I vividly remember the events of September 11th. I was at my high school’s library, on one of the computers when I came across the news on a news site, and over the course of the afternoon, we learned that it was no accident, but a deliberate attack against the country. I remember being concerned that we didn’t know who did it, until the news began to shift over the next couple of days to the Middle East. In my 10th grade history class, we listened to the radio. The road was dead silent as the commentators spoke about the event. That day has defined the existence of my generation, in every single facet of life, as we’ve watched the towers tumble into two wars across the world, while our domestic society has undergone major shifts and changes that we’ve gone along with in the name of security and safety. One man changed the world, and he’s now dead.

I’m not sure what I felt while listening to NPR late at night, when the rumors that Bin Laden was killed by US Special Forces in Pakistan. There’s a certain amount of relief, given the significance of the actions, but quite a bit of emptiness at the news. Bin Laden is now gone, and as the head of a terrorist group that’s killed thousands of people, I’m happy to see that he won’t be able to contribute to the overall direction and leadership, which will undoubtedly save lives in the future. At the same time, his death won’t bring back all those who’ve been killed across the world, and it won’t stop the momentum on the movement that he started.

Major political events have a certain momentum that keeps them going, and the death of Bin Laden ultimately won’t stop because their leader has been killed. It’s a setback, to be sure, just as when any organization loses their leader, they lose their particular guidance and leadership. Undoubtedly, there is some form of contingency plan on the part of Al Qaida to shift power around, and hopefully, it’s not well thought out or planned to any good degree, so that the transfer of power will be inefficient and slow down whatever plans they have coming up. That being said, Al Qaida certainly does have a population of people who support their goals and the means that they use to bring about their intended ends, and for that reason, it’s clear that the fight against terrorist activities will continue.

Hopefully, though, his death will help to further delegitimize Al Qaida as a credible entity in the eyes of those who are sympathetic to their ends. The uprisings across the Middle East have demonstrated – in part – that peaceful protest can help to gain what the people want, that violence doesn’t always have to happen. There’s no direct comparison between the efforts used to attack the US and to overthrow some of the Northern African – Arabic leaders, but there’s certainly the demonstration of alternatives. That being said, some of his supporters have already vowed violence in revenge: we’re not out of the woods yet.

Undoubtedly, we’ll see a couple of dramatic narratives on the events of the 1st, covering the planning that went into the raid that took Bin Laden’s life: I’ll be interested in seeing everything that happened leading up to it. I’ve already read a number of fascinating accounts between the White House and the military, in a real intelligence story that involved a lot of moving parts and elements. I’m rather surprised to see some of the news point to Guantanamo Bay as a source for some of the information that helped lead to the raid. It’ll be interesting to see the aftermath in the years, and that despite the stigma that the place represented to the outside world, some parts of it proved to be useful to the security of the country. It’s hard to remember at times that there are elements that we don’t see, and it’ll be interesting to see the final cost vs. the benefit that we attained from it.

The wars in Afghanistan will continue on as well, although with the death of Bin Laden, I’m guessing that there will be a bit less support for the conflict, and its impact on global affairs will be interesting to see. The people who supported Bin Laden’s world view of a strict non-secular state ruled by his strict (and flawed) interpretation of Islam are still around and seeking to implement their views in various points around the world. Afghanistan is one place, where the country’s government allowed an attack on the United States from Bin Laden. However, the US presence in Afghanistan, and the United States’ role in world affairs should be reexamined to determine where force should be used. The core mission in Afghanistan was to depress the abilities of Al Qaida to the point where it is no longer a threat to the United States: that would seem to be further along today, but it’s far from over. Our efforts against the insurgency in Afghanistan should be evaluated, to determine whether they are a threat to the country, or to consider whether we’re changing the core mission to something far more different, which has grave consequences and implications for our stance in the world.

This feels less like a victory, and more like a stepping stone in what has turned into a long and terrible struggle. At points, it feels like we’ve lost our way, our focus and sight of what we’re out to do, but hopefully, this incident will remind us of the reasons why this happened in the first place. I for one, don’t want to think of the last ten years that helped to define the world as something of a wasted opportunity to learn and improve upon our future. If anything, hopefully the death of one evil individual will help to bring about a brighter tomorrow.

Afghanistan: America's Second Vietnam or its First Victory over Al Quida?

