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Experts weigh in on significance of 9/11 and its aftermath

In the run-up to the 10th anniversary of the September 11th attacks, a panel of foreign policy experts hosted by the New America Foundation shared thoughts on the mistakes made by the military and Bush administration in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

The speakers, national security journalist Peter Bergen, Editor in Chief of Foreign Policy magazine Susan Glasser, and president of NAF Steve Coll, rarely disagreed on each other’s takeaways, often adding personal anecdotes of interviews with prominent foreign leaders whose input fell on deaf ears.

Questionable Military Tactics

Glasser told the audience she spoke to General Boris Gromov, the commander of Soviet forces in Afghanistan at the time of the 1989 pullout, who told her days after the Twin Towers fell, an American foot presence in Afghanistan would be a disaster.

For Coll, whose book on the subject, Ghost Wars, won a Pulitzer Prize in 2005, the wrong lessons were learned from previous Soviet and British campaigns in the country and elsewhere.

While admitting the “thought experiment” in Afghanistan was skewed by the Iraq war, Coll explained the diagnosis of mistakes NATO and the U.S. made were not those of the USSR. “The latter had a much more illegitimate cause,” he said. “The U.S. revolt (by the Afghans) took much longer,” he added, and required “many more mistakes and more years to unfold.”

The speakers explained the U.S. mission in Afghanistan in the early days was designed to minimize the visibility of ground forces. Glasser remarked he didn’t see an American soldier until 2002, some three months after Operation Enduring Freedom commenced. Bergen, CNN’s national security analyst and director of NAF’s National Security Studies Program, shared an exchange he had with a senior commander. Bergen asked why the 10th Mountain Division — a light-infantry unit with specialized training to fight in harsh terrain — wasn’t called in to join the assault on Tora Bora, a decision Glasser wrote in an essay was one of the worst decisions of the decade. Bergen says the commander “feared, on basis of advice, if he put men there, it would provoke a Pashtun uprising,” a reality the three panelists say the U.S. wasn’t prepared to face.

The footprint of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan was so light, the panel maintained, that more journalists were killed than soldiers in the opening months of the conflict.

Role of Pakistan

The panelists agreed the Bush administration erred in outsourcing the security and political apparatus to then-President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan, a move done to focus personnel and resources on the imminent war in Iraq. Coll points the finger at the lack of South Asian experts on the Bush staff, arguing Bush’s advisors were too credulous of Pakistan, and took for granted the Asian country’s interest’s aligned with America’s. Coll, mirroring Glasser’s analysis, said, “It didn’t require deep investigation to see the duality in how Pakistan managed its relationship with the U.S.”

What frustrated the panelists most about the U.S. pullback in the country was the willingness of Taliban officials to integrate themselves in the new pro-U.S. Karzai government, and the missed opportunity of securing the trust and stability of regional leaders.

Coll recounted a meeting replayed to him of Taliban regional leaders gathering a few weeks before Karzai formally took over. After the leaders discussed surrender policy and securing their role in the new government, one member asked if they would still receive car allowances. To Coll, that anecdote plays to the ease with which rival factions in the war-torn country shift allegiances.

But what should have been an easy and nation-building transition was sundered by what Coll says was a U.S. policy of giving rein to “proxy warlords.” He says Bush Afghan policy made the U.S. “a bunch of warlords,” selling local and regional Taliban leaders to bounty under the assumption all Taliban members were in toe with the group’s senior members.

Glasser said Pakistan continued to play both sides, something obvious to journalists and senior policy makers. She brought up an observation that hundreds of Pakistani families living outside of Islamabad were sending their sons off to war in Afghanistan after the U.S. invasion, their return facilitated by the Pakistani government.

Hitting upon a theme used throughout the 90-minute discussion, Coll said, the “problem, even today, is that we overlearned the lesson. Being shocked by our inability to see what was obvious, we’re becoming firm in the other direction.”

To Bergen, the Bush administration’s reliance on Musharraf smacked of wishful thinking. He explains the U.S. approval rating in Pakistan is 12 percent, down from the higher teens earlier in the decade. Bergen mocked the notion held by Bush officials that Pakistan would understand its real strategic interests and curry favor with the U.S. Alluding to the country’s conflicts with India, he said, “If we lost 3.5 wars with Canada over 60 years, we’ll have a different focus.”

How important was 9/11, anyway?

Coll and Glasser proposed 9/11 was a false ground-zero to the international developments most important to U.S. strategic interests. Coll, after describing an essay that appeared in the Financial Times, portrayed the events of September 11th as a “side-bar” to the economic expansion of China and Brazil, and the economic crises of the last three years.

Glasser referred to a spread in Foreign Policy that identified events following 9/11 that were more impactful domestically and abroad than the terrorist attacks. Social networking appeared on the list, as did the fastest transition from poverty to the middle class in the last ten years the world has ever experienced, she said.

Coll and Glasser considered whether the military expeditions in Asia were a “late-imperial overstretch,” rather than a response to terrorism. In terms of path dependencies, the two proffered whether the military build-up in Afghanistan occurred independent of 9/11 and proposed that 50 years from now, history books could view the last decade that way.

Why the wars happened

Coll explained 9/11 provoked extension “of what was building up anyway.” He asked whether the war in Iraq was instigated by 9/11, or was it inevitable the U.S. and Tony Blair of Great Britain would over-interpret their international role given Saddam Hussein’s UN violations.

For the panelists, that over-interpretation was premised on how speedy and cost-effective previous U.S. and British military engagements were following the collapse of the USSR. The budgets that dramatically undershot the massive debts the U.S. would incur were a manifestation of the luck the two powers had. Coll pointed to the quick and successful intervention in Bosnia, the bombing of Serbia, the first Gulf War and UK engagement in Sierra Leone as motivation for entering Iraq regardless of its 9/11 culpability. “That’s the overstretch, that basically success of the Gulf War (and other victorious conflicts) was so rapidly over-learned,” Coll said.

Bergen was uneasy putting so much stock into the US-led conflicts. He said the war in Afghanistan costs 1 percent of U.S. GDP, compared to the 9 percent Vietnam commanded. And while that conflict spelled significant political unrest domestically, the current military expedition is on the back of the minds of most Americans. He summarized the decade since 9/11 as a time of relative peace and limited economic wealth.

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