The ObserverAfghanistanInside the CIA’s secret Kabul base, burned out and abandoned in haste A Taliban commander invited the media to inspect the site where America plotted killing raids and tortured prisonersEmma Graham-Harrison in KabulSun 3 Oct 2021 01.00 EDTThe cars, minibuses and armoured vehicles that the CIA used to run its shadow war in Afghanistan had been lined up and incinerated beyond identification before the Americans left. Below their ashy grey remains, pools of molten metal had solidified into permanent shiny puddles as the blaze cooled.The faux Afghan village where they trained paramilitary forces linked to some of the worst human rights abuses of the war had been brought down on itself. Only a high concrete wall still loomed over the crumpled piles of mud and beams, once used to practise for the widely hated night raids on civilian homes.The vast ammunition dump had been blown up. Many ways to kill and maim human beings, from guns to grenades, mortars to heavy artillery, laid out in three long rows of double-height shipping containers, were reduced to shards of twisted metal. The blast from the huge detonation, which came soon after the bloody bomb at Kabul airport, shook and terrified the capital city.All formed part of the CIA compound that for 20 years was the dark, secret heart of America’s “war on terror”, a place were some of the worst abuses to sour the mission in Afghanistan would fester.The sprawling hillside compound, spread over two square miles north-east of the airport, became infamous early on in the conflict for torture and murder at its “Salt Pit” prison, codenamed Cobalt by the CIA. The men held there called it the “dark prison”, because there was no light in their cells, the only occasional illumination coming from the headlamps of their guards.It was here that Gul Rahman died of hypothermia in 2002 after he was chained to a wall half-naked and left overnight in freezing temperatures. His death prompted the first formal CIA guidelines on interrogation under a new regime of torture, eviscerated in a 2014 report that found that the abuse did not provide useful intelligence.The base has for two decades been a closely guarded secret, visible only in satellite photos, navigated by the testimony of survivors. Now the Taliban’s special forces have moved in and recently, briefly, opened up the secret compound to journalists.“We want to show how they wasted all these things that could have been used to build our country,” said Mullah Hassanain, a commander in the Taliban’s elite 313 unit, who led the tour of destroyed and burnt-out compounds, “burn pits” and incinerated cars, buses and armoured military vehicles.Taliban special forces include suicide attackers who recently marched through Kabul to celebrate seizing the capital. Vehicles now emblazoned with their official “suicide squadron” logo escorted journalists around the former CIA base.It was a grimly ironic juxtaposition of the most cruel and ruthless units on both sides of this war, a reminder of the suffering inflicted on civilians by all combatants in the name of higher goals, over several decades.“They are martyrdom seekers who were responsible for the attacks on important locations of invaders and the regime. They now have control of important locations,” said a Taliban official, when asked why suicide squads were escorting journalists, and if they would continue to operate. “It is a very big battalion. It is responsible for the security of important locations. They will be expanded and further organised. Whenever there is a need, they will respond. They are always ready for sacrifices for our country and the defence of our people.”They planned to use the CIA base for their own military training, Hassanain said, so this brief glimpse of the compound is likely to be both the first and last time the media is allowed in.The men guarding it had already changed into the tiger-stripe camouflage of the old Afghan National Directorate of Security, the spy agency once in charge of hunting them down. The paramilitary units that operated here, based in barracks just near the site of the former Salt Pit jail, included some that were among the most feared in the country, mired in allegations of abuse that included extrajudicial killings of children and other civilians. The barracks had been abandoned so fast that the men who lived there left food half-finished, and barracks floors were littered with possessions spilled out of emptied lockers, cleared in an apparent frenzy.Mostly they had taken or destroyed anything with names, or ranks, but there were 01 patches, and one book that was filled with handwritten notes from weeks of training.Nearby, the site of the Salt Pit jail had apparently been razed a few months earlier. A New York Times satellite investigation found that, since spring, a cluster of buildings inside this part of the CIA compound had been levelled.Taliban officials said they did not have any details about the Salt Pit, or what had happened to the former jail. Rahman’s family are still searching for his body, which has never been returned to them.Other torture techniques recorded at the site included “rectal feeding”, shackling prisoners to bars overhead, and depriving inmates