It is all but forgotten now that the Taliban publicly condemned the September 11 terrorist attacks. And just as the United States flicked on the war machine to invade Afghanistan, they offered up Osama bin Laden in exchange for evidence of his guilt. According to Pashtunwali, which provides the traditional Pashtun laws of hospitality, the Afghans were compelled to protect him.
Americans are more familiar with this culture than they might realize. The same custom of hospitality that shielded bin Laden was what tribesmen invoked to protect Marcus Luttrell after militants wiped out his SEAL team in the Kunar Province. As the lone survivor of Operation Red Wings in 2005, Afghan villagers refused to surrender Luttrell, a stranger, to enemy fighters despite death threats. They would rather die before that dishonor. “Life among the Pashtuns is demanding—it depends on the respect of your peers, relatives, and allies,” the former SEAL wrote in his memoir. “Only the tribe’s principles of honor stand in the way of anarchy.”
Now, in the strange course of history, Middle Americans are standing in the shoes that those Afghans were then, confronting a totalizing regime intent on remaking all in its image. The security state that exploded during the War on Terror has turned fully on domestic political dissidents. Capitol Police are fanning out across the country, deploying domestically the same surveillance technology first used by troops to monitor insurgents in Iraq and Afghanistan. Arne Duncan, Barack Obama’s secretary of education, has likened those who choose not to wear masks or take the COVID-19 vaccine to suicide bombers. Lincoln Project co-founder Steve Schmidt and political analyst Matthew Dowd, two Bushies, agree: the January 6 Capitol riot was worse than 9/11.
How did we get here?
September 11 was an atrocity that, in time, the regime reduced to a mere symbol denuded of its significance as an attack on the flesh and blood nation.
At first, it justified our invasion of Afghanistan: we went there to avenge the dead, all the dearly departed of that day. The Taliban were swiftly defeated and begging for peace by November 2001. But righteous vengeance turned to hubris and gave way to the kind of nation-building project President George W. Bush initially said he would never undertake. That shift effectively abstracted 9/11 from Ground Zero, from the victims, survivors, and heroes. We were no longer fighting for a real people and place but for an idea, the universal homogeneous state that rests at the end of history. We had to not only fight them but rebuild them.
“We had liberated the country from a primitive dictatorship, and we had a moral obligation to leave behind something better,” Bush wrote retrospectively. “We also had a strategic interest in helping the Afghan people build a free society,” because supposedly only that would prevent another attack. Of course, it didn’t, and virtually every subsequent jihadist attack on our soil since 2001 resulted from flawed immigration policies. Still, Americans were asked to pay with their blood for this new “free society,” and who paid the most was significant.
By 2005, Pentagon statistics showed that the American soldiers maimed and killed for our nation-building wars were disproportionately members of public enemy number one: white, working-classmen, mainly in their 20s. “They are largely from the South or small towns and cities such as Bedford, Mass., and Gypsum, Colo., distant from the nation’s political, cultural, academic and media centers,” the Baltimore Sun noted. Texas-born Marcus Luttrell was one of these when he found himself shipped off to Afghanistan. Southerners remain overrepresented in the military, and there is not a little irony in the fact that they serve a regime currently vilifying and eradicating all remnants of their culture with far more eagerness than it dismissed Pashtunwali customs.
On the eve of Georgia’s gubernatorial election in 2018, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, “American voters can do to white nationalists what they fear most. Show them they’re being replaced.” By “white nationalists,” Goldberg really just meant the kind of white, working-class Southerners who fought and died for “a democratic Afghanistan,” only to have journalists back home call to have them “replaced.”
U.S. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) agreed with the sentiment. Southern states, she said, “are not red states, they are suppressed states” needing “actual liberation.” Nor are Republicans much better. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) backed efforts to rename military installations carrying Confederate names. Is this worth dying for?
The new War on Terror, of course, isn’t limited to the South. The regime that hatched it recognizes no geographical boundaries, no legitimate culture but its own supposedly universal faith and values. “And yet, if Haji can endure the Leviathan and win, so can we,” as one veteran put it. But the first step toward beating the regime is seeing clearly that it is as hostile toward the way of life of Americans as it is to the way of Afghans.