Our highly emotional partisan politics shouldn’t make us illogical in dealing with global matters. And an exit from Afghanistan, which President Biden has promised by Sept. 11, 2021, is long overdue. It’s a move toward logical decision-making, not emotion-driven choices.
It seems both like yesterday and a lifetime ago, the first major event of this century, that terrible September day in 2001. Outside of Pearl Harbor or the Lincoln or Kennedy assassinations, this country hadn’t experienced a moment of such severe change in a matter of minutes. After the attacks, George W. Bush stood on the rubble of the World Trade Center and vowed to get those responsible. The U.S. government determined that Al Qaeda and Osama bin Laden were behind the attacks. They were based in Afghanistan, but the Taliban, an Islamic fundamentalist group led at the time by Mohammed Omar, refused to turn them over. So, the U.S. took military action, hunting bin Laden and driving the Taliban out of power in Afghanistan.
I was certainly in favor of sending troops to Afghanistan, but I also remember having a question at the time: Should this be a war or a police action? It felt like a big distinction, I thought. The Sept. 11 attacks were not from another military power. They were the work of a terrorist enterprise, like a crime family of sorts, but rooted in religion. It seemed necessary to treat Al Qaeda like that and to eliminate that threat. A specific police-style action would go after them, but be limited in scope. And it would be over when bin Laden and his crew were killed or captured. We all knew the lesson of Afghanistan from the Soviet Union, which was mired in the land for years before the Soviet collapse.
But in the painfully emotional moments after Sept. 11 — and it’s hard to explain the shock to my children who were not yet alive — a “police action” seemed politically insufficient next to the magnitude of such an awful day. Emotion, not logic determined that it must be a “war” — not just on Al Qaeda, not just the Taliban, but a “war on terror.” Emotion required the response to be vast, not specific.
This distinction set a 20-year course for this country. When you’re grievously wronged — like America was on 9/11 — then there’s a desire for blood. That’s an understandable emotional reaction to such a hateful act.
But when logic is abandoned, then we invite more troubles. And a “war on terror” is a war against a phantom, not a country. It’s a validation of emotional, not logical priority, a war dictated by fear itself, which can take countless shapes and require constant remedies that step over all sorts of ideas about who you once were, shedding freedoms for the sake of safety, while committing to the sacrifice of countless lives and trillions of dollars to an ill-defined cause that was not to be questioned, because then, you weren’t a “patriot.”
But a key aspect of military patriotism, as I see it, is never putting any troops in danger without clear and necessary purpose. And the “war on terror” quickly lost its way. It mushroomed into a war in Iraq, which was completely driven by emotion, not logic. What sense did it make for the U.S. to invade Iraq after 9/11? The world is full of really bad leaders. Saddam Hussein was among the worst, a truly evil soul. But there was no evidence he was tied to 9/11 or that he planned to attack us. Still, he became the central focus of our 9/11 response after bin Laden slithered out of our grasp and became, strangely, an afterthought to Hussein, until he was finally killed in 2011.
I feel allegiance to ideas, not politicians. And while I may be personally repulsed by the behavior or actions of politicians, and yes, Trump tops that list for me, I also reserve the right to agree with that same person if their idea or stance is correct on a particular issue. And Trump broke the old, Republican orthodoxy on Iraq. He spoke the truth to a sacred cow at the time. He stood on stage with Jeb Bush and rightly called Iraq a disaster. That was something that needed saying. Now, I disagree passionately with so many things from his mouth since then, but I don’t want to be so blinded by personal feelings about any person that I can’t consider policy on its own merits. Look at the “what,” not the “who.” I don’t understand why the “who” is all that matters to so many. I think this is a terrible curse for us. This country needs to focus on the “what.”
I agreed again with Trump when he spoke of getting us out of Afghanistan. And I agree now with Biden’s commitment to get us out of Afghanistan by Sept. 11 of this year.
Of course, we need good intelligence. And we live in a world with many extremists of different backgrounds. It’s a dangerous world. And it’s important to be professional about combating that. But each aspect of that effort needs specific purpose, not a blanket “war on terror” that legitimizes any action so long as we’re scared enough. And there just isn’t enough specific purpose now for America to remain in Afghanistan. That purpose left years ago when bin Laden escaped through the mountains into Pakistan.
Sept. 11, one of the most emotional collective moments in our history, set a direction for us for two decades. But when it comes to foreign policy, emotional strategies lead to lost lives and lost purpose. And in a prolonged war like Afghanistan, the cause can fade as the industry of it takes hold, the big contracts for companies profiting off the conflict. But that’s a horrible business. We need healthy industry here, not a war industry there.
We just cannot go on indefinitely like this, absent-minded at home as a few of our own continue to sacrifice it all for something without clear purpose. It makes sense to bring the troops home by Sept. 11 — 20 years to the day. A war on terror cannot be a war on logic. Logic must win, or else we won’t. I think that goes way beyond this topic, too.