of toilet “privileges”, leaving them naked or wearing adult diapers.Construction equipment was abandoned on the site, with concrete slabs half poured. Next door, a building that had once been fortified with high-tech doors and equipment had apparently been firebombed, its interior as totally destroyed and reduced to ash as the cars outside.Destroying sensitive equipment at the base would have been complex, and there was evidence of several burn pits where everything from medical kits and a manual on leadership was put to the flames, along with larger pieces of equipment.The Taliban officials were jumpy about letting journalists into areas that had not been officially cleared. They had found several booby trap bombs in the rubble of the camp, Hassanain said, and were worried that there might be more.For days, helicopters ferried hundreds of people from the base to inside the airport, where men from the 01 force – aware they were likely to be prominent targets for reprisals – helped secure the perimeter in return for evacuation in the final hours, under a deal struck with the US.Untouched nearby was a recreation hall with snooker, ping-pong, darts and table football gathering dust. A box in the corner held brain teaser puzzles. It was unclear what the Taliban, once so austere that they even banned chess, would do with the trappings of western military downtime.TopicsAfghanistanThe ObserverTalibanCIACIA torture reportSouth and Central AsiaTortureWar crimesfeaturesReuse this content More
The collapse of the Afghan government and its security forces can be traced to a 2020 agreement between the Taliban and the Trump administration that promised a complete US troop withdrawal, senior Pentagon officials have told Congress.
Gen Frank McKenzie, the head of central command, told the House ‘the signing of the Doha agreement had a really pernicious effect on the government of Afghanistan and on its military’. He identified a troop reduction ordered by Joe Biden as the ‘second nail in the coffin’.
Top US general says Afghan collapse can be traced to Trump-Taliban deal More
AfghanistanBlame-shifting over US withdrawal ignores deeper failings in AfghanistanAnalysis: Senators’ questions to military leadership a contest in sharing out responsibility for failures Julian Borger in WashingtonTue 28 Sep 2021 18.52 EDTLast modified on Tue 28 Sep 2021 19.02 EDTThe deeply partisan US Congress is rarely a conducive place for national introspection and Tuesday’s Senate hearing on the Afghanistan withdrawal did not provide an exception.In the midst of the point-scoring and blame-shifting on display in the senators’ questions to the nation’s military leadership, it was clear that it was a contest to apportion shares in failure.And behind the debacle of the pullout that left tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans behind, there were fleeting references to the far deeper failure of the preceding two decades – a reckoning that has only just begun for the Pentagon and the US foreign policy establishment.US Afghanistan withdrawal a ‘logistical success but strategic failure’, Milley saysRead moreFor obvious reasons, the Republicans on the armed services committee sought to keep the focus on the past eight months, accusing Joe Biden of surrendering to terrorists, throwing in occasional demands for the immediate resignation of the three military leaders sitting before them: the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen Mark Milley, the head of Central Command, Gen Kenneth McKenzie and the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin.The three witnesses, nudged from time to time by the Democrats, would occasionally point out that the surrender in question truly began in February 2020, with the Trump administration’s agreement with the Taliban in Doha.In return for a US withdrawal by 1 May this year, the Taliban agreed to seven conditions, but as Gen Milley pointed out, they only stuck to one of them: not to attack the departing Americans. Every other undertaking, such as entering into good-faith negotiations with Kabul and breaking ties with al-Qaida, the Taliban had reneged on. But Trump nonetheless sought to accelerate the withdrawal, at one point demanding it be completed by January.The Republicans barely mentioned the Doha agreement, preferring to frame the withdrawal as Biden’s original idea. It was hardly surprising. Over the past four years, the party has become accustomed to cognitive dissonance. The one backhanded Republican reference to Doha came from Thom Tillis who asked why Biden had stuck to Trump’s bankrupt deal.