Just in case you didn't realize it, the lost war in Afghanistan was their fault, not ours. If we had any fault at all, as Secretary of Defense and former Iraq War commander Lloyd Austin pointed out at a Senate hearing last week, it was not fully grasping how bad our Afghan allies in other words, the very government and military we had created there were. "We need to consider some uncomfortable truths," he said. "That we didn't fully comprehend the depth of corruption and poor leadership in the senior ranks. That we didn't grasp the damaging effect of frequent and unexplained rotations by President Ghani of his commanders." Oh yeah, and maybe that weird president we had not so long ago had something to do with it, too, when he reached an agreement with the Taliban at Doha, Qatar, for the withdrawal of American troops. As Austin put it: "And that the Doha agreement itself had a demoralizing effect on Afghan soldiers."
The only people who had nothing to do with disaster in that country, it seems, were the splendid generals of the U.S. military who commanded up to 100,000 American troops and monumental air power against the Taliban at the height of the war and have never wanted to give up the ghost. As we now know, until the very last moment (almost 20 years of devastating failure after it began), they were still "advising" President Biden not to withdraw our troops from that land.
Honestly, our commanders who, like Austin, often enough made literal fortunes off their war records, should be ashamed and yet, two disastrous decades later, there isn't an apology in sight, as TomDispatch regular Karen Greenberg (whose new book, Subtle Tools: The Dismantling of American Democracy from the War on Terror to Donald Trump, couldn't be more appropriate to this moment) lays out with all-too-painful clarity. Tom
Never Having to Say You're Sorry
No Accountability and No Apologies
The anniversary of the 9/11 attacks was marked by days of remembrances for the courageous rescue workers of that moment, for the thousands murdered as the Twin Towers collapsed, for those who died in the Pentagon, or in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, fighting off the hijackers of the commercial jet they were in, as well as for those who fought in the forever wars that were America's response to those al-Qaeda attacks.
For some, the memory of that horrific day included headshaking over the mistakes this country made in responding to it, mistakes we live with to this moment.
Among the more prominent heads being shaken over the wrongdoing that followed 9/11, and the failure to correct any of it, was that of Jane Harman, a Democrat from California, who was then in the House of Representatives. She would join all but one member of Congress fellow California representative Barbara Lee in voting for the remarkably vague Authorization for the Use of Force, or AUMF, which paved the way for the invasion of Afghanistan and so much else. It would, in fact, put Congress in cold storage from then on, allowing the president to bypass it in deciding for years to come whom to attack and where, as long as he justified whatever he did by alluding to a distinctly imprecise term: terrorism. So, too, Harman would vote for the Patriot Act, which would later be used to put in place massive warrantless surveillance policies, and then, a year later, for the Bush administration's invasion of Iraq (based on the lie that Iraqi ruler Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction).
But on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the attacks, Harman offered a different message, one that couldn't have been more appropriate or, generally speaking, rarer in this country a message laced through and through with regret. "[W]e went beyond the carefully tailored use of military force authorized by Congress," she wrote remorsefully, referring to that 2001 authorization to use force against al-Qaeda and Osama bin Laden. So, too, Harman railed against the decision, based on "cherry-picked intelligence," to go to war in Iraq; the eternal use of drone strikes in the forever wars; as well as the creation of an offshore prison of injustice at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and of CIA black sites around the world meant for the torture of prisoners from the war on terror. The upshot, she concluded, was to create "more enemies than we destroyed."
Such regrets and even apologies, while scarce, have not been utterly unknown in post-9/11-era Washington. In March 2004, for example, Richard Clarke, the counterterrorism chief for the Bush White House, would publicly apologize to the American people for the administration's failure to stop the 9/11 attacks. "Your government failed you," the former official told Congress and then proceeded to criticize the decision to go to war in Iraq as well. Similarly, after years of staunchly defending the Iraq War, Senator John McCain would, in 2018, finally term it "a mistake, a very serious one," adding, "I have to accept my share of the blame for it." A year later, a PEW poll would find that a majority of veterans regretted their service in Afghanistan and Iraq, feeling that both wars were "not worth fighting."
Recently, some more minor players in the post-9/11 era have apologized in unique ways for the roles they played. For instance, Terry Albury, an FBI agent, would be convicted under the Espionage Act for leaking documents to the media, exposing the bureau's policies of racial and religious profiling, as well as the staggering range of surveillance measures it conducted in the name of the war on terror. Sent to prison for four years, Albury recently completed his sentence. As Janet Reitman reported in the New York Times Magazine, feelings of guilt over the "human cost" of what he was involved in led to his act of revelation. It was, in other words, an apology in action.
As was the similar act of Daniel Hale, a former National Security Agency analyst who had worked at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan helping to identify human targets for drone attacks. He would receive a 45-month sentence under the Espionage Act for his leaks documents he had obtained on such strikes while working as a private contractor after his government service .
As Hale would explain, he acted out of a feeling of intense remorse. In his sentencing statement, he described watching "through a computer monitor when a sudden, terrifying flurry of Hellfire missiles came crashing down, splattering purple-colored crystal guts." His version of an apology-in-action came from his regret that he had continued on at his post even after witnessing the horrors of those endless killings, often of civilians. "Nevertheless, in spite of my better instinct, I continued to follow orders." Eventually, a drone attack on a woman and her two daughters led him over the brink. "How could I possibly continue to believe that I am a good person, deserving of my life and the right to pursue happiness" was the way he put it and so he leaked his apology and is now serving his time.
"We Were Wrong, Plain and Simple"
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