September traditionally has been a welcome month when schools and colleges reopen, the spirit and value of human labor is celebrated across the country, and there is a hint of Fall in the air. It is not like April, the joy of which T.S. Eliot forever buried when he wrote,
“April is the cruelest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land…”
Twenty years ago, September began in the expected usual way – happily – innocent of what lay ahead and of how its visage was about to change forever, doomed to be rooted in history like the Ides of March that saw Caesar slaughtered at the treacherous hands of his comrades. In both savagery and infamy, 9/11 far outranks the Ides of March.
Nations are made of people, not of emperors and presidents. The scale of the loss and the sudden and unexpected brutality with which it was inflicted will haunt our minds, and ache our hearts forever.
That infamous day – death and destruction rained from above as vicious terrorists hijacked planes, and deploying them as missiles, rammed them through the World Trade Center‘s twin towers in New York, and the Pentagon in Washington D.C. Aiming to blow up the Congress, the remaining plane was forced to take a dive to its death as brave Americans aboard the plane decided to sabotage the terrorists’ plan and chose to go down with the plane. These American kamikazes – average men and women – gained the eternal gratitude of our nation and a permanent place in the annals of history and heroism.
In one swift swoop, the attackers had brashly managed to breach the ramparts of American economic and military power. The innocents who were instantly killed and mauled – in the minds of the ruthless hijackers – were merely collateral damage.
To Osama Bin Laden who masterminded those savage attacks -justice was handed out when he was killed ten years later by Americans in far away Pakistan, a familiar breeding ground and safe haven for miscreants. The long, patient search for Osama and his bold execution proved there is no dearth of daring Americans, and importantly, this nation has a long memory that enables it to never forget or forgive trespassers.
An astounding number – about 3,000 – were killed in the 9/11 attacks, and though many more thousands were able to exit the crashed buildings, they were never the same again. Enmeshed in grief over the loss of loved ones or suffering lasting injuries and disabilities from gaseous fumes and chemicals, they lived in the shadow of death and despair. Death, destroyed dreams, and derailed trajectories of life are not something one gets over. The trauma associated with rescue both for the rescuer and the rescued is not easily erased. One merely learns to live with it hanging over one’s head and lurking behind every door in one’s mind.
Grief and war are strangely similar. They never cease but acquire a life of their own. A hurt nation reacted as one, as cries rose to find and punish the culprits. The call to avenge was answered by our president. The war against terrorists began.
Afghanistan that had harbored and hosted the jihadist attackers became the terrain where our soldiers remained for the next 20 years. Several thousands of them shed blood, went home physically and mentally mauled, and many others took their last breath in that inhospitable land historians call “The graveyard of Emperors”.
The two decade-long Afghan war bled our treasury, armory and soldiery, enmeshing four consecutive presidencies and threatening to engulf the fifth. Although Trump had negotiated terms of American withdrawal from that lengthy war, it fell to Biden to finally call it a day.
Sadly, even though ending the long-drawn war could be deemed laudable, American withdrawal was badly executed resulting in a messy evacuation, and endangerment of many Americans and Afghan collaborators. Hailing the withdrawal as the speediest evacuation in history does little to alter the belief that we failed to achieve ‘Peace with Honor’.
Neither open criticism by our western allies of our undignified handling of the allied departure from Afghanistan, nor the support of 100 odd nations who stood behind some paltry paper resolution tabled by America in the United Nations Assembly makes a difference to what we and the world witnessed on our television screens – the utter mayhem of our last few days in Kabul. That, and the precious military hardware and software we so thoughtlessly left behind for the self-installed Taliban regime in Kabul to use in all probability against us, comes as a death blow to our tottering prestige and credibility as the world’s mightiest military power.
More lethal is the jolt to our faith in our country’s capability to function as a “smart” power. Failure of our Intelligence to presage and prevent the 9/11 attacks pushed us into a war, and the same failure of our intelligence bureaus tarnished the war’s ending by not briefing and preparing us for the instant collapse of the Afghan army we had built with our blood, sweat and dollars.
The irony and anguish of the Afghan war is that the Taliban we went to destroy 20 years ago is the same we silently stood by and watched takeover that country and its government. An Afghanistan run by Taliban is the worst insult we could add to the injury inflicted on us on 9/11, and to the sacred memory of those who died that day or subsequently on the battlefields in Afghanistan.
There is much to learn from our mistakes. One hopes this and future administrations will not shirk from seeking how, where, and why we failed, and why the counterpart forces we trained and equipped fell like a house of cards. But hope is always several steps behind reality and statecraft. Knowing our past history with other failed wars and ventures, we can be certain no heads will fall, no truthful conclusions reached or aired, no lessons learnt, and no history written that could claim to be free of whitewash.