9/11 + 8: Where We've Been, Where We're Going

Eight years since 9/11. It feels like 18 years, if not 80. So much has changed since then, yet so much is still the same.
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Eight years since 9/11. It feels like 18 years, if not 80.

So much has changed since then, yet so much is still the same.

We all remember how America seemed unified in 9/11's aftermath, especially in contrast to the disunity engendered by the Florida election debacle. And much of the world embraced America. Then there was the fear, the feeling that another jihadist strike inside America was surely coming.

News bulletins from September 11, 2001.

All that remains of any of that is the permanent wartime footing at the airports.

Well, that and Osama bin Laden, along with an ongoing problem for America in the Islamic world.

With Al Qaeda, granted safe harbor by the Taliban regime in Afghanistan, responsible for the attacks on New York and Washington, George W. Bush turned aside the urgings of Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld to go after Iraq, which actually had nothing to do with 9/11. Instead, after the Taliban refused to turn over Al Qaeda leaders or deny the organization its bases in Afghanistan, America and Britain, with help from Russia and Iran, intervened militarily on October 7th.

Two days before 9/11, Al Qaeda operatives posing as journalists had assassinated Afghanistan's main anti-Taliban figure, Northern Alliance leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, a hero of the successful war against the late Soviet Union. Nevertheless, US and UK air power and special operations forces joined with the Northern Alliance and other Afghan forces to end the Taliban regime and dislodge Al Qaeda.

But Bush, perhaps already distracted by his upcoming, trumped-up crusade against Saddam Hussein, took his eye off the ball and let Osama bin Laden and other top Al Qaeda leaders escape from Afghanistan.

The invasion of Iraq, which not only had nothing to do with 9/11 nor possessed the claimed weapons of mass destruction, did away with global goodwill toward America, bogged America down, led to countless deaths, distracted from the jihadists who actually attacked America while providing a proving ground for a new generation of jihadists, let Afghanistan and Pakistan drift toward chaos, and empowered Iran.

Aside from that, it was a great idea.

The faux high point of the Bush/Cheney Administration.

And with America under Bush reflexively aligned with Israel even as its government moved hard right and the Palestinian peace process waned, America was in even worse shape in the Islamic world than it was before 9/11.

That's beginning to change under President Barack Obama.

His Cairo address on June 4th was well-received.

In line with the Iraqi government's wishes, American troops have pulled back in advance of pulling out, on schedule despite recent terrorist bombings.

America is re-establishing alliances with Turkey and Egypt.

The Obama Administration is trying to engage Iran, but it's difficult, with the regime's unsurprising, swift crackdown on a demographically narrow protest movement following the disputed June 12th presidential election complicating matters tremendously.

Along with Iran's nuclear program, which the regime claims is not for the purpose of producing nuclear weapons even as it moves in that direction. Given its extreme statements, an Iranian regime with nuclear weapons would be very alarming, especially to Israel. But the director of Mossad said in June that Iran is several years from having a nuclear weapon.

Obama's moving aggressively to re-start the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. That's been complicated anew by Israel moving forward with plans to build hundreds of new housing units for settlements in the disputed West Bank in advance of a supposed freeze on settlements to trigger new peace talks with Palestinians. While the situation, rooted in tragedy on all sides, may be ultimately intractable, Obama probably banks credit in the Islamic world by moving on the issue.

And then there's Afghanistan -- where things are bad, which is an improvement -- and Pakistan, where things are better.

Ahmad Shah Massoud, leader of Afghanistan's Northern Alliance, spoke with the European Parliament in March 2001. Massoud was assassinated by Al Qaeda operatives posing as journalists two days before 9/11.

In Pakistan, the government, at Obama's urging, undertook a major military offensive against the Pakistani Taliban, which was beginning to threaten the central government for control of the country. And the most threatening Taliban gains appear to have been reversed.

In Afghanistan, things have improved enough for it to be obvious how bad things are.

Without Obama's Marine offensive in southern Afghanistan a few months ago, there wouldn't even have been a national election on August 20th, flawed though a flood of reports say it was.

Obama inherited the Bush/Cheney choice in Afghan President Hamid Karzai (whose regular cozy presidential chats of the W era have been eliminated) and now the UN-backed elections commission is announcing major irregularities in the election. Its oft-delayed results, still partial, have Karzai edging towards the 50%-plus one level needed to avoid a run-off against Dr. Abdullah Abdullah, the country's former foreign minister and Massoud's longtime Northern Alliance spokesman.

All of which plays up the fact that there's a lot of nation-building work to be done in Afghanistan. But that wasn't supposed to be the mission. Nor is it a mission we are likely to accomplish.

Osama bin Laden threatened Europe last year over cartoons about the Prophet Mohammed.

The mission was to deal with the folks who attacked New York and Washington eight years ago today. To thoroughly disrupt Al Qaeda, deny Afghanistan as its base of operations, and take down Osama bin Laden. Overthrowing the Afghan Taliban, which harbored Al Qaeda, was part of that. Actually running Afghanistan, directly or indirectly, is a different matter.

In that regard, it's interesting to look at some recent polling on post-9/11 opinions.

As I've mentioned before on the Huffington Post, Americans are very divided about the use of torture in the interrogation of suspected terrorists. A Gallup Poll at the beginning of September found that a plurality opposes investigation of past practices, 49% to 47%, with independents, a key bulwark of Obama's victory last November, even more opposed at 55% to 40%.

And on Afghanistan ... A new Gallup Poll shows only 37% of Americans believing that it was a mistake for the US to intervene in Afghanistan following 9/11. But 61% believe that the effort is going badly, a record high for the poll.

It's the opposite on Iraq, with a majority saying it was a mistake to invade but that things are going well there now.

Gallup has asked the "mistake" question about Afghanistan nine times since President George W. Bush first deployed troops there in October 2001. Public sentiment that involvement in Afghanistan was a mistake was 9% in November 2001, then fell to 6% in January 2002, but reached 25% in 2004. Since August 2008, Gallup has consistently found 30% or more of Americans saying it was a mistake to send troops to Afghanistan, with the current 37% reading just slightly above the 34% recorded a year ago and the 36% reading in July of this year. Sixty-one percent say that U.S. involvement was not a mistake.

This majority support for the concept of the Afghanistan war does not mean Americans are positive in their assessment of how things are going at the current time for the U.S. The 61% of Americans who say the war is going badly is the most negative assessment of the war over the six times Gallup has asked this question in its regular polling.

A year ago, 55% said the war was going badly. In July of this year this negative assessment had dropped to 43%.

The fact that the American public still believes the U.S. did the right thing becoming militarily involved in Afghanistan, while acknowledging that things are going badly at the moment, contrasts with Americans' attitudes about Iraq, which form essentially the opposite pattern. In July, Gallup found a majority of Americans saying things are going well for the U.S. in Iraq, but that a majority also continues to believe that U.S. involvement in that country was a mistake.

A majority of Democrats, 54-44, now say they think the Afghan intervention was a mistake. But Republicans overwhelmingly disagree, 76-19, as do independents, the latter by a near 2 to 1 ratio of 65% to 34%.

These are numbers that give Obama some breathing room to reassess Afghanistan in the wake of this election and re-tool his strategy there for probably the third time this year.

These aren't numbers that support an open-ended, Iraq-style commitment.

We need to figure out how close we are to achieving our bottom-line objectives in Afghanistan. We may be close, if we're not there already. Especially given the improvement in Pakistan.

Meanwhile, our allies are eying the exit. Britain, Germany, and France are looking at a short-term increase in troop levels to increase stability and train more Afghan troops in advance of a European pull-out.

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