“I don’t buy the idea that this president was bound by a decision made by a prior president,” Senator Tillis said. “This was not a treaty. And it was clearly an agreement where the Taliban were not living up to it. President Biden could have come in, reasserted conditions and completely changed the timeline.”The answer the White House has given is that the Doha agreement gave the Taliban considerable momentum, boosting their morale, destroying Afghan government self-confidence, and freeing 5,000 Taliban fighters. Reneging on the deal by a new administration would have meant a return to war with far higher stakes, and probably tens of thousands of soldiers.Milley, McKenzie and Austin, however, took a different route in their testimony. They confirmed that in the policy of review in February, March and April, they had advocated retaining a small force of about 2,500.They were not questioned on how such a remnant could have withstood a resumption of direct attacks from an invigorated Taliban. Instead the focus of many of the exchanges centred around Biden’s baffling insistence in an ABC News interview on 19 August that he had received no such advice from his military advisers.The three witnesses tried to get around this awkwardness by saying that while they had believed a small force should have been retained, they could not possibly disclose the nature of their advice to the president.Asked by Senator Tom Cotton if Biden had been speaking the truth, Austin could only squirm and insist the president was “an honest and forthright man”.In his opening statement Austin had sought forlornly to widen the focus from the last few weeks of the US presence in Afghanistan to the preceding two decades and warned: “We need to consider some uncomfortable truths.”Mismatch of mindsets: why the Taliban won in AfghanistanRead more“Did we have the right strategy? Did we have too many strategies?” he asked. So much faith had been put in nation-building that the sudden collapse of the army and the government, and the panicked flight of President Ashraf Ghani “took us all by surprise”. “It would be dishonest to claim otherwise,” Austin said.Milley said the US military would be trying to learn the lessons of the Afghan failure for a long time to come, but he outlined some of his initial thoughts.One of his lessons, the general said, was not to give the enemy a fixed date for your departure as the Doha deal had done, but base it on a set of conditions. Another of Milley’s conclusions was “don’t Americanise the war” and don’t try to build another country’s army as the mirror image of US forces.But as Milley himself conceded, these were lessons that were supposed to have been learned in Vietnam. The Biden White House had been anxious to avoid parting scenes reminiscent of Saigon in 1975 but that is exactly what happened, in part because those lessons had been forgotten.The deeper question – never likely to be answered, or even asked, in the bearpit of Congress – is why the US has suffered from such recurrent amnesia each time it has gone off to war.TopicsAfghanistanUS CongressJoe BidenDonald TrumpRepublicansDemocratsTalibananalysisReuse this content More
US militaryUS Afghanistan withdrawal a ‘logistical success but strategic failure’, Milley saysGeneral and other military leaders in heated cross-examinationMilley defends loyalty to country and rejects suggestion to quit Julian Borger in WashingtonTue 28 Sep 2021 14.44 EDTLast modified on Tue 28 Sep 2021 17.00 EDTThe withdrawal from Afghanistan and the evacuation of Kabul was “a logistical success but a strategic failure,” the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff has told the Senate.Gen Mark Milley gave the stark assessment at an extraordinary hearing of the Senate armed services committee to examine the US departure, which also became a postmortem on the 20-year war that preceded it.Milley appeared alongside the defence secretary, Lloyd Austin, and the head of US Central Command, Gen Kenneth ‘Frank’ McKenzie, in the most intense, heated cross-examination of the country’s military leadership in more than a decade.At one point, Milley was obliged to defend his loyalty to his country, in the face of allegations of insubordination in last weeks of the Trump administration, and to explain why he had not resigned in the course of the chaotic Afghan pullout.General defends himself over Trump and says his loyalty to nation is absoluteRead more“It is obvious the war in Afghanistan did not end on the terms we wanted,” Milley said, noting “the Taliban is now in power in Kabul.”“We must remember that the Taliban was and remains a terrorist organization and they still have not broken ties with al-Qaida,” he added. “I have no illusions who we are dealing with. It remains to be seen whether or not the Taliban can consolidate power, or if the country will further fracture into civil war.”It was a long and very difficult day in Congress for the Biden administration, which has been trying to move past the reputational damage caused by the sudden fall of Kabul last month and subsequent scramble to evacuate Americans and allies, which left tens of thousands of vulnerable Afghans behind.Milley, Austin and McKenzie all confirmed that when the Biden administration was considering its policy on Afghanistan in its first few months in office, they had believed a small US force of about 2,500 should remain.None could explain Joe Biden’s claim in an interview last month that he had not received any such advice.“No one said that to me that I can recall,” Biden told ABC News on 19 August.Milley adamantly rejected a suggestion by Republican senator Tom Cotton he should resign because that advice was rejected.