With certain deplorable exceptions, anyone who lived through the September 11th attacks must be, at the very least, distressed and disheartened to witness America’s botched withdrawal from Afghanistan.
As I watched America in panicked retreat from a demented jihadist group, I remembered 9/11. That morning, as I walked to work, I looked up and was struck by how clear, vivid, and beautiful the sky was that day. The terrorists thought so too, and planned accordingly. At work, the radio stations I listened to suddenly cut out and began broadcasting the news from New York City. As soon as the second plane revealed that the worst terror attack the world had ever seen was underway, the internet collapsed and I could not see the horrific images in real time. During my lunch hour, I went to a local bar with a television and saw the fire and death. The next few days are now a blur, but I remember constant nightmares of burning buildings.
My predominant emotion during those nightmare hours was rage — pure, incandescent rage. The thought of those vile cowards happily killing hundreds of innocent passengers in order to kill thousands of innocent people made me angrier than I had ever been in my life. And I happily admit that I wanted bloody vengeance, to see these war criminals pay for their atrocities with their lives.
Part of me, however, was calmer than my devastated friends and colleagues; because now I knew exactly where I stood. I knew that what we were facing was war, relentless and implacable, with a global Jihad; and also that, in my own small way, using my own meager talents, I would do what I could to aid the cause of defeating that Jihad. I do not claim that I did anything approaching those who put their boots on the ground and their lives in danger; but using the pen, for which I have some facility, I have tried to do what I can.
When America finally invaded Afghanistan and attacked al-Qaeda and the Taliban jihadists, I felt — yes — joy that we were at long last fighting back; that we were making the bastards pay. And, to a great extent, we did make the bastards pay. We demolished al-Qaeda, overthrew their allies, and commenced a War on Terror that had at least a chance of turning back the Jihad.
But I was also worried; because I knew that there was a good chance we would lose. I was painfully aware of the fact that America was beset by ideologues who adored terrorism as a righteous uprising by the “wretched of the earth.” As the late Christopher Hitchens said at the time, they thought radical Islam was “some kind of f***ing liberation theology.” And though I did not see it coming, a passionate neo-isolationism would also arise on the right. Moreover, America was a democracy, and as such had to answer to a population that would inevitably grow tired of war and the sacrifices it required. More than anything else, America was faced with a fanatical movement with absolute belief in itself and no qualms about committing any crime it had to in order to seize power and impose itself on the rest of us. I wondered if America, with its divisions and discontents, its waning belief in its own right to exist, could defeat such a movement.
I think the jury is still out on this question, and the skedaddle from Afghanistan does not bode well for the future. It is only fair to admit, of course, that the retreat was inevitable. The American people wanted out, and there was no political support for retaining even the relatively small American presence in the country. Putting aside the terrifying incompetence with which the withdrawal was executed, there is no doubt that the withdrawal itself was an expression of the will of the American people.
But I feel very strongly that Americans do not fully understand the implications of withdrawal, especially one so hasty and ill-executed; because the Afghanistan disaster is unquestionably a massive victory for the Jihad. The jihadists can now justly brag that they have defeated the largest and most powerful army in the West. They know for certain that the US and its allies have no appetite for serious intervention elsewhere. They are heavily armed with captured American weapons and technology. They have a platform, an entire country in which they can nurture and pursue jihad. And above all, they have taken the offensive, the wind is at their backs. In other words, they are now convinced that the ancient imperial conquests of Islam are about to return to the stage of history.
There should be no illusions about what the West is now likely to face: there will be attempts at more 9/11-style terror attacks, and some will likely succeed. Countries and movements in the Middle East that have tried to push back against the Jihad may wonder whether they want to be on the losing side. The Iranians will be convinced America is a paper tiger that will never seriously attempt to prevent them from acquiring nuclear weapons. And perhaps most importantly, Western freedoms will continue to be curtailed under threat of jihadist violence. Legitimate criticism of Islam; literature, art, and even satire that “offends” the jihadists; and commonsense policies to, for example, vet immigrants from Muslim countries will be even more verboten than they currently are. The Jihad will not be content to remain behind its current borders; and the harm they can do to Western values, even from afar, is immense.
What, then, should the West do now? How can it ensure that Afghanistan is a lost battle in a larger and essential struggle, and not a decisive defeat that demands abject surrender?
The answer, I think, is for the West to stand like a Wall against the Jihad. It must say: this far, no further. It must ensure that terror attacks in any form will be met by limited but ferocious responses such as the targeted assassination of terror leaders. De facto infringement of Western freedoms by the Jihad must be summarily rejected — no more Charlie Hebdo massacres. Jihadist imams, preachers, politicians, and activists in the West must be legally prosecuted. Anti-Jihad countries and movements in the Muslim world must be strongly supported by political, diplomatic, financial, and all other means short of war. A massive domestic and foreign intelligence campaign must be undertaken to impede the Jihad whenever and wherever possible.
And, above all, the West must begin to reconstruct its belief in itself. It must acknowledge its virtues and not only its shortcomings and crimes. It must celebrate its extraordinary accomplishments in politics, science, and the cultivation of human freedom. In other words, the West must refuse to hate itself, and must learn again to hate the Jihad, which is the enemy of everything that is good in the West and indeed the world.
Whether any of this will happen is an open question. It will depend on whether the West learns the correct lessons from the Afghanistan debacle, and constructs the Wall that must stand between any free society and a tyrannical movement that seeks to destroy it.
The great physicist Richard Feynman once said, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.” This is not only true of technology; it is true of almost everything. The West, if it wants victory, or even wishes to survive, must realize that the war for Afghanistan is over, but the war against the Jihad is not — because the Jihad cannot be fooled. It is imperative for Americans, and indeed the West in its entirety, to understand this, and act accordingly.