Though the fire’s memory may burn itself into infamy, for now the Quran controversy sparked by Florida pastor Terry Jones has been extinguished. His anti-Islamic, Quran-burning protest finally canceled, 9/11’s debate has re-focused on the US media’s handling of Jones and the Islamic center’s location, planned blocks from Ground Zero.
And Afghanistan has shifted from Jones endangering US troops back to why US troops shouldn’t be there.
While the date may become more symbolic as it ages, 9/11’s rationale for war in Afghanistan has faded over time. 9/11 has obviously spawned a conspiracy due to how the event unfolded and how rapidly it yielded the PATRIOT act and Authorization for Use of Military Force Against Terrorists (AUMF). The AUMF, considered the seed of America’s “Long War,” allows for military action against anyone connected with 9/11, even if they only provide a safe haven.
Despite the questionable constitutionality of these acts, justifying them was certainly easier in the initial years following 9/11 when al-Qaeda maintained a vibrant, centralized presence in Afghanistan and Pakistan. But as US and allied military action eroded al-Qaeda’s capabilities in the theater, the results proved counterproductive to justifying extensive military force in the region. A blitzkrieg of drone attacks in 2009 and 2010 has left al-Qaeda, according to US officials, weaker and fewer in number than ever.
Yet Washington’s war drive continues unabated.
"As Americans we are not — and never will be — at war with Islam," President Barack Obama said from the Pentagon. "It was not a religion that attacked us that September day — it was al-Qaida, a sorry band of men which perverts religion."
Irony may have overruled coincidence when the Afghanistan Study Group released its report days earlier. According to the study, “The U.S. interests at stake in Afghanistan do not warrant this level of sacrifice. President Obama justified expanding our commitment by saying the goal was eradicating Al Qaeda. Yet Al Qaeda is no longer a significant presence in Afghanistan, and there are only some 400 hard-core Al Qaeda members remaining in the entire Af/Pak theater, most of them hiding in Pakistan’s northwest provinces.”
The Afghan Study Group is riddled with potholes better chronicled by Registan.net’s Joshua Foust; this is not a review of the study. But none of the ASG’s contradictions invalidate the reality that 9/11’s justification is evaporating.
According to the ASG, “The United States has only two vital interests in the Af/Pak region: 1) preventing Afghanistan from being a “safe haven” from which Al Qaeda or other extremists can organize more effective attacks on the U.S. homeland; and 2) ensuring that Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal does not fall into hostile hands.”
This reasoning fatally marks the denial of al-Qaeda’s safe haven as the objective, but the enemy on the ground as the 30,000-strong, nationally-based Taliban. Most Afghans (and US commanders) believe the Taliban is impossible to defeat, and for this reason the ASG recommends reduced military force, reconciliation, and increased internationalism. The extremist threat to Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal has never been taken seriously by independent observers outside Washington, and is considered further propaganda to justify the war in Afghanistan.
With al-Qaeda’s elimination mixing with an exodus, 9/11 has been undermined to the point where it no longer legitimizes war, if it ever did to begin with. As the ASG notes, “Al Qaeda sympathizers are now present in many locations globally, and defeating the Taliban will have little effect on Al Qaeda’s global reach.” To accept Afghanistan is to accept every war that al-Qaeda offers, which is al-Qaeda’s grand strategy.
Picking and choosing is equally unsustainable.
For instance al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) just released a hit-list of 55 security and police officials. Though surely propaganda, AQAP’s upswing of attacks on security personnel suggests it intends to fulfill its threat in some capacity. The threat out of Yemen has become so politicized that U.S. State Department counter-terrorism coordinator Daniel Benjamin was forced to reject rumors of Yemen becoming a greater threat than Afghanistan.
Benjamin never tones down the threat from Yemen though, only claiming that each conflict is equally dangerous to US interests: "This is nothing new. Al-Qaeda in Yemen has always been a concern to the U.S." Meanwhile Somali Information Minister Abdirahman Omar Osman recently warned, "We are very much concerned about the influx of foreign terrorists coming to Somalia.”
That al-Qaeda’s decentralized leadership remains in Afghanistan and Pakistan is the only reason to elevate this theater over Yemen and Somalia, where al-Qaeda has mobilized in greater numbers. But these conflicts will likely become direct threats if America maintains a limited, prolonged intervention, as a new generation of leadership could develop.
So who - or what - is America actually fighting in Afghanistan? US officials frequently claim that America isn’t in Afghanistan to build a democracy or a state, yet it would seem America does need to pursue nation-building in order to neutralize the Taliban and ultimately block al-Qaeda’s reconstitution. Though al-Qaeda has already been “disrupted and dismantled” in Afghanistan, only true stability will “defeat” its ideology that the West is an enemy of Islam.
Taking all factors into account, America is literally at war with chaos: one of the world’s least developed countries, a corrupt political environment and drug trade, warlords, ethnic strife, a depleted Pakistan, regional hegemony involving Russia, China, India, and Iran, all swirling around a nebulous Afghan-Pakistan border.
So can America defeat chaos?
Solutions are less common when a war is ill-conceived and poorly executed for such an extended period. A military buildup in Afghanistan is unlikely to create Washington's desired conditions, nor has it stopped al-Qaeda from spreading to other regions. Conversely, withdrawing from Afghanistan leaves a vacuum waiting to be rushed by a horde of actors, only two of which being Taliban and al-Qaeda. The ASG’s recommendation that, “the ongoing threat from Al Qaeda is better met via specific counter-terrorism measures,” similarly offers no hope of resolving the insurgencies it breeds in, opening the possibility to a new cycle of intervention. Russia, Iran, and China are unlikely to save the day.
But whatever the answer is to why America should be in Afghanistan, 9/11 has fallen to the bottom of the list.