The second presentation in the Colby Symposium at Norwich University was titled 'Afghanistan: America's Second Vietnam or its First Victory over Al Qaida?', by Jack Segal. Segal is the Chief Political Advisor to the NATO Joint Force Command Commander, General Wolf Langheld. He is a distinguished figure, having served two tours in Vietnam with the 4th Infantry Division during the Tet Offensive and again with the 25th Infantry Division, where he earned the Bronze Star and Meritorious Service Medal. Since the war and subsequent education, he's held numerous posts in the US Diplomatic service, playing key roles in the negotiations with the Strategic Arms Reduction Talks between the US and the USSR, and was named the first US Consul General in central Russia in 1994 and became the Chief of Staff to the Under Secretary of State for Arms Control and International Security, Lynn Davis in 1995. Following that, he worked with the National Security Council at the White House as the director for Russia, Ukraine and Eurasia, and worked with the White House's Kosovo group. in 1999, he became the NSA Director for Non-Proliferation, and joined NATO in 2000. He is also a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the US National Defense University. To say that he's had a distinguished and important role in foreign affairs is a bit of an understatement.

His talk looked to the history of Afghanistan, and the roots of the conflict that we are currently in. He opened with a couple of comments about the present affairs: he noted that he always asks soldiers that he meets a question that his father asked him while he served in Vietnam: "Are you making any headway?".  When his father asked him in the 1960s, he said that he had sat on the question for a month while he tried to figure out the answer. He said that he's gotten a variety of responses from soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan. The war is complicated, he noted, politically, and geographically. One question he's fielded from politicians is that the Afghanistan border needs to be secured, to which he's replied that it's the equivalent of attempting to seal the US Border from Maine to Key West: it's a lot easier said than done.

Segal then turned to history, starting with the Buddha statues that had recently been destroyed by the Taliban, speaking to a long, troubled history with religious connotations. The statues were destroyed because they went against some of the tenents of Islam: deities aren't permitted to be represented in human form. It was an interesting example as to the lengths to which they will go to protect their faith.

Afghanistan was once part of the 'Great Game', between Persia, Russia and the United Kingdom, who went and divided up the country amongst themselves. The UK had extensive colonial interests in India, and were worried about the Russian ambitions in the region. In 1839, the first Anglo-Afghan war began at Ghazni, and while it had begun in favor of the British, by 1842, the entire British army, save for a single person, was massacred at the Khyber Pass. The UK attempted to invade twice more, with similar results, before the region was divided up politically by the major powers in the region, resulting in instability in the future. [As an aside, a good book on the British experiences in India and Afghanistan is Saul David's 'Victoria's Wars'.] The British relinquished control on August 19th, 1919. For part of the 20th century, the country went through several rulers, who made great changes in the nation, working to bring it out of isolation. The monarchy was abolished in 1973, and Afghanistan was declared a Republic.

Segal talked extensively about the Soviet invasion of 1979. On December 24th, the Soviet military deployed a large ground, air and special forces mission in the country, and installed their own Soviet-friendly leader. Thousands of people were killed under this regime. Over the next ten years, a million Afghans were killed, another 1 million internally displaced, and a further 3 million refugees. It was a major disruption to the country. The Soviet Union played out their interactions as a protection from the Mujahedeen, and sought to remove Islamist ties with the country, preferring their own atheistic model - an easy sell to the USSR. This created opportunity for enemies of the USSR: A good example is the events of Charlie Wilson's War, as the US began to funnel money and weapons into the country. At the start of the invasion, the US handed over around $1 million. By the end of the occupation 10 years later, that money ballooned to over a billion dollars.

During this time, Osama Bin Laden enters the picture in Afghanistan to help oppose the Soviet occupation and agenda: he attempted to create a holy war to kick them out. At the same time, Stinger missiles were introduced to help counter the tactical advantages that the Soviets had with their helicopters. They were wiped out, and soon, weren't able to fly. By 1989, over 16,000 Soviet soldiers were killed, a lot more wounded, and following the Soviet withdrawal, Afghanistan's Soviet placed leader, Najibullah, remained for three years before the country dissolved into Civil War, which lasted until 1996, when the Taliban game into power.

 Segal pointed out that Taliban is a plural term: the singular is Talib, which essentially means 'Student of Islam'. He noted that when we say that we're fighting 'The Taliban', it comes across that we're fighting the students of Islam, a mistake that has further molded their expectations of what we intend to do in the country. Around this same time, Osama Bin Laden has returned to the country with Al Qaida, after his citizenship was revoked by Saudi Arabia and he was kicked out of Sudan. He was welcomed by the Taliban government, and he began to set up training camps, training about a thousand people a month.

 In 2001, he helped to orchestrate the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, and US response was swift, with an invasion of Afghanistan by US Special Forces. (A note, Doug Stanton, who also presented at this Symposium, talked extensively about this) By 2004, the warlords were back in control of the country, but Taliban rule has resisted between 2002 and 2006. As of 2009, a number of new players have entered the field: businesses, criminal groups, religious groups, and so forth, resulting in a splintered country. Now retired General Stanley McCrystal issued a report in 2009, stating that the situation in Afghanistan was serious, under resourced and deteriorating. A major change in strategy would be needed to turn the war around. He proposed a population centric, regional strategy, although he and Karl Eikenberry were split on what to do. As of right now, 132,000 soldiers are in Afghanistan, while there's only around 100 Al Qaida in the country.

