Season 2, Episode 1 - Lecturer and Global Studies director Saeed Khan on the 20th anniversary of 9/11

Saeed Khan, lecturer and director of Global Studies at Wayne State, joins host Darrell Dawsey to discuss the 20th anniversary of 9/11 and the end of the war in Afghanistan.

Episode Notes

As the 20th anniversary of 9/11 approaches, lecturer Saeed Khan, who serves as director of Global Studies at WSU, visits the Today@Wayne Podcast to talk with host Darrell Dawsey about the attacks and the resulting two decades of political fallout that re-shaped America.

About

Saeed Khan is a WSU lecturer in Near East & Asian Studies and the director of Global Studies at WSU.

Additional resources

Follow Saeed Khan on Twitter

Check out Saeed Khan on the Craig Fahle Show

Read Saeed Khan's essay for the Conversation on the vast diversity among American Muslims

Transcript

Announcer:
Welcome to Today@Wayne, a podcast that engages and informs the Wayne State University campus community. With news, announcements, information and current event discussions relevant to the university's goals and mission, Today@Wayne serves as the perfect forum for our campus to begin a conversation or keep one going. Thanks for joining us.

Darrell Dawsey:
Welcome to the Today@Wayne Podcast. I'm Darrell Dawsey. This week marks the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 terror attacks. The single largest terrorist strike on American soil in the US history. And it comes just as the United States is being forced to grapple with the consequences of its devastating loss of the war in Afghanistan, which was itself triggered by 9/11. With president Joe Biden's administration, being criticized with handling of be evacuation of both Afghans and American citizens from the war ravaged nation, observers across the country are being forced to reconsider the impact of the 9/11 attacks, the subsequent fallout, and what the resulting war on terror and failed military adventures in the middle east mean for the future of foreign policy in the United States. Joining me today at Wayne podcast to talk about the anniversary of 9/11 is widely regarded expert Saeed Khan, a senior lecturer on near Eastern Asian studies and global studies and director of global studies at Wayne State, and also a research fellow at the center for study of citizenship. Welcome Saeed.

Saeed Khan:
Thank you so much for having me.

Darrell Dawsey:
Great to have you, so let's just get right into it. As we look back on 20 years since 9/11, what are some of the major insights you gleaned from your two decades and watching America's response to these attacks?

Saeed Khan:
Well, I think first and foremost, the trauma of 9/11 is something that, of course, still lingers with us. And in light of the fact that the withdrawal of American troops from Afghanistan is being framed as the end of not only America's longest war, but also a war that essentially began in response to the terrorist attacks on September 11th of 2001. And looking at the arc of what this entire chapter of American history, I mean, if you think about it, 20 years is almost 10% of America's entire history. And that of course, places quite a bit of influence on the American psyche, how we perceive ourselves and how others around the world perceive us. And one of the things that I think we can take away from this is, where are we as a nation when it comes to, how much did we have to mutate as a result of 9/11? Once upon a time you could go to the airport, simply go through the security aisle without much fanfare.

Saeed Khan:
And now of course, in these 20 years, we have become acclimated to a kind of ballet where we take off our shoes, take off our belts, take out our very limited number of toiletries that we can take in a carry on bag, electronics, et cetera. So those are, on the one hand, adaptations that we can say we've had, but at the same time, the idea of securitization, the fact that we are a nation now that is almost completely anesthetized to hearing statements like, if you see something, say something, having to be vigilant, and perhaps more so being vigilant of certain demographic groups in the country. And here, we then come to the issue more specifically about Muslim Americans and what it has really meant for them over the last 20 years. And one of the common denominators is that in many ways, when the trauma of 9/11 happened, a lot of Muslim Americans felt as though they could not grieve and go through the grieving process that all Americans were undertaking at the time.

