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I Was on the 9/11 Commission and Here’s What I Fear Now

These messages I received recently, fragments of thousands conveyed during America’s chaotic and frequently heroic evacuation of over 120,000 people from Kabul are haunting reminders of the urgent communications from twenty years ago.

Terrorism Headline
(TNS) - “Working now on 10 year old… girl and her family. They just arrived at the Taliban checkpoint and they had to standoff because of a bomb threat. They are so close.

“We are still waiting on P…, she separated from the group and … hadn’t made it through yet.”

“This was their third attempt after waiting days and facing violence. They arrived waited and then received the Marines’ call to stand fast and about 12-16 hours later they entered the gate. … They were scared and not pushing through the gate when called. I had to speak to the US Marine in Kabul and then relay to the brothers that they had to fight to get inside when it opens. On the last time the door opened, they fought to get in.”

These messages I received recently, fragments of thousands conveyed during America’s chaotic and frequently heroic evacuation of over 120,000 people from Kabul in little more than a week, are haunting reminders of the urgent communications from twenty years ago: the frantic calls to 911 (“Yo, I’ve got dozens of bodies, people just jumping from the top of the building … in front of World Trade 1”), to loved ones from passengers on the four flights (“I’m on an airplane that’s been hijacked. If things don’t go well, and it’s not looking good, I just want you to know that I absolutely love you”), and among law enforcement and emergency responders on 9/11 (“DL is missing … Yup can’t find him. I think they are caught in the middle of the f----- smoke”).

The end of America’s occupation of Afghanistan, timed in an absurd lack of judgment to coincide with the twentieth anniversary of 9/11, frames in its urgency the twenty years separating the events.

This “new kind of war,” as a military air defender described it on 9/11, began with messages of desperation from people in the burning towers and hijacked planes seeking avenues of survival, from those searching for the lost, wondering who was hurt and who made it out. Its Afghanistan chapter ended last week with similarly urgent attempts to improvise escape.

This urgency on the ground might seem an odd place to begin a twenty-year assessment.

As President Biden has made clear, his administration, like the Trump and Obama predecessors, is focused on the larger strategic objective of shifting resources to meet other emerging threats: from terrorists not concentrated in Afghanistan; from Russia and China, as they seek actively to destabilize the very idea of government by consent; and from recently emergent domestic extremism fueled by social media.

It is easy, given such “big picture” considerations, to dismiss the chaos on the ground as the noise of a painfully passing moment, nothing more.

But that is precisely the problem with the “big picture” thinking that has captivated the inside the Beltway crowd of both parties for decades. Such thinking misses the essential connection between grand strategy, with which successive administrations have been obsessed, and tactics, the strategic implications of which they have tended to ignore or dismiss.

It is appropriate to reconsider the strategy of the past 20 years in light of the improvisational efforts of 9/11 and August 2021 because each was the heartbreaking consequence of vast institutional – strategic –miscalculations and failures.

9/11 lives in my memory in searing images: the fire and southern-drifting smoke of the forty-story inferno of debris from the Twin Towers; the State Police marine unit and other boats ferrying the wounded across the Hudson to Liberty State Park all day and night, and taking first responders over to Ground Zero; the dismembered fire chief mistakenly brought to the Jersey side and left on the dock; the lights of hundreds of ambulances staged in Jersey City before his transport back to New York; the F-16s screaming overhead; and then, across the Hudson, a woman’s foot in a dress shoe; soot-covered people wandering seemingly aimlessly; the photos of the missing that appeared almost immediately; and, weeks later, the scene at Fresh Kills where first responders worked around the clock to recover precious remains.

I was serving as New Jersey Attorney General on 9/11 and I recall as well the chaos and urgency of that day: the use of runners to communicate when the State Police radio antenna, which sat atop the North Tower, went down with the building’s collapse; the hundreds of wild, false reports that seemed to have a life of their own, such as the thousands of Muslims celebrating in Jersey City and Patterson, the Israeli commandos fleeing the scene, the terrorists wearing explosive backpacks in Central Park and Newark.

I remember having to make decisions based on partial or no information, and the sick feeling upon learning that New Jersey’s commuter lots from Bergen to Monmouth Counties remained full as darkness descended on the evening of 9/11. I remember hearing there may be 20,000 dead. As someone who was responsible for public safety in New Jersey, the realization that people in my state had been murdered in the hundreds, if not thousands (over 700, as it turned out), was a gut-punch I feel to this day.

Above all, I remember thinking, and then later obsessing, in disbelief: how did it come to this?

It came to this, I learned years later when I had the opportunity to serve on the 9/11 Commission, as the endpoint of a vast institutional failure.

People at every level of the response on that day – from the highest levels of the White House and secret service and FBI and Justice Department to the military air defenders to the FAA controllers to the police officers and fire and EMT responders at the Pentagon, Shanksville, Pennsylvania and New York City to the passengers and crews aboard the hijacked planes and aboard the thousands of planes that landed safely — all of us were forced to improvise that day because a vast surveillance, early warning, and emergency response system that had cost trillions of dollars failed. The degree of chaos that ensued was a good measure of the enormity of that institutional failure.

