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Reflections On America Since 9/11 And Our Series 'The Longest War'

The flags of Afghanistan and the United States are seen on the table before a meeting between the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2021. (Alex Brandon/AP)
The flags of Afghanistan and the United States are seen on the table before a meeting between the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin and Afghan President Ashraf Ghani at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., on June 25, 2021. (Alex Brandon/AP)

This conversation is excerpted from our four-part series The Longest War. Listen here.


The Afghanistan war is especially powerful for us at On Point. The program got its start 20 years ago, on September 17th, 2001. Jack Beatty, On Point’s news analyst, has been with the show, every day, from the beginning.

Below he joins Meghna Chakrabarti to reflect on America’s longest war:


JACK BEATTY: Hello, Jack.

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Hello, Meghna.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack, just your first thoughts on this 20 year continuum and now end to the Afghanistan war, as we’ve been marking it across this week.

BEATTY: Well, I’m proud, frankly, of our program and the way we have stood in relation to this 20 year war. Right from the start, led by our host, Tom Ashbrook, we looked at the claims of successive administrations with the most jaundiced eye. And this began right from the start.

We had heard that the Project for a New American Century, which was a right wing group that had been pressuring Bill Clinton to make war on Iraq, we had heard that they were preparing some sort of statement to send to the Bush administration, which was peopled with their alumni.

So I called a friend at The Weekly Standard. It was led by Bill Kristol, the editor. And asked him, did he know anything about it? He said, well, yes, in fact, he had the letter there and they had set it out that day. And he faxed the letter. And I read the letter on the air that night. And the letter said that leaving Saddam Hussein in power would be a, quote, ‘early and perhaps decisive surrender in the war on international terrorism.’

And the letter said this didn’t matter whether Saddam had anything to do with 9/11 or not. And, of course, as we know from our interview subsequently, we ran some of it yesterday with Cofer Black, the CIA operative. The administration was talking about extending this war almost from the first day to Iraq. And so here were these neo-conservatives saying, You’ve got to attack Iraq early. And we said on the air that this was, in fact, insanity.

And to underline how dire and desperate a proposal this was, we quoted the British military historian, Sir Michael Howard, writing that weekend in The Observer. He said an attack on Iraq in the context of an inflamed Islamism around the world would be tantamount to a nuclear exchange in the Cold War.

Well, on the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis that killed, it was a nuclear war, and the Americans as well. And as Peter Bergen and others have pointed out, it was a recruiting day for al-Qaeda all over the world.

CHAKRABARTI: And here we are, Jack, in 2021. Terrorism, it’s a chimeric thing. It’s taken on a new even more urgent form here inside the United States, has it not?

BEATTY: It has indeed. And, you know, you could say the January 6th, the attack on the Capitol, that completed the mission the terrorists were embarked on on Flight 93. Flight 93, United Airlines flight that crashed … in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, the target they thought of that plane was the Capitol. Well, the domestic terrorists completed the mission on January 6th.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, I want to again go back in the On Point time machine here. And this is from September 25th, 2001. You and then-host Tom Ashbrook spoke with Robert E. Hunter, former U.S. ambassador to NATO under President Clinton. Who said this:

ROBERT E. HUNTER [Archival Tape]: As important as stopping terrorism is, it isn’t taking on a Soviet Union with tentacles and troops all over the world and with a huge army poised potentially to invade Western Europe. You have a relatively small number of these terrorists, but they’re operating in a much broader sea.

CHAKRABARTI: That’s former U.S. ambassador to NATO, Robert Hunter, on this program, September 25th, 2001. How does that fall on your ears now, Jack?

BEATTY: Well, he’s making it seem like not the existential struggle that we made it into. And in fact, at the time there was reporting in The New Yorker from defense experts saying what’s needed here against bin Laden is fine work. Bribes, bounties, on the ground intelligence, finding out where these people are. Not invading Afghanistan. And also on that interview, Robert Hunter made a very important point.

Bush was saying, well, why do they attack us? They hate our freedom. Why do they attack us? Ambassador Hunter, he was in the first Bush administration at the time, State Department. He said, well, the casus belli was that we stationed troops in Saudi Arabia. And that was the reason bin Laden attacked us, because the presence of Americans and, my God, women among our troops, defiled the Arabian Peninsula.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack, I want to go back to where you started, with a very quick pivot that the Bush administration made to Iraq. And there is a particular moment in the run up to the Iraq war that we both remember, and that is then-Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the United Nations Security Council, really justifying the U.S.’s desire to prosecute a war in Iraq, the claim that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. And here’s a moment from a Powell speech to the Security Council:

COLIN POWELL [Archival Tape]: We know from sources that a missile brigade outside Baghdad was dispersing rocket launchers and warheads containing biological warfare agent. Most of the launchers and warheads had been hidden in large groves of palm trees and were to be moved every one to four weeks to escape detection. We also have satellite photos that indicate that banned materials have recently been moved from a number of Iraqi weapons of mass destruction facilities.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack, what do you think is particularly important to understand about that moment now as we’re actually looking back at 20 years of the Afghanistan war?