Saeed Khan:
This was an attack on our country. This was an attack that was not discriminating when it came to the types of people who were killed in the World Trade Center, in the Pentagon, and onboard flight 93 in Shanksville, Pennsylvania, every race, color, creed, and religion was made a fatality because of that. But the kind of suspicion that Muslim Americans then had to endure, profiling the enactment of the USA Patriot Act and to borrow from the great African-American scholar W.E.B. Dubois, when he posed the question to the African-American community, how does it feel to be a problem?

Saeed Khan:
In many ways, that's a question that Muslim Americans started to internalize that they were being problematized, that they were being presumed suspicious of some activity. The looks, the liers, the phone calls, the idea that extra or special scrutiny and security measures being taken. And now 20 years on, we have an entire generation that has been born and grown up in the post 9/11 era. And for them, they know of no other way of identifying or being identified then as a potential problem. So these are the legacies that have certainly affected American society as a whole and Muslim Americans in a more particular way.

Darrell Dawsey:
Now, Metro Detroit is home to one of the larger Middle Eastern communities in the country, 20 years down the road, how is this community still being impacted? Are we still seeing FBI presence? Are we still seeing people being taken off the streets, being deported? You know, what's going on right now as it relates to what happened 20 years ago?

Saeed Khan:
Well, I think that that is always there. And there is also a kind of adaptation that happens. When people know that they are being problematized, they factor that into their everyday routine. And so to be seen in a suspicious way is not by itself a surprise anymore. And so if we were to go to places like large ethnic enclaves of Arabs and Muslims, whether it's Dearborn or Hamtramck, it seems as though that's, as they would say, baked into the proverbial cake. But I think one of the things to recognize as another consequence of 9/11 is the idea that securitization is no longer just focused on one community. And we've seen recently that when it comes to the enforcement of immigration laws, it is not just something that targets Arab and Muslim communities. It is in fact going after the LatinX community as well.

Saeed Khan:
And so we find then that there is a greater sense of commonality. And if you will, of the Dragnet is being perceived to have grown more broadly and more widely to now include other groups as well. There may have been an impression or maybe an assumption early on that the USA Patriot act was ostensibly, even if not explicitly stated going after one demographic group, IE, Arab and Muslim Americans. But of course, it's interesting to see how the same legislation has certainly of course not been repealed. It is still on the books. And in fact, it has been enhanced and its scope and scale is now being used vis-a-vis other communities as well.

Darrell Dawsey:
We failed in Afghanistan. We failed essentially in Iraq, we've expanded the security state to almost unfathomable extent. Was anything about our response to those attacks correct? Did we get everything wrong? Was anything right?

Saeed Khan:
This is the very complicated nature of Afghanistan. Whether the entire campaign of 20 years was really a failure. Remember we went into Afghanistan because this was the home of Al-Qaeda. Osama bin Laden and his leadership were operating from Afghanistan. At the time they were being given a sanctuary by the ruling Taliban regime and when the United States did in fact go in in October of 2001, there was a very clear mission. And that was to go ahead and reduce or remove the threat that was posed by Al-Qaeda and to seek retribution of those who had attacked us. Despite the fact, of course, that none of the 19 hijackers on September the 11th themselves were Afghans. 15 of the 19 were from Saudi Arabia. We have Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, but of course the leadership was in Afghanistan and that was the proper target for where this campaign should have occurred.

Saeed Khan:
And in fact, it was successful. It took 10 years, but Osama bin Ladin was terminated and the threat of Al-Qaeda was severely restricted in two ways. One, it's defeat in Afghanistan. And the second is its migration to other parts of the Middle East, including the Arabian peninsula, Iraq and elsewhere, but it was containable and American foreign policy has been historically, especially during the cold war, a matter of containment. Now, where things went wrong. And this is where the domino effect kicked in, was the decision to go into Iraq that was seen as really the major failure and had the United States paid more attention, arguably to help restore some kind of stability to Afghanistan. We may not have been privy to the scenes that we've been seeing over the last couple of weeks, coming out of Kabul at the same time, what the real failure then becomes is not Afghanistan, but Iraq in the means of destabilizing, not only the region, but by creating new forms of extremism and terrorism that went far beyond Al-Qaeda. The far more brutal and vicious ISIS and all of its manifestations is really caused by Iraq, not by Afghanistan.

