- Barack Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai walk at the presidential palace in Kabul, Afghanistan on July 20, 2008.
The sudden destruction of the World Trade Center and devastating attack on the Pentagon that claimed thousands of lives on September 11, 2001, traumatically revealed to a complacent America the existence of a radical Islamist terrorist threat based in South-Central Asia, potent enough to breach the country’s historic “ocean walls” of defense. A challenge like no other—the idea that violent attacks could seemingly drop at will from the skies—hung suspended over US foreign policy debates like the sword of Damocles. Amidst national fear and mourning tempered by world sympathy and support, eradication of this threat was held to be as sacred an obligation and existential imperative as defeating fascism was after the attacks on Pearl Harbor. America would “pay any price, bear any burden,” President Bush declared, in the struggle to bring the perpetrator, Osama bin Laden, to justice. This included denying sanctuary to future terrorists by overthrowing the Taliban regime that had sheltered him and his Al Qaeda followers in Afghanistan, and materially and ideologically combating Muslim fundamentalism worldwide. “This generation,” one commentator solemnly pronounced, “will be judged by how it responded to 9/11.”
That was a long time ago, in the way things are measured in unsettled and complicated ages. And long before George Bush handed over the burden of national security to President Barack Obama, successive crises ranging from the geopolitical to the financial had far superseded Afghanistan and its region as the onetime “challenge of a generation” in the minds of a deeply insecure American public. Yet more than seven years later, the original challenge of those dark days remains suspended, and many believe that it is still there because the response was suspended as well.
President Obama has made awareness of these crises and the need for confidence in dealing with them the opening theme of his administration. “Only a handful of times in our history has a generation been confronted with challenges so vast,” he declared to the throng that gathered at Philadelphia’s 30th Street Station as he journeyed toward Washington three days before he was inaugurated. Referring to the nation’s ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, he characterized the first as “one that needs to be ended responsibly,” and the second as one that needs to be “waged wisely.”
The new president’s choice of words carried with it the implication that the initial “challenge of a generation” had not been met in an effective way. Amidst a critical deterioration of the security situation in Afghanistan centered on but not limited to a powerful resurgence of the Taliban, this seems self-evident. What had happened to a task that for a brief but intensely emotional time seemed to be the number one priority of the United Sates of America?
ABANDONING THE HUNT FOR OSAMA
The speed and ease with which the Taliban were overthrown created an artificial sense of accomplishment among Americans—a feeling that the great challenge had been dealt with. “Everything But Osama,” a New York Times headline declared in December 2001. The Bonn Conference convened that month to settle Afghanistan’s future, named a new government headed by Hamid Karzai, and vowed that the international community would guarantee the country’s “security and reconstruction.” With the mission supposedly accomplished, the world breathed a brief sigh of relief before turning its attention to Iraq. This left the man who had planned and provoked the horrific attacks of historical proportions free to escape, along with his Al Qaeda followers and Taliban allies, into Pakistan’s Tribal Areas. Pakistan’s military establishment—which had helped create the Taliban and powerfully supported their drive to power before claiming to have become allies against them under the pressure of an ultimatum from Washington—assured the world that they would do everything to help track him down. Amidst the euphoria of “victory,” the role that Pakistan’s military had long played in fostering Islamic militancy in the region was ignored, and its suitability as an ally would come back to haunt US anti-terrorism efforts.
With Afghanistan “settled,” the Bush administration launched its highly divisive war in Iraq, claiming that it was a continuation of America’s response to 9/11. The far greater intensity of that conflict, in terms of troops committed, resistance offered, money spent, lives lost, and ultimate public disapproval of the war soon relegated Afghanistan to yesterday’s news. When news from Afghanistan was aired, it was in terms of the progress being made in holding democratic presidential and parliamentary elections, the slow pace of reconstruction, the uncertain development of women’s rights, a corrosive narcotics trade and attendant corruption, and rumblings of a Taliban comeback. Hardly enough to hold the attention of an American nation preoccupied with Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, spasms of the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Asian tsunami, global warming, and most recently, a financial meltdown of international scope accompanied by attendant scandals, the proportions of which are so vast that economists predict the world financial landscape and America’s position within it will be forever altered.