BEATTY: The media coverage that night, the network news devoted almost all of its time to that speech. And Powell was a unique bearer of prestige. We all knew that he had good things in mind. He wasn’t a hawk and so on. And later on, he was quoted as saying that he was, in fact, a patsy for the hawk in that speech. When the problems of the speech became evident, Tom Brokaw said, Well, it was our responsibility on NBC to report what he had to say. And frankly, he said, I had nothing that I could point to that was contrary to what Powell testified to.

Well, he may not have had anything, but Tom Ashbrook and I and our producers had things. We had what the inspectors had said about the particular sites that Powell cited. And, of course, some of the claims were too ludicrous to refute. So we just call them ludicrous. For example, the idea that Saddam could put chemical weapons on a barge and send it through the Mediterranean, the Straits of Gibraltar across the Atlantic and then into New York Harbor, that any grown person could say something like that. But, of course, the press just fawned all over him.

CHAKRABARTI: You know, this reminds me of what Representative Barbara Lee told us on the show yesterday. That she sees as one of the most damaging impacts of the past 20 years on the United States itself is the cumulative effect of those lies after lies, after lies. That it really undermined the American people’s confidence in their government. And I would perhaps even go a step further and say it was like a corrosive acid eating away at Americans confidence in the very idea of what American democracy, not just government, but democracy, is supposed to stand for. Jack, what do you think?

BEATTY: Yes, it was just our government consistently feeding us lies and the press, until very recently, passing them on. We all know the parlous record of The Washington Post and The New York Times in paving the way to war in Iraq with bogus claims fed by hawks in the Bush administration.

CHAKRABARTI: Jack, for the past 20 years, I’ve both listened to you avidly and had the privilege of working alongside you. And one of the singular things you bring to this program is your deep historical perspective here. And so I must ask, we’re talking about the culmination of the longest war in United States history, 20 years in Afghanistan. How would you position the Afghanistan war against other epochal battles that the United States has fought in?

BEATTY: Well, you know, writing in his journals at the time of the Mexican War, Ralph Waldo Emerson noted, quote, ‘The United States will conquer Mexico, but it will be as the man swallows the arsenic, which brings him down, Mexico will poison us.’ Well, 9/11 poisoned us. It let loose some of the darkest features of American history and some of the darkest characters who walked the stage of that history, culminating, of course, in Donald Trump. And Trump, as somebody pointed out, he really learned the lesson of 9/11, which as somewhat put it was: the terrorists were whomever you said they were. The poisons were released by 9/11, washed him forward.

CHAKRABARTI: One of my great lessons, experiencing half my life, a little less than half my life in the period since 2001, is it was this two-decades long journey into understanding how political networks become ideologies. And then once they become ideologies or movements, you can’t just root them out by force. You can’t even root them out with money. It takes something else entirely. And I don’t think we know, I don’t think I fully know yet what it takes to root them out.

Now, of course, that lesson came to us, in terms of what happened in Afghanistan … full circle with the Taliban back now. But I would hope that we apply that lesson here in the United States as well. You know, what does it take when networks become ideologies, become movements? What does it take to quell those movements and preserve the coordination that those movements might seek to undermine?

BEATTY: It’s an impossible task, really, isn’t it? It’s a fire in the mind. And once it starts, it doesn’t show that it’s there. You don’t know who harbors it, but it’s out there. And social media, of course, makes it ubiquitous and spreads the infection, spreads the fire. But there’s a line between the thought and the deed. And if you cross that line, the rule of law has to punish you and punish you severely. And one can only hope that that’s going to be the fate of so many of these terrorists from January 6th, and maybe even if there’s any justice for Donald Trump himself for inciting them.

CHAKRABARTI: And yet, Jack, I don’t know, maybe it’s just a fault of mine. I insist on ending with a note of hope, OK? And that is I keep thinking about the first part of our series this week with Shabana Basij-Rasikh, the founder of that first and only boarding school for girls in Afghanistan. She’s just 31 years old. And remember, she ended that saying if there’s a burning within her now, it’s that she has even more ferocity to fight for the future of her country. And I think many people also in the United States, right now, feel the same way about this country.

BEATTY: I think you’re right. And we have to hope they prevail. And that young woman, her courage, you know, listening to that. Even though I deplore the war in Afghanistan, I said, by God, it’s justified in opening a life for her, something she couldn’t have had. And it’s tragic to think it might be snuffed out now. But listening to her, they can’t take that away from her. It’s there, and it’s there in the women in the streets in Afghanistan. And they got the opportunity to express that through the sacrifice of American soldiers.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.