Carnegie Mellon University

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September 10, 2021

Remembering 9/11, twenty years later

By By Bill Brink

In a way, it began two days earlier.

On September 9, 2001, two al-Qaeda operatives disguised as TV journalists detonated a bomb hidden in a camera that killed Ahmad Shah Massoud, a legendary Afghan military commander who fought the Soviets in the ‘80s and the Taliban in the ‘90s. The assassination bought Taliban protection for Osama bin Laden, the man who ordered it. The terrorist attacks bin Laden orchestrated two days later against the World Trade Center and the Pentagon ensured that the Americans would come for him.

Massoud became a national hero. Murals featured his likeness. One of them, several stories high, at one point graced Kabul’s airport, where hundreds of thousands of Americans and Afghans departed Afghanistan last month. Photojournalists captured images of Taliban fighters standing guard above another Massoud mural in Kabul. 

The United States did come for bin Laden, and the Taliban, and later entered Iraq. They toppled the Taliban. They toppled Saddam Hussein. They killed bin Laden. But until two weeks ago, two weeks before the twentieth anniversary of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, they remained in Afghanistan, and during those 20 years the US military underwent a reorganization to address the changing threat.

“We shifted our land fighting force to focus on counterinsurgency, using our military in a new way: targeted peacekeeping and strike-type operations to build nations and train security forces, which was traditionally a special forces job,” said Steve Curtis, a Lieutenant Colonel in the US Army and currently a Military Fellow in Carnegie Mellon University’s Institute for Politics and Strategy. “Suddenly, we’re using general forces for that primarily. I think that shifted our investments, it shifted our tactics, it shifted our whole military education system. A whole crop of officers and soldiers for the last two decades have been oriented on that aspect.”

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Curtis would know. He commissioned in the infantry after graduating from the United States Military Academy in 2003 and also completed Ranger school. He deployed to Iraq, fighting in Sadr City, and to Afghanistan, where he served as a Brigade Intelligence Officer responsible for Wardak, Logar and Konar provinces, some of the deadliest in the country, from 2009 to 2011.

“Afghanistan has been victimized from perpetual war, deforestation, the systematic elimination or withdrawal of their academic elite, brain drain,” Curtis said. “It leaves them to the point where they don’t even understand crop rotation. Basic stuff. That’s a major challenge.”

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Steve Curtis

Curtis remembered conversations he had with his fellow soldiers while in Afghanistan, and they agreed on one point: US presence here had to end.

“It’s akin to shrapnel in your body. Sooner or later your body will expel it, because it’s not of the body,” Curtis said. “... What we’re seeing is a natural byproduct of a rapid expulsion of US forces, but it also represents the will of the American people.”

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Daniel Hansen saw the slow pace of the transition to urban warfare firsthand. When he was in boot camp as a Marine Reservist in 2005, the US had been in Iraq for almost three years, yet his unit trained for maneuvers in the mountains and conventional warfare.

When Hansen deployed to Fallujah in 2008, the implementation of General David Petraeus’ US Army – US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, the troop surge, and the Anbar Awakening combined to decrease the violence. 

“Part of the strategy was, we need to be in and among the people perpetually,” said Hansen, now a Postdoctoral Fellow in IPS. “Interacting on a daily basis. You need to develop these positive connections, rather than, you’re just this foreign entity that they sometimes see and often in ways that make their day worse.”

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Daniel Hansen

The September 11th attacks ignited a political awakening for Hansen, then a high school student in Phoenix. He began studying Middle Eastern politics and Arabic at Arizona State, and while deployed he scoured foreign-policy think tanks for the latest analysis of the war to augment his military briefings. He developed a reputation, and soon he was teaching his fellow soldiers about local politics and Islam. Now he teaches, and studies, the interplay of politics and economics. During his time in the Marines, he said, the bottom-up, day-to-day missions and the top-down, big-picture strategy seemed symbiotic in nature.

“There’s a lot of very respectable foreign policy analysts and scholars who think that the Biden decision was inevitable and it was appropriate, and there was no way to pull out in a way that it didn’t look messy, but it clearly signifies that you’re de-escalating the value of counterterrorism operations,” Hansen said. “There’s implicitly a gamble and some faith that ISIS, who’s been doing some of these attacks in Afghanistan, isn’t actually going to be able to export their terrorism again.”

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The effort poured into counterterrorism and counterinsurgency diverted resources from more traditional adversaries like Russia and China. As the US leaves Afghanistan, those countries loom larger than they used to.

“Some of the things that we’re looking at now, whether it’s Russia, the rise of the authoritarian state, or China and its resurgent economic power, I think our focus [on counterterrorism] allowed some of that to take place,” said Kimberly Manuel, an IPS Navy Fellow and a Commander in the US Navy. “If you focus on one thing, you can’t focus on everything at the same time. It shaped the environment militarily, economically, across all the different spheres.”

Manuel was a sophomore at Vanderbilt, headed to Spanish class, when she learned how the planes hit. On her second deployment, aboard the USS Ponce in the northern Arabian gulf, her ship sent its Rigid-hull Inflatable Boats (RIBs) to intercept small local fishing boats known as dhows. The zodiacs brought food and water in exchange for information about the smuggling of weapons or terrorists.

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Kimberly Manuel

“It’s disappointing,” Manuel said of the end of the US’ presence in Afghanistan. “The number of lives we’ve invested and lost, the money we’ve lost, the time, it’s devastating, and certainly it’s a tragedy for the Afghan people and the folks who supported us and had this dream of a better country.”

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Fred “Fritz” Bertsch was at sea during 9/11, conducting counternarcotics operations in the Caribbean. His ship was diverted to San Juan, Puerto Rico, to provide port security. Bertsch, now a Commander in the US Coast Guard and an IPS Military Fellow, experienced some of the direct fallout from 9/11 because the Coast Guard moved from the Department of Treasury to the newly formed Department of Homeland Security.

Not only does the Coast Guard stay abreast of the people and materials entering the ports, no small task given that roughly 90 percent of goods enter the US via maritime waterways, but it conducts port security operations both at home and abroad, including participating in security and operations in Afghanistan and Iraq. Bertsch spent a year in Bahrain as the captain of a ship doing just that. But the threat is metastasizing out of the water and into the circuitry.

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Fred "Fritz" Bertsch

“I think one of the big focuses right now is the cyber aspect of everything,” Bertsch said. “We’ve seen some of the impacts of how cyber-attacks can shut down ports or have impacts on gasoline availability where they shut down the pipeline; the same thing can happen in the ports. Even now, after the Hurricane (Ida), as we see New Orleans and that area get shut down, there’s shortages of fuel in other places. The same could be done through a cyber-attack.”

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The US has ended, after twenty years, the war they began after September 11, when nineteen men on four airliners brought terrorism to America in a way it had not seen. The paradigm has shifted, and the military had to shift with it, but if anything, these days, it’s harder. 

“You don’t get to pick the fight that you’re in a lot of the time,” Curtis said. “History will tell you, at least for the United States, that we’re often thrust into a fight. Our batting average on predicting that fight is generally low. A big push right now is to pivot to large-scale conflict, but we’ve developed a good understanding of counterinsurgency. Let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater and forget that as we start to focus on how we deal with six divisions of the Russian army rampaging through Ukraine.”