“It would be an incredible act of political defiance for a commissioned officer to just resign because my advice is not taken,” he said, staring straight at Cotton. “This country doesn’t want generals figuring out what orders we’re going to accept and do or not. That’s not our job.”In his 19 August interview, Biden had said that US forces would stay until all American citizens had been evacuated. But when the last soldier left on a flight on 30 August, there were still believed to be more than a hundred Americans – most if not all dual nationals who had delayed their decision to leave until it was too late.Milley said it was the advice of the military leadership to stick to the end of August deadline to complete the departure, which the Taliban had accepted.If the US had stayed on into September to try to evacuate more people, he said: “We would have been at war with the Taliban again,” requiring an extra 20,000 troops to clear Kabul of Taliban fighters and retake Bagram air base near the capital, which the US had abandoned in July.Milley also had to defend himself against charges that he deliberately sought to undermine Donald Trump’s authority as commander-in-chief out of fear that the former president would launch a foreign war as a diversion to distract attention from his election loss in November.“My loyalty to this nation, its people and the constitution hasn’t changed and will never change,” Milley told the Senate armed services committee on Tuesday. “As long as I have a breath to give, my loyalty is absolute.”Milley was facing hostile Republicans, some of whom have demanded his resignation following revelations that he spoke twice to his Chinese counterpart, reassuring him that the US would not launch a surprise attack.Mark Milley, US general who stood up to Trump, founders over Kabul strikeRead moreThe revelations are contained in a new book, Peril, by the Washington Post journalists Bob Woodward and Robert Costa.According to the book, Milley also ordered officers assigned to the Pentagon war room to let him know if Trump ordered a nuclear launch, despite the fact that the chairman of the joint chiefs is not in the chain of command.The general said his two calls with the Chinese army chief followed intelligence suggesting China was fearful of an attack, and were intended to defuse tensions.“I am certain President Trump did not intend to attack the Chinese,” Milley said, adding he had been directed by the defence secretary to convey that message to the Chinese.“My task at that time was to de-escalate,” he said. “My message again was consistent: stay calm, steady and de-escalate. We are not going to attack you.”He said the calls were closely coordinated with the defence secretary and other senior officials in the Trump administration, and that several senior Pentagon officials sat in on the calls.On the question of his actions on nuclear launch procedures, Milley said he had a responsibility to insert himself into those procedures in order to be able to perform his role to advise the president properly.“By law I am not in the chain of command and I know that,” he said. “However, by presidential directive, and [defence department] instruction, I am in the chain of communication to fulfil my legal statutory role as the president’s primary military adviser.”TopicsUS militaryAfghanistanSouth and Central AsiaUS foreign policyUS CongressUS politicsUS SenatenewsReuse this content More
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For some refugee families who traveled to Germany during the migrant crisis of 2015 and 2016, gratitude for Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to welcome them comes via a namesake.WÜLFRATH, Germany — Hibaja Maai gave birth three days after arriving in Germany.She had fled the bombs that destroyed her home in Syria and crossed the black waters of the Mediterranean on a rickety boat with her three young children. In Greece, a doctor urged her to stay put, but she pressed on, through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria. Only after she had crossed the border into Bavaria did she relax and almost immediately go into labor.“It’s a girl,” the doctor said when he handed her the newborn bundle.There was no question in Ms. Maai’s mind what her daughter’s name would be.“We are calling her Angela,” she told her husband, who had fled six months earlier and was reunited with his family two days before little Angela’s birth on Feb. 1, 2016.“Angela Merkel saved our lives,” Ms. Maai said in a recent interview in her new hometown, Wülfrath, in northwestern Germany. “She gave us a roof over our heads, and she gave a future to our children. We love her like a mother.”Chancellor Angela Merkel is stepping down after her replacement is chosen following Germany’s Sept. 26 election. Her decision to welcome more than a million refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere in 2015 and 2016 stands as perhaps the most consequential moment of her 16 years in power.It changed Europe, changed Germany, and above all changed the lives of those seeking refuge, a debt acknowledged by families who named their newborn children after her in gratitude.The chancellor has no children of her own. But in different corners of Germany, there are now 5- and 6-year-old girls (and some boys) who carry variations of her name — Angela, Angie, Merkel and even Angela Merkel. How many is impossible to say. The New York Times