Bin Laden’s Error

Almost 20 years since 9/11, what have al Qaeda’s deadly attacks produced?

The opposite of what Osama bin Laden intended, Nelly Lahoud writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, calling 9/11 “a severe miscalculation” by the terrorist leader.

Based on bin Laden’s own documents and communications—seized from his compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan after his assassination by US Navy SEALs—Lahoud writes that “bin Laden never anticipated that the United States would go to war in response to the assault[s]” on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. “Indeed, he predicted that in the wake of the attack, the American people would take to the streets, replicating the protests against the Vietnam War and calling on their government to withdraw from Muslim-majority countries. Instead, Americans rallied behind U.S. President George W. Bush and his ‘war on terror.’ In October 2001, when a U.S.-led coalition invaded Afghanistan to hunt down al Qaeda and dislodge the Taliban regime, which had hosted the terrorist group since 1996, bin Laden had no plan to secure his organization’s survival.”

After 9/11, bin Laden was driven into hiding, unable to communicate with the second tier of al Qaeda’s leaders. The organization fell into dysfunction, lost control over its affiliates, and was eventually “eclipsed” in full by ISIS as the world’s foremost terrorist group.

For all the terror that terrorism has wrought since 9/11, Lahoud depicts a decline up to the present moment, with a “divided” landscape of jihadi groups less capable of major attacks and lacking unity under a prominent banner. (At the same magazine, Shadi Hamid notes another element of 9/11’s aftermath that, incidentally, ran counter to bin Laden’s goals: Autocracy flourished over Islamism in the Middle East, as the US sought allies in its “war on terror.”)

Not everyone agrees that bin Laden failed. His stated goal of driving the US and Israel from Muslim lands—and of uniting the Muslim community against them—has gone unaccomplished, but as William A. Galston writes for American Purpose, America was indeed knocked off balance. That the US is now “weaker, more divided, and less respected than it was two decades ago” is, however, due to America’s own choices after 9/11, not to prescience by bin Laden or his ilk, as Galston argues it.

What Covid-19 Took From Students

Much about education will have to change in response to the pandemic, former US Education Secretary Arne Duncan told Fareed in his recent special, “The Post-Covid-19 World”—from a move to hybridizing in-person and online learning, to the potential end of summer breaks.

At The New York Times Magazine, Emily Bazelon probes what was lost and some of the shifts that may lie ahead. A panel of practitioners tells her that one of Covid-19’s biggest impacts was felt in students’ mental health. (“I hear from primary-care doctors who saw kids with no history of any mental-health issues who were exhibiting repetitive behaviors, not just hand-washing, but also chewing their clothes or fingernails or rocking back and forth,” Jenny Radesky, a behavioral pediatrician, tells Bazelon.) Therapists are in high demand. Recovering “lost” students who never showed up or enrolled has demanded mountains of work. About $190 billion in federal funding, allocated by Congress, is a good step, but it doesn’t cover the gap in student-hours lost. Intensive tutoring can help, but while some of Bazelon’s interviewees are hopeful, teachers are worn out, and the challenge is a massive one.

A Call for Humility in Afghanistan Punditry

While the Global Briefing was away, noted political theorist Francis Fukuyama shared some thoughts on the public discussion of Afghanistan, calling for humility among commentators.

“There are many things to legitimately complain about, particularly the Biden Administration’s failure to anticipate and plan against a rapid regime collapse, and [US President Joe] Biden’s own efforts to blame everyone else, including the Afghans themselves, for this debacle,” Fukuyama wrote for American Purpose, the publication he leads, on Aug. 31. “But there are many commentators who have not spent more then [sic] five minutes thinking about Afghanistan over the last 20 years, who are now declaring that the whole American effort to stabilize the country was obviously doomed from the start, or that successive administrations knew our project there was hopeless and simply lied to the American people about its prospects. As usual, the truth was much more complicated than this.”

The US could have pursued a more limited goal of achieving “good enough” governance in Afghanistan, rather than liberal democracy, Fukuyama writes, noting debate over the years as to whether that might work. But, he concludes, “I don’t believe that I have enough information to make a firm judgment at this point, nor do most of the instant pundits weighing in on this subject in the last few days.”

Must Pandemic Travel Be a Debacle?

No, according to Lionel Laurent and Sam Fazeli, who lament contradictory travel requirements in a Bloomberg column. “Although many governments have eased restrictions on movement at home, since recognizing the evidence that vaccines protect against severe forms of Covid, travel curbs appear to be preserved in cement,” they write—noting, for instance, that French travelers are banned from entering the US and must quarantine upon arriving in the UK, despite both countries having higher infection rates than France.

To fix things, the World Health Organization could “harmonize competing definitions of ‘full vaccination,’” and countries could focus more intently on travelers’ vaccination status when setting border policies, Laurent and Fazeli suggest.

Insights, analysis and must reads from CNN’s Fareed Zakaria and the Global Public Square team, compiled by Global Briefing editor Chris Good

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