The Tragedy of 9/11 and the Afghan Debacle

  • September 17, 2021
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The American people have been sorrowfully marking the 20th anniversary of the disastrous events of September 11, 2001, when a band of hijackers gained control of several commercial airlines and crashed them into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., with a fourth plane brought down in Pennsylvania by passengers resisting the terrorists aboard their aircraft.

Like most others old enough at that time, I, too, remember where I was. My wife and I were attending a meeting of the free market, Mont Pelerin Society, in Bratislava, Slovakia. Coming back to our hotel after an outing, I turned on the television and watched, “live,” as one of the hijacked planes smashed into the second of the two Towers.

At first, I thought that I had turned on some kind of disaster movie, but then realized that I was watching CNN, and that this was real and not special effects in some film. Then, the Towers began to shake and collapse, crumbling in a matter of seconds to the ground.

Immediate Reactions to the 9/11 Attacks

That evening, all the conference attendees were somber at the group dinner. Father Robert Sirico, founder and president of the Acton Institute in Grand Rapids, Michigan, got up, and in words that were the most appropriately ecumenical, regardless of a person’s belief or faith (or even none), spoke words that expressed everyone’s shock and sadness, and, yes, anger, and, yet, he brought us back to our enduring confidence in the human spirit for freedom and justice and compassion.

Over drinks later that evening small clusters of attendees discussed and argued over how and why this had happened, and what the appropriate response should be. Many, though not all, were hot for retaliation and revenge, especially among the Americans at the conference. Did this happen because these Muslim terrorists represented those who hate America for what it is and stands for? Those who suggested that this was mostly, or at least partly, due to America’s active political and military intervention in the Middle East, were in a relatively small minority.

Even hinting this as part of the reason why brought the quick and angry rebuttal that anyone saying this was absurdly blaming the victim rather than the perpetrator for the despicable deeds of earlier that day. A response suggesting that while America’s own foreign policy adventurism may be among the ingredients bringing about these events, this in no way excused the responsibility of the perpetrators for committing such a heinous act against thousands of innocent human beings. And that all that was and could be possible should be done to bring them to justice.

The rhetoric of those presumed to be the organizers behind the 9/11 attacks had made it clear in many of their public statements that a good part of their animosity against the United States was their perception of America’s violation of their most holy areas in places like Saudi Arabia, and that U.S. political and military support for various Middle Eastern regimes were viewed by these fundamentalists as propping up the corrupt and impious political powers in Muslim lands.

The Result from 20 Years in Afghanistan

So, America invaded Afghanistan with the intention of capturing the suspected perpetrators of the 9/11 attack, and in the process overthrew the Taliban government that was accused of sheltering the terrorists involved.

What has been the cost and the result? The human cost of the Afghanistan war has been over 2,450 American military personnel dead; along with 3,846 U.S. contractors. Other NATO allies sending forces to Afghanistan, experienced almost 1,150 deaths. In addition, more than 20,660 members of the American military suffered injuries in the conflict.

The Afghan government military and police lost around 66,000 lives; Afghan civilian lives lost are estimated to be about 47,250, along with tens of thousands more of injured civilians. Nearly 450 international aid workers died, as did over 70 journalists.

The financial cost of the war has been calculated to be at least $1 trillion over the last two decades, though others have estimated it to be more than this, depending on the expenses included. Since a large part of the war was financed with borrowed money, others have concluded that if you include interest on that borrowed money when looking to the future, as well as longer-term veterans care for those injured in the conflict, the dollar cost rises to well over $4 trillion.

In addition, over the last 20 years, Uncle Sam “invested” more than $130 billion on “reconstruction” work in Afghanistan. But it has been estimated that at least around $20 billion of this amount just “disappeared,” or over 15 percent of the total.

At home, America was subject to a new level of government control, command, and surveillance. Civil liberties were narrowed or abridged, it became taken for granted that the agents of the government could read your email, follow the keystrokes on your computer, overhear and record any and all telephone calls based on any suspicion of a “terrorist threat,” and it made Americans open to the idea that part of their job was to be informers for the government to fight terrorism. (See my article, “Homeland Security and the Bureaucratic Dilemma”.)

A Futile, Wasteful and Cruel Outcome to the War

After all this money has been spent, after all these human lives have been lost or destroyed, after all the physical destruction to Afghanistan, what was gained? Nothing, but a humiliating and disastrous withdrawal from Kabul’s airport, with thousands promised safety left behind, literally on the tarmac as the last planes took to the sky.

