Biden’s Afghan debacle will make for a grim 9/11 anniversary 


Symbolism is important. Al Qaeda knew that. The ­indelible symbol of the new-ish millennium remains two gaping, burning towers in Lower Manhattan, and then their collapse. Beyond the loss of life was a propaganda victory. A few ragtag terrorists could topple the physical emblems of the West’s capitalist power. 

It didn’t matter that the Twin Towers were a heavily subsidized state-government project, and that they had never succeeded as commercial real estate, and that major companies had never wanted to locate there. 

The rest of the world, West and East, didn’t know that. 

You didn’t have to speak ­English, or know how to read well, or be much older than a toddler, to know what these pictures meant. 

The day of 9/11, though, wasn’t a defeat. 

It was the start of something, but what? Notwithstanding ­attempts at revisionism, every single member of Congress but one voted to invade Afghanistan. Even Bernie Sanders. 

The war wasn’t a failure. It was an expensive stalemate, the same as all modern conflicts. 

North Korea and South Korea are a stalemate (with plenty of American troops to keep it that way). Russia vs. much of Eastern Europe is a stalemate, guarded by NATO. 

That one side is far more powerful than the other doesn’t matter. The weaker side can do damage, including skirmishes and casualties. We don’t declare that we are tired of the North Koreans putting up with a ­tyrant and evacuate in a snit.

For all of the merriment over how Dick Cheney predicted that Iraqis would greet Americans as liberators, it does seem that an awful lot of Afghans did greet us as liberators. Nine million people, about a quarter of the population, voted in the 2004 election. Girls went to school. Some women uncovered their faces.

That isn’t to say it was anything resembling a Western-style ­democracy, or was ever going to be. 

A US Marine and a child spray water at each other during an evacuation at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan, August 21, 2021.
U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Samuel Ruiz/Handout via REUTERS

Afghanistan is sprawling, poor, isolated and violent. Anyone who did work in a Western-supported government, or did send her children to school, was brave. 

But President Biden’s disorganized catastrophe of a withdrawal makes things worse. 

Yes, he can blame his predecessors. What good does it do, though, to blame George W. Bush, 13 years after he left office, or to blame Trump, when Biden was supposed to be the anti-Trump “adult”?

Biden says he doesn’t want to leave a fifth American president with troops in Afghanistan. Yet very rarely does this country — or any Western country — ever solve a problem for all time. 

Biden doesn’t go around saying that we can’t leave the next president a budget deficit, or that we want China to declare it doesn’t want Taiwan, or else. 

Sometimes, continued delay, compared with the realistic ­alternative, is fine. The history of the West is five centuries of problems accumulating. 

So what is Biden bequeathing us? Just as symbolism is important, timing is important. 

It is literally weeks before the 20th anniversary of 9/11. Twenty years is important. In another 10 years, 9/11 will be more like history than something that happened in two generations’ adult lifetimes. 

Any 9/11 anniversary is sad for people who lost loved ones, but it shouldn’t have to be a grim, hopeless event for the nation. Yet Biden is making it that way, by giving the world eerie new symbolism to bookend the ­images of two decades ago. 

Of course, the practical facts of Biden’s botch matter, too. Who is going to trust the US government after this? 

But the images matter more. Instead of Americans falling out of buildings, we have Afghans clinging to US military planes until they can’t hold on anymore, falling to their deaths. 

One World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum are seen ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks
One World Trade Center and the National September 11 Memorial & Museum are seen ahead of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks.
REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Instead of the American military might coming to rescue people — however poorly executed that may be, in practice — we have military planes used as weapons to scatter people on the tarmac.

Twenty years ago, al Qaeda could never have dared hope for this global propaganda sequel: At the Kabul airport, these are people who will die to try to get to America, but look at how America treats them. 

Just as on 9/11, you don’t have to speak English, or be much older than a toddler, to know what these pictures mean, anywhere in the world. Another US president will be stuck with the results. 

Nicole Gelinas is a contributing editor to the Manhattan Institute’s City Journal. 

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