Nine years after the Sept. 11 terrorist strikes, the vexing problems that followed the attacks — how to stifle al-Qaida, what to do with the men rounded up as part of the war on terrorism, how to wind down the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and a more recent addition — growing suspicion of, or worse, hostility toward, Muslims in America — remain unresolved. To truly honor those who died on Sept. 11, 2001, these questions should return to center stage and be answered in a way that recognizes what the U.S. can and cannot accomplish, at home and abroad.
The war in Afghanistan, which was long overshadowed by military operations in Iraq, returned to the headlines as violence escalated and the Taliban, which the U.S. believed was allowing refuge to Osama bin Laden, gained strength. President Barack Obama has steadfastly said he will remove U.S. troops from the country by the end of 2011.
With the Taliban resurgent in Afghanistan, a hopelessly corrupt government in Kabul and American military operations hamstrung for fear of killing civilians — and pressing needs at home — the president can no longer justify an expensive commitment with marginal results.
But the president has yet to offer a plan for diminished U.S. involvement.
As conservative columnist George Will wrote a year ago: “America should do only what can be done from offshore, using intelligence, drones, cruise missiles, air strikes and small, potent special forces units.”
And, as Sen. Susan Collins has long said, a “civilian surge” is needed in Afghanistan to build government, legal and economic systems, which will be the foundation of long-term security.
In Iraq, the picture is brighter, but problems remain. As required by a 2008 agreement between the Iraqi government and the Bush administration, U.S. combat troops were withdrawn last month. Remaining troops are to leave by the end of next year under the agreement.
Bombings and other violent attacks, however, remain too frequent, and a coalition government has yet to be set up, half a year after parliamentary elections.
Democracy, the evidence shows, is not an easy fit in that region. Forcing it on a people before they are willing to embrace it in all its messiness — and without the institutions needed to sustain it — is risky business. And the loss of a strong government — albeit one run by a cutthroat, vindictive dictator — allowed deep, ancient sectarian divides to re-emerge and spur seemingly never-ending violence that the U.S.-trained and -equipped Iraqi military and police force is far from able to stop.
Despite a campaign pledge to close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay, the facility remains open with lawmakers pledging their states won’t take the prisoners, most of whom have been held without charges for nearly a decade, an embarrassment to a country founded on justice.
More recently, a plan to construct a Muslim religious center near ground zero, the site of the former World Trade Center, has spurred outrage and protests. Such a facility would be an affront to those killed on Sept. 11, is their refrain.
Rather, the Muslim center would show that America is true to its principles of religious freedom and tolerance of diversity.
Ominously, members of radical Islamic groups in the Middle East have said the controversy over the center has caused a spike in donations and recruits for such groups. At home, mosques have been vandalized and a cabdriver stabbed because he was Muslim. A misguided, attention-hungry minister threatened to burn Qurans to mark the anniversary of the terrorist attacks.
This is not a legacy that honors victims of the Sept. 11 attacks or improves America’s security.
With an overstretched military still involved in two wars, the legacy of interrogation and detention of terrorism suspects unresolved and the rancor over the Islamic center near ground zero dividing the country, remembrances of the Sept. 11 attacks will indeed be somber.