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A historical perspective on US policy in Afghanistan – analysis

CM 02/09/2021


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The recent takeover of Afghanistan by the Taliban, and its ensuing effects, should be understood by taking a broad historical perspective. In this context, facile comparisons must be eschewed.
The United States and its allies undertook a military operation in Afghanistan following the worst terrorist attack in living memory. For the first time in modern history, a non-state actor managed to carry out a terrorist attack on a grand scale, killing 2,977 people and wounding more than 6,000 others. The heartland of the United States was targeted as the Twin Towers in New York were destroyed, and the Pentagon in Washington was badly hit. Had it not been for the attempt of passengers on United Airlines flight 93 to gain control of the airplane, which crashed in Pennsylvania, a further target would have been hit, with many more casualties resulting from it.
One knows now that there were four attempts at carrying out terrorist attacks on 9/11. However as the attacks took place, no one knew how many were still pending. The sense of uncertainty prevailing in the US Government during that day, indeed in the following days as well, was striking.

Not since Pearl Harbor in December 1941 had the United States been surprised by an enemy in such a manner. However, contrary to Pearl Harbor, Washington and New York were targeted. The impact of this terrorist attack was like no other in the history of terrorism. It was seen even then as different from anything that had previously occurred. The dividing line with the past was all too clear. The sense of a historical watershed emerged immediately in its wake.The administration of President George W. Bush made a U-turn in its focus of attention. Whereas prior to 9/11 Bush wished to concentrate on domestic issues, he devoted most of his and his administration’s time and energy to foreign affairs and national security more widely following the unprecedented attack on US citizens.
The intelligence community in the United States underwent a major overhaul as a result of the failure to prevent the attacks. No similar change had been undertaken since the National Security Act of 1947.
An unprecedented preventive attitude prevailed in the United States and in the international system as a whole as a result of 9/11. Security measures at airports in the United States changed considerably. Indeed, the effect of 9/11 was to reach worldwide. Similar steps were adopted at airports throughout the world. The US government interrogated suspected terrorists outside its own sovereign territory by what was reported to be extra-judicial means. The fear behind this new policy was founded upon experience. Nothing like 9/11 had taken place before; nothing remotely similar should ever take place henceforward.
As terrorism changed, so did attitudes toward it. Bush was categorical about it: “Either you are with us or against us.” States sponsoring terrorism were to become a direct target, like Afghanistan. The aim was no longer merely to prevent terrorism through intelligence and police action. An all-encompassing strategy was to be devised. A proactive policy was to be adopted. Terrorist organizations were to be pursued relentlessly through diplomatic, legal, financial and military means.

 US Army Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last US service member to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 30, 2021 in a photograph taken using night vision optics. (credit: XVIII Airborne Corps/Handout via REUTERS) US Army Major General Chris Donahue, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, steps on board a C-17 transport plane as the last US service member to leave Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan August 30, 2021 in a photograph taken using night vision optics. (credit: XVIII Airborne Corps/Handout via REUTERS)

A militarily proactive and offensive policy was adopted by the Bush administration aimed at both preventing and punishing terrorism against the US. With this objective in mind, the United States, at the head of an international alliance and with the aid of local armed groups, carried out an all-out attack on Afghanistan in the wake of 9/11, aimed at toppling the Taliban regime and destroying the al-Qaeda bases in the country.
The United States and its allies defeated al-Qaeda and toppled the Taliban regime. The victory was swift. International support for the military operation was widespread. The war was a clear-cut success, but the intention to establish a stable, democratic regime, ultimately failed, leading to the takeover by the Taliban, 20 years after it had been toppled.
Afghanistan was no Vietnam, in which the US intervened to assist an allied state against Communist aggression. US intervention in Afghanistan in 2001 came in the wake of a direct attack on US citizens on US soil. A similar attack by Japan in 1941 on US military targets in Hawaii, far away from the US mainland, led to a full-out war, which did not end until Japan accepted unconditional surrender.
Afghanistan in 2001 was led by a government that harbored the terrorist group that carried out the attacks on 9/11. It was a legitimate target, no less than Japan was in 1941.
To be sure, Japan unlike Afghanistan was an ethnically homogeneous society, heeding the emperor’s words. Once fully defeated, it was easier to lead it to a stable political order. Thus, the post-war reality in Afghanistan could be expected to be different, but the reasons leading to war were not.
The writer is a lecturer at the School of Political Science, Government and International Affairs at Tel Aviv University.

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CM

The host of Coffee Mouth Scare Crow Show and CEO of 452 Impact, Inc. Here is food for thought. Romans 6:23 "For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord." John 3:16 "For God so love ed the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him shall be saved."

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