September 11, 2016 marked the fifteenth anniversary of the tragic events in New York City and Washington, D.C., when a band of terrorists successfully commandeered several commercial airliners and proceeded to crash them into the World Trade Towers in Manhattan, and into the Pentagon not far from the seats of government in the District of Columbia. More than 3,000 people lost their lives, with many more thousands injured in the attacks.
When the ruling Islamic Taliban government in Afghanistan refused to surrender Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders over to the United States government at the insistence of the George W. Bush Administration, a plan of attack on Afghanistan was soon set in motion to bring to justice, it was said, those accused of masterminding and coordinating the events on 9/11.
The invasion of Afghanistan formally began in early October 2001 and resulted in a thirteen-year war that may have officially ended in December 2014, but still continues with a variety of U.S. combat personnel still actively involved on the ground and in the air against the supposedly overthrown and defeated Taliban.
Financially, the war in Afghanistan is estimated to have cost the U.S. taxpayer over $1.6 trillion. If added to this are the projected health care and disability compensation expenses that will have to be paid in the future to U.S. military personnel who will have served in Afghanistan the fuller cost has been estimated to likely end up being $4 trillion, looking to future years.
Total native civilian casualties in Afghanistan due to the war dramatically vary, with the figures between the tens of thousands to the hundreds of thousands. For the U.S., the number of military personnel killed has been over 2,300, with more than 20,000 wounded in combat and related actions.
On October 2, 2001, shortly before the invasion of Afghanistan began, I was asked to participate in a Christian Science Monitor discussion on its online edition with two other commentators, about “Searching for Foreign Policy Lessons” in the face of the 9/11 attacks and the anticipated military assault on Afghanistan. After a decade and a half, I still stand by my responses to the moderator’s questions, which I excerpt below.
Said The Christian Science Monitor:
“As Americans and citizens throughout the world brace for expected US military retaliation to the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes on Washington and New York, feelings of grief and anger have slowly turned to somber reflection. President Bush’s call to action in a newly declared ‘war against terrorism’ has met with near universal approval.
“But buffered somewhat from the fray of the nation’s power centers, academics have begun the quieter task of sifting through history to cull lessons that can serve as guideposts to the US response.
“csmonitor.com’s Josh Burek asked three experts with different backgrounds to share their thoughts on what foreign-policy and security lessons the US ought to learn in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 tragedy.
“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 it’s 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.
“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 is the most precious element 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.
“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 is other lands.
“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.
“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 US 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 the 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 in 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.
“CSM: OK, you’ve all read each other’s remarks above. Now 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 made a terrible mess of it and end up with political and economic systems far from being a reflection of 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 intervene around the world.”
What if, as I suggested in one of my replies, the U.S. government had not militarily intervened in Afghanistan, but instead had chosen to simply follow President Bush’s own comment during his address to the nation in Congress following the 9/11 attack about “Wanted: Dead or Alive” posters? What if real money had been offered? Suppose $1 billion for bin Laden, tax-free in any currency, to the successful bounty hunter? What if retired American Green Berets or Special Forces, or former French Foreign Legionnaires, or private mercenaries, or simply risk-taking adventurers had been left to capture or kill bin Laden and his treacherous band?
It took years under both the Bush and Obama Administrations to finally track down and kill bin Laden, anyway. How many Afghan and American and NATO allies lives would have not been lost due to the full military invasion and occupation of Afghanistan? How much of taxpayers money would have been saved that has gone down the government’s fiscal rat hole?
What if the government in Washington, D.C. had not given into hysteria, panic, and citizen-voter fear mongering, as well as the dreams of neo-conservatives wanting remake the world in their own image? And, therefore, not immediately lunged forward into breaches of people’s civil liberties and privacy as encapsulated in the formation of a Cabinet-level Department of Homeland Security because we were told that we were “at war”?
Maybe we would have avoided not only the disaster of the Afghan War, but the Bush Administration’s second grand adventure in “democratic” nation-building, the chaos and catastrophe of the war in Iraq; as well as our hand in “nation-disintegrating” in Libya, the fueling of a greater political and social implosion in Syria, and helping to foster one of the other unintended consequences of American interventionism in the Middle East – the vast wave of humanity flooding the continent of Europe from war torn countries.
The last decade and a half has been a lesson in the results of political hubris, social engineering arrogance, and ideological self-righteousness, the full effects of which are likely to be with us far longer than the last fifteen years since the terrible events of September 11, 2001.