On 7 October 2001, at approximately 12:30pm EST, US and British forces launched Operation Enduring Freedom, an aerial bombing campaign with the declared objectives of overthrowing the Taliban regime, destroying or capturing Taliban and al-Qaeda forces, and bringing an end to terrorist activities in Afghanistan.
In one of the fiercest displays of military might in modern history, early combat operations included air strikes from land-based B-1 Lancer, B-2 Spirit, and B-52 Stratofortress bombers; carrier-based F-14 Tomcat and F/A-18 Hornet fighters; and Tomahawk cruise missiles launched from US ships and submarines in the Arabian Sea. In spite of this overwhelming display of “shock and awe” force, it was not until April of this year that US forces found and killed the alleged culprit behind the 9/11 attacks, Osama Bin Laden, through a US covert operation in Pakistan.
Less commonly remembered is that in the weeks following 11 September 2001, the Bush Administration held high-level secret negotiations with Taliban officials. As reported by the BBC, CNN and the Washington Post, among other news outlets, US-Taliban talks included the possibility of turning over Bin Laden to an international criminal tribunal. Although most Americans are unaware and policymakers are loathe to admit, negotiations proceeded so far that the Taliban offered to hand Bin Laden over to a neutral third country for trial if they were shown evidence of his culpability in the 9/11 attacks. The Bush administration turned down the offer. Meanwhile, with the exception of one brave dissenting voice from California’s ninth congressional district, Congress had already authorized the use of military force by 14 September 2001.
As the tenth anniversary of our war in Afghanistan looms, Americans have the right to ask: Would not the capture and trial of Bin Laden through negotiation and engagement—with a resultant disruption of al-Qaeda networks, and without the deaths of over 1,700 US soldiers, thousands of Afghan and Pakistani civilians, and trillions of dollars in taxpayer income—have been a preferable path?
True, history is notoriously malleable in hindsight. But as any good historian would also admit, history is not an agreed upon set of dates and facts of the past. It is rather what a nation chooses to remember—and forget. It is about collective memory. The Bush Administration’s secret negotiations with the Taliban are not the only inconvenient truth left out of the dominant narrative of 9/11 and our war in Afghanistan ever since. While some hailed the killing of Bin Laden in Pakistan to a tune of “Mission Accomplished,” meanwhile in Afghanistan, civilian casualties, inexorable corruption, and mind-boggling waste have filled up the margins of the official story. According to a recent report by a bipartisan commission on wartime spending, the US government wasted thirty billion dollars in contracts in Afghanistan and Iraq over the last decade. This includes three hundred million dollars on a Kabul power plant the government will not run, and 11.4 billion dollars on facilities for the Afghan military that have been deemed unsustainable.
Behind precious American lives lost, families shattered, and the unquantifiable disservice to taxpayers and a public sector already under enormous financial strain, an even more disconcerting fact emerges from our Afghan war. From the beginning, the US-led military campaign prompted concerns over the number of Afghan civilians it was killing. Although no government has cared to count, the Los Angeles Times found that in the first five-month period from 7 October 2001 to 28 February 2002 alone, there were between 1,067 and 1,201 reported civilian deaths from the bombing campaign. An independent report by Professor Marc Herold of the University of New Hampshire states that in the twenty-month period between 7 October 2001 and 3 June 2003, US-led military operations killed at least 3,100 civilians. Shockingly, a February 2002 analysis by The Guardian estimated that as many as 20,000 Afghans died as an indirect result of the initial US airstrikes and ground invasion, due to starvation, exposure, or wounds sustained while fleeing from zones hit by air strikes.
The horrifying trend has continued. In 2011, US and NATO air strikes in Afghanistan and Pakistan killed scores of civilians. According to a 2009 Brookings report, US drone strikes may be killing "ten or so civilians" for every militant killed in both countries. Apologists for the war will retort: The lack of deliberateness excuses this “collateral damage” in an overall “just war” against ruthless terrorists who have killed even more. But last June, outgoing Defense Secretary Robert Gates described how the costs of US military intervention have taught him to be cautious of launching “wars of choice” in the first place. Most interpreted his words as referring to Iraq, but they are also applicable to Afghanistan. After all, the biggest victims of the Afghan war have not been the Taliban or al-Qaeda organizations, but the very civilians we were claiming to liberate and protect.
My views are not abstract theories enunciated from an ivory tower. On 27 June 2011, I arrived in Kabul to complete research for my doctoral dissertation at the National Archives of Afghanistan. The following night, the Kabul InterContinental Hotel I was staying in was attacked by Taliban-affiliated insurgents armed with machine guns, grenade-launchers, and vests strapped with explosives. By the end of the night, at least twenty people were killed, the majority of whom were Afghan hotel workers and guests. Trapped in my room for hours as the battle raged in stairwells and hallways above, below, and on my own floor, I thought of God, my family, and what I would say to the world if I survived. It has taken me three months to say it.
That night, as grenades detonated, helicopter missiles exploded, and machine gunfire sprayed a hotel with seventy guests in the middle, it became painfully obvious that innocent civilians are bearing the brunt of this war. Blame who we will for “starting it,” our Afghan war now bears all the signs of a top-heavy invasion that toppled a government, spawned and inflamed a deadly insurgency, and never achieved peace. A decade later, as we prepare to withdraw from Afghanistan, the Taliban’s top leadership is still at large. Its fighters are seemingly more motivated than ever, and while US negotiations with the Taliban have already commenced, we must ask: What was the point of this war? Can anyone say it was worth it? Moreover, could this ten-year quagmire with unfathomable costs for Americans have been exactly what the 9/11 perpetrators intended? These are not questions for U.S. military personnel to answer, but rather our statesmen, who put them in harm’s way in the first place.
It is time we realize September 11 is tied to another somber anniversary in US history: when our country’s leadership plunged the nation into its longest war within twenty-six days, while viable diplomatic alternatives, which we can only speculate about today, were cast aside and abandoned. Although details are still to emerge, I am convinced that the Bush-Taliban negotiations are a question that American historians, including myself, will explore for generations to come. Furthermore, as we remember and pay honor every autumn to the victims of the horrific September 11 attacks, we must also remember the victims of our current war in Afghanistan. Like the victims of 9/11, they are innocent men, women, and children, who did nothing wrong but go to work in the morning, shop at a local market in the afternoon, or attend a wedding party in the evening. They, too, deserve our remembrance and mourning. After all, if we cannot acknowledge that our suffering and the suffering of others share an everlasting bond, and that foreign policies based on vengeance, or cruel indifference, only unleash cycles of violence and retaliation that can inevitably reach our own shores, then we will have missed the greatest lesson that 9/11 and its ten-year anniversary can possibly offer.