1. Two successive U.S. administrations were unable to head off the assault of 9/11. What went wrong?
- Democrats and Republicans walked away from Afghanistan as a place of American concern after the fall of the Soviet installed regime.
- Two administrations failed prior to 9/11 to recognize that bin Laden had "hijacked" the Taliban regime, that is, a known terrorist had attained free use of a vast territory to mount further terror attacks.
- Policymakers failed to recognize that only coercive diplomacy–that is, threats backed up by the use of force–could possibly change Taliban behavior.
- Successive U.S. governments failed to devote resources to understanding Afghanistan’s internal politics and expand support to the Taliban’s main opponent, the United Front of Ahmed Shah Massoud. Instead of working with the political reality, they focused on military or covert "fixes."
- The media failed to cover the internal war after Afghanistan was taken over by radical Islamists.
2. What was the central failure of the U.S. government prior to the attacks of 9/11?
Perhaps the central failure of government was to categorize bin Laden’s murderous assaults as "terrorism" and to develop a covert counter-terror policy–along with punitive U.N. sanctions–as opposed to a proper foreign policy that would engage the Congress, the American public, major countries in the region, and American allies.
3. What issues need to be addressed in devising an effective foreign policy strategy?
To the extent the national debate on 9/11 has not been overwhelmed by the war in Iraq, it has focused on ways to improve surveillance and tighten security, that is, on the symptoms, not the causes of the cancer. For bin Laden, the aim is to provoke a clash of civilizations; by emphasizing military tactics over political strategy, the United States stepped into the trap he so cunningly set. The debate should center on how the sole superpower is to relate to the rest of the world in the post-Cold War era, and how it can assure its own security and international security as well.
4. How did the media "miss the story"?
The news media’s absence from the scene prior to 9/11 is one of the great lapses in the modern history of the profession. The gates to Afghanistan were often locked to the media, and those who managed their way in had their movements circumscribed. Still, the principle of watchdog journalism is that if the door is closed or a government restricts the media, "that is where I want to be."
News organizations are free agents, able to decide what to cover and how to cover it, but with few exceptions journalists paid little or no heed to events inside Afghanistan after the takeover by religious extremists. It was as if reporters were following the lead of the U.S. government, which hoped the story would go away, instead of digging their own information and defining the issue by the factions on the ground. Reporters and editors seemed to accept a mindset that saw bin Laden as an exotic faraway actor threatening the United States, rather than devote the manpower and resources to uncovering his role in creating a movement and a military infrastructure.
5. What lesson can the media take away from its failures in Afghanistan?
The lesson for the media is the continuing need to report in depth from far-flung places where the United States does not have an active policy as well as from those places where it does. Obscure, faraway conflicts have given rise to the evils of this era, providing cover for terrorists, for drug production, and for war criminals, as well as the seeds for far bigger wars. Too often governments try to ignore small wars. The media—and the general public—should keep the government’s feet to the fire and constantly check its judgment.
6. What is needed to counter "bin Ladenism"?
The history of U.S. relations with Afghanistan offers a lesson, chiefly on what foreign policy is not. The United States poured weapons and funds to support a population trying to overthrow Soviet invaders, but failed to establish relations with the local forces, or to involve them in the political talks leading to a political outcome. In fact, successive administrations, with the advice of specialists in both parties, focused exclusively on the damage that could be done to the Soviet Union while overlooking the need to try to achieve a stable political end-state in Afghanistan. A quick fix is not a lasting solution. Lasting solutions are based on examining national interests, setting goals, devising long term strategies for achieving them, and developing tactics that work in the political context on the ground.
7. U.S. policy prior to 9/11 was aimed at "decapitating" Al Qaeda by assassinating bin Laden. Why was that approach insufficient?
Assassinating the founder of a movement is unlikely to destroy the movement and more likely to have exactly the opposite impact.
8. You maintain that at a certain point bin Laden "hijacked" the Taliban regime. Was anyone aware at the time, and why should that matter?
Within six months of the August 1998 bombings of the two U.S. embassies in East Africa, U.S. diplomats concluded there was no peaceful way to separate bin Laden from his Taliban hosts. This was a time to change policy, and to introduce carefully calibrated military pressure to back up U.S. goals. But U.S. strategy did not change, and bin Laden apparently drew the conclusion that he could get away with mass murder.
9. How did the media miss that moment?
The media, if it covered Afghanistan at all, reported on the systematic mistreatment of women, but did not closely follow the failed diplomacy between the United States and the Taliban, nor the internal war in which bin Laden’s trained fighters played an ever greater role.
10. Why are the Taliban’s human rights abuses and war crimes so significant?
The record—including the massacre of thousands at Taliban direction during the conquest of Mazar-i-Sharif in August 1998—was all but ignored by the U.S. government at the time and by the international news media. The media, had it focused the spotlight on these crimes, might have interested the broader public and the U.S. government in the plight of Afghans, who constituted at the time the highest number of refugees on earth.
11. What was the worst human rights abuse of the Taliban?
Without a doubt, it was the August 1998 conquest of Mazar-i-Sharif, in which the Taliban’s appointed governor instructed the Sunni Pashtun occupiers to convert or kill Shia civilians. Thousands were executed in their homes or in the streets.
12. Were their opponents any better?
Despite the assertions of even top State Department officials, the forces led by Massoud did not commit atrocities, nor were they heavily into the drugs trade (as the Taliban were).