And who was, de facto, left in political power? The very Taliban that the October 2001 intervention was meant to permanently remove from power as a stepping stone to ending any future terrorist threat from Afghanistan. It is becoming clear that in terms of the theological authoritarianism that guides the Taliban, it will be as if the last 20 years had never happened.

What would have been crueler: if America had never invaded Afghanistan and the people there continued to endure the religious tyranny they had before the invasion? Or to offer an opportunity for an entire generation of Afghans, especially, but not only, women, to have a taste and experience of a life of greater personal liberty and tolerance, and then have it all torn away from them under the return to fundamentalist despotism? It is like perversely giving false hope to a dying man, who you then inform that it was all a lie when he had come to believe that he might live.

What Was to Be Done If Not an Afghan Invasion?

But what was to be done, then, in the autumn of 2001? How were the suspected perpetrators to be apprehended and brought to justice? Well, of course, it was not until almost ten years later, in May 2011, that Osama Bin Laden was finally tracked down and killed – not in Afghanistan, but in neighboring Pakistan, where he was in hiding and most likely with the assistance or acquiescence of some in the Pakistani government or military; a government and a military purportedly who were allies of the United States government.  

It is always easy enough to be a “Monday morning quarterback,” telling how the game should have been played the day before on Sunday. However, on October 2, 2001, before the invasion of Afghanistan on October 7th of that year, I was asked to participate in a symposium in the online edition of The Christian Science Monitor, specifically about how America had found itself in this position and what was the appropriate course of action?

I attempted to explain how this tragedy came about, and what might America do to bring the accused to justice – but without the cost in lives, money, or lost freedoms at home, and the destruction that came with invading and occupying a country 10,000 miles away from the United States.

The following is part of the questions and my answers in that Christian Science Monitor symposium:

Understanding the Role of American Foreign Interventionism

CSM: Some observers are calling the violence on Sept. 11th an ‘attack on freedom.’ Others are suggesting it’s a sharp backlash to decades of United States foreign policy arrogance. How do you assess the causes of the Sept. 11 strikes?

“Richard Ebeling: There are fanatical elements in Islamic fundamentalism that consider Western values and institutions a threat to their vision. They want a theocratic social order in which the conduct of individuals is made to conform to a certain theological code of conduct. But, in principle, this need not require an aggressive war against America. The mullahs in Iran and the Taliban in Afghanistan have attempted to seal off their countries from Western influences and to control interactions with ‘impurities’ coming from the outside.

“What is an equal or even greater motive is their view that the US uses its political and military might to intervene in the domestic affairs of Islamic countries, especially in the Middle East. America props up corrupt regimes that are perceived as undermining the religious and cultural traditions of these societies.

CSM: Let’s hypothetically rewind to 1980. Could you prescribe a set of foreign policies different from the ones US leaders did take that might prevent this kind of attack from happening?

Ebeling: The US government since World War II has tended to see every conflict around the globe in starkly drawn black and white terms: ‘freedom vs. tyranny,’ ‘good vs. evil.’ These elements have been present in some of the conflicts around the world during the last half-century. But American policymakers have had a naïve conception of the historical factors and ideologies that have been present in these regional wars and civil wars in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. Most of them have been conflicts between factions and groups who care little or nothing about Western ideas of freedom, tolerance, and pluralism. They have been fighting to overthrow one brutal and authoritarian group so they could install their own.

“The Afghans who fought the Soviet invasion and occupation in the 1980s desired to free their country from a foreign intruder. Virtually none of those resisting the Soviets had any desire to free their individual fellow countrymen from authoritarian or theocratic government. They all wished some form of domestically imposed tyranny instead of a foreign imposed version. This should have been obvious from the newspaper accounts of the ideas and beliefs of the various factions in the Afghan resistance at the time.

“The American Bill of Rights was not going to form a part of the post-Soviet order in Afghanistan. Thus, there was no way for the US to influence how the post-Soviet turn of events would develop in that country. If the US had attempted to pick and support a faction viewed as more to its liking than others, then once the Soviets were gone that faction would have had all the other resistance groups against it. The US would have had to abandon its protégé or get sucked into the same maelstrom the Soviets experienced.

Fighting Terrorists and the Threatened Loss of Liberty

“CSM: Are traditional military lessons useful to the US as it considers a response? Or, are we in fact playing ‘a new game.’ What are the rules governing this conflict?

