The hard truths about 9/11's aftermath and the US's legacy in Afghanistan

  • Nineteen years after the September 11 attacks, memories of that day and its destruction are still vivid in the minds of Americans and others around the world.
  • In Afghanistan, September 11 was just the start, and the war the US has fought there since then will last long after US troops leave, writes Candace Rondeaux, senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War.
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In the 19 years that have passed since I watched the twin towers of the World Trade Center collapse, not a single moment of that day has faded from memory.

It was my second day on the job as a cub reporter for the New York Daily News, and I am still a bit embarrassed to admit I was running a little late that morning. I had stopped at the elementary school polling station near my apartment in Queens to cast my vote in the mayoral primaries at around 9 a.m.

A few minutes later, as I hustled to catch the Manhattan-bound F train, my favorite deli guy — the same one who gave me a free cup of coffee and a bagel, two years earlier, when I had excitedly told him I'd won a scholarship to go to journalism school — asked if I had heard about a plane crashing into one of the towers. "You better get a move on," he said.

Dumbstruck, I remember running down the stairs to catch the next train — and then the eerie silence when it pulled up to Rockefeller Center in Midtown and the conductor told us all to get off. Upstairs, at the corner of 6th Avenue and 47th Street, the siren red Fox News ticker blared: "New York and Washington Under Attack!" All of Manhattan at that moment seemed to be looking up and south. A girl in a phone booth I ran past was crying. Tears streaking her cheeks, she screamed into the receiver, "Oh my God. I think mommy is in there! She's working today."

Only two weeks earlier, I had quit my part-time summer job at the offices of the General Services Administration at the World Trade Center, where I worked as a tour guide at the nearby, historic African Burial Ground. I was in the final stretch of graduate school at New York University, and just before the fall semester started, I lucked into a reporting internship at the Daily News.

Although I moved to New York to go to college only a year after Ramzi Yousef, the operative for the nascent al-Qaida who trained in Afghanistan, set off a truck bomb in a parking garage below the north tower in February 1993, I don't remember giving the World Trade Center much thought before the summer of 2001.

New York back then — in the days before America lost its mind at Ground Zero and its soul to the forever wars — was still reeling from protests over the death of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed West African immigrant who was killed by plainclothes police in the Bronx who fired 41 shots at him.

Mayor Rudy Giuliani, reviled by many New Yorkers in the city's minority communities for his racist "tough-on-crime" stance, and at the same time revered by others for cleaning up parts of the city, was near the end of his second term. That summer, in July 2001, the city paid out $8.75 million — the largest settlement in its history for a case of police brutality — to Haitian immigrant Abner Louima, who endured unspeakable horrors at the hands of a NYPD officer who tortured him while he was in custody.

Two decades on, the list of Black victims of police brutality is so much longer. They are usually overlooked in thinking about how much has changed and how much has stayed the same in America since 9/11.

That September morning in the waning minutes before the towers fell, the Metro editor on duty dispatched me and two other interns to the local city morgue in Queens, on the assumption that there would be too many bodies for the ice rink at the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center to hold.

There were no bodies delivered that night, and for many nights afterward. The city soon seemed paralyzed with grief at the realization that many in the towers had been instantly incinerated when the planes struck, or lost in the rubble when the towers collapsed.

In the weeks that followed, I went to countless fire stations and funerals where the only remnants of those lost were framed photos, ribbons and flowers. The most poignant memorial was the first one I covered, for Ladder 7 firefighter Robert J. Foti. I remember his three young children, his weeping widow, the giant photo of him draped in black, and his brother who politely told me through tears how he was too broken up to talk. I hated my job that day.

Seven years later in Kabul, standing on the street with a notepad and camera in hand not far from the US Embassy, staring down at the mangled, headless body of an Afghan teenage suicide bomber, I hated my job even more.

I wonder how many Afghans and Americans are adrift this week in their own dark memories about all that has passed, and all that has been lost.

Earlier this week, the Taliban threatened once again to halt negotiations in Qatar with representatives of the Afghan government, over their picayune quest to see every last Taliban prisoner — even those with the bloodiest of hands — released. On Wednesday, the Taliban also tried, yet again, to assassinate their fiercest adversary, Afghan Vice President Amrullah Saleh.

When I saw that news, I immediately flashed backed to the day in December 2012 when a young Taliban suicide bomber nearly assassinated my one-time next-door neighbor in Kabul, Asadullah Khalid, an accused war criminal who, like Saleh, once headed Afghanistan's notorious intelligence agency, the National Directorate of Security. Khalid now serves as acting minister of defense.

Luckily, I was not home that day. I had quietly fled Afghanistan in great haste only a few weeks earlier, after I was accused in the local Afghan press of working variously for Mossad and the CIA. Members of Afghanistan's parliament said my hands should be cut off for writing a report for the International Crisis Group on the challenges of holding a credible presidential election and the risks of further destabilization and unrest. My worried bosses in Brussels urged me to get out of Afghanistan, fast.

The report — correctly, as it turned out — predicted that the 2014 presidential elections and US drawdown would set off a downward spiral in the country. Afghanistan's then-president, Hamid Karzai, didn't like it.

I also later heard from friends that the US Embassy in Kabul, which remained silent about the threats to one of its own citizens, didn't care much either for the report's damning but accurate critique of the American government's bumbling Afghan strategy.

The incident upended my world and the lives of the 12 brave Afghans who I worked alongside for years in Kabul. Almost all them have since fled the country in fear and sought refuge abroad. Some exited on educational and work visas. Some are still holding onto hope just across the border in Tajikistan. Others paid smugglers their life savings to guide their family members over treacherous overland and sea routes to safety.

All but a few are now part of the legions of the Afghan diaspora who have streamed out of the country since the Soviet incursion in 1979. Most are happy to be alive and out, but I doubt I will ever stop feeling guilty. Though we only touch base occasionally now, their lives and mine are forever inextricably linked.

I thought of them this week when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared that the US was right to impose sanctions on the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Court, Fatou Bensouda, for daring to call for an investigation into alleged US war crimes in Afghanistan.

Pompeo is wrong. All he really did was reinforce the narrative that many Americans apparently believe they are above the law and above reproach, whether for their historical mistreatment of minorities at home, or their military's abuses abroad.

Since leaving Kabul, I have spent every 9/11 anniversary dwelling on all these things. Nearly two decades on, we seem only a little closer to a political settlement in Afghanistan, but peace and stability are a distant dream. The Taliban seems intransigent. The Afghan government is dithering. Just over the border in Islamabad, champions of jihadist violence in the Pakistani military are rubbing their hands in anticipation.

They are not alone in wanting the United States gone. But anyone in Moscow, Beijing or Tehran — or Washington for that matter — who thinks that is when Afghanistan's war will end is kidding themselves. These are the very hard truths about America's legacy in Afghanistan, and the long aftermath of 9/11, that will remain long after the troops finally exit.

Candace Rondeaux is a senior fellow and professor of practice at the Center on the Future of War, a joint initiative of New America and Arizona State University. Her WPR column appears every Friday.

This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author(s).

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