has identified nine, but social workers suggest there could be far more, each of them now calling Germany home.Migrants arriving at a registration tent in Berlin in 2015. Ms. Merkel’s decision to welcome more than a million refugees in 2015 and 2016 stands as perhaps the most consequential moment of her 16 years in power.Gordon Welters for The New York Times“She will only eat German food!” said Ms. Maai of little Angela, now 5.The fall of 2015 was an extraordinary moment of compassion and redemption for the country that committed the Holocaust. Many Germans call it their “fall fairy tale.” But it also set off years of populist blowback, emboldening illiberal leaders like Prime Minister Viktor Orban of Hungary and catapulting a far-right party into Germany’s own Parliament for the first time since World War II.Today, European border guards are using force against migrants. Refugee camps linger in squalor. And European leaders pay Turkey and Libya to stop those in need from attempting the journey at all. During the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, a chorus of Europeans was quick to assert that refugees would not be welcome on the continent.“There are two stories here: One is a success story, and one is a story of terrible failure,” said Gerald Knaus, the founding chairman of the European Stability Initiative, who informally advised Ms. Merkel on migration for over a decade. “Merkel did the right thing in Germany. But she lost the issue in Europe.”The Guardian AngelaHaving fled war, torture and chaos in Syria, Mhmad and Widad now live on Sunshine Street in the western German city of Gelsenkirchen. In their third-floor living room, a close-up of Ms. Merkel’s smiling face is the screen saver on the large flat-screen television, a constant presence.“She is our guardian angel,” said Widad, a 35-year-old mother of six, who asked that she and her family members be identified only by their first names to protect relatives in Syria. “Angela Merkel did something big, something beautiful, something Arabic leaders did not do for us.”“We have nothing to pay her back,” she added. “So we named our daughter after her.”Angela, or Angie as her parents call her, is now 5. An animated girl with large hazel eyes and cascading curls, Angie loves to tell stories, in German, with her five siblings. Her sister Haddia, 13, wants to be a dentist. Fatima, 11, loves math.“There is no difference between boys and girls in school here and that is good,” Widad said. “I hope Angie will grow up to be like Ms. Merkel: a strong woman with a big heart.”The arrival of nearly one million refugees shook Germany, even as Ms. Merkel rallied the nation with a simple pledge: “We can manage this.” Like many others, Widad and her family were granted subsidiary protection status, in 2017, which allows them to stay and work in Germany. In three years, they will apply for German citizenship.The latest government statistics show that migrants who arrived in 2015 and 2016 are steadily integrating into German society. One in two have jobs. More than 65,000 are enrolled either in university or apprenticeship programs. Three in four live in their own apartments or houses and say they feel “welcome” or “very welcome.”During the pandemic, refugees sewed masks and volunteered to go shopping for elderly Germans isolated at home. During the recent floods in western Germany, refugees drove to the devastated areas to help clean up.Angie, right, loves to tell stories, in German, with her five siblings. Lena Mucha for The New York Times“They come to me and say they want to give something back,” said Marwan Mohamed, a social worker in Gelsenkirchen for the Catholic charity Caritas.Widad, who was an English teacher in Syria, recently got her driver’s license, is taking German lessons and hopes to eventually return to teaching. Her husband, who had a plumbing business in Syria, is studying for a German exam in October so that he can then start an apprenticeship and ultimately be certified as a plumber. For now, the family receives about 1,400 euros, about $1,650, a month in state benefits.In Wülfrath, Tamer Al Abdi, the husband of Ms. Maai and father of Angela, has been laying paving stones and working for a local metal company since he passed his German exams in 2018. He recently created his own decorating business, while his wife wants to train as a hair dresser.When Ms. Maai brought baby Angela to be registered at a nursery, she could barely speak German, said Veronika Engel, the head teacher.“Angela? Like Angela Merkel?” Ms. Engel had asked.“Yes,” Ms. Maai had beamed back.Her family was the first of 30 refugee families whose children joined the nursery.Tamer Al Abdi, who has a daughter named Angela, after Chancellor Merkel, has recently created his own decorating business, after passing his German exams in 2018. Lena Mucha for The New York TimesOne boy would not allow the door to be closed, Ms. Engel recalled, while another could not bear loud noises. Angela’s older sister Aria, who was 5 when they fled Syria, became scared during a treasure hunt in the forest because it brought back memories of how her family hid from thugs and border guards during their journey through Central Europe.