Saeed Khan:
So it's important to then go ahead and recognize really where the failures and where the limited successes are. To look back on the last 20 years, clearly we can go ahead and as we already are doing a certain amount of armchair quarterbacking and assessing, as we should, where hopefully to avoid these mistakes, the next time...

Darrell Dawsey:
I want to ask you, I don't mean to interrupt you, but I want to ask you about that because we're getting... We're seeing a lot of criticism, particularly from the right, although some is coming from Democrats as well, of the Biden administration and its handling of the the evacuations, and a lot of people are saying, we should still be there. We should still have a troop presence there. Even after 20 years of failure militarily over there. What do you say to folks like that?

Saeed Khan:
Well, first of all, the idea of perpetual war is something that neither the Biden administration, nor interestingly enough, his predecessor, the Trump administration was interested in doing. When people are now finger-pointing, it seems as though it's for scoring political points. And it also demonstrates both an amnesia and a myopia, which are the two bigger diseases here. It's important to remember that it was a Republican regime that went into Afghanistan in the first place and stayed longer than what seems to have now been necessary. And this was of course, George W. Bush, but the Democrats also have their own level of accountability. President Obama not only stayed in Afghanistan, but in fact, he sent more troops in, there was a surge, in fact, in his first year of office in 2009, then of course we have the Trump administration and at the very last minute, some kind of negotiations with the Taliban.

Saeed Khan:
And of course now we're at the very end of it with the Biden administration. Pointing fingers is something which is rather regrettable, and yet at the same time seems to be the new currency. Once upon a time, there may have been the politicization of American foreign policy, but it was never this targeted. It was never this ad hominem. One of the examples of course we have is the fall of Saigon in April of 1975. And those people who were opposed to the war and the war going on endlessly did not, it seems, have that same kind of vitriol pointed at either Nixon or at Ford. At the very end of the Vietnam era. Today, it seems that everybody is running to a mic and running to a camera. And part of that may simply be that in 1975, we had no social media and we had no 24 hour cable news coverage.

Saeed Khan:
Something has to fill all of that airtime. And when it comes to the Axiom of, if it bleeds, it leads, this seems to be the sensationalism that's occurring. If we can take a step back and pay more attention than to what is it about American foreign policy that even when the baton is handed from one administration to the other, one political party to the other, we seem to feel unable, almost paralyzed to have the kind of courage to say, you know what, let's cut our losses and leave. The same thing happened with Vietnam. Eisenhower got us in, Kennedy was there, Johnson was there, Nixon was there. And then finally it was Ford. At any time, there could have been an opportunity to just go ahead and stop it and to bring the United States out of it saying, this is really not our fight or at the very least an acknowledgement that we really don't understand the dynamics of the situation. That unfortunately is not happening right now.

Darrell Dawsey:
Speaking of handing off the Baton, we spent 20 years, billions of dollars in Afghanistan building up this US backed government, building up the Afghan military and the Taliban swept through like a hot knife through butter, as folks would say. Why was the failure, the collapse of the military and of the US backed government so spectacular? And why did it happen so quickly? What did we get wrong?

Saeed Khan:
There's a great scene in the movie Contact with Jodie Foster when she goes into, well, wherever she goes, not trying to blow the plot here for those who haven't seen it. And she comes to this realization and she says they should have sent a poet here. And what she was essentially saying is the poet would know how to describe things most accurately. What we failed to realize is that we, instead of sending in anthropologists and historians, we send in defense contractors, people who don't really understand the cultural landscape, the social landscape of a very complex society. We tend to dismiss it as saying, it's uncivilized, it's unsophisticated. We assume it's dysfunctional. It's not worth our time to try to understand, or we think that we can do so in a very reductive way. Afghanistan has staved off several empires. It is known as the graveyard of empires.