“Ebeling: President Bush has stated a number of times since the tragic events of September 11 that America is at war. But a ‘state of war’ has been understood both in international law and custom for several centuries now as a relationship existing between sovereign nation-states that has a beginning, middle, and an end.

“This is not a war in that sense. Groups of individuals not representing the legitimate political authority in any country have conspired to undertake violent acts against Americans and others. The President has said that these terrorist networks may be spread over as many as 60 countries. In the vast majority of them, these individuals have no contact with representatives of the governments in the countries in which they are living. They live normal lives, waiting to be called or inspired to participate in some violent act. Or maybe to never do anything except to go about the affairs of ordinary life.

“CSM: Civil liberties are often sacrificed during national emergencies. What principles should be kept in mind as the US considers what balance to strike between order and freedom? More specifically, are the heightened security measures now being implemented effective?

Ebeling: Personal, civil, and economic liberty are the most precious elements in what it has traditionally meant to be an American. If we sacrifice liberty in the name of security, then the war will be lost no matter how many battles are won. In times of crisis and emotional confusion and anger it is easy to legislate away our freedom. It is not as easy to get that freedom back when the crisis has passed. The first duty of government is to protect the citizenry from aggression. But it must be done in a way that does not undermine the freedoms that are reflected in the Bill of Rights, including our rights to protection from unwarranted search and seizure of our person and property. We should be extremely hesitant in endorsing many if not most of the recent proposals for giving the government greater latitude in intruding into our private and personal affairs.

“For centuries the fundamental problem in society has been how to limit the powers and potential abuses of the very government that we establish to secure our freedoms. Who will guard us from the guardians, is the perennial dilemma. When the crisis has passed there will be new government agencies and bureaus with new government employees who will look around for new justifications and rationales to keep their jobs and expand their budgets. They will have powers to intrude into our lives that they will want to use in ways not originally intended for. And even more of our freedoms will then be at risk.

Foreign Interventionism and Creating Endless Enemies

CSM: How can the US best deflate the anger directed at it?

Ebeling: There is ultimately no way for the US to deflate the anger of various people and groups around the world other than to end its half-century policy of foreign intervention. There is no way for us to avoid making enemies when we intervene, because the very nature of that intervention is for the US to take sides in that country’s domestic affairs and controversies.

“Inevitably, the groups and factions whom we choose not to support now view the US as the prime impediment to their own goals. The adage ’the friend of my enemy is my enemy’ is set in motion. Furthermore, there is a high level of American political hubris that it knows how best to set the world straight and that the world should appreciate it and happily follow its lead. Many in the world gladly watch Hollywood movies, wear New York type designer clothes, eat burgers, and dream of American-style lives of comfort and ease. America has peacefully conquered much of the world culturally, through voluntary adaptation by tens of millions of what they see and like about the ‘American way.’

“What they do not want and will resist is political and military intervention that they view as attempting to shape their domestic institutions and political processes without their approval or consent. Ending our foreign political and military interventionism is the only way to reduce the likelihood of terrorist attacks because it will reduce the creation of enemies of America in other lands.

Justice Through Bounty-Hunters Instead of an Invasion

CSM: Americans keep talking about ‘bringing the terrorists to justice.’ Thinking long-term, what conditions must exist for justice to be met?

Ebeling: This cannot be considered to be a traditional military action. It requires more old-fashioned police and investigative work to find the individual perpetrators. Military build-ups, ground troop invasions, and carpet bombings are like trying to swat a fly with a sledgehammer.

“The president referred to the posters that would be seen in the old American West that said, ‘Wanted: Dead or Alive.’ Why not take that seriously. The government has placed bounties for some of these terrorists. But make this a real bounty: $500 million for bin Laden and $250 million for each of his senior suspected co-conspirators, and make it tax-free.

“The president has also asked the American people to be patient, that there may not be a swift or dramatic solution to the terrorist problem. Fair enough. Then set the market mechanism to work with high bounties, and let private mercenaries and bounty hunters do the work. It will cost a lot less money and fewer lives than the military operations that seem to be about to be set in motion.

America is Not an Innocent Babe in World Politics

CSM: Since the end of the cold war, the US has been termed, and largely acted as, the lone world superpower. How might the events of Sept. 11 change U.S. thinking and behavior abroad?