“These are children traumatized from war,” Ms. Engel said. “The resilience of these families is admirable. We are a richer country for it.”A vicar’s daughter, Ms. Merkel grew up behind the Iron Curtain in Communist East Germany, a background that has profoundly impacted her politics.“She was clear: We won’t build new borders in Europe. She lived half her life behind one,” recalled Thomas de Maizière, who served as Ms. Merkel’s interior minister during the migrant crisis.‘You Got Unlucky’Not everyone has agreed. The migration crisis unleashed an angry backlash, especially in Ms. Merkel’s native former East Germany. This is where Berthe Mballa settled in 2015. She had been sent to the eastern city of Eberswalde by German migration officials, who used a formula to distribute asylum seekers across the country.“The East is bad,” one immigration lawyer told her. “You got unlucky.”In 2013, Ms. Mballa fled violence in Cameroon with a map of the world and the equivalent of 20 euros. She had to leave behind two young children, one of whom has since gone missing, and the trauma is so searing that she cannot bring herself to speak of it.The first time she had ever heard Angela Merkel’s name was on the Moroccan-Spanish border.“The Europeans had built big fences so the Africans wouldn’t come in,” she recalled. “I saw the people on the African side shouting her name, hundreds of them, ‘Merkel, Merkel, Merkel.’”Since settling in Eberswalde, Ms. Mballa has been insulted on the street and spat at on a bus. Ms. Merkel is loathed by many voters in this region, yet Ms. Mballa did not hesitate to name her son, born after she arrived in Germany, “Christ Merkel” — “because Merkel is my savior.”“One day my son will ask me why he is called Merkel,” she said. “When he is bigger, I will tell him my whole story, how hard it was, how I suffered, the pregnancy, my arrival here, the hope and the love that this woman gave me.”A refugee held a picture of Ms. Merkel at a train station in Munich in 2015.Christof Stache/Agence France-Presse — Getty ImagesToday, Germany and the rest of Europe have stopped welcoming refugees. Politicians in Ms. Merkel’s own party have reacted to the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan by declaring that “2015 mustn’t repeat itself.” In Gelsenkirchen, Widad and her husband, Mhmad, have been treated well but realize that times have changed.“Who will lead Germany?” Mhmad asked. “What will happen to us when she is gone?”Ms. Mballa also worries. But she believes that naming her son after Ms. Merkel, if a small gesture, is one way to keep the chancellor’s legacy alive.“Our children will tell their children the story of their names,” Ms. Mballa said. “And, who knows, maybe among the grandchildren there will even be one who will run this country with that memory in mind.” More
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US secretary of state pushed back against criticism of the military withdrawal from Afghanistan. Blinked said the Biden administration inherited Donald Trump’s deal with the Taliban but no plan for carrying it out
Blinken pushes back against Republican criticism at Afghanistan hearing More
A little more than a month ago, the most newsworthy controversy surrounding the imminent and highly symbolic 20th anniversary of 9/11 concerned the message by families of the victims that Joe Biden would not be welcome at the planned commemoration. They reproached the US president for failing to make good on last year’s campaign promise to declassify the documents they believe will reveal Saudi Arabia’s implication in the attacks.
That was the story that grabbed headlines at the beginning of August. Hardly a week later, everything had changed. Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan, fell to the Taliban and soon the 20-year war would be declared over.
360° Context: How 9/11 and the War on Terror Shaped the World
Though few paid attention to the phenomenon, this also meant that the significance of a commemoration of the attacks, would be radically different. For 19 years, the commemoration served to reinforce the will and resolution of the nation to overcome the humiliation of the fallen twin towers and a damaged wing of the Pentagon.
Redefining the Meaning of the Historical Trauma
In the aftermath of the attacks on September 11, 2001, politicians quickly learned to exploit the date as a painful reminder of a tragedy that had unified an otherwise chaotically disputatious nation in shared horror and mourning. Ever since that fatal day, politicians have invoked it to reinforce the belief in American exceptionalism.
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The nation is so exceptional in generously providing its people with what President George W. Bush called “our freedoms” — and which he identified as the target of the terrorists — that it was logical to suppose that evil people who didn’t possess those freedoms or were prevented from emigrating to the land of the free would do everything in their power to destroy those freedoms. To the degree that Americans are deeply thankful for possessing such an exceptional status, other ill-intentioned people will take exception to that exceptionality and in their unjustified jealousy will threaten to destroy it.
