I was a college student at the University of the Philippines when the United States was struck by a series of acts of terrorism on September 11, 2001. As my college friends and I were having dinner, live footage of the burning twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City after each of them were struck by an airliner was being shown on television, with people running away from the area and the buildings eventually collapsing. Later news reports came in, saying that the Pentagon, the massive Arlington, Virginia headquarters of the US Department of Defense and the US Armed Forces, was also struck by an airliner, causing a section of it to catch fire. Another airliner crashed in a sparsely-populated region of the US state of Pennsylvania after taking off from Washington, DC.
With thousands of people killed, it was later revealed that what happened back then were acts of terrorism because of the seemingly coordinated and choreographed way that the airliners were utilized as bombs. American authorities revealed that Saudi nationals linked to Osama Bin Laden, a Saudi millionaire who was the leader of Al Qaeda, a global terrorist organization hijacked the airliners and flew them to specific targets in New York and Arlington, Virginia while the airplane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania was supposed to strike another major Washington, DC area target. Bin Laden was immediately named as the mastermind of the terrorist attacks on US soil, with the Americans accusing the Taliban, a religious fundamentalist group that controlled much of Afghanistan and imposed overly strict interpretation of the Muslim Sharia Law over Afghans, especially women, of harboring him.
The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks were used as justification by the United States Government in planning and executing the invasion of Afghanistan, with the help of its allies in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). The Americans and their allies, backed by their powerful and high-tech weapons and equipment, and well-trained and well-equipped armed forces, got into Afghanistan and ousted the Taliban from power, with them first supporting a provisional government before backing a new leader in Hamid Karzai. While Afghanistan continued to be occupied and the country was being prepared for the route towards having a Western-style “democracy” and military, the hunt for Osama Bin Laden continued, with the Americans eventually finding and killing him not in Afghanistan but in a mountainous region of neighboring Pakistan.
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After 20 years, countless American and non-American military and non-military, and Afghan civilian and combatant lives lost, and US$2 trillion spent on both the war and supporting the Afghan government and military, the United States and its allies decided to slowly but surely pull out of Afghanistan, leaving the administration and destiny of the country completely at the hands of the Afghans. America’s NATO allies were the first ones to gradually withdraw from Afghanistan. The United States, being the country with the most number of troops and assets on the ground, planned to do a phased withdrawal, with the Americans believing that the Afghans were ready for the future on their own since their government and military were well-prepared after years of preparation and support, and trillions of US dollars invested to make it possible.
However, the United States and its NATO allies did not completely crush the Taliban. With its wounds healed after the beating that it got from its Afghan rivals and their foreigner allies, the Taliban consolidated its forces and slowly regained lost territory while also secretly conducting meetings with the Americans and other foreign occupying forces. Taliban representatives even reached out to the side of then Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to explore the possibility of forming a coalition government, which Ghani firmly rejected. As the Americans and their NATO allies finally made it clear that they would pull out from Afghanistan, the Taliban took its chance and started its sweep across the country.
In a matter of weeks, the Taliban took control of almost the entirety of Afghanistan, taking key cities and provinces with little or no resistance from members of the Western-backed and -equipped Afghan military and police. Within several days, the Taliban reached the outskirts of the capital, Kabul, causing Ghani to flee to Tajikistan and other Afghan officials fled to other countries and to still non-Taliban-controlled portions of the country. The quick turn of the events forced the United States and its NATO allies to suddenly change course, bringing back their own troops, this time to evacuate their embassies and their nationals out of Afghanistan as quickly as possible in scenes that were a reminder of American military helicopters evacuating Americans and South Vietnamese nationals from the rooftop of the United States Embassy in Saigon (present-day Ho Chi Minh City).
Taliban forces finally entered Kabul and occupied the presidential palace. For them, they began reaching it to the rest of the world, projecting a seemingly “reformed moderate” image while promising the protect the rights of Afghans, especially women, while “operating within Sharia law.” This did not calm down ordinary Afghans, many of whom went to the Kabul Airport in hopes of catching a flight out of the country or tried to cross border crossings towards Pakistan and other neighboring countries to flee for their lives. Images of people desperately trying to cling onto and eventually falling to their deaths from American C-17 military transport aircraft carrying US nationals were shown on televisions, computers and mobile phones worldwide, painting what seems to be a total breakdown of order in Afghanistan after 20 years of occupation by the United States and its NATO allies and a doom-and-gloom scenario of uncertainty for the country and the region as the Taliban returns to power.
