America Took the Bait After 9/11. Not This Time.
In the wake of the horrific bombings that claimed dozens of lives including 12 U.S. service members, we as a nation and our leaders are confronted with a very difficult challenge.
We must find a way to acknowledge our horror and the courage and sacrifice of those who have fallen without letting the perpetrators of the crime seize hold of our emotions and force us to compound the damage they have done with bad decisions that ultimately damage us further.
That is, after all, the objective of terrorists. It is their force multiplier. They, who are by and large weak, amplify the impact of their deeds by attacking highly visible soft targets in ways that generate media coverage and public reaction. And then they hope that those they attack respond in a way that further elevates them—by characterizing their threat as bigger than it is or by becoming bogged down in asymmetric conflicts that weaken them in terms of their public image and their resources.
The first op-ed I wrote in the wake of the Sept. 11 attacks warned against the U.S. being drawn into a global Intifada that damaged us in manifold ways and would be almost impossible to win.
What I warned against ultimately became known as the “War on Terror” and its cost to us was so high and its returns so limited that it has to be seen as an even bigger “success” for Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda than was 9/11 itself in his war against the United States and the West. Today there are many more al Qaeda extremists in this world than existed prior to the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks. Other terror groups have proliferated across the Greater Middle East, Africa and around the world. And of course, one of those groups was ISIS, declared defeated by Donald Trump but now, we learn, responsible for today’s carnage.
Consequently, today’s attacks pose much the same kind of conundrum, albeit on a smaller scale, that we faced 20 years ago. We must find a way to respond that, despite our revulsion and anger, in the end advances our interests and not those of the attackers.
Fortunately, the president of the United States understands this and that was exactly the message he sent in his impassioned remarks Thursday afternoon following the attacks. While he said, appropriately, to the terrorists, “We will hunt you down and make you pay” and “We will strike ISIS-K at a time and place of our choosing” he did so in the context he has always advocated, of focused counter-terror efforts that do not supplant or distract us from our higher priorities. “These ISIS terrorists will not win. We will rescue the Americans. We will get our Afghan allies. America will not be intimidated,” he said.
He added, “We can and must complete this mission and we will. We will not be deterred by terrorists. We will not let them stop this mission. We will continue the evacuation.”
That means, as the president rightfully emphasized, we cannot and must not let the attackers achieve their utmost goal and capture the narrative of our exit nor can we allow them to remake our plans or undo the progress on the right path we have made to date.
While the president responded appropriately to these attacks, the same cannot be said for members of the opposition party in the U.S. who immediately, callously, sought to capitalize on this event for their own political gain while advising or who sought to advise a course of action that would be catastrophic and play directly into the terrorist’s hands. An example of the former is Sen. Marsha Blackburn, who while bodies still lay in the streets bleeding called for the impeachment of President Biden and the resignation of Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley.
Online, it was even worse. Just one example was right-wing talking head Todd Starnes tweeting that “for every American who is killed, a city in Afghanistan should be wiped off the face of the Earth.”
Others in the commentariat have already argued that the terror attacks illustrate that the U.S. is making an error in pulling out of Afghanistan because the nation will again become a safe haven for terrorists. In the first instance, given the nature of the evacuation during a period of enormous volatility following the collapse of the Afghan government and the ascendancy of the Taliban, an attack precisely like these was expected. And such attacks are difficult to prevent, especially when your first line of defense are the Taliban, former adversaries with limited capabilities. That said, the U.S. team has wisely remained in touch with the Taliban as noted today in remarks from U.S. Central Command commander Gen. Kenneth McKenzie, Jr., recognizing that they have a shared interest with the U.S. in getting the evacuation to be concluded smoothly.
That said, our leaders know we are not leaving Afghanistan because it will never again harbor terrorists. We are leaving Afghanistan because 20 years of war and occupation have demonstrated we can never completely eradicate such threats in countries that remain lawless and largely ungoverned. We are leaving because as is the case in every other such country in the world—and there are many, like Mali or Yemen—we know there are better, more proportional ways to identify, monitor, combat, and otherwise defend against such threats.
That is the right reason to continue on track, as the president today committed we would do. Through his words and actions, he is acknowledging that the best way to honor those who died today and all those who have made the ultimate sacrifice during this long, hugely costly conflict is to demonstrate that even if we did not win it, at least we learned its lessons.
David Rothkopf is CEO of The Rothkopf Group, a media company that produces podcasts including Deep State Radio, hosted by Rothkopf. TRG also produces custom podcasts for clients including the United Arab Emirates. He is also the author of many books including Running the World: The Inside Story of the National Security Council and the Architects of American Power, Superclass, Power, Inc., National Insecurity, Great Questions of Tomorrow, and Traitor: A History of Betraying America from Benedict Arnold to Donald Trump.