On a less philosophical and far more pragmatic note, the remembrance of the 9/11 attacks has conveniently and consistently served to justify an ever-expanding military budget that no patriotic American, interested in preserving through the force of arms the nation’s exceptional status, should ever oppose. It went without saying, through the three previous presidencies, that the annual commemoration provided an obvious explanation of why the forever war in Afghanistan was lasting forever.
The fall of Kabul on August 15, followed by the panicked retreat of all remaining Americans, caught everyone by surprise. It unexpectedly brought an official end to the war whose unforgettable beginning is traced back to that bright September day in 2001. Though no one has yet had the time to put it all in perspective, the debate in the media has shifted away from glossing the issues surrounding an ongoing war on terror to assessing the blame for its ignominious end. Some may have privately begun to wonder whether the theme being commemorated on this September 11 now concerns the martyrdom of its victims or the humiliation of the most powerful nation in the history of the world. The pace of events since mid-August has meant that the media have been largely silent on this quandary.
So, What About Saudi Arabia?
With the American retreat, the controversy around Biden’s unkept campaign promise concerning Saudi Arabia’s implication in 9/11 provisionally took a backseat to a much more consequent quarrel, one that will have an impact on next year’s midterm elections. Nearly every commentator has been eager to join the fray focusing on the assessment of the wisdom or folly of both Biden’s decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and his seemingly improvised management of the final chaotic phase.
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The human tragedy visible in the nightly news as throngs of people at Kabul airport desperately sought to flee the country easily eclipsed the genteel but politically significant showdown between a group of American citizens demanding the truth and a government committed to protecting the reputations of friends and allies, especially ones from oil-rich nations.
The official excuse turns around the criterion that has become a magic formula: national security. But the relatives of victims are justified in wondering which nation’s security is being prioritized. They have a sneaking suspicion that some people in Washington have confused their own nation’s security with Saudi Arabia’s. Just as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt not long ago revealed that plenty of people within the Beltway continue to confuse US foreign policy with Israel’s, the families may be justified in suspecting that Saudi Arabia’s interest in hiding the truth trumps American citizens’ right to know the truth.
To appease the families of 9/11 victims and permit his unimpeded participation in the commemorations, Biden offered to release some of the classified documents. It was a clever move, since the new, less-redacted version will only become available well after the commemoration. This gesture seems to have accomplished its goal of preventing an embarrassing showdown at the commemoration ceremonies. But it certainly will not be enough to satisfy the demands of the families, who apparently remain focused on obtaining that staple of the US criminal justice system: “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”
Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), the crown prince of Saudi Arabia, may have shown the way concerning the assassination of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. Like MBS, the White House prefers finding a way to release some of the truth rather than the whole truth — just the amount that doesn’t violate national security or tarnish the reputations of any key people. Those two goals have increasingly become synonymous. If the people knew what actual political personalities were doing, the nation’s security might be endangered, as the people might begin to lose faith in a government that insists on retaining the essential power of deciding how the truth should be told.
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Here is how the White House officially formulates the legal principle behind its commitment to unveiling a little more truth than is currently available. “Although the indiscriminate release of classified information could jeopardize the national security — including the United States Government’s efforts to protect against future acts of terrorism — information should not remain classified when the public interest in disclosure outweighs any damage to the national security that might reasonably be expected from disclosure.”
The White House has thus formulated an innovative legal principle brilliantly designed to justify concealing enough of the naked truth to avoid offending public morals by revealing its stark nakedness. Legal scholars of the future may refer to it as the “indiscriminate release” principle. Its logical content is worth exploring. It plays on the auxiliary verbs “could” and “should.” “Could” is invoked in such a way as to suggest that, though it is possible, no reasonable person would take the risk of an “indiscriminate release of classified information.” Later in the same sentence, the auxiliary verb “should” serves to speculatively establish the moral character of the principle. It tells us what “should” be the case — that is, what is morally ideal — even if inevitably the final result will be quite different. This allows the White House to display its good intentions while preparing for an outcome that will surely disappoint.
To justify its merely partial exposure of the truth, the White House offers another original moral concept when it promises the maximization of transparency. The full sentence reads: “It is therefore critical to ensure that the United States Government maximizes transparency.”
