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On 9/11 Anniversary, End the Self-Delusion About America’s Enemies

Al Qaeda once again has a safe haven in Afghanistan, endangering Americans.

By , a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former U.S. national security advisor, and , the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies.
Taliban gunmen in Afghanistan in 2001.
Taliban gunmen in Afghanistan in 2001.
Taliban gunmen near Kandahar, Afghanistan on Oct. 31, 2001. BANARAS KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

Sunday marks the 21st anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the United States—planned and launched by al Qaeda from Afghanistan—that killed 2,977 innocent people. Much has changed since then, but following the disastrous U.S. military withdrawal last year, the Taliban once again rule Afghanistan, and al Qaeda enjoys a safe haven there—just as it did on Sept. 11, 2001.

Some may dismiss the tragic outcome in Afghanistan as a sad episode the United States can safely relegate to the history books as Washington focuses on important challenges elsewhere. But nothing could be further from the truth. Threats remain in Afghanistan, and the failure to address the self-delusion in Washington that led to the disastrous withdrawal in the first place will invite future disasters in U.S. policy toward other adversaries.

To understand the persistent malady of self-delusion in Washington, consider U.S. President Joe Biden’s comments in August 2021. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?” he asked in an effort to justify his decision to withdraw every U.S. service member from Afghanistan. “We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. … And we did.”

Sunday marks the 21st anniversary of the terrorist attacks against the United States—planned and launched by al Qaeda from Afghanistan—that killed 2,977 innocent people. Much has changed since then, but following the disastrous U.S. military withdrawal last year, the Taliban once again rule Afghanistan, and al Qaeda enjoys a safe haven there—just as it did on Sept. 11, 2001.

Some may dismiss the tragic outcome in Afghanistan as a sad episode the United States can safely relegate to the history books as Washington focuses on important challenges elsewhere. But nothing could be further from the truth. Threats remain in Afghanistan, and the failure to address the self-delusion in Washington that led to the disastrous withdrawal in the first place will invite future disasters in U.S. policy toward other adversaries.

To understand the persistent malady of self-delusion in Washington, consider U.S. President Joe Biden’s comments in August 2021. “What interest do we have in Afghanistan at this point with al Qaeda gone?” he asked in an effort to justify his decision to withdraw every U.S. service member from Afghanistan. “We went to Afghanistan for the express purpose of getting rid of al Qaeda in Afghanistan. … And we did.”

The problem with such statements is that they were clearly not accurate, as many warned early last year and as the Foundation for Defense of Democracies’ Long War Journal has documented for many years. The Taliban gave al Qaeda a safe haven to plan 9/11, and the two groups have remained attached at the hip ever since. Indeed, no less than a United Nations monitoring team reiterated in an April 2021 assessment that “the Taliban and Al-Qaida remain closely aligned and show no indication of breaking ties.” You know there is a problem when a U.N. entity has a clearer view of the United States’ enemies than the White House.

As an attempted vindication for the results of its Afghanistan policy, the Biden administration points to the successful U.S. drone strike that killed the head of al Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, in July in Kabul. But Americans would be wise to ask a few questions: Why did Zawahiri move to the Afghan capital after the United States’ troop withdrawal when he could have stayed where he was or moved elsewhere? What does his eagerness to make Taliban leaders his new landlords and neighbors say about the continued relationship between the two terror groups? What other members of al Qaeda moved into Afghanistan after the U.S. withdrawal? And what have they been doing there?

If the United States fails to keep pressure on terrorist groups like al Qaeda, it should expect more attacks on its homeland.

The White House should not be so foolish as to believe that one strike in a year is sufficient to deprive al Qaeda of the breathing space it needs to plan and launch attacks against the United States and its allies.

Biden’s justification for the withdrawal was just the latest example of a bipartisan habit of self-delusion. In Afghanistan, Washington’s policies and strategies over two decades were based on fictions U.S. leaders told themselves and the American people rather than objective assessments of enemies and adversaries, the situation on the ground, and the necessary actions to secure U.S. interests. This self-delusion has led to self-defeat.

The United States saw that self-delusion in then-U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2009 speech at the U.S. Military Academy, in which he announced his decision to send an additional 30,000 troops to Afghanistan. In the very next sentence, Obama declared: “After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home.” U.S. troops should not stay in harm’s way a day longer than the country’s interests require, but such declarations signal a lack of resolve and send a counterproductive message to the United States’ adversaries.

The world saw the same Washington self-delusion again in the Trump administration’s 2020 deal with the Taliban and subsequent concessions to the group. These concessions delivered psychological blows to the United States’ Afghan allies that fell more heavily than any physical blows the Taliban could deliver, including negotiating with the Taliban without the Afghan government, not insisting on a cease-fire, forcing the Afghan government to release thousands of imprisoned terrorists, curtailing intelligence support, ending active pursuit of the Taliban, withdrawing close air support from Afghan forces, and terminating contractor support for Afghan forces.

Indeed, declarations of withdrawal by three consecutive administrations emboldened enemies, sowed doubts among allies, encouraged hedging behavior, perpetuated corruption, and weakened state institutions.

The Biden administration failed to learn from the last complete withdrawal: from Iraq in 2011 and the subsequent reemergence of al Qaeda there, soon to morph into the Islamic State. By the summer of 2014, the Islamic State had gained control of territory in Iraq and adjoining Syria roughly the size of Britain and became one of the most destructive and powerful terrorist organizations in history. It turns out that threats don’t subside when one simply ignores realities on the ground, decides to stop fighting, and returns home. In fact, they usually get worse.

The United States and its partners in the region have now deprived the Islamic State of its so-called caliphate in Iraq and Syria because a small number of U.S. troops were kept there to support others bearing the brunt of the fighting. The Taliban-al Qaeda terror syndicate now has an emirate because the United States failed to do the same in Afghanistan.

So why does this all matter today? If the United States fails to keep pressure on terrorist groups like al Qaeda, it should expect more attacks on its homeland. But more than that, if Americans don’t demand an end to self-delusion in Washington regarding the nature and objectives of the country’s adversaries and what is necessary to secure its national interests, they should expect more self-defeat when confronting other adversaries—such as Beijing, Moscow, Pyongyang, and Tehran.

Indeed, Americans are witnessing a paragon of self-delusion in the Biden administration’s efforts to reach a new nuclear agreement with Iran. In Tehran, a radical regime is pretending to negotiate in good faith even as it remains as determined as ever to wage a campaign of terrorism against the United States and its partners through proxies while progressing toward a nuclear weapons capability and seeking the destruction of Israel.

On this 9/11 anniversary, Americans should demand better from their leaders and officials in Washington, who might begin with telling the truth about the adversaries the United States confronts. A failure to do so will only invite more disasters in the future.

H. R. McMaster is a senior fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, a former U.S. national security advisor during the Trump administration, and the author of Battlegrounds: The Fight to Defend the Free World. Twitter: @LTGHRMcMaster

Bradley Bowman is the senior director of the Center on Military and Political Power at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a former advisor to members of the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees. Twitter: @Brad_L_Bowman

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