“Ebeling: I fear that most Americans, and certainly the people in positions of political decision-making in Washington, will draw the wrong conclusions from the events of Sept. 11. They have an image of an innocent and noninterfering America that finds itself with enemies who for no good reason other than a hatred of American values are now undertaking cruel and evil deeds.

“They are cruel and evil deeds. Thousands of innocent men, women and children have been killed or had their lives ruined because of the attacks in New York and Washington. The criminals should and must be brought to justice. But America is not an innocent child in the world.

“Our government has armed, trained, and assisted foreign governments who have sometimes used that aid and training to oppress and kill their own people. We have bombed and blockaded foreign countries, raining death on people in Belgrade and causing starvation in Iraq. We have supported so-called ‘freedom fighters’ in places like Angola, who we later relabeled murderers and thugs when their political usefulness had ended and we found it convenient to see them in a different like. We have bombed a harmless pharmaceutical plant in Sudan when it served a president’s domestic purposes, resulting in a lack of medicines in various African countries.

“These are real people affected by US foreign intervention. Their lives are ruined or ended as well. Their relatives or friends do not see America as a great savior and liberator. They see it as a destructive force. Are those who are the ‘collateral damage’ from these American interventions any less human beings than those who died in New York and Washington?

“I want to be clear. No, two wrongs do not make a right. That America does things abroad it should not, is not an excuse or rationale for what happened on Sept. 11. But we will continue to create desperate and fanatical men who will view us as the enemy for as long as we interfere into the affairs of other people in other nations. That means there is no end to this ‘war on terrorism’ as long as we follow the foreign policy we have been since 1945.

A Bad Bargain in Trading Liberty for False Security

CSM: imagine President Bush has asked you to write a mission statement that will guide the US response to the Sept. 11 strikes.

Ebeling: In this understandably emotional moment it is necessary for every American to step back and weigh carefully what should be done, how, and with what consequences.

“Americans need to take a careful and thoughtful look before we risk loss of many of our liberties in the name of ‘security.’ President Bush, in his address before Congress and the nation, announced that he was setting up a permanent Office of Homeland Security, with wide national powers and authority. Do we really want to see a further reduction in our traditional system of Constitutional Federalism, with Washington taking over supervision and command of police powers normally considered the responsibility of local and state government? Do we want to lose local democratic control over law and order to bureaus and bureaucrats in Washington, who will be able to override and control law enforcement throughout the land? If we lose our liberty or if it is noticeably restricted, what will we have gained in the long run? The great and perennial problem throughout the ages has been, who protects us from the encroachments of our own government? Who guards us from the guardians?

“For decades, in the name of freedom, we have sponsored, financed, and supported governments in what is known as ‘the third world’ that have been antidemocratic, dictatorial regimes. They have sometimes used our aid and training to terrorize and kill their own people. We have armed and supplied opposition movements that we labeled ‘freedom fighters,’ who then came to power and oppressed their own people. And they often are the very people who we now turn around and accuse of being ‘terrorists’ and ‘war criminals.’

“If there is any fundamental lesson we as a nation should learn from this tragic event, it is that we are creating many of our own enemies by trying to socially engineer other people’s lives in their own countries. These people don’t like or want it. Yes, many of them want our fast food, our designer clothes, our action movies and our freer way of life. But they do not want the American government to interfere in their domestic political and economic affairs. They want to decide these things for themselves, even when they make a terrible mess of it and end up with political and economic systems far from reflecting the American political system.

“Americans rightly want justice in the face of this terrible act. But we need to learn humility and end our government’s political and military interventions around the world.”

Wrong Lessons Seem to Have Been Learned

Twenty years later, what lessons about America’s role in the world have been learned? Listening to the Washington policy pundits, former government agency “experts,” and the talking heads of the mainstream press and social media, you would think that nothing has been learned.

The “burning questions” seem to be, Will America’s allies around the world still trust the U.S. as a guarantor of their peace and security? Will America’s global foes, countries like Russia and China, smell blood and aggressively try to take advantage of America’s perceived geopolitical weakness? Will the American people be willing to meet the next world crisis that requires American leadership?

In other words, the general and broad presumption remains American foreign interventionism where and when needed and called for as the continuing norm guiding U.S. international policy. Nor does there seem to be any serious rethink about the imposition of the modern surveillance state in the name of fighting terrorism.

So, be prepared. New foreign military interventions may still occur at any time. Liberty will remain something to discount and whittle away in the name of “keeping America safe.” And the high financial cost of playing global policeman will not diminish any time in the foreseeable future.

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