Saeed Khan:
And it is because of its complexities. Now, one of the reasons why things went so awfully bad, both in Afghanistan, and I would also say in Iraq, in the last 20 years is we, as the administration decided to simply take the advice and hear the voices of those who would validate what we wanted to hear. And these were individuals who were rather ambitious. They were rather opportunistic for their own personal gain. I mean, here, you got a chance to essentially be on the ground floor of a startup, which is a new country. And the idea of having that kind of power, leverage, and authority was probably quite intoxicating. The problem is twofold. One is those people really didn't know what they were doing either. And the second thing is that the common denominator is that they were all elites. They were all urban elites.

Saeed Khan:
And if you take a look, particularly at Afghanistan, the vast majority of the population is very, very rural. So the issue of whether or not the leaders that we then install or support are truly representative of the population speaks volumes then as to when things go wrong, trying to understand why they went wrong. And so here we find then that individuals like Hamid Karzai, Abdullah Abdullah, Ashraf Ghani. These were individuals who were technocrats. Ghani himself was at the world bank, had taught at Johns Hopkins, had studied at Columbia University. He represented not just the 1% of Afghanistan. He in many ways probably represented the one. There really is not that much of a pool of the elite and clearly relative to the rest of the country, he would not have much in common with understanding someone who is in the frontier, what their needs, what their priorities are, that became a big issue.

Saeed Khan:
And then the second one, as you rightly point out, is our support for the Afghan military. Now it's wonderful to come in with highly sophisticated weaponry, but one very basic and fundamental flaw is the instructions were all in English, not in Pashto and Dari. How do you then go ahead and train an army and particularly one where the country itself is not very unified either. We can talk about a national army, but the word national may mean different things to different members and personnel within the army. So all of that training, all of that funding, all of that investment probably didn't have the kind of return on investment that we were anticipating.

Darrell Dawsey:
Okay. And now you've got those who are saying in addition to those who were saying, we should dig in our heels or bring troops back. You've got those who are also saying maybe it's time to step out of the way, there's conflict brewing between ISIS-K and the Taliban. And there are some folks who were saying, hey, let those guys fight it out. And let the people on the ground kind of have some role there. There's been reports of hastily formed militias, sort of running the Taliban out of certain places. What do you think? Do you think that that is a reasonable and potentially effective approach? And if not that or in addition to that, what should be done?

Saeed Khan:
Well, let's take a look at the landscape and there's really four groups that could arguably be seen as problematic for the United States. There's the Taliban of course, which is now, it seems, the ruling regime of Afghanistan. They're allied with the Haqqani network, who were, at a certain point during the Soviet invasion, very effective in helping drive people out. You've got Al-Qaeda, which is still lurking around. And then you've got this new group called ISIS-K or ISIS of the Khorasan Province. We need to then go ahead and resist the temptation of lumping them all together. The Taliban have certain ties to the Haqqani network. In fact, the Taliban have given the Haqqani network the task of controlling security around Kabul, the Haqqani network, it realizes that it by itself cannot go ahead and govern Afghanistan or take control. So this is a marriage of convenience.

Saeed Khan:
Al-Qaeda is no longer in the good graces of the Taliban. They do not want to support it. And then ISIS-K is really now the new kid in town, which is creating mayhem. Now what's interesting also to then realize, is that, what is their relationship with the United States and what threat do they really pose? Well, the Taliban have never been focused on the United States. They are completely a nationalistic organization focused on Afghanistan. And so is the Haqqani network. Al-Qaeda, of course has global aspirations. ISIS-K itself doesn't but it's a franchise of this bigger and more broader ISIS network. So those are the two areas that we would have to go ahead and place our attention. Now, the good news is that the Taliban are already there and they don't want Al-Qaeda and ISIS-K to certainly blossom because they pose a direct threat to them.