I do agree with the idea of the United States and its NATO allies pulling out of Afghanistan after being there for 20 years. To start with, they should not be in that country or have entered that country at all despite what happened on September 11, 2001. Second, the people of Afghanistan should be able to determine the fate of their country and society without the intervention of outsiders. Third, the lives of many American and NATO soldiers were sacrificed unnecessarily for a war that their countries should not have launched or got involved into at all, especially with the United states and its NATO allies entering a country without having a full understanding of its geography, culture and realities on the ground, which is perhaps the reason why the Taliban is still standing and has returned to power after 20 years.
However, the United States and its NATO allies, with their decision to move into Afghanistan, gave their commitment to the Afghan people and the Afghan government to help rebuild their country, military and society. Maybe the Afghans themselves can be faulted for depending on Westerners too much, especially for rebuilding their military and infrastructure. However, the Afghans would not have done so if there seemed to be no commitment to them coming from the Westerners, even if US President Joe Biden, in his most recent speech, said that the United States “never intended to do nation-building work” in Afghanistan.
Some may think that the consequences of the pullout of the United States and its NATO allies from Afghanistan, especially the country being taken over once again by the Taliban, are limited to Afghanistan and its adjacent countries. That is not really the case, as the move by the Americans would put into question their commitment to the Philippines, Taiwan, Japan, South Korea and other allied countries.
For instance, American officials, invoking, among many things, the 1951 Philippine-US Mutual Defense Treaty, have repeatedly expressed their commitment to “help defend” the Philippines against China in case conflict in the South China Sea arises without actually giving any specifics unlike the commitment that they gave to the Japanese, South Koreans and Taiwanese. The pro-American Filipinos tend to perceive this something that the Americans are going to honor. The current Afghanistan situation put that United States commitment to the Philippines in question since the Americans themselves pulled out from Afghanistan and Biden himself said that they “never intended to do nation-building” in that country in sharp contrast to the expectations set by their Afghan counterparts. It is now a fatal mistake for the Philippines and Filipinos to even have the perception that the Americans are going to become their “knight in shining armor” once a military conflict arises given the conduct of the United States in Afghanistan.
What is happening in Afghanistan now should be a reality check to the Philippines and Filipinos in the sense that the Philippines and Filipinos have no one else but themselves to depend on when it comes to defending the country and its interests. This is exactly the reason why President Rodrigo Duterte is pursuing an independent foreign policy by being friends with everybody, from fellow Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) countries to the United States to the European nations to other Asian powers such as Japan, South Korea, Pakistan and India to Israel and the Middle Eastern countries to non-traditional allies such as China and Russia. Some may call it “fence-sitting” or, as what members of the political opposition, the Jose Maria Sison-led Far Left individuals and groups, and “wokes” brand it, “being a sellout to China” but an independent foreign policy is a pragmatic approach by Duterte and the Philippines to get what it wants politically, economically and militarily without getting deeply involved with only one side of the geopolitical pole or even engaging in a political or, worse, military conflict with another country. Duterte seems to have seen in advance what is happening to Afghanistan right now, hence his decision to pursue a pragmatic approach towards Philippine foreign policy upon assuming office.
The Philippines can avoid becoming an Afghanistan because there are measures in place to prevent it from happening. One is the Anti-Terrorism Law, which is a remedy against the rise of possible activities that may perpetrated by extremists and religious fundamentalists, as what almost happened during the Marawi Crisis from several years ago. The other is the current independent foreign policy which protects the Philippines and Filipinos from the serious consequences of failed alliances or the non-fulfillment of commitments made by the United States or any country. The fourth is having a pragmatic leader in Rodrigo Duterte, who was able to come up with the right political moves, especially in the conduct of the nation’s foreign policy, because he is not beholden to any local or foreign power or any ideology.
Agricultural Economist. Communicator. Commentator. Contented dog parent.