Segal noted that there are significant problems, and a disconnect in the nation's strategy towards the country. The original mission was to disrupt the operations of Al Qaida, not the Taliban, and that two concurrent strategies, counterterrorism and counterinsurgency don't necessarily work as well together at points.

He also told the group that the situation on the ground is incredibly complex, with a network of tribes, sub tribes and conflict between other groups throughout the country. There were situations where interpreters working on behalf of the US were from an enemy tribe during sensitive interactions, causing problems. Networking, Segal said, is important, and understanding the networks and the people is vital to the success of the Afghanistan mission. He noted that we're doing good things right now: building roads, and bridges, as well as a police and military force. However, money is becoming a problem, with the costs up to around $600 million a day.

A key element to understand in the country is that Islam plays a key role in how people live their lives. In 33 out of the 34 provinces in the country, the Taliban maintain a shadow government, and are able to provide what the people want: security, and adjudication of civil disputes: they are legitimate in the eyes of a lot of people, because it is so closely linked to their beliefs. Segal said early in the talk that the thing that he learned the most was how people in the 14th century lived: the mindset it similar, because of the extreme isolation of the country. At points, US troops were asked if they were Russian, because villagers simply didn't realize that the USSR had left.

This, coupled with a lack of clarity as to what the US is working to achieve, cause problems when working to conduct a war and to justify the costs and sacrifices in the country. When asked what the conditions of victory were, he simply stated that there was no victory: just success, a self-sufficient government that could stand on its own. This brings up some issues, especially when it's realized that neither side is willing to budge or compromise on their values: the subject of women’s rights is a particularly tough one, given how ingrained some of the beliefs are in the country: the people who believe what we believe exist, but aren't in the majority.

At the end of the day, Afghanistan is a country that has proved formidable throughout its history: both the United Kingdom and the Soviet Union were driven out after long, grueling wars with high numbers of casualties. While the US doesn't have to follow this same path, there's a number of things that need to be understood about the country's history, to avoid some of the things that caused problems before.

The first is to understand the complexity of the situation on the ground, and the extensive networks and social structure in Afghanistan. Uniting the country is difficult at best, with a plethora of rivalries and grudges from group to group. Along the same lines, it's important to understand and to not underestimate the importance of Islam in the culture. The Taliban are seen as legitimate because it is very similar to what the people believe, and that the Taliban is able to provide what they want in a government: security and social adjudication. These elements need to be included, because both sides seem to be unable and unwilling to change or compromise their beliefs.

The second element to understand is the mission itself: originally, it was to disrupt Al Qaida, and to prevent them from carrying out threats against the United States: however, with a ratio of over a thousand to one, this mission seems to require rethinking. When Segal asks soldiers what headway they've made, the answer is unclear, because people involved are unclear as to the mission and the overall objectives in the country: if it's to root out Al Qaida, that's one thing, but complete and utter nation building is another mission altogether, especially when one considers the complications involved with the current conflict in Libya, and the one winding down in Iraq.

The future is unclear for Afghanistan, and it will depend greatly upon the the changes in stance, strategy and attitude towards the ongoing operations in the country.

The Ground Zero Mosque

There has been controversy over the Islamic community center and mosque that has been approved in downtown Manhattan, near where the World Trade Centers once stood. Given the events that have transpired there almost a decade ago, it's certainly a project that was expected to gain a bit of attention. However, the conduct of elected, or otherwise public officials has been inexcusable, intolerant and misinformed as to the very nature of the war that the United States is currently engaged in.

People have been urged to protest and resist the introduction of the mosque and center because it represents an unnecessary provocation, and an insult to the survivors and families of those who have perished there, which is utter nonsense, and only highlights the ignorance of said officials and those willing to blindly follow them. The war abroad was most certainly begun by radical Islamic militants, acting in the interests of a foreign organization, which does elevate this conflict to a war, when two parties attempt to seek out some sort of political and practical gains by entering into hostilities. At the same time, such sentiments lump together the entirety of a global religion, of which these radical elements are only a small part.

As of 2009, it was believed that almost 23% of the global population identified themselves as Muslims, or about 1.57 billion people, across the globe, with a fifth living in countries where the religion is not a dominant one. Given the fairly localized nature of the fighting, with occasional strikes towards the western societies and the nature of the fighting, it's fairly clear that there is far more that characterizes this war than simply a lot of religious people getting really angry. The global war on terror is an incredibly complicated act against a specific number of political groups, who use their faith to guide them and provide some set of misguided reasoning to support their political beliefs.

