The Ghost of 9/11
It haunts us yet
The idea that the U.S. must fight in Afghanistan is buttressed by an all-too-familiar theme, whether it be uttered on the Left (Obama) or the neocon Right (Bill Kristol): the former says we must fight to prevent al-Qaeda from reestablishing "safe havens" so they can’t plot another 9/11, while the latter echoes this nonsense in a column attacking George Will’s call for the U.S. to get out of Afghanistan by referencing "the area that was the staging ground for Sept. 11" and describing the Taliban as "the group that hosted the Sept. 11 attackers." It’s ironic – but typical of neoconservative Bizarro logic – that Kristol would dismiss Will’s call as based purely on "sentiment," yet so brazenly "wave the bloody shirt" (as he accuses Will of doing) in support of a losing, futile, and increasingly costly war. But that’s the Kristolian method, after all, and we ought to be used to it by now.
Yet the notion of al-Qaeda’s apparent omnipresence in the mountains of the Hindu Kush is flatly contradicted by U.S. Afghan commander Gen. Stanley McChrystal’s top adviser, Stephen Biddle, who, in an essay for The American Interest, averred that this actually isn’t about Afghanistan: it’s really all about Pakistan, which would be in some danger of falling into terrorist hands if we don’t stay the course in Afghanistan. Yet even Biddle admits the danger of Pakistan falling into al-Qaeda’s hands is small, and that it would take a series of major destabilizing events – the downfall of the Karzai regime in Afghanistan, the collapse of Pakistan’s "democratic" government, the victory of an Islamist insurgency and its installation in Islamabad, and the seizure of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal by al-Qaeda’s allies – before the worst-case scenario would occur. Oh, yeah, and by the way, even if we do manage to succeed in Afghanistan – defend the fragile Afghan government, hold off the Taliban, and engage is some pseudo-successful nation-building – according to Prof. Biddle there is "no guarantee" Pakistan won’t fall on its own, anyway.
We can’t get out of Afghanistan, because Pakistan will fall, and vice versa. But each may fall on its own. What kind of a shell game are war supporters playing? And what, by the way, are we fighting for? No one seems to know: or, more accurately, no one dares say what it’s really all about – revenge. It’s a war that has nothing to do with protecting America from another 9/11, and everything to do with institutionalizing an endless war of aggression the aim of which is slaughter for its own sake, as an end in itself.
Vengeance, not prevention, is what all the references to 9/11 are about, because that is the only way we can justify our policy of perpetual warfare in the eyes of the American people. A 20-page piece on COIN doctrine in the pages of Policy Wonk Journal goes right over their heads, but vengeance – now that they can understand.
Yet if anyone is getting revenge on account of the "Af-Pak" war, it is the other side. The Taliban is resisting all efforts to tame the territory outside of the capital city of Kabul and making us pay an outsized, sharply rising price for whatever anemic "successes" we can credibly claim.
What it boils down to is this: the U.S. cannot prop up corrupt regional satraps without popular support and legitimacy, both of which are sadly lacking in Kabul and Islamabad. So unless we can mobilize an army of at least a million soldiers – after all, we’re talking about two massive nation-building exercises – what we have to look forward to is nothing more nor less than defeat.
This evolving meme – that the Afghan occupation is all about saving Pakistan’s nukes from falling into Osama bin Laden’s hands – is based on fantasy, not reality. Sure, anything could happen, but Pakistan – a modern nation in many respects, with five times the population of Afghanistan and an enormous middle class that isn’t about to live in a feudalistic theocracy – is among the least likely to join OBL’s projected global caliphate.
Another fantasy-based concept is the idea of fighting terrorism as if we were fighting, say, the Nazis, with continent-wide troop movements, massive air strikes, and a reenactment of the Normandy invasion – all of which are supremely irrelevant to the kind of asymmetric warfare that was visited on us that fateful day in September.
Bin Laden and his cohorts don’t need any "safe havens" bigger than an apartment in Hamburg, Germany – or Florida – to plan the next 9/11. That’s the essential weakness of the U.S. position in the "war on terror," a battle in which our very bigness and alleged advantages – the complexity and relative freedom of our modern civilization – work against us. The 9/11 hijackers integrated themselves seamlessly into our society and worked steadily and almost without detection toward their goal. Our position, in short, is necessarily defensive. The Bush administration tried to reverse this by adopting the old aphorism "the best defense is a good offense" as their strategic guiding principle, but it backfired badly – just as it will for the Obamaites, who are guilelessly pursuing the same generals-fighting-the-last-war game plan.
We have less to fear from Pakistan’s nukes – which couldn’t reach the U.S. anyway, in the highly unlikely event they fell into Islamist hands – than we do from a miniaturized nuke finding its way into the U.S. via our virtually open and defenseless ports, or from a "dirty bomb" being constructed right here in the U.S. We spend billions to fight a war to keep al-Qaeda from coming over the Afghan-Pakistani border, but our own border with Mexico is notoriously porous, and only the gods know how many al-Qaeda have made it into America alongside your gardener and the guy who made that nice retaining wall in your backyard.
The lesson of 9/11 – and we’ll be hearing a lot more about that subject as the anniversary approaches – isn’t that we must launch a global war of conquest aimed at every Muslim nation. It is that we have to assume the enemy is already on our shores and well ensconced somewhere in the teeming American metropolis, lost in the crowds, waiting for the moment to strike. We can’t in any way ameliorate that by invading and occupying foreign countries. Indeed, such a policy only provides al-Qaeda & Co. with more foot soldiers in their war on the West.
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