As the chaos in Afghanistan continues to unfold, and the Biden administration madly scrambles to deal with the most significant national security failure since the fall of Saigon in April 1975, both President Biden and his national security team continue to perpetuate several myths about why the U.S. went into Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks to “get” those that attacked us from there. It is worth considering some of the basic facts now on the 20th anniversary of 9/11.
Speaking on television repeatedly over the last month, Biden, Secretary State Blinken, Secretary of Defense Austin, and National Security Advisor Sullivan have all been crystal clear that this was the single mission of U.S. forces deployed there for some 20 years now, and to deny the al Qaeda terrorists a safe have to return to. Addressing the nation on this subject, Biden made the same point and tried to indicate an additional point that when the U.S. finally got the al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden, it was in Afghanistan.
Neither of these concepts bears any relation to reality. What actually took place is no secret, and indeed the bi-partisan 9/11 Commission report freely available to anybody that cares to look tells a far different story. The 20 al Qaeda terrorists that came to the U.S. to perpetuate the horrific 9/11 attacks came from Saudi Arabia and Egypt and were trained in Hamburg, Germany – not Afghanistan. Of these, 19 got through U.S. immigration, and one was turned away by a vigilant officer at the Miami airport.
For his part, al Qaeda leader Usama bin Laden and his associates were not in Afghanistan either when the U.S. CIA and Special Forces killed him in May 2011, having left their camp at Tora Bora for Waziristan, the so-called tribal area of Pakistan (FETA), and later to the compound at Abbottabad, Pakistan, where the Pakistanis were protecting him.
Afghan training camps functioned for decades, and several thousand camps were established throughout Afghanistan between 1980-1989. They were never exclusive to al Qaeda. For the Taliban, it was a business supplementing income from the illicit drug trade. Indeed, the terrorist training camps set up years before in Afghanistan were largely empty after U.S. surveillance looked at them beginning in 1996.
In 1998 bin Laden directed terrorist operations that included al Qaeda’s simultaneous bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, killing 224 people. In response, the U.S. retaliated with cruise missile strikes on sites believed to be al Qaeda bases in Afghanistan, although there is scant evidence that these strikes accomplished anything,
During his tenure as commander of U.S. forces in Afghanistan, Gen. Tommy Franks has been criticized for his failure to deploy 800 Army Rangers to the Tora Bora, a key factor in allowing bin Laden to escape into Pakistan. Journalist Peter Bergen, an expert on al-Qaeda, described Franks’ decision as “one of the greatest military blunders in recent U.S. history.”
More recently, Gen. Austin “Scott” Miller, the top U.S. commander in Afghanistan, expressed his “deep concern” that the country could slide into a chaotic civil war and finally admitted that unless Afghan’s fragmented leadership united, there was no hope for defeating the Taliban, which is exactly what happened. Unfortunately, Miller’s view was not shared by Defense Secretary Austin or JCS Chairman Mark Milley.
For years a significant percentage of the Afghan security forces defected, taking their weapons with them, and more recently, many were leaving the country entirely, fleeing over the border to neighboring Tajikistan. The repeated myth put forth by the U.S. military that with more training and equipment, these forces could somehow defeat the Taliban should be a sad joke before that rapidly became an unavoidable reality.
Now with the Taliban in total control of Afghanistan, the Biden administration continues to issue reports which are not only inconsistent but often bear little resemblance to the reality being reported by a wide range of media and those directly involved. Curiously, the Taliban have not shut off either Afghanistan’s Internet connection or the cell phone system. The current reality is on social media 24/7, with the White House, State, and DoD hard-pressed to continue their false narrative.
With the U.S. largely out of Afghanistan, except for several hundred stranded Americans and SIV holders, the key questions remain whether all of those left behind can ultimately be evacuated and whether the “loss” in Afghanistan will give rise to future terrorist attacks operations.
Notwithstanding the incompetence and bungled actions by Biden, Blinken, Austin, and Milley, there is a good chance that those left behind will ultimately be evacuated, at least as far as U.S. citizens and SIV holders are concerned. It appears evident that the Taliban are not interested in repeating the Iranian hostage crisis and seek some level of international credibility. At the same time, it is highly likely that many who aided the U.S. over the years and do not have SIV paperwork in hand will be hunted down and executed. The Taliban already have bank records in hand, and according to some reports, are being supported by Russian intelligence tracking cell phone calls to the U.S.
The final question is whether the “loss” in Afghanistan will make a significant change in the war on terrorism, once again providing a safe venue for al Qaeda and others to base their operatives. For those who have studied al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist organizations over the two decades since 9/11, there is no certain answer, but some reason to suggest that it won’t make a large difference as many now fear.
In the current era al Qaeda, ISIS, and other terrorist groups have found safe haven and bases for training in a wide range of countries in the Middle East, Africa, and elsewhere. Returning to Afghanistan is not essential to their future operations. What is essential is the ability of the U.S. and its allies to monitor and track these activities effectively to prevent another 9/11. Unfortunately, many of the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission were never implemented, and two decades of lies and misinformation by the role of Afghanistan and the Taliban have not helped.
• Abraham Wagner has served in several national security positions, including the NSC Staff under Presidents Nixon and Ford. He is the author of the recent book Henry Kissinger: Pragmatic Statesman in Hostile Times.