Deborah Daniels: Leaving Afghanistan after 20 years is concerning

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Deborah DanielsI remember Sept. 11, 2001, almost as though it were yesterday.

I was in Washington, D.C., having just moved into an apartment where I would live during the week as I started my job as assistant attorney general at the U.S. Department of Justice. It was a beautiful fall day, sunny and without a cloud in a deep blue sky.

Shortly before 10 a.m., as I was boarding a plane at Reagan National Airport, I saw an image on a TV screen in the airport of two tall towers, both on fire. As I handed my boarding pass to the gate agent, I looked past her and saw a cloud of black smoke billowing up from the Pentagon.

The flight never left Washington. We were ordered off the plane and out of the airport but given no information as to why. Rumors spread of a bomb exploding at the State Department, additional rogue planes in the sky, a possible chemical attack.

The atmosphere in the nation’s capital immediately and profoundly changed. I made it back to my nearby apartment but froze every time I heard a plane flying nearby. It turned out that, by then, all commercial planes were downed and I was hearing fighter jets protecting the city.

For months afterward, tanks with surface-to-air missiles were parked outside the Pentagon, within full view of the highway. There were several other instances during that year when a threat caused another panicked evacuation of the White House or the Capitol. Someone started mailing envelopes containing deadly anthrax spores to public offices. In the immediate wake of the 9/11 attacks, it seemed that multiple foreign agents were focused on destroying the United States in any way they could.

By Sept. 14, the FBI had identified and released the names of the 19 hijackers, all from the Middle East. Soon thereafter, the al-Qaida plot years in the making to attack the United States was revealed. Al-Qaida had been provided sanctuary in Afghanistan, at that point controlled by the Taliban.

There was ample justification to fear that further attacks would take place if the U.S. and multiple allies did not take immediate steps to rout al-Qaida and its patrons. It is a tribute to the FBI, the CIA and the Defense Department, as well as many alert citizens, that our country has remained protected from similar attacks for 20 years.

I revive these memories in order to remind us of what led to the invasion of Afghanistan in 2001 and what led successive presidents to maintain a military presence there these past 20 years—much as we have maintained a military presence in Europe, South Korea and other parts of Asia for far longer.

In an Aug. 26 column in The Washington Post, Robert Kagan said, “We live history forward, in the chaos of onrushing events. … But we judge history backward, smugly armed with the knowledge of what did happen and uninterested in what might have happened.”

Our collective lack of long-term memory, and our tendency to ascribe ulterior motives to former government officials based on today’s comfort level rather than yesterday’s uncertainty, sense of responsibility and fear for the safety of our citizens in a time of crisis, time and again leads us to be critical of those who acted to protect us then, and to be heedless of the danger that might ensue from severing ties now—whether to NATO, South Korea or the former Afghan government.

I, for one, am very concerned about the next chapter.•


Daniels, an attorney with Krieg DeVault LLP, is a former U.S. attorney, assistant U.S. attorney general, and president of the Sagamore Institute. Send comments to

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3 thoughts on “Deborah Daniels: Leaving Afghanistan after 20 years is concerning

  1. Deborah,

    I was e-mailing with your brother when the plane went down in PA. He was in the White House still. I was letting him
    know what was going on. Finally I said “Mitch time to get the hell out of the White House”!

    I agree as it’s not as much about protecting them as it is keeping terrorists in check and out of the US!
    I agree with you assessment on the next chapter!