The roll call of the dead, the somber silences, the painful memories and bottomless grief. In many ways, the 20th anniversary of 9/11 reflected the annual rituals that have helped a stricken nation endure incomprehensible loss.
But this year is different. For the first time since the United States suffered the deadliest attack on its homeland, no American soldiers are in Afghanistan. Not one.
In other circumstances, that could be a glorious fact worth celebrating. Had the nation-building process been successful, we might have left behind an Afghanistan that would not again be a haven for terrorists to attack us.
In hindsight, that was never in the cards. No matter how big a coalition we had, how much we spent and sacrificed, it would never be enough to turn a collection of warring tribes into a modern nation state. For good reason it’s known as the graveyard of empires.
There was another option, however, one that, while not ideal, was good enough to keep the Taliban from taking back power and setting up a jihadist Disneyland. All we had to do was keep a small force in the country and use our superior air power and weaponry to support the Afghan army in its ground operations.
That’s the approach we settled on in recent years and it was successful. Had we kept doing it, we would still have a few thousand special ops soldiers there, but the terrorists would have been kept at bay and on the run, leaving the homeland secure from another attack originating there.
Instead, we have the worst of all possible outcomes. There are no soldiers in Afghanistan not because we won but because we lost. The commander in chief surrendered the gains won over 20 years to the very same Taliban that hosted Usama bin Laden as he plotted and executed 9/11.
In its own peculiar way, President Biden’s decision to pull all the troops out, and the sudden, chaotic way he did it, is almost as incomprehensible as the day the Twin Towers fell.
Biden simply decided he no longer wanted a single American there, and rejected every idea put forth by his generals to make the force as small as possible. He wanted them all out at once and was so sloppy he cut NATO allies out of the details.
The rush to the exits was hopelessly botched as we left behind American citizens and betrayed many of the Afghans who helped us. The senseless deaths of 13 service members at the Kabul airport underscored the shameful capitulation to the artificial deadline of Aug. 31.
Biden’s initial plan was actually worse. He wanted the withdrawal deadline to be Sept. 11, so he could turn the 20th anniversary into a victory party.
Sensible people who attended or watched the Saturday ceremonies in New York, at the Pentagon and in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, would be dumbfounded that anyone would think this was an opportunity to claim political triumph.
The long-term doubts about Biden’s judgment and concerns about his cognitive decline are on full display in this fiasco.
Has there ever been a bigger misreading of public sentiment by a sitting president? How in the world could Biden or anyone around him possibly imagine that 9/11 could be something other than a day of mourning and a re-commitment to national security?
That’s not to deny that, over time, the politics of what was called the war on terror have shifted. Success has bred complacency and many Americans who came of age in the last two decades never had the same understanding of how devastating 9/11 was or the extent of the terrorist threat.
In the immediate aftermath, the vast majority of Americans supported President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan and deliver rough justice to bin Laden and those who shielded him.
Although most of those supporters would be hard-pressed to find Afghanistan on a map, they knew we had to hunt the terrorists instead of waiting for them to attack again.
Indeed, that became the go-to-argument for years – that we should fight them there so we don’t have to fight them here.
It was the right perspective then, and remains so today, Biden’s foolish surrender notwithstanding.
Unfortunately, the same rationale was used to justify the invasion of Iraq, and there the argument went off the rails. The loss of life and treasure led former President Barack Obama to call Afghanistan the good war and Iraq the dumb war.
Yet even the good war was an albatross for the last three presidents, and Obama and Donald Trump tried to wash their hands of it, but couldn’t.
The irony is that Biden succeeded, and as a result may be the only president to pay a serious political price – all because of the craven, incompetent way he did it.
With the Taliban back in power, have our dead really been avenged and our just cause properly prosecuted? And what of the nearly 2,500 service members who died fighting in Afghanistan, and the many, many others who were wounded. Did they sacrifice in vain?
The long-term doubts about Biden’s judgment and concerns about his cognitive decline are on full display in this fiasco, spreading alarm among our allies and delight among our adversaries. Nothing spells trouble for the world like a weakened, fearful America.
Especially so because this defeat was a choice, one that reflects a lack of fortitude. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Biden, like so many other Americans, lost the plot of why we were in Afghanistan.
The persistent moaning about it being the longest war fueled public support for withdrawal, and Biden fed that sentiment by calling it a forever war. Those are catchy sound-bites, but they misrepresent reality.
As serious national security analysts have pointed out, Afghanistan really hasn’t been a war for years. No Americans died in combat in the 18 months before last month’s suicide bomb at the airport.
Yet the mission was being accomplished. The United States has not suffered a serious terror attack in years, and Afghanistan was not a haven for the groups who would do us harm, thanks to our military helping and guiding the Afghan army.
Even that limited operation was too much for the president and many in the public. It was a curious preoccupation, given that we have kept far more troops and for far longer in Europe since World War II and in South Korea since the Korean conflict.
Biden thought he knew best, but is learning that the national disdain for protracted conflicts plays second-fiddle to the hatred for humiliating defeat. Voters across the political spectrum broadly disapprove of how he conducted the withdrawal and his presidency has been damaged.
Meanwhile, on the 20th anniversary, the Taliban are posing for pictures in our military gear and mocking our troops as they return Afghanistan to the dark ages. And jihadists everywhere are jubilant and inspired.