Saeed Khan:
So ironically, what this might mean is some level of coordination and cooperation with the Taliban in order to then minimize the threat that faces both them and the United States from organizations like Al-Qaeda and ISIS. That's how complicated the situation really is. At the same time, we also have to remember that there are two other major powers that are now engaged in this, that wasn't the situation before, and that is Russia, and also more importantly, China. And the Taliban want to demonstrate that they are a serious and stable regime in Afghanistan. Before, in the 1990s, there are only three countries that formally recognized the Taliban, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and neighboring Pakistan. Now the Taliban are on the threshold of being recognized by many other countries, including China, and to have a superpower recognize your regime and its legitimacy changes the dynamics completely. And as a result of it, it seems as though China and Russia may be able to place the Taliban's proverbial feet to the flame in a way that the United States and Western countries cannot and have been unable to exercise.

Saeed Khan:
They realized that in order for mutually beneficial policies to occur, Afghanistan has to have some stability. And that stability cannot be threatened by groups like ISIS-K and Al-Qaeda. If that's the case, then it creates a situation which can allay American anxieties and certainly do so for those who are worried about an unstable or destabilized Afghanistan. Now the opportunity cost of course, is that you can't always get what you want. You might sometimes get what you need. And if those people want the Taliban out of the equation, that may not, number one be possible, but at the same time, it may not be the worst scenario to have the Taliban as opposed to other chaos in the country.

Darrell Dawsey:
Now my last question for you. We're airlifting a lot of Afghans to the United States. Do you think that Detroit will be a place where some will settle and how should Metro Detroiters respond to this?

Saeed Khan:
Well there's already a report that I think a hundred Afghan refugees are going to be located in Kalamazoo. There is of course, certainly a welcoming atmosphere of Detroit. The Metro Detroit area is home to so many different ethnic and immigrant groups. And it has also been the destination for refugees during the Balkan crisis, Detroit then became the destination for Bosnians, for Serbs and others from the former Yugoslavia. Clearly Detroit has been here for the victims and refugees from the wars in the Middle East, including Iraq and Syria and Lebanon.

Saeed Khan:
There's no reason why Afghans couldn't settle in Detroit, but of course, one of the big caveats is language. And whether or not there's a critical mass of an Afghan community here, which there is not currently, there are other parts of the country, especially the San Francisco bay area, Northern Virginia, even Iowa, where there are large concentrations of Afghans and given the trauma that they've already faced and the dislocation coming to a new land, really with no resources of their own, the kind of welcoming and the institutions and the organizations that will be required. Certainly Detroit has always been very generous and hospitable. There may be other destinations, which are better equipped to at least get Afghans settled. But after that, if they so choose to make Detroit their home, once they get their legs stabilized, then certainly Detroit's a wonderful place for them.

Darrell Dawsey:
Absolutely. Now I'm going to get ready to wrap it up here Saeed, but I wanted to give you an opportunity perhaps to address any questions maybe that I didn't ask or to amplify any points that you may have made that you want to further underscore. Now's a good opportunity to do that. Is there anything else you want to add?

Saeed Khan:
Well, I mean, here we are talking on the threshold of the 20th anniversary of 9/11. And anniversaries, of course, especially one as somber as this obviously are not moments for celebration, but they shouldn't just be moments for commemoration. These are the times and the occasions where we can reflect on where we have come. And hopefully then go ahead and take stock of ourselves as a nation, recognize how far we've come, recognized some of the challenges that we still have, and also try to identify how many of those challenges were the lingering cause of 9/11. And if one of those consequences has been the kind of divisiveness that we see happening in American society, perhaps the greatest way to honor the memory of those who perished on 9/11 is to reunite as we had in those days after 9/11 to come together as a country and realize that this is really our more natural state than being one that is as divided as it is.

Darrell Dawsey:
Absolutely. Absolutely. Well, Saeed, I want to say thank you again. I really appreciate you joining us here on the Today@Wayne podcast and talking about this very important issue.

Saeed Khan:
Well thank you for having me on.

Darrell Dawsey:
Absolutely. I'm Darrell Dawsey. This is the Today@Wayne podcast. Thank you for watching.

Announcer:
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