This week marks the 19th anniversary of 9/11, the worst terrorist attack in modern history. I was on assignment in Afghanistan in 2003, two years after 9/11, to document attempts to bring education to young girls. I witnessed the devastation and hope that coexist in a war-worn nation.
On the morning of September 11th,2001, nineteen suicide extremists, 15 of whom were from Saudi Arabia, killed almost 3000 innocent civilians. The terrorists were operating on the orders of al Qaeda leader, Osama bin Laden. Al Qaeda is a transnational network of militant jihadists who believe that America and Israel are trying to destroy Islam. This radical sect believes that killing civilians is religiously sanctioned and that sharia law should replace all secular justice systems.
America (and the world) was rightfully outraged at the massacre of 3000 civilians and demanded retaliation. Osama bin Laden was leading al Qaeda from a network of hidden locations in Afghanistan. A week after the attacks, the US congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force, giving the president power to “use all necessary and appropriate force” against any nation, organization or person who aided in the9/11 attacks. In less than a month, US and UK forces were fighting in Afghanistan.
After just two months of battles and ceaseless bombing, al Qaeda was on the run and the totalitarian Taliban regime had been toppled. However, Osama bin Laden had not been captured and the Taliban forces were regrouping. In the spring of 2002 President George W. Bush called for the reconstruction of Afghanistan and Congress appropriated $38billion for the effort.
By the time I visited Afghanistan in 2003,the US was committed to helping Afghanistan transform itself into a democracy. This was a noble but quixotic notion. It was clear even back then that to beat Taliban guerillas would require years of high-casualty ground battles combined with the implementation of a nation-wide, male and female, secular education system. You don’t change a medieval society overnight.
Had our focus remained on Afghanistan, perhaps some of this could have been achieved. Instead, in March of 2003President Bush launched a “shock and awe” bombing campaign of Iraq. Why? None of the 9/11 hijackers were from Iraq. There was no evidence that al Qaeda was operating in Iraq or that Osama bin Laden was hiding there. The stated intent was to protect the world by removing “weapons of mass destruction,” WMD, which Saddam Hussein was supposedly developing. This was a ruse. The CIA itself found the WMD argument for war with Iraq weak. Today, there is evidence that the White House knew that it was unlikely Iraq had WMDs. The most coherent explanation for why the US invaded Iraq is that, after the terror and trauma of 9/11, the US needed to re-establish itself as a world power in the Middle East. The horrific consequences of this arrogance are seldom discussed.
Last year the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University published a report detailing the number of casualties since 9/11. In Iraq, civilian deaths directly attributed to the war are approximately 200,000; the total number of American soldiers killed in Iraq is 4500, including at least 11 from Wyoming. In Afghanistan, civilian deaths are 43,000 with 2,300 dead American soldiers, including at least nine from Wyoming.
In retaliation for the killing of 3000 American civilians in the 9/11 attack, the US has lost 7000 American servicemen and women and caused the deaths of 243,000 civilians. (The Watson Institute estimates are conservative; other sources put civilians deaths as high as a million.) Worse, neither Iraq nor Afghanistan are better off than they were before we invaded. This industrial- scale slaughter can only be compared to the tragedy of the Vietnam War, in which 58,000 American soldiers died, while an estimated two million Vietnamese civilians were annihilated.
America must always defend itself. Not only our homeland, but our Constitution, our way of life and our values. But the 2001 Authorization for Use of Military Force gave a president too much latitude. Any military engagement should be limited, targeted and proportional---Obama’s termination of Osama bin Laden in 2011 is a good example. Killing hundreds of thousands of civilians is incomprehensibly cruel, unacceptably immoral, and flies in the face of the very values for which we are fighting.
A colleague on my 2003 Afghanistan assignment left me with these thoughts about values:
"The U.S. fired 88 Tomahawk cruise missiles into Afghanistan in 2001," he said. "I could build 40 schools for the cost of one of them. The Taliban are still here. They're just waiting for us to leave. You can kill a warrior, but unless you educate his children, they will become prime recruits."