For Biden and the United States, 9/11 anniversary offers a grim symmetry

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Earlier this year, President Biden chose to layer a deeper symbolism on top of the 20th anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. He chose Sept. 11 as the initial deadline for his plan to finally withdraw all U.S. forces in Afghanistan. In the months thereafter, the departure of U.S. troops prefigured the stunning collapse in August of the Afghan government and its U.S.-trained and U.S.-equipped military, which took the White House somewhat by surprise. Biden had to preside over a messy, desperate final evacuation as the Taliban, chased out of power two decades ago, seized Kabul once again.

On Sept. 11, a subdued and somber Biden participated in commemorations at the three different sites in New York City, Northern Virginia and rural Pennsylvania where planes seized by al-Qaeda terrorists crashed 20 years ago. He delivered no formal remarks at the events, mingling instead with relatives of those who perished in the attacks, while issuing a video message the day before in which he reprised his long-accustomed role — as my colleague Seung Min Kim noted — of “consoler-in-chief.”

The Taliban made a more pointed statement Saturday. At a morning ceremony, the group raised its white banner with the Shahada, or Islamic “testimony,” written across it above the presidential palace in Kabul. “The Taliban did not issue a formal statement on the anniversary of the al-Qaeda terrorist attacks that preluded them being driven from power 20 years earlier,” my colleagues wrote. “But the image of the flag served as another reminder of the militant group’s stunning return after two decades of fighting U.S.-led forces.”

Separately, al-Qaeda released a video on Sept. 11 featuring a taped message from leader Ayman al-Zawahiri. The former deputy of Osama bin Laden has been rumored to be dead — and may well be, but in his message he appeared to refer to events in Syria early this year as well. The extremist organization provoked the U.S. invasion in 2001 and was smoked out of its sanctuary and camps there, but it remains a threat from Central Asia to North Africa.

The painful redux facing a generation of American policymakers comes in various forms. The al-Qaeda strikes on the United States 20 years ago were preceded by the assassination of legendary mujahideen and anti-Taliban commander Ahmed Shah Massoud. In 2001, U.S. forces seized Kabul from the Taliban with the backing of fighters from the late Massoud’s Northern Alliance. Now, his son, whose forces briefly resisted the Taliban advance, is on the run and Massoud’s tomb in the Panjshir valley was reportedly desecrated by Taliban militants.

In Kabul, the Taliban appeared to be restoring an updated version of the draconian, fundamentalist rule that characterized its previous spell in power. The group instructed female employees in most ministries not to return to work, while mandating Islamic dress and segregation for women attending universities. Further erosions of women’s rights are expected to follow under a new caretaker Taliban cabinet that is made up entirely of men and includes a rogue’s gallery of militant commanders and designated terrorists.

Chief among them is Sirajuddin Haqqani, whose father and his network were once key CIA-backed players in the struggle against the Soviet Union. Haqqani is known for his ties to al-Qaeda and has a $5 million bounty on his head from the FBI for his role in at least one Kabul bombing and a number of other Taliban-orchestrated plots. He was appointed Afghanistan’s new acting interior minister — the country’s chief law enforcement official. Other members of the Haqqani network, which the State Department has designated a terrorist organization, are also in prime positions of power, including the country’s acting minister of higher education.

For now, myriad women across the country have taken to the streets to oppose the Taliban’s infringements of their rights, which a generation of Afghans grew up with following the American invasion. But those public displays of dissent may be coming to an end amid the threat of Taliban crackdowns. “Protesting and advocating had turned into a hobby and fun activity” under Afghanistan’s previous government, Karima Shujazada, a 26-year-old protester in the city of Mazar-e Sharif, told my colleagues. “In the past, I was sure that I would return home safely. Now, when I go out to protest, I don’t know if I will get detained, beaten up or killed.”

On Saturday, Biden waved away concerns over his handling of the Afghanistan withdrawal. In response to reporters, he pointed to a recent Washington Post poll that showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans still supported pulling troops out of the country, even if many didn’t approve of the way the withdrawal was conducted. He asked rhetorically whether it makes sense for the United States to invade every nation where extremist groups like al-Qaeda have a presence.

Although the Biden administration has decried the lack of “inclusivity” in the emerging Taliban government, it is cagily moving forward. Last week, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told reporters that “we have and we will find ways to engage the Taliban, the interim government, a future government” for what he described as “purposes of advancing the national interest, our national interest and that of our partners.”

“It’s a pretty difficult spot for the Biden administration,” Colin P. Clarke, director of policy and research at the Soufan Group, an intelligence and security consulting firm, told my colleague Sudarsan Raghavan. “If you deal with the Taliban in these confines, you are essentially dealing with a terrorist group or members of a terrorist organization. And if you don’t, you have no leverage and no influence to control events in Afghanistan.”

The Taliban has objected to the United States and the United Nations keeping figures like Haqqani on sanctioned “blacklists,” which the militant group believes is in violation of the spirit of earlier agreements forged with the Trump administration in Doha, Qatar.

“That America and other countries are making such provocative statements and trying to meddle in the internal affairs of Afghanistan, the Islamic Emirate condemns it in the strongest terms,” the Taliban said in a statement. “Such remarks by U.S. officials are a repetition of past failed experiments and such positions are detrimental for America.”

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