Each of us old enough to remember has a crystalline image ingrained in our minds of what it felt like on Sept. 11, 2001.
I, for one, was sitting in computer class, typing away feverishly, when I heard my teacher begin to cry. Not long after that, the details began pouring in – the towers had fallen, another plane had struck the Pentagon, thousands were dead.
Given how little else I remember from that time of my life, the vividness of the memory has always been striking to me. It reminds me of stories my parents have told about how they felt and where they were when they learned Martin Luther King Jr. and John F. Kennedy had been assassinated – events of such national and international scale that they become deeply personal as well.
For as much as we all remember in pristine detail the events of 9/11, it’s easy to forget what happened afterward. The War on Terror, if such a war can be said to really exist, has waged on for most of adult millennials’ lifetimes – much of it just outside our frame of reference.
The people of Afghanistan and Iraq are forced each day to reckon with the effects of our momentous decisions after 9/11. But for most of America, the day-to-day details became mostly peripheral for all those who weren’t directly serving, parents of those serving, or keen readers of international affairs.
There’s something perhaps darkly fitting about having new reason to remember the last 20 years of foreign policy as we recognized the 20th anniversary of that day over the weekend.
Just as with most things in the year 2021, much of the dialogue immediately after the highly-flawed exit from Afghanistan was explicitly partisan. Either you hated President Joe Biden and everything he stood for, or you thought it was good. Virtually overnight, social media-informed foreign policy “experts” sprung up on every online platform to share their opinions on what went wrong in Afghanistan.
Far be it for me, an Amarillo native who’s spent all but one year living here, to add to the countless list of hot takes in the weeks since.
But I do find it interesting that, for everything that Democrats and Republicans disagree on these days, both Donald Trump and Biden were essentially in agreement on one thing – that it’s time to leave Afghanistan.
Life is almost incomprehensibly busy these days, and most of us aren’t foreign policy experts, let alone do we have access to the intelligence and experts that both Trump and Biden had. So, it’s easy to divide the world into black and white. But reality often manifests in shades of grey. Even the architects of our wars abroad are still reflecting on their choices, some 20 years later: https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/09/10/9-11-attacks-20th-anniversary-reassessing-20-years-of-war-506924.
I think I speak for all of us when I say we won’t ever forget our memories of September 11th, 2001. But this anniversary, maybe it’s worth reflecting on everything that’s happened in between.
Some estimates say more than 68,000 Afghanistan security forces, more than 2,400 U.S. service members, more than 3,500 contractors and an additional 46,000 civilians have died during the war in Afghanistan. And that’s not even counting our twin war in Iraq, and other conflicts that have sprung up because of our actions across the Middle East.
There’s a host of easy faces to blame for our miscalculations over the last 20 years, from bad intelligence and questionable decisions to the leadership over four successive presidential administrations from both parties.
Yet, we haven’t been passive actors in this great drama of the 21st century. George W. Bush’s approval rating peaked at about 90 percent after the September 11th attacks, and he secured a second term largely on the idea that it wasn’t good to change presidents mid-conflict.
Fast-forward to 2016, and even Trump – a presidential candidate from the same party as Bush – was unwilling to defend the 43rd president’s actions during the War on Terror, so toxic had it become.
By contrast, some 70 percent of Americans supported withdrawing from Afghanistan earlier this year, yet watching it unfold across our TV screens has dropped Biden’s approval ratings to the lowest he’s seen yet.
What does it say about us, as Americans, that we’ve been so easily distracted and changing? Or that we’re leaving Afghanistan – some 20 years, thousands of lives and billions of dollars later – much the same as we found it? I’m not sure. But it’s a question well worth pondering and considering amongst all Fort Bend County residents.
You’ve no doubt heard the phrase, “Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it.”
I much prefer to think of history as a complex piece of music. While it very rarely looks exactly the same, sometimes the notes do repeat.
There’s still much work to be done before we can close the books on the last 20 years for good. But it’s well worth considering ourselves – our strengths and our flaws – before moving onto the next thing.