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Archive for September, 2021

9/11 + 20

[update below] [2nd update below] [3rd update below]

Ilhan Omar’s thoughts are mine, of course, and certainly those of all AWAV readers, regular or occasional. As I don’t have anything in particular to say on this 20th anniversary that hasn’t been said by many others, I will merely offer a few recommendations of pertinent films to watch and noteworthy articles to read, beginning with the first-rate, five-part Netflix docuseries, Turning Point: 9/11 and the War on Terror, which was completed after the August 15th fall of Kabul, so covers that calamitous event. In her review of the series, the Washington Post’s TV critic, Inkoo Kang, deems it

The most honest and exhaustive retrospective [on 9/11]… If you have the time or energy for only one TV commemoration, make it this one. Directed by Brian Knappenberger, the five-part docuseries foregrounds an unfortunate facet of 9/11 remembrance: For the country at large, that date can’t be extricated from the disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the justifications of torture by the George W. Bush administration, and the subsequent increase in surveillance and Islamophobia within the United States.

Without partisan or ideological bias, “Turning Point” provides an opportunity to look back at the blunders in the “war on terror” (especially the lead-up to the Iraq War), the atrocities at Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, and the delusions of the Rumsfeld and Bush doctrines to make strange and outrageous once again what we’ve come to accept as normal — all while paying respect to the dead and the first responders who sacrificed their lives and their health. That de-normalizing lens, fortified by perspectives from Afghans, provides an invaluable service, recalling many of the Bush White House’s human rights scandals while reminding us that none of them were preordained. Though occasionally dry, the docuseries’ sober tone also makes for a welcome refuge from the sea of maudlin or faux-suspenseful 9/11 content elsewhere.

A good half of the series focuses on Afghanistan and the fiasco of America’s twenty-year intervention (Iraq is covered too, of course). On the incredible tragedy in Afghanistan, do read, if you haven’t already, the extraordinary report by Anand Gopal in The New Yorker (Sep. 13th issue), “The other Afghan women: In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them,” which has been praised by all and sundry, including MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, who thus tweeted, “I think this is one of the best pieces of journalism I have ever read.” I agree. One quote:

What’s clear is that the U.S. did not attempt to settle such divides [in Afghan society] and build durable, inclusive institutions; instead, it intervened in a civil war, supporting one side against the other. As a result, like the Soviets, the Americans effectively created two Afghanistans: one [in the countryside] mired in endless conflict, the other [in the cities] prosperous and hopeful.

Gopal’s bottom line: of all the forces that have inflicted misery on Afghanistan’s rural population, men and women alike, over the past four decades—the Soviets, the Americans and their allies, the Afghan army, the Mujahideen and their warlords, and the Taliban—the least bad were the Taliban. It was otherwise for the urban population, which naturally wanted the Americans to stay—if I were a middle-class Kabuli, I would be pro-American too, believe me—but for villagers, the Americans—with their drones and B52s (which killed upwards of 50,000 civilians), predatory warlord allies, the soldiers themselves—were a disaster. The lives of rural Afghans, and particularly men, were permanently at risk from an American drone or bomb. For those who wished for a prolonged US military engagement, there is no dancing around this reality.

And as we learn in this Sep. 10th New York Times report on the last Afghans killed by an American drone, it wasn’t just rural civilians who were at risk.

Also worth the watch is the 45-minute Sep. 6th report on the Australian ABC network, “The fall of Kabul: The last days of the war in Afghanistan.” President Biden is spared no quarter for the manner in which the withdrawal was executed but it is clear that the real culprit is Trump and the February 2020 Doha agreement he concluded with the Taliban. As Afghanistan IR specialist William Maley asserted, the Doha deal was the “worst single exercise in diplomacy since the Munich agreement of 1938…a catastrophic error of diplomacy” that “gave the Taliban everything they really wanted.” This was the agreement Biden inherited and it is hard to see what he could have done to change it—without committing the US to a veritable forever war.

One can hardly discuss the legacy of 9/11 without mentioning the massive corruption the trillion $$$ wars engendered, not only in Afghanistan and Iraq but, above all, in the United States itself. For recent sources on this, see Sarah Chayes’ Sep. 3rd article in Foreign Affairs, “Afghanistan’s corruption was made in America: How self-dealing elites failed in both countries,” and Isaac Stanley-Becker’s report in The Washington Post (Sep. 4th) on how US military generals, notably Stanley McChrystal (incarnated by Brad Pitt in the Netflix movie ‘War Machine’), cashed in big time after their service in Afghanistan.

And then there’s Guantánamo. And torture. On this sinister legacy of 9/11, I will simply recommend the salutary Hollywood movie The Mauritanian (in France: Désigné coupable), on the story of Mohamedou Ould Salahi, which is reviewed in The Conversation by UC-Santa Barbara sociology professor Lisa Hajjar, “‘The Mauritanian’ rekindles debate over Gitmo detainees’ torture – with 40 still held there,” who will soon be publishing a savant book on the general topic.

Closer to the homeland is a lengthy article by Jennifer Senior in the September issue of The Atlantic, “What Bobby McIlvaine left behind: Grief, conspiracy theories, and one family’s search for meaning in the two decades since 9/11.” I was prompted to read it while in the US last month, after seeing Anne Applebaum’s tweet, which enjoined her followers to “Drop what you are doing and read this.” So I picked up the issue off the coffee table and executed Ms. Applebaum’s directive. My 90-year-old mother likewise found the piece sufficiently compelling to read to the end.

UPDATE: On Jennifer Senior’s article in The Atlantic, film director Ava DuVernay tweeted

This long-read by @JenSeniorNY stayed with me. It’s about the ripples that each of our lives makes on other lives. In this case, the focus is a bright young man lost on 9/11 and the waves of pain and misunderstanding, but also purpose for those left behind.

To which Oprah Winfrey replied

Yes I read this. Found it striking. And haunting. What happens in just one family.

2nd UPDATE: Michelle Goldberg’s terrific Sep. 9th NYT column, “How 9/11 turned America into a half-crazed, fading power,” is a must-read.

3rd UPDATE: Fintan O’Toole’s review essay in the NYRB (Oct. 7th issue), “The lie of nation building,” is a tour de force. The lede: “From the very beginning, the problem with the US involvement in Afghanistan lay essentially in the deficits in American democracy.”

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