As we approach the 21st anniversary on Sunday of the 9/11 terrorist attacks that killed nearly 3,000 innocents, it’s important to reflect on the lives lost, the courage displayed by the first responders and civilians who helped people, and the impact that fateful day has had on the lives of so many Americans.
The loss, sacrifice, and ways people rose to the occasion in crisis should never be forgotten. But we also need to heed the warnings of that attack and renew our resolve to ensure such a tragedy never happens again.
Last year, Kabul fell to the Taliban following President Joe Biden’s precipitous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which unleashed chaos and violence as the U.S. scrambled to get out.
One can only imagine how veterans who served in Afghanistan felt watching the chaos of that retreat and the collapse of the country last year, which undid years of effort to prevent Afghanistan from becoming a terrorist safe haven once again.
That chaos did not need to happen, and it has led to a much more dangerous situation in Afghanistan than existed even before 9/11, with the United States at more risk from terrorist organizations like al-Qaeda. Terrorists now have a safe haven to operate in Afghanistan again, just like they did before the attacks on 9/11, and according to the former commander in the region, Gen. Frank McKenzie, the U.S. is in a poor position to conduct counterterrorism operations against them.
The Biden administration claims it has the capability to continue the counterterrorism mission using “over the horizon” capabilities, relying on space and air reconnaissance to conduct targeted strikes of terrorist targets with drone strikes.
But despite the hopes of the administration, over-the-horizon strikes at terrorist targets are insufficient to keep the threat at bay.
There are many challenges with relying on over-the-horizon capabilities to conduct counterterrorism operations. Without the large footprint of people in country to act as the eyes and ears for strikes, the intelligence collection that relies on air and space assets is challenging, as the target can move before the strike is executed, and those operations are often constrained by airspace access.
A little over a month ago, Ayman al-Zawahri, one of the chief architects of the 9/11 attacks, was killed by a U.S. drone strike in Kabul. That would seem to suggest this capability is effective, since such a prominent terrorist was successfully targeted using the over-the-horizon strategy.
Unfortunately, one terrorist killed does not an effective counterterrorism strategy make. The main issue is the support those groups receive from the Taliban, which will give them a strong base to plan terrorist acts against the West, and will make targeting the networks much more complicated.
Since the Taliban took over Afghanistan, it has gained control of a large amount of territory, equipment, and funds. It is now more powerful and controls more of Afghanistan than it did in 2001. While its rule will be somewhat different from what the world saw in 2001, it’s clear the Taliban still has ties to various terrorist groups that are bent on attacking the United States and its allies.
The terrorist threat to the United States will only grow with the Taliban rule of Afghanistan.
When this terrorist threat is added to the numerous other threats we face from emboldened adversaries, such as Russia and Iran, and the growing military threat from China, we cannot afford to show weakness or let our resolve waver.
In order to keep Americans safe in a dangerous world, we need to find our backbone and be ready to meet these challenges with the vigor they require. In summary, 9/11 will always be a time of somber remembrance for all of the lives lost and people affected by the terrorist attacks, but Americans cannot forget how the attacks happened and the cost of complacency in the face of threats.
This piece originally appeared in The Daily Signal on September 8, 2022.