Destroying Illusions: Reflecting on 9/11 and the Afghanistan Debacle

September 8, 2021 Updated: September 8, 2021


Tomorrow, America will commemorate the 20th anniversary of the deadliest terrorist attack in human history, on Sept. 11, 2001.

The annual 9/11 remembrance at the Manhattan site of the former World Trade Center towers, targets of the first and most lethal of the four suicide-airplane attacks that day that killed 2,977 people, mostly civilians, has normally been a solemn celebration of American resilience. This milestone year, however, maybe not so much.

The mood of America is gloomy right now, darkened by an inflation-plagued economy, unexpected upsurges in COVID-19, an unprecedented urban homicide wave, the devastations of Hurricane Ida and the Lake Tahoe wildfire—and, most of all, President Joe Biden’s still-ongoing fiasco in Afghanistan.

Withdrawing the last U.S. troops from Afghanistan, a move supported by the majority of Americans, was supposed to be a triumphant capstone of Biden’s first year in office. His administration had carefully timed the completion of the exit for Aug. 31, just before the 9/11 memorials. The pullout would dramatize, to Biden’s political benefit, America’s sigh of relief at the end of a debilitating 20-year war that had begun as a reprisal against al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, whom U.S. intelligence had pinpointed as the attacks’ mastermind, and the radical-Islamic Taliban that harbored him and also controlled Afghanistan at the time.

After Osama escaped (a Navy SEAL operation finally killed him in Pakistan in 2011), the war went on and on seemingly pointlessly, costing thousands of American lives, tens of thousands of casualties, and more than $100 billion annually at its peak (total costs could ultimately reach $2 trillion).

But Biden, his administration, and the Pentagon brass bungled everything about the withdrawal: the hasty, dead-of-night abandonment of the Bagram Air Base, the chaotic evacuation that has left dozens of American citizens stranded as possible hostages, the Aug. 15 flight of U.S.-backed Afghan president Ashraf Ghani with an alleged $169 million in state-treasury cash (Ghani denies any theft), the botched U.S. intelligence that told us the 300,000-strong Afghan army (U.S.-trained at the cost of $84 billion) could hold out against the Taliban for at least a year, the tens of millions of dollars’ worth of tanks, aircraft, and sophisticated military equipment left behind and now in Taliban hands.

Biden plans to attend all three 9/11 commemorations—at the World Trade towers site, the Pentagon, and the Flight 93 Memorial near Shanksville, Pa., where heroic passengers deflected an apparent planned attack on the White House into the ground. With at least one family member of a 9/11 victim telling Biden not to bother showing up in Manhattan, it will be a wonder if he can manage to hold his head high anywhere on his itinerary.

The Afghanistan debacle did do one thing: It destroyed some of the happy illusions that 9/11 had unfortunately fostered. One of them was the illusion of nation-building, embraced for decades by America’s military and think-tank establishments along various points on the right-left political spectrum. The idea was that we could use war not simply to defeat enemies but also to forge Western-style democracies espousing Western values out of countries with radically non-Western cultures. It was a battle for “hearts and minds” that had failed in Vietnam during the 1960s and in Haiti and Somalia during the 1990s. After 9/11, nation-building became a linchpin of George W. Bush’s Afghanistan policy (and also his Iraq policy, with similarly disastrous results).

“We know that true peace will only be achieved when we give the Afghan people the means to achieve their own aspirations,” Bush declared in a 2002 speech. “We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better,” he later wrote in his memoir.

And so, under Bush and his successor, Barack Obama, Afghanistan experienced such phenomena as a master’s program in “women and gender studies” launched at Kabul University in 2015 by the U.N. Development Programme, and a $787 million U.S. gender equality initiative (paid for by U.S. taxpayers) designed to force U.S.-style feminism onto a highly traditional Islamic society where women veiled from head to toe mostly stayed at home. Gender studies might have played well in relatively cosmopolitan Kabul, but it fostered revolts in the mountainous rural hinterlands that played right into the hands of a resurgent, energized, and ultimately triumphant Taliban.

Sadly, though, there’s another 9/11 phenomenon that proved to be an illusion that the events in Afghanistan contributed to destroying. And that is the fleeting national unity that the catastrophic events of that sunny September morning fostered.

Those of us who lived through that day can still remember the American flags that appeared in nearly every window and on nearly every front porch. There was no kneeling for the National Anthem; spectators wept and cheered when Mariah Carey sang it during Super Bowl XXXVI in February 2002. There was no “defund the police.” The 60 New York and New Jersey officers who gave their lives along with hundreds of other first responders as the World Trade towers crashed downwards were honored as heroes.

It’s hard to believe that former New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, loathed by the media and currently the target of federal investigations as well as suspensions of his law license in New York and the District of Columbia over his legal representation of Donald Trump, was once called “America’s Mayor” by Oprah Winfrey because of his walk through the rubble within minutes of the destruction as a beacon of leadership.

Of course, that sense of national unity was probably illusory even then, when many Democrats still maintained that Bush had won the 2000 election only because of Supreme Court partisanship—but it still felt palpable.

So if the 20th anniversary of that sad and momentous day, Sept. 11, 2001, doesn’t quite feel like something worth celebrating, it can at least be a reminder of what we have lost—and also what we have learned, about the unfortunate state of our leadership and our country.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.

Charlotte Allen is the executive editor of Catholic Arts Today and a frequent contributor to Quillette. She has a doctorate in medieval studies from the Catholic University of America.