There is of course an easy way to maximize transparency if that is truly the government’s intention. It can be done simply by revealing everything and hiding nothing within the limits of its physical capability. No one doubts that the government is physically capable of removing all the redactions. But the public should know by now that the value cited as overriding all others — national security — implicitly requires hiding a determined amount of the truth. In other words, it is framed as a trade-off between maximum transparency and minimum concealment. Biden has consistently compared himself to President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Perhaps that trade-off between transparency and concealment is what historians will call Biden’s New Deal.
But the White House’s reasoning is not yet complete. The document offers yet another guiding principle to explain why not everything will become visible. “Thus, information collected and generated in the United States Government’s investigation of the 9/11 terrorist attacks should now be disclosed,” it affirms, “except when the strongest possible reasons counsel otherwise.” Those reasons, the document tells us, will be defined by the Federal Bureau of Investigation during its “declassification reviews.” This invocation of the “strongest possible reasons” appears to empower the FBI to define or at least apply not only what is “strongest,” but also what is “possible.” That constitutes a pretty broad power.
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The document states very clearly what the government sees as the ultimate criterion for declassification: “Information may remain classified only if it still requires protection in the interest of the national security and disclosure of the information reasonably could be expected to result in damage to the national security. Information shall not remain classified if there is significant doubt about the need to maintain its classified status.” The families of the victims can simply hope that there will not be too much “significant doubt.” They might be forgiven for doubting that that will be the case.
One September Morning vs. 20 Years of Subsequent Mornings
Twenty years ago, a spectacular crime occurred on the East Coast of the United States that set off two decades of crimes, blunders and judgment errors that, now compounded by COVID-19 and aggravated climate change, have brought the world to a crisis point unique in human history.
The Bush administration, in office for less than eight months at the time of the event, with no certain knowledge of who the perpetrator might have been, chose to classify the attack not as a crime, but as an act of war. When the facts eventually did become clearer after a moment of hesitation in which the administration attempted even to implicate Iraq, the crime became unambiguously attributable, not to a nation but to a politically motivated criminal organization: Osama bin Laden’s al-Qaeda that back then was operating out of Afghanistan, which was ruled by the Taliban.
The administration’s choice of treating the attack as an act of war not only stands as a crime in itself, but, as history has shown, as the trigger for a series of even more shameless and far more destructive — if not quite as spectacular — crimes that would roll out for the next two decades and even gain momentum over time. Had the 9/11 attacks been treated as crimes rather than acts of war, the question of national security would have had less importance in the investigation. By going to war with Afghanistan, the Bush administration made it more difficult to investigate all the possible complicities. Could this partially explain its precipitation to start a war?
Bin Laden, a Saudi, did not act alone. But he did not act in the name of a state either, which is the fundamental criterion for identifying an act of war. He acted within a state, in the territory of Afghanistan. Though his motive was political and the chosen targets were evocatively symbolic of political power, the act itself was in no way political. No more so, in any case, than the January 6 insurrection this year on Capitol Hill.
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Though the facts are still being obscured and the text describing them remains redacted in the report of the 9/11 Commission, reading between the redacted lines reveals that bin Laden did have significant support from powerful personalities in Saudi Arabia, many of them with a direct connection to the government. This foreknowledge would seem to indicate complicity at some level of the state.
On this 20th anniversary of a moment of horror, the families of the victims quite logically continue to suspect that if a state was involved that might eventually justify a declaration of war by Congress (as required by the US Constitution), the name of that state should not have been Afghanistan, but Saudi Arabia. It is equally clear that the Afghan government at the time was in no way directly complicit.
When the new version of the 9/11 Commission’s report appears with its “maximum transparency,” meaning a bare minimum of redaction, the objections of the victims’ families will no longer be news, and the truth about the deeper complicities around 9/11 will most probably remain obscured. Other dramas, concerning the state of the COVID-19 pandemic, the increasingly obvious consequences of climate change and an upcoming midterm election will probably mean that next year’s 21st commemoration will be low-keyed and possibly considered unworthy of significant mention in the news.
In 2021, the world has become a decidedly different place than it has been over the past two decades. The end of a forever war simply promises a host of new forever problems to emerge for increasingly unstable democracies to deal with.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy. More