EMBLAZONED in the national memory and psyche of the American public, and of the world consequently, are images of gore and tragedy filched off the pages of the unprecedented strike at the heart of New York City. Two hijacked passenger aircrafts crashed into the twin edifices of the World Trade Center. The dramatic collapse of the towers that engulfed the alleys, streets, and communities circling around the symbol of the American empire with thick amounts of smoke, rubble, and suffocating fog. Pentagon, the powerhouse of the world’s mightiest (and most terroristic) military force, suffering from the conflagration from the third hijacked airplane that came crashing into the western wing of the U.S. military headquarters.
Outside the images, more terrifying emblems from September 11, 2001 have emerged: frantic voices from air traffic control towers tracking down United America flights that were skyjacked by suicide bombers dispatched into the United States to crash the Empire down; even more frantic screams of “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday!” from responding firefighters when trembling inside the Twin Towers started to be felt, heralding the towers’ foundering; and the deafening screams that resonated across the areas adjacent to the World Trade Center, when people came to realize that this was no aviation accident—it was a spectacular show of assault at the heart of the United States of America that Osama Bin Laden despised verily so.
For an entire generation of Americans, and of people across the globe in general, these remain to be vivid memories of September 11, 2001’s cataclysm. The live footage of New York’s tallest towers consumed by fire would be the United States’ symbol of despair, outrage, fright, terror, sorrow, misery, and even hatred. For the 9/11 generation, these are painful reminders of almost 3,000 lives lost in one snap—of thousands more whose lives were perpetually scarred by the air of terror, the stench of death and violence and everything that reverses the very concept of civilization, which was a byproduct of the image of the World Trade Center devoured by its inferno. Unfortunately, for the generation who did not live to see the reality of 9/11, it has become a mere footnote in the long, winding history of the United States and its imperial dilemma.
The scars of September 11 on the Americans who lost a doting father, a caring mother, a loving sibling, a congenial friend, or an important ally when New York, Pentagon, and Pennsylvania bore witness to the deepest annals of human’s evil are all real. Time has neither healed nor tampered with these scars plastered on the psyche of the witnesses and survivors. But these scars have a reconfiguration on the 20th anniversary of September 11’s tragedy, with the background image of Afghanistan ripped apart by two decades of broken, failed, miserable, false, and unjustifiable promises of salvation from a livid United States.
In New York, five years after the September 11 bloodshed, a memorial was constructed in memory of the Americans who perished—as victims or as martyrs who tried to save lives even if that equated to their lives being lost. But in Afghanistan, where the twenty-year protracted terrorist act that George W. Bush commenced—which zapped more lives, and more lamentably than the world could ever grapple with—their memory is obscured as that of mere necessary casualties.
TO THINK that the narrative of September 11, 2001 is—and should—revolve around the World Trade Center’s iconography alone is not only flawed, it is the biggest injustice to both the victims of 9/11 and of the post-9/11 terrorism in Baghdad and Kabul. Because to take away from the story both the path to the 9/11 that the Central Intelligence Agency paved under the banner of “resistance” to the 1979 Soviet occupation, as well as removing from it the narrow road through which Bush and his coterie of war hawks and cheerleaders pushed the United States to traipse for two decades, with blistering chants of war and militaristic retaliation, is the worst form of obfuscating the realities of the tragedy from both the national memory and consciousness. The 9/11 narrative would not be coherently, harshly complete without the American empire’s disastrous and bloody decisions.
When Gary Schroen, the CIA officer who oversaw from Islamabad the agency’s ghost wars in Kabul in the immediate aftermath of the Soviets’ defeat, shook the hands of Ahmad Shah Massoud and vowed to offer a path of revival to Afghanistan through local leaders and mujahideen commanders who fought along with Washington to drive the Soviets out of their land, even as the agency overlooked and ignored the rise of the Taliban, the U.S. was marked for death. When the Stringer missiles that the U.S. had dispersed among Afghan resistance leaders to vanquish the Soviet forces spread without any obstacle to corrupt Afghan warlords and other officials, until Osama Bin Laden had arrived in Afghanistan in 1996, the road to this war had been forged.
Bin Laden had a considerable rationale to espouse that huge amount of hatred toward Uncle Sam. Wasn’t the U.S. the one who forced Sudan, his residence at that time, and Saudi Arabia, his native country, to both kick him out and strip his nationality off on the account of allegations that he financed violent Islamic extremist organizations? This forced him to eke out a living on the run in Afghanistan, whose discordant and incoherent governance in the post-Soviet era provided him with the perfect cover from the nation that went after him. Signed off from the “Peaks of the Hindu Kush,” Bin Laden exclaimed his poetry of revenge, a jihad against the empire that was his sworn enemy.
The CIA did not care about the Taliban, until the Bin Laden problem surfaced on the muddy fields of Afghanistan. Schroen met with Massoud, after an interval period of betrayal and loose promises, to discuss the young Saudi Arabian billionaire’s Gordian knot. Bin Laden proclaimed himself as an advocate of Islamic radical advocacy; the Americans and Afghans both viewed him as anything else but. He was a financier of terrorism, a terrorist in the strictest dictionary definition. Since then, he had to be stopped. But at what cost?
This snapshot from the CIA’s obscured operations in Afghanistan, directed from the agency’s office in Pakistan, is a window into a huge and often overlapping web of intrigue, bribery, unholy alliances, and eventual failures and betrayal that would lead to September 11, 2001. This is only one of the angles into the labyrinthe road to 9/11. There were so much more: the remnants of the jihad against the Soviets, the Taliban’s quiet rise, the birth of the Al-Qaeda terror network, the deprivation of human rights and civil liberties in a Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, the complacency of American intelligence networks when Bin Laden began to dispatch his carefully-drafted loyal followers to kick off his biggest assault on the United States. And so on.
