with non-state actors on the ground who have longstanding, intimate relationships with the locals as members of their communities and know the landscape as only locals can.  This withdrawal was also done in a way that undermined our entire regional position, ceding much territory and influence to actors working against many of our interests: to an “ally” we could not trust (Turkey, seeking to pulverize both Kurdish forces that had fought alongside us and Kurdish autonomy as well as engage in “demographic engineering” against the Kurds) and our main rivals in the region (Russia and Iran, Assad’s top allies).  This withdrawal minimized what was already a minimal deployment (far from a costly or expensive one, especially relative to so many recent deployments) that was giving us an amazing payoff for the small amount of resources allocated.

As for the Afghanistan war, that “other” war that bin Laden’s 9/11 prodded us into, it has been a mess for nearly its entirety and still is, waxing and waning to one degree or another in its state of messiness, Afghanistan having been at war for decades before the U.S. toppled the Taliban.  Here, too, unconventional and asymmetric tactics wore down American will after American leadership’s initial projections of swift “victory” set up inevitable cynicism and disappointment, with Alec Worsnop highlighting for the Modern War Institute at West Point (MWI)  the Taliban’s particular skill at asymmetry.  Though the Obama Administration tapped Gen. Petraeus to recreate his successes in Iraq in Afghanistan with another surge, the far lower degree of national development there combined with U.S. political leadership not being committed to the resourcing required to achieve our stated aims—let alone try to sell Americans on a longer-term commitment—meant that, with that Petraeus surge or without it, that war would remain what it has been for years: an exercise in futility apart from preventing an unstable, violent status quo from becoming far worse.  Another surge under the Trump Administration also failed to significantly alter the overall negative dynamics on the ground for the better.  However President Trump describes his intent to pull out U.S. forces now, it is hard to objectively consider American disengagement after so many years as anything but a victory to the Taliban unless the Taliban suddenly becomes the opposite of what it has consistently been for the entirety of the conflicted, which is an extremist religious group that resorts to extreme methods to achieve its aims, relying almost wholly on violence and terror to “govern” and one that cannot be trusted to upholds agreements of any sort, let alone the type the Trump Administration is trying to reach with it. 

There has not anytime recently been and will not be the political will for a significantly better-resourced, medium-to-longer-term international effort in Afghanistan, the best approach to give that country its best chance to transition to overall to higher levels of stability and one that I advocated for in writing in 2009 as a graduate student. But that hardly means the failures in Afghanistan are all on the political-leadership side and that the military does not also shoulder significant blame, as the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan from 2003-2005, Gen. David Barno, wrote in 2019.  Still, senior military leaders seem to have been more careful with their use of language compared to political leaders, and it was the political leadership that either set expectations and parameters that were unrealistic or simply avoided engaging with the public on the war, hoping more to avoid having the war cause them political damage than have any seriously honest national public dialogue about Afghanistan.

What we have been engaging in there in an overall sense—open-ended long-term stalemate that prevents a worst-case scenario—can be a hard sell as the best option (not that it has been generally honestly sold as that), but that does not necessarily make it bad policy.  To quote Gen. Petraeus in a recent piece (one he penned with security-policy hand Vance Serchuk): “This strategy has been costly and unsatisfying—but also reasonably successful.”


ADDENDUM: September 11, 2021: A year ago—hell, even a month ago—I would have agreed with the previous analysis by Gen. Petraeus.  And I would not have made a bad deal with the Taliban along the lines of the one made by Trump and Pompeo, nor reduced our troop strength from about 13,000 to 2,500 from the signing of that deal to the final days of my presidency as Trump did even as the Taliban flouted the deal and helped marginalize and severely weaken the Afghan government, setting up its collapse.  I am still processing President Biden’s withdrawal and Kabul Airlift, and my criticism of its tactics were much harsher at first than it is now, given revelations that have been trickling out since the Afghan government’s rapid collapse. 

I still think it would have been wiser for Biden to delay beginning the withdrawing of the final 2,500 U.S. troops until November 2021-March-2022 instead of April-August of this year (provided Taliban would have kept to not attacking U.S. troops, a big and unknown “what-if”) to coincide with the winter instead of the fighting season, thereby minimizing the ability of the Taliban to make gains during the final phase of our pullout and also giving us more time to process SIVs (Special Immigrant Visas, the visas designed to get our most vetted Afghan allies and their families out of Afghanistan and into the U.S.) in an orderly manner, but the speed at which the house of cards that was the Afghan government collapsed—faster by far than any intelligence estimate had predicted, exposing the hollowness of our twenty years of investment in rebuilding and remaking Afghanistan, of building up security forces and a government—has changed my thinking.

