Deputy National Security Adviser for Strategic Communications and Speechwriting Ben Rhodes is accompanied by Deputy Press Secretary Eric Schultz at a press briefing at Martha's Vineyard

The post-9/11 generation ‘came to understand the limits of what America could accomplish,’ former Obama adviser says

For former Obama adviser Ben Rhodes, 9/11 was a life-changing event. Rhodes joined The World’s host Marco Werman to talk about the last 20 years since 9/11, and about his perspective on the end of the US mission in Afghanistan.

The World

For Ben Rhodes, like for so many others, 9/11 was a life-changing event. At the time, Rhodes was a graduate student in New York, studying creative writing, but soon after, he went down to Washington and became a speechwriter and deputy national security adviser for strategic communications in the Obama White House.

His new book is called “After the Fall: Being American in the World We’ve Made.” 

Related: NYU chaplain calls for a ‘true pursuit of empathy’ to heal after 9/11

Rhodes joined The World’s host Marco Werman to talk about the last 20 years since 9/11, and about his perspective on the end of the US mission in Afghanistan.

Marco Werman: Ben, let’s start 20 years ago. Where were you on Sept. 11?
Ben Rhodes: I was 24 years old. I was working on a city council campaign in New York City, while I was a graduate student. I was at a polling site on the Brooklyn waterfront because that was Election Day. And so, I ended up having a kind of unobstructed view across the river of the attacks. I didn’t see the first plane hit, but we all started staring up at the World Trade Center and watching this billowing black smoke come out of it, not knowing what was going on. And while we’re staring at it, I see the second plane curve around and plow into the tower. And for me, that was the moment when everything I was doing in my life changed. And I just had a feeling that everything I was going to do after that was going to be somehow connected to the response to these events.
Just one month after 9/11, President George W. Bush, of course, started the war in Afghanistan. Can you briefly take us through the arc of that war, its purpose in the beginning and its end in the last days?
Yeah, so it was interesting to me to reflect on this after 20 years, because as a 24-year-old New Yorker, when we went into Afghanistan, my presumption was, we were going there to get the people who did 9/11. And when I look back at the arc, you know, what happens is, we go into Afghanistan, we topple the Taliban, we put al-Qaeda on the run. We don’t finish them off. Bin Laden escapes into Pakistan. And around that time, the US government kind of shifts its attention in Afghanistan to nation-building, and the Taliban begins to regenerate and begins to turn into an insurgency. And by the time we came into government in 2009, in the Obama administration, you had a situation where the Taliban was showing itself to be resilient. And so, in 2009, you have a surge of forces. I do think between the years of 2009 and 2011, you see the kind of biggest successes in degrading al-Qaeda, but largely in Pakistan. And that culminates in the operation to take out Osama bin Laden in 2011. And then there’s a period of time in which the United States is beginning to draw down its forces in Afghanistan, and try to transition to Afghan security forces. For several years, the Afghan security forces are in the fight, and they lost 70,000 troops in the fight against the Taliban. But over that time, they’re steadily losing ground. And then Donald Trump initially surges a bit before kind of taking a sharp turn in the other direction, cutting a deal with the Taliban in 2020, in which he essentially agrees to withdraw US forces in exchange for a promise from the Taliban to not shoot at us. But they continue, obviously, to fight the Afghan government and security forces. And Joe Biden comes into office and decides that he’s going to complete the withdrawal by the Sept. 11 anniversary this year. And when he does that, you have a collapse of the Afghan government security forces and a more resilient Taliban adversary obviously rolls into Kabul. And here we are.
That was a very thorough arc. Let’s go back and talk about the surge. When your boss, Barack Obama, was president, there was an internal debate over what we know now is a surge. Then-Vice President Biden was against the surge. What can you tell us about these internal debates and the thinking at the time?
At the time, the military, essentially, is kind of turning its attention from Iraq to Afghanistan. They basically recommend to Obama that he pursue a counterinsurgency strategy in Afghanistan, along the lines of what they had done in the surge in Iraq. Obama was skeptical of this. He saw an enormous expenditure of resources that would go along with it, obviously huge risks to American troops, and a kind of unsolvable problem of a resilient Taliban that also had some safe-haven in Pakistan. But Joe Biden at the table, he was the one person who said that he was against this, just dead-set against it, that frankly, we couldn’t nation-build in Afghanistan, it wouldn’t succeed and that we should only think of Afghanistan in terms of finishing the counterterrorism mission against al-Qaeda. And that put him sharply at odds with the military. And there were some tense meetings there.

Related: Afghanistan: Two decades of war and daily life in photos 

As you say, the debates around that surge were sharp. What did that debate represent, though, in a larger sense — America’s role in the Middle East, and in the world?
Well, I think that the assumption undergirding the military’s recommendation was that it was possible for the United States to essentially defeat the Taliban and stabilize Afghanistan, and construct an Afghan government and security force. And so, I think what this whole debate is about is, can the United States remake other countries with our military? And look, I think that part of what we have to recognize is the degree to which a lot of the assumptions that we embrace as a country at the very beginning, right, in 2001, 2002, that we could build governments in Iraq and Afghanistan — that’s what the US government set out to do. And it’s a very hard thing to turn that machinery around.

Related: Taliban names all-male 33-member interim government in Afghanistan 

With the benefit of hindsight, what decisions did the Obama administration make in Afghanistan that you would redo?
Well, I think that the principle one is to have a smaller surge. The scale of that escalation in 2009, measured against, obviously, what it ended up achieving, doesn’t seem necessary. Because the counterterrorism successes did not require, I believe, in retrospect, 100,000 troops. That’s the first one. And then I think there’s just the question of whether or not there was a better deal with the Taliban that could have been accomplished at some point than what Trump ended up doing, because Trump’s deal was essentially like, we’re getting out, and Trump cut the Afghan government out of that deal. And that, to me, was the fundamental flaw, is to say the US is negotiating its withdrawal — not with the Afghan government — but with the Taliban. And so, I think the great unknown is whether or not, at a different point, there could have been a better deal that led to a more orderly withdrawal, and perhaps some kind of government that brought in the Taliban, but also integrated elements of of the Afghan government, as it was.
All of this does lead us to some bigger questions, especially on the anniversary of 9/11. You often talk about being part of the 9/11 generation. What defines your generation, like, its worldview?
I think the worldview is that it’s a generation that came of age politically, largely after the Cold War. So, we didn’t have that organizing framework for how to think about America’s role in the world. And when you have this massive event where you realize that history is not over, globalization is not inevitable, there was a generation of people that wanted to be a part of that post-9/11 response. I think part of what’s so complicated is the period of time from 9/11 to the invasion of Iraq, that’s when a lot of these decisions were made, to nation-build in Afghanistan, to invade Iraq, the Patriot Act, the establishment of Guantanamo, all these things that we’ve basically been responding to since. And I think the 9/11 generation is a generation of people that, because we dealt with the aftermath of those policies, came to understand the limits of what America could accomplish in the post-9/11 period, particularly militarily. America does have a really important role to play in the world and a lot of people around the world look to the United States for various things in various ways. But we have to balance the necessity of America, I think, playing a significant role in the world, against America not being overextended in ways that undermine our capacity to deal with the next generation of challenges: climate change, technology, the recession of democracy around the world. We cannot deal with those things if we’re fighting forever-wars in multiple countries. And I think that’s where the 9/11 generation is headed.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 

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