Depending on which wartime theorist that you subscribe to, warfare is generally a political act on the behalf of one group against another, and from everything that I have seen over the past couple of years, that is exactly what some of the larger and more well known groups are doing, from Al Qaeda to the Taliban to Hezbollah. Even more worrisome is their ability to convince young Muslims, who come from a poorer, disenfranchised area of the world, to blow themselves up. It's a hell of a way to vent some misguided frustration and anger. It demonstrates incredibly poor government and leadership in those areas, where problems are directed elsewhere, and not addressed at their source.

The source of the World Trade Center destruction was Al Qaeda, not the people who want to build a community. I suspect that Palin's words are deliberately inflammatory, designed to gain as much attention as possible, for the political beliefs of her own personal self, and that of her party, seeking to gain approval from the anger of those who don't comprehend the differences between political terrorism and a religious community. To be sure, this religious community does harbor some very bad people, some angry people, and people looking for direction, which makes it prime for recruiting for overseas terrorist groups. But, one must also take into account the real anger and violence that boils up elsewhere, either singularly or in larger groups. There have been several attacks against federal authorities over the past year from angry people, but there is a discrepancy between the reactions taken in each case.

The real anger and action for the 9-11 attacks must be taken against those responsible, while we must all take the time to fully understand the nature of the conflict that is brewing around us, rather than blindly following misguided chatter from those who seek power, on both sides.

The Afghanistan Push

This afternoon, on the way home from work, I listened to a report from Afghanistan, and the current ongoing push on the part of coalition forces to begin removing the Taliban and other militant forces from power. As I've studied military history, I've read much when it comes to the analysis, and firsthand accounts from other wars: other Afghanistan wars, The Civil War, the First and Second World Wars, the Falklands, and others, but I don't know if anything that I've read struck me as much as what the reporter on National Public Radio revealed earlier today. Nothing from our first entry into the country, and the entire invasion of Iraq seemed to go over so smoothly, it barely registered as war for me. It wasn't until after that the situation began to sink in. This report struck me, hard, as to the nature of the fighting over there, on all aspects. The war has always been extremely real throughout my recollection of it, but for the first time, I realized just how those long lost wittnesses to events since past felt as they watched.

It's a startling revelation, and I have to wonder if the continual coverage of the fighting, from the news on the Internet to the television to the newspaper is really such a good thing. I feel jaded, cynical to world events, where I was far more optimistic.

Today, We Watched the Sky Fall

There is something that's been bothering me on this day, and it's something that I've noticed happening for a couple years now: "Remember 9-11!"

This year, I've been seeing more and more of this, people pouring out a simple one or two sentences, sometimes all in caps, reminding me that I need to remember the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and the thwarted attack on United 93. As if I could forget. The events of September 11 will likely remain with me for the rest of my life - I can remember that day as clearly as I remember last week, and in the ensuing eight years, it has changed our world far more than any event that I can remember.

These simple status messages just don't cut it for me. I'm sorry, but from where I'm sitting, status messages are more about the person than anything else, and I've always seen these sort of messages as a simple reaffirmation that whichever person posts something like this, they want everyone else to see that they remember the day, that I'm honoring their memory in the maximum 140 characters and that with that out of the way, I can resume the next 364 days without issue.

What a fucking shallow thing to do.

September 11th was an incredibly complicated and vile act. Just under 3,000 people have died as a result of the attacks, either as passengers on the airplanes, bystanders or rescue personnel. The attacks were planned well in advance by Al Queda, and those plans were spurred on by larger actions on the part of many individuals and nations. In turn, it has unleashed some of the absolute best and some of the absolute worst this nation has to offer upon the world.

I am saddened by what happened. I remember the absolute horror that registered while I watched online as the news poured in. I remember the confusion and the terror of the unknown, wondering if another airplane would come down somewhere else. I can remember the smoke rising and the countless pictures that poured in. It's something that I don't think that I could forget if I wanted to. In the meantime, we have launched two major conflicts around the world, changed legislation, opened prisons and distrust anyone with a water bottle on an airplane. Every single one is a pointed reminder of what happened eight years ago. I can't forget, and I refuse to simply honor those who died on one single day. They deserve better, especially in this nation with such a short attention span.

We are reminded every day that something terrible happened, and I am so tired of being told to support the soldiers overseas, otherwise I'm unpatriotic, I'm tired of the idea that any opinion that differs from the larger public consciousness is nothing short of treason in some people's eyes, I'm tired of the polarization that has infected this country and I'm tired of 9-11 and the memory of those innocent people being used, manipulated into serving an administration's agenda. I'm tired that despite all of the remembering that is going on, we've largely forgotten why we're in the situations that we're in today.

Today, we watched the skies fall and change the world. I'll never forget that.