But this is an important window, even for the generation that did not live through September 11’s horror.
SEPTEMBER 11’s scars do not concern Americans alone. That’s both a false and self-conceited version. To fully comprehend the complexity of terror, uncertainty, and hopelessness wrought by the 9/11 tragedy, observers need to understand also that Bush’s “war on terror” had thrown off the same amount of terror across the deserted fields, the rocky mountain ranges, and the dilapidated communities that comprised Afghanistan, a desolate nation that Americans in 1979 did not even know without the benefit of a world atlas.
The bombs that American fighter aircrafts dropped almost indiscriminately in its shoddy “pursuit” of Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda’s terrorist cells were almost synonymous with the hijacked aircrafts that Bin Laden’s suicidal men crashed into New York’s Twin Towers. So were the desperation, deaths, and disintegration that it caused. Multiply the 9/11 casualties by a hundredfold, and it will give the civilian casualties of Bush’s war: 241,000. It’s easy, almost free-wheeling, to argue about the severity of September 11’s horrific holocaust or that of the 20-year war in Afghanistan if it will be anchored on statistics, dates, or even longevity. The tragedies that tug at the heartstrings of both sides of the war divide will emanate from the human faces of two American catastrophic chapters.
Gregory Frederick, the Marriott World Trade Center’s engineer who spared the lives of a mother and daughter from the towers’ collapse, said in retrospect: September 11 is “just something that sticks with you like glue.” Of course, it is. It will always be. But does the world even remember, much less care about, the 9/11’s other faces: Afghan infants, mothers, and young people who were annihilated by the bombs that U.S. Air Force soldiers relinquished from their aircraft? The Afghan men extrajudicially killed by U.S. “surgical” drone attacks, the same lethal method it imposed on Marawi City during the siege? There is not a single monument erected to memorialize them. While recollections of 9/11 on its 20th anniversary set a platform, a stage, for Afghan voices to speak their truth about the war, these are all embarrassingly insufficient.
The proper way to remember September 11, 2001 is to remember that it did not start or end on that day. New York or the Pentagon were not the only settings of the ensuing war and upheaval and devastation. The graveyard of empires that was Afghanistan will always play an integral part in the unfolding of the 9/11 narrative, from both the positive or negative end. The hundreds of thousands of Afghan lives violently snuffed out by two decades of a senseless, tragic, and unjustifiable war waged on a dangerously nationalistic predicate that Bush and his war criminal Donald Rumsfeld had peddled are as important as the thousands killed in the United States on September 1.
The stories of the prisoners whose rights were arbitrarily snatched by U.S. officials and military officers, in the sweeping detention cells of Guantanamo Bay and dungeons of Abu Gharib, are not uncomfortable details alone that can, or must, be glossed over. These are important in piecing together the ever-present legacy of September 11—apart from the Al-Qaeda terrorism’s carnage: the wrath of an aggrieved Empire who thought it was both necessary and levelheaded, even backed with logic, to torture suspects and convict them without a constitutionally-sanctioned right to a fair trial.
So should the cries of women, children, and the intelligentsia in Kabul, be not swept under the rug. The rise and fall of the Taliban’s despotic and terrorist regime should be equally ascribed to the United States’ state and international terrorism, brazenly and unabashedly embodied by the 20-year war that Bush, Barack Obama, Donald J. Trump, and Joseph “Joe” Biden had all passed, and whose responsibility the four of them tossed onto one another—with the faint hope of evading the consequential final curtain act, foreseen to be a messy one, in the Afghanistan war.
“WHAT DID we mean by ‘freedom’ in this country? [I]t was the freedom to pretend. We feel entitled to our fictions, and when you go to Afghanistan, all of it, it’s like the curtain comes down.” These were the words of Adam Linehan, a journalist who was drafted into the Afghanistan war for a couple of years as a medic. He was not mistaken. The United States regurgitated the Bush fiction that war is the proper response to aggression. Bush’s successors thought it proper, too, to wage a needless and irrational war that was also propelled by irrationality.
How, then, should the world reckon in the post-9/11 and post-Afghanistan vacuum? The Taliban has now seized back control of Afghanistan, where treacherous violence and fear ensued in the wake of the American departure. The last American soldier who fought in the twenty-year war had been airlifted back into the States already. Republican stalwarts and other critical voices are now adjudicating Biden’s botched exit plan as a huge global embarrassment for the U.S., which can only be true if taken in the long litany of policy failures, aggressive polity in a feigned “war time,” and a pogrom of lying that also marred the American war in Vietnam almost half a century ago.
Admittedly, this is a complex narrative that should not be treated either as a statistic or as policy alone. Beyond the numbers, the officialdom of mechanical commemorations, and the policies itself, lives were lost—or snuffed out in mesmerizing and atrocious acts of terrorism, retribution, and Islamophobia. The post-9/11 world should offer a sincere form of remembrance to the lives that became the unwitting price, if not prize trophies, of an Empire struggling to defeat an invincible enemy who has never really left, whose spirit is still palpable in Bin Laden’s enduring legacy in the post-9/11 United States.
In the final act, the Americans—and the world in its entirety—should contemplate upon the question that former Afghan member of the parliament Fawzia Koofi proffered in the midst of the Trump administration’s spurious efforts to hammer out a suspect and ignominious deal with the Taliban: “How much more should we compromise for the cost of peace?”
How much more, indeed, should the world pay for the American imperialist vision of “peace?”
Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat
Karl Patrick Wilfred M. Suyat has been a campus journalist and writer for almost seven years, and a political activist for three years. Currently, he sits as a provincial coordinator of the College Editors’ Guild of the Philippines, a member of the Institute for Nationalist Studies, and a contributor for a host of publications. Email Karl at: firstname.lastname@example.org.