For the past 19 anniversaries of 9/11, we have commemorated that national tragedy with a certain sense of relief and vindication. On the first anniversary, even as we mourned the 2,977 victims, we could derive some measure of comfort from the fact that we had hunted down their killers, smashed their hideouts, and ousted the 7th century Taliban fanatics who had sheltered and nurtured them.
By the 10th anniversary, we could mark the death of Osama Bin Laden.
What emotions will we experience on the 20th anniversary?
The sense of loss will still be there. More Americans were killed on 9/11 than on December 7, 1941. But unlike years past, this year’s sadness will not be lifted by any sense of relief or vindication. For we know that the same people who sheltered Al Qaeda in 2001 are back in power in 2021, and they have not changed. The Taliban continues to deny that Osama Bin Laden was responsible for 9/11. Throughout the war, it has continued to let Al Qaeda operate in areas under its control. Now that they control the entire country, that means they will have total freedom to operate.
For the past 19 anniversaries, we have remembered with a shudder the horrific scenes of doomed workers at the Twin Towers, leaping to their deaths as the fires neared. Those photographs and videos are hard to find on the internet, but if you have seen them once, you never forget them, no matter how many years go by.
On September 11, 2021, we may shudder at the thought of others who fell to their deaths from terrific heights. But these people did not jump from buildings set ablaze by Islamic terrorists. They fell from American cargo planes leaving them to their fate in Kabul.
The names of the victims of 9/11 are inscribed on bronze parapets surrounding the twin memorial pools at the 9/11 Memorial and Museum in New York, and at other monuments. There will probably never be a memorial honoring those who have been or are about to be murdered by the Taliban. The revenge killings have already begun. According to Atlantic journalist George Packer, the Veterans Administration plans to offer counseling to American military personnel about to experience the trauma of seeing their Afghan comrades beheaded.
But though we will never know the names of all the past and future Afghan victims we left behind, we should at least know the names of the people who fell from the sky as the U.S. military carried out President Biden’s withdrawal plan. One was a doctor named Safiullah Hotak. Another was a 22-year old recently married dentist named Fida Mohammad. A third victim, Zaki Anwari, was a 19-year old member of the Afghan junior national soccer team. Although early reports stated that he fell from the plane, it now appears that he clung on. His body parts were found in the wheel well when the plane landed in Doha. Following his death, Khalida Popal, former captain of the Afghan women’s soccer team, expressed sadness, and urged athletes to burn their uniforms and delete their social media accounts to avoid identification by the Taliban.
Future 9/11s will remind us of a national defeat. Not all memories of defeat are difficult to bear. The Spartans were defeated at Thermopylae. The Jewish resistance was defeated in the Warsaw Ghetto. Such defeats are recalled with pride.
But our defeat in Afghanistan is not that kind of defeat. It was as ignoble as it was unnecessary. Our participation in the war was unpopular in the United States, but its nature had changed since the initial intervention and the subsequent surge, and there was no great outcry for a hurried evacuation. The American military was no longer involved in active combat. Until the chaotic withdrawal and the August 26 airport bombing, there had been no combat fatalities in 2021. There were four in 2020, all in the first two months of that year. Our mission was devoted primarily to intelligence and logistical support, and our presence was tiny, less than half the number of American troops currently deployed in Africa.
But even that small presence sufficed to keep the Taliban at bay.
And then we chose defeat. The choice was bipartisan. President Trump negotiated a withdrawal timetable with the Taliban, without the participation of the Afghan government. This sent a horrible message to our Afghan partners, who had borne the brunt of the fighting and had suffered over 66,000 battlefield fatalities.
President Biden took a bad situation and made it immeasurably worse.
He announced a deadline for our troop withdrawal of September 11. It is difficult to say what the man was thinking – if he was thinking at all – when he decided to schedule our withdrawal to coincide with the date of the largest terrorist attack on American soil in history. But the message conveyed was clear. Biden was not only renouncing our mission in Afghanistan. He was renouncing the reason for our initial commitment. Consciously or not, he was desecrating the memories of the 2,977 Americans who perished on that day.
His withdrawal plan began ignominiously and then went down-hill. He gave up Bagram airbase, leaving only one exit for our troops and Afghan allies. Rather than heeding his military advisors, who warned him that an orderly departure could not be done in his timeframe, he actually accelerated the withdrawal deadline to the end of August. This ensured that there would be no time to destroy sensitive military equipment, which the Taliban will now gladly make available to their Chinese, Russian, and Iranian friends. It also ensured that there would be panicky overcrowding at the one available airport, thus creating a bottleneck and an ideal setting for a terrorist attack – which duly occurred.
Future historians will look back at these events and be puzzled by the ineptitude and dishonesty of our leaders. We will have to wait for their assessments until after this coming September 11. Meanwhile, we will have to figure out how to commemorate that day.
Americans study Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Franklin Roosevelt’s “Day of Infamy” speech, both of which marked national tragedies, with admiration. We do so because we know how those stories ended.
The Civil War ended with the abolition of slavery and the preservation of the union, causes for which American soldiers had given “the last full measure of devotion” alluded to in President Lincoln’s speech. World War II ended with the unconditional surrender of Japan, vindicating President Roosevelt’s oration that “with confidence in our armed forces, with the unbounding determination of our people, we will gain the inevitable triumph – so help us God.”
American school children learn those speeches every year as they study the Battle of Gettysburg and the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Future September 11’s will be different. There will be no happy ending to alleviate our grief for the losses suffered on that day. Our memories will be pure, unadulterated pain. On future September 11’s, even as we commemorate, we will have to learn how to forget.