As I learned on the commission, the 9/11 conspirators managed to evade a standing U.S. military with over 700 bases around the world; a Central Intelligence Agency operating globally; a National Security Agency that was capable of intercepting any form of electronic communication in the world; embassies in nearly every country; watchlists and no-fly rosters of potential terrorists maintained by the Federal Aviation Administration and the State Department; the national dragnet of the FBI; and a million state and local law enforcement officers.

They did so by exploiting the fault lines between and among agencies – the refusal of some agencies to share information; the ignorance of some agencies that others even had useful intelligence; the bureaucratic disconnects that reflect, in some measure, human nature itself. They did so because an early warning system designed to meet Cold War threats was slow to adapt to so-called asymmetric threats like Islamist terrorism.

The result played out in the violence, chaos, and heroism displayed on 9/11. Nearly 3,000 people died on 9/11; tens of thousands at the Trade Center site, the Pentagon, and on flights that were diverted and landed safely, survived.

The strategic challenge we have faced since 9/11, as the 9/11 Commission Report pointed out, goes beyond terrorism, which is, after all, “a tactic”: “[O]ur strategy must match our means to two ends: dismantling the al Qaeda network and prevailing in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to Islamist terrorism.”

The United States pursued both strategic objectives aggressively. As a nation, we have been successful in degrading the capacity of the al Qaeda network to strike us in catastrophic ways. We captured Khalid Shiekh Muhammed and several co-conspirators; killed hundreds if not thousands more on the battlefields or in drone strikes; silenced Anwar Awlaki, arguably al Qaeda’s most effective proselytizer; and hunted down and killed Osama bin Laden. We are much better prepared, have much better intelligence, share information more freely among law enforcement and intelligence agencies, and are much more attuned to the threat environment than we were twenty years ago.

In accomplishing the first objective, however, we compromised our ability to achieve the second, larger, objective: “prevailing in the longer term over the ideology that gives rise to Islamist extremism.”

We wrote legal memoranda justifying the use of torture and kidnapping. Then we tortured. Kidnapped. Conducted thousands of targeted killings with Hellfire missiles from drones. Killed bystanders when the targeting was imprecise. Created a special prison beyond the reach of our courts to house suspects terrorists indefinitely without charges, let alone trials. Failed to bring one of the 9/11 conspirators held at Guantanamo Bay prison to justice in twenty years.

All of these measures could be dismissed as “tactical”; taken together, however, they undermined our ability to win the hardest war: the war of ideas. “Just as we did in the Cold War,” the 9/11 Commission Report concluded, “we need to defend our ideals abroad vigorously.” Employing such measures, however, seemed to violate the very ideals we were seeking to uphold. Those tactical measures amounted to a strategic decision that we could not disable al Qaeda unless we redefined the ideals we were seeking to uphold. Our tactics disarmed our strategy.

What was left for us to do to win the struggle of ideologies? Nation building. Establishing governments in Afghanistan and Iraq that would build an educational and health infrastructure, that would uphold individual rights, including equal rights for women, that would conduct free and fair elections, and that would embrace the rule of law. President Biden, like President Trump and — to an extent — President Obama before him, has disclaimed any belief in nation building. But here is the question: without it, in what way have we been upholding American ideals in the clash of ideas? Given our tactics, what was left?

That is why the optics of allowing the Taliban to ride triumphantly into Kabul and retake by force a nation that would never choose it in a free and fair election were so dispiriting to so many Americans. In their celebratory beheadings and stonings, their oppression of women, their suppression of free speech, and their medieval governing practices, the Taliban embody the very ideals we pledged twenty years ago to defeat.

Perhaps we were never going to prevail by nation-building. Perhaps before we can prevail in the struggle of ideals we need to recover a consensus in our own politics about what those ideals are. Perhaps the greatest threat to our national security isn’t Islamist extremism or the drumbeat of authoritarianism but our public square, structured — because so many make so much money from it — to drive us ever further apart.

As I tracked the urgent messaging recently as part of an ad hoc effort to assist Afghan evacuees, as I watched the footage of people clinging in panic and despair to planes as they took off, then dropping to their deaths as crowds surged against the perimeter of the airport and shots were fired and suicide bombers struck, I traveled back in time twenty years to that harrowing day.

The desperation of both days can’t be seen apart from the decisions and mistakes that led them. Urgent heroism was the trailing consequence of the strategic decisions that led to 9/11 and 8/31. So many have sacrificed so much over the past twenty years to defeat a murderous medieval ideology.

They deserve a better approach. The world deserves a better America.

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John Farmer, Jr. is a Professor of Law and the director of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey. He was New Jersey’s attorney general on Sept. 11, 2001, and later served as senior counsel to the 9/11 Commission.

©2021 Advance Local Media LLC. Visit nj.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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