WHEN INSOMNIA STRIKES, I sometimes go to sleep with C-SPAN on the television. I just close my eyes, half-listen to a litany of politicians making long, arcane speeches on the floor of the U.S. Congress and wait for insomnia’s spirit to break. I sometimes forget to set the “sleep” function on the TV, so it is on all night, and I shut it off when I awake the next morning.
This is what happened the morning of September 11, 2001. Sometime before sunrise that morning I half-awoke to a grave and shaken voice on my television saying they were “obviously monitoring the unfolding events in New York …” Before sinking back into sleep I made a groggy mental note to turn on the news when my alarm went off.
When my alarm went off some time later, I turned on the news to the horrifying image of the World Trade Center collapsing, and ABC News anchor Peter Jennings referring to reports that the Pentagon had been hit by an airplane. I was suddenly more awake than I’ve ever been, and was in full fight-or-flight mode, standing on the balls of my feet and trembling with a sudden rush of adrenaline.
I watched the coverage until around midday, then drove on eerily empty freeways to the offices of the computer consultant I worked for at the time in Berkeley. Once there, I called him from the office (he was on vacation with his wife at the time) only to hear him say, “Go home, Matt. This is not a day to work.”
I drove home and spent the next 20 hours or so watching the coverage more or less nonstop, trying without success to make sense of the overwhelming images of destruction, trauma and grief that filled my TV screen.
After I had recovered somewhat from the shock, I had two basic reactions in the days following 9/11: the first was that attacks like those must never happen again, and the second was that I hoped whatever response we made would be proportional and intelligent and would preserve and build upon the international support shown to America in the immediate wake of the attacks (and make no mistake — virtually the entire world community was at America’s side.)
I think a question worth asking is: What did Osama bin Laden hope to accomplish with the 9/11 attacks? Based on his statements at the time and afterward, I would say he hoped to drag the U.S. into a quagmire in Afghanistan of the kind the Soviets suffered in the 1980s, and he further hoped this would exhaust the American military and ruin the American economy as the Soviets’ misadventure ruined theirs. I think bin Laden’s ultimate goal was to re-establish an Islamic caliphate in the wake of our collapse and re-assemble a sort of pan-Islamic Ottoman Empire without American interference. People who know anything about the extremely divided and complex nature of the span of the world that can be described as “Islamic” realize that bin Laden’s dream was utopian lunacy.
As it turned out, the “quagmire” he’d hoped for was (mostly) not to be. He evidently expected the Americans to fight like the poorly trained and frightened conscripts he’d faced in the earlier war against the Soviets, so he badly underestimated the skill and tenacity of the U.S. armed forces. He also had no sense of the strategic situation that made America’s Afghan war a far different experience than the Soviets’. There would be no major other power like America supplying arms and intelligence to al Qaeda and Taliban fighters, as had been the case decades before.
On the destroy-our-economy thing, it turns out bin Laden merely needed to get an MBA and get a job in one of the big Wall Street banks to accomplish that mission … but I digress.
I think the response of the U.S. in the wake of 9/11 has too often been ineffective — or worse, counter-productive. The Iraq war was an especially stupid misstep, but more generally the tendency of the Bush administration to cast the struggle with al Qaeda as a situation analogous to the Second World War was a critical strategic blunder. Bush cast himself as Churchill facing down a modern-day Hitler, even using phrases that echoed the language of the earlier struggle — remember the “axis of evil?” — and that played into bin Laden’s hands. I think casting the response as a “war” gave bin Laden exactly what he wanted, and it added to his prestige in the eyes of the people whose opinion he cared about.
I thought at the time, and still believe today, that a better way to oppose al Qaeda would be more along the lines of quietly and ruthlessly destroying a particularly lethal and dangerous criminal enterprise.
I was a barely competent ordinary trooper when I was in the Army, but I occasionally rubbed shoulders with special ops guys, and my personal sense of the ones I met was of men who were serious about their work, extremely highly trained and competent, and not the sort of people I’d want coming after me.
The Abbottabad raid that finished bin Laden can be seen as a template for the strategy I have in mind — carefully developed intelligence leads to a location of an al Qaeda operative, and then men appear from nowhere and capture or kill whoever the target is, and just as quickly vanish into the night.
No big splash, no big battles, far fewer dead Americans (and for that matter, far fewer dead non-Americans) — and a clear message that associating with al Queda is a short route to death or prison.
If this approach had been tried from the beginning, I believe that the world that had been at our side on September 12, 2001 would still be with us, bin Laden would still be gone, and al Qaeda would have far less propaganda material to work with.