Perhaps the writing was on the wall for a long time, for many years, but it should have been obvious back in September 2019, when only about 1.8 million people voted in Afghanistan’s 2019 presidential election out of nearly 9.7 million registered voters, down dramatically from some seven million who voted in the country’s 2014 presidential election.  Considering that the country’s population overall in 2019 was some 38 million, this made the voting crowd in 2019 less than five percent of the population (admittedly consisting of many children, but still), thus, both the degree to which Afghans were not buying into this American project and the degree to which those who had previously at least in part bought into were giving up tells you just how “successful” our strategy in Afghanistan had been (I am still not yet sure if we were doomed from the start, but Col. T. X. Hammes, USMC [Ret.] makes a strong case that we were in my recent podcast discussion with him).

While Gen. Petraeus was certainly right in a military sense, just as he was in claiming success for the Iraqi surge, like in the Iraqi surge, the military campaign in Afghanistan existed to give life and development to the political side of things in the host country, and in both cases, those raison d’êtres for Gen. Petraeus’s detailed counterinsurgency campaigns—giving local politics breathing room to work—did not result in anything near what we were hoping for, making our efforts to support the existing systems quite problematic.

Biden concluded bleakly that sending American sons and daughters to fight and die for a government that was not respected or thought of as legitimate, nor bought into by anything like a critical (let alone growing) mass of Afghans (indeed, that mass was shrinking) was a fool’s errand, however noble.

I was one of those fools in the sense that I assumed after two decades of effort that we had built up something in Afghanistan that was on a path to sustaining itself to at least some degree, that what we were building there would not immediately crumble without our support, that out support was worth it and integral to maintaining a level of “success,” and it is clear that I was not alone and in good company.

But we were wrong.

Instead, our servicemen and servicewomen—sometimes our diplomats, contractors, and aid workers, too—were putting themselves at risk and dying for a house of cards that was so corrupt and so empty it only took a few days to collapse in full once cities started falling to the Taliban.  Sure, the very real gains—for human rights and women’s rights, for a free press and economic development—mattered, and they existed robustly in the Kabul Bubble, other cities, and even in the form of girl’s schools in rural areas outside Taliban control (only about one-quarter of Afghanistan’s population lives in cities).  But especially those rural girls’ schools were often under threat, and almost all the gains were shallow in that the system set to preserve them was unwilling, perhaps unable, to do so if they had to fight the Taliban on their own.

I take, in part, the points made along the lines that the U.S. withdrawal deprived the Afghan security forces of the air support, intelligence support, logistics, and maintenance support provided by U.S. and other NATO forces and contractors.

And yet, last time I checked, the Taliban did not have an air force, satellite or drone intelligence, M4 and M16 rifles, body armor, any large number of heavy vehicles, or night-vision goggles (they later acquired many American guns, body armor, and night-vision goggles, but not as much U.S. equipment as some claim and not prior to the rapid collapse of the Afghan government).

If the Taliban can fight without these things, surely the better quipped Afghan Army could have, as well (except when they ran out of supplies, and the Afghan government officials obviously should have much more highly prioritized supplying their troops).  Essentially, the Taliban were fighting with AK, pickup trucks, and in outfits that look to Westerners like pajamas, so I find any arguments that all the modern, high-tech, Western-supplied advances were necessary for the Afghan security forces to put up a fight hard to accept. 

Now, this is not to denigrate the bravery and sacrifice of tens of thousands of Afghans security forces who died fighting the Taliban, nor their numerous wounded.  But when push came to shove, in the final battle for the very concept of everything embodied by their uniforms, so many cut deals with the Taliban and or melted away that it is clear the Afghan government, including its security forces, was, ultimately, a failure, meaning the entire U.S. mission beyond going after al-Qaeda and bin Laden was also a failure.

So while I fault Biden and his team on timing and not responding faster to unfolding events (though when they did respond it seems they did a pretty good job in horrible circumstances), they were far from unreasonable in thinking the Afghan government would give them more time and breathing space given what our intelligence had assessed and, in the end, I cannot disagree with the decision to pull the plug even if I do not fully actively agree with it.  It is hard to disagree with the decision to end our involvement on the ground militarily, and it is often the hardest thing to admit failure and cut your losses, never a glorious, feel-good decision with glorious, feel-good results.

Just writing about this has made me feel even more hollow and resigned to all this, more emptiness at trying to ascertain any kind of grander meaning to 9/11 and its offspring, the “War on Terror.”  It was hard to feel more so in that direction, but here, then, is to one effect of the past twenty years that is indisputable.  Historically, there is not much to see here, just another example of a major power’s imperial overstretch, like Persia’s Thermopylae and Plataea, Rome’s Dacia, the Arab-led Caliphate at Tours, Hideyoshi’s Korea, the Ottoman’s Venice, Napoleon in Russia, Russia’s Tsushima and Mukden.  Some of these hastened or finalized imperial decline, others (Dacia for Rome and Japan’s late sixteenth-century invasions of Korea) would just be temporary setbacks that did not precipitate a larger collapse, and those predicting Afghanistan is somehow America’s zenith before an inexorably decline seem wildly premature (indeed, Afghanistan was a remote outpost not in any way a major support for any of the rest of the so-called American “Empire,” and in and of itself is likely not to cause American any serious issues overall).  But like these other failed imperial offensives, there will not be much to show for it.  And yet, unlike some of these other disasters, Biden leaving Afghanistan now will greatly limit the fallout for America and its allies (apart, sadly, from our Afghan allies).

So as much respect as I have for Gen. Petraeus and his service, in light of what has recently transpired and what has been revealed of late, after two decades—set against the backdrop of a conflict of perpetual civil war that was killing an increasing number of Afghan civilians (on pace for a record high in 2021 through the first six months) in a country with a government we built up and invested much into but that held little faith among its 38 million mostly rural people, with the authority of that government rarely existing or held in high esteem in most rural areas—the idea that the mission of our troops in Afghanistan propping up that government could be characterized as “reasonably successful” is a tough sell.

In a United States where the sacrifices of these troops and the mission they serve are given little deep thought by the public, in which the three major national television networks devoted only five collective total minutes out of some combined 14,000 on their flagship nightly news broadcasts in all of 2020 to the war, and in which most Americans had given up on the war years ago, there may be some intellectual grounds to celebrate the decision to leave, but otherwise celebration seems a perverse notion.  As I watch the 9/11 ceremony at New York’s Ground Zero even as I write this, it is clear the memories of the terrorist attack’s fallen are still raw, wounds still unhealed, even twenty years later.  The exact same can be said for the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and tens of thousands of Afghans whose untimely ends likewise haunt their loved ones.

Rather than look away, we should wallow in the misery of our mistakes, lest we repeat them.  But repeating our mistakes seems to be a cultural hallmark of late.  That we do this, that we sparked invasions that killed far more people than died from 9/11, that our nation is now as fractured and torn apart as any time since our horrific Civil War, is in no way honoring the dead of 9/11.  We owe them—our victims and the victims we created—more, far more than our collective sum total of our actions since that fateful day twenty years ago. 

I wrote of those sacred obligations years ago, but we still have yet to fulfill them (hell, it took a comedian, Jon Stewart, to begin to get first responders to the 9/11 attacks the support they needed).  What has happened to us, what we have done, since 9/11 is still solidly a net negative, and I noted this obvious truth years ago.  That ugliness is today only getting worse.

I wish with all my heart and soul I had something more positive than that to leave you with on this day, but that is all I’ve got, my heart and soul deeply colored by the actions we have undertaken over the past twenty years, many of which—despite many individual noble deeds of love, selflessness, and sacrifice embodied by firefighters running into burning towers and Marines taking babies over an airport wall in Kabul before as terrorists targeted them—should fill our hearts and souls with shame, regardless of intentions.  In the end, what counts most is results, and Afghanistan should be a humbling lesson for all Americans, as should be the “War on Terror” and our whole reaction to 9/11 itself, an era the unfulfilling results of which for which we all bear some level of blame.

Marines baby Kabul
Omar Haidiri via AFP

© 2021 Brian E. Frydenborg all rights reserved, permission required for republication, attributed quotations welcome

See related article The Kabul Airlift in Light of the Berlin Airlift